A Manifesto for Bad Subjects

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By privileging identities based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, the left has shown a strong tendency to forget about the ways in which class (or economic) identity cuts across these categories.
The Bad Subjects Collective

Issue #14, May 1994


I. BEGINNINGS

The first issue of Bad Subjects came out one year ago, in September of 1992. Produced by editors Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz, with the assistance of Charlie Bertsch, Bad Subjects was intended as a response to their frustration with, on the one hand, the prevailing conventional wisdom of American leftist or 'progressive' politics, and on the other, the lack of a public forum for addressing this frustration. After six issues and increasing public support and acknowledgment, the decision was made to expand the publication by forming a collective for its production. Learning to work and think collectively is an integral part of what we believe it means to be a 'bad subject.' Thus far, the people involved with Bad Subjects have largely been, like its founders, politically-minded students at UC-Berkeley. What unites us are our shared interests in leftist — socialist politics and the study of popular culture and everyday life, along with, for most of us, our academic affiliations. What we stand for and what we aspire to are the subjects of this new manifesto.

What we mean by the conventional wisdom of leftist politics is, specifically, the emphasis on multiculturalism, also known as identity politics or the politics of diversity. While we are both sympathetic and indebted to the multicultural project, and we recognize its historical necessity and value, we firmly believe that it is time for the left to begin dealing with the limitations of its currently dominant political ideology. The problem with multicultural identity politics is that by privileging identities based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, it has shown a strong tendency to forget about the ways in which class (or economic) identity cuts across these categories. The danger of an identity politics which is not linked to a critique of capitalism is that it promotes a 'diversity' which suits the interests of global capital by fostering competition and divisiveness among people who, economically, have more commonalities than differences. While this is not the only possible vision of a multicultural society, we believe it to be the dominant one among relatively privileged and educated middle class leftists like ourselves.

This kind of multiculturalism encourages people to embrace and celebrate the very identities which they have received from their historical and present oppression. It does little more than allow people to see negative stereotypes in a positive light (as in the use of the term 'queer,' particularly among younger gays and lesbians); it avoids questions about how these identities came into being and whose interests they ultimately serve. We at Bad Subjects are dismayed by a similar tendency among leftist academics, many of whom are the strongest and most outspoken advocates of the multicultural agenda. Both leftist academics and proponents of multiculturalism too often fetishize their marginality, seeing it as the source of their 'authenticity' and 'power.' They imagine themselves to be refusing complicity with the mainstream or dominant culture, when in fact their insistence on their marginality only serves to reinforce the centrality of that which they oppose. In both cases, 'freedom' and 'empowerment' are seen to lie in the deliberate act of self-marginalization, as opposed to having that marginalization imposed by others. At one time, such a strategy was a necessary form of resistance and a legitimate act of self-determination; by now, it is hard to see it as anything other than an act of self-victimization.

Our response to this situation is Bad Subjects. As we said in our first issue, we hope that this newsletter can help to promote radical thinking about the implications of everyday life. But as Karl Marx says, 'The philosophers have only interepreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.' A new public philosophy is one of the things Bad Subjects is intended to provide, but philosophy is only effective when it leads to public action. Bad Subjects is about putting an idea into practice — what Marxists call praxis. It is a genuine attempt to change the world, on however small a scale. How are we trying to change it? Some of us at Bad Subjects are avowed Marxists and socialists, others promote multiculturalism while seeking to strengthen it through constructive criticism, and still others of us are struggling to arrive at a well — defined position. So there are disagreements among us on particular elements of this manifesto. What we all agree upon, however, is the need for radical changes of the sort that the left has always been best at advocating, and also the inadequacy of current leftist ideologies and practices for bringing such changes about.

II. POLITICAL EDUCATION FOR EVERYDAY LIFE

The purpose of our publication is to provide a forum for an ongoing discussion about what an adequate leftist politics would be. Specifically, we hope to popularize a critical position from which people may challenge capitalism in both their thinking and their actions. This is why we have encouraged focusing attention upon current events and our immediate surroundings. Bad Subjects is dedicated to providing 'political education for everyday life.' Each article is supposed to offer a kind of lesson, to make clear what is at stake politically in any and all aspects of our everyday lives. An effective political practice necessarily entails a re-education of our perceptions of the world, in order to show that no element of our lives is innocent of politics.

For example, let's consider the cups of coffee we just drank. Political re-education about this coffee would tell us that our enjoyment of this delicious beverage is made possible by the systematic exploitation of?workers in underdeveloped (or 'Third World') countries. This is a way of remembering something capitalism encourages us to forget: that the commodities we consume do not just appear magically, ready for our consumption, but rather are produced by actually existing people under real material conditions — conditions of servitude and oppression for most people for all of human history. When we forget about the human labor involved in the production of the commodities we consume, we are doing just what capitalism wants us to do. Whereas objectively we are, in drinking our coffee, engaging in a social relationship with those whose labor produced it, under capitalism our subjective experience is that we are merely having a relationship with a thing, a cup of coffee. But having come to this awareness through political re-education, how should we respond?

First, we feel guilty that our pleasure comes at the price of others' exploitation. Too often, leftists respond by looking for things which might be consumed without guilt — for instance, during the Reagan years it was fashionable to consume Nicaraguan coffee as a form of political action. However, the power of such an 'action' is primarily symbolic: the consumer's choice proclaims his or her political orientation, but it does little or nothing to change the oppressive conditions which have prompted the action in the first place. In all fairness and sympathy, we understand this familiar leftist strategy of 'intervention through alternative consumption' as a confession of an overwhelming sense of individual and collective powerlessness as a political opposition.

But why, then, should so many leftists feel so guilty about a situation they feel powerless to change? Perhaps because their guilt comes not so much from actual powerlessness but rather from the knowledge that maybe they aren't so helpless after all — that there are things we can be doing to mount a genuine opposition to capitalism. When we consume commodities produced through the exploitation of fellow human beings, as in our coffee example, we feel guilty because we know that we are rationalizing the ease and comfort of complicity with the system by imagining ourselves as powerless, unable to do anything about it.

To the extent that leftists no longer believe in a viable alternative to capitalism, politics becomes a matter of making distinctions between 'good' and 'bad' commodity choices, like choosing only 'politically correct' coffee or 'cruelty-free' cosmetics, or preferring 'marginal' rather than 'mainstream' culture. And in making the 'good' choices, in consuming the right things, leftists can feel absolved of their guilty complicity with a system they know to be wrong. But capitalism is a total mode of production: it penetrates every aspect of society, including our most private thoughts and fantasies. No one, not even the most committed leftists, not even Marxists, can avoid participating in capitalism. There is no way to be completely 'clean.' A politics of alternative consumption is not a challenge to capitalism itself. The people who bought Nicaraguan coffee may have started out with a genuine impulse toward political action, but they ended up doing little more than making themselves into a new target market.

III. CYNICAL LEFTISTS

Political action through correct consumption is admittedly better than no action at all — the power of liberal reformism should not be underestimated. But it is a dangerously self-defeating stance for leftists supposedly committed to building a genuinely better (as opposed to merely 'different') world. It gives people an illusory sense of mastery over their situation by substituting the individual power to choose between commodities for the collective power to build a world in which we do away with the conditions of exploitation that have produced the 'bad' commodities in the first place. Just as the ruling class uses its very real power in an ongoing struggle to convince people that its own particular interests are everybody's general interests, leftists use their consumer power in a struggle to convince themselves that making the right commodity choices is a way of resisting the interests of the ruling class. To the extent they succeed, they end up perversely mimicking the very system they ostensibly oppose.

At Bad Subjects we are convinced that 'socially-responsible capitalism' is a contradiction in terms. A vision of alternative shopping is not, after all, the same thing as a vision of an alternative society. Bringing more individuals of marginalized and oppressed groups into the comforts of the middle and upper classes, a goal we certainly support, still leaves the fact of class structure itself unchanged. So too does the multicultural agenda of increased 'diversity' at all levels of society: the levels themselves are rarely challenged. A politics which forgets about class cannot offer much more than vague liberal promises of 'fairness' and 'equality' in representation within the class structure. It cannot mount an effective challenge or alternative to the unfairness and inequality of the class structure itself.

The failure of the left, then, is a failure to provide a compelling vision of a better society — what one of us referred to in our first issue as 'a fiction worth believing in.' Because so many leftists have apparently given up on the possibility of a more humane alternative to capitalism, leftist politics has largely decayed into capitalism's ironic mirror image. Having given up on the promise of socialism, which means a radical reorganization of production, leftists look for ways to feel better about capitalism by politicizing consumption. In other words, leftist politics has become cynical: it doesn't really believe it can make a difference, even as it insists on the need for change. The cynicism of this position reveals itself in the readiness of so many leftists to admit the ineffectiveness of their own choices and actions even as they continue in that same behavior. Knowing they must participate in the system, but feeling compromised by it, they register their protest through cynical and ironic forms of self — consciousness, and through practices of 'correct' or alternative consumption.

Again, we understand cynicism as a response to feelings of powerlessness. We also think that the left in this country has good reasons for these feelings: it has gone from being an effective (although never dominant) force in American politics to a largely demoralized object of ridicule over the past twenty-five years or so. As many conservative commentators have observed, the only area where the left can claim significant success in recent years is in the transformation of academic culture and the college curriculum (as in the case of the American Cultures requirement here at UC-Berkeley). And for the left to claim the Clinton Presidency as in any way a victory for its principles is a measure of its desperation, not its strength.

We are convinced that one of the greatest obstacles to a newly effective leftist politics is the left's investment in cynicism, and the fetishization (or false over-valuation) of the 'purity' of a marginalized position that goes along with it. The appeal of cynicism is that it offers compensation for the pain and frustration of feeling powerless and victimized. Compensation comes in the form of a feeling of superiority in both consciousness and lifestyle. Among leftists of all kinds, this applies most especially to people of the middle and upper classes. Leftists can feel superior because even if they are without power, they 'know better' than other people; they are at least not being duped. And so the left has also come to glorify the position of the marginal and the victimized, because such a position, even if it is powerless and ineffective, can at least claim the moral 'purity' of non-participation in the offenses of the mainstream or dominant society.

However, fetishizing the margins, as in the multicultural celebration of the cultures and identities of oppressed peoples, leaves the offensive center largely untouched: the price of a marginal identity is political marginality. Too often the response of the left to the ineffectiveness of its agenda has been to blame the masses for their selfishness, apathy, complacency or stupidity — while conveniently excusing itself on the grounds of its marginality and powerlessness. At Bad Subjects we believe that the left must abandon its fetishization of marginality and the sense of purity and superiority that comes with it, in order to re-engage the mainstream. A leftist politics which is suspicious in principle of power, authority and popularity will never be more than a rhetorical or (at best) reformist force in society; it cannot accomplish substantive, let alone radical, change.

IV. Bad Subjects

Having criticized what we think is wrong with the current state of the American left, we must now explain in what ways Bad Subjects is attempting to provide an alternative. Indeed, as we have stated, it is precisely the lack of a compelling alternative to capitalism, on the one hand, and the politics of identity, on the other, which has led to the self-defeating cynicism of so many leftists. Cynicism is characterized by a stance of ambivalence. Leftists are ambivalent because they see their choices largely in 'either/or' terms. Either we can identify with the victims of society, and feel morally superior although largely powerless; or we can identify with the privileged of society, and feel morally guilty and complicit as the price of gaining access to power. The opposition is frequently expressed in terms of 'authenticity' versus 'selling out.' If these are the choices, ambivalence is an understandable response, since neither option is very attractive. Most people, including leftists, will end up feeling compromised and ambivalent if faced with these choices, since moral purity means too many sacrifices, and anything else is necessarily some form of 'selling out.' Cynicism, then, is the intellectual rationalization of ambivalence.

Ambivalence leads to political paralysis rather than political action. Behind this ambivalence and paralysis lies fear of failure, which is particularly strong these days for leftists in light of the overwhelming popular success of conservative and right-wing politics over the past two decades or so. After all, just a few years ago it was considered a slur to call somebody a 'liberal.' We feel that too many leftists have internalized the derision they have suffered since the 1970s, and that therefore the left as a whole is currently having a hard time taking itself seriously, as well as simply holding itself together. In other words, the ambivalence leftists feel is really about themselves. The conservative backlash against the social and political gains made by leftists during the 1960s and 70s has demoralized the left to the point at which it wonders whether it can make a lasting difference. This is a dangerously defeatist attitude — another way in which the left undermines itself — because it ignores the very real and substantial changes that have been won by leftists which are still with us today.

However, we at Bad Subjects believe that it is time for the left to start taking not only itself more seriously, but also its conservative or right-wing critics. It is not enough for leftists to treat the right with outraged contempt, ridicule and incomprehension. Precisely because the right has enjoyed such mass appeal in recent years, the left has much to learn from it if it wishes to offer effective opposition. After all, right-wing activists have learned from the left and appropriated many of its most successful tactics (such as civil disobedience and grass-roots organizing). Now it is time for the left to find what is useful in conservative theory and practice and similarly appropriate it for its own purposes. This includes the theory and practice of capitalism itself.

We are firmly opposed to capitalism, but we believe that it is necessary to use the techniques and resources capitalism makes available in order eventually to defeat it. For example, one might say that at Bad Subjects we are engaged in 'marketing' an alternative both to capitalism and to multicultural identity politics, and to both the right and the left as we presently know them. Bad Subjects is organized and run much like a business enterprise: we produce a product, we solicit interest with our own versions of advertising and promotional campaigns, we are sensitive to 'consumer' demand and we are constantly trying to expand our 'market.' However, we are not doing this to make a profit, and thus we are not producing a commodity; we are trying to provide a public service and to initiate political change.

In a capitalist enterprise, the real collectivity and cooperation which are necessary for any kind of organized production are systematically obscured by the market-enforced competition among workers to obtain and keep their jobs. But at Bad Subjects we do not work for pay or profit — we have freely chosen to donate our labor and to work together in solidarity for a common cause. Collective production is one of our goals, something we feel is desirable in itself, rather than merely a means to an end (profit), as is the case in a capitalist enterprise. Of course, we are only able to do this because we are all relatively secure and privileged aspiring members of the professional middle class. However, we believe that people must be both accountable and responsible for their privileges: they should use them for the benefit of others as well as themselves. Bad Subjects is our example of a responsible and accountable use of privilege.

So long as our privilege makes it possible, we are committed to making Bad Subjects available free of charge, because we don't want to limit our potential audience to either those who already agree with us, or simply those who can afford it. On the other hand, our commitment to a free publication limits the number of copies we can produce to about 500 per issue, which is why we have always urged our readers to help us out by photocopying Bad Subjects and distributing it themselves to anyone they think would be interested. We also now have Bad Subjects Online Services, the possibilities of which in terms of circulation remain to be discovered.

Providing Bad Subjects free of charge is an expression of a more general principled commitment to accessibility. Most of us in the collective are academics in training as well as leftists in our political sympathies. Since the 1970s, American universities have become enclaves of leftist and radical intellectuals. A conflict arises from the fact that leftist academics are people whose political values and beliefs are democratic and inclusive, yet who have chosen a profession which is fundamentally elitist and exclusive. Many leftist academics have settled for an uneasy compromise, in which they address the concerns of their politics through the language of their profession. The result has been a deluge of politically 'radical' scholarship explaining in intricate detail the workings of oppression in society, culture and the individual. While this is undoubtedly a remarkable intellectual achievement, its political value is questionable because of the leftist academic's very real need to protect and advance his or her career by impressing fellow academics rather than a broader constituency outside the profession. The resulting 'politicized' scholarship is usually written and presented in ways that make it almost incomprehensible to all but a very specialized audience due to the difficulty of the writing, and also inaccessible through its limited circulation in expensive academic journals and university-press books.

Bad Subjects is not an academic journal. We are committed to expressing our ideas, arguments and positions in plain and accessible prose, in order to reach as many people as possible. We admit that we don't always do as well with this as we would like; most of us have been trained as academics. But we are trying. We urge leftist academics to reimagine themselves as public intellectuals, one of whose primary goals should be to act as translators, making the insights and lessons of their professional work accessible and relevant to as broad a public audience as possible. Bad Subjects is, among other things, a place where we can begin experimenting with how to do that. But we must also be careful to recognize that even with our commitment to clear and plain prose, occasionally our arguments will be difficult and demanding to read, because we are trying to explain something which is difficult and demanding to understand. Simply put, we will not patronizingly underestimate our readers' intelligence: if what we have to say is hard, then let it be hard.

As we have already said, Bad Subjects is dedicated to providing public political education for everyday life. The best Bad Subjects articles are ones which take a strong and clear stand on the issues they discuss, and ideally a stand which is defiant of conventional leftist wisdom, in the service of a revitalized leftist politics. Principled defiance, and not defiance for its own sake, is part of what it means to be a 'bad subject.' Not every article we present lives up to our ideals, nor do we expect them to; the point of having ideals is to provide goals to which we can aspire, even though we occasionally fail. We realize that it may not be easy for many people, even those who support our publication and its politics, to take the strong and often personally confessional sort of public stand that we advocate. It requires actually believing and meaning what you say, and that necessarily means making yourself vulnerable and open to attack in a way that could feel personal and not just rhetorical.

We think that this understandable fear goes back in part to the self-doubt that currently afflicts many leftists, particularly those who, like us, are unhappy with the political status quo but who, unlike us, feel isolated and unsupported in their dissent. The courage to state one's convictions comes much more easily when one feels both confident of those convictions and part of a community that shares them. Bad Subjects is intended not just as a public forum for rethinking leftist politics, but as a supportive public forum. It is easier, and more effective, to take a stand in solidarity with others than to do so alone and in isolation. We are ultimately seeking to build a new political community through the production and distribution of our publication; in that way we become a material and social as well as an intellectual force.

We are primarily local in our orientation because it allows us to be more directly involved with our readers and supporters; it permits a greater degree of participation and face-to-face interaction. You know where we live. We urge our readers to participate in Bad Subjects at every level of its production: we definitely need articles and feedback in the form of letters, but we also need people willing to volunteer time to help out with things like publicity and distribution. We are also looking for additional people interested in making the larger commitment of becoming 'full-time' members of our collective. If you would like to participate in any way, or attend one of our monthly public meetings to find out more about us or simply show support (which is always welcome!), then consult the information box at the beginning of this issue for more information, and come serve with us!

V. UTOPIA

Throughout this manifesto, we have held out to you the promise of another kind of human world. We have said that we believe there is an alternative to the capitalist social system, which is made possible only by exploitation and oppression. At Bad Subjects, we have no doubt that the world does not have to be the way it is today. The material resources necessary to feed, clothe and adequately care for everyone on the planet already exist, but they are distributed incorrectly — that is, some people starve while others consume a banquet every night. We know the total social system can be radically changed, and we know what is wrong with the system as it stands, but we admit that we are still not sure what exactly a post — capitalist utopia might look and feel like.

However, at Bad Subjects we believe that having dreams and fantasies of a utopian future is integral to conceiving of an alternative radical politics. This is in part a result of our commitment to taking ourselves — and what we think about — seriously. Leftists today, cynical and demoralized, have a hard time imagining that they might completely change the world. They are therefore too often suspicious and even condescending when offered a chance to speculate about the structure of a truly good and different society. Their suspicion is, of course, rooted in the same fear of failure brought on by the death of 1960s political radicalism. These leftists wonder what the utility of having a utopian fantasy might be when they cannot even maintain a popular political movement for more than a few years at a time. Dismayed by history, these leftists have seemingly abandoned hope for the future. Their cynicism betrays itself in their attitude toward the idea of utopia — which means, after all, 'nowhere'. Fixated on remembering a traumatic history of class conflict, they lose faith in the possibilities for real historical change.

At Bad Subjects, we want to put utopia back in the future, where it belongs. But we are convinced that if we wish to change the future, we must also have in mind what we mean by 'change'. Nothing in human history has ever appeared magically out of nowhere, and this includes the future. Human beings make their own future by acting in particular ways, even if they have to make it under circumstances not of their own choosing. The future does not have to be random. It can be planned, and most often it is planned by the ruling class in its own best interest. We at Bad Subjects seek to imagine a future which is in everyone's best interest. We can only change what is yet to come. To understand history without educating ourselves about the future is like trying to understand coffee without educating ourselves about the people who produced it. In both cases, our political education tells us what capitalism urges us to forget.

It seems strange to speak of forgetting the future. Leftists today who compulsively self-marginalize themselves act as if what they do now can only be a measure of past and present injury, rather than an anticipation of future pleasures. Shall we view ourselves as always wounded by an ugly history or healed by what we know we can do to change the future? At Bad Subjects, we believe there is a right answer to this question. We must look to the future and we must work hard to map out an imaginary society adequate to meet the needs of everyone who lives there. At Bad Subjects, we believe in the strategic importance of self-fulfilling political prophecy. If we wish to fight for a better world, then we must dare to describe it.

How shall we describe the future? What will it be like in utopia? You, too, are wondering. You are waiting for utopia with us, for no one does not secretly wish for a better world. But we can only see glimpses of it, because it's impossible to imagine a world so completely unlike our own. Too much detail in our fantasies traps them in the unacceptable world of the present. But this is what we know. In the future, we will always work in solidarity. No one will compete for jobs. And your work will not be painful, nor will it deprive you of family and friends. You will not feel guilty when you drink coffee, for you will not drink at anyone else's expense. No one will own a palace, but neither will anyone be homeless. All things will be shared equally within the human community, and the idea of ownership will be consigned to the ashcan of history along with the ideas of race, gender and class division. No one will be lonely, although they may sometimes choose to be alone. The communities which already exist in all neighborhoods will truly be communities. Love will not mean vulnerability and sharing will not mean loss. Certainly, there will be death and there will be labor, but we will not see them as being in conflict with life and pleasure. Death will no longer be tragic, for the lives of the many will not be wasted working to produce profits for a few.

Most important, our work in utopia will be the measure of our freedom and not our necessity. All work will be freely chosen. And to work at one thing will not be to sacrifice your life to it, for you will work at many different things, and your various individual interests will not contradict the interests of the community. As Marx wrote in The German Ideology, it would be a world:

Where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, [because] society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

We at Bad Subjects look forward to the day when we will all work together to make our world better. Until then, we offer you Bad Subjects as our example of utopian work freely given, and invite you to build a new future along with us.

Copyright © 1994 by the Bad Subjects Collective. All rights reserved.
 

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