Right as Reign
Issue #36, February 1998
The One-Dimensional Left
Time and time again we bemoan the victories which conservatives continually make in advancing their cause. The cultural and economic logic of contemporary conservatism appears like an unstoppable force which demolishes everything in its path. From creating a cultural environment which promotes racial intolerance in the name of economic and racial equality, to winning legislative victories which perpetually erode the limited achievements of civil rights and environmental initiatives, to continuing imperialist expansion, to redistributing wealth to the rich, conservatives have pushed their agenda through with remarkable success: there's never been a more hopeless time for progressive politics in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, those of us who call ourselves leftists continue to work hard for social change, despite these overwhelmingly depressing circumstances. We do so despite the personal cost, despite the lack of common social movements, despite the lack of leftist political parties, think-tanks and other counter hegemonic institutions dedicated to overthrowing the status quo.
Quite frequently, all of this revolutionary antagonism and anger towards the establishment goes absolutely nowhere. It doesn't even dissolve into factional infighting among would-be comrades the way it used to. All that 'positive,' critical energy almost always amounts to naught. So we retire to real jobs, to our friends and to our families and leave the struggle to the more idealistic, hoping dimly that we can achieve some kind of private utopian respite in alternative culture and the jobs which give us some degree of limited moral satisfaction under present historical circumstances. We work for non-profits, publish 'zines, make political rock music for indie labels, or teach cultural studies, queer theory or political sociology at universities — when jobs are available.
Obviously this is an age of burnout. While Baby Boomers nostalgically were reflecting on the failed social revolution which they never created, cultural and economic conservatives were building their own radical social movements in nearly every sphere of American civil society. However, this is something that the New Left of the sixties, in its self-congratulatory, selective historical imaginary always chose to screen out. This has had devastating moral consequences for the political consciousness of the American left. It has created a kind of self-imposed blindness which has made it difficult to distinguish between different types of politics in contemporary American life. Yet this condition is not a totalizing one, because it has only afflicted the vision and awareness of the left, and not the right.
Conservatism is the hegemonic political and cultural ideology of the age that we live in because it has been able to preserve a sense of moral opposites in its own political imaginary. This has allowed the right to escape the totalizing effects of post-industrial alienation. Radical Marxist social theorists originally diagnosed this problem as the coming dystopia during the height of the conflict with the former Soviet Union. Eight years after the end of the Cold War, the society which we live in closely resembles that of the "one dimensional society" Herbert Marcuse once spoke of when he tried to spell out the politics of the coming service economy. Such a dystopia, he argued, would be marked by a total loss of historical memory of revolutionary alternatives to the established order. It would be a society in which an "unhappy consciousness" would repressively desublimate dissatisfaction with the present into productive economic behavior. The tragedy of this state of mind is that it results in a complete inability to make moral distinctions between what sixties activists once distinguished as "us" and "them." The problem is that what Marcuse was describing was the unhappy consciousness of the left, not the consciousness of the right. If reification involves a kind of forgetting, then the aging sixties left is certainly guilty of succumbing to this aspect of its condition, because as its popular histories of the achievements of that time suggest, it ignored those historical forces which were coalescing at the same time to pave the way for the right-wing hegemony of the present day.
Alienation Descends To Language
In the face of continued conservative political achievements, many leftists still place a great deal of stock in the fact that American politics is still dominated by a metapolitical center. Some of us swing to the right of center, others swing to the left, but none of us ever move very far away from the middle unless we're what newspapers and politicians are fond of calling "hardliners," or "extremists." Most Americans, with the exception of ultra-right wingers, shy away from allowing themselves to be labeled as zealots of any political persuasion because the language which they've learned to use when they talk about politics always implies liberal political commitments, even when what they're actually saying is highly conservative. In this context, using language which overtly affirms one's political identity isn't considered to be a legitimate way of expressing oneself politically. It always discredits you in the eyes of your listeners because it's not inclusive.
You can't say you're a leftist, otherwise people think you're an historical anachronism who pretends 1989 never happened. You can't say you're a right-winger either, otherwise people think that you're a racist who wants to bring back segregation, even if the people who would accuse them of racism would themselves be uncomfortable having black folks move in next door. But you can always express your opinions in code, as it were, by paying lip-service to the rules governing political expression defined by now discredited liberal political ideologies which call right-wing discourse "hate speech," when it deals with matters of race, and left-wing discourse "Communist," when it deals with matters of class. You can call for revolution, but it's got to be cultural, not political. You can criticize capitalism, but it's got to be because you prefer small businesses to multinational corporations. And you can voice hatred of women, Jews, homosexuals and ethnic minorities, but you have to use language which shows how minorities infringe upon your own right to discriminate in a democratic society.
For example, an Evangelical Christian could say, "My right to worship Jesus Christ is infringed upon by other religions having the same right to worship their own gods as I do." A Libertarian could argue that "All forms of state intervention in the economy are undemocratic because they restrict the rights of producers to create commodities in freedom." Or a white supremacist could say, "Giving blacks and Hispanics the same rights as whites discriminates against whites' right to live in a white society." What we have here is a distinction between rhetoric and meaning, where Americans consistently feel compelled to employ language informed by liberalism in order to communicate conservative political sentiments. What's deceiving about this is how much conservatives have learned to navigate their way through the taboos of liberal rules governing linguistic conduct. Once you learn the language of rights, you can argue on behalf of anything. The problem is that, while the left has, to a certain extent, learned the same lesson, it has done so with less self-awareness to its own built-in conservative prejudices.
The way conservatives speak about politics is more important than the way the left does, because right-wing political discourse is paradigmatic of the manner in which Americans communicate their political identities when they talk about any political issue which concerns them. No one explicitly discloses what they mean because liberal ideologies forbids them from doing so. While one could argue that conservatives use liberal political rhetoric because they fear being censored, one could also make the same conclusions about the way leftists speak about politics. But that's even more troubling, because once you look at the situation you realize that it's been so long since leftists learned to speak in liberal code that they've actually started to speak like neo-conservatives. Unlike real conservatives, the so-called left doesn't communicate radically anti-democratic ideas clothed in liberal rhetoric. It communicates neo-conservative cultural ideas instead. This makes leftist discourse a lot more transparent than right-wing discourse because of the extent to which the ideologies it communicates correspond to the liberal rhetorical conventions we associate with conservative political expression rather than contradict them.
For instance, during the debate in California over the passage of the anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, many opponents of the proposition appealed to California's "tradition" of cultural and institutional respect for civil rights and equal opportunities for minorities. Since when do leftists call for reliance on "traditions" of civic tolerance? "Tradition" used to be a bad word because it connoted a neurotic and fearful, unconscious attachment to convention and procedure. That's a far cry from the anti-traditionalist fantasy once espoused by the New Left. Another obvious example of this trend would be liberal political activists who complain about how multinational corporations ruin traditional, indigenous ways of life, implying that foreigners would be better off if we let them remain closer to nature without toilets, air conditioning, or roads to drive on. Such activists speak about the introduction of television, of decadent western customs, of the end of neo-feudal, hunter-gatherer societies and the decline of traditional wisdom cultures as a way of criticizing American economic imperialism. This kind of discourse is very similar to that employed by cultural conservatives, in the sense that it defends inherited ways of life as somehow being superior to modern capitalism simply because they are more archaic.
In linguistic scenarios of this sort, no one really sounds all that liberal. Most leftists use language and concepts which equate traditional, pre-modern ways of life with wholeness in the same manner that conservatives do. While they may be critical of capitalism, anti-capitalism is not the sole domain of the left. The right is at times equally critical of the effects that modern capitalism has on traditional ways of life. Religious conservatism is one such response, because it's acutely aware of the ways in which economic development and scientific progress challenges traditional ways of living in the world. The reason why it is important to look at how Americans talk about political issues is because by looking at the languages Americans employ when they speak about matters which concern them, we get a sense of the overwhelming hegemony of conservative political ideology on all sides of the American political spectrum. We also get an idea of what a transitional historical moment we're living in where there are very few distinctions between left and right anymore, just different gradations of the same conservative political sentiments. Some are more extreme than others, but all are equally unified by a commitment to preserving ways of life which seem to be disappearing as fast as endangered species in a South American rain forest. Including leftism.
Many scholars and social commentators on the right as well as the post-socialist left such as Foucault and Lyotard, under the influence of such seminal conservative political thinkers as Nazi-friendly philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, argue that we are now living in an essentially post-political age in which it has become impossible to make distinctions between right and left because politics is all about false consciousness. One way for leftists to read this is that political ideologies have been replaced by the hegemony of the free market. All attempts to map out alternative political orientations to that of the economy are delusional, because politics, like religion, belong to a time of metanarratives which no longer hold sway in the totally disenchanted world of pure capital, where even the state is now just another impotent, yet comforting fiction or mythology.
If modern capitalism demythologized religion, it also demythologized politics, which is why no coherent, humane and lasting alternatives to capitalism emerged in the twentieth century that weren't totalitarian. That's also why it's especially foolish to indulge in utopian political ideologies. No matter how humanitarian they try to be, they always devolve into their inhuman doubles, as Marxism did in becoming Stalinism. Now that the Cold War is over, and even the mighty Russian bear now drinks Coca Cola and runs on Microsoft Office, we are more sure of this than ever. That's what it means to live in the last phase of capitalist demythologization. As Cyndi Lauper once said, money changes everything. Even Marx would have agreed with her. According to postmodern anti-political logic, the most utopian alternative to capitalism left to our disposal is to develop post-political alternatives to creating a more just society, such as forcing what's left of the state to legitimate ethnic, sexual and cultural difference because it wouldn't make any economic sense not to.
All that prejudice and discrimination against minorities really amounts to is an exercise in economic irrationality, guided by outmoded racist ideologies corresponding to previous, less evolved stages in capitalist development which contravene the historical laws of nature. This is logical because as the market continues its inexorable expansion, it makes every possible form of difference a potential market signifier. After all, queers have a lot of buying power, Jews are good financial planners, women make better homes than men, aborted children aren't dependent on free school lunches, blacks are good for target practice, and the neediness of the permanent underclass is a sign of the generous benevolence of the new paternalism. Everyone serves a purpose in the new holy order. The problem with this kind of anti-political ideology is that it's too cynical and accommodating to function as a political philosophy. But that's precisely the point. Philosophical anti-politics, in whatever guise, cultural or academic, is a product of deep disappointment not only with the left's own failures to combat the right, but more importantly, the contemporary left's own conservatism.
While academic leftists familiar with the history of European socialist politics would naturally prefer that the anti-politics of French postmodernism were an alienated response to the reactionary politics of the French Communist party (former party chief Robert Hue did not even begin to acknowledge Stalin's crimes until the mid-seventies), there are better reasons than that to account for the left's inability to offer an alternative to conservative political ideologies. The real problem lies with the political nature of free-market economic systems, and the fact that they are not entirely conservative. As any economist will tell you, capitalist modes of production are revolutionary, because they have to consistently reinvent themselves in order to be able to continuously produce commodities. As long as capitalist enterprises can continuously reinvent the productive wheel, so to speak, they can keep up with consumer demands generated by the labor force's demands that it be able to consume its own products based on what it believes it needs. Whether these needs are manufactured or real is immaterial, the fact of the matter is that people are to a certain degree organically commanded to satisfy themselves by the nature of their own alienated labor activities — they must be able to own something that they directly or abstractly produce. When you factor in how advertising encourages people to consume certain commodities regardless of their utility, universal consumption is unilaterally demanded because at its best it's a sign of affluence. At its worst, it represents a muted attempt to satisfy people's most basic needs for survival.
The problem inherent in how the America left percives conservatives is the way it understands the right's vision of capitalist development. The left views conservative cultural self-representation as a material reflection of a backwards-looking concept of production. It's always feudal rather than Fordist or, for that matter, post-Fordist. To believe this is to deny the most conservative thing about capitalism: the manner in which it consistently changes how it produces commodities. Instead of viewing conservative culture as a reflection of this constantly evolving economic base, leftists tend to mistake the forest for the trees. In the process, they miss out on what it is about conservative cultural identity that tends to be more radical than the kinds of cultural orientations adhered to by the left: the preference for piety instead of excess, Puritanism and asceticism instead of sensuality and accumulation, with an almost religious abhorrence of any kind of affluence or wealth, the kind which the revolution is supposed to redistribute to everybody. It makes you wonder whether American leftists are more culturally conservative than their capitalist counterparts.
The left doesn't seem to understand that conservative culture is not the same as the capitalist production process, though it ultimately validates that process. The right will at times react negatively to the trauma which accompanies changes in capitalist development, such as downsizing, outsourcing, or the replacement of industrial economies with service economies, but cultural conservatism always returns in the end to legitimate these very sources of economic modernization, while the left, instead of trying to adapt, rejects them that much more fiercely. This turns leftists into economic Luddites, while the right simply comes off as being culturally backward. Conservative culture is always more redolent of the modes of production which historically preceded the one which conditions their worldview. All American conservatives are doing is attempting to retain a historical sense of their own cultural identity, much like the so-called third world peoples whose identities are destroyed by Western economic imperialism. That's where the American left's discourse about respecting tradition comes from, and why it sounds so awkward, because since the sixties it has been particularly out-of-sync with changes in capitalist development. Like the right, the left doesn't relish change. That's why it's constantly referring to tradition and why it thinks we ought to defend it in contrast to cultural conservatives, who, while in favor of eliminating civil rights altogether, are more prone to see themselves as revolutionaries who can invoke the language of civil rights in order to destroy the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. That's not conservative, just anti-democratic.
The problem is that political identity is always predicated on workers' relationship to their labor. When you cannot identify what it is that you do for a living, or understand what's unique about other people's labor, you lose sight of the labor process altogether. When you do that you forget that the labor process is a consistently historical phenomenon, one which in capitalist societies is always in the process of transformation. The political categories which American leftist political language resort to, such as tradition, function as metaphors for the unique historical character of the left's thinking about the labor process, which was defined by the kinds of industrial production we associate with Fordism. The language of the left has not changed its conception of production to accommodate the decline of industrial production in first world countries either. But the right has. This is why American conservatives are now talking about their right to renounce rights altogether. It's because they've updated their political culture to acknowledge the passing of Fordism. The left hasn't. And this is also why the American left can't seem to identify its own enemies, and for the moment sounds a lot more conservative than conservatives do.
Joel Schalit is a doctoral student in the Social and Political Thought Program at York University. Aside from his work at BS, he serves as associate editor for Punk Planet. Joel is also a member of garage collage artists The Christal Methodists, whose next full length, Satanic Ritual Abuse, will appear this spring on Candy Ass Records. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.