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What’s The Matter With California? The Left’s Capitulation To Neoliberalism (Roger Green)

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Just after the 2017 U.S. presidential election philosopher Alain Badiou gave a talk at UCLA entitled “Reflections on the Recent Election.”  Badiou opened with a reference to poetry, noting the philosophical necessity to avoid the affective displays of anger, horror, outrage, fear, etc. in the face of the enemy:

And we are often, in that sort of sur­prise, under the law of affects: fear, depres­sion, anger, pan­ic, and so on. But we know that philo­soph­ic­ally, all these affects are not really a good reac­tion, because in some sense, it’s too much affect in front of the enemy. And so, I think it’s a neces­sity to think bey­ond the affect, bey­ond fear, depres­sion, and so on — to think the situ­ation of today, the situ­ation of the world today, where some­thing like that is pos­sible, that some­body like Trump becomes the pres­id­ent of the United States.

Throughout his career Badiou has made significant philosophical contributions with respect to the idea of the event.  His most significant examples of events are revolutionary moments in French history. They have opened him up to continuing communist hypothesis.

Although countered in exchanges with democratic liberals such as Marcel Gauchet, and despite raising the “Spider Sense” of dogmatic liberals with references to Maoism, Badiou’s challenges remain increasingly intriguing in a United States that is witnessing a fast-paced shift in relationship with Russia.

As a friend of mine joked on social media recently, “everyone knows Vladimir Putin rules the free world.”  Putin is no Communist, of course, but in American political rhetoric the carryover of Cold War competition and the Red paranoia has made for more confusing media fodder amid chaotic times when old political binaries are breaking down.

Dogmatic liberals are quick to point to conservative hypocrisy in the idea of a cozy political alliance that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, but I would argue that what is really happening in such an attitude is a continued capitulation to global capitalism, and admission of defeat in the face of it.  As Badiou says of liberalism (in the classic sense of private property) in his talk with respect to this defeat of 3 billion people by 264 very rich people:

But the argu­ment is, “Okay, it’s not so good, but it’s the only real pos­sib­il­ity.” And so, in my opin­ion, the defin­i­tion of our time is the attempt to impose on human­ity at the scale of the world itself, the con­vic­tion that there is only one way for the his­tory of human beings. And without say­ing that this way is excel­lent, that this way is a very good one, but by say­ing that there is no oth­er solu­tion, no oth­er way.

Capitulation is also a running theme in Thomas Frank’s recent excoriation of liberals in the U.S., Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People, which provides some effective commentary here.  A Democrat who became a prominent voice of self-critique with his 2007  best-seller with his book What’s The Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Frank in Listen, Liberal traces the shift among the American Democratic party away from the New Deal politics of the 1930s and concerns over labor to a full-fledged embrace of finance capitalism, neo-liberal international free trade agreements, bailouts, and support in the incarceration of millions of lives.

In addition, Frank traces – through Clinton and Obama in particular – a favoring of elite-educated experts and the idea that more education is an intrinsic answer to all problems.  This meritocratic impulse pushed what was once a moral concern for working class people into what George Lakoff would call conservative, strict-father, moral frame.  In such a frame, poor people deserve to be poor because they have not had the wherewithal to apply a bootstraps mentality to the kind of eternally sacrificial civic rhetoric of Obama.

As Lakoff was claiming in post Katrina times, Obama capitalized greatly on Ronald Reagan’s appeal to “Reagan Democrats.”  Lakoff lamented a twelve-point healthcare initiative introduced by the Obama administration that could be picked apart and stalled ad infinitum by Republicans.  Obama left Americans with “Obamacare” and now we see the same-old Patriot Act language gaming of the right with the “American Healthcare Act” or “Trumpcare” being currently debated.

Frank also laments the undue complexity of Obama’s elite-educated initiatives.  I suppose an optimist might say Obama’s initiative made some version of government healthcare inevitable, but that’s like telling a Black Lives Matter protestor that he or she ought to be content with 1960s civil rights gains.

In Listen, Liberal, Frank writes: “what distinguishes the political order we live under now is consensus on certain economic questions, and what made that happen was the capitulation of the Democrats.  Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and make it stick.  This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement.”  (106)

Ultimately Frank’s argument is not altogether different than his earlier, more academic book historicizing business culture in the 1960s, The Conquest of Cool.  What liberals often proclaim as triumph is really a celebration of what Herbert Marcuse long ago called “one dimensional society”.  In other words, liberal social achievement oftentimes merely masks the financial gains of the elite.

The successes of Clinton and Obama were often in the rhetorical appeals to Democratic voters whose values they did not share.  In this way, the strict-father morality can be applied to the “creative class” or “conscious capitalism.”  Your average “Go Fund Me” or “Kickstarter” campaign effectively turn your social media friends in into financers who celebrate “you.”

Frank cites a 1982 Washington Post article, “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto,” (56,) for his terminology of “neoliberalism.”  The article made unabashed claims such as: “our support for workers on health and safety issues does not mean support for unions that demand wage increases without regard to productivity increases. That such wage increases have been a substantial factor in this country’s economic decline is beyond reasonable doubt.”

Still, Frank’s book could have benefited from a much more robust account of neoliberalism occurs in Michel Foucault’s late 1970s lectures at the Collêge de France, though I suppose this risks being “too educated” a view.  My point is that by noticing the European perspective we can get at something beneath the surface of what Frank is pointing out, and what confuses so many of my students and frustrates so many outside the U.S. about American politics.

American politics are often about loudly announcing an identity claim, and like so many academic conversations I’ve participated in, the game of “what are your politics?” clouds the atmosphere before one feels like he or she can listen to someone else.  Often, if your politics are not of the hegemonic variety, people assume you are up to no good.  Foucault’s point was that there is a logic to this, and as Gabriel Rockhill has recently argued, we know that the CIA took an interest in promoting Foucault’s thoughts on neoliberalism.

As with the muddled claims concerning Russia’s involvement in the U.S. electoral practice, we see an ongoing recapitulation of neoliberal economics subjugating the opinions of most Americans.  An identity-claim (political, racial, gendered, etc.) works as a catalyst for a reaction-forming gaze that increases emotional intensity (rage, fear, etc.), upping the stakes of a competitive game that exceptionally propels American narcissism at the expense of the rest of the world.

The logic of market competition perpetually breaks identities into more fragmented groups, creating both tension with, and longing for, inclusivity.  Deterritorialized, we all become refugees scouring the world market, micro-renting Airbnb’s in the grand tour for self-legitimization. Russia and Cuba, the next hot destinations for virtual Westworld.

Whether we are seeing the emergence of post-nation-state, northern-hemispheric alliances that further produce an economic dichotomy against the south or the further removal of Russia from “the West,” archaic American bipartisan politics produces an emotional distraction that gives license to turn a blind eye to shifting balances in global power.  We can see with Donald Trump’s proposed $54 billion dollar increase in military spending at the expense of public goods and cultural programs such as education and NEH funding that what groups like Tiqqun have long been calling global civil war is at hand.

This is no longer a classic conservative “defense of Western values.” Art was the product of the nation-state, and modern or avant-garde art, as Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures on L’Éducation sentimentale attest, was an inversion of the established economic order by the “symbolic capital” of those giving it the middle finger.

Historians such as Pankaj Mishra indeed track a longer narrative for the current situation.  In Age of Anger, tracing Trump’s politics to 18th century questions with respect to emergent nation-states, he writes: “the contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale” (346).  Peons with nothing left to pioneer.

Frank ends his book with the old charge liberals to take responsibility both for their own stake in democracy and their own culpability in producing the present situation.  Yet it is an intergenerational culpability.  So long as Americans frame their reactive gazes at their latest social media feeds, they reproduce the isolationist retreat from responsibility that the president they elected – and I mean both Democrats and Republicans here, through their electoral laws and their fascist dreams for a strong father – campaigned on.

Frank briefly notes, but does not touch on enough, the fact that by allowing the fiasco of Trump, liberals can “get their righteous rage on” and deny all responsibility.  The problem really is, from a political-theological and ethical standpoint, to determine what will be the breaking point and begin addressing it now.

Badiou is willing to push more than Frank.  He says with respect to the left, “we must pro­pose a polit­ic­al ori­ent­a­tion which goes bey­ond the world as it is, even if it is, at the begin­ning, in a not com­pletely clear man­ner.”  He suggests four basic principles: “col­lect­iv­ism again­st private prop­er­ty, poly­morph­ous work­er again­st spe­cial­iz­a­tion, con­crete uni­ver­sal­ism again­st closed iden­tit­ies, and free asso­ci­ation again­st the state. It’s only a prin­ciple, it’s not a pro­gram­me.”

I would add a political-theological dimension to Badiou’s suggestions by way of some of Emmanuel Levinas’s words early on in Totality and Infinity:

Freedom consists in knowing that freedom is in peril. But to know or to be conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of inhumanity. It is this perpetual postponing of the hour of treason – infinitesimal difference between man and non-man – that implies the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire of the absolutely other or nobility, the dimension of metaphysics. (35)

It is not a sentimentally humanist Levinas is pointing to here, nor is his anthropocentrism at the expense of the environment.  Combining the practical concerns that Badiou suggests with the ethical concerns the Levinas derives from “the acute experience of the human in the twentieth century” is a way to begin moving beyond capitulation.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

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