The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang. Originally posted here

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but as an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.

References

[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

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Towards a communist left

What is the modern left in the USA? How can we escape the world of sects? Moving beyond both defeatism and activism will require an approach that’s aware of our historical limitations as well as opportunities. 

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Today the existing left in America is largely composed of leftovers from the New Left student movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anti-globalization populism and a labor bureaucracy in decay. Left discourse today primarily focuses its critiques on neo-liberalism, which is identified with finance capital and a corrupt power elite, and cultural expressions of oppression and alienation. Class struggle as a unifying factor in the left is largely missing. Rather there is skepticism not only of movements centered around class but around any kind of universal project of human emancipation. For to posit such a project would mean to put forward a “grand narrative” where universalism is asserted, something forbidden in post-structuralist influenced leftist discourse. Rather than individual struggles being part of a greater project aiming to abolish capitalist relations worldwide we are presented with individual activist campaigns against given evils of the world. Fragmentation and individual subjectivity are more important than unity in a common project of emancipation, with mere allyship with individuals in struggles against subjective oppressions being celebrated as an alternative to solidarity.

Otherwise popular leftist discourse focuses on a surface critique of existing conditions, refusing to truly delve into the root of things. Anything but communism itself is suggested as a solution to the continuing crisis of capitalism, as the Thatcherite credo of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is essentially absorbed by the left. This is reflected in everything from Jacobin magazine’s endorsement of market socialism to enthusiasm for co-ops and universal basic income. Finance capitalism is presented as the real enemy, in counterposition to productive capitalism that is unionized and domestic and therefore preferable. Instead of capitalism itself, which requires a global solution, movements uphold “Neo-liberalism” or “globalization” as the problem, upholding the sovereignty of the nation over the international scope of the world market. Social movements expressing this ideology are not class based, but instead a broad front of liberals, far left participants and even aspects of the right.

The ostensibly Marxist left in the United States, who unlike much of the left do play lip service to class, is primarily composed of “soft-Trots” like the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative who offer bureaucratic organizations and actual politics on slightly to the left of the democrats despite proclaiming allegiance to Bolshevism. On the other hand are the Maoists and Stalinists of groups like Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and Workers World Party (WWP) who are essentially leftovers from the various splits of groups from the New Left generation. These groups offer antiquated cold-war era politics to a mostly student audience, often basing much of their identity on support for various third world dictators.

Truth is that the world of the organized radical left still exists in the shadow of the New Left. The existing official leadership of these groups for the most part are old-timers from the social movements of the 60’s, 70s and 80s. This is true for RCP, FRSO, WWP, International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Spartacus League, as well as left-communist groups such as International Communist Tendency (ICT) and International Communist Current (ICC). Essentially the “world of sects” is under control of a gerontocracy of leftists who grew up with different movements and different conditions. It’s the decaying remains of an old generation of social movements. They are able to attract revolving door membership amongst youth, meaning that only the most committed recruits stay for long while most quickly get bored or disillusioned and leave. Very few groups amongst the marxist left have a central leadership comprised of younger militants who didn’t get their political education from the New Left.

The “world of sects” is also a world full of splits, many quite mundane. Look at PSL, FRSO-ML and WWP. These three groups have essentially identical politics, as dreadful and incorrect as they are. There’s no real reason for them to not be one larger group with minor internal disagreements. It’s a similar case for ISO and Socialist Alternative. These “soft-Trot” groups have little different about them at the political level. So why so many splits? These people go on and on about the necessity of centralism yet see no real reason to centralize around their actual politics. Part of the problem is that organizations don’t aim for programmatic unity through the broader organization but instead have a political and theoretical line imposed by the leadership. Splits are often over theoretical disagreements rather than political disagreements where real issues are at stake. Rather than having complete theoretical unity an organization should aim for unity in basic political questions – programmatic unity. Another problem is the notion of vanguardism taken from an ahistorical reading of Lenin that sees splits as a mean to purge potential rightist bureaucracy and maintain revolutionary purity. Splitting is often justified, but as a tool for achieving purity it accomplishes little. Yet is the fractured, sect-like nature of the left really a reason to embrace some vague project of broad left-unity?

What left unity really offers today when groups don’t have any real political weight is very unclear, and “left” is such an ambiguous term these days it is bound to mean capitulation to awful politics.  Most of these groups are not only isolated from any mass movements of the working class but are also quite toxic in their behavior, with rape scandals, silencing of opposition and opportunism at large. Yet it would also be a mistake to consider them “The main enemy” with our primarily goal as an organization to prevent them from having influence over workers (as the Nihilist Communism writers suggest).

Rather than an enemy to be actively battled, these shitty left groups can for the most part be dismissed as “Live Action Roleplayers” or “LARPers”. Stuck in the past, the radical left of today often tries to roleplay the movements of old in search of a way to maintain permanent activity with an inflated sense of importance. We can see this in the various Maoist/Stalinist groups looking to relive the student activism of the 60s or certain sections of the IWW who think that recreating the good old fashioned industrial unionism of the early 20th century is possible today. LARPing is an expression of the cult of activism – a phenomena which goes back to Lasalle’s notion of the “permanent campaign”. Activism doesn’t mean activity as such; rather it means refusing to make an appraisal of what limitations are generated by the current historical conjecture, to pretend as if one’s group must merely try harder to generate a movement when no real movement exists. Activism damns those who sit back during a quiet period to focus on theory and make a discerning judgement on what is realistic. Instead the need to take action takes priority above all else. Out of organization, agitation and education the cult of activism leaves us only with agitation.

With regards to the ultra-left (where we would situate ourselves, Marxist tendencies to the left of Trotskyism and Maoism) there is little in terms of formalized organization in the United States beyond scattered members of the ICT, ICC, certain sections of the IWW, online cliques and heavily theoretical journals.  Amongst the “ultra-left” is a heavy element of defeatism and anti-organizationalism. Many mistake a justified critique of activism with a way to legitimate complete political quietism, falling in line with the dominant neo-liberal discourse about “The end of history”. Others maintain hope in revolution, but first announcing the end of “proletarian subjectivity” in favor of immediately establishing communist relations without the mediations of politics, creating a vision of revolution so idealistic it might as well be impossible. Amongst this eclectic milieu of “communizers” any kind of associational organization on a programmatic basis is frowned upon with many instead placing hope in the spontaneous riots as a path forward.

There is of course much to take from the analysis coming from groups such as Endnotes and Theorie Communiste who take up the mantle of communization, and we in many ways are sympathetic to their project of creating a fresh analysis of current conditions. De-industrialization in core economies, fragmentation of workforces, increases in the reserve army of labor and a decrease in the power of unions are very real phenomena that pose real challenges to the formation of the proletariat as a class. It would be a mistake to think we can bring back the old workers movement, that old school left-communist politics can be applied today untouched from their original form without taking new conditions into consideration. But questioning orthodoxy doesn’t mean that all orthodoxies need be abandoned and are necessarily wrong.

Much of the skepticism of modern ultra-lefts towards organization is with good reason. Fear of falling into the misery of the LARP-form and degenerating into the cult of activism as well as experiences of being burned previously by various leftists groups often deters individuals from being politically active. Yet by refusing to build a movement and engage with the greater public we merely cede ground to the politics of liberals, reactionaries and the left-wing-of-capital. A “real movement” isn’t going to fall out of nowhere without a pre-existing era of organization by conscious radicals. There is no historical precedent to believe otherwise. The question should not be “organization – yes or no?” Rather, it should be “how can a formalized organization be self-aware of its own historical limitations?”

Those who have completely given up and declared “There is no alternative” only empower the dominant ideology. There is no reason to think that capitalism will have a future of peaceful and balanced growth where crisis tendencies and class conflict are liquidated, nor is there strong evidence to believe that mass political mobilizations are now historically obsolete. Given these two claims there is reason to think that communist politics can have potential relevance in the coming years. However moving forward will require fresh perspectives and organizations, organizations not under the leadership of left-overs from the New Left but rather a new generation of communists that are in tune with current realities.

Is it possible to avoid being a sect in todays era? At this point, probably not. But what groups can do is 1) be self-aware of their actual importance and limitations and 2) fight against the various symptoms that are expressed in sects. One way of doing this is to form organizations that are based on unity in politics, programmatic unity, as opposed to unity through a totalizing theoretical interpretation of Marxism. An example of the latter would be International Communist Current, which is unified around a certain interpretation of “decadence theory”, or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which is unified around a specific theory of state-capitalism regarding the USSR. Ultimately these theoretical issues should be up for debate and discussion in a group, not a basis for unity. What should instead be a basis for unity is basic political positions, which can often be arrived at through differing theoretical paths. To take the example of the SWP and state capitalism, what matters is ones basic political position on whether the USSR was a positive example of working class rule rather than ones theory on what specific mode of production existed there. To fight the symptoms of the “sect-dom” means an organization must tolerate factions and internal dissension rather than senselessly purging opposition. Rather than every disagreement being a sign of a need for splitting, groups must develop a culture that can tolerate internal disagreement and debate. Centralism that is imposed rather than achieved through collective debate and political struggle is usually a form of bureaucratic consolidation, not a centralism based on real unity within the group. While these basic suggestions are no guarantee against pointless splits and the clique-like dynamics of sects they do provide some ideas for trying to tackle the problem.