Freedom from progress: Donald Trump, Christopher Lasch, and a Left in fear of America
Platypus Review #94 | March 2017
"We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore."— Donald Trump
IN CONTRAST TO WHAT THE LIBERAL DOXA would like us to believe, Donald Trump’s victory should not be underestimated on account of the billionaire’s failure to win the popular vote. Trump’s victory should not be thought a surprise, either. It reflects a "structural" tendency of growing political polarization within Western societies over the past four decades. The extremes have been, on the one hand, the multi-cultural or "identity" liberalism/leftism with its origins in the social movements of the 60s, and, on the other hand, right-wing populism’s embrace of irrationality as a response to the excesses of the former. From an emancipatory point of view, we are currently facing a total political impasse: both the demands for social justice (currently being hijacked by right-wing populism) and for racial and gender equality (deformed by the biases of specifically post-60’s, post-modern leftisms and feminisms) appear under the guise of their most irrational versions and, as such, are being perverted in order to serve the interests (and satisfy the ideological obsessions) of the two respective pillars of American oligarchy: the "conservative"-minded, traditional, moneyed aristocracy and the technocratic and "meritocratic" liberal elites.
This alarming situation threatens to inflict irreparable damage to democratic[i] politics. To elucidate this risk I propose that we return to the work of Christopher Lasch, a social critic who spent most of his life (1932-94) trying to shed light on the crucial socio-historical dynamics that led us to the present cul-de-sac. Some conservatives have already returned to Lasch in light of recent politics, but have done so in a rather superficial way—that is, by insisting only on the sociological background of Trump’s victory.[ii] My aim, on the contrary, is to discuss Lasch in relation to a new conception of emancipatory and egalitarian politics.
The notion of the "reactionary left"
I would like to begin by outlining a broader constellation of democratic thought that could be called reactionary leftism. This term was introduced by one of its more egregious representatives in France, the socio-geographer Christophe Guilluy. Guilluy used the term to respond in a rather playful manner to the charges of French liberals, and at the same time to demarcate his own vision of what should be considered as the Left; since he was frequently accused of being a reactionary, he fired back by appropriating this completely misused term. Still, the choice is a pertinent one. The term "reactionary" (réactionnaire in French) was coined by the Progressive camp in order to incriminate its enemies—that is, those who literally reacted to the victorious march of Progress by trying to overthrow the newly installed revolutionary New Order. The term was introduced for the first time during the 1790s and it has since been synonymous with everything non-Left: from royalists and fascists, to right-wing anti-communist liberals. Whereas it was traditionally used primarily in regards to the political stance of these "reactionaries," the term has, since the 1960s, tended to be used more and more to refer to the cultural habits and morals of all those who either do not endorse or openly reject the New Left’s "anti-patriarchal" and "anti-racist" agenda.
Given this historical background, Guilluy’s playful reappropriation of the term "reactionary" offers a hint of the type of criticism that his conception of the Left addresses to the notion of Progress: it is a Left that resists the tendency to identify emancipation with Progress or—to put it in a more up-to-date manner—a Left that refuses to reject as a priori "reactionary," "patriarchal," or even "fascist" anything or anyone that does not automatically succumb to a positivist, narrowly rationalist interpretation of the Enlightenment and the dictates of the 1960s cultural revolution. This idea of a democratic and left-wing rejection of Progress and of a similarly critical acceptance of the Enlightenment is barely new. Eric Miller, the biographer of Christopher Lasch, used the expression "Tory radicalism" to define Lasch’s sui generis political position,[iii] possibly echoing the famous expression "anarchist Tory" that George Orwell had sometimes used to describe his own political worldview.[iv] Orwell: Anarchist Tory is precisely the title of the first book of Jean-Claude Michéa, a contemporary French philosopher influenced by the work of Lasch and Cornelius Castoriadis; Michéa published and prefaced the principal Laschean works in French, including Lasch’s famous 1986 televised conversation with Castoriadis and Michael Ignatieff.[v] In Orwell: Anarchist Tory, Michéa proceeds to explain why an expression that appears contradictory and incoherent at first glance is in reality totally valid, since it very adequately captures Orwell’s political position: an antitotalitarianism of socialist inspiration that, at the same time, does not hesitate to criticize modernity’s discontents by integrating some typically socially conservative ideas.
From a philosophical point of view, the core of this perspective lies in the idea that all the great misadventures that have haunted the evolution of modern Western societies have their source in the fundamentally modern conception of the human being as limitlessly perfectible and ad libitum transformable. Both capitalism’s obsession with economic and technological growth and the spirit that animates these obsessions—the idea of Progress and the overall inclination to reduce human praxis to an inherently expansionist and imperialist will to power—depend on this positive reinterpretation of the notion of infinitude that gradually took place during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As Oswald Spengler and Albert Camus have demonstrated, it is precisely this evolution that constitutes the major difference between the modern Western world and its Greco-Roman and Judaic ancestors. As modernity has been a process of gradual and collective religious disaffiliation that culminated in the secularization of Western societies, religion has ceased to exist as a major social institution with the essential role of prescribing and imposing limits to human thought and action. Even since this secularization, modernity’s main problem has been its incapacity to fashion for itself a new set of democratically inspired and rationally formulated limits, in order to be able to avoid hubris and to thus complete the central imperative of the spirit of the Enlightenment: "Man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage," as Kant famously put it. In other words, it is not really possible to apply and follow the famous sapere aude precept nor to sustain veritable freedom if man is capable neither of reckoning the necessity of limiting his action when it is needed, nor of effectively doing so through the creation of specific myths, collective narratives, and institutions. All these are ways through which even a non-religious and secularized democratic society teaches individuals how to tame their freshly reawakened (after God’s death) insatiable desire and will to power.[vi]
It is the acknowledgement of precisely this necessity as well as the concomitant "sense of limits" (as Lasch used to say) that has always driven the best intellectual representatives of this "reactionary" and "Tory" heterodoxy within the Left: from Orwell’s democratic antitotalitarianism to Arendt’s reinterpretation of the notion of conservatism, from Lewis Mumford’s and Jacques Ellul’s critique of modern technology to Simone Weil’s rejection of the equation of human emancipation with the notion of indefinite expansion of productive forces, and from E. P. Thompson’s rehabilitation of William Morris’s "romantic anticapitalism" (against Engels’s dismissal) to Albert Camus’s critical acceptance of modernity. Castoriadis’s conception of freedom as autolimitation should be considered the most recent effort to rethink democratic and emancipatory politics following the philosophical principles of this tradition—that is, within a framework that rejects the "denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom"[vii] that lies in the core of "progressive optimism,"[viii] a framework rooted instead in the acceptance of the "tragic character"[ix] of human existence.
Progressivism and its discontents
Castoriadis traced how this worldview materialized in the Ancient Greek tradition, whereas Lasch, a historian by training, systematically studied basic aspects of 19th and 20th century American history and culture. If Lasch’s intellectual quest has actually been "a search for another way of achieving America,"[x] that is because his radical cultural and political criticism of postwar American society has always been nurtured by his striving to bring to light a largely forgotten conception of democracy and equality together with the political and intellectual forces that historically defended it. This quest ranged from his initial efforts to save from oblivion the original, Populist flavor of American socialism, prior to its eventual "Europeanization" in the years after the Russian revolution,[xi] to his devising of a historical genealogy of democratic and/or populist anti-progressivism[xii] and his ultimate discussion of the original meaning of such central notions of American ideology as democracy and social advancement.[xiii] Lasch’s main argument has always been not only that the idea of Progress has nothing to do with democracy and freedom but that, what is more, it was actually in the name of this same Progress that American society gradually came to be dominated by oppressing and alienating forces that crush the individual and dismantle communities, forces such as industrial capitalism, technology, state bureaucracy, and the corporate and public organizations that serve them. In other words, it is precisely this systematic undermining of every traditional custom and social bond that reduces the individual to an alienated consumer, stripped of even its slightest and most elementary autonomy and independence,[xiv] constantly demanding the help and assistance of every kind of expert. This fundamental dependence transforms the individual into a patient, thus giving rise to what Lasch calls, drawing on Philipp Rieff’s work, "the therapeutic state."[xv]
This gradual substitution of popular culture by mass culture and technocratic manipulation is carried out in the name of the hypothetically necessary fight against all those "prejudices" and "archaisms"—Adam Smith’s "acts of settlement"—that presumably block the way to Progress and Enlightenment. One must therefore explicitly attack the ideology that views traditional popular culture as inherently "reactionary" and "stagnant" and, thus, as a priori incompatible with democracy. According to Lasch, the political forces that most faithfully incarnated this ideology were the Progressive reformers and Wilsonite liberals, whose aim had been to "modernize" society with a view to rendering the masses more fit to function within the nascent system of bureaucratic industrial capitalism. Within the New Deal Coalition such technocratic liberalism still managed to maintain contact with the working people; with the emergence of the New Left and its eventual influence on liberal—and Democratic—politics, the Liberals’ "anti-conservative" proclivities took on a new life. Contempt for ordinary people (or at least suspicion towards them) was from now on considerably exacerbated, partly because of a growing fetishization of ethnic minorities that was reinforced by Second Wave feminism’s tendency to demonize white males and partly due to the overall predisposition of the Baby Boomers towards a "creative" and "nomadic" hippie lifestyle based on a general "arty" outlook that favors "creativity" and "spontaneity" to the detriment of traditional values associated with such classically capitalist—and therefore also petty-bourgeois and even proletarian—notions as "work" and "organization."[xvi] Henceforth, the ethos and culture of petty-bourgeois and white working-class people was increasingly considered to be the "patriarchal" and "racist" archenemy to be combated—especially since the latter had begun to rally themselves as the "Silent Majority" who essentially approved the repression of the New Left during the "Chicago ‘68" events by giving Nixon two consecutive victories. Frederick Dutton rationalized those changes in his infamous manifesto, Changing Sources of Power (1971), and the Democratic Party reinvented itself on the basis of this analysis of the social forces through the reforms implemented by the McGovern Commission: the New Deal Coalition was dismantled and the working class was abandoned in favor of the "New Politics" electoral base of the "young" (i.e. white college students, professionals-to-be) and the "minorities."
Exacerbated by the tendency of the "lyrical generation" (as Quebecer scholar François Ricard calls the Baby Boomers) to "nurture, at all cost, its need for rupture and restart,"[xvii] the liberal-progressive offensive against popular culture took a new turn, contributing to the triggering of the famous "white backlash" and of the "culture wars" that have been determining American political life ever since. The Baby Boomers’ ascendancy made their values and lifestyle dominant, rendering the breach between common people and the oligarchy even deeper. How could this new dominant class rule and rationally govern American society given that its ethos was shaped by this "lyrical" predisposition that one finds in such famous declarations of faith as the Situationists’ instigation to "Live without dead time and enjoy without restraints,"[xviii] in Norman Mailer’s idea that the hipster-as-a-cultural-dissident should live life according to a perception of time that takes the form of an "enormous present, which is without past or future, memory or planned intention,"[xix] or even in the hippie-esque, individualist invocations of the "psyche" and the "soul" that fill the pages of Changing Sources of Power?[xx] Lasch never undertook such a close examination of the Baby Boomer mentality, as his—otherwise intransigent—criticism of the New Left remained mostly political. Nevertheless, the essentially anthropological analyses of the post-‘60s American society and culture that we find in Lasch’s best-known books, The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, offer us a perspicacious vision of the social consequences of a way of life based on such "lyrical" premises, whereas the articles comprising The Revolt of the Elites dissect the irresponsible ethos of these new "lyrical" oligarchs who no longer desire to effectively rule society so much as to flee it.
Making America Great Again: ever-emerging "fascism" and the permanence of the "politics of display"
Reading the American press as well as liberal, leftist, and anarchist publications, the foreign observer gets the impression that a considerable part of Americans have been living in deep fear since November 8, 2016, as if their worst nightmare had finally come true and America were being rapidly transformed into a semi-totalitarian society. It is not simply disappointing but profoundly terrifying to realize that today’s left appears to be so theoretically bankrupt that its members are not only seriously debating whether Trump is a dictator[xxi] and a Nazi[xxii] but also seem to be genuinely persuaded that Trump is promoting a new kind of fascism.[xxiii] It would be vain and hopeless to try to explain to these self-proclaimed Marxists that fascist regimes do not emanate from the individual desire of some megalomaniacal bully or even from a plot orchestrated by a small group of fanatics (and in the case of Trump’s group of dilettantes, even the organizational capacities necessary for this seem to be lacking). Dictatorships of all sorts (from "ordinary" military juntas to fascist and hardcore totalitarian regimes) arise in times of crisis when the existing social, economic, and political structures are unable to cope with extraordinary events that affect the very fabric of the institutions in place. The role of fascist social movements is precisely to resolve such insurmountable contradictions through a reactionary or autocratic "revolution." If they succeed in doing so, it is because there are established social forces that support or actively tolerate those social or military movements, whether it be the European bourgeoisie in the case of fascism and Nazism, or the foreign policy of the U.S. state in the case of Latin American banana-republics and military juntas.
Nothing of the sort exists today. Furthermore, American society remains a republic (a "bourgeois democracy") and not an autocracy—in other words, it remains a social and political regime that incarnates a certain spirit of liberty through institutions capable of counterbalancing executive power and even of resisting Trump’s "well-documented authoritarian impulses"[xxiv] through means both political and legal.[xxv] And, of course, no fascist tradition ever existed in America. From the glorious times when the first "rebel" group took arms to preserve its cultural particularism (the infamous "Peculiar Institution") against Yankee encroachment, up to Timothy McVeigh and contemporary "militias," American far-right extremists view themselves as anti-federal "rebels," ready to secede from the "Union" rather than try to take command of the State apparatus (let alone establish some form of dictatorship). For them, the current state of affairs is the real dictatorship to be taken down, the Washington "Big Government" Moloch in the face of whose docile bureaucrats we proudly wave our yellow "don’t tread on me" flags.
"Fascism wants Baptism coast to coast" [xxvi]
Why, then, do various tendencies of contemporary leftism accept as a legitimate issue of debate and serious consideration such an irrelevant and exaggerated hypothesis? I am not referring here simply to the most paranoid versions of contemporary anarchism that had considered modern Western oligarchies to be totalitarian even before Trump decided to seek the G.O.P. nomination. On the contrary, I have in mind some clearly less incoherent people on the Left who, nevertheless, seem to believe that contemporary "bourgeois democracies" (that is the liberal, constitutional oligarchies of Western countries) are constantly on the verge of sliding into totalitarian forms of domination.
Every excess in the use of state power is seen as a proof of this scenario, from Guantanamo to police shootings of African-Americans. It is an old habit that goes back to both the political and cultural wings of the Counterculture of the 1960s. The prevailing sentiment of "alienation amidst abundance in a world where it is ever harder to locate the centers of oppressive control"[xxvii] that nourished those movements gave rise to a claustrophobic and fatalist reading of Western societies as being subject to totalitarian forms of control. What is more, in the context of the "lyrical" utopianism of this era and its concomitant notion of freedom as transgression of limits, everything that was not in accordance with our deepest hopes and desires was to be perceived in a semi-apocalyptic manner as "fascist" and "racist." Thus, the obsession with fascism became one of the cornerstones of the ‘60s mentality. Fascism could be found everywhere in those days: the New Left was referring to American society as "Amerikkka," Wes Wilson "rerouted" the American flag by replacing stars with swastikas (in his 1967 work Are We Next?), Ralph Steadman created a star-spangled skull with swastikas in the place of its absent eyeballs for the cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, feminists were describing Dirty Harry as fascist, and so on.
In the meantime, the rise of the so-called "identity politics" further contributed to the proliferation of the usage of such vague notions as "fascism" and "racism," since from now on it was the very fabric of society—no longer just its political and legal "superstructure"—that was considered oppressive. Given those movements’ suspicion towards white, middle-America, "fascism" soon became a question of identity and cultural habits. No longer did fascism signify a certain type of political regime, but a mentality, hence its close relation with the term "patriarchy." In a certain way "fascist" is the postmodern equivalent of "reactionary."
Trumpism: a distorted form of democratic politics?
Much of the obsession with Trump-the-fascist stems from this aversion to what he represents culturally. That is why Hillary is not equally perceived as an enemy of the feminist cause, even if she is a ruthless careerist who allowed herself to be publicly humiliated in order to avoid compromising her chances of higher political ascent. The same goes for her husband’s famous "Sister Souljah moment" back in 1992 (that nobody seems to remember anymore). If we are so eager to dub Trump a fascist and a racist, what should we have said then of Clinton, who crucially promoted the "Law and Order" policy of mass incarceration and refused to review the notorious de facto racist 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that targeted poor black crack addicts? The liberal and leftist eagerness to view Trump as some sort of harbinger of the Apocalypse suits very well the Democrats’ plans, since they can now present themselves as the legitimate keepers of the democratic and antiracist faith and, at the same time, avoid any discussion of their own disastrous choices that have alienated a great mass of their traditional constituencies, pushing them to the right.
Besides, given not only Trump’s promises concerning the economy but his vocal repudiation of globalization as well, voting for him should be considered the far more rational choice for "middle" Americans compared to voting for the traditional, pro-globalization and openly anti-labor Republican candidates. Not that Trump is going to keep his promises—he cannot, for the simple reason that the contemporary globalized economy cannot be undone by imposing tariff barriers. The irrationality of his temper and the repulsive nature of his personality notwithstanding, for his core constituency of white, working-class voters Trump’s proclaimed policies are justifiably seen as far more relevant to their basic class interests than anything proposed so far by both Republicans and Democrats. From this perspective, what should have shocked us in the first place is the continuous and persistent vote of these same folks for the market-adulating neoconservative Republicans from the 1980s on.[xxviii] At least with Trump this suicidal habit seems to have taken a less paranoid turn, since Trump’s victory signifies a rejection not only of liberal "coastal elites" but of the Republican—and, as such, fundamentally pro-globalization—establishment as well. After having elected such market fundamentalist clowns as Reagan and Bush the younger, why not try a Populist clown in Trump? As has been the case with Brexit and with a great part of Le Pen’s popularity in France, what we are dealing with here is a blind and irrational albeit utterly legitimate insurgency against the revolting, predatory elites of whom Lasch spoke.
If we take into account Trump’s declared esteem for P. T. Barnum,[xxix] Philip Roth is right in evoking Melville’s novel The Confidence Man as a possible source of inspiration for any effort to understand the billionaire’s mind.[xxx] If the Trump election really does represent such a "radical discontinuity," as some observers believe,[xxxi] it is not so much because of the content of his declarations as due to how he behaves as a politician. It is a discontinuity with the technocratic consensus that has reigned at least since World War II. As such, the Trump victory is to some extent reviving some of the most extravagant features of the Populist tradition. Sociologically speaking, Trump resembles a curious blend of Barry Goldwater and Ross Perot, as he represents a kind of gilded paleo-conservatism. And, at the same time, his anti-establishment posture is reminiscent of such legendary Wall Street con men as "Jubilee Jim" Frisk, "the Donald Trump of the nineteenth century,"[xxxii] who achieved "wide popular acclaim as a kind of Wall Street Robin Hood" by declaring, amongst other things, "I was born to be bad."[xxxiii]
In Trump’s case, it is not so much "the romantic aura of democratic adventure" that turns "roguishness into heroism"[xxxiv] (since he is no self-made man) as the desire to see the political establishment humiliated. The declaration of war against both political correctness and the media, passing through the extensive use of Twitter and going so far as to invent the bizarre notion of "alternative facts," is the most extreme way to achieve this humiliation. And given that the media, "Washington," and the universities are bastions of the meritocratic and technocratic wing of the American elites, this neo-Populist attack against the establishment should logically lead to an open embrace of irrationalism—and in this sense, birtherism was just the beginning. Shocking as all this might be to some, this political outlook contains as core elements two basic ingredients of the American Populist tradition, both stemming from this tradition’s profound—and democratic—suspicion towards any form of titled expertise. To use Richard Hofstadter’s terminology, we have to deal here with both American anti-intellectualism and a certain "paranoid style" that has time and again characterized this country’s political life.[xxxv] It is this irreverence towards both bureaucratic etiquette and the technocratic expertise that accompanies it that so greatly shocks contemporary liberals and a large segment of leftists, as both groups adhere to the meritocratic oligarchy’s technocratic and politically correct mentality.
Even Trump’s collaboration with such a far-right conspiracy theorist as Steve Bannon serves the project of attacking the political establishment. Bannon, an admirer of Andrew Jackson who, in his own words, "come[s] from a blue collar, Irish-Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,"[xxxvi] was infuriated with Wall Street’s attitude towards "common folks" like his father whose savings suffered a severe blow from the 2007 subprime crisis. It was then that Trump’s new Chief Strategist, who had been a Reaganite in his youth and "as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get"[xxxvii] witnessed his spiritual rebirth into a Populist sworn opponent of the bankers. Evidently, this is the dark side of the moon, a Jacksonism on steroids boosted by apocalyptic warmongering and a Leninist-inspired revolutionary language.[xxxviii] But the core elements of this mix emanate directly from some common, classic traits of the American political tradition that have been systematically marginalized from public life. As we have already seen, they serve today to express the blind anger of large groups ("the forgotten men and women of our country" as Trump himself has put it) that feel abandoned by the ruling elites and especially by their meritocratic-technocratic wing, the one that supports the Democrats.[xxxix]
Revolutionary politics in the age of narcissism: a dead end?
Speaking of liberalism, then, what about the anti-Trump resistance? Strolling through the pages of a recent (February 6, 2017) issue of Time, which is dedicated to the Women’s March ("The Resistance Rises; How a March Becomes a Movement"), and observing the photos of some of the activists, one cannot help but remember the words that Norman Mailer uttered when, strolling around Chicago’s Loop in August of 1968, he bumped into a group of Yippies preparing to clash with the National Guard: "were these odd unkempt children the sort of troops with whom one wished to enter battle?"[xl] This obsession with the "The Whole World is Watching" strategy, a strategy that reduced politics to a TV show, stems from a rather "expressionist" style of politics, a "politics of display" (according to Todd Gitlin) that seeks mainly to impress spectators rather than to create a set of viable democratic counter-institutions. According to this idea, society will rally to our cause not by viewing such institutions at work, but rather by being enthralled by our slogans and spectacular activism.
A typical characteristic of this mentality is the use of out of measure, "lyrical" declarations that are in stark contrast with the movements’ real capacities—recall Occupy Wall Street’s basic slogan, "we are the 99%". It is as if theatricality were the only thing that mattered for this post-modern type of social movement, led principally by middle-class, digital technology-addicted liberals and leftists who carry on with the countercultural idea of politics-as-happening. It is as if the main goal of politics were to seek visibility rather than equality. No wonder that the matrix of this kind of militancy is identity-politics, an effort to render the culture of discriminated minorities visible and respected in the public sphere through both spectacular activism and administrative-technocratic action. Christopher Lasch repeatedly castigated the mediatic mentality of the New Left[xli] and carefully underlined the differences between the Civil Rights movement of the South and the "activist" forms of Black Nationalism that developed in the North by imitating the spectacle-friendly and "lyrical" paradigm of white New Left militants.[xlii] Examined from this perspective, the main problem of the Second and Third Wave feminisms—as well as of the rest of the "identity" movements that emerged through the ‘60s and ‘70s—is their fundamental adherence to the "activist" paradigm that obliges them to vacillate between "expressionistic," mediatic activism and technocratic lobbying.
Furthermore, most of today’s activists share a mentality bred on the logic of artificial protective barriers such as political correctness, "trigger-warnings," and "safe spaces," barriers that reign supreme not only within American campuses[xliii] but inside contemporary leftist subculture as whole. This "coddling of the American mind"[xliv] has some serious and damaging effects on a large part of contemporary liberal and leftist militancy, whether by generating a naïve and utterly unjustified optimistic utopianism (that, for the most part, ends in blind activism) or sentiments of fear and scorn towards middle America (or its European equivalent.)[xlv] The frailty of character that transforms politics into a rationalization of irrational sentiments is nothing more than the alternative version of Lasch’s "minimal self," a form of politics that very adequately expresses the dominant ethos of our narcissistic culture and its fragmented human type. As George Carlin once put it, speaking of politically correct language, "soft language is for soft people."
The end of identity liberalism?[xlvi]
Feminist theorists such as Martha Nussbaum, Nancy Fraser, or Camille Paglia notwithstanding, contemporary feminism is still being dominated by the spirit of its Second Wave predecessor that raises feminine experience to an absolute and, thus, considerably simplifies the nature of today’s gender relations. It most notably neglects the fact that contemporary women are far more independent than before the 1960s and, as such, should also be held accountable for some of today’s ills. In this sense, the major problem that no one seems to address is the incapacity of a large percentage of women (and LGBT people) to give a positive and coherent meaning to their newly acquired liberty. But how could they have done otherwise, given the overall cultural disintegration that characterizes contemporary Western societies?
It should not therefore be considered a paradox that in the midst of today’s "gender trouble" and identity crisis many celebrities of current antifeminist discourse come from utterly non-conservative milieux—from the openly gay provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to ex-pornstars Jenna Jameson and Tila Tequila. This new kind of non-patriarchal, Hugh Hefner-esque sexism is proper to our post-bourgeois era of consumerist permissiveness and has, consequently, little to no affinity with the traditional paternalistic and "conservative" sexism. Henceforth, the basic pillars of contemporary, anti-patriarchal feminist analysis should be revised. In the context of today’s sexually "liberated" culture, where sexual identities have become de facto much more fluid than during the bourgeois era, the obsession with the deconstruction of "heteronormativity" and the effort to bring forward some supposedly rebellious transgenderism highlight how the disintegration of Western culture affects even those who are supposed to combat it.
Furthermore, contemporary sexism is to some extent an attempt to outbid what is being perceived as the excesses of political correctness. A rise of sexist discourse has accompanied Trumpism’s anti-establishment offensive. The response to this bullying cannot begin by denying that political correctness and trigger-warning logic have gone way too far and are now working perfectly well as a tool for justifying the right-wing backlash. The fact that white woman Trump voters weren’t dissuaded by the "grab ‘em by the pussy" affair highlights the breach that separates them from contemporary feminism’s "soft" trigger-warning mentality. Paglia’s "street-smart feminism," on the other hand, could be considered as a possible application of the "reactionary Left" idea in the field of gender politics. What we need is a new feminist paradigm that would break with the identity-politics matrix by stressing the demand of autonomy: by reminding us of the need for limits, coherence, and responsibility. The problem, in other words, is not just that of trying to reconcile "redistribution" and "recognition" (as Nancy Fraser puts it) or of trying to better understand their supposedly necessary intertwinement. The real question is how to escape this general tendency of discriminated and oppressed groups to cluster around their proper "experience" and, consequently, to resort to the politics of victimization. What we need instead is a sort of "gender Populism," a conception of discriminated groups not as innocent victims to be protected by an enlightened State but as people fighting for their freedom and their dignity.
Any attempt to capitalize on the Women’s March dynamic towards the creation of a permanent anti-Trump movement will probably suffer from the inherent contradictions of any "alliance" built around a coalition of special interest groups that raise their particular experience to an unquestionable absolute. Even from an electoral point of view, the Democrats’ strategy of transforming women and minorities into lobbies to be allied to the liberal segment of American oligarchy (the so-called alliance between "communities of color, educated whites, Millennials, single women, and seculars")[xlvii] didn’t work out for Hillary. This same strategy, which the Democrats have pursued since the 1970s, can bear fruit only for limited periods of time; and in any case, far from being democratic and emancipatory in the least, it tends, on the contrary, to debase politics into a negotiation between special interest groups and enlightened technocrats. It is politics without people, an attempt to address inequality by applying "therapeutic" principles to the realm of politics. As Christopher Lasch observed in 1992 with regard to Hillary’s pedagogical doctrine, such a conception of politics is founded on the premise that minorities are victims in need of bureaucratic tutelage.[xlviii]
Both Lasch and Castoriadis argued that a lobbyist approach such as this undermines the very fabric of democratic politics itself: the sentiment of engaging in a common cause.[xlix] Unfortunately, this same attitude is shared by the majority of contemporary leftist and anarchist organizations. "Antifascism" and "antiracism" is nothing more than an infatuation with the minorities with whom we are supposed to ally in order to combat the fascist proclivities of yeoman America. The inherent political logic of every possible variation of the "coalition of the ascendant" tends towards what Christophe Guilluy has very pertinently described as a "racialization of the social question." Having emerged through the liberal white guilt that shaped so much of ‘60s political ideology, contemporary leftism and anarchism tend to believe that class politics can nowadays be adequately summed up as the exploitation of a colored underclass by the white (and cisgender) majority. Anything white is demonized as patriarchal and proto-fascist, whereas anything colored and/or transgendered is glorified as inherently victimized and—why not?—potentially subversive. It goes without saying that one of the gravest political consequences of this utterly false reading of today’s class relations is the negligence of white poverty: since the only poor and exploited are (by definition) the members of colored and non-heteronormative minorities, rightwing populism is nothing more than a conscious act of minority-hate; white poverty or unemployment—if they really exist—are just excuses for racism. The "refusal of empathy for Trump’s voters"[l] is the logical consequence of this tendency to spontaneously perceive the common man of today as racist and sexist scum—or, in Hillary’s words, as a "basket of deplorables."
The Left is dead—long live the Left?
Is this situation irreversible? And if not, what could be done to attempt to escape this cul-de-sac? No one knows. However, we could begin by acknowledging that what should principally preoccupy us, as far as social theory is concerned, is not whether America is becoming more and more fascist but rather why today’s working people have been so eager to insistently ally themselves with their proclaimed class archenemies during these last decades. Does this question teach us any lessons on the current state of the Left, and on the ‘60s political heritage more generally? Is it linked in any way to the Left’s demise as a popular emancipatory social movement? And what could this mean for a possible reemergence of emancipatory politics?
If there is anything that the study of Lasch’s books could teach us, other than his pertinent remarks on the causes of failure of the most prominent political movements of the 1960s, it would be the need to be vigilant against Progressive and liberal encroachment upon any genuinely democratic and emancipatory political project. This theoretical work is currently being undertaken in Europe, where individual thinkers (such as Michéa) and political movements (such as the radical ecological de-growth movement) of what I termed the "reactionary left" are trying to reinterpret the quest for freedom and social justice in a way that radically breaks with the cult of Progress. We urgently need to go beyond the anti-patriarchal or "anti-authoritarian" paradigm and begin to elaborate a new social philosophy articulated around the notion of limits and the concomitant idea that the core of the genuinely democratic type of freedom that we advocate lies in our capacity to impose limits to ourselves. This conception of emancipation as autolimitation is all the more true and relevant now that economy and technology are out of hand—the result of successive pushes towards deregulation that have deprived even contemporary oligarchies of any capacity to restrain mechanisms that seem to have gone berserk.
As Lasch tried to demonstrate, speaking of the so-called "white backlash" that followed the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, what people have been so desperately seeking since the ‘70s is not more "Progress," a further shuttering of barriers and limits. Globalization, the advances of digital technology, and the glorification of desire and "revolt" by contemporary "hipster" and "alternative" mass culture have done the job and continue incessantly to systematically destroy not just "patriarchy" but every form of coherent and meaningful existence. In this sense, "white backlash" should be seen largely as a desperate cry against the societal and moral consequences of the transformations that have reduced capitalism to a blind, rapacious mechanism of destruction.[li]
Right-wing, reactionary populism and Neoconservatism have been unscrupulously hijacking this legitimate despair since 1968. To be sure, even if we left aside all those political imposters,[lii] there would still be people within the white poor who are genuinely racists (and not just in the Deep South). Besides, as it has meticulously been shown, there have always been tensions between class and race within American labor movement.[liii] Such considerations should in no way lead us to the fatalist conclusion that every effort to regain the trust of the so-called "flyover country" is vain and useless and that emancipatory politics should consequently be reduced to the desperate "antifascist" activism that is currently in vogue. It is of the utmost necessity that any political group or organization eager to fight for equality and social justice struggle with the following question: Are we capable of casting off the burden of our liberal and progressive biases, which were exacerbated beyond repair during the ‘60s, and of embracing a radically new understanding of the meaning of freedom? |P
[i] That is, politics inspired by the principles of the so-called direct democracy, which is the only democracy worthy of the name.
[ii] See, for example, Gilbert T. Sewall, "Donald Trump and the Ghost of Christopher Lasch," The American Conservative (April 5, 2016), available at: <www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/donald-trump-and-the-ghost-of-christopher-lasch/>.
[iii] See Eric Miller, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010).
[iv] On Orwell’s "Tory anarchism" in its relation to the novelist’s overall democratic socialist political engagement, see Peter Wilkin, "George Orwell: The English Dissident as Tory Anarchist," Political Studies 61, no. 1 (March 2013): 197–214.
[v] Michael Ignatieff with Cornelius Castoriadis and Christopher Lasch, "Beating the Retreat into Private Life," Listener (March 27, 1986): 20–21.
[vi] In this regard, Moby Dick is not just an allegory of the "American soul," as D. H. Lawrence had suggested (in his essay, "Herman Melville’s Moby Dick"), but of Western modernity as a whole (since the Yankee spirit has been the purest incarnation of the modern worldview). The story of Captain Ahab’s hubris and subsequent nemesis is the story of the West’s fundamental incapacity to tame its own, newly liberated, creative and destructive powers.
[vii] Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 530.
[x] Andrew J. Bacevich, "Family Man: Christopher Lasch and the Populist Imperative," World Affairs (May/June 2010), available online at: <www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/family-man-christopher-lasch-and-populist-imperative>.
[xi] In Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).
[xii] Lasch, True and Only Heaven.
[xiii] See, for example, Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), Chapter Three.
[xiv] "Mass Culture Reconsidered," democracy 1, no. 4 (October 1981): 7–22.
[xv] "Life in the Therapeutic State," chap. 9 in Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).
[xvi] See on this "creative revolution," the analysis of Thomas Frank in his The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).
[xvii] François Ricard, La génération lyrique. Essai sur la vie et l’œuvre des premiers-nés du baby-boom (Castelnau-le-Lez, Climats, 2001), 72.
[xviii] See the closing phrase of Mustapha Kayati’s famous 1966 pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life: Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual, and Particularly Intellectual Aspects, and a Modest Proposal for its Remedy, trans. Ken Knabb, available online at: <www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/poverty.html>.
[xix] Norman Mailer, "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster" (1957), in Advertisements for Myself (London, Panther Books, 1968), 271.
[xx] Clinton’s continuous evocation of "change" as well as his admirers’ glorification of his supposed ability to be "a different kind of Democrat," "ready to break with old liberalism" and "transform politics" is the technocratic-professional version of the lyrical obsession with change and autotransformation.
[xxi] Corey Robin, "The Opposition Is Born," available online in: <www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/trump-muslim-ban-airport-protest-opposition-mass-movement/>.
[xxii] Megan Carpentier, "A People’s History of the Third Reich: How the Great Man Theory Allows us to Abdicate Collective Responsibility," available online at: <thebaffler.com/blog/great-men-carpentier>.
[xxiii] Judith Butler, "Reflections on Trump," available online at: <culanth.org/fieldsights/1032-reflections-on-trump >>.
[xxiv] Greg Sargent, "Jeff Sessions is now the Attorney General: Here are the four biggest things to fear," available online at: <www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2017/02/09/jeff-sessions-is-now-the-attorney-general-here-are-the-four-biggest-things-to-fear/?utm_term=.eab0dfd1a15a>.
[xxv] These vary from established constitutional checks and balances, including a possible impeachment, to the Koch brothers’ activism, which ranges from pressure on Republican congressmen who depend on their money (cf. Philip Eliot, "A billionaire resistance targets President Trump from the right," Time, February 13, 2017 available online at: <time.com/4657648/charles-koch-donald-trump/>.
[xxvii] Christopher Gair, The American Counterculture (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 143.
[xxviii] On this paradox see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).
[xxix] Jason Silverstein, "Donald Trump embraces comparisons to P.T. Barnum, says America needs a 'cheerleader,'" New York Daily News, January 11, 2016, available online at: <www.nydailynews.com/news/election/donald-trump-embraces-comparisons-p-t-barnum-article-1.2491619>.
[xxx] Douglas Perry, "How can we truly understand Donald Trump? Philip Roth says Herman Melville has the answer," The Oregonian, January 25, 2017, available online at: <www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2017/01/how_can_we_truly_understand_do.html>.
[xxxi] See the introductory note to the collection of articles "Trump: A Resister’s Guide," Harper’s Magazine (February 2017), p. 25.
[xxxii] Steve Fraser, Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 103.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 102, 103.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 104.
[xxxv] See Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963) as well as his "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Harper’s Magazine (November 1964), 77–82, 85–6.
[xxxviii] Ibid. "A party guest recalled meeting him as a private citizen and Bannon telling him that he was like Lenin eager to ‘bring everything down, and destroy all of today’s Establishment.’"
[xxxix] See on those elites Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016).
[xl] Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Convention of 1968 (New York: NYRB Classics, 2008), 144.
[xli] See "Mass Culture Reconsidered."
[xlii] In his article, "Black Power: Cultural Nationalism as Power," chap. 4 in Agony of the American Left.
[xliii] For an overview of this paranoid situation, see Nathan Heller, "The Big Uneasy: What’s Roiling the Liberal-Arts Campus?," The New Yorker (May 30, 2016), available online at: <www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/30/the-new-activism-of-liberal-arts-colleges>; and Katy Waldman, "The Canon is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read it, Anyway," Slate.com (May 24, 2016), available online at: <www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/05/24/yale_students_want_to_remake_the_english_major_requirements_but_there_s.html>.
[xliv] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, "The Coddlng of the American Mind," The Atlantic (September 2015), available online at: < https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/>.
[xlv] In Europe, this mixture of dread and disdain for the "petty-bourgeois" constitutes the spinal cord of many anarchist groups’ mentality, especially the ones that engage in "antifa" and pro-immigrant/refugee activism. Many of them are prone to the wholesale rejection of their culture of origin, as it is the case with German Antideutsch groups or their Greek Anti-Greek counterparts.
[xlvi] I borrow the section title from Mark Lilla’s article of the same title (The New York Times, November 28, 2016).
[xlvii] According to Ruy Teixeira’s and John Halpin’s report "The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election," available online at: <www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2011/11/22/10716/the-path-to-270/>.
[xlviii] See on this matter Lasch’s remarks in, "Hillary Clinton, Child Saver: What She Values will not Help the Family," Harper’s Magazine (October 1992), available online at: <harpers.org/archive/1992/10/hillary-clinton-child-saver/>.
[xlix] "Beating the Retreat."
[l] Corey Robin, "The Dream of the Enemy," Harper’s Magazine (February 2017), available online at: <harpers.org/archive/2017/02/trump-a-resisters-guide/2/>.
[li] See on this crucial issue Daniel Bell’s analysis in his "Afterword: 1996" for the twentieth anniversary edition of his Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 283–340.
[lii] They are quite affluent pro-business fanatics, in most cases, who adopt the cultural-war rhetoric mainly to add leverage to their political agenda, since their personal way of living is anything but "conservative."
[liii] See, for example, Βruce Nelson’s Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).