Marxism in the Age of Trump
Platypus Review 98 | July-August 2017
On April 7, 2017 the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a discussion at its Ninth Annual International Convention in Chicago on the subject of “Marxism in the Age of Trump.” The event’s speakers were Chris Cutrone, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society and teacher of Critical Theory at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Catherine Liu, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine and author of The American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique; and Greg Lucero, a founding member of the Revolutionary Students' Union and a member of the Chicago chapter of the Socialist Party USA. The event was moderated by Reid Kotlas of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion, an audio recording of which is available online at <<archive.org/details/platypus_marxismintheageoftrump040717>>.
Chris Cutrone: The present crisis of neoliberalism is a crisis of its politics. In this way it mirrors the birth of political neoliberalism, in the Reagan-Thatcher Revolution of the late 1970s through early 1980s. The economic crisis of 2007-2008 has taken eight years to manifest as a political crisis. That political crisis was expressed by SYRIZA’s election in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to leadership of the Labour Party, the Brexit referendum, and Bernie Sanders’s as well as Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the U.S. Now Trump’s election is the most dramatic expression of this political crisis of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism has been an unclear concept, often substituting for capitalism itself. It clarifies to regard neoliberalism as politics. It is neoliberal politics that is in crisis.
It is easy to mistake Trump as an anti-neoliberal politician. This is what it means to call him a “right-wing populist”—presumably, then, Sanders, Corbyn and SYRIZA are “left-wing populist” phenomena? This suggests that democracy and neoliberalism are in conflict. But neoliberalism triumphed through democracy as demonstrated by the elections (and re-elections) of Thatcher, Reagan, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama.
Neoliberalism is a form of democracy, not its opposite. If neoliberalism is in political crisis, then this is a crisis of democracy. Perhaps this is what it means to distinguish between populism and democracy. When the outcome of democracy is undesirable, as apparently with Trump, this is attributed to the perversion of democracy through “populism”—demagoguery.
Capitalism and democracy have been in tension, if not exactly in conflict, for the entirety of its history. But capitalism has also been reconstituted through democratic means. For instance, FDR’s New Deal, to “save capitalism from itself,” was achieved and sustained through (small-d) democratic politics. But that form of democratic politics experienced a crisis in the 1960s-70s. That crisis gave rise to neoliberalism, which found an opportunity not only in the post-1973 economic downturn but also and perhaps especially through the crisis of the Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition and its related politics elsewhere, such as in the U.K., and the rise of Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution against not only Labour but also the established Conservative Party. The same with Reagan, who had to defeat the Nixonite Republican Party as well as the Great Society Democrats. Similarly, Trump has had to defeat the neoliberal Republican Party as well as the neoliberal Democrats.
Just as David Harvey found it helpful to describe neoliberalism not as anti-Fordism but as post-Fordism, it is necessary to consider Trump not as an anti-neoliberal but as a post-neoliberal. There will be continuity as well as change. There will be a political realignment of mainstream, liberal-democratic politics—just as happened with FDR and Reagan.
The “Left”—the Communist Party—initially called FDR a “fascist,” just as the New Left called Reagan a “fascist” when he was elected—as if liberal democracy were collapsing rather than experiencing a political transformation. Such hysteria amounts to thinly-veiled wishful thinking. The problem with the “Left” is that its hysterics are less about society than about itself. The “Left” cries foul when mainstream politics steals its thunder—when change happens from the Right rather than through the Left’s own “revolutionary politics.” Capitalism has continued and will continue through political revolutions of greater or lesser drastic character.
Avowed “Marxists” have failed to explain the past several transformations of capitalism. Neither the Great Depression, nor the crisis of the New Deal Coalition leading to the New Left of the 1960s-70s, nor the crisis of Fordist capital that led to neoliberalism, have been adequately grasped. Instead, each change was met with panic and futile denunciation.
As such, the “Left’s” response has actually been affirmative. By the time the “Left” began to try to make sense of the changes, this was done apologetically—justifying and thus legitimating in retrospect the change that had already happened. Such “explanation” may serve as a substitute for understanding. But reconciling to change and grasping the change, albeit with hindsight, let alone taking political opportunity for change, is not the same as adequately critiquing the change.
What is needed—indeed required—is seeing how a crisis and change may point beyond itself. What is the Trump phenomenon, as an indication of possibilities beyond it? This is the question that must be asked—and answered. Unfortunately, the only way the “Left” might be posing this question now is in order to advise the Democrats on how to defeat Trump. But this is to dodge the issue. For even if the Democrats were to defeat Trump, this might avoid, but cannot erase the crisis of neoliberalism, which is not an accident of the 2016 election outcome, but a much broader and deeper phenomenon.
The heritage of 20th century “Marxism”—that of both the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s—does not facilitate a good approach to the present crisis and possibilities for change. Worse still is the legacy of the 1980s post-New Left of the era of neoliberalism, which has scrambled to chase after events ever since Thatcher and Reagan’s election. A repetition and compounding of this failure is manifesting around Trump’s election now. For instance, while Harvey’s work from the 1980s, for example his 1989 book The Condition of Postmodernity—was very acute in its diagnosis of the problem, his work from more recent years forgot his earlier insights in favor of a caricatured account of neoliberal political corruption. This played into the prevailing sentiment on the “Left” that neoliberalism was a more or less superficial political failure that could be easily reversed by simply electing the right (Democratic Party or UK Labour) candidates.
More specifically, the Millennial “Left” that grew up initially against the Iraq war under George W. Bush and then continued in Occupy Wall Street under Obama, and last year got behind the Sanders campaign, is particularly ill-equipped to address Trump. It is confounded by the crisis of neoliberalism, to which it has grown too accustomed in opposition. Now, with Trump, it faces a new and different dilemma. This is most obvious in the inability to regard the relationship between Sanders and Trump in the common crisis of both the Republican and Democratic Parties in 2015–16. For just as the New Left—and then neoliberalism itself—expressed the crisis of the Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition, Trump’s election expresses the crisis of the Reagan Coalition of the Republican Party: a crisis of not only neoliberalism as economic policy in particular, but also of neoconservatism and of Christian Fundamentalist politics, as well as of Tea Party libertarian Strict Constructionist Constitutional conservatism. Trump represents none of these elements of the Reaganite Republican heritage—but expresses the current crisis common to all of them. He also expresses the crisis of Clintonism-Obamaism. So did Sanders.
“Marxists” and the “Left” more generally have been very weak in the face of such phenomena—ever since Reagan and up through Bill Clinton’s Presidency. Neoliberalism was not well processed in terms of actual political possibilities. Now it is too late: whatever opportunity neoliberalism presented is past.
It was appropriate that in the Democratic Party primaries the impulse to change was expressed by Bernie Sanders, who predated the Reagan turn. Discontent with neoliberalism found an advocate for returning to a pre-neoliberal politics—of the New Deal and Great Society. While Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sounded like nostalgia for the 1950s, actually it was more a call for a return to the 1990s, to Clintonite neoliberal prosperity and untroubled U.S. global hegemony. In the 2016 campaign, Sanders was more the 1950s–60s-style Democratic Party figure. Indeed, his apparent age and style seemed to recall the 1930s—long before he was born—and not so much the New Left counterculture, whatever youthful writings of his that were dug up. What’s remarkable is that Sanders invoked the very New Deal Coalition Democratic Party that he had opposed as a “socialist” in his youth, and what had kept him independent of the Democrats when he first ran for elected office in the 1980s Reagan era during which the Democrats were still the majority (Congressional) party. Sanders, who had opposed the Democrats, now offered to save them by returning them to their glory days.
But Trump succeeded where Sanders failed. It is only fitting that the party that led the neoliberal turn under Reagan should experience the focus of the crisis of neoliberal politics. If Sanders called for a “political revolution”—however vaguely defined—Trump has effected it. Trump has even declared that his campaign was not simply a candidacy for office but a “movement.” His triumph is a stunning coup not only for the Democrats but the Republicans as well. Where Sanders called for a groundswell of “progressive” Democrats, Trump won the very narrowest of possible electoral victories. Nonetheless, it was a well-calculated strategy that won the day.
Trump’s victory is the beginning not the end of a process of transforming the Republican Party as well as mainstream politics more generally that is his avowed goal. Steve Bannon announced that his main task was to un-elect recalcitrant Republicans. Trump’s economic advisor Stephen Moore, a former neoliberal, declared to Congressional Republicans that it was no longer the old Reaganite neoliberal Republican Party but was going to be a new “economic populist” party. Trump said during the campaign that the Republicans should not be a “conservative party” but a “working-class party.” We shall see whether and how he may or may not succeed in this aim. But he will certainly try—if only to retain the swing working class voters he won in traditionally Democratic Party-voting states such as in the Midwest “Rust Belt.” Trump will seek to expand his electoral base—the base for a transformed Republican Party. The Democrats will necessarily respond in kind, competing for the same voters as well as expanding their electoral base in other ways.
Is this a process of “democratization?” Yes and no. The question is not of more or less “democracy” but rather how democracy takes shape politically. “Populism” is a problematic term because it expresses fundamental ambivalence about democracy itself and so fails to clarify the issue. It is understood that new and expanded political mobilization is fraught with danger. Nonetheless, it is a fact of life for democracy, for good or for ill. The frightening specter of “angry white voters” storming onto the political stage is met by the sober reality that what decided Trump’s victory were voters who had previously elected Obama.
So the question is the transformation of democracy—of how liberal democratic politics is conducted, by both Democrats as well as Republicans. This was bound to change, with or without Trump. Now, with Trump, the issue is posed point-blank. There’s no avoiding the crisis of neoliberalism.
Greg Lucero: I’m honored and humbled to be a speaker at this convention. A fundamental thesis held by many in this room is that the Left is dead. It’s a widespread point of unity. I will argue—and this is not merely a matter of semantics—that the Left is not dead; the Left is neurotic. I’m sure everyone here understands psychoanalysis, so please forgive my very cursory gloss, but I want us to be on the same page.
What do we mean by, “the Left is neurotic”? In psychoanalysis, the neurosis arises from a deadlock. There is a trauma that arises out of the unconscious that prevents the subject from moving forward. The Left is currently at a neurotic deadlock, and has been, as Chris mentioned, for many decades, if not longer. This deadlock is the unconscious psychic trauma. What is the unconscious psychic trauma, the unnamed and unnamable things that affect the Left?
The first trauma is the Paris Commune. Socialists thought that there would be an ever-expanding union of workers who would rise up against the capitalists. The Commune was internationalist, egalitarian, and democratic; and still it was swiftly and ruthlessly crushed by the capitalists. This is a fundamental trauma that communists and leftists have yet to overcome. The notion of a horizontalist, egalitarian future brought about by people collectively and democratically working together collapsed. What were the solutions to the deadlock?
The main solution to the deadlock that played out in history was the Leninist vanguard party. The left-communist or council communist notion of reviving the Commune was dead on arrival; instead, the Left adopted the vanguard party. This itself carries a trauma. Is not the vanguard itself a refutation of the Marxist ideals of egalitarianism? Nevertheless, the vanguard party became the very form of revolution adopted during the sequence of revolutionary events in the 20th century. It is not grappled with, but simply came to be accepted as a necessity for us to build our forces, take on the capitalist class, and win. Later, the state was institutionalized as an outgrowth of the vanguard party. How to address this deadlock, the so-called bureaucratization of the “Stalinism” of the Soviet Union, became a fundamental question for the Left. If the Brezhnevite regime was not fundamentally different from the Reaganite regime then what are we fighting for?
If we understand the deadlock of the Paris Commune, the deadlock of the vanguard party, and the deadlock of the party-state, then what is our way through? The most apt solution was the Maoist Cultural Revolution—the unleashing of and return to the masses contra the party, contra the vanguard, and contra the bureaucracy. I’m not talking about people dragged out and beaten and put in dunce caps. The true trauma of the Cultural Revolution was restoration of capitalist roaders under Deng Xiaoping. If the mass mobilization of a country as vast and diverse as China is not enough to overcome the bureaucracy of the institutionalized party-state then what is the way forward?
We must also recognize the trauma of Western Marxism. For all of the cultural, theoretical, and artistic analyses that were provided by the Frankfurt School and those who came later, they proved absolutely unable to prevent the rise of Eurocommunism and social democracy and the eventual degeneration of the Western Marxism movement. This, too, is a trauma we must grapple with.
What can the Left do to build socialism in the age of Trump? We can do nothing to build socialism in the age of Trump. Lenin pointed this out quite aptly in State and Revolution: these are two different concepts, separated. We can only build socialism after the revolution: What we must build now is revolution. What does that mean in the age of Trump? To be revolutionaries we cannot become institutionalized. That is the key problem of the Left. We cannot be institutionalized into the symbolic order of capitalist discourse. We must plot an independent course. We also must hold fast to our desire and we have to be honest about what this is. Do we want to have book clubs and discussions—all good things—or do we want to have revolution? Revolution is the most authoritarian thing possible. It is dangerous. It is violent. It is bloody. And, in all likelihood, we will be consumed in the very forces we unleash. Will we affirm it nonetheless? In the age of Trump, we must reaffirm our desire for revolution, against all odds—against Trump, against the Democrats, against the institutionalized, neurotic Left. We must hold tight to our desire.
And we must be psychotic in the sense that we must abandon the symbolic order. There is a symbolic order here: This is a lecture; there are rules and stipulations. So let me very gently introduce to you a bit of psychosis that breaks through the symbolic order of this room. Sing along if you know the words!
NO TRUMP! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!
NO TRUMP! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!
NO TRUMP! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!
It’s jarring. It breaks through the symbolic discourse we have created for ourselves in this interaction. We must do the same on the political level.
We also must also recognize that neoliberalism, the symbolic structure of capitalism, is collapsing. Neoliberalism’s goal was to address the falling rate of profit, and initially, during the 1990s, it was able to do so. The economic crisis of 2008 has shown, however, that neoliberalism will not permanently solve capitalism’s problem of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. We are again thrown back onto the crisis of capitalism. Moreover, neoliberalism as a political move was unable to suppress the masses. What began as the mega-marches of 2006 became Occupy Wall Street, became Black Lives Matter, became anti-Trump. Neoliberalism as a political system, as a symbolic structure, is in crisis and is looking to reintegrate itself. Now is the time for us to disrupt that reintegration.
Why are Leftists hysterical? The famous Lacanianism is che vuoi? What do you want from me? For psychoanalysis, to be hysterical—the hysterical woman, the hysterical man—is to talk to the other and say, “What do you want from me? What are you asking from me?” It is time for us to transition from neurosis to psychosis. We must no longer allow ourselves to be integrated into the symbolic order. We must not make our plans relative to other leftists or to Trump. We must reassert our psychosis.
Traditional Marxist-Leninist parties distinguish between politics and organization: The political line is what we do and the organizational line is how we do it. Going forward, very cursorily, we must also propose a micropolitics that is a set of concrete, nonpolitical actions that can be adopted. This means pitching a tent in the middle of the park, the micropolitics of Occupy Wall Street writ large. We must also form a metapolitics, which is a thinking of the possibilities and the compossibilities: What is necessary for this to be possible?
Finally, in the age of Trump they’re trying to integrate Trump into the symbolic order. They’re trying to forge a new symbolic order. Trump is a real that has emerged and disrupted neoliberalism and neoliberalism shall not return. A new symbolic order will be integrated. And we can see this. Trump says, “You just grab the pussy.” That is so against the symbolic order of politics, yet you’ll notice he’s liked more because of it, not less. A new symbolic order is coming. We must fight it and we must disintegrate it.
The Left hysterically calls him fascist—why? To reintegrate him into their previous historical modes of the symbolic order. To integrate something into the symbolic order is to castrate it, to remove its life, its vitality. So this is the pressing task for us: we must integrate Trump neither in the new right-wing symbolic order he wants to build nor in the tired old leftist understanding of fascism, that symbolic order that has been disintegrated for years if not decades. Instead we must integrate Trump into a new order of our choosing and the people’s choosing. In short, our primary task is to castrate Trump, symbolically.
Catherine Liu: Thank you, Greg, but I’m no Lacanian. Lacanianism is an esotericism that separates us from the vernacular. I’m going to talk about populism and I’m going to speak in the calm tones of the professional-managerial class, ready to be immolated by the forces upon which I prey!
When I moved to the Midwest in 1994 at height of Clinton years I was astonished to encounter a radical suspicion of the university, experts, and expertise. I had not been exposed to this when living in the bubble of the tri-state New York metropolitan area, which is dominated by whites and by a Jewish respect for education. It was quite traumatic to be confronted with this populism and hostility (also because I wasn’t white) when I got my job at the University of Minnesota. Eventually, it led to my book project on anti-intellectualism and populism in the Midwest, features which make the Midwest such a great place and a place of such enormous revolutionary potential. I initially saw it as reactionary, but through research and deep encounters with the people of Minnesota I realized that populism in the Midwest arose under the conditions of the agrarian revolt of 1892. “Populism” first occurs in the English language in relationship to the People’s Party.
I want to read part of the Populist Party’s 1892 Omaha Platform. Its resonance and power is transmitted through the lived experience of people in this region.
We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver, and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.
This is not from 2016, but from 1892! There was a concrete political crisis that had to do with drought and with mortgages that the railroads sold to farmers in the Midwest. But one of the demands of the prairie Populists—and Richard Hofstadter ignored this in his book—was the demand for popular education, education outside the universities and outside the institutions that Greg denounced. The people of the Midwest felt separated from capital and from the usurers and the plunderers. This is why we have to understand populism. The suffering of the people in this region gave birth to the most powerful third-party movement in the United States, a movement that was eventually destroyed in 1896 when the Democratic Party appropriated the People’s Party’s platform. This is the cry of anguish that we hear ripping through the political fabric of the symbolic, or whatever. I said I wasn’t going to speak in that language, but, unfortunately, I know how to speak it.
Capital separates us from our life world. It separates subjects from their history. If you read the chapter on capital in the Grundrisse, you see that capital has worked from the beginning as a process that separates subjects from the commune, that separates subjects from the ager publicus, that separates subjects from the clan and the tribe, from the means of self-reproduction, from politics itself, from embodied forms of labor, from use-values, from violence, and from satisfaction.
Today’s populist—Trump and, in another way, Sanders—addresses this cascading series of separations. Trump and other populist leaders have arisen at a time when the function of the professionally managed state is to perform the process of separating the people not only from production but from politics. What Trump offered—and Chris mentioned correctly that Bernie Sanders offered this too, but failed to deliver—was a sense of restoration and immediacy in the face of these cascading separations. The populist leader today holds contempt for mediation and feeds on popular alienation and on popular outrage at a highly censored public sphere, where, as I have been arguing, the language of political correctness teaches us and disciplines us to speak about “the other” in a way that permits us entry into a newly configured bourgeoisie. If you do not speak in this highly ritualized and even precious manner then you have no way of entering the professional-managerial class. I’m perfectly willing to speak this language, not in a neurotic way but because I think it smoothes certain kinds of intersubjectivities. But this technocratic style is the style of rule, and technocracy is separation itself. So, what Trump responds to is that kind of cool, neutral, hip style with which Obama was so able to seduce us.
Trump is a Bakhtinian character. He is of the Rabelaisian carnival. That’s why his appetite and his grotesqueness only makes him more appealing and attractive. He’s low, vulgar, and of the people. He has no truck with this highly precious, refined mode of speaking. He’s authentic: He wants to grab some pussy! Good for him! He wants to talk like other people. That’s why when a lot of women were interviewed they said, “He’s a guy! That’s what guys do!” What Trump actually reveals is the authoritarianism-lite of the progressive Democrats. Their repressive modes of progress have created the kind of language-policing that is actually about the extirpation of traditional and working-class ways of dealing with “the other.”
The Democratic Party has secured safe spaces for FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) to act with impunity in intensifying processes of separation (while also realizing violence). So, populists like Trump don’t emerge in a political vacuum. Populist rhetoric addresses the desire for the overcoming of separation as such. William Jennings Bryan, later ridiculed for opposing the teaching of evolution in Kansas, was originally the silver-tongued rhetorician who was able to attract thousands of farmers, their wives, and their families to rural rallies. Bryan could speak to them. He was a political, a religious, and an entertainment figure for people who were starved for a message from the political class. What William Jennings Bryan did, and what Andrew Jackson did—and Steven Bannon has engineered an imaginary relationship between them—was expand the franchise, politically and culturally. The enfranchisement of women and African Americans created a legalistic expansion of the franchise. When a real populist revolt takes place here’s a terrifying expansion of the franchise. Our populist revolt is directed exactly at the smoothing effects of the technocratic elites. I’d like for us as leftists, as people who want to go forward with revolt, to understand the legacy of populism. This legacy belongs to each of us as Americans.
Part of the problem with the Left is Greg’s micropolitics of gesture. It’s true that by becoming psychotic one cures one’s neuroses. But that’s not a formula for changing the world. That’s regression! The real world outside of symbolic structures has to be addressed.
GL: Two phenomena represent the dead-end of the Left. One, the traditional political organization, is a Marxist-Leninist micro-sect, whether it be the Socialist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party. They think about things in a very tired way. Maybe they go a step above and think in a Trotskyist way, or they go a step above that and think in a Maoist way. But the entire history of politics and philosophical thought has passed them by. The second, left-communists and anarchists, have adopted a rigorous theoretical study of micropolitics over the defeat of their practical projects—Food Not Bombs, Occupy Wall Street. But they never integrate micropolitics into a political or organizational structure that might be sustainable.
Remember that the original rallying cry was a micropolitical one: an eight-hour workday. As Marxists we know that there’s nothing very serious about an eight-hour workday in itself. It’s the International that “unites us all.” It’s the International that became the political and organizational frame in which the struggle for the micropolitical that is the eight-hour day could be adopted. The problem is that they become separated: People who don’t want an overarching organizational or political form do micropolitics, and then the political parties say, “That’s just academic bullshit. We don’t need to think about it.” This has been of great harm to the Left.
As for psychosis: Yes, we live in a real world. We live in reality, to be very precise. And when we live in reality, there are constraints and horizons to what we see. I am advocating that we break with those horizons. That is incredibly dangerous, because if you break with the horizons and choose the wrong thing then you’re in bad shape. But here are two things to consider: what was the rallying cry of May ’68 that almost toppled the De Gaulle government? It was, “Be realistic, do the impossible.” That sort of boldness is what is missing in the Left. Instead we are asking, “Where do we belong?” It is not time to ask where we belong. It’s time to ask, “This is where we’re going. Who’s coming with us?” Lenin gave a speech in 1916 in Switzerland when the Second International was in decay and workers were slaughtering each other. Lenin said, “Comrades, if we work our hardest and try our best, we will never see socialism. Our children will never see socialism. But perhaps our children’s children will see socialism.” That’s the sort of psychosis we need.
It’s ‘demand’ the impossible, not ‘do’ the impossible.
CC: I want to push back on micropolitics. It’s the trauma of the failed revolutions of 1848 that haunts us, Greg. You didn’t need the positive example of the Commune for this trauma to be in effect. You already had the June uprising of the workers in 1848 that was put down by the liberals in the name of capitalism. But since the Commune came up—and since, Greg, you evoked the First International, and also May ’68—I would say that it’s remarkable that we’re driven back to a reunion of Marxism and anarchism, as if those things have not split for a reason, and as if Marxism had not conclusively defeated anarchism for decades before the Russian Revolution (a defeat which actually allowed the Russian Revolution to happen). Lenin put it best: “Anarchism is the price that we pay for opportunism.” That was in 1920. Anarchism, like any bourgeois fad, oscillates between enthusiasm and despair. The only solution to that is organization. Now, this organization did, of course, have some potentially bad outcomes. It is always a risk: building up the organization and the political force for the revolution is also simultaneously building up the organization and political force for counterrevolution. It’s always doing both, and you’re risking that. If we’re going to talk in psychological terms about the trauma that the Left suffers from, the trauma is that we know that in building any form of politics, we’re also building a force that might turn against us. But without taking that risk we’re just oscillating from enthusiasm to despair in one bourgeois fad after another—in which I’d include May ’68, Lacan, and everything else. (Although, to his credit, Lacan did criticize the students in ’68.)
CL: Lacan was one of the few intellectuals who dared to do so, because of the Left’s authoritarianism. The Left doesn’t suffer from neurosis; the Left suffers from lack of discipline!
GL: I certainly agree. I am but a humble union worker!
The notion of popular education is very important to the American psyche and to American history, no matter how hard Trump tries to get rid of it. But in this epoch there’s a revolutionary aspect which goes beyond the demand for popular education. As Leftists—and, I would hope, as revolutionaries more than Leftists—we should follow the dictum, “Proletarianize the intellectual and intellectualize the proletarian.” Now, this gets thrown around a lot, especially in academia. We do need revolutionary intellectuals, like the good people sitting with me. But among those who are pursuing graduate or undergraduate degrees, isn’t it funny how it’s always the other intellectuals who need to go proletarianize, whereas your work is so valuable? This is a lack of discipline. It’s a lack of doing hard, painful work and making sacrifices in order to build things—things which may fail.
Had I been around in 1968 I would have been very excited about the future of the Left. There were widespread protests, insurgent movements within center-left parties, and a new generation that looked like it was going to finally move the country beyond the post-war consensus. But in my excitement I would have been extremely wrong about how the next twenty years would’ve turned out. Now there’s another generational boom—of millennials—and they’re much more left-wing than previous generations. The most recent Democratic primary featured the largest age gap of any federal election ever and there are exciting Leftist movements and large-scale protests. I would have been wrong to be excited in 1968 but I still want to be optimistic about the trends of the last ten years.
CL: The Left will have to undergo the strictest forms of self-criticism as the basis of reorganizing itself. I was too young for 1968 but I was always nostalgic; I spent my life thinking about the promise of that moment. In France, an elite group of bourgeois students became anarchists and became enamored with Maoism. They came out of the elite schools called the écoles normales supérieures. There’s a very punishing hierarchical system in France that was left basically intact after all that dreaming and all that protest. So what ’68 actually did was consolidate a countercultural style for a new elite with an anti-imperial veneer. When Barthes and Lacan and all those people went to China, they were performing a kind of exoticism and tourism that became part of the glamour of being in the Left in France. People who followed that path went into the factories and proletarianized themselves; their lives were obscured and destroyed, and many of them went into psychoanalysis to understand what had happened. That was the movement of Lacanian psychoanalysis. They wanted to ask the question, “Who is acting here?” The question of autonomy in the 70s, in that bitter, post-revolutionary moment, turned into the question of “What do I want? How did I come here and how was I acted upon?”
We know these lessons now. We go in with clear eyes. The young twenty-somethings that are having this revolutionary ferment on the American left are much less privileged than that ’68 elite, who acted upon this esoteric theory—post-structuralism without Marx—that we romanticized in the United States as “Theory.” Understanding the historical legacy of the failures of that revolt is our way out—is your way out, so you don’t commit those mistakes.
CC: Before the election there was a great deal of mainstream political-cultural commentary on optimism among millennials—how Bernie Sanders represented optimism, whereas Trump represented negativity. Hillary was neither. She was just the status quo. She was not essentially negative about the status quo, nor did she represent anything particularly optimistic about the status quo; whereas Sanders represented the optimism of millennials. I wonder whether that optimism has been given a shock, whether we’re talking about the shock effect of the Trump election. When we talk about adjusting to the “new normal,” I fear that the Trump shock is great enough to reconcile the millennials to the Democratic Party in its most abject form—namely, in its most conservative, status-quo form. I fear that the Sanders phenomenon is just a transition point with respect to that. I now expect the millennial Left to fold into the Democratic Party out of anti-Trumpism. I could be wrong about that, but I anticipate that and I also fear it. After eight-plus years of the economic crisis, it could very well be that people have adjusted to the “new normal” in a profound way in terms of entering into working life. And, of course, those who didn’t adjust died of drug overdoses, etc.
GL: We don’t need to be nostalgic for May ’68. The time to be disillusioned is now.
CC: Ahead of time?
GL: How many people became politically active after Occupy Wall Street and then said “nothing will ever change” after we were beaten out of the streets? How many people called Bernie Sanders a “political revolution” and then said “politics is bullshit” after Bernie failed? We smiled knowingly at them. We knew what was happening and they didn’t. It’s always the time to be disillusioned, but it’s also already the time to be invariant. Think about who you know and who you talk to now and how you can conduct yourself as a revolutionary around them. That is one of the pressing tasks, so that they don’t just fold into the Democratic Party—which would be a catastrophe.
How do you characterize the question of Marxism in the present? As Chris has written, Trump is a symptom of the crisis of neoliberalism that exists beyond his campaign. Would it have made sense to hold similar panel called “Marxism in the Age of Hillary,” or does Trump offer something qualitatively new that we need to grapple with that Hillary would not have provided?
GL: Neoliberalism is in crisis whether it’s Trump or not. Trump represents something new. Trump is not causing or doing something new. Social forces in the global and U.S. economy have given rise to Trump. It’s dialectical, but Trump is not giving rise to them.
I’ll be an honest, unrepentant Stalinist (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist): it’s not clear to me that there’s a Marxism. There are Marxisms. But I’m not advocating for eclecticism. We have to find a very particular Marxism that works in the United States. There’s a general crisis of Marxism in the industrialist and imperialist world. What does Marxism worldwide look like? It looks like Maoism: the Naxalites in India, the Communist Party of the Philippines. These are concrete answers. What does it look like in the United States? Of course, as the dogmatist, I want to say Maoism. But I have no idea, if we’re being blunt about it—which is why we’re all here, right?
CL: There has been a revival of Marxism within the academy after 20-30 years of not just identity politics but an anti-dialectical, differential, Foucauldian, Heideggerian move. During that period I was a grumpy Frankfurt School-er. Now a lot of Johnny-come-lately types are jumping on the bandwagon: everyone’s a grumpy Frankfurt School-er! I’m happy in a certain way. There’s a loosening up of a crypto-anti-Marxism within the academy and people have been shaken up by an explosion of class struggle in the last elections—by the absolute effects of class struggle and by the (very disorganized) rejection of one class’s style. Although I’m not in any revolutionary party, I’ve been in the dissenting position for so long in academia that suddenly the things I always wanted to say are say-able. Graduate students were so sure that to be critical was to ‘queer’ something rather than to make it dialectical. That oppressive consensus has been deeply shaken and for that reason I’m optimistic. Right thought leads to right action.
CC: You could think of the pluralization of Marxism geographically or you could think of it historically. I would offer a latter perspective. We have “Marxisms” because of the failure and disintegrations of Marxism in various stages over a long period of time. The various flavors of Trotskyism, Maoism, and more or less mainstream Stalinism are products of different historical crises that failed to be met in the last hundred years. I don’t know that we need a Marxism for the United States. We need a Marxism for today—which is different. We need a Marxism of the historical moment that we’re in, because every historical moment passes and every revolutionary moment can turn into another ideology of institutionalization, subsequently and historically. We don’t need a better Marxism for today because we’ve progressed over the past. Meeting the moment now doesn’t simply mean rejecting all the failed moments of the past. Rather, we have to grasp how all the failed moments of the past accumulate in the present and are conditioning the tasks that we face today.
CL: To add to that: The thwarted attempts to grasp the totality have been part of the failures of the Marxist project. We’re reaching a better understanding of grasping the totality collectively. That precipitates a revolutionary moment.
I don’t think that we saw class struggle in the last election. What would class struggle look like today? Do we even live in a historical context where class struggle is possible?
GL: I agree: we absolutely did not see class struggle in the last elections. That’s because that’s not where class struggle takes place. If you’d like to see class struggle, I highly encourage you to come down to the café at UIC where I work, where there’s constant class struggle…
GL: Not just me, actually! I’m observing others. I have larger goals than immediate class struggle (which, I know, makes me a bad Marxist). I’m trying to take over a union. My coworkers are uneducated and working-class. I’m the only one who isn’t black. Even the managers are low-level petit-bourgeois. There is an ongoing, immanent class struggle against the upper management, who—surprise, surprise—is a white guy. My coworkers are surly and don’t care about the customers or about the job they’ve done. They will do anything they can to avoid work. The funny thing is that it’s conscious. Of course, they don’t articulate it in the form of the ‘immanent resistance of the saboteurs’ as in volume I of Capital. One day the managers were out on account of inclement weather and my highest-educated co-worker—he has an Associate’s Degree—said, “It’s ours now! No management!” That’s a better argument about expropriation than I’ve heard from academics! When the manager returned, I told my coworker, “I guess the People’s Republic of Au Bon Pain has fallen.” He replied, “No, Greg, it hasn’t fallen. There’s more of us than her. We’ll tie her up and put her in the closet!” That’s some class struggle in action!
CC: I would push back against the psychotic and the carnivalesque that Greg is advocating here. The organized socialist working class of a hundred years ago would have done a good job, would have taken care of their customers, would have taken pride of their work, and would have showed the complete superfluousness of management. In other words, they would have shown that we can do a good job without management disciplining us. That’s what a working class organized for socialism would have looked like and that’s what it meant when Lenin said, “Any cook can govern.” Not only did it not need psychosis or criminality, but it was actually against that—and that’s what allowed it to ever take power!
GL: I again say: time, place, and conditions. That makes sense in an emerging union movement where the unions have to legitimate themselves not to the bosses but to the wider American population. Now we’re in the exactly opposite situation.
CC: But the customers are workers too—especially at the University of Illinois at Chicago!
CL: This raises the question of the service industry, the deskilling of post-deindustrialized jobs, and the revolt of the unskilled laborer. The revolt of the skilled laborer was so terrifying to industrialized capital that they had to destroy all forms of skill and to destroy workers as intellectuals so that no one could grasp the entire process. Now everything is much more black-boxed. But from a strictly materialist point of view, the ‘surly service worker’ as a form of revolt is a very thwarted form of pseudo-revolt.
I heard so many people—women—talk about Hillary Clinton like the boss lady. She was the boss! She spoke in the style of the boss. After the election, during the pussy-hat marches, there were around twenty thousand people in Santa Ana; a majority of them were women and they included a lot of union people. Do you know what word they didn’t use? “Boss.” This was the pacification of the class struggle. That could have been a moment of revolution if we had just used the word boss. But the march was run by the Democratic Party, so that was the one word we couldn’t say! We could say transgender and we could say that we’re going to embrace all the immigrants. But who’s our enemy? Who’s our class enemy? What emerged from the last election—this is where I disagree with you, Greg—is an image of the class enemy.
GL: The key, then, is for the revolutionaries who are with the surly workers to make the connection between the customers and the workers so that the customers understand the workers’ surliness and understand the workers’ revolt. Then they can form a unity against the bosses.
CL: Maybe the solidarity of customer and surly worker is the task of building solidarity in the post-Fordist, deindustrializing world.
Can you respond to the refining of the term “class struggle” to mean the proletarian struggle for socialism?
CL: That’s what class struggle is.
CC: Certainly. And it’s true that a certain kind of ruling-class style was delegitimated in the last election, as Catherine says. But as Greg pointed out, that just means that perhaps we’re going to reconstitute a new ruling-class style.
CL: Which would be called an intra-class struggle for legitimacy. There’s still a rejection of it.
I’m a millennial leftist. One of my professors argues that my classmates were not particularly interested in Sanders’s demands—didn’t think that they were realizable—but that they liked Sanders’s affect. Where some see optimism, I see a deep pessimism about the possibilities of politics. If the left as it exists today was unable to deal with the 1980s and 1990s then what are we able to do about the 1980s and 1990s and the depoliticizing effect that they’ve had on my generation?
CC: The depoliticizing effect that our generation…
CL: …had on their generation. I totally get it. I tried, man, I tried! Everyone was down with ‘biopolitics.’ I screamed “No”—but nobody listened!
GL: I’m on the older side of the millennial generation. I was constantly told by older comrades, “You don’t know what it was like going through the 80s and 90s. You’re lucky!”
When I think about the 1980s and 1990s, I think about how my generation wants to feel good about politics—but they don’t see opportunities to get something out of politics. Think of Obama: the therapist-in-chief making us feel good. The 80s and 90s saw waves of anarchism, which then crashed into pessimism…
CC: You mean anti-globalization, like Seattle?
Yes. And now we’re seeing the resurgence of Black Bloc tactics. The intellectual counterpart of that is the anti-Marxism of the academy. The 80s and 90s also marked the passage of the 60s and 70s left firmly into the Democratic Party.
CC: Greg, when the senior cadre told you that “you’re not battle-scarred like us,” the danger to keep in mind is that Reagan was a trauma for the 80s generation. The problem with the Gen-Xers—the 80s generation—is that we identified too much with the 60s generation. We internalized their experiences as if they were our own. But they weren’t. Reagan was not this deep, fascist reaction; Reagan came along by the time that the New Left had already spent themselves. They just hadn’t admitted it to themselves yet so they blamed Reagan for their own failure—because, of course, there was a good ten years there, during the 1970s, when the New Left promised something and didn’t deliver. That was clear by the time Reagan came around.
CL: There are deep economic reasons for the demise of radical politics at that time and for its incorporation and institutionalization into academia. It had to do with rent-seeking on the part of capital, moving into the stock market and then into the dot-com era. A small minority of our generation broke off to become vanguardists in technology and they became millionaires and billionaires. Then Pierre Lévy and other theorists said that there could now be profit-making without exploitation...
CC: Yuppies! Google!
CL: ...so those of us fighting in the streets (or whatever we were doing) felt like we were just wrong. It seemed that capital was actually going to lift all boats, and even if you thought this was impossible, there still was no political traction. When Reagan and Thatcher broke down social democracy it seemed that there was going to be this effervescence after the postwar consensus. It was going to happen through a non-exploitative profit-taking that accelerated after the ’92-‘94 recession. Real estate value and the stock market accelerated from ’94 onward and that put the nail in the coffin of the activism of a whole generation. That bubble created more fictitious capital and destroyed more political conviction than I can even account for. A lot of the biopolitical and anti-dialectical people that I’ve been talking about and making fun of also had this effervescent way of dealing with history, with theory. It was homologus to this non-exploitative “pets.com” that could make millions for everyone: You had Deleuze saying, “I’m a bug on a branch.” History just didn’t matter anymore! We were supposed to look at the world from the animal point of view because the workers were gone and there was no work anymore. I’m sorry, but I’ve been repressing this at conferences for so many years! Chris, do you agree?
GL: The pressing task for millennials—and I include myself in this—is to ask a very simple question: what is politics? The answer that they give is Bernie Sanders and elections. That’s not politics. Politics happens in the streets, not in the ballot booth. We need to institutionalize that understanding of politics before the moment slips away—or we will see them rejoin the Democratic Party.
Catherine, you mentioned the effervescence of the 80s and 90s, an effervescence that made it plausible to anticipate a prosperous world without exploitation. Why was the Left of the 1980s and 1990s unable to find the opportunity for socialist politics within this effervescence?
CL: The traumatic elections of Thatcher and Reagan brought Leftism into a pathetic, abject mimesis of right-wing formulae. The crushing of the unions and of the working class was so profound under both of those administrations. Then the leftists discovered that the working class really liked these right-wing authoritarians. There was an enormous loss of confidence and it crippled any notion of a socialist utopia. The horizon was capitalism.
GL: This may sound glib, but I’m using it at a symbol: I blame Bob Avakian. Bob Avakian was the best way forward for Leftists in the late 1960s and 1970s, but there was a certitude about revolution in that period. This certitude was dogmatic—it was unassailable by critique, evidence, or reason—and so it was crushed even harder in the face of Reagan. Then one was given two options. One option was to “become realistic”—“Reagan is the main enemy and we have to do everything we can to stop him!”—which, of course, meant entering the Democratic Party. The other option was to continue along your path, certain that one day people will see the light and join you in a glorious, bright, and revolutionary future—which meant to make yourself irrelevant. That is what happened in the 80s and 90s. We are just barely recovering from the despair that the Left and the revolutionaries felt at that time.
CC: Brian Eno recently said that the shock for the Left is that we think we’re the revolutionaries but it turns out that we’re not. When we talk about horizons, socialism and capitalism, and forms of capitalism that captured forms of discontent and seemed plausible, what we’re really talking about is the fact that capitalism is the revolution. Socialism has to meet the task of the revolution that capitalism already is. Or, as Lenin put it, “The task is to be as radical as reality itself.” The problem of dogmatism, of being blindsided by history, is precisely that: You adopt a set of antinomies from the previous form of capitalism and you fall below the threshold of the new form of capitalism, which is actually more revolutionary than you are.|P
Transcribed by Matt Cavagrotti
 “Primary Source: Populist Party Platform (1892),” W.W. Norton & Company, http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/eamerica/media/ch22/resources/documents/populist.htm.