Friday, September 17, 2004

The Zombification of Cultural Criticism

Found a fascinating piece today by James Heartfield in the on-line journal Spiked.

Heartfield's thesis is that the radical left's critique of the Bush administration's Iraqi escapades is based on Marxist terminology that doesn't fit anymore, largely because Marx's critical vocabulary is based on the idea of revolution, the imminent demise of capitalism and the movement toward a more just society. What Heartfield finds is instead the deployment of terms in the absence of any vision or hope for the future. The terms, Heartfield argues, have become "zombies" marching on without any context or meaning.

The historical order of the categories - 'primitive accumulation', free trade, imperialism - arises out of the analysis of the transient character of capitalism as a mode of social organisation. But today's critics have no real sense of transition, and consequently the categories all collapse into each other, losing their specificity. Categories that were developed to highlight the historical transience of capitalism are wrenched out of their context to perform a quite different service. Today they are used only to make a moral case against the presumed inequities of the system. So 'Free trade is imperialism' and the enforcement of copyright is 'the enclosure of the commons'. In the moral critique of imperialism, it is less important what comes after than that the critics demonstrate their ethical superiority in the present.

For all its style, the resulting rhetoric is as cynical and nihilistic as it is suspicious of power relations. It offers nothing but sound and fury. The stunning realization is that, for all its rhetoric, the left is bereft of any vision or critical vocabulary that would help us understand and meet the sociopolitical problems of the day. In fact, he concludes, the only people who seem to have a vision for the future are the people who want to kill us.

The crucial issue of the day is to develop a critical vocabulary different from either the nihilistic vocabulary of the past or the self-justifying status quo of the present. If John Kerry fails (as I think he probably will), it is because he has failed to understand this problem. In effect, he is attempting to fight a war by borrowing the opposition's weapons on alternate Tuesdays.

The political questions of the day are, unfortunately, not political in the way we are led to believe. The debate over capitalism is over, for better or for worse. Bureaucracies of corporate managers handle most of the decisions, and the media does its part to confuse and distract as it attempts to explain why the bureaucracy does what it does.

Our political questions, rather, lie at the level of meaning, basic understanding, value and agency. The issue is not changing the world, because the world is changing enough already, and we've convinced ourselves that there's nothing we can do about it. The issue is changing ourselves and finding a place where we can carve out meaning and develop a politics that makes sense to us.

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