The left intellectuals and the God trick

by Carl Dyke

I’ve had bits of a thought on some recent blog exchanges on intellectual activism and the role of the left intellectual stuck in my throat for the last little while, and since I’m now right up against my deadline for the Rethinking Marxism talk I have to prepare I’m just going to hack them up in a little pile. Pardon the mess.

Dysphoria is currently a theme for radical exploration – ‘a loss of symbolic attachments’ – really? How is this not just routine existential crises, anomie? In modern life someone who hasn’t had at least one existential crisis yet isn’t even in the game. That’s like an ante.

But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom.

As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly.

There’s trouble with the moralizing that animates the Left when it relies on Big Principles, so that the theoretical push tends toward the Big Problem, Big Enemy and Big Solution, a whole theology. There’s always the danger of producing and reproducing the Big Other to sustain our sense of the Big Us. This God trick may give revolutionaries the leverage to act (in part by creating what they fight against). Along the way it may generate Orthodoxy struggles – who’s on the side of the angels, who’s a dupe, a shill, a renegade, an enemy of the people.

Further, if the Other construct and the Us construct are mythologies, it’s a gamble whether the messier assemblages of real situations and processes can be horsed into a close enough approximation of the model to get it to work. More likely the projective everywhere of the Big Other and the functional nowhere of the Big Us are just paralyzing, leading to a spastic cycle of spectacular gesture and dysphoric despond. This is especially true if anything short of the Big Revolutionary Gesture is stigmatized as complicity with The Man.

I don’t find very productive the kind of analysis where ‘capitalism’ (or ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white supremacy’, or ‘Satan’) turns out just to be a name for everything that pisses us off. Nor do I think every malaise and dispepsia is potentially a little slice of revolution. How they might become so needs some work that isn’t just a smokescreen for self-validation. And therefore I agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals [based on 1)] for social, political and economic alternatives.”

Again, my apologies for the mess.

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2 Comments to “The left intellectuals and the God trick”

  1. What was especially strange to me about the militant discussion was that if you even so much as mentioned (in a blog post or comment, even in passing) that political commitments short of ushering in the Big Event might be worth getting involved in, you’re accused of being a dreaded neo-liberal, or at very least, found guilty of being in collusion with Neo-liberalism in some sense I’ve never fully understood.

    But then the militant ones give themselves all sorts of leeway when it comes to getting involved in the publishing machine, the book machine, the academic machine, the publicity machine, etc., because this is the only way to “get visibility” for their projects. The neo-liberalism trap is apparently something that the Other falls into, not me, not us militants. There’s no way our projects could get folded back into the Big Problem, uhuh.

    There’s a sort of selective suspension of the rules of the game that annoys me here. Be consistent, at least. But then, if they were consistent, they’d have to admit that that there’s no way not to get folded into the Big Problem, that any political project short of global revolution would be not only an epic failure but also furtherance of Kapitalismus. And then they’d have to deal with the very difficult realization that their particular brand of post-Marxism has political impotence written into it from Chapter 1.

  2. You’re right, and I don’t know a way around it.

    I’ve been having a similar conversation with a colleague about some measures my school is taking to improve handicapped access to one of our old buildings. It’s a very expensive retrofit and will leave many obstacles, also expensive, unaddressed. But access will in one significant respect be improved. So my point is that better is better. My colleague’s point is that anything short of full, unproblematic access is unsatisfactory. Right, but better access is better than worse access. No, access will still be obstacled. Right, but not as much as before. And so on.

    As in this tangential example, it is certainly the case that there are effective thresholds short of which incremental improvement does not produce transformative change. Our nasty old building is a betch for the seriously handicapped and will remain so even after the current retrofit, affirming the tyranny of the ablistically privileged with their every thoughtless trip to the bathroom. Similarly, the general inequality-producing dynamic of capitalism is not altered one bit by provision of better access to subsidized health care for poor people by Obama, whose election does not fix racism.

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