The Clare Spark Blog

August 29, 2014

LABOR DAY 2014

KOLsealLabor Day was a counter-revolutionary exercise in its very foundation during the administration of Grover Cleveland. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day. Revolutionary socialism was the last thing that the AFL or the less well-known and long defunct Knights of Labor desired.

This blog will focus on those aspects of our dominant sociology that seek to defang the labor movement. [For a blog that shows resistance to New Deal labor codes as dished out by the State by one black radical, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/02/labor-day-2013/.%5D  But since I, unlike Sam Dorsey,  am not writing from the revolutionary Left (see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/10/why-i-left-the-left/), I will focus on those features that deter workers from acting in their own interest, for instance in their mindless capitulation to union bosses (a bureaucracy that is rarely mentioned these days).

  1. Populism versus revolutionary socialism. As I have written before, populism is a petit-bourgeois radical movement that seems to offer upward mobility to ambitious persons from humble backgrounds. Populism deploys such phrases as “the masses” or “the people” as if all but ruling elites formed a compact entity with identical economic and social interests. I don’t see why class analysis should be the monopoly of the Left. Clearly, small business and big business have different structures and problems; the same applies to male and female workers, especially with respect to child rearing and housework. (As to whether or not “class collaboration” between “business” and “labor” is a good thing or not, I leave to economists and other historians. The labor movement made its peace with capitalism during the 1930s and 1940s, and “big labor” has no revolutionary aspirations, to the disappointment of Leninists. The “labor movement” as it once existed, no longer exists in this “post-industrial” service-oriented economy.)

But even worse, populist politics, early on co-opted by “progressives” pervade popular culture, and are promiscuous in their antagonism toward “elites”. In its original form, populism was heavily antisemitic (i.e., bankers, like “Wall Street” were generically a Jewish cabal with ambitions to control the world), a fact brushed out by its New Left defenders. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/02/the-legitimate-aspirations-of-the-___-people/.)

I noted during the art world upheavals of the 1970s that protesters defined themselves as “populists”, not as “socialists,” for  the term “populism” however tainted by its initial anti-Semitism, was acceptable (for such intellectual celebrities as Hannah Arendt, “the people” was the opposite of a mob, implying that individuals believed in their particular individual rights; hence “the people’s” critique could apply to the supposed crimes of any elite suspected of taking away such rights, no matter how competent the elite’s members might be in their particular field). A particularly grotesque example is found in the Chomsky-ite attack on Walter Lippmann (again an antisemitic gesture) that spread the canard that Lippmann’s influential book Public Opinion (1922) called for the “manufacture of consent” in the newly developing mass media, in order to hornswoggle the gullible people-becoming-mobs. ( See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) A similar condemnation of mass culture can be found in Hannah Arendt’s “must-read” tome The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950, 1958). And yet Arendt is worshipped by many academic radicals, as are other “critical theorists.”

A similar outrage was found in the counter-culture that continues to delight in technophobia and representations of mad scientists (see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/.)

Indeed, when I defended the Enlightenment on a Pacifica radio popular morning show in the 1990s, I was accused of being a CIA agent, hence the lowest form of animal life—this from listeners who believed themselves to be anticapitalist and pro-labor.

night-of-the-living-dead

 

Cultural pessimism. What could be more detrimental to working people than the current mood of doom and gloom? Is it any wonder that they seek refuge in sports and other forms of mass entertainment, that are predictably primitivist and (stylishly) loud?

Where does this doom and gloom originate? Surely not in the aspirations of the Founders, most of whom were avid followers of the various European enlightenments, and who were guardedly optimistic about the future of the republic. I locate the apocalyptic, technophobic, and anti-intellectual mood to the regnant populism and 1960s counter-culture that arguably never had the welfare of working people as their goal, but rather emancipation from their parents—stand-ins for the evil “jewified” bourgeoisie. Enter “youth culture” as revolt against “suburban sadness.”

Materialism and the working class. American reactionaries (among whom I count the populists and faux “liberals”) come out of German (philosophical) Idealism, which was always antidemocratic and protofascist. “Materialism” is now widely understood as an addiction to consumerism and similarly shallow values, whereas materialism used to signify a retreat from mysticism to the power of the individual to use her or his senses, to reason, and thus to defend her and his interests through making sense of the world and its institutions.  This older view of “materialism” is now blamed by culture warriors of the Right on “secular progressives”—meaning persons like me who praise cultural pluralism and stand up for education in the sciences, economics, and history, putting children ahead of teachers unions and their narrow interests.

I will end this Labor Day blog by observing that teachers are petit-bourgeois and definitely NOT working class, despite their enthusiasm for their “unions” in which they ape the organization of real laborers. When I trained to be a science teacher in the 1950s, we were constantly asked “is teaching a profession? And if so, should they strike for higher wages?” It is our teachers who are preparing their students for real life as mature adults. The least they could do is not succumb to those administrators who joyfully participate in the Democratic Party urban machines and the collectivist ideologies that these mobsters dispense to kids and their parents who could and should know better.

Postscript: I got this comment from a Facebook friend Stuart Creque this morning after I asked what was interesting about Labor Day: “ My dad was a trade unionist, which is funny because he was a high school teacher, not a laborer. Teachers unionizing is rather like Hollywood writers unionizing: it has nothing to do with collective bargaining power and everything to do with self-image as “working men and women.”

But what really fascinates me about labor today is the death of solidarity. My dad exposed me to what labor solidarity was. And the interesting thing is that nowadays it seems almost nonexistent. Each union seems out for its own interests, and more likely to focus on poaching from other unions than coordinating with them or even honoring their picket lines.

In the Writers Guild of America strike a few years ago, the union actually counseled its members to write and earn as much as possible in the days leading up to the strike deadline. They had no concept that they were giving management inventory to work on during the strike, reducing pressure for a settlement. They had no concept of collecting a strike fund over time and then ordering a work-to-rule slowdown leading into the strike. They also had no stomach to hold out for synchronizing contract deadlines with other Hollywood guilds and unions.” I can only add to Stuart Creque’s comment that writers are competing with each other and thus have little motivation for solidarity in protecting the quality of their work. They form a guild, not a union.

MightisRight 

September 3, 2012

Eros and the problem of solidarity

Rothschild and the money power

This is for Labor Day, September 3, 2012. I am trying to understand why a political party with such obvious internal conflicts of interest as the Democratic Party, is able to allege solidarity within what they now call “the middle class” (hence departing from their older appeals to the working class and forcing together groups with conflicting interests: see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/).

One can only conclude that our political culture is entirely irrational, and that appeals to economic interest and independence from collectivist demagoguery butters no parsnips in the American electorate—except for those louts who venture into the risky world of the market. These days everyone in “business” is a grasping, mendacious moneybags who should be punished by his victims. Who wants to be “jewified?” No wonder anxiety is the mental ailment of our time. But there is objective anxiety and neurotic anxiety, and the latter is encouraged by the mass media with their elevation of team spirit and hatred of “success”—an outcome that inevitably alienates those who stray from the reservation of political correctness.

Freud had something valuable to say about fears of separating from the group in 1922: “Dread in an individual is provoked either by the greatness of a danger or by the cessation of emotional ties (libidinal cathexes [Libidobesetzungen]); the latter is the case of neurotic dread. In just the same way panic arises either owing to an increase in the common danger or owing to the disappearance of the emotional ties which hold the group together; and the latter case is analogous to that of neurotic dread.” Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Chapter V, transl. James Strachey. Apply this suggestion to the assimilating immigrant or upwardly mobile ethnic individual or group. This view leaves out the anxiety stemming from mismanaged separation of child from mother, but reminds us that there are other equally problematic social bonds. Freud extends panic and anxiety to situations in any society with fluid class boundaries, such as our own.

Imagine the fear of loss of status during an economic downturn. Imagine the fear of abandoning one’s neighbors and ancestors when forced to “uproot” one self in moving to a different town, city, or state where employment is more attractive. Imagine the fear of losing touch with a family where you were the first one to get an advanced education, and where those left behind call you “uppity.” This is why “multicultural” appeals to “community” or “race” or “ethnicity” work, though they are weapons in the hands of demagogues. Might there be less anxiety, even less panic, in the false utopias that union bosses, race hustlers, or corrupt politicians and their ilk promise to voters? Have we not here the inefficacy of competing appeals to “individuality” and “equal opportunity” from anticommunists on the Right, even as conservatives and moderates alike strive to protect the integrity of families and voluntarism over bureaucratic strategies for an ever elusive unity? (For a recent blog on this subject see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.)

[For a popular blog that deals with separation anxiety from the mother, with remarks on modernist rejections of Victorian culture see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/.]

September 7, 2009

Melancholia as a way of life

Thos. Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836

For other apocalyptic landscapes, see https://clarespark.com/2013/06/21/apocalypse-and-the-escape-artist/.

This week the President will be offering his own version of  health care reform, a subject that I have been addressing in all my recent blogs, though usually through the prism of intellectual history, rather than medical economics or legislation (subjects in which I am not competent). And today is Labor Day. I am almost at a loss for words.

I am wondering if our “public intellectuals” (including political journalists, some blogging academics, media pundits, teachers, movie reviewers, and more) have anything constructive to say about “labor.” Are those workers who provide the material basis that gives us the “leisure” to read and make pronouncements about reality, history, antidemocratic propaganda, and so on, being served or betrayed by the current “culture wars?” I confess to deep anxiety about 1. The growing numbers of Americans on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, whose physicians or therapists are undereducated with respect to the political, economic, and institutional causes of their clients’ fatigue and withdrawal from an active (but fully informed) engagement with either public or private affairs; and 2. The increasing stridency and polarization as opponents dig in their heels and hurl epithets at “liberals” or “conservatives,” eschewing careful, detailed historical analysis of rhetoric and ideology, while conspiracy theories proliferate like cartoonist Al Capp’s shmoos, giving only imaginary succor to the perplexed and overwhelmed escapee to this or that elite-hating populism, and many of the latter could hail from the ranks of labor, but who counts them nowadays?
shmoos
Death Valley. In today’s blog (September 7, 2009) I offer one possible explanation for the immobility and escapism, not to speak of hard-heartedness, that has afflicted our society: the antimodern narrative, perpetrated by some artists and intellectuals who are false friends to labor (labor, big or small, needs all the science and education it can get). Before the second world war, labor’s false friends were widely recognized as reactionaries; today, not so much: just look at the apocalyptic “Red-Greens.” The antimoderns included such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, and a host of followers in the humanities who, in turn, influenced manufacturers of popular culture. Their common enemy, the free-thinking scientist or “mechanical materialist” whose cultural practice mocks organic conservative formulations of society and nature. The “materialists,” seen through the eyes of their critics, turn gardens into wastelands, while “Americanization” signifies total renunciation of beloved ancestors and the loss of “individuality” as we are turned by “Fordism” into cogs in a machine.*  (Does not the S-M ritual attempt to reverse this process, of course never succeeding in reinstating the lost paradise?)
FLASHBACK
“The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether.”
“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.”
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupinstein.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha!–ha! ha! ha!–ho! ho! ho!–roared our visitor, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupinstein will be the death of me yet!” [1]

Sweet Mystery of Life. The antimodern narrative is frequently transmitted in popular culture but rarely identified.   For instance, the critically acclaimed film, The Fly (1986, directed by David Cronenberg), carried a blatantly reactionary message, yet no one seems to have noticed; instead The Fly has become a cult favorite, its ads telling viewers to “Be afraid, very afraid.”  Here is the plot: Seth Brundle, a bug-eyed brainy Jewish-looking physicist employed by Bartok Industries (a company linked to abstract modern art in the opening scene) is having a problem with his computer program that is to “change human life as we know it” through a new technology called “teleportation.”  The object to be transported is disintegrated in one “telepod” (which resembles a high-tech phone booth) and reintegrated in another.  One baboon has already been reduced to a red mess; the scientist (a “systems manager” who does not fully understand his project because of the divided labor which has conceived it) solves his problem with the knowledge of the flesh provided by an ambitious, liberated, sexually assertive female journalist (Veronica, a brow-wiper, but androgynously nicknamed “Ronnie”).

While drunk (Ronnie seemed to have abandoned Seth, and this dependent type can’t handle alcohol, he is so Jewish), the scientist tests the new computer program on himself after a second baboon survives the teleportation.  But Brundle fails to notice the fly buzzing around the telepod; he ends up “teleported” (transported, Americanized?), but spliced genetically with the fly’s chromosomes.  Soon Brundle talks like Hitler (enunciating cruel, brutal and uncompromising “insect politics”); he is sexually insatiable and superstrong, then begins loathsomely to degenerate, drooling nauseating and lethal bodily fluids, getting redder by the minute.  At the climax, there is a near parricide: the Fly’s milky fluids dissolve the hand of Ronnie’s bossy editor (holding a rifle intended to kill the Fly and rescue his defiant employee, now impregnated with Fly-semen).  After failing to trap Ronnie into bonding her (and her foetus’) genes with his to save him and create a new superbeing in the telepod, the all-Red Fly’s mournful eyes plead with his terrified but ever-sympathetic, contaminated girl friend, “Please shoot me.”  She picks up her boss’s rifle and fires.  Euthanasia (to be followed by a therapeutic abortion) has restored order.

Teleportation may be compared to Romantic Captain Ahab’s red flag of revolt[2]; while Seth Brundle’s fatal hubris linked to transformative technology, recalls the cataclysms generated by Melville’s character Margoth, an apostate German-Jewish geologist who desacralizes the Holy Land of Palestine in Melville’s late poem Clarel.  The opposition between (disruptive, death-dealing) critical thought and (stabilizing, liberating) mysticism is one which fans of The Fly may apprehend as distinct, but in all candor, I cannot point to an individual, society, or social movement as all Head or all Heart; I see “Reason” and “Feeling” as interpenetrating, but not as a feature of the unchanging human psyche. Rather, defending our socialization in societies moving from tribalism or feudalism to capitalism and beyond as we either tweak capitalism or formulate alternatives, we may be torn between a darkening romantic conservatism and a motion toward the light.  Growing up may not remove the contradiction, but it should alert us to the ways in which the imagos of childhood (which we may take to be accurate representations of social reality, since they are reinforced in popular and high culture), drag us backward toward hierarchy and despair.  Melville has dramatized this tension with cubist clarity and poignancy; the grieving Isabel’s long black hair “arbored him with ebon vines” in the last sentence of Pierre; at the same time the black mask protects his privacy and the vulnerable body.  But critics have generally lacked (or refused) the social imagination to bring his “religious” or “sexual” conflicts home to politics.

This is scary, because the institutions and social processes that produced Melville’s sometimes violent rebels are related to those that exterminated other surrogates for capitalism and its allegedly cruel, brutal and uncompromising market forces.  Mystical thinkers want capitalism without tears; mystical thinking produces moralistic social criticism and the obligatory purge.  Critical thought does not identify the source of evil in the Devil, in “human nature” or in whatever group is designated as the enemy, but recognizes the abstract and impersonal institutional rules and relationships that structure and limit moral choices; critical thinkers propose either structural or incremental reforms to transcend the limitations of capitalism (as we know it), one which points us toward true liberalism and goodness, however imperfectly.  Critical thinkers would never acquiesce to negative reference-group politics as an inevitable feature of the landscape of pluralism: That we may grow only by fits and starts, need not be an occasion for despair, but a warning against complacency and sectarianism.[3]
* “At the end of the issue [National Affairs] Leon R. Kass delivers an unforgettable article on why he decided to give up a career in the sciences to devote himself to the humanities. It nicely captures the spirit of the magazine — the fierce desire to see the human whole, to be aware of people as spiritual beings and not economic units or cogs in a technocratic policy machine.” –David Brooks, NYTimes, 9-8-09. Dear reader, don’t say I didn’t warn you. C.S.

[1] This is a rectified readymade gleaned from Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter.” C. Augusta Dupinstein is one of Dr. Etta Enzyme’s alter egos.

[2] Naive historians who believe there is an author behind the blankness of “the text” are linked to Ahab in David Harlan’s article in American Historical Review 94, p. 592. On Ahab’s red flag: I interpret it to mean the romantic gesture of piercing through the mask of imposed neoclassical  pictures of “things as they are,” not only to reconfigure the real world, but to re-imagine human possibilities for constructive change.
[3] For instance, Sander L. Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 1985): 240.

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