The cultural nature of politics, the political nature of culture: these have formed the main quandary debated by left intellectuals, mainly among themselves (and there lies much of the trouble), over the twenty some years since the oldest of us went off to colleges where Theory and Cultural Studies were all the impotent rage. For two decades, our thinking has turned on this culture/politics axis, both when we were spinning our wheels and when it seemed like we were getting somewhere. There are always fresh phenomena for the familiar problematic: only recently, for example, have American intellectuals, “cultural producers,” and college grads with humanities degrees adopted a basically sociological understanding of culture, including their own, or have TV show-runners displayed a notable quotient of South Asian faces. Still, all new left-wing cultural-political analyses share an old question: is this or that cultural object shoring up an unjust society, or undermining it? The question applies not just to novels, TV shows, new diets, and social media platforms, but also, more uncomfortably, to the essays and books that we left intellectuals write about these things.
The best general formulation of the problem may still be Herbert Marcuse’s essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (1937). For Marcuse, even when art or entertainment didn’t flatter power outright, culture as such tended to affirm, rather than negate, the existing social order: the very foretaste of a happier life offered by one kind of art, or the commiseration over present-day reality offered by another kind, helped people to endure the way things were. A dialectician, Marcuse did allow that culture could also, sometimes, negate, and seduce or incite you toward revolution — but his emphasis fell on culture as accommodation to the status quo. And this dominant pessimism about the capacity of culture to do the work of politics, occasionally relieved by a hesitant optimism, could be said to characterize the whole tradition of so-called Western Marxism to which Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt School belonged, many of whose unfinished projects and unresolved questions came to be inherited, knowingly or not, by French critical sociology and American cultural studies. Western Marxism (not just Marcuse, Adorno, and Benjamin but Lukács, Sartre, Althusser, et cetera) paid special attention to culture and ideology and correspondingly neglected the issues of political strategy and economic analysis that so preoccupied earlier generations of Marxist thinkers. As Perry Anderson pointed out in Considerations on Western Marxism, this cultural turn, beginning in the ’20s and in full swing by the ’30s, took place amid political disappointment: the defeat of working-class revolt in Germany, the hardening of the Soviet Union into Stalinist deformity, fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, and so on.
Cultural considerations wax as political hopes wane. As a rule of thumb, this seems to work well enough for our own era, whether you date it to the late ’70s, when the revolutionary reflux of the ’60s abated, or the ’90s, when the neoliberal end-of-history was trumpeted amid the disorderly retreat of the left in one country after another. In the ’70s, left intellectuals felt a keen disappointment over their failure to play their alleged historic role in coordinating working-class advance. This caused plenty of Marxists to shed that designation altogether. For the rest, it usually occasioned introversion of some kind. In the US, Fredric Jameson cultivated an American variety of Western Marxism, with the same ideo-cultural concerns. In France, Bourdieu (himself a sort of Marxist) and other critical sociologists revealed the self-contradictory character of bien-pensant progressivism: “advanced” taste and thinking actually lent themselves to a regressive stabilization of class and status. And it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to see the American reception of Bourdieu, over the last dozen years or so, as the darkening into starless despair of the gloomy mood typical of Western Marxism: has complaining about the effects of American capitalism merely been our way of amassing cultural capital, meanwhile bolstering capitalism itself?
During the 1990s, much of cultural studies in the US strained to grant culture an abidingly negative (in Marcuse’s sense) role. Notoriously, professors could extract politically subversive messages from McDonald’s commercials that passed undetected by other consumers: a method that depended on a model of the interaction of the unconscious mind with deliberative politics too far-fetched, perhaps, to be made explicit. (In retrospect, the cult studs possess the farcical dignity — no small thing — of stoned teenagers struck by the secret messages on TV.) Jameson’s approach has aged better: the artifacts of late capitalism necessarily revealed the contradictions of late capitalism — but it took a Marxist lens to see as much. This kind of cultural criticism, more intellectually satisfying, nevertheless led straight to political frustration: the entire Marxist lexicon, like that of other varieties of Theory from which it now borrowed, made it impossible for the college-bred radical to communicate with ordinary middle- and working-class Americans in anything like the language in which she wrote her articles or books. (In Babel’s Red Cavalry, a young revolutionary journalist reads aloud an article by Lenin to a group of illiterate Cossacks. “He hits the truth right away,” one Cossack says afterwards. “Like a chicken pecking a seed.”) The very discourse, including the word discourse, of the intellectual left only widened the gap — between bourgeois intellectual and wage-laborer, to use two more hopeless terms — that the left meant to narrow and, one day, close. To people outside hospitable campuses and coffee shops, leftist intellectuals, Marxist or not, sounded like snobs flaunting class privilege rather than attacking it — while the intellectuals themselves found they could only bear an otherwise unbearable society by self-administering a lot of difficult art and critical theory. Thus did the affirmative character of culture overtake even the implacable negations of the intellectual left.
The generalization of the sociology of culture, both within the academy and among demographic enclaves outside it, looks like an endgame maneuver in the match between oppositional culture and neoliberal politics. It expresses a contemporary intimation that no part of culture any longer casts the faintest shadow of negation: everybody’s cultural diet just confirms their place in the food chain. The feeling that people who like this or that writer or musician are just exactly the people who would can be cynical or despairing, but either way it’s been hard not to feel. In this context, it can seem that our left-wing cultural politics have ended by vindicating the awesome indomitability of global capitalism. Let idiosyncratic taste be exposed as anonymous social structure — this will only reinforce the same structure. Or let desis onto TV shows and a black man into the White House — these open gestures of antiracism will give cover to an American racism that dares not speak its name but isn’t nearly so shy about violence: nothing like a shot of diversity to chase a liter of New Jim Crow.
The same trap ensnares our own content, as writing is now generically called. Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution (1924), defined the word in a sense not entirely unrelated to the contemporary one. The content of every literary school, he wrote, was “a definite social and group attitude toward the world”: “The idea of content does not refer to subject matter, in the ordinary sense of the term, but to social purpose. A lyric without a theme can express an epoch or a class or its point of view as well as a social novel.” Trotsky nevertheless believed that prerevolutionary Russian culture had borne a diversity of combustible, conflictual contents, and made an express distinction between the writings of “the nobleman who did not doubt himself” and “the repentant nobleman.” In our time, privileged penitence counts for less. More and more the social purpose and, therefore, deep content of all culture has seemed one identical substance: the content is capital, and its purpose to reproduce capitalism.
What is to be done? How can left-wing intellectuals or artists, who either came from privilege or acquired its trappings on their march through the institutions, advance their stated politics instead of just underscoring the borderlines of their demographic niche and contributing their little bit of momentum to the juggernaut of the system? Doesn’t the intellectual and cultural left just reinforce, through its class character, the system it would decry? By now everyone, right or left, knows to ask the rhetorical question. Hence the jingoist conservatives of the Weekly Standard, in a post entitled “Hipster Marxism,” on the new neo-Marxist journal Jacobin: editor Bhaskar Sunkara, the Standard observed, “was raised in Westchester County, one of the country’s wealthiest suburbs. He attended George Washington University, ranked as America’s most expensive college while he was there. . . . Sunkara, you’ll be pleased to hear, has book deals now and makes regular appearances on MSNBC, so he seems to be getting what he wants out of life. But how is this supposed to help the masses?”
Gotcha, the system says, chuckling as it too gets what it wants out of planetary life. Thank you, leftists, for your contribution to our shared enterprise. Every penny of your cultural capital helps.
And yet — and yet—
Things are changing. Local symptoms of the unfolding global crisis aren’t just the further destitution of the American poor, the culling of the middle class, and the somehow uninterrupted concentration of wealth among parasitic financiers. Inside the general disaster, a crisis in the principal institutions of intellectual life — academia and publishing — has been deepening. One tenure-track opening exists for every four new PhDs; the figure is worse for the social sciences, and still worse for humanities. Hundreds of applicants vie for jobs at third-tier colleges paying barely middle-class salaries; the losers end up as adjuncts or “course managers,” tossed two or three grand per semester-long class. Many a promising young person goes to graduate school in flight from a brutal labor market — only to encounter the same beast, grown more ferocious during the interval, a few years down the line. Now you’re well qualified to teach “Insecure: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism” (a course offered by the CUNY English Department in the spring of 2011), if only they would let you. Tenure-track professors meanwhile fear that cost-free MOOCs — massive open online courses — will before long administer the coup de grace to the professoriate that a thousand right-wing screeds against tenured radicals could never quite accomplish.
Other intellectuals look, fondly, to freelance journalism and/or book publishing to grant them a living, in spite of the fact that producing content is increasingly done for little or no pay and that the ranks of midlist authors at corporate houses have been thinning, for at least twenty years, faster than those of the middle class. Try rehearsing this chant between ninety-minute writing sessions:
Content wants to be free
But I enjoy my chains.
All content is capital.
The capital’s not mine.
I blog for the Borg.
If it’s getting harder for most people to make a decent living, it’s getting harder, faster, for intellectuals too. “In general,” Trotsky wrote, “the place of art is at the rear of historic advance.” Today, many intellectuals, writers, and artists can at least consider themselves in the middle of an advancing social precariousness.
Logically, there seem to be three possible results of the mounting economic insecurity of intellectuals and “culture producers” amid a general population scoured by the same blast. The possibilities are hardly exclusive; all three are to some extent inevitable, and already taking place. It’s the proportions in which they’re realized that will answer for our own time a question about the relationship between intellectuals and the general populace classically formulated by Marxism in terms of “hegemony” and “cultural revolution.”
One possibility, and the worst, would be to see the next decades exacerbate the class character of culture. In this scenario, since very few people not already wealthy would risk careers as writers or artists, certain vital strains of culture would become, more exclusively than today, the expression of an upper-class stratum. A basic relegation of literature, art, and philosophy to pastimes of the idly rich (as, say, in prerevolutionary France) doesn’t seem impossible.
A second possibility, closer to realization today, would be the confinement of important varieties of culture not to a single socioeconomic stratum but to demographic archipelagos amid rising seas of mass corporate product. Young people might give up hopes of gainful employment through art or serious writing — without giving up the production or consumption of those things. Holding down uninspiring and ill-paid day-jobs, they would huddle together in select neighborhoods of big cities and devote their evenings and weekends to culture (and laundry, shopping, and cleaning). This doesn’t sound so bad; it sounds in fact like the cozily disappointed existence, streaked with fear of unemployment, of half the people we know.
But the confinement of much cultural production to the leisure hours of a few bohemian enclaves entails real costs for the resulting culture. Challenging art and radical thought, with no hope of a large audience truly susceptible to being challenged, slip easily into administering “provocativeness” to the jadedly unprovokable. The idea of an avant-garde leading a general charge becomes, as it has, impossible; the infantry of a would-be popular audience has deserted, and an officer corps with no troops merely redesigns its uniforms according to cycles of fashion. Squabbles over medals and rank take the place of what Gramsci called the war of position; cultural hegemony — a prevailing climate of opinion — is left, uncontested, to capitalism.
A more optimistic third possibility glimpses, in the dark cloud already raining on us, a silver lining of cultural revolution — of rapprochement, that is, between intellectuals and nonintellectuals, the intellectuals becoming more like workers and the workers more like intellectuals without the broadening of cultural life diminishing its liveliness or highest achievements. On the contrary, per Trotsky: “The powerful force of competition which, in bourgeois society, has the character of market competition, will not disappear in Socialist society, but, to use the language of psychoanalysis, will be sublimated, that is, will assume a higher and more fertile form. There will be the struggle for one’s opinion, for one’s project, for one’s taste. . . . Art will then become more general . . . the most perfect method of the progressive building of life in every field. It will not be merely ‘pretty’ without relation to anything else.”
In the famous concluding vision of Literature and Revolution, cultural revolution is not a leveling, but a tectonic upthrust. As culture one day becomes the common property of all, “The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”
Is there a way to make toward these summits from the neoliberal foothills of today?
We are witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing a sharp de-classing of intellectuals. Our precious credentials are increasingly useless for generating income and — let us hope — social prestige, too. This should mean that most intellectuals view ourselves as sinking, economically, into the lower-middle or working class, and that “meritocratic” markers — the contents of our bookshelves and iPods; our degrees — accord us less and less social status in our own and others’ eyes. Not to say there won’t remain a self-protective cultural elite hoarding its prestige: the hostility to criticism among mutually appreciative writers, artists, and academics — an aversion to meaningful disputes — is contemporary evidence of such a siege mentality. But we can also hope for something else: perhaps intellectuals’ increasing exposure to socioeconomic danger will give a new political dangerousness and reality to what some of us produce. Might the continuing commitment of de-classed left intellectuals and radical artists to their vocations, in spite of withered prospects and eroding prestige, give our work an antisystemic force, and credibility, it has lacked?
In recent decades, varieties of politics among intellectuals, hipsters, artists, and academics have seemed to outsiders, and increasingly to ourselves, like just so many types of functionally affirmative, system-stabilizing, content-neutral cultural capital. In the years ahead it may become easier, while much else becomes harder, for both left intellectuals and our intended audience to believe that we do what we do and say what we say for the sake of conviction, not capital. Artists and intellectuals, to go on existing in serious numbers without much help from universities, corporate publishers, wealthy families, and rich patrons, will be groups marked by some sacrifice. And if we want to work hard—“Il faut travailler, rien que travailler,” Cézanne wrote to Rilke: probably the one common motto of artists and thinkers — many of us may quit the demographic islands where our very concentration drives up the rent. Released, unprotected, into the dark fields of the republic, we would find new things to say and, with luck, new people to say them to.
Cultural revolution or the struggle for a new left hegemony — call it what you like, but the proletarianization of bohemia may lead to a ProBo challenge to the Bobo consensus on the irresistible embourgeoisement of all culture. To use old Marxist language (perhaps somewhat refreshed from a long historical nap), the conflict would be between “organic” intellectuals, allied with the working class, and “traditional” ones convinced of their independence despite relying on and reinforcing the ruling class. The organic intellectuals wouldn’t only be those emerging from the working class but many falling into it. Nor does this rule out the economically comfortable radical of the Engels type — but calls for an insurgency against your own class become more meaningful if and when insurgency seems like a real threat. There exists a chance, anyway, that closer consorting between culture and the rest of life, and among intellectuals and nonintellectuals, will do something to fulfill the old dream of the aestheticization of society, the socialization of art, and the corresponding regeneration of both. This, too, belonged to the program of socialism and cultural revolution.
What, practically, do we mean by such rhetoric? That’s what we have to find out — or else we have produced one more sonorous elite hypocrisy. Reformable institutions should be reformed, and unreformable ones abandoned or replaced. Figuring out what’s reformable is the trick: how about the university, for instance? Until a new system of “higher and continuing education” is in place, adjuncts should be paid better, grad students should unionize, and we should demand that college be made free, at a cost of merely 2 or 3 percent of GDP. These are battles worth fighting. But new institutions are needed too, and more of us should be setting up progressive continuing-ed schools that charge small fees (like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, in the middle of New York), or low-overhead cost-free ones (like Deep Springs College, in the middle of nowhere). That’s to name two institutions with elite connotations, but, as in Engels’s second law of dialectics, a change of quantity can become one of quality. The more of these schools that come into existence, the easier it becomes to detach education from the reproduction of class privilege. Every new independent reading group or research collective marks a step in the right direction.
The ongoing proletarianization of intellectuals prompts any number of further questions. Should we abandon the corporate publishers before they abandon us? So far we haven’t done so, but we’ve tried — as have many others — to fill the gaps left by the industry’s consolidation and caution. In our own work, should we tend toward more “accessible” language and popular forms — or take the increasing hopelessness of making a living from writing as license to experiment? In search of cheaper rents and fertile ground for new institutions, should we leave Brooklyn and make for the provinces? (Will we cross our displaced academic friends fleeing the other way?) Or do we stay and fight for rent control and the right to the city? And how to reply to the familiar reproach: If you want to change and not just interpret the world, why not give up writing and become an organizer or activist? Part of the answer, at least, is that learning to organize, like learning to write, takes years, and you can’t just substitute one job for the other — we will have to be amateur activists. Another part is that if activists are indispensable, so are intellectuals. The words of Adorno in “Sociology and Empirical Research” (1957), arguing for the Frankfurt School’s own version of critical sociology, come to mind: “Not only theory but also its absence becomes a material force when it seizes the masses.” Just this — for theorists and the masses alike — has been our problem.
These tentative answers to the whole perplex of culture and politics can also be taxed with vagueness and no doubt confusion. We’re trying to figure what to do from an unstable position amid crumbling institutions and generalized crisis. More than one variety of brave and honest, necessarily incomplete response to the dilemma can surely be offered, and still more varieties of evasive bullshit: a good ear will know the difference. We can’t bring ourselves to cheer the failure of institutions that have sustained us — but we can at least be grateful that the collapsing structures are carrying out a sort of structural rescue of meaningful individual choice, in politics and culture. Bobo or ProBo? Siege mentality (“We writers are in this together!”) or sorties beyond the walls: “We’re in this with almost everyone!”? Reform existing institutions, or replace them, or cultivate your own garden, or retire to your Unabomber cabin? Join the traditional intellectuals and seek patronage among think tanks, foundations, rich individuals, and multinational corporations, or do something for cultural revolution? Not that the old Marxist jargon matters too much, adopted or abandoned. What counts is history asking us a question — about our content or purpose in a society of accelerating insecurity, including our own — that one way or another we need to formulate as sharply as possible, since we answer it with our lives.