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The Co-option of the Left:
Its Fatal Misunderstanding of Marx

2,237 words [1]

It’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see that the contemporary Left is spectacularly alienating its own natural constituency with its increasingly unfocused and incoherent forms of protest. Certainly, they are vocal in denouncing Trump as a fascist, and Brexit as some sort of ur-nationalism, but what are they actually seeking to offer as an alternative? Anyone who considers this question soon comes up against the realization that they don’t really offer serious answers. Their childish adherence to every form of identity fluidity is an intellectual embarrassment that degrades and hampers the very programs that they wish to progress. But behind all of the violence and dressing up, there is a much more fundamental problem that the Left is failing to face up to, and that revolves around their understanding of the nature of capital.

Karl Marx’s monumental study of capital [2] was a work of pure genius in the sense that it was able to perceive and describe a fundamental underlying structure of the nature of industrial production that had previously remained hidden. Marx repeatedly condemns “bourgeois economists” who fail to see that the nature of commodity production necessarily entails the exploitation of workers because those workers are only paid a percentage of the profit that their work produces. The way that this process works, Marx explained, is through the valorization of capital whereby the worker adds surplus value to a commodity. In capitalist production, various items can be assembled in a factory to create a new commodity; for example, cloth, buttons, and cotton can be combined to produce an item of clothing. The value of this item of clothing will be greater than the combined value of the component parts because this will reflect the labor that has gone into making the garment. But the worker doesn’t get paid the full amount of this extra value that his work produces. Instead, the capitalist keeps a proportion of this extra value for himself. This surplus value lies at the heart of the Marxist critique of capitalism. In fact, it is so fundamental to Marxism that without this critique of surplus value, one cannot really call oneself a Marxist at all.

As Marxist theory progressed, it became more and more common to extrapolate from the economic theory of production to other areas of human activity. Perhaps the best known example of this was the work done by the Frankfurt School. This grouping of intellectuals became fascinated by the notion that the production of cultural artifacts was a means whereby the unequal and exploitative relationships inherent in capitalist production could be replicated and justified. They were therefore primarily concerned with the nature of ideology: how it could serve to validate the interests of capital; how it could entice people to be complicit in their own exploitation; and how it could be opposed to an artistic praxis that exposed the hidden mechanisms of capital.

Theodor Adorno wrote about the culture industry, drawing an explicit connection between the nature of industrial production and artistic creation. For Adorno, it was not acceptable for artists to be concerned with entertainment or aesthetic pleasure; these were illusory strategies that enabled the hidden exploitation of the capitalist system to remain concealed and temporarily ameliorated. A worker who spends his evenings watching bourgeois plays or television programs might as well spend his time getting drunk. The effect is the same in that he is simply blotting out the reality of the exploitative system that he works within. Adorno and the other Frankfurt scholars were much more interested in the potential for artistic creations to expose this system of exploitation by pointing to the underlying ways that the capitalist structure sought to justify itself.

One of the most prominent artists to put these sorts of ideas into practice was Bertolt Brecht. The most notable thing about Brecht’s form of drama is the way that he seeks to remind the audience that they are, in fact, watching a play. He rejects the notion that drama should draw the audience into another world where they can lose themselves in an enjoyable or emotional experience. By using various devices, such as having characters addressing the audience directly, he sought to break the fourth wall and add a political charge to the drama. The real problem with this procedure comes from the fact that attempting to communicate complex theoretical ideas in an elaborate way makes it very likely that a great deal will be lost in translation. Audiences are likely to be alienated from the work, but not in the critically engaged way that the Frankfurt scholars intended. Additionally, some of Brecht’s techniques can be isolated and used for entirely different purposes. The breaking of the fourth wall has become a familiar technique in popular entertainment. The most recent example that I saw was the Marvel film Deadpool [3], in which Deadpool repeatedly addresses the audience and makes meta-textual references to other incidents in the Marvel film universe. I think it’s fair to say that Brecht would not have been happy with Deadpool’s misuse of his techniques of dramatic enlightenment.

Similarly, Adorno’s championing of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone musical system has not stood the test of time very well. Adorno thought that music should be intellectually challenging rather than comforting or enjoyable. Again, this was because art was itself increasingly becoming commodified, and Adorno saw that this process would assist the obfuscation of the reality of capitalist production. In particular, popular music was becoming an increasingly simplified product of the culture industry, and as such it was facilitating the ongoing process of capitalist exploitation. Adorno felt that Schoenberg’s difficult and unpleasant music was an effective means of jolting the listener out of his ideologically-induced reverie and awakening him to a genuinely authentic moment of artistic apprehension, one that could exist as an autonomous event rather than a pre-formatted commodity of the culture industry.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the workers of the world didn’t share Adorno’s enthusiasm for atonality. It is still the case that difficult, avant-garde art remains the preoccupation of middle class intellectual elites and has very little, if anything, to say to the proletariat. In fact, the enduring legacy of atonal music probably lies in the realm of film scores, particularly those of horror films. It is precisely the uncomfortable, harsh cadences of atonal music that render it perfect for horror movies, the shower scene [4] in Psycho [5]being a particularly notable example. The irony here is obvious. The purpose of twelve-tone and atonal music was to create a form of high art that would exist above the commercially-tainted products of the entertainment industry. It was progressive, both artistically and politically, attempting to wrench music away from the sentimental hold of Romanticism, and also to provoke a revolutionary awakening to the ideological hold of capitalism over the workers. But it rapidly became an easy, in fact clichéd, accompaniment to sensational scenes of mutilation and torture. What was intended to expose and nullify the culture industry instead became one of its formulaic tools.

The influence of the Frankfurt School, which also became known as the New Left, was significant in that the emphasis had shifted from economic theory to cultural theory. This inaugurated the era of Left-wing identity politics, with an emphasis on race, gender, and sexuality as significant determiners of oppression. Following on from the influence of the Frankfurt School, there was initially a clear effort to link the processes of capitalist production with these other forms of sociological identity, that is, inequalities between the latter were shown to emerge from the inequalities inherent in the former.

What has happened since is that these questions of identity have increasingly become issues in themselves, and the link with the nature of capital has been forgotten. Nowadays, questions of race, gender, and sexuality are routinely considered in isolation so that, in effect if not entirely in intent, they become determinative of one’s place in the progressive hierarchy. Thus, a white, heterosexual male must necessarily exist in a condition of privilege, regardless of his relationship to the means of production or his ownership of capital. By failing to remember that social inequality is a consequence of the nature of capital, the Left is increasingly becoming obsessed with the idea that virtue and vice are essential qualities of particular identities. In their own terms, by engaging in this sort of essentialism, they are fascists.

All of this stems from the fact that it became possible to separate questions of culture from questions of economics. As shown above, when artistic praxes are mobilized in order to revitalize a revolutionary attitude, they can easily become appropriated by capital in ways that entirely subvert their original intent. And this is what is happening more generally in the field of Left-wing identity politics.

One of the current notions that seem to fixate the Left is that of fluidity. On the face of it, it might seem paradoxical that notions of identity fluidity could coexist with the sort of essentialism discussed above, and it’s certainly an obvious problem for the Left. Insofar as it’s possible to make any sense of it, their argument would seem to run roughly as follows. Identity, whether in the form of gender, sexuality, or race, cannot be fixed into simple and clear definitions. Instead, it will always flow beyond those definitions into other formulations. Identity exists on a spectrum and there may be infinite points on this spectrum. So gender, for example, cannot be thought of as simply a matter of male and female; if you wish to update your gender on Facebook, for example, there are now 71 options. But despite this complete fluidity of identity, the argument goes, people are faced with the social fact that they are actually treated according to fixed (and therefore false) notions of identity. Hence, a white, heterosexual man is not really white, heterosexual, or male at all, because those categories don’t really exist except as social conventions. But precisely because they exist as social conventions, someone who is perceived as a white, heterosexual male will attract all the privilege that that entails, and a black woman will be perceived as such and treated accordingly, and so on.

There is a fundamental discord to this line of thinking. These notions of fluidity, or of “flow” as someone like Deleuze might describe it, have proliferated as Left-wing identity politics have prospered. The notion of a fixed or stable sense of identity is taken to be a mere social convention or a sign of psychological repression. But this promotion of flow and the rejection of any pause or fixed point is entirely consonant with the flow of capital. Capital is antithetical to any sort of traditional social structure because such structures impede its flow and slow down its own valorization. In fact, Marx was appalled by the fact that the force of capital was dragging women into the workforce. He saw this as an outrageous affront to human decency.

Thus, the present wave of Left-wing identity politics should be seen as a willing commodification of human identity for the benefit of capital. The urge to proliferate increasing numbers of “inter” and “cis” identities has nothing to do with economic disparity or ideological oppression, but instead stems from a consumerist urge to perpetuate the illusion of choice offered by the market. The Left has chosen, for entirely self-indulgent reasons, to abandon its commitment to opposing the unimpeded flows of capital, and has instead chosen to enjoy the restless pleasures that result from such capital flows.

Unlike the practices and theories of the New Left, the ideas of the contemporary Left offer nothing whatsoever as a critique of the global flow of capital. Whilst it is true that the New Left’s procedures of resistance were easily assimilated into the capitalist system of production, they at least attempted to engage with the problem of capitalist production in imaginative ways. The contemporary Left appears to be voluntarily participating in that system. And by deconstructing to death all notions of traditional identity, and even the notion that there might even be such a thing as a fixed identity at all, the contemporary Left has tried to destroy one of the most effective dams to the unimpeded flow of capital.

It therefore falls to the Right to articulate a reasoned critique of capital, one predicated on the sanctity of certain notions of identity. Crucial to this will be the unapologetic assertion that national borders are essential for the security of those who dwell within them. If the security or well-being of a people is threatened by the flow of capital or the flow of immigrants, then the border must become a place where that flow will stop. Whether it is the threat of terrorism or crime, or the outsourcing of labor, the border must be reinstated as an impermeable barrier which will only open itself for the benefit, and with the consent, of the people. In this way, the sanctity of national identity may once more become the master rather than the slave of capital. That such approaches are beginning to come into focus in both America and Europe suggests that the real Right has once more come to the fore and that the delirious hallucinations of the Left may be coming to an end. And in that case, what recently was the natural constituency of the Left will once more become the natural constituency of the Right.