[Marxism] Petty Bourgeois Left (was: Awesome Proletarian Positions) (Long)
turbulo at aol.com
turbulo at aol.com
Sun Apr 7 09:42:57 MDT 2013
Want to know what a petty bourgeois left looks like? Read the following piece that appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique
about four years ago. Although it deals wi the French left, I'm sure the broad strokes of the picture it paints will be very recognizable
to American leftists as well. I'm sorry for posting the entire piece here instead of a link, but I had to translate it myself. There
is an English edition of LMD, but it usually leaves out the best sociological articles (like this one). Alain Accardo and Pierre
Rimbert are, IMO, two of the most incisive writiers on the international left today. They are much influenced by the late sociologist,
Contestation for Middle Class Consumption
By Pierre Rimbert
Le Monde Diplomatique
Economic Horror by Vivianne Forrester: a million copies sold since 1996; No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000): translated into twenty-five languages; the planetary success of Michael Moore’s documentaries; demonstrations by new social movements; the proliferation of “alternative” media; actions: from the size of the audience for critics of the prevailing economic order, one might conclude that a wave of rebellion is sweeping the earth; that the adhesion of educated classes to “the spirit of capitalism”, often seen as a condition for the system’s survival, is weakening; and that the defection of intellectuals (or those aspiring to this status) to the side of the masses portends a major breach in the walls of the liberal Babylon.
But there seems to be problem with the fuse in this powder keg: a radical critique is gaining ground without any noticeable change in the individual practices of those who espouse it, or any influx into leftwing organizations of people determined to bring down the social order. It is as if questioning the status quo is merely a popular idea, from which one draws no practical conclusions. Whether it arises from skepticism concerning the possibilities of political action or the absence of a model for change, this disconnect between theory and practice is also partly rooted in the ambiguous relation of the enlightened middle classes to critical knowledge.
Both Marxism and revolutionary syndicalism urged the worker to acquire the “science of his unhappiness”, in the famous phrase of Fernand Pelloutier, organizer of labor exchanges at the end of the nineteenth century. Only in this way could proletarians be in a position to penetrate the veil of economic fatalism, comprehend the mechanism of their exploitation, and, finally, unite to shatter it. “Material force must be overthrown by material force”, said Karl Marx in 1843, “But theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.” Whether the dissemination of revolutionary ideas is self-administered (revolutionary syndicalism), or is carried out by a political party (Leninism), a single belief underlies this kind of reasoning: critical knowledge emancipates those who acquire it.
But of what use is such knowledge to those who already possess it? The huge gatherings of Millau (June, 2000), Larzac (2003) or Porto Alegre have contributed mainly to the education of the middle classes. Last January, the “new social movements” from all over the world gathered in Belem, Brazil. If some were impressed by the richness of the exchanges among groups assembled there, others called it a Woodstock of the new social movements. The workshops and panels attended by the Brazilian public were dominated by students and professors; adjoining these were a constellation of stalls where various organizations, newspaper sellers and Marxist publishers competed for the attention of customers with partisans of organic tattooing, vendors of mate and chashew-distilled liquer, makers of seed necklaces, as well as advocates of the legalization of marijuana.
Knowledge combined with pleasure—this is also the story of local “social forums”, leftish book salons, independent bookstores and movie theaters. Intially intended to overcome isolation, to keep alive the memory of struggles or recruit troops, events and places like these are attracting a growing public. Municipal authorities tolerate and sometimes support them, admiring their contributions to “cultural diversity”, compensating at little cost for certain local deficiencies in this area.
With the rise of the middle classes, political education increasingly moves from the workplace to the places of leisure. For the lessons learned from a strike are substituted lessons for their own sake. On the platform, personalities selected for their ability to draw large crowds make speeches—not too long, for fear of tiring the audience. Thus, rather than transforming itself into a material force, contestation is transformed into cultural recreation with a political theme.
Last May 9, the Wall Street Journal painted a malicious portrait of one of France’s “best protest consultants”, Xavier Renou, spokesperson of the “Disobedients”. “He bills his students 50 euros a head for disobedience training, writes books, produces leftist-themed games, and also attempts to ‘diversify his client base, especially in growth areas such as the pro-Tibet movement.’ “. One would not, in the manner of vulgar economism, want to reduce middle class militancy to a market in which providers fill a growing demand for “subversive” goods and services in exchange for rewards sometimes more than merely symbolic. Yet contestation for consumption has its definite hallmarks, one being the demand for quick results.
“What infantile naivete to make one’s own impatience into a theoretical argument!” Thus remarked Frederick Engels to London refugees from the Paris Commune, who, like Edouard Vailliant, judged the First International to be insufficiently revolutionary and demanded immediate revenge on Versailles. One can only imagine the perplexity of Engels in the face of the dozens of micromovements that have appeared in recent years: Coordination of men without neckties, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, nude bikers, defilers of advertising posters, and other festive reapproprators of urban space.
Each one of these “movements” is characterized less by a political objective than by a method of intervention. Here, a white mask; there, picnics in supermarkets with food taken from the shelves. Like a basket of bonbons in a bakery, they offer to a youthful public a colorful display from which to take one’s pick. No organization, no long-term perspective: for the “activist”, engagement is limited to “actions”. Announced on internet sites, their results are instantly evaluated in terms of media coverage.
>From the venerable network TF1 to the fashionable monthly Technikart, journalists dote on performances that fit easily into the dossier “Sixty Clever Projects to Combat the Crisis” in the Nouvel Observateur between an ad for shoes and a portrait of an “anti-stress coach” who charges 50 euros a session. Hero of a Canal + documentary, “The New Rebels” , “Julien, 27, a Ph. D., executive of an NGO, explains that he isn’t there to distribute tracts on the subway station in the snow for three hours”. With “his” collective, he attracts the attention of the press to the housing problem and improvises events in apartments for rent. Journalists, notified in advance, are almost as numerous there as activists, confronting an upset landlord and a few prospective renters.
Ironic and shifting, the image of the protest stands in contrast with the plodding and greyish image that the media have long conveyed of mass demonstrations, in which the chants, it is true, often seem to be taken from an old 78 record. But the new form of protest is without any notion of painstaking organizational preparation or any durable balance of forces. Reflecting economic structures implanted in our brains, contestation for mass consumption obeys the logic of the short term: immediate return to action!
But, in fact, would revolt be as easily consumed so greedily if an ecosystem of graduate students, researchers, jounalists, essayists, initially animated by the will to change the system, had not finally taken engagement for an object of study and taken their studies for a form of engagement? In a joyful exercise in “(self-) derision”, the sociologist Alain Accardo has portrayed the “critical thinker” : fastened to his worktable, he draws from the pile on his right a book on the evils of capitalism and the necessity of ending it. But, “with a few exceptions, the writings of this critical thinker were read by other critical thinkers who tirelessly pass his book from the right to the left pile of books”.
The accumulation of stories of actions, of dissident publications, of conferences on resistance, or articles like this one suggest that imagined scenes like the above are not far removed from reality. And Accardo ironically remarks on the reverse course pursued since Marx’s famous Theses on Feurebach of 1842: “Philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Victor Serge, George Politzer, Simone Weil, Aimé Césaire… With modesty and sacrifice, there were many who tried to do this in the course of the twentieth century.
Contestation for consumers is also characterized by a refusal to “take sides”often observed among intellectuals interested in radical ideas. At the end of a documentary on the immpossiblity of criticizing television on television, an audience member declared himself “in total agreement” with the director, and simultaneously “in total agreement” with the host of a television program critical of television—two positions irreconcilable on a political level, but completely compatible if one approaches the film as an agreeable way to learn to assimilate both sides of an argument as a butterfly collector collects specimens.
A sign of intellectual distinction, the ability to look at arguments for and against, indeed to argue against oneself, signifies the reluctance of a part of the middle class to go into the trenches of the social war as long as its own interests aren’t in play. Combined with a propensity generously to support causes far removed from their reality, this disposition is deeply rooted among the artists and academicians that Paul Nizan denounced in 1932 in The Watchdogs.
“Are you complicated?,” Le Parisien (3 January, 2003) asked the singer Zazie, then heartthrob of bourgeois bohemians. “I think I’m a paradoxical, multifaceted person. I love to criticize television and appear on it. I don’t like showbiz soirées but love Victoires de la Musique (French music award ceremony)… One often asks people to take sides. Me, I don’t feel the inclination.” Like performers suddenly descended from their cloud to protest the information piracy that threatens their copyright privileges, would the above-mentioned documentary watcher have answered yes and no at the same time if the question were one of eliminating his job?
That is more and more the question. The precarization of the intellectual professions, attacks on public service by neoliberal politicians, and on private sector jobs by the economic crisis, tends toward a realignment of ideas with interests. Graduate students, adjunct professors, journalists now beat the pavement as well as the keyboard. To organize, take sides in the class struggle, and no longer just for far-away noble causes, now appears possible. Intellectuals will no doubt continue to interpret the world in various ways, but, maybe this time, with the will to change it?.
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