The Spectacle of Independence Day

This July 4th let’s ponder the way in which our lives are dominated. Our existence slyly orchestrated. Our experiences siphoned down highways dotted with endless signs that ask in that prodding way “why aren’t you happy yet?”  

“Kids are in cages” we answer. “They are ripped from their families trying to escape violence and poverty that this country created in their own. They’ve been herded into pens. They sleep on concrete floors.  

“They are deprived toothbrushes, clean water, ample food. They are watched over by vicious and unfeeling people who have been trained every step of the way to dehumanize and humiliate. We cannot be happy in the midst of this.” 

Armed guards step out from behind each of the signs. They ready their rifles. And they ask, once again, “why aren’t you happy yet?” 

* * * 

Fifty years ago Guy Debord and the situationists looked at the way in which the logic of commodity had insinuated itself into every aspect of daily life. Building on Marx and Lukács he zoned in on the concept of reification, the way in which a commodity makes the manufactured seem natural, and the social relations of any given time appear eternal. Starting in the 1920s, mass media and consumerism had aided in the spread of this logic and its further transformation into a “common sense” worldview. 

This is the spectacle. Under the spectacle everything becomes a simulation of sorts. Materials and items are no longer viewed primarily in terms of what they can be used for but what their value is on the market. And since literally every item in our lives is a commodity, since even our time and consciousness are subject to that same process, every human interaction becomes transactional.  

With this transactional nature comes all kinds of other behavioral assumptions. We punish those who don’t live up to the transaction, praise those who do, conspire behind backs of both. Human bonds are based not on camaraderie, sympathy, solidarity, mutual recognition of talent, but on whether we can get back a return on what we invest in them. Every human interaction is mediated through this prism, and ideas that subvert them are easily sucked back into the system and sanitized. If commodity and bureaucracy present themselves as eternal and above history, what they achieve is placing us outside of the historical process, outside of our ability to experience and change the conditions of our lives. 

It is not quite correct to say that aesthetics play a role in this. More to the point, what the rise of consumerism, public relations, the streamlining of state and private media all managed to accomplish was a version of what Walter Benjamin called “the aestheticization of politics.” Aesthetics, the practice and study of how the environment can be changed to interact with our sensuous lives and subjective selves, becomes woven into political economy.  

For Debord the phenomenon of the spectacle could be accomplished through the implication of force (the maintenance of order through constant threat of violence that characterizes authoritarian states, which Debord called “concentrated spectacle”) or the illusion of choice in a society overwhelmed by commodities (“diffuse spectacle,” which we associate with consumerism).  

In most modern capitalist societies, however, Debord saw a fusion of the two prevailing. This he called the “integrated spectacle,” achieved through the close cooperation of state and private enterprise. Underneath the apparent abundance, very real and crude machinations of secrecy move. We are both convinced and coerced into the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, systems, nations.

* * * 

In 2013 McKenzie Wark, radical author and one of the best living experts on the subject of Debord and the situationists, postulated that we had transcended the previous forms of spectacle. He wrote: 

These days one might speak of a disintegrating spectacle, in which the centralized forms of mediating the spectacle break down into fragments but retain their commodified form. Thus these days we all have to participate in making display ads and writing advertising slogans – selfies posed in newly purchased outfits – assuming the burden of doubling the consumption of things with the consumption of images. All against the background of what Debord called a sick planet, groaning under the weight of waste. 

Wark was correct. The brilliance of capitalism’s use of technological innovation has always been in its ability to parse and rearrange the process of production. It eliminates whatever it needs to eliminate and outsources whatever it can outsource. To make us not just complicit but active and enthusiastic actors in the market, even when we are not consciously working or buying something; this is truly genius. 

And yet one wonders whether the disintegrated spectacle even captures it anymore. As so many of the threats and specters we thought were long gone return and collide and mix with new existential threats. The new always brings with it markers of the old. Even as the disintegration continues, new ways are (re)discovered to integrate and infuse. 

Today, on July 4th, there is a military parade in Washington, DC. Awesome destructive power is rhythmically rolled through city streets, simultaneously encouraging wonder and threatening its use. Spectators cheer and clap and listen to music. We become even more emotionally invested in a system that when push comes to shove will gladly use that same force against us. 

Meanwhile, so much of online chatter seems to be boosting and reifying the idea that we should not call them “concentration camps” (we fucking should). But of course, given what we know of the medium, this narrative doesn’t just come from the “top down.” It’s not melodramatic to say that we are supervisors to our own virtual petty bureaucracies in which others read as disposable. This is the shape of participation in a process in which we are monitored and manipulated, in which commodification and securitization are quickly becoming synonymous. 

Is this a new phase? Are capital and the spectacle showing themselves capable of centralizing through decentralization? Hasn’t this always been how it operates to one degree or another?

Is the Trumpian moment, with its reality show redeployment of “America First” rhetoric, simultaneously searching for new ways to isolate and atomize, the moment of, for lack of a better term, “re/dis/integrated spectacle”?  

And what, exactly, does this mean for resistance? Actual resistance. Not the kind that comes with a hashtag in front of it. 

Potemkin Village Lifestyles

“In her world, this is what her social circle did… Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone.” 

So says the defense attorney for Anna Sorokin – aka Anna Delvey. Sorokin was convicted last month of what amounts to one big scam of New York’s social elite. Three counts of grand larceny, one count of attempted grand larceny, four counts of theft of services. She was sentenced on Thursday to a maximum of twelve years in jail. ICE have also confirmed that Sorokin – who has German citizenship – will likely be deported at some point.  

Reading through the list of her escapades, you can’t help but be impressed. Socialites, five-star hotels, even a hefty loan from City National Bank. Over the course of four years she managed to bilk them out of around $275,000. She got others to pay for luxury rooms, private jets, vacations to Morocco, and lavish nights out while having barely a cent to her name. All by convincing people that she was heiress to a $67 million fortune.  

She isn’t. Her father is a truck driver and her mother is a housewife. Who said millennials lack ambition? 

Sorokin’s conviction and sentencing have, predictably, been the source of vigorous buzz and chatter. For some she’s been the object of derision and spite, for others she’s cause for the gleefullest of glee. Fashionistas have gandered at her choice of clothing throughout her trial. Shonda Rhimes is developing a series based on Sorokin’s story. Lena Dunham is working on another. 

Still others have wondered why it is that the New York District Attorney has gone after Sorokin with such viciousness while in the past he has failed to prosecute the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn for more serious crimes. Some suspect sexism afoot, and I reckon there is something to this. 

What interests me the most though is what Sorokin’s lawyer means when he says “her world.” Because, after all, the life of the rich and privileged wasn’t “hers.” It’s precisely this that in the end got her into so much trouble. In Sorokin’s case it is less about the amount of money she stole than who she stole it from, who she pretended to be. At the core of it, her biggest crime is the crime of false pretense. 

In some ways, though, it was her world. If her place within it could be so easily adopted and faked, then perhaps that says more about the world than her. Sorokin’s actions didn’t just rely on aestheticization. They were, in their entirety, aestheticization. Delvey never existed. She was made up, invented, carefully curated and skillfully plotted.  

Ben Davis writes of how the art world was the circulatory system through which Delvey ran her scams. She promised an arts center to potential financial backers, featuring art from Koons and Christo. Her Instagram presence (as she is sure to have learned from so many Rich Kids of Instagram) was patiently crafted and constructed. It suggested that Sorokin had a deep appreciation and love for art and aesthetics. Though as Davis has also pointed out, this could itself be an act; for all we know of Anna Delvey, Sorokin could have known and appreciated as much about art as the average Wikipedia reader.  

Whatever the case, Sorokin has if nothing else closely studied the ways of the rich and spoiled. Her ability to convince those around her that she was an heiress reflects how perceptive this study was. But it also reveals that there isn’t a whole lot of difficulty in aping the upper crust, in convincing them that you are one of them. There is no substance to fake, no authenticity to mine, just an image to cultivate.  

Yes, it is old hat to point out that the lives of the rich are, behind the glitz, empty and banal. Or that social media aids in the cultivation of these full spectrum poses. But there is also something particular about the timing of Sorokin’s story, falling as it does in an era also marked by the Fyre Fest fiasco, by Elizabeth Holmes, by the specter of the “millennial scammer.” Compare this crop with those behind the Enron or WorldCom scandals of the early 2000’s, and you start to see an added element in play.

It is more than generational turnover. More than just conspicuous consumption. The global slump of 2008 was a foundational crisis in neoliberalism, exposing not just its inner machinations but thusly forcing sections to reassess how it maintained cultural hegemony. If financialization required the basic workings of exploitation to be obscured, aestheticized, then the crisis of this template required an intensification of neoliberalism’s specific relationship with the culture industry. 

Take, as an example, the rich people of reality television. Not long before the ‘08 crash, production studios had begun to lean heavily on reality TV. This was most immediately an adaptation to the four-month writers’ strike that put countless scripts on hold. But the strike itself was indicative of much larger rifts that were opening up in Hollywood’s business model. And so Hollywood also stumbled on a very profitable lesson.  

Today, reality TV is far more bankable than scripted shows. Labor costs are lower for them and their ratings are on the whole higher, but they also reflect and encourage a peculiarly voyeuristic kind of moralism. Among them a special place is held for shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real HousewivesSouthern Charm; shows that dramatize the idleness of the pampered. Their mundane pettiness is wrapped in the pretense of high drama, and in such a way that it wouldn’t be if they were of a more common socioeconomic stature.  

The line between content and form becomes blurred, and it is used against us. Our emotional investment in the petty behaviors of the privileged mirrors the way in which our own lives are financially tied up with the maintenance of their lifestyles. Yes, the vacuity of the rich has been laid bare, but even in schadenfreude, we are made complicit in that same vacuity.  

This dynamic doesn’t merely apply to gulag bait reality TV. But the specific form exhibits a logic that has been widely instilled in neoliberalism and accelerated in its later, post-crash iteration. The internet, social media, the generalized on-demand-ification of our cultural artifacts, even the rise of a mundane surveillance state; all have instilled in public consciousness that we somehow have a purchase in the lives of others. And if it seems as if the lives of the more well-off have more weight in that purchase, well, then you probably also have understood the double meaning behind the word “purchase.” 

What we are talking about then is a huge innovation in glamour, in the psychology and aesthetics of envy. Glamour and envy in the way that Berger described them almost fifty years ago: 

Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams. 

Telescope this forward to today. The means of reproducing the day-dream have been revolutionized and innovated a thousand times over. Yet the means to democratize daily life haven’t just failed to keep up but have been coerced from us.  

What happens when someone decides to not merely stay in the daydream, but make it their reality at any cost? The answer is found somewhere in the gap between Anna Sorokin and her avatar Anna Delvey. With the desires of the first unrealizable, the invention of the second becomes necessary. And the only skill needed is a convincing con game.  

It is not just that the lives of the rich are empty, it is that this very same emptiness has become its greatest source of strength. The void has gotten bored of staring back. Now it’s devouring us whole. And when we finally get to its center, there’ll be nothing waiting for us but Lena Dunham.  

Space Madness

Donald Trump wants The Expanse to be real. If there were ever a president who could watch a show about a solar system constantly at war with itself and miss the entire point, it is this man. Picture it: Trump, late at night, holed up in the President’s Bedroom. Crumpled Big Mac wrappers litter the foot of the bed. The curtains are closed, the only light in the room is the ghostly blue of the television. 

Having heard that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently rescued the beloved-but-canceled SyFy favorite from oblivion, the President has decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. As he watches residents of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt betray, lie, and kill each other off in power grabs, he begins to mumble to himself… “Hmmm… space… yeah, space… force… space force… yeah, space force. It’s a great idea, very important. Space force!”

And thus a press conference is called…

The above did not happen (or at least we don’t know if it happened). Trump has promised a space force before, and despite his official-sounding pronouncement on Monday, he has yet to sign anything like an executive order. Instituting a sixth branch of the military — the first new one for the United States since 1947 — is a massive and expensive undertaking. It will require congressional approval, and when asked about it last year, Trump’s own defense secretary Jim Mattis went on record to say it was a bad idea. 

Nonetheless, the wonders of outer space appear to be returning to a high place in the American popular imagination. Now is about the time in this piece where the author might trot out that overused Fred Jameson quote about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That remains true, but it is also worth considering the following sentence: “we can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Enter the architects of late neoliberalism’s escape plan.

Today’s most beloved moguls are, rather shamelessly, no mere titans of a single industry. Elon Musk is CEO or founder of no fewer than three companies vying in the worlds of everything from auto to neuroprosthetics. Richard Branson brings us air travel, records, jewelry and more. Amazon has transformed the way logistics are thought about and made obvious that literally every consumer product relies on them. A colleague of mine who worked for a time at one of Amazon’s distribution centers was told on his first day by management “Thank you for helping us take over the world.” Tongue in cheek? Sure, but the kind of thing that makes you shudder with dread too.

All three are, of course, very publicly and enthusiastically engaged in the enterprise of private spaceflight. Bezos announced that Amazon had picked up The Expanse at a conference where he also received an award for “space settlement advocacy.” The lines between fiction and reality become more than a bit blurred in all this adulation. Saving a much-loved sci-fi show becomes symbolic of the future he is supposedly building.

Same with Musk. His proponents and defenders believe in his utopia, pointing to how courageously idealistic he comes across when spouting his dreams of an intergalactic future. And while Musk may appear confused over what exactly makes someone an anarchist, socialist, or capitalist, he reveals much more than he likely realizes in his confusion. When he writes on Instagram of “true socialism,” he puts himself — knowingly or not — in the vein of those who see a just society as a matter of technocratic social engineering. The liberal imagination doesn’t just tolerate but enthusiastically applauds this vision, be it in the shaping of leisure time, the way our brains are wired, or the willingness to colonize Mars. In all instances, the human material is just that. Material.

Musk and Bezos have, it is true, been at loggerheads with Donald Trump recently. To some this is enough to earn them a place in “the resistance.” It’s a low bar when that same resistance can shriek for a continuation of war on the Korean peninsula. America is an empire in deep crisis, or at least an empire being forced to pivot quickly and clumsily as the world changes radically around it. The days of a unipolar world are over. Trade blocs and international communities are in flux. History has restarted, and it’s brought with it the beginnings of a new Cold War.

The emergence of Trekkie Howard Hughes types alongside talk of a “space force” in the midst of this is unnerving. People who remember Reagan’s Star Wars program surely remember how it felt in equal measures laughable and terrifying. In 2007 and 2008, China and the US of the Bush administration engaged in a show of capabilities by firing missiles to down their own decommissioned satellites, prompting a brief worry about an arms race in space. What Reagan and Bush didn’t have were billionaires launching cars and reusable rockets into the atmosphere, pitching a populist tone about how an entrepreneurial spirit will open up the wonders of space to all of us.

All of which is to say that the apparent discord between Trump and today’s captains of industry is deceptive. Enterprise on this massive level needs the state. Musk has already used billions in public funds to build his sprawling empire. The way that industries and private companies combine and interweave with governments to assert their interests around the world is an evolving one, but it is not one that will be going away. When virtually every facet of daily life is already being militarized, there is no reason this should change beyond the stratosphere.

Musk and Bezos pitch their dreams for humanity in space as a solution for a profoundly troubled civilization, riven with inequality and climate disaster and refugee crises. But all of this waxing utopian is only believable if a society’s technological advances can be extracted from the broken bodies that make them feasible. Bezos’ ability to drop a USB cable on your doorstep a half hour after you order it doesn’t happen without distribution employees worked to death. Musk’s lightning fast underground transport tunnels don’t exist without the millions of proles left struggling to get to work on time.

Can we therefore feasibly imagine a colonized moon without all of those left behind to scrape by on an increasingly uninhabitable planet? Or perhaps terraformed refugee camps where children are separated from their parents?

If all of this sounds like a thought exercise, then it is worth remembering that discussion of a Trump presidency felt the same way two years ago. And that’s the point. Dystopia, once merely a feared future, has become reality. And it has shown itself to be far more insidious and sneaky than we thought. It does not explode onto the world’s stage all at once; it unfolds over time, creeping and insinuating itself into the norm, even alongside entirely opposed visions for the future. The sticking point of course is that the latter is dependent on the former. I would say Trump should watch Elysium to have this point driven home, but he is liable to get the wrong idea from it.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

The End Has to Begin Somewhere

An observation: in today’s world, “pretentious” is normally code for “this is something I would rather not think about and therefore I am going to judge it harshly without considering it.”

During the 2016 American presidential election, a poll was conducted that jokingly included an option for a giant meteor. In other words, it was asked whether potential voters would rather a massive asteroid collide with the Earth than any available candidate become president of the United States.

The poll found that 13% of those surveyed preferred the meteor. Hillary Clinton received 39%. Donald Trump – the eventual victor, as if we need reminding – got 35%. The meteor got a higher percentage than any of the third party candidates who actually appeared on the ballot.

On the surface it’s comedic. In that bitter, sardonic kind of way. It naturally says something about the unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump and the intransigence of the American political system (now might be the right time to reiterate that had the Democratic establishment not been so characteristically terrified of the specter of socialism, Bernie would have indeed won). But in my estimation it says something even broader and more fundamental.

Apocalypse is no longer something in a far-off, speculative future. It is an undeniable part of the now. Beneath the insufferable shiny-happy insistence of advertising, “official” politics, and the fantasies of billionaire moguls, the notion of an unfolding/ongoing catastrophe is woven into just about every facet of culture and common logic. Attempts to cover it up just make it that much more unavoidable and dark.

Nowhere

In 1890, William Morris published what is arguably the first successful example of modern communist speculative fiction: News from Nowhere. As much propaganda as pulp literature, it was written as a direct response to Edward Bellamy’s technocratic socialist vision Looking Backward. In it Morris reimagined London through a radical lens that as free of pollution, poverty, and theft of time.

There is plenty in the book that we would find simply outdated, in particular its portrayal of women. But News from Nowhere was a sincere and creative attempt to pivot from the degradation of industrial capitalism. It was naturally imbued with the romantic Morris’ nostalgia for pre-capitalist pastoralism, but it also self-consciously avoids unproductive wistfulness that pines for turning back the clock. The radical’s view of history as an overlapping and cumulative process is what allows the book’s incorporation of sustainability and egalitarianism come alive. News from Nowhere personifies the Marxist’s ambivalence toward modernity: savvy to how its productive capacities made possible real equality and solidarity, horrified at how its hierarchies produced unprecedented degradation

The book’s very title was a nod to its first-glance infeasibility: “utopia” being translated literally, prior to Thomas More, as “nowhere.” As in “nowhere exists this type of world.” But Morris’ sly trick was to pull this out of the realm of absolute fantasy by adding a subtle “yet…”

There is, of course, an adjacent apparent impossibility to cobbling together a utopian vision with a dystopian reality; two conjunctures that cannot coincide. Indeed at first they seem diametrically opposed. But there was also a time not so long ago when the dystopian seemed equally far-fetched and far-flung as its mirror opposite.

Reality has intervened, and not for the better. Climate change has accelerated, making food scarcity, droughts and devastating floods a fact for huge swathes of the globe. We know that we have already crossed the point of no return for a warming planet. The degradation of soil, should it continue, will leave the planet with perhaps 60 full harvests.

Mass refugee crises, never-ending war and the shuttering of borders are casually woven into news coverage and polite conversation. The line between the unimaginable and reported reality disintegrates.

Insipid morning show hosts might try to soften the blow, telling the inspirational story of the exceptional suburban mom doing food drives for refugee kids, or move quickly from coverage of the UN’s latest predictions for climate catastrophe into that day’s guest celebrity chef. But cultural awareness never takes things at face value. Deep down, we know we’re fucked. Remember ten years ago when Children of Men seemed more an eerily prescient warning and not a portrayal of the world as it is? Fun times…

In other words, catastrophe is everywhere. Giant Meteor 2016 isn’t just an instance of dark comedy. It is, indirectly anyway, a reflection of the connection between persistent devastation and the persistence of a political and economic system whose pretense of a plentiful/prosperous future is on very shaky ground. It is a 21st century version of Amadeo Bordiga’s reminder that rich people also drowned with the Titanic. If we can’t stave off impending doom, at least we can take solace in the fact that mismanaged capitalism will eventually overtake those who have subjected us to the fallout of mismanagement.

Of course it’s never that simple. The rich passengers aboard the Titanic disproportionately were able to get to lifeboats, unlike the poor folks in steerage. Should the planet become uninhabitable, it’s entirely plausible that the ruling class will be able to construct their own Elysium. That’s precisely the motivation behind such projects as Eko Atlantic in Nigeria and others like it. More often than not they will find a way to shield their selves and their lifestyles from consequence. We, as always, get the wreckage.

The dystopian is already a reality. The impossible has once again proven possible. Any kind of useful realism must, therefore, take this dynamic into account, seeing the utopian not as a dream, but as a demand.

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So did the writing on the walls remind us in Paris, 1968. This blog is an attempt to cobble together – sloppily, perhaps self-indulgently – one aspect of a dys/utopian praxis: the vivid radical imagination; one that isn’t so much an escape as it is an escape plan.

Devastation

What I am here calling “dys/utopian” is hardly groundbreaking. And I can’t take credit for it. There are other writers and publications on the contemporary Left who have been exploring this for at least a few years prior to my starting this blog. Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse comes to mind. So does much of the work of the recently and tragically departed Mark Fisher, whose notion of “the slow cancellation of the future” has been essential in forming the ideas here.

Enzo Traverso’s recent book Left Melancholia attempts to salvage the dreams of a fractured Left in the midst of capitalism’s perpetual false starts. And, as long as we’re using the term, I can’t pass up the chance to mention the always-indispensable journal Salvage.

All of the above are brilliant attempts to forge some kind of intellectual and material praxis for a Left that has had the reset button hit on it. It’s my hope to add to this in a constructive way.

The enumeration of the above atrocities has normally provoked a familiar refrain: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” True of course, but insufficient. Is another world possible? It is unquestionably necessary, but its feasibility is by no means a given. The planet has already passed several points of no return with climate change, which in turn brings each future turning point closer with increasing speed.

This quickly approaching mass historical moment is ironic considering the past few decades of capital’s trajectory. Ever since the collapse of “actually existing communism” we have been stuck in a kind of momentous feedback loop. Neoliberalism’s adaptability means that its undead husk can keep shuffling on indefinitely. As long as it does, its cultural logic – the declaration that the new can never really be new – drags along behind it. The pressure for us to be “flexible” with our time, to accommodate more of our lives to accumulation of profit, grows greater. Crises worsen, but they don’t stop happening. Disasters stop being benchmarks and start being daily occurrences folded into our routine.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming: the problem with “the end of history” was always that it wouldn’t be able to stop starting.

The question (a very open one in fact) is whether the Left, that contingent who historically have fought the hardest for things to not be this way, can manage to break out of the feedback loop. Whether it can get creative and do things differently. Whether it can gain the wherewithal to soberly assess the already-existing wreckage around it and figure out how to repurpose it, to become the coming catastrophe so that it is only society’s rulers caught up in it rather than ourselves. Either we continue to allow the monuments to be built on top of the rubble with us inside it, or we figure out how the build our own from the same refuse.

Revolution

Others have said that the Left’s present state is one of devastation. This is obviously fitting given the general state of things. Just as the working class has had its coherence and institutions robbed of it, so have Left and revolutionary organizations found themselves sidelined and treading water. For sure, there are green shoots of hope for those who wish to end this state of affairs: the election of Corbyn as head of the Labour Party in the UK, some victories for Leftist parties in Europe and elsewhere, the Sanders campaign in the US and the explosion in popularity for socialist ideas in its aftermath.

These are the most hopeful signs for radical renewal in decades. They are also not enough, and are emerging in the midst of odds that remain slim. Can socialism be won and built when half the planet is a sacrifice zone? We may have to address this question in real time, and we will not be able to do so by relying on the same answers we always have. A level of cultural sophistication and vision – the kind which has not been so much lacking as it has been forgotten in the midst of the great neoliberal shakeup – is urgently needed.

Now the inevitable question: will this be a project of doom and gloom? To a certain but ultimately limited degree it has to be. It is not, however, melancholic. I would rather characterize it as being grounded in the thought of Marxist writers and activists whose sensitivity to culture opened them up to a practical revolutionary pessimism: Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Anatoly Lunacharsky, André Breton, José Carlos Mariátegui, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, Pierre Naville, Raoul Vaneigem, Frantz Fanon, Michael Löwy.

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All of these figures possessed zero faith in the possibility of capitalism to provide any salvation. All knew that the act of mourning, of recognizing just how much we have lost and just how bad it has gotten, was an unavoidable step in grasping radical social change.

All knew that reforms were only a delay of the inevitable. All saw revolution (to borrow from Benjamin) as the handbrake preventing history from careening off a cliff, partaking in revolutionary thought and action not because it filled them with optimism but because it was the only way path toward basic survival.

Finally, all saw in artistic expression the ability to psychologically straddle the gap between the real and the visionary. A widening of the field of imagination, revealing the machinations of capitalism as intrinsically corrupt but also for a more vivid notion of revolution.

Culture is an expression of the economic and political substructure of society, but this does not mean it is static. Its relationship is, in fact, quite far from the Manicheanism that has plagued Left frameworks on arts and culture for decades. Being able to put aside this wooden, almost caricatured method allows for the dynamic to be revealed. For the possibilities, however dim, to animate. For contradiction to cease being just something that merely exists and to become the key to rupture and liberation.

I would contend – and will do so repeatedly on this blog – that we are surrounded by contemporary cultural artifacts that reveal this multifaceted character: marked simultaneously the brutality of the past and present, and the fading prospects for a future worth living. Much like Morris’ time-traveler, our starting point must be now, but if we aren’t daring to rigorously think through the implications for a radical vision, then there isn’t any real reason to ponder in the first place.

Or, on the other hand, maybe it really is all just pretentious. But pretense is a right, not a privilege. And sometimes a giant meteor is just a giant meteor.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.