I’ve had a few deadlines to get out of the way recently and it has swallowed up the last couple of weeks. I’m somewhat shocked by how much time has past… So forgive me if my next couple of posts have me jumping back into a few old conversations…
First things first, a couple weeks ago I received this excellent comment from Ed on my post about Tory Maoism. As ever, it is too good not to share above the comment line:
There’s kind of interesting motif I’ve noticed where Maoism has become the go-to label for a wide variety of political phenomena that have bubbled up over the last several years. The one that comes to mind the most is the refrain that we heard from the right during the George Floyd protests: that the protesters, especially when things reached the ‘tearing down statues’ phase, were basically Maoists, and that what was happening was effectively a new Cultural Revolution. But in the wake of the elections, we’ve seen the term deployed by liberal commentators in connection to the sharp political divide between the urban zones (strongly inclined towards the Democratic Party) and the rural regions (dominated by the Republicans).
I’m fascinated by the way that Mao(ism) is this thing that has returned to haunt the mind, in various and often contradictory ways. Clearly the deployment by American liberal commentators in reference to the election is distinct from the ‘Tory Maoism’ example (the critique of the George Floyd protests would be more directly isomorphic), but it is intriguing in its own right: one can argue — like Alvin Gouldner did — that Maosim a more ‘populist’ strain of Marxism, one that angled itself against the more technocratic form of socialism that was taking shape and being exported by the Soviet Union. The “bombard the headquarters” campaign exemplified this. Later, when Maoism was taken up by certain sectors of the New Left, it was taking the precise form of an organizational-political critique of the managerialism of the Old Left and the first wave of the New Left. So it seems to me that there is a kind of skeletal repetition of this dynamic, where for the liberal (the technocrat-manager par excellence) can only see in “populism” (in quotes because what goes for populism is largely a simulated construction; Baudrillard once wrote that the ‘silent majority’ is a sociological void, an implosion of socio-political management, but contemporary control systems have fabulated it into a quasi-potent political force) the echo of the Maoist uprising.
Perhaps going to far afield, but part of me thinks that the ghost of Maoism stalks postmodernity because it contains within itself elements that might suggest direct ways of acting internal to the postmodern, i.e. the acephalic model of dialectic that foregrounds the paradoxical structure, the breakdown of stadialist accounts of historical development, the division of the one into the two, etc. But whether or not these actual open the door to something else is another question.
This chimes with some recent research I’ve been doing around what Foucault called “sociological governance”, building on the previous post’s nod to Badiou’s crisis of the new, which he hoped to solve in the late 2000s with a resurgent Marxist-Leninism.
Credit where due, there’s an old article for Frieze magazine written by Lars Bang Larsen in 2012 that brought this to mind. In the essay, Larsen paints a familiar picture: our present socio-political purgatory emerged, on the one hand, from the “claim put forward by conservative thinkers vis-à-vis the end of the Cold War” that history as such had now ended. However, on the other hand, this new era of ultimate acquiescence to ideological and evental stasis was similarly interpreted “from a different perspective by critical minds such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt” as the erasure of any “outside to the present order.” It was the ascendency of what Mark Fisher most famously called “capitalist realism”.
Larsen notes that this “‘no outside’ predicament” was the direct product of “Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ paradigm” – now diffusely known as liberal centrism. What was initially theorised as a way of “humanising” capitalism – following the introduction of elements from “ethical socialism” and a naïve belief in the power of gradual reform – led to the deferral of all change whatsoever. In hindsight, it is recognised as a political attempt to trap society in a postmodern resin. As a result, Larsen writes, “Left and right merged, state and economy were integrated in increasingly informal ways, and politics lost its fixed points.”
The tenets of “ethical socialism” are particularly notable here as this leads not to the normalisation of Marxian critique within social democracies but instead to the implementation of “sociological” governance and the calcification of capitalism itself. Larsen continues:
Foucault described neo-liberalism as sociological government: in this model, the realms of the social and cultural – rather than the economy – are mobilized for competition and commerce. During the 1990s, a new economy began brimming with imperatives to socialize through email, mobile phones and, later, social media, and as social and economic processes were pulled closer together, both art and power became ‘sociological’. The reification of the social form became almost indistinguishable from social content. In other words, the social can also be a simulacrum: an instrumentalization of models and tastes that are already received and working in the culture at large.
This point is important to note because it demonstrates how political stasis was purposefully dissolved into cultural production. Neoliberal governments failed to cover all the basis.
For Jacques Derrida, this reification of the social form was haunted by the spectre of Marx, the spectre of communism as that other grand ideal for how to organise society, now supposedly defeated by capitalism. This political spectre was accompanied by various cultural spectres as well. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, amongst others, argued that rave culture was similarly a spectre that lingered over a new generation of youth culture that was now, unbeknownst to itself, operating largely on received cultural norms from their elders – contrary to how youth culture had previously been known to operate.
Fisher and Reynolds are renowned critics, who have successfully brought the insights of critical theory to bear on popular culture from within. However, we might also note that a gulf between culture and politics has been widened by postmodern compartmentalising. In Francois Bonnet’s The Infra-World, for example, he makes the point that ghosts are often all-too-convenient explanations for inexplicable forces. As such, we have seen these spectres of revolt disarticulated from their all-too-material beginnings in the ascendency of “sociological government.”
To better understand this idea of a “sociological government”, we can consider how it truly came into its own in the early twenty-first century. In the UK, this was epitomised by David Cameron’s promotion of the “Big Society” – a “socialised” form of capitalism not unlike Margaret Thatcher’s concept of “care in the community.” However, whereas Thatcher had declared that there was “no such thing as society”, only “individual men and women and … families”, Cameron declared that individual men and women are precisely what society consists of. There nonetheless remains a considerable emphasis placed upon “individuals” here – the “Big Society” is the promotion of individualism and voluntarism, rather than a socialist state, as the only meaningful solution to all of our ills.
Sociological government, then, has resulted in the superficial dispersal of soft power into the wider population, and the psychological impact has been disastrous. Government sadism is no longer something to be blamed on puppeteering officials and capitalists, whose fortunes trickle down to the rest of us baying for their blessing and the scraps off their table. Capitalist sadism is instead sublated into an aparallel mode of social masochism. Capitalism is no longer out there; it is in here with us. Any attempt to attack this ideological hegemony resembles a form of socio-cultural self-harm.
This is, at least, how any form of revolution is now understood in the West. It is as if to operate upon capitalism within the “Big Society” model is to operate recklessly upon ourselves. Because we are the society that we despise — yes, we live in a society — but what is important to note that this society is actively produced by capitalism’s bastardisation of socialist principles, through which all social responsibility is shifted from the owners of the means of production to the those engaged with the means of consumption. As such, to destroy capitalism is to destroy ourselves – or so we have been led to believe.
This is what comes to mind when Ed notes how the “silent majority” is a “sociological construction”, but similarly how technocratic managerialism is understood to be a nascent form of socialism. (I’m thinking, in part, of the “Walmart as Utopia” accelerationist critique here — is Walmart embryonic socialism or hollowed-out socialism? I think that’s similar to the question Ed ends on, regarding “the spectre of Mao” — love that!