“Postmodern” Politics: Working Through the Neuroses of the Old Left

A lot of the paleo-leftist criticisms of post-structuralism is that it pulls the rug out from tried and true models of politics. Some people blame it on New Left undermining of the strong base of Old Left labor politics. One of the contemporary standard-bearers is Todd Gitlin, a former student leader in the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was one of the ‘transitional’ organizations that bridged both the old and new divide – a fusion of labor politics, civil rights concerns, and the ‘new’ youth movement of the 60s. There are many examples of these figures, usually orthodox marxists or movement types who lament the loss of late 19C/early 20C style mass mobilizations. Nostalgic mis-remembering of a time where there were clear battlelines and straightforward politics.

I’ve been doing a little work tracking down Foucault’s use of the term “pleb.” It has come up in conversations with friends over the preferred ‘subjects’ of Foucault. Spivak’s criticism of Foucault in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is a condemnation of Foucault’s fetish for the mad, insane, criminalized Others. What generally follows is a critique of Foucault, arguing that he merely trying to reintroduce the Other into an economy of power that’s stacked against his preferred subjects and the tools he provides are relatively useless.

Foucault’s use of the “pleb” appears to sidestep this critique, if not completely, at least enough to pose a different question. Rather than posing the pleb as a sociological figure, an entity with a specific set of characteristics that can be pointed out, spot in various historical or cultural contexts. That, if authentically re-presented, could be the basis of a social order similar to that found in Ancient Rome. Rather, “plebness” is a way to speak about the topological limit of certain social relations. And in this way, Foucault is able to challenge the stupid idea that Foucault looked to subjects of madness as models for imitation:

Without doubt the “pleb” must not be conceived of as the permanent foundation of history … the never totally extinct hearth of every revolt. The “pleb” undoubtedly has no sociological reality. But there is needed always something which is some way escapes the relations of power; something in the social body, in the classes, in the groups, in the individuals themselves which is not at all the more or less docile or reactive raw material, but which is the centrifugal movement, the inverse energy, that which escapes. “The” pleb, undoubtedly, does not exist; but there is “plebness” … This measure of plebness is not so much that which is outside relations of power as it is their limit … Taking this point of view of the pleb … I do not think [it] may be confused in any way with some neo-populism which substantifies the pleb, or some neo-liberlism which harps on themes of its basic rights.

What emerges from the picture of the pleb is much closer to other “postmodern” figures of politics: Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad, Lyotard’s jew, Agamben’s whatever singularity, Arendt’s pariah, Said’s migrant, etc etc.

The question that emerges for me is: what is the difference between these figures and Alphonso Lingis’s title for such a group, “the community of those who have nothing in common”? And subsequently, if there’s nothing in common, why does it serve as a foundation for politics?

Old Left had based shared political concern on a shared-condition of the proletarian — socialized production couldn’t help but both create social classes and put them in a promiscuous proximity with each other. Working in the coal mine side-by-side developed a social bond strong enough for the production process to be effective but the depth of the bond always over-spilled, creating affiliation that was militant enough to hold a picket line and wide enough to foster class solidarity. Marx’s theorization of species-being and general intellect immediately translate to labor in this form.

Early interventions in the production process can be conceived of as fairly simple and not necessarily upsetting to these modes of affiliation. But even the simple operation like the introduction of machines to extend the efficacy of the currently-arranged labor process could mark an important shift. Technological mediation could completely change the rapport between workers and their own bodies, as exhibited in Fordist/Taylorist production. This form of production looked like a symphony orchestra of commodity production, place human movement within a table of management that divides a task according to a counted set of movements, reducing each movement to an essential motion, setting them to a timed rhythm — all with the plant manager as the conductor. This technique of management sought to eliminate the improvisation of petty craft production, stripping the worker of any shred of self-management. Furthermore, it intensifies the necessity of the Old Labor strategy of collective revolt – a single uncooperative member of the assembly line doesn’t just fall behind on their own work or impact others in the abstract sense of forcing peers to “pick up their slack”, a single error works to sabotage the final product that everyone is working on.

An obvious correlate is Party Politics. The Party works like a giant container, it holds all of the desires and aspirations of its members. And as a fixed, static entity, the party becomes a point of reference that ‘at the end of the day’ (or as the marxists say, in the final analysis) everything can ‘come back to it’. Relying on similar assumptions to the model of capitalist production explained above, some forms of scientific socialism assume that the strength of a political tendency is its ability to create a well-oiled machine. In some cases it means reproducing Party Membership according to a single universal set of characteristics. In its more advanced form, party members are submitted to a party division of labor, differentiating tasks and delegating responsibilities. This is the sort of “Taylorization” or business-management approach to politics, done in the name of efficiency. So while the combinatory power of each individual is put to use in order to maximize the ‘power’ of the Party, it also assumes that the Party is alpha and omega of politics. Politics starts with involvement in the Party and political potential is only useful as far as it can be fed back into the Party.

The “postmodern” pleb stands in a strange position to the Party. Ranciere does a perfect rendering of these figures. Maybe they are the original proletarians (O.P.s?). And not despite but maybe in light of certain post-Hegelian reworkings of the old “class in itself” to “class for itself” saw, — for instance emphasizing that if the proletariat is the Party of “self-abolition”, how quickly must one self-abolish? immediately? pure means (self-abolition) to the end (class for itself)? — the pleb opens up fertile ground for exploring paleo-lefist’s collective pathology. Some thinkers posit that the Old Left fears “postmodernism” because of the explosion of New Left identity categories that at best de-emphasize the collective oppression of contemporary capitalism and at worst come into conflict with the needs of the Party. I think the real obsession of the Old Left is over creeping “postmodern irony.” In the “postmodern” world where nothing is as it seems, it becomes impossible to determine true commitment to the Party. Recognition of a shared condition fades into the ether and the conditions for membership begin taking on completely new justifications that undermine the ‘real’ basis of material relations necessary to extend trust and solidarity. Are there even credentials to hold membership to out deceptive fakers attempting to accumulate cultural capital or seize power in an attempt to betray the proletariat? Rather than resolving this tension, it sets up an argument I’ve been building up to.

The most ‘successful’ postmodern politicians haven’t been identity politics movements of the New Left or the American career academics. Actually, it has been the right. American Neo-Conservatives led a veritable coup in the late-90s that the country is still reeling from. Just look to Shadia Drury’s work on the intellectual foundations of the Neo-Conservatives, or Adam Curtis’s partisan sketch of the neo-conservative politics of fear. You won’t find a deep commitment to the works of Thomas Jefferson or an extended engagement with public intellectuals like William F. Buckley.  What is found is a well documented academic history with political philosophers like Nietzsche and Hegel. And while this claim might sound counter-intuitive, it was engineered to be so: the so-called “Neo-Conservatives” are likely the most philosophically rigorous major current within the American Political mainstream. Of course there are well-educated Greens and even Democrats, but they are largely overly professionalized, expertise-driven, or naively-populist.

One could put the blame on “postmoderns” like Foucault for fracturing the left, destroying its base. It is quite a bit more likely that the opposite is true – the Left’s partial commitment to partisan politics without a substantial commitment to a complementary political philosophy has lead to the diminished returns of recycled liberalism. A powerful example is found in the Nouveux Philosophes. With a little reading, I found that Foucault’s “pleb” was actually a shared concept with the reactionary philosopher André Glucksmann. Assessments of the Nouveux Philosophes vary, one I found particularly interesting was a 1978 review by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Ryan in Diacritics. According to their assessment, the NP are less defined by any positive stance than by the heterogeneous ways that they all reject the Left Orthodoxy of post-68 France. Hazarding a guess for how to characterize the (then) unfolding political positions of the group, Spivak and Ryan label it a new philosophy of Anarchism. By this, they mean a sort of Anarchism proper that is still conjuncturally specific to a falling out with French Communism and its associated academic bastions, especially in light of the recent publishing of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. To bolster their characterization, they begin the review with a lengthy quote from the classical Russian Anarchist Michael Bakunin.  With the perspective of thirty years since this assessment, it’s much more clear now.  Most of the NP have embraced the new right, others like Benoist are even the academic wing of the neo-fascist right.  But rather than raking the Nouveux Philosophes over the coals once again (though I can’t help repeating that Deleuze denounced them as simply publicity-seeking “TV Buffoons”), I would note that even the vulgar and simplistic appropriation of Foucualt and Lacan by the Nouveux Philosophes turned out better than the American Left’s attempt keep the dead corpse of liberationist liberalism animated. Look to the machinations of Fox News or other Neo-Conservative outlets for cultural transmission. While the left is still caught up in finding out ‘what’s the matter with Kansas?’, Sarah Palin became a top-billed political commentator and a nature show host. These events are only counter-intuitive as long as Leftists hold onto their retrograde (right)eous commitment to the political Reason of 17th and 18th Century Europe found in very old, very white men like John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.

Will “postmodern” politics save the Left? Of course not. But working through its resistances to ‘postmodernism’ might finally kill off dead idols and set the stage for a political philosophy fit for the 21st Century.


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