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John O’Kane: Antitheses of Cultural Marxism


Few would deny that in millennial USA, mass culture has become second nature. More than two decades of neoliberal ideology - along with a revived but barely recognizable state - have nurtured capital's powers to massify. Yet is the material expansion of the new capitalism - if we can momentarily label it so - a progressive guarantee? Has this massification brought with it more equality or less; if inequality rules, have the cultural positives of the victorious and expandable mass culture compensated for material deficiencies? Mass culture appears more commodified than ever, and the gaps between top and bottom seem never to have been so wide. But if the victims of these changes aren't complaining, then what kind of problem are we faced with at the dawn of the 21st century? Do the immiserated - its former and recent incarnations - know what they want and have access to all their faculties? Are they afraid to speak up for fear of losing that third job moonlighting at the car wash on weekends? Is this proof the system is spewing out fewer economic determinists, that America's newly disenfranchised citizenry have discovered cultural takes on the new world order?

Mass society and its culture are surely one of the notable success stories of this century about to end. The large-scale organizational representation and management of the masses we now associate with the emergence of Fordism kicks in just after WWI. The quantum increase in population and technological invention coming in the latter part of the 19th century offered the basis for capitalism's expansion in the early moments of its successor. Production and consumption reached new levels of possibility in these testy times, shaping promises for more people to share in the spoils. The world of spectacle entertainment symbolized this overreaching. The studio system - as solidified in the late 20s - was a large-scale oligopoly which manufactured generic stories for a populace segmented into the slots of marketing research. The system's dream factories lured the masses to consume the national dramatic spectacle, a mythic American Dream far from inclusive of the culture's gendered, racial or class diversity. This cornucopia of massification aptly figures capitalism's contradictions as they evolved over the course of the century, especially its inability to accomodate the burgeoning plurality of demands. Fantasies of inclusion in ever more imagined and artificial communities had to mask the unaccomodated, those excluded from the party.

The atomized were homaged to aggregate dreams with such efficiency that bonified representations of the excluded - like socialism - had little chance of survival. The confluence of factors which spelled the success of massified capitalism over the long 20th century justified "Americanism" as obviously superior. The downside to this victory was a blindness to the mechanisms for correcting deficiencies. For Leon Samson, speaking in the early 30s when these factors were just congealing, Americanism was a "doctrine" with stature similar to that of socialism. People embraced its ideas - democracy, individual liberty and opportunity - not so much out of patriotic fervor as the belief they would convert to practical gains and endless happiness. As a preference this mythic vision repressed the values socialism represented, rendered them unthinkable and unAmerican, and blocked the development of an inclusive ethic [1]. The system became mere background noise as issues were framed in terms of dispersed individuals confronting the elusive power bloc, preventing collective formations from emerging. In the following I begin to evaluate the most recent effects of this heritage in the symptoms of the new underclass. Capitalism's massifications have worked against the empirical construction or class groupings and identities, as well as inhibited processes for imagining their rebirth. The recent success of capitalism has come with marked signs of increased inequality and immiseration, revealing the system's Darwinism in the absence of checks on capital. While capitalism remains untouchable in the current ideological climate, capital logic maintains socio-economic atomization. Paradoxically, the underclass in these terminal years of Clintonism is a byproduct of massification's success. Diffuse non-entities with no power or representation, this anti-grouping is dialectically linked to the factual inability of class formations to emerge. The question then which needs to be addressed is: what radical models can be tapped to explain these recent changes? Is any form of marxism - cultural, economic or some creative synthesis - usable for this task?

I. The political, economic and cultural spaces occupied by masses of people at the turn of the century are different from those at the dawn of Reaganism and earlier. However weak and nominal from hindsight, the state still checked the excesses of capital's self-generating conquest of the infinite (the institutional spectres of Eastern marxism keeping statism itself legitimately alive). The emergence of the underclass in the afterlives of Reaganism is synonymous with the state's new role in constructing and preserving optimal conditions for capital's realization and expansion. Its existence is a reminder of neoliberal, anti-statist capitalism's structural limits, the failure of the market and its filtering mechanisms to assimilate the excluded and impoverished. No underclass of such volume has arguably ever coexisted with so many millionaires (the mass media feeds on this data, using it to construct wealth-creation as a form of spontaneous combustion). What's truly different about this recent capitalism is the scale and intensity of capital's free reign. Capital is inherently fascistic, always poised to extract value and convert it into the maximum appropriation possible within existing limits. There are no hesitations and half-way stations in this process. In possession of the exponential power of capital, one has little incentive to not rollback wages to their minimum level or triple the profit margin if these options present themselves. This difference then results from a reenactment of the familiar, the realization of the same old forces in a new guise. So we can't just read surface changes to acquire the best understanding of this process. It is the dynamics within the larger system of capitalism - new relations between its elements - which have been ever so slightly altered to fullfill capital's timeless tendencies.

Noam Chomsky reads these surface changes as symptoms of the underclassing of America. The recent boom, he contends, has a "fairy-tale" quality. It is the "first recovery in American history that has not been accompanied by increases in wealth and income" for those other than the top few per-cent; and it is the weakest in the postwar era in terms of productivity increases and growth rates. So how do we reconcile this with the media's hype about "dazzling profit growth" in the media? For Chomsky we need to grasp the data and activities from other points in the larger structure to fully understand recent trends and demystify the obsessively limited boomspeak (the short story put forth by the media to represent the long one):

Most of the population has been left out of the story. For two-thirds of workers, average incomes are below the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, which was a period of recovery, hunger in the US increased 50 per cent, to affect about 30 million people. Around 1980 the US was rather similar to other industrial societies by what are called "quality of life measures" - factors like poverty, malnutrition among children, mortality, the proportion of the population in jail, inequality and so on. Now it's far in the lead. Working hours have gone way up - Americans apparently work about a month per year more than they did twenty-five years ago, wages have gone down, support systems have declined, working conditions have deteriorated. Until this afternoon, I thought they were the worst in the industrial world, but then I got some information about England, and I had to revise that! The decline of US labor costs to the lowest, second to England, in the industrial world was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as "a welcome development of transcendent importance," and that's part of America's being happy and satisfied [2].


The underclassing of America takes place politically and economically. A partial America perpetrates class war in the name of the whole society with the power naturally accruing from its political position, which also enables it to convert the already asymmetrical benefits of capital into a virtually guaranteed advantage. This class war from above issues from a changed structure of the whole, one with new disproportions and disparities not detectable in the same ways by all. Some see boom, but what do the unseemly and unseen see? How do we account for this incommensurable gap between positions: that the system has never worked better; and that it has produced unheard of levels of bondage and immiseration? The appearance of the new capitalism demands to be read with a different gestalt to flesh out the mostly invisible workings of the underclassing process. The challenge is to place these extremes into a framework where their specific value - moral, logical or sociological - can be explained as a contradictory relation of the larger structure, not as the affirmation of either this or that position. We need to identify the separations and differences sustaining capitalism 1999 before specifying the nature of the passageways between them, a difficult prospect if only because capital logic constructs false unities to cover the system's inherent fragmentation.


Capitalism has become a universal palliative for the globe's crisis-ridden economies, an unquestioned presence whose workings are mostly hidden. The commodity form's pervasiveness hides capitalism's totalizing power to restructure society as inherently fragmented, as an anti-systematic system of overdetermined separations which few recognize as such. The power of capital cements public awareness with the idea of its own inevitability as an ordering principle which naturalizes fragmentation, repression and hierarchy. Yet since this power operates invisibly there's a blindspot in the system. The new reverence for capital as a universal force can't be universalized. Universalization, as Slavoj Zizek shows, can't actually apply to everything, all the elements which the omnipresence of capitalist reorganization can potentially govern. And so any "empirical non-realization" of capitalism as a "universal structuring principle," such as the sudden emergence of a sizable underclass, will have to be automatically explained away as extraneous to the system, a mere "matter of contingent circumstances." Such contingencies are in fact the points where the system is suspended. That is, if it truly applied to the underclass of contemporary America - if indeed it was feasible that all immiseration and deprivation could be eliminated within the terms of the system - then the "universal system itself would disintegrate" [3].


To put this in more prosaic terms, it would be revealed as a political construction where the rhetorical abolition of homelessness and structural unemployment has diverted attention from the fact that failure is endemic to the system [4]. The logic of late capitalism promises some utopia at the end of a series of measures or progressive struggles which will remove the exceptions from sight, make manifest the common belief in some irreversible "filter down effect" secured through the latest deification of Adam Smith. Scarcity and structural poverty are inherent to this construction and will therefore remain in the absence of some basic overhaul. Liberal progressivism will never be able to fundamentally change the system it brokers, leaving capitalism's magical trade-offs forever mysterious.


The logic of capital impacts the nature and production of knowledge in and about the larger socio-economic system. Can a conversation occur between celebraters of the system's newly self-evident success, and those who find an embarrassing generation of new levels of misery and deprivation? These poles seem to reference an imperial coexistence of economies, an internal colonialism where what once were first and third worlds play out their unequal relations as a farcical misrecognition. But how does this then occur? The universalization of capital logic helps naturalize this condition as either a hopeless opposition, or cancels it altogether under the guise of wholeness. The need is to represent this as contradictory by identifying their inevitable points of intersection and allusion to a larger, more inclusive frame, while revealing the mediations of and upon individualizing - what once could be called "bourgeois" - consciousness.


How is it that increases in wealth for the small numbers of the already affluent somehow becomes evidence that the work ethic is alive and well, and generates the feeling that all will share in this wave of success? The media can be nothing other than a good mediator in these matters. It stresses the outbreaks of statistical improvement with a flare, milking the discovery of new millionaires into self-contained stories which resonate with the obvious. It highlights the epidemic of mergers and acquisitions - along with enticing information about increased stock prices - with a vengeance. Yet the underside is understressed, and the trade-offs resulting from this activity and traceable to places where we might glimpse basic mechanisms at work are rarely given the attention they deserve (Chomsky's voice has been virtually censored from debates of national urgency in the public arena). How many pass to the dole or become underemployed - free to accept one of the endless vacancies at Burger King - when a new bulge in capital expansion presents itself? What happens to those affected when a rising bloc in the international banking wars franchises another woeful branch? How do pressures cemented into the social fabric encourage victims of "downsizings," for example, to remove blame from the process and inadvertently implicate themselves? [5]. Part of the American vision is to see things impossibly separated in time and space, to focus local exceptions and circumscribed entities unloosed from systemic taint. Hence the seemingly spontaneous sensation among citizens that an increase in wealth among the upper echelons can somehow sync with the erasing of poverty down below as more than a utopian projection [6].


What would it take for this sensation to reverse, for citizens to think about these extreme and seemingly discrete fates as a trade-off which references a contradiction? Capital logic conditions processes of thinking about the actual economy and its effects. As a reconstructed unity of fragments, capitalism instills illusions about the real relations upon which it is based, and especially the ways in which parts and wholes combine and recombine. This hardly underwrites a better awareness of the system's actual dialectical movements. A complex modelling of the system's elements and oppositions is made difficult by the relative success of a capitalism not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. Its partial victory appears as completely effective through an institutionalization of crisis which legitimizes the deferral of unfinished business and normalizes disparities. The underclassing of America can then be left on the periphery and cast as inevitable.


Actually existing capitalism is a mesh of affluence and deprivation which guarantees crisis. This contradictory symptom references the system's essential identity, which is governed by contradiction, the constitutive impossibility for full freedom and equality to be realized within its terms. Partial and local critiques fixated on this or that element of performance can't provide the knowledge for understanding this fundamental mechanism. This can come only from a focus on the whole system.


Robert Brenner's recent study - The Economics of Global Turbulence - of the current global economy offers insight into capitalism's fundamental mechanism by way of evaluating the postwar "long downturn" as a systemic symptom. He argues against "supply-side" explanations, too focussed on market and institutional power relations between capitalists and workers, in favor of a "horizontal" perspective. These "vertical" theorists have understressed the benefits as well as contradictions arising from the competition among firms which motors the system. This competition perpetually pushes the productive forces to the edge, a tendency necessary for the increasing profitability of the system. But it becomes "destructive" when there is a virtual absence of planning. The capitalist system will naturally operate at less than peak profitability without measures to counter the "compensatory economic, political, and social mechanisms" which are automatically unleashed when any sort of profit squeeze occurs. Individual and collective actors in the system may bulge forth with increased wealth, but the aggregate picture will reveal a less than full realization of profitability for the significant remainder, as well as an overall performance decline. The activity of self-interested wills in the jungle of forces has effects. Their compensations, performed "naturally" to acquire more, occur at the expense of others and produce aggregate deficiency without guidance to counter these compensations. That is, planning and maximum profitability are not only compatible with one another. The system's structural enhancement to function fully and efficiently on all cylinders - its aggregate improvement - will demand a more inclusive sharing of the spoils by the masses. Though appearing to freely maximize its position unhindered by other blocs and forces, from the perspective of the whole system capital enacts the symptoms of constraint, its inevitable submission to the contradictory frame of linkages which escape it (a language which is not just a figment of the mind). For Brenner this greater understanding will come from a theory which permits access to the workings of capitalism's ups and downs simultaneously, one which factors the "malign" as well as "benign" elements of Adam Smith's "invisible hand." This theory will need to "encompass a self-generating series of steps resulting from individual (and collective) profit maximizing which leads not towards adjustment, but rather away from it." Underclassing, therefore, is the inevitable byproduct of the system's asymmetrical inhibitions [7].


II. The capitalist system guarantees the existence of an underclass no matter how benevolent the state may be at different moments. What marks recent times is the extent to which the lower orders have mushroomed. Political-economic forces have constructed blocs of deprivation and impoverishment extending further into the working population. A reversal of this setback in the flowering of equal opportunity remains a utopian prospect without radical measures. So what pragmatic maneuvers can replace the big visions and manage the endemic lacks and inequalities? The process of underclassing is overwhelmingly economic, but to what extent is culture involved in either its maintenance or potential correction? Are the positives of cultural consumption - experienced by so many at will in these booming times - available and recuperable among the lower orders? Since cultural production untainted by commerce barely exists (even quasi-independent folk cultures have become virtually extinct), are the negative and manipulative elements inevitably attached to the culture they have access to more enticingly resonant? The severe restrictions of choice, combined with limits in purchasing power (the ability to afford the culture to appropriate a significant issue in itself), have diminished the utility of "cultural value." Culture would therefore seem to offer little more than a means to cope with conditions for this marginalized formation.


This of course can't be easily claimed for members of the lower, working and middle classes who have been adversely effected by the recent economy, but remain relatively functional as individuals or groups. Their deprivations are real but not exclusively material. As Judith Butler suggests, the distinction between material and cultural life is far from a stable one. Neither oppressions nor responses to them can be located in the pure domains of culture or political economy, even for gay and lesbian activists whose movements have been essentially united around matters of cultural recognition and not material deficiency [8]. The variety of progressive social movements with clout to organize people around a commitment can succeed because the groups have some material footing in the system, and are potentially organizable through shared cultural meanings and symbols for change. Coping and resistance mechanisms can be realized through culture, but are not merely cultural. At the lower end, where material footing is either unstable or non-existent, individuals are more fragmented and not easily associated. Here then the symbolizations of cultural practice and the conditioning frames of culture in some expanded - everyday - sense have less validity and can potentially clash with material limits and realities. Culture can more easily harmonize with the material if economic survival is not at issue. The ease of consuming culture with sufficient material means neutralizes the negative force of materialism, and this capability permits access to collectives for coping and resisting.


Yet this raises the question of what constitutes adequate or insufficient material means. The categories of culture and materialism are admittedly unstable and defy air-tight identification and separation from one another. But the crucial issue is how they in fact link for different groups and individuals shaped by varying codes and feelings, and especially how basic and relative survival needs impact this focus. The alchemy of culturally materialized meaning varies across and even within these strata, and its value can't be forecaste for each and every one. Culture stokes the desire to cope with and transcend material constraints, but is there a level below which such positives are snuffed out? For groups caught in the vicegrip of survivalism, the less-than-ultimately-determining economy becomes at least more of a presence.


Forms of cultural marxism emerging from the 60s movements have spurred invaluable thinking about relations between needs and desires within an advanced capitalist order appearing to have passed beyond scarcity. The notion of desire has of course been a sore point for marxisms over much of a century whose social systems have suffered crises of material lack, and so a concern with production-deficiencies has taken priority. These conditions of deprivation spawned a wealth of cultural experiments for coping with them. And from this came a reconsideration of the role of desire within the material-dreary residues of industrial logic, an attention refigured within the very crisis of marxism (one principal incentive for "Western marxism" as it emerged earlier in the century was to overcome orthodox blinders to cultural experience). Yet it is in the context of a post-industrial logic of scarcity during the 60s that culture both burgeons as a commodity and acquires new potential for political expression. Culture fashions sensations of escape from matter as the economy appears on the verge of a dialectical leap into untold affluence. A world beyond mere needs is figured as needs proper are no longer immanent (for the majority at least). The ascetic, anti-materialist poses against technocratic reason by the countercultural left - the mentality of dropping out to rid oneself of the obsession to acquire, lingering in recent culturalisms that virtually bracket away material reality - were pledged as economic performance-realities shaped conditions for new cultural-political expression, and enabled the construction of "iron cages" for managing them. Marcuse advocated a need to combat the system's peculiar repressions through unlimited negation, the sheer desire to redirect its potential through and away from what had become unfortunate reality, in embracing the productive hedonism - not Daniel Bell's version - of culture:

The aesthetic as the possible Form of a free society appears at that stage of development where the intellectual and material resources for the conquest of scarcity are available, where previously progressive repression turns into regressive suppression, where the higher culture in which the aesthetic values (and the aesthetic truth) had been monopolized and segregated from the reality collapses and dissolves in desublimated, "lower," and destructive forms, where the hatred of the young bursts into laughter and song, mixing the barricade and the dance floor, love play and heroism [9].

Paradoxically, culture could contribute to a greater realization of freedom at a moment when it would seem less necessary since the system's post-industrial resourcing made the "conquest of scarcity" a viable option. But this was not likely in either a cultural or material sense. While the eradication of material needs was a real possibility, this capitalism's distributional logic maintained existing hierarchies and gaps for the most part. The excess-means was not used to remove pockets of structural poverty. Given these conditions, culture could help people cope with material scarcity and possibly refigure it as a form of spiritual transcendence in its own right. For Marcuse, positive utopian impulses would persist against the system's repressive logic, but new irrational rationalities had somehow seeped into the system to remake desire itself into potentially unrecognizable sensations. The system had acquired an authority principle which no longer worked through mere sublimation. All the freedom conjured through culture offered potentially "desublimated" expressions, crasser formations which might convert impulses to transcend into their very opposite, allow bad reason and commodified desires to do their business after all and on the sly. This contradictory system was to offer even less grounds for optimism into the 70s (Marcuse coming to temper his valued dialectical assessments), permitting mostly "affirmative" responses to itself.


This kind of social system, which remakes desire and redefines needs, has become commonsense by the late 90s. If once relatively distinct, cultural and material reality are now virtually interchangeable, reciprocally saturated entities which evoke confusion about what might be necessary or contingent for most sectors of society., how do we even begin then to figure the complex coming-together of culture and the economy in these times? The value of cultural marxism has resided in its attention to long-suppressed cultural positives, but this compensation has often tended to erase forces and pressures peculiar to the equation's other side, and curiously reinforced the division at issue. For Paul Buhle, cultural marxism has burgeoned during moments of crisis and uncertainty, when sympathies for comprehensive change have faded and the left was unable to hegemonize [10]. One of these moments was initiated by Reaganism in the early 80s, when the reciprocal saturation of culture and economy was becoming acutely visible, according to David Harvey, Fredric Jameson and others. For Harvey this moment's confusions are symptomatic of recurring crises of capital's overaccumulation, which have brought "disruptive bouts of time-space compression." And these conditions invite aesthetic and cultural responses:


The confidence of an era can be assessed by the width of the gap between scientific and moral reasoning. In periods of confusion and uncertainty, the turn to aesthetics (of whatever form) becomes more pronounced. Since phases of time-space compression are disruptive, we can expect the turn to aesthetics and to the forces of culture as both explanations and loci of active struggle to be particularly acute at such moments. Since crises of overaccumulation typically spark the search for spatial and temporal resolutions, which in turn create an overwhelming sense of time-space compression, we can also expect crises of overaccumulation to be followed by strong aesthetic movements [11].


John Brenkman's "Theses on Cultural Marxism" deserve attention if only because they were penned in response to the crisis of Reaganism. The "immediate future" appeared bleak for the splintered left during the early 80s, its uncertainties not allowing it to form an "historic bloc capable of grasping the multiple levels of social and cultural transformation required to bring about the real genesis of freedom and self-activity" [12]. This undecideable climate bore witness to a fissure between the systems of labor and needs which had been "mutually determining" in both Hegel and Marx. These moments of darkness were offering apparent proof of the system's success in providing economically for the majority, and so how might the symptoms of lack be identified and explained? They were also proof that all needs couldn't be satisfied solely through material means. It is in cultural forms where the tension between needs and desires is symbolically enacted, but the system's imperatives have hardly been hospitable to the kind of expansion of social and political learning processes for discovering this knowledge. For Brenkman we need an expanded role for aesthetic experience since education in advanced capitalist societies has lost touch with concerns of human growth, merging with mechanisms of social reproduction. The aesthetic must:

foster people's cognitive capacity to grasp the difference of desires and needs. Through its symbolization in aesthetic practices, desire opens itself to interpretation, in the sense that works of art give form - socially meaningful form - to the difference between desire and the satisfactions actually attained within the social system of needs and labor. Aesthetic symbolizations carry desires toward a threshhold where they may be recognized as social needs and rearticulated as a collective demand on society's capacity to produce not only goods but also new social relations. The bureaucratic society of controlled consumption, especially through its culture industry, continually folds this process back on itself, returning the figurations of desire back into the idiosyncratic cradle of endless repetitions. The social task of the aesthetic education today is to contest this destructuring of aesthetic-cognitive experience, and to orient the desires that arise from the structured nonsatisfactions of contemporary social life toward their collective articulation as real needs [13].

Brenkman advocates the power of aesthetic education to convert the actual and emerging "figurations of desire" lodged within the system proper into real - and improved - needs. This power would tap impulses to go beyond the mundane world of "structured nonsatisfactions" shaping people's needs and desires, spur the process to remake the commodified spaces made for them. His response places considerable hope in groups and individuals to grasp and influence a process become so rationally irrational and difficult to recognize as such (cancelling diehard Enlightenment-type remedies?). While this resistance is necessary and valid, can desires be merely oriented away from the system's structured limits, its controlled consumption and illusory satisfactions? Brenkman's perspective is fully understandable only when Harvey's comments about the turn to aesthetics and the forces of culture as "both explanations and loci of active struggle" are taken into account. That is, Brenkman's turn to aesthetic experience and personal enrichment is an idealist manifesto which privileges forces of resistance within a vacuum where "new social relations" will magically materialize through some filter-down-and-around effect. It gives priority to hypothetically competent individuals - abstracted from class dynamics - who can knowingly figure and rationally master the meanings implied in all the potential desires the system bombards them with. Absent here is an expanded aesthetics for everyday irrationalities potentially appropriable by a wider cross-section in variable ways, and an appreciation of culture as a newly explosive mediator of the larger system.


How are merely aesthetic and cultural expressions linked to the destructive effects of free-floating desublimation, those peculiar to capitalism's new value relations and structural imbalances? Needs and desires have become ever more convoluted as capital has aggressively constructed them, yet the consequences of this can hardly be predicted in advance. Are they more convoluted in ordinary mass culture - not "works of art" - where consumer motivations tend to shape the valued activity in survival conditions which compromise freedom of choice? Those who have yet to find post-scarcity exist in a different mesh of needs and desires and may well be permeable to aesthetics (not automatically "progressive" at any rate). Would aesthetic education foster new and different mass cultural forms, or merely incite new ways to interpret the existing ones? Can a redefinition of needs and desires appear - to intellectuals at least - from a more efficient use of interpretive skills? Have systemic constraints become such that we defend the limits of capitalism too easily? An expansive relation between economy and culture linking the redefinition of desires and needs to larger egalitarian goals and the critique of capital appears visionary at the dawn of the millenium.


Conclusion. The value of aesthetic and cultural experience for "human growth" is an ideal shaped the material conditions which constrain the momentum to escape the bounds of reason that consumption of the aesthetic dimension promises. While this "value" can't be reduced to purely economic explanations (such perspectives are rare at any rate), neither should it be imagined to transcend them. If needs and desires are to be redefined more humanly and equally, and the process of underclassing checked or even reversed, will capitalism have to be radically modified? The only way to begin answering this question is to grasp how the whole system works. What is the fate of cultural experience, economic life and impulses to politically hegemonize within the unifying pressures of a system which allocates spoils and legislates social relations? How do they fare in isolation or in combination under particular historical conditions? Most importantly can this complexity of separation and unity be reconstructed in theory and the knowledge translated into a language speakable by the culturalist and social justice lefts? The unseparabjlity of the social system's levels and elements can't be sufficiently modelled through either culturalist cultural studies or political economy. The relation between culture and materialism as a reciprocally saturated unity in these times conjures the incommensurable, a presence which defies complete mastery. Yet contradiction and unpredictability have always defined capitalism as a system, its dynamism of promise and shortfall a perpetual meltdown of categories and substances. Marx named this system in the mid-19th century in terms which resonate with capitalism's structural imbalances in 1999, its amazing capacity for liberation laced with decay and deprivation. This system is a magical unity where variable energies clash and reform.


The system's contrariness and antagonism continue to overwhelm but through a somewhat different form shaped by capital's greater power of penetration. All remaining pockets of spirit and matter are now commodities, but their value confusion and incommensurability can't be properly explained with notions like commodity fetishism, the mainstay of political economy beholden to Marx's insights from the 19th century. This assumes a relatively stable distinction between needs and desires - as well as use and exchange values - linked to the likelihood for full rational explanation of surface appearances and depth constructions. Such assumptions are now hardly viable and political economy has precisely faltered through its inability to specify what can't be predicted and defined.




1. Leon Samson, "Americanism as Surrogate Socialism," in John Laslett and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Failure of a Dream?: Essays in the History of American Socialism (New York: Anchor Books, 1983), pp. 426-27. See also Michael Denning, "'The Special American Conditions': Marxism and American Studies," American Quarterly, Vol. 38, #3 (1986). For Denning this blockage of socialism is related to a series of substitutions for marxism, from the "popular front claim that Communism was simply twentieth-century Americanism, to the New Left sense that there was an indigenous radical tradition that preempted marxism, and now to the covert, pragmatic appropiation and Americanization of marxist concepts without the baggage of the marxist tradition."[p. 360]


2. Noam Chomsky, "Power in the Global Arena," New Left Review, #230, p. 12.


3. Slavoj Zizek, "Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism," New Left Review, #225, pp. 46-47.


4. The issue of course is not just the increasing presence of an underclass, but new levels of persisting underemployment to match the labor market's temporariness. The current climate reinforces this persistence. The sister of a friend was recently caught up in a labor dispute at a small Catholic hospital in the midwest. This institution has just hired a CEO at a salary of a half-million a year, along with a slew of very high paid consultants. These actions occurred simultaneous with efforts to block the union, reduce wages, increase the workload for nurses, and increase temporary employment. For recent figures, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (London: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 330-31.


5. The commercial media plays a significant part in removing blame and erasing context. There was a recent blurb about an already-mega bank from back east which had just bought one of California's sizable banks. It was claimed that 80 branches of the latter would close, with no follow-up about the specific impact on numbers of workers, etc. Bank employees are often highly deferent to the magical process of downsizing as a necessity for progress.


6. This sort of part-whole distinction always comes to mind in the endlessly long lines at the Post Office. The profusion of complaints and apocalyptic eruptions from those who momentarily see through this system's incredible inefficiency and often hostility toward customers, seem unhinged from attention to the larger process. The proverbial complaining appears to neutralize any perspective on the system. Complainers usually defer to "that's the way it is." The system has glitches but mostly works. There's a striking visual contradiction in lobbies which symptomatizes this. The addition of a TV network to pass information to waiting customers serves mostly to construct an optimistic and efficient image of the Post Office which hardly exists. Perusing this massage of information can help screen attention away from the disappearing clerks and slow service, and even hide its part in the larger contradiction (one element of which is surely the unfortunate drain of resources for this visual system away from needed clerks, etc.).


7. Robert Brenner, "The Economics of Global Turbulence," New Left Review, #229, pp. 23-24.


8. Judith Butler, "Merely Cultural," New Left Review, #227, pp. 38-39.


9. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 25-26. Daniel Bell's celebrated attack on the "new sensibility" can be found in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976).


10. Paul Buhle, Marxism in the United States (London: Verso, 1991), p. 41.


11. David Harvey, Op. Cit., pp. 327-28.


12. John Brenkman, "Theses on Cultural Marxism," Social Text, #7 (Spring/Summer 1983), p. 33.


13. Ibid.



From Left Curve 23, 1999.