Hey everybody! Its your old pal, “Dr. Nick” here (Simpsons heads will get that reference pretty easily). This episode features the return of Chairman Moe, your favorite Fully Automated regular guests. Last we heard from them, they were interviewing Keir Milburn on his book Generation Left (see Episode 19). This episode sees them returning to Fully Automated, for a long chat on Adam Curtis’s recent documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Yes, true enough, this is hardly the first time you’ll have heard a discussion about this documentary in a podcast. But it is the first time you’ll have heard it discussed quite like this. Here, we adopt a unique take on Curtis, reading him through the lens of an eclectic group of texts drawn from our own readings, over the last year or so. These include, tho by no means exclusively, Gilles Dauvé’s Crisis and Communization, Thomas Frank’s The People, No, and Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology.
Our goal, as one quick whip put it on Twitter, is to “figure out what in the hell Curtis’s politics are in 2021.” In the end, we conclude that Curtis is an important and necessary commentator, but that he comes to some unhelpful conclusions. This, we think, can be attributed to his tendency to ignore the lessons of materialism and blame idealism for the flaws of the left. For us, Marx, Frank, and Dauvé can each bring something unique to the task of patching up the missing parts of Curtis’s framework. Dauvé, despite his weird normative focus on localism and simplistic low-tech authenticity, provides perhaps the greatest insight into why only a materialist critique can work in our effort to assess the flaws of the contemporary left. Whereas, perhaps more controversially, Frank provides the antidote to Curtis’s occasional tendency to fall into anti-populist cynicism.
I want to thank Chairman Moe (who are, in real life, Columbus OH-based independent scholars Charlie Umland and Jim Calder) for sharing his valuable time with us, and also Darren Latanick for so patiently indulging the Chairman’s antics, and producing a great show for us.
We’ll be back quite soon, with an interview with Sebastian Kaempf on MOOCs in Higher Ed. And then we have a number of other guests lined up, between now and the end of the year. Thanks for listening!
The episode features a roundtable on Philip Cunliffe’s latest book, The New Twenty Years’ Crisis (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). And, in a bit of a break with tradition, this episode also sees me jump out of the host’s seat, and invite Shahar Hameiri (University of Queensland) to take over the reins.
Joining me in the panel to discuss the book is the author, Philip Cunliffe (making his third appearance on the show), and Patrick Porter (University of Birmingham). Tara McCormack (University of Leicester) was also scheduled to join us but had to withdraw at the last minute, due to illness.
It was great to have Phil back on the show, to discuss this important book. The last time he was on, we talked about his previous book, Cosmopolitan Dystopia, which was a survey of human rights discourse on global politics since the end of the Cold War. The new book takes the theme of liberal war-making from that book, and attempts to read it through the lens of E. H. Carr’s classic 1939 text, The Twenty Years’ Crisis.
On the eve of World War Two, Carr described the politics of his time as a kind of interregnum, or a time of passage between two regimes of world order. For Carr, the great tragedy of his time was that the normative commitments of the intellectuals of interbellum period — namely, to the power of public opinion, to sovereign self-determination, and to international law and institutions — were incongruent with the kinds of mass-mobilized politics that were rapidly sweeping away their world order, and undermining the very conditions of possibility for securing those commitments.
For Cunliffe, however, the lessons of Carr’s study of the 1919-1939 period must today be applied in a kind of inverted manner. For where it was mass politics that ultimately frustrated and undid the political project of the utopian idealists, we do not today live in such a massified moment. To the contrary, as scholars like Peter Mair have described, we live in a demassified moment, where the agendas of college-educated neoliberal Brahmins dominate, unchecked. Worse, as Cunliffe explores, these new elites are kind of anti-utopians. They detest the values of the interbellum period, deriding public opinion and breaching sovereign self-determination in the name of so-called responsibility.
Cunliffe explores this argument through a number of fascinating case studies, taking us from the salons of International Relations conventions, which have been overtaken by ‘critical’ theorists (a group of scholars whose methods are singularly symptomatic of the “imaginary” of our unipolar moment), to the hallways of Brussels, capital of that grandest of examples of “de-massified,” neoliberal democracy, the European Union. The overarching theme that emerges is one of a shocking lack of self-awareness on the part of our political and intellectual elites.
As you’ll hear, the panelists are on the whole friendly to Phil’s diagnosis, but they do push back on some of his normative suggestions. Despite these disagreements, however, I will say that I think this is one of the more important episodes we’ve done on this show. Diagnostically, Phil is one of the sharpest commentators around, on the contradictions of our postmodern moment. I want to thank Phil, Patrick, and Shahar for their time and effort in helping to make this conversation happen.
Greetings! Welcome to Part Two of Episode 26, where we continue our interview with Adam Proctor. As I noted last time, while this is a long interview, it was also a long overdue interview. There was so much good stuff to talk about, it seemed wasteful to try to cram it all into one episode.
In Part One, we spent some time looking back over the main themes and controversies of four years of DPS (freedom of speech issues, cancel culture, race essentialism, etc.). We also talked socialist strategy, and the application of work by Sam Ginden and Leo Pantich to the Grexit question.
In Part Two, we turn our gaze more to the present, and to future. We join the conversation mid-flow, debating the post-Bernie moment, and the question of whether or not we should swallow, as it is sometimes termed, “the black pill.” Here, I push Adam on his latest slogan. That is, a warning that we should eschew taking up residence in “the basement of the vampire’s castle.” This of course is a modification of Mark Fisher’s ‘Vampire Castle’ hypothesis. In a well-known 2013 essay, Exiting the Vampire Castle, Fisher noted how in Late Capitalism the left confronts obstacles emanating not only from its foes on the other side of the ideological equation, but also from its own tendency for self-destructive behavior. Part of the problem, he wrote, is that the hyper-individuation of social life under the neoliberal cultural project has been so successful that even the left has forgotten the importance of collective power for politics. Hence its paradoxical descent into culture war and performativity.
Addressing this critique, we discuss first the importance of Angela Nagle’s stance on sub-culture, and its tendency to compete for the accumulation of cultural capital, before then moving on to address what we might call “the black pill” question. The key, Adam notes, is to take measure of the goals you want the left to accomplish, and then envision what the left would have to look like, in order for these goals to be achieved.
Later in the episode, we look at the post-2008 de-linking of the financial economy from the productive economy, the threat of a return of austerity (did it ever go?) in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, and the question of what the left is, today. And we wrap up with a sympathetically critical discussion of the state of left media in general, and the “Patreon” model of left podcasting in particular.
American audiences may have heard Keir interviewed by Chuck Mertz a couple of weeks ago, on This Is Hell! We’re kind of hoping this could be a good companion episode to that interview, as we go deep into some aspects of the book that Chuck didn’t have time to address. And there is a LOT going on in this book! It starts by questioning the popular notion that Millennials and Zoomers are a bunch of entitled snowflakes, and suggesting that this myth is actually doing quite a lot of work, politically, in dividing young and old members of the working class, giving them over to the idea that they have fundamentally different interests.
But of course, as with many myths, an investigation of the facts produces a rather different persecutive. It turns out, says Keir, that the generations are stuck in rather different material trajectories. One statement Keir makes early in the book really caught our attention: “the older generation are still tied to the neoliberal hegemony of finance while the young seek to escape it.” But these trajectories are not a given. To the contrary, the logic of neoliberalism forces the Boomer generation to hold onto its material advantages, as a retirement strategy. And, as it does this, it condemns Millennials and Zoomers to a life of debt and forces them into a culture of cynical entrepreneurialism.
In the show, we talk with Keir about the role of events in composing generations. Events, he says, can disrupt our accepted ways of making sense of the world, and lead to the emergence of radically new social energies. But not every disruptive event will necessarily lead to some kind of new configuration, nor will every new configuration necessarily be a progressive one.
One particular event, the 2008 financial crisis, of course looms large in Keir’s story. Unleashing austerity on the developed world, it represents in a sense the apogee of neoliberal governmentality. Milburn cites academic theorists like Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Jennifer Silva to try to explain how neoliberal capitalism tries to get us to think and act as if there is no alternative to neoliberalism, even tho we all know its not working — we know we can’t all be entrepreneurs. (This reminded us a bit of Adam Curtis, and his hyper-normalization documentary). A key figure for Milburn here is Mark Fisher, and his argument about consciousness deflation.
Whatever we want to call this system (authoritarian neoliberalism? zombie capitalism?), clearly it is making us sick. Throughout the text, Milburn make repeated reference to how we are living in the midst of an epidemic of “depression, insomnia and mental distress.” Yet there’s kind of a mystery to unpack here. He cites Jennifer Silva, for example, to explain how capitalism prefers us to internalize these issues, making them questions more to to do with our emotional and psychic resilience, than anything to do with the structure of the economy.
And, as he argues, this way of thinking about our mental wellbeing even showed up in the “assemblyism” of the occupy Wall Street movement. Nevertheless, he insists, Occupy’s approach to the collective discussion of experiences and struggles did offer therapeutic and even political potentials to the young people who participated. And, as we discuss in the show (admittedly not in nearly enough detail) there are things we can learn here, very much in the spirit of the late Mark Fisher, that might be applied to a new model of treating mental and material health.
Today, the reputation of neoliberalism is today irredeemably tarnished. The question before us is how to build and leverage democratic competence and confidence, to build a new order in the face of zombie neoliberalism. We ask Keir about his own podcast, ACFM, and the role the suggest that might yet be played by the so-called “weird left,” as a way of engaging in consciousness raising. He acknowledges that while counter-cultural practices sometimes get a bad rep (and deservedly so), subcultures like punk and DIY do still offer the possibility of “conscious raising” that could meaningfully counter some of the “consciousness deflating” pressures of neoliberalism.
In the closing chapters of your book, however, Milburn is under no illusions: the left has a long history of melancholia. Ultimately, to succeed, says Milburn, generation left is going to have to bridge the generation gap. As he points out, this won’t be easy — boomers are dependent on financial instruments, 401k, stock markets, property values etc. Equally, we know that as much as they depend on these financial assets, they have very little control over them: 85% of the stock market is owned by the top 10%; property values are dependent on development funds, retirement funds, university endowments, etc. So, considering these interests, it may be hard to bring working class boomers around!
To fix this, he claims, we will need to engage in a “dual strategy.” On the one hand, we will need to get serious about wielding the power of the state, and building economies of the commons, to show Boomers that socialism can work for them, too. On the other hand, however, we will need to build political movements capable of holding our representatives in the state to account. This isn’t going to be easy, however. Time and resources are thin on the ground. Solidarity economies, UBI, UBS, etc, can be one answer here. But, as he concludes, the key fact is that we need to build these alliances. If the generation gap really is a class gap, as he argues, then solidarity economies and the like may be the vital tool we need, to help us achieve the the kind of inter-generational unity we need, if we are ever to win.
Today, we are releasing Part 2 of our conversation with Jim Calder and Charlie Umland, on Situationism. In the last episode, we addressed some of the basic concepts and arguments of the Situationists, focusing largely on their critique of capitalist modernity. In today’s episode, we turn to question of strategy, and the way the approach of the Situationists to political engagement.
We think this is a timely episode — coming to you as it is, right in the middle of the 50th anniversary of the student revolt in Paris, of May 1968 — an event with which the situationists are often associated, sometimes even being seen as among the key standard-bearers of its intellectual values!
For those unfamiliar, the early weeks of May 1968 saw an major wave of student actions in Paris, protesting the closure and police invasions of University campuses at Nanterre and the Sorbonne. On Tuesday, May 14, the workers’ movements came out and joined the students, and a number of workplace occupations began, including at the Sud Aviation plant near Nantes, and at a Renault parts factory, near Rouen. By May 16, France was in the grip of a General Strike. The workers had occupied close to fifty factories, and hundreds of thousands workers were out on strike, across the country. By the end of the following week, ten million workers were on strike — a figure which amounted to about two-thirds of the entire French workforce.
And its no surprise of course, just as with the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution last October, that the 50th anniversary of May ’68 is a big topic of discussion among the left right now. May 68 is the theme of the latest issue of Jacobin, for example, and there’s a great piece on the Paris uprising in there by Jonah Birch, called “How Beautiful it Was’. Birch argues that, although de Gaulle was eventually able to restore order, and the movement eventually collapsed into infighting:
…even now, May ’68 remains a potent political symbol of the Left’s hopes for a mass movement to challenge capitalism. Nowhere else in the Western world over the past half century was such a threat to capitalism posed.
Listeners might was to check out Birch’s piece (I’ll add a link as soon as there is a web version available). Its a great primer for anyone who wants a bit more background on the May ’68 moment. He has a really interesting discussion the economic and social factors in France at the time, and the extent to which they might have served as triggers of the student uprising. But what’s interesting about Birch’s account is that it mentions the Situationists only once, and then only as a way of sort of flagging an incorrect way of remembering May ’68 — Birch cites the slogans and art terrorism of the situationists, as if by way of ascribing them a merely horizontalist politics, or a politics of everyday life.
Similarly, in the latest episode of the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast, Catherine Liu also discusses May ’68 as nothing more than the sensational arrival of a performative and campus-based politics of everyday life — a harbinger, if you will, of the paradoxically vanguardist politics of today’s campus left; and, ultimately, a politics that is highly compatible with neoliberal managerialism. Early in the episode, she says:
…when you have this very elite group of students who see themselves as extremely important and their colleagues in the media are also striking against these traditionalists, the gaullists, the rightwing, and the fascists, the transformation of everyday life gets elevated to the height of Hegelian world historical significance
Listeners should definitely check that full show. As Liu says, while its a good thing for ordinary people to become aware of their political agency, its bad when people don’t see that agency in connection to the material and social relations of their lives.
But I think what listeners might find interesting about this episode is that, while we try to proceed in a way that is sensitive to the important critiques of Birch and Liu, concerning the hazards of a politics of everyday life, we do try to maintain a little critical distance between what we see as two narratives: on the one hand, an important discussion of the failures of ’68, and its naive lionization of campus politics; on the other, an attempt to recover the oft-elided materialism of the Situationists.
Last we week, we argued that one of the reasons the Situationists could not be written off merely as postmodernists was because of their commitment to the concept of “separation”, or alienation, which was a problem not just in capitalism but in any system of production where workers would not have direct control over the rationalities and systems of production that govern their lives. And it is in this focus on the worker, we argued, that Situationism is still very much a Marxist project.
Our episode last week ended on the question of strategy, and the call of the situationists for a radical break with the order of separation. Today, in Part 2, you’ll hear Charlie, Jim, and myself, pursue this line of thinking further, as we look at the situationists as activists, and their views on the student uprising in May ’68. We’ll look at some of the tensions in situationist praxis at the time, on the one hand trying not to establish themselves as any kind of intellectual vanguard, but on the other, perhaps simply because of their own personalities, behaving sometimes in ways that suggested a rather more stalinist approach. And we’ll also look at their attitudes towards other events in 1968, too, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Finally, at end the episode, for a bit of fun, we’ll talk about what, if anything, Guy Debord would have to say to Jordan Peterson(!).
As always, feel welcome to reach out on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions: we’re at @occupyirtheory
Thanks again to Darren Latanick for producing this episode!
As we’ve been arguing on this show for the last few weeks, there is no doubt at this stage that the left is ‘back’. Arriving admittedly a decade or two later than Latin America’s “Pink Tide”, the left has made electoral gains recently, both in Europe, and in the US. Yet it is also clear that the left is not used to having this kind of potential. To the contrary, suffering through its long period of post-Cold War defeat, it has been content to engage in a lot of internal squabbling, and become comfortable avoiding the tough question of how it might engage ordinary people with its ideas. David Bailey’s book is a very interesting intervention, in this sense. Without necessarily taking a side in the debates he examines (to what extent should the left embrace the state? Should we pursue reform, or revolution?), he surveys the history of some of the more prominent moments and modes of leftist protest and struggle. What is interesting, however, is he choses to do this in an optimistic way. Refusing the left’s traditional mournful stance on its history, and deliberately trying to focus on the things the movements got right, Bailey is out to capture the spark of revolutionary disruption in each of his case studies, where the impossible was somehow, suddenly, made possible.
I got to see an advance copy of the book recently, and more than anything I was kind of pleasantly surprised by his open-minded stance on left strategy, finding those sparks of disruption everywhere, from the early days of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to the anarchist movements of the Spanish Civil War, and even in post-war parliamentary reformism. The civil rights movements get a look in here, and there are chapters on the New Left, the history of feminism, and the rise of environmentalism. And those interested in more recent history will find the last chapters quite interesting I think, looking at the Occupy movement and, more interestingly, the influence of ‘Left Populist’ struggles Latin America on the rise of what Bailey calls ’left pragmatism’ in Europe and North America, embodied of course in parties like Syriza and Podemos, but even more recently in figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.