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!
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!
Welcome to Episode 11, of Fully Automated, an Occupy IR Theory podcast! Today, we have Part One of our first ever two-part episode, on the topic of Situationism! Joining me for this episode are two friends of mine from Columbus, Ohio, Charlie Umland, and Jim Calder. They are pretty sharp, when it comes to this topic. And, over the course of this two-part episode, they’re gonna help us understand just who the situationists were, and who they weren’t.
Now, coincidentally, situationism has sort of been back on the radar, lately. In February 2017, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Zaretsky, called ‘Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’.’ In the piece, Zaretsky offers this very Situationist sounding line:
Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra.”
In the episode, Charlie, Jim and I get into some discussion of this piece. One of our big points is that perhaps Zaretsky’s take is kind of off the mark. For him, the Trump is the master of the image, in a time when the very form of image itself, has hijacked our reality. Focusing on the image as the problematic form this way, however, Zaretsky’s Situationists resonate somewhat too cynically. Indeed, it could be said they bear a familiar resemblance with the work of another famous French scholar, Jean Baudrillard. Now, Baudrillard doesn’t hail from Situationism. But he is a critic of contemporary capitalism, and he is particularly preoccupied with the rise of what he terms ’hyperreality’ — an economic era dominated by the logic of the image, wherein humans have been seduced into a state of passive consumption. For Baudrillard, where older modes of capitalism were predicated on production of actual goods, society today is a simulation; we are a consumer society, but what we consume is nothing more than signs, or symbols. In such a society, even political resistance has sort of dissipated into a kind of moral relativism; we no longer fight for any particular group’s “code” — instead we adopt a stance of ironic “fascination.”
This attitude of fascination, or what we might even call flanneurism, is exemplified in a scene in the recent Adam Curtis documentary, Hypernormalization. In this scene, we meet a young Patti Smith, giggling as she recounts the ironic prospect of poor people, watching movie trailers over and over, on a small screen outside of a cinema. Its as if she’s hypnotized herself, by the total surrender to passivity of the people watching the screen. She is overwhelmed by the cynicism of it all, and can only laugh.
But in the episode, we make the argument that this is perhaps precisely the wrong way to interpret the Spectacle. Situationism is much more than simply a critique of seduction; the theory of spectacle is NOT simply that we have been reduced to the status of a mass of consumers, or that we are simply distracted by the ongoing barrage of the media’s meaningless images. To the contrary, a key concept that has come up for us in our discussions is that of “separation” — which is something like the alienation experienced by everyday people, not just in capitalism, but also in other highly bureaucratized technical systems, like the Soviet Union, when rationalities of expertise work to delegitimize any demand they might make, for true collective participation in the productive systems that govern their lives. And, we argue, it is in this sense that Society of Spectacle is still very much a Marxist project. One need only consider how frequently the topic of the proletariat is discussed, and the various tasks to which it must attend, if it is to survive.
So, a little bit about our guests today. Both are from Ohio:
Charlie Umland is a cook. He likes to learn about art and philosophy and communism, and he is an unapologetic D&D fan.
Jim Calder works in public humanities, and supports the radical critique of everyday life, mostly through reading groups – and, he also loves smoking. Catch him on Twitter at @jamesdcalder
In the first part of the show, you’ll hear us outline some of the basic ground we want to cover: separation, the contrast with Baudrillard, the role of theory, the attitude of the situationists towards modernity, and the emancipatory potential of technology.
Next week we’ll be dropping Part 2 of this episode, which looks at Situationism in something more like an activist light. We’ll talk about the role of the Situationists in the context of the student uprising, in May ’68, their attitude towards the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, some of their scattered commentaries on war, and the question of what, if anything, Guy Debord would have to say about Jordan Peterson(!).
Special thanks this week to Darren Latanick, who produced the episode. As always, feel welcome to reach out on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions: we’re at @occupyirtheory