Friday, November 10, 2006

Cold Water On Post-Election Smugness

Just to throw a little cold water on the very much misplaced post-Democratic Party victory euphoria that seems to have affected some self-identified progressives even here in Canada, here is some material that offers contrary viewpoints. Most of these folks are happy, I would imagine, that the Republicans have taken some lumps, but they are also not going to forget the bigger picture even for a second. That's a good model to follow, I think...

Take a look at this writing by Brownfemipower (make sure to read the comments, from which I've taken seom of the quote below)...

Affirmative Action in Michigan ... Has been pretty much obliterated tonight. No longer exists, thanks to dickhead Ward Connely and the marvolously un-racist, un-biased, totally fair voting population of Michigan.

It wasn’t even a close vote.


you know, i kn ow I’m supposed to be all joyful because yay, a woman is the [House] leader and yay the democrats won–but this affirmative action thing and the fucked up fucking english bullshit and the gay marraige thing. motherfucker. this stupid fucking election hit me harder than when george bush won again. I kinda expected him to, so i wasn’t all that devistated. but this election…christ. just to rub it into your ass how much you social justice people SUCK, we’re going to elect a horrible anti-immigrant shrew into office, we’re going act like abortion is the ONLY feminist issue, and we’re going whack the hell out of queer folks and destroy affirmative action. All so that you can have an anti-immigrant nut job in office.

...Joe Bageant...

Now, lo and beshit, the Democrats have rescued us, if you can call running around like chickens with their heads up their asses while the Republicans did what they always do, get caught stealing the national kitty while bombing the hell out of some miserable piece of dirt as a distraction, thereby self-destructing in 12 years as usual, but getting obscenely rich in the process.

...Stan Goff, who stood in the rain encouraging folks to vote for the Dems...

Note to the Democratic party: We now have you firmly in our sights, exposed. Ain’t gonna be no honeymoon. We’re not hearing that you need time. Not with the bodies piling up every day.

We also know that many Democrats are going to engage in immigrant-bashing with alarmed hyperventilations about the threat posed by the brown victims of US international policy from the Global South. Do it, and we’ll bust our asses to strip away the enhanced base of Latin@ voters who helped bring you in this year.

We know that some of them will abandon the defense of reproductive choice for women. They should be made to pay, and pay big for that. What the hell is the (electoral) choice for Choice if enough misogynistic Democrats cross-over to support the Republican agenda anyway?

I noted earlier that the most striking thing about American voters that impressed me at my polling site was the staggering ignorance of our society. Not only ignorance, but a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder defense of that ignorance. I am reminded of the VOICE song that says, “We are selfish, we are ignroant, and we celebrate these things.”

Rather than get caught on the infinitely-recycling treadmill of supporting this institution (the DP) as the lesser-of-two-evils, which frequently implies dumbing down our public discourse and evading the most embarrassing subjects, I would urge people to see this election as an opportunity to flush the Democratic Party out into the light.

...Robert Jensen...

As I stood in line for coffee on the morning after election night, a Democratic Party supporter ahead of me in line said, "Thank God this country is finally switching trains."

If only that were true.

On Election Day 2006, the U.S. public didn"t switch trains but simply ratified a different group of conductors.

It"s the same old train, on the same tracks, heading in the same direction.

This isn"t an argument that there are never any meaningful differences between politicians; sometimes it does matter who is giving the orders on the train. But on this day after the morning-after, it"s crucial for those with a critical perspective to highlight that this train -- contemporary U.S. society -- is barreling forward toward disaster, no matter who"s punching tickets.

I'm sure I could find more, but those are just some of the saner voices I've run across in the last few days.

And it doesn't mention elections of any sort, but here is an awesome poem by rabfish that is powerfully politically grounding if you happen to have momentarily mistaken the real-but-small difference between Democrats and Republicans (or Liberals and Conservatives) for what actually matters in the human experiences calling us to transform the world.

And finally, found via this post at Bitch | Lab, here is an essay by recently deceased feminist Ellen Willis mounting an important critique of the lowest common denominator, end-the-culture-wars economic populism advocated by certain progressive elements of the Democratic Party, including notables like author Thomas Frank of What's the Matter With Kansas? fame.


Kuri said...

Yeah, most of the ballot initiatives were disappointing. At least the anti-choice ballot initiative in South Dakota failed.

Todd said...

I read some of Willis' stuff last night after hearing good (and bad things) about her over at LBO-Talk.

Generally I like what I see, but I have to wonder if she held the equivalent of workerist and economist views on culture. She seems so ready to just accept mass culture as reflective of the masses themselves (implying it's beyond reproach in that essay vs. Frank; does she say otherwise elsewhere?), and I don't care for the way she's so ready to conflate liberalism and radicalism (talking about "The Left" in general when she seems to be castigating liberals) at points.

Scott said...

Hi Kuri! Yes, lots of nastiness from the ballot initiatives...I think, though, that in some ways the liberal/progressive tendency to see the changes in Congress as being a preamble of much greater progressive change than is actually credible is perhaps the bigger problem, because it is so demobilizing.

Hi Todd. I'm not terribly familiar with Willis' stuff either...that post on Bitch | Lab with links to so many pieces was my first exposure, and I linked the particular essay because it was relevant to this post.

I agree with what you say about her conflation of liberals and lefties...that drives me up the wall whenever I encounter it. Not sure where you're from, but in my experience it is much more common in the U.S. than elsewhere. I think part of what complicates that for her particular essay is that there are broad sections of the left, not just liberals, that have also been just as dismissive of so-called "cultural" issues historically. Still, being more careful and precise, and attending to the significant differences of approach in different segments of the left, would make the essay a lot stronger.

And on the issue of her analysis of culture as a whole, I'm not sure. I didn't take this essay to be quite as determinist in terms of her take on culture as you, i.e. that she was simply saying that mass culture = beyond reproach. I might change my mind on a rereading, but what I took from it was a more contested version of culture, where there is ongoing struggle between centralized control of message and the multiplicitous, potentially subversive readings by the many active agents who are the "consumers" of mass culture. But that could just be pushing onto her the direction that my analysis has been going recently...I'd need to read more of her stuff to know for sure.

Todd said...

OK, I found the part of the essay that got me thinking about a "cultural" workerism and economism:

"Like many critics of capitalism, Frank makes the mistake of imagining that mass culture is a pure reflection of the corporate class that produces it and has nothing to do with the tastes or values of the mass audience that consumes it—as if it were the habit of corporations to pursue
profits by offending most of their customers, rather than trying to appeal to their desires and fantasies."

(pp. 11-12, Escape)

She "bends the bow" too far away from the working class (which could simply be because Frank bends it too far the other way, too; I _really_ need to read that book) to my mind, implying that the corporate class just serves up what the masses want. And it's not that simple: of course the corps need to know what's on the minds of the consumers of their products (and they react to that _in a broad way_), but they're hardly going to simply let the masses dictate to them what to show. For one reason, "The Mass" is simply too complex and shifting in its desires for the corps to be able to do that easily and economically. For another, and I think this is the part Willis glosses over, the corporate class will selectively risk offending some section of the masses for as long as they can make money off what offends that group (a kind of cost-benefit analysis). That and something here keeps jarring with that habit (media) capital has of commodifying and taming dissent.

I'm still trying to work this out. I'm not really satisfied quite yet with the above.

Enh. I'll let the subconscious gnaw on it a bit; I'll probably get a eureka moment in the shower.

Scott said...

Hi again.

So I just reread the essay, this time in a more leisurely way. My initial reading was in the context of this post re. the recent elections, so I was mainly interested in it as a way of presenting some challenge towards the orthodoxies of progressive and liberal Democrats and their equivalents in Canada. Which it does. But I don't think I read it as critically as I normally would because it was with that frame and that particular, peculiar political space in mind.

And I think, actually, the problem that you are getting at very much follows from this piece's origins in that political other words, her irritating partial conflation of "liberal" and "left" actually has a lot to do with your other critique, around her analysis of culture.

Partly, that results in her avoiding a functional analysis of what capital is and how it works, and keeps her analysis at the level of what Dorothy Smith calls a "blob ontology" of's that vaguely defined nasty thing which he hold responsible for all evil without any sense of how it works.

As well, in her efforts to show an overarching conflict between puritanical and culturally radical folks in the liberal and left spectrum, she separates the debate about culture from broader political debates within that spectrum with which it intersects in complicated ways. To translate it into the labels I more naturally use, Thomas Frank seems to be a sort of conservative social democrat, and he aims most of his critiques at the neoliberals in charge of the Democratic Party, while Ellis is approaching it from more of a progressive social democratic position. Implicit in that range of debate are a lot of assumptions about how the world works, what changes need to be made, what "the economy" actually is and how it needs to be changed, and what social forms our organizing should take. It also contains implicit assumptions about how the supposedly disparate realms of the economic and the cultural interact. She seems to be opposing a fairly crude appropriation of the idea of hegemony, which in its initial articulation by Gramsci was indeed quite deterministic and did not give ordinary folk much credit for agency. So go ahead, critique away. But she doesn't do much, at least not in this essay, to replace that with a more sophisticated analysis of how ideas and ways of being and doing and knowing are integrated into the broader process of capital accumulation. And there are certainly existing approaches to doing that which challenge the assumptions of the particular spectrum in which this dialogue is taking place in more fundamental ways than she seems interested in doing in this essay. She seems to be opposing a sort of crude, quasi-orthodox marxist analysis of culture with a kind of vague something that seems to boil down to liberalism in its assumptions. I would think it would be best to challenge both the former and the latter.

However, I would -- well, not necessarily defend her take, because the way she has written it, this _could_ be what she means but it isn't clear if it _is_. But I think there is a way in which seeing mass pariticipation in mass culture that is symptomatic of genuine desire for may be quite successful in perverting that desire (though never as successful as it thinks, I don't think) but the very existence of that desire, the fact that capital can bring it forth and manipulate it in the service of seeking profit, should make us hopeful. As with everything under capitalism, it is contradictory...our human ability to _do_ is what capital depends on to exist, and similarly our desire for liberation can be harnessed to further our own oppression. But the desire is there, and it is real. And those desires can and should be linked...our desire to walk down the street without violence, to have relationships shaped to fit our lives and desires, to engage in satisfying unalienated work, our desire to be entertained, can all be twisted to serve capital in some sense, but the very existence of those desires broadly enough for capital to bother doing that should be taken as a sign of hope, I think.

I'm not sure I've really captured what I mean in this comment, but I'm getting tired, so I'll call it quits for now. And I still like the essay, even if it doesn't, upon closer reading, do everything I might like it to do.