March 19, 2022
From Marxist Update

.…In tragedy, much turns on the fact that we are not wholly masters of our own destiny. It is this which is hard to stomach in an American culture for which ‘I’ve made my choices’ is a familiar phrase, and ‘It wasn’t my fault’ an unacceptable one. It is this doctrine which has put so many on death row. In jaded, death-ridden Europe it is harder to overlook the great mounds of historical rubble in which the self is buried, and which cramp its liberty to become whatever it chooses. Cynicism, rather than square-jawed idealism, is thus more in fashion there. If the USA is the land of will-power, Europe is the home of Nietzsche’s will to power, which in some ways is almost the opposite.

     What is immortal in the United States, what refuses to lie down and die, is precisely the will. Like desire, there’s always more will where that came from. But whereas desire is hard to dominate, the will is dominion itself. It is a terrifyingly uncompromising drive, one which knows no faltering or bridling, irony or self-doubt. It is so greedy for the world that it is at risk of pounding it to pieces in its sublime fury, cramming it into its insatiable maw. The will is apparently in love with all it sees, but is secretly in love with itself. It is not surprising that it often enough takes on a military form, since the death drive lurks within it. Its virile vigour conceals a panic-stricken disavowal of death. It has the hubris of all claims to self-sufficiency.

     This annihilating will finds its reflection in the voluntaristic cliches of American culture: the sky’s the limit, never say never, you can crack it if you have faith in yourself. If the disabled do not walk, at least they can redesignate themselves as challenged. As with all pieces of ideology too loosely hinged to the real world – ‘life is sacred’, ‘all human beings are special’, ‘the best things in life are free’ – these solemn soundbites are believed and disbelieved at the same time. Ideology, like the Freudian unconscious, is a domain untouched by the law which prohibits contradiction. As long as the frenetically active will is in business, there can be no finality, and hence no tragedy. The cult of the will belongs with a callow, kitschy optimism, full of wide-eyed vision and the swooping of violins.

     In this remorselessly up-beat climate, feeling negative becomes a thought-crime, and satire a form of political treason. Everyone is urged to feel good about themselves, whereas the problem is that some of them don’t feel anything like bad enough. Evangelical Christians avow their faith in Jesus, a failed inmate of early-Palestinian death row, by maintaining a manic grin even while being carted off to prison for fraud or paedophilia. With its impious denial of limit, its bull-headed buoyancy and crazed idealism, this infinite will represents the kind of hubris which would have made the ancient Greeks shiver and glance fearfully at the sky. It is, indeed, at the skies that some of the will’s champions glance fearfully these days, searching for signs of nemesis.

     Those who support the American imperium do not have to respond to such comments. They can simply dismiss them as ‘anti-American’. This is a marvellously convenient tactic. All criticisms of the United States spring from a pathological aversion to Sesame Street and baconburgers. They are expressions of smouldering envy on the part of less fortunate civilizations, not reasoned criticisms. There is, it would seem, no reason why this tactic should not be extended. All criticisms of North Korea’s odious repression of human rights are merely diseased symptoms of anti-Koreanism. Those who rail against the execution-happy autocracy in China are simply being odiously Eurocentric….

After theory by Terry Eagleton (2003) is a book-length  reeling of middle class left revulsion at the first Bush administration. Not just  the administration’s policies, which any Marxist would oppose and be duty-bound to explain to fellow workers; rather, at the prospect of such an unaesthetic and déclassé crew helming the U.S. capitalist state. 

It is a chronicle of Trump Derangement Syndrome foretold. 

Eagleton does a good job clocking after-theory shibboleths and shortcomings, which are the products of a social layer caught in a vise between the two great historical classes: proletariat and bourgeoisie. 

Those looking for an independent working class political course will not find it here. Just a left wing niche within the framework of UK bourgeois politics.


19 March 2022

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Below are a few excerpts from After Theory I found correct and worth repeating:


[….]there is nothing inherently subversive about pleasure. On the contrary, as Karl Marx recognized, it is a thoroughly aristocratic creed. The traditional English gentleman was so averse to unpleasurable labour that he could not even be bothered to articulate properly. Hence the patrician slur and drawl. Aristotle believed that being human was something you had to get good at through constant practice, like learning Catalan or playing the bagpipes; whereas if the English gentleman was virtuous, as he occasionally deigned to be, his goodness was purely spontaneous. Moral effort was for merchants and clerks.

[….]Art and culture are supposed to deal with ‘human’ questions rather than with ‘technical’ ones – with love, death and desire, rather than with the law of tort or the organic structure of decapods. And we can surely all understand the ‘human’. In fact, this is a fairly dubious distinction. For Aristotle, being human was in a sense a technical affair, as was love for Thomas Aquinas, desire for Sigmund Freud, and as death is for a mortician. And it is not easy to sort out the ‘human’ from the ‘technical’ in the case of art.

[….]You are, in fact, probably more likely to fare well in the world if you are brave, loving, resilient, compassionate, imaginative, resourceful and the like. Other people are less likely to drop iron bars on you from a great height, and even if they do you may have the resourcefulness to dodge them. But the virtuous can of course come unstuck. Indeed, it may be their virtue which unsticks them. And then they cannot be said to be happy. But though virtue might bring unhappiness, it was in Aristotle’s view a source of fulfilment in itself. Think, for example, of how being physically healthy might somehow get you into trouble. It might leave you with such a ripplingly muscular physique that puny bar-flies can’t resist taking an envious smack at you. But being healthy remains enjoyable in itself. Aristotle also thought that if you did not act well, you were punished not by hell fire or a sudden bolt from heaven, but by having to live a damaged, crippled life.

     You cannot, of course, believe all this and be an anti-essentialist as well. Anti-essentialists do not believe in natures in the first place. They imagine that for something to have a nature means that it must be eternally fixed and unalterable. In their view, talk of nature also brings out what is common to certain things, an unpopular thing to do in an age which makes a supreme value of difference. Critics of essentialism also suspect with some justice that, when it comes to human beings rather than giraffes, the answer ‘It’s just in my nature’ is usually a shifty self-rationalization. Destroying tribal communities in the pursuit of profit is just part of human nature. Being a wife-beater is simply what I am. Anti-essentialists are therefore wary of the idea of nature, just as the apologists of capitalism are. Capitalism wants men and women to be infinitely pliable and adaptable. As a system, it has a Faustian horror of fixed boundaries, of anything which offers an obstacle to the infinite accumulation of capital. If it is a thoroughly materialist system in one sense, it is a virulently anti-material one in another. Materiality is what gets in its way. It is the inert, recalcitrant stuff which puts up resistance to its grandiose schemes. Everything solid must be dissolved into air. The conflict between a traditional belief in human nature and a ‘progressive’ rejection of it breaks out between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, just before they set about killing the king:


     I dare do all that may become a man;

     Who dares do more is none.


     … When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man.

     (Act 1, scene 7)

[….]Talk about human nature is indeed embarrassingly general. (Though Aristotle, who subscribed to the idea himself, did not believe that ethics was a matter of universal principles.) ‘Human’ can be a term of approval (‘Despite being the world’s leading authority on ectoplasm, he seemed surprisingly human’), or a pejorative judgement, as in ‘all too human’. Even if we go a bit further and speak of the good life as one in which you can fulfil your nature as freely and fully as possible, it is still not clear what this means in concrete terms. Human beings have many different powers and capacities at any given historical time, and it is not obvious which of these they should strive to realize, or in which ways. Are we to fulfil our capacity to strangle others, simply because we are physically able to do so? If we are able to torture others, then there is a sense in which torture is natural to us. ‘Human nature’ can describe the kind of creatures we are, or it can mean how we should behave; and it is not easy to see how we can leap from the descriptive sense to the normative one.

     Aristotle thought that there was a particular way of living which allowed us, so to speak, to be at our best for the kind of creatures we are. This was the life conducted according to the virtues. The Judaeo-Christian tradition considers that it is the life of charity or love. What this means, roughly speaking, is that we become the occasion for each other’s self-realization. It is only through being the means of your self-fulfilment that I can attain my own, and vice versa. There is little about such reciprocity in Aristotle himself. The political form of this ethic is known as socialism, for which, as Marx comments, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. It is, as it were, politicized love, or reciprocity all round.

     Socialism is an answer to the question of what happens when, unlike Aristotle, we universalize the idea of self-realization, crossing it with the Judaeo-Christian or democratic-Enlightenment creed that everyone must be in on the action. If this is so, and if human beings naturally live in political society, we can either try to arrange political life so that they all realize their unique capacities without getting in each other’s way, a doctrine known as liberalism; or we can try to organize political institutions so that their self-realization is as far as possible reciprocal, a theory known as socialism. One reason for judging socialism to be superior to liberalism is the belief that human beings are political animals not only in the sense that they have to take account of each other’s need for fulfilment, but that in fact they achieve their deepest fulfilment only in terms of each other.

     Not everyone, however, agrees on what love or self-fulfilment is, or on which virtues are important, or indeed on this model of the good life at all. The virtues which Aristotle favours are not necessarily the ones which we moderns would be keen to affirm. They are too bound up with his own social history, whereas, conversely, his view of human nature in general is too little historical. Yet Karl Marx, a closet Aristotelian of sorts, conjured a powerfully historical critique from this ethic, as did his great mentor Hegel. It looks as though we simply have to argue with each other about what self-realization means; and it may be that the whole business is too complicated for us to arrive at a satisfactory solution. Modern existence, being fragmentary, specialized and diverse, has come up with too many solutions to the question to make a decision between them at all simple.

[….]The kind of happiness that matters, however, is the kind which is much less easy to determine. You cannot tell whether your life is flourishing simply by introspection, because it is a matter of how you are doing, not just of how you are feeling. Happiness is about living and acting well, not just about feeling good. For Aristotle, it is a practice or activity rather than a state of mind. It is about realizing your capacities, not having a particular outlook on life.

[….]Whether you can live a moral life, which is to say a fulfilling life of a kind proper to human beings, depends in the end on politics. This is one reason why Aristotle makes no rigorous distinction between ethics and politics. He tells us right at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that there is a ‘science that studies the supreme good for man’, adding rather unexpectedly that it is known as politics. Ethics for him is a sort of sub-branch of politics. Nobody can thrive when they are starving, miserable or oppressed, a fact which did not prevent Aristotle himself from endorsing slavery and the subordination of women. If you want to be good, you need a good society. Of course there can be saints in atrocious social conditions, but part of what we admire about such people is their rarity. Basing an ethics on this would be like restricting everyone to three raw carrots a day simply because a few rather weird people can survive happily on such a diet.

     Ethics is in Aristotle’s view the science of human desire, since desire is the motive behind all our actions. The task of an ethical education is to re-educate our desires, so that we reap pleasure from doing good acts and pain from doing bad ones. It is not just a matter of gritting our teeth and capitulating to some imperious moral law: we need to learn to enjoy being just, merciful, independent and so on. If there is not something in it for us, it is not true morality. And since all our desires are social, they have to be set in a wider context, which is politics. Radical politics is the re-education of our desires. Aristotle was not of course a radical, but he held that playing an active part in political life was itself a virtuous thing to do. Republicanism is an ethical form of politics. Being politically active helps us to create the social conditions for virtue, but it is also a form of virtue in itself. It is both a means and an end.

     You can, then, be mistaken about whether you are flourishing, and someone else may be more wisely perceptive about the matter than you yourself. This is one important sense in which morality is objective. Feeling happy may be a sign that you are thriving as a human being should, whatever that means; but it is not cast-iron evidence. You might be feeling happy because the parents of your abductee have just come up with the ransom money. Or it might be a rare patch of felicity in a generally dispirited existence. The point, anyway, is that when the colonialists assure us that the natives are thriving, we would do well to be cautious.

     The problems arise when the natives themselves tell us that they are thriving. What are we to say then? The liberal or postmodernist who is reluctant to say that the colonialists are right may also hesitate to say that the people they lord it over are wrong. Have we not patronized the colonized enough without informing them that they are too thick-headed to realize they are miserable? In fact, it is deeply unlikely that men and women who are treated as second-class human beings would be obtuse enough to believe that they were prospering. If they lacked that kind of intelligence, they would probably not be usefully exploitable in the first place. They might feel gratified now and then, or believe that they deserve nothing better, or be stoical about their situation, but that is different. Anyway, if I cannot tell you something without odious patronage, neither can you tell me. Even though I have been buried under a ton of rotting asbestos for the last ten years, with only three fingers free to cram the odd forkful of withered grass into my craw, I will not stand being told by condescending elitists like you that there might be a better way to live. My decisions may be abysmal, but at least they are mine.

[….]Virtue for Aristotle is not a state of mind but a disposition – which means being permanently geared for acting in a certain way even when you are not acting at all. It is a matter of how you would customarily behave in a given situation. Goodness is a matter of habit. Like playing the flute, you get better at it the more you practise. It is not, as we post-Romantics tend to assume, that we start off with inner moral feelings which then issue in actions. This would be like imagining that someone could spend three years learning inwardly how to play the flute, pick up the instrument and coax it instantly into melodious sound. It is rather that our actions create the appropriate states of mind. We become brave or generous by habitually doing brave or generous things. This, once more, is rather like the question of meaning. We do not have the concept of exasperation and then put it into words; having the concept of exasperation is a matter of being familiar with the social custom of how the word is used.

     Objectivity does not mean judging from nowhere. On the contrary, you can only know how the situation is if you are in a position to know. Only by standing at a certain angle to reality can it be illuminated for you. The wretched of the earth, for example, are likely to appreciate more of the truth of human history than their masters – not because they are innately more perceptive, but because they can glean from their own everyday experience that history for the vast majority of men and women has been largely a matter of despotic power and fruitless toil….

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[Atheism today]

[….]The authors of the New Testament see Jesus as a type of the anawim. He is dangerous because he has no stake in the present set-up. Those who speak up for justice will be done away with by the state. Society will wreak its terrible vengeance on the vulnerable. The only good God is a dead one – a failed political criminal in an obscure corner of the earth. There can be no success which does not keep faith with failure. It is this faith which has since been used to justify imperialist adventures, the repression of women, the disembowelling of unbelievers, the reviling of Jews, the abuse of children and the murder of abortionists. As a form of organized violence, it has become the badge of the rich, powerful and patriotic. It is the nauseating cant of US Evangelists, the joyous cries of bomb-happy militarists washed in the blood of the Lamb, and the suburban respectability of fraudsters and wife-beaters. It is glazed, bland, beaming and tambourine-banging. It wants nothing to do with failure, and shoos the anawim off the streets. It is the logo of the military-industrial complex, the cross which props up the American Eagle, the holy water sprinkled on human exploitation.

     At the same time, much atheism today is just inverted religion. Atheists tend to advance a version of religion which nobody in their right mind would subscribe to, and then righteously reject it. They accept the sort of crude stereotypes of it that would no doubt horrify them in any other field of scholarly inquiry. They are rather like those for whom feminism means penis-envy, or socialism labour camps. A card-carrying atheist like Richard Dawkins is in this respect the mere mirror-image of Ian Paisley. Both see Yahweh as (in William Blake’s word) Nobodaddy, which in the Old Testament itself is a Satanic image of God. It is the image of God of those who want an authoritarian superego or Celestial Manufacturer to worship or revolt against.

     This God is also a wizard entrepreneur, having economized on his materials by manufacturing the universe entirely out of nothing. Like a temperamental rock star, he fusses over minor matters of diet, and like an irascible dictator demands constant placating and cajoling. He is a cross between a Mafia boss and a prima donna, with nothing to be said in his favour other than that he is, when all is said and done, God. It is just that the atheist rejects this image while the Evangelical accepts it. Otherwise, they are pretty much at one. The real challenge is to construct a version of religion which is actually worth rejecting. And this has to start from countering your opponent’s best case, not her worst.

     This is as true of Islam as it is of Judaeo-Christianity. Islam first emerged as a radical critique of the injustice and inequality of an aggressively commercialist Mecca, in which the old, egalitarian tribal values of caring for the weaker members of the community were giving way to the profit motive. The word Quaran, which means ‘recital’, indicates the illiterate status of most of Muhammad’s early followers. The very title of the Muslim scriptures suggests poverty and deprivation. Islam, which means ‘surrender’, suggests a total self-dedication to the Allah whose gospel is one of mercy, equality, compassion and a championship of the poor. The Muslim body itself had to be re-educated in such postures as prostration out of the arrogance and self-sufficiency which were growing apace in Mecca society. Muslims must fast throughout Ramadan, as Christians do throughout Lent, to remind themselves of the privations of the poor. Non-violence, community and social justice lie at the heart of Islamic faith, which is notably averse to theological speculation. As with Christianity, the distinction between sacred and profane, the sublime and the mundane, is dismantled. No clerical class in the Christian sense is permitted, to emphasize the equality of all believers. It is this admirable creed which has become in our own time the doctrine of oil-rich autocrats and the stoners of women, fascist-minded mullahs and murderous bigots.

     The Book of Isaiah is strong stuff for these post-revolutionary days. It is only left in hotel rooms because nobody bothers to read it. If those who deposit it there had any idea what it contained, they would be well advised to treat it like pornography and burn it on the spot. As far as revolution goes, the human species divides between those who see the world as containing pockets of misery in an ocean of increasing well-being, and those who see it as containing pockets of well-being in an ocean of increasing misery. It also divides between those who agree with Schopenhauer that it would probably have been better for a great many people in history if they had never been born, and those who regard this as lurid leftist hyperbole. This, in the end, is perhaps the only political division which really counts. It is far more fundamental than that between Jews and Muslims, Christians and atheists, men and women or liberals and communitarians. It is the kind of conflict in which it takes a strenuous act of imagination for each party to understand how the other can believe what it does. This is not always the case with disagreement. You can disagree that broccoli is delicious or that Dorking is the most vibrant town in Europe while being able to imagine quite easily what it would be like to agree.

     Radicals do not reject the ocean-of-well-being theory because they reject the reality of progress. Only conservatives and postmodernists do that. In certain postmodern quarters, the word ‘progress’ is greeted with the withering scorn usually reserved for those who believe that the face of Elvis Presley keeps mysteriously showing up on chocolate chip cookies. Those who are sceptical of progress, however, do not generally turn up their noses at dental anaesthetics or signal their exasperation when clean water gushes from the tap. What we might call Big Bang conservatives tend to believe that everything has being going to the dogs since a golden age, whereas for Steady State conservatives even the golden age wasn’t all it is cracked up to be. For them, the snake was always-already curled ominously in the garden. It is logically dubious whether one can backslide all the time, but some conservatives appear undeterred by this difficulty. Some of them seem to maintain that all historical periods are equally corrupt, and that the past was superior to the present. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land can be read as holding both beliefs simultaneously.

     Postmodernists reject the idea of progress because they are distracted by grand narratives. They assume that a belief in progress must entail that history as a whole has been steadily on the up from the outset, a view which they naturally dismiss as a delusion. If they were less taken with grand narratives they might follow their own lights, take a more pragmatic attitude to progress, and arrive at the correct but boring conclusion that human history has improved in some respects while deteriorating in others. Marxism tries to make this tattered cliche sound less banal by pointing out, more imaginatively, that the progress and the deterioration are closely linked aspects of the same narrative. The conditions which make for emancipation also make for domination.

     This is known as dialectical thought. Modern history has been an enlightened tale of material welfare, liberal values, civil rights, democratic politics and social justice, and an atrocious nightmare. These two fables are by no means unrelated. The condition of the poor is intolerable partly because the resources to alleviate it exist in abundance. Starvation is appalling partly because it is unnecessary. Social change is necessary because of the lamentable state of the planet, but also possible because of material advances. Postmodernists, however, who pride themselves on their pluralism, prefer to consider the question of progress more one-sidedly….

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[Culture: “keeping politics warm”]

….What is under assault here is the normative. Majority social life on this view is a matter of norms and conventions, and therefore inherently oppressive. Only the marginal, perverse and aberrant can escape this dreary regimenting. Norms are oppressive because they mould uniquely different individuals to the same shape. As the poet William Blake writes, ‘One Law for the Lion & Ox is oppression.’ Liberals accept this normalizing as necessary if everyone is to be granted the same life-chances to fulfil their unique personalities. It will, in short, lead to consequences which undercut it. Libertarians, however, are less resigned to this levelling. In this, they are ironically close to conservatives. Sanguine libertarians like Oscar Wilde dream of a future society in which everyone will be free to be their incomparable selves. For them, there can be no question of weighing and measuring individuals, any more than you could compare the concept of envy with a parrot.

     By contrast, pessimistic or shamefaced libertarians like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault see that norms are inescapable as soon as we open our mouths. The word ‘ketch’, which as the reader will know means a two-masted fore-and-aft rigged sailing boat with a mizzen mast stepped forward of the rudder and smaller than its foremast, sounds precise enough, but it has to stretch to cover all sorts of individual crafts of this general kind, each with its own peculiarities. Language levels things down. It is normative all the way down. To say ‘leaf’ implies that two incomparably different bits of vegetable matter are one and the same. To say ‘here’ homogenizes all sorts of richly diverse places.

     Thinkers like Foucault and Derrida chafe against these equivalences, even if they accept them as unavoidable. They would like a world made entirely out of differences. Indeed, like their great mentor Nietzsche, they think the world is made entirely out of differences, but that we need to fashion identities in order to get by. It is true that nobody in a world of pure differences would be able to say anything intelligible – that there could be no poetry, road signs, love letters or log sheets, as well as no statements that everything is uniquely different from everything else. But this is simply the price one would have to pay for not being constrained by the behaviour of others, like paying that little bit extra for a first-class rail ticket.

….the crisis of Marxism did not begin with the crumbling of the Berlin wall. It could be felt at the very heart of the political radicalism of the late 60s and early 70s. Not only that, but it was to a large extent the driving force behind the cascade of provocative new ideas. When Lyotard rejected what he called grand narratives, he first used the term to mean, simply, Marxism. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred at the same moment as the celebrated student uprising of 1968. If carnival was in the air, so was the Cold War. It was not a question of the left first flourishing and then declining. As far as classical Marxism went, the worm was already in the bud, the serpent curled secretly in the garden.

     Marxism had been badly tarnished in the West by the monstrosities of Stalinism. But many felt that it had also been discredited by changes in capitalism itself. It seemed ill-adapted to a new kind of capitalist system which revolved on consumption rather than production, image rather than reality, the media rather than cotton mills. Above all, it seemed ill-adapted to affluence. The post-war economic boom may have been on its last legs by the late 1960s, but it was still setting the political pace. Many of the problems which preoccupied militant students and radical theorists in the West were ones bred by progress, not poverty. They were problems of bureaucratic regulation, conspicuous consumption, sophisticated military hardware, technologies which seemed to be lurching out of control. The sense of a world which was claustrophobically coded, administered, shot through with signs and conventions from end to end, helped to give birth to structuralism, which investigates the hidden codes and conventions which produce human meaning. The 1960s were stifling as well as swinging. There were anxieties about packaged learning, advertising and the despotic power of the commodity. Some years later, the cultural theory which examined all this would itself be at risk of becoming one more glossy commodity, a way of touting one’s symbolic capital. These were all questions of culture, lived experience, Utopian desire, the emotional and perceptual damage wrought by a two-dimensional society. They were not matters which Marxism had traditionally had much to say about.

     Pleasure, desire, art, language, the media, the body, gender, ethnicity: a single word to sum all these up would be culture. Culture, in a sense of the word which included Bill Wyman and fast food as well as Debussy and Dostoevsky, was what Marxism seemed to be lacking. And this is one reason why the dialogue with Marxism was pitched largely on that terrain. Culture was also a way for the civilized, humanistic left to distance itself from the crass philistinism of actually existing socialism. Nor was it surprising that it was cultural theory, rather than politics, economics or orthodox philosophy, which took issue with Marxism in those turbulent years. Students of culture quite often tend to be politically radical, if not easily disciplined. Because subjects like literature and art history have no obvious material pay-off, they tend to attract those who look askance at capitalist notions of utility. The idea of doing something purely for the delight of it has always rattled the grey-bearded guardians of the state. Sheer pointlessness is a deeply subversive affair.

     In any case, art and literature encompass a great many ideas and experiences which are hard to reconcile with the present political set-up. They also raise questions of the quality of life in a world where experience itself seems brittle and degraded. How in such conditions can you produce worthwhile art in the first place? Would you not need to change society in order to flourish as an artist? Besides, those who deal with art speak the language of value rather than price. They deal with works whose depth and intensity show up the meagreness of everyday life in a market-obsessed society. They are also trained to imagine alternatives to the actual. Art encourages you to fantasize and desire. For all these reasons, it is easy to see why it is students of art or English rather than chemical engineering who tend to staff the barricades.

     Students of chemical engineering, however, are in general better at getting out of bed than students of art and English. Some of the very qualities which attract cultural specialists to the political left are also the ones which make them hard to organize. They are the jokers in the political pack, reluctant joiners who tend to be more interested in Utopia than trade unions. Unlike Oscar Wilde’s philistine, they know the value of everything and the price of nothing. You would not put Arthur Rimbaud on the sanitation committee. In the 1960s and 70s, this made cultural thinkers ideal candidates for being inside and outside Marxism simultaneously. In Britain, a prominent cultural theorist like Stuart Hall occupied this position for decades, before shifting decisively into the non-Marxist camp.

     To be inside and outside a position at the same time – to occupy a territory while loitering sceptically on the boundary – is often where the most intensely creative ideas stem from. It is a resourceful place to be, if not always a painless one. One has only to think of the great names of twentieth-century English literature, almost all of whom moved between two or more national cultures. Later, this ambiguity of position was to be inherited by the new ‘French’ cultural theorists. Not many of them were French in origin, and not many of those who were were heterosexual. Some hailed from Algeria, some from Bulgaria, and others from Utopia. As the 1970s wore on, however, quite a few of these erstwhile radicals began to come in from the cold. The passage towards the depoliticized 80s and 90s had been opened.

….you did not have to be a Marxist to recognize that Marxism was not just a hypothesis which, like the extraterrestrial origins of crop circles, you could believe or disbelieve at will. It was not in the first place a hypothesis at all. Marxism – or, to put it within a wider context, socialism – had been a political movement involving millions of men and women across both countries and centuries. One thinker has described it as the greatest reform movement in human history. For good or ill, it has transformed the face of the earth. It is not just a cluster of intriguing ideas, like neo-Hegelianism or logical positivism. Nobody ever fought and died for logical positivism, though it may have sparked the odd inebriated scuffle in senior common rooms. If neo-Hegelians may occasionally have been propped against the wall and shot, it was not for being neo-Hegelians. In the so-called Third World, socialism had found a welcome among the wretched of the earth, who were not quite so eager to clasp semiotics or reception theory to their bosom. Now, however, it looked as though what had started life as an underground movement among dockers and factory workers had turned into a mildly interesting way of analysing Wuthering Heights.

     The period when cultural theory was riding high displayed one peculiar feature. It seemed to mix politics and culture in equal measure. If there was civil rights and the peace movement, there was also sexual experiment, heightenings of consciousness and flamboyant changes of lifestyle. In this, the 1960s resembled nothing quite so much as the nineteenth-century fin de siécle. The closing decades of the nineteenth century were an astonishing blend of political and cultural radicalism. It is the period of both anarchism and aestheticism, The Yellow Book and the Second International, decadence and the great dock strike. Oscar Wilde believed in both socialism and art for art’s sake. William Morris was a Marxist revolutionary who championed medieval art. In Ireland, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz moved easily between theatre, the women’s movement, prison reform, Irish Republicanism and the Parisian avant-garde. W. B. Yeats was poet, mystic, political organizer, folklorist, occultist, theatre director and cultural commissar. In this extraordinary period, the same figures can be seen dabbling in Theosophy and demonstrating against unemployment. There were underground movements of socialist homosexuals. You could be enthralled by symbolism and syndicalism at the same time. Dope and diabolism were quite as plentiful as feminism.

     Something of this heady brew was inherited by the 1960s. Both periods were marked by utopianism, sexual politics, spiritual slumming, imperial wars, gospels of peace and fellowship, pseudo-orientalism, political revolutionism, exotic art-forms, psychedelic states, returns to Nature, the unleashing of the unconscious. In fact, in some ways the 1960s was the tamer epoch – an age of love-ins and flower-power rather than of fin-de-siécle Satanism, more angelic than demonic. Towards the end of this period, it was the women’s movement which forged the deepest links between the global and the personal, the political and the cultural. And some of this was bequeathed to later, postmodern times, which is to say to the next fin de siécle. Culture was a language which faced both ways, towards the personal and the political simultaneously. The same idiom could encompass anti-psychiatry and anti-colonialism.

     Culture had been among other things a way of keeping radical politics warm, a continuation of it by other means. Increasingly, however, it was to become a substitute for it. In some ways, the 1980s were like the 1880s or 1960s without the politics. As leftist political hopes faded, cultural studies came to the fore. Dreams of ambitious social change were denounced as illicit ‘grand narratives’, more likely to lead to totalitarianism than to liberty. From Sydney to San Diego, Capetown to Tromso, everyone was thinking small. Micropolitics broke out on a global scale. A new epic fable of the end of epic fables unfurled across the globe. From one end of a diseased planet to the other, there were calls to abandon planetary thinking. Whatever linked us – whatever was the same – was noxious. Difference was the new catch-cry, in a world increasingly subject to the same indignities of starvation and disease, cloned cities, deadly weapons and CNN television.

     It was ironic that postmodern thought should make such a fetish of difference, given that its own impulse was to erase the distinctions between image and reality, truth and fiction, history and fable, ethics and aesthetics, culture and economics, high and popular art, political left and right. Even so, while the brokers and financiers were drawing Huddersfield and Hong Kong ever closer, the cultural theorists were struggling to wedge them apart. Meanwhile, the End of History was complacently promulgated from a United States which looks increasingly in danger of ending it for real. There would be no more important world conflicts. It would become clear later that Islamic fundamentalists had not been paying sufficient attention when this announcement was broadcast.

     ‘Cultural politics’ had been born. But the phrase is deeply ambiguous. There had long been a recognition in radical circles that political change had to be ‘cultural’ to be effective. Any political change which does not embed itself in people’s feelings and perceptions – which does not secure their consent, engage their desires and weave its way into their sense of identity – is unlikely to endure very long. This, roughly speaking, is what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci meant by ‘hegemony’. Socialist artists from the Bolsheviks to Bertolt Brecht spoke in briskly macho terms of dismantling the middle-class citizen and constructing the New Man in its place. A whole new kind of human being was needed for the new political order, with altered sense organs and bodily habits, a different kind of memory and set of drives. And it was the task of culture to provide it.

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