Just like the Isabelle Stengers essay I was writing about yesterday, only I’ve read more of Negri’s work so far than Stengers’.
In the case Negri discusses, America, it’s how they weren’t received. Because Deleuze and Guattari’s contribution to progressive political philosophy was, for a long time, squeezed out of public prominence by the Frankfurt School.
Historically, it was a matter of contingent historical connection. The Frankfurt School thinkers who survived the Second World War settled in the United States – Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse. Their writing was already prominent enough that they could land professors’ positions at the major elite schools.
Not everybody could do it, but the ones who didn’t seemed to be more effective in inspiring revolution against injustice.
Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse ended up locking down intellectual influence on the university-educated progressive left in America. Their books were the basis of critical political studies in the United States for the rest of the 20th century.
This fact is at the centre of why “cultural marxism” has taken hold as a conspiratorial concept in reactionary circles these days. It began from Andrew Breitbart’s misreading of Adorno – he saw the philosopher’s message as saying that social and political change begins from changing the culture, not from the top-down with state control institutions.
As a result, Breitbart shaped his extremist libertarian media outlet with an ambitious mission – change the culture through media activism. His goal was to counter the influence of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Brietbart and his followers saw these writers as the communist Jews* who spent decades spreading ideologies of state socialism – cultural marxism – into the young generations through their books and the humanities professors who taught them.
* Because this is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, just so we have that clear. The Elders of Zion are now a bunch of elderly university professors.
|Another irony is that Negri, Guattari, Deleuze, and|
many others who built the philosophy of radical
democracy like Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe,
and Bifo Berardi were all actual political activists.
Negri wrote this essay before Breitbart Media’s brand of extremism – rabidly anti-socialist white nationalism – took hold of American culture. But he provides an ironic point through his spin on the Frankfurt School. Even as Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse identified the only route to change society in cultural change, they also considered liberatory cultural change impossible.
Theo, Max, and Herb analyzed all the vectors of cultural repression – economic, political, psychological, sociological – and found it omnipresent. It’s actually impossible to find any breathing room in cultural repression to start a positive movement that will actually overthrow the repressive relationships themselves.
The most a real revolution in state or economic power can achieve is changing the character of repression. As Marcuse put it, capitalist vectors of repression reduce people to a single dimension of activity and self-conception. It becomes impossible to conceive of any positive alternative.
So all you can do in the face of a capitalist framework of life is critique and question. Negri identifies the quietism and hopelessness at the heart of Frankfurt School philosophy. Writing more than a decade ago, Negri finds an irony for me – Breitbart didn’t realize that, for all the critique and questions, the writers who became his Elders of Zion already considered him the winner.
More next week.