The postmodern simulation of tribes

The word tribe speaks to the past. There is something of the primitive associated with it. And yet the algorithm-driven postmodern present creates tribes out of us. Social media networking and the consumption of traditional media are changing who we are. Virtual reality and lived reality are pushing us into groups. Aggressive political marketing sets fire to our traditional loyalties. Many of us can be given labels. Our views can be pigeonholed and held up for derision.

One of the first methods of attacking supporters of Jeremy Corbyn was to group us all using a dismissive discourse. Our individuality and our history was erased. At best, we were called Corbynistas. We were researched and prodded. Bourgeois journalists sneered that we were followers of Leon Trotsky. Others suggested that most of us were too young to know about political reality. The diversity in our views was suppressed. Any unusual opinions were ridiculed. A tribe had been formed and the postmodern media set about trying to discredit it by any means necessary.

Now there is a reactionary tribe or two present in the British body politic. They are often males who love money and detest political correctness. They are opposed to immigration and hostile to the postmodern. While they may have gained from global capitalism, they have a nationalist identity. Their supporters may vote against the interests of their own social class. When they make statements that reflect their unease with contemporary reality, their opponents shout “gammon” at them. A tribe has been established and its views are likely to harden.

In these circumstances, we should try to exercise our independent thought. If we support Corbyn, we may still question his nuanced policy on the European Union- a third referendum on the issue might not be such a disaster.  If we oppose mass immigration, we may still think about the historical benefits that a diverse culture has brought to our lives. In other words, we can refuse to become tribes- we can challenge the misconceptions that others may have about us. Sensitive Corbynistas and flexible gammon can cut through the media stereotypes.

The postmodern was once associated with jokes. But the laughter is now at our expense. Jean Baudrillard highlighted some of the problems with media culture in the 1980s. The theorist wrote:

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody.”

The left should not descend into the mud. People cannot be reduced to gammon. For example, we may have a drunken uncle who could be described as gammon. He should pay his taxes, but he should not be denied a barbecue in the sun. And if he wears a shirt with pineapples on it, we should not laugh.



Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This grim novel of imperialism and racism has a new resonance in the era of President Trump. There is a brutal poetry within the psychological narrative. The vagueness of the language adds a mystery to the story. The famous critic F.R. Leavis alleged that the imprecision of the adjectives deployed was frustrating for the reader. But each individual may make their own judgement. Those who value atmosphere may give Joseph Conrad the benefit of the doubt; English was not his first language. Furthermore,  Conrad wrote:

“We live, as we dream- alone.”

The brevity of the text means that the development of the characters is somewhat limited. However, it does not diminish the power of the journey. The emphasis on light and dark means that the reader is always thinking about appearances and reality. Crude racist language reminds one of the prejudice that much of the West has maintained towards Africa and its people. Racism deprives individuals of their humanity and allows them to act without compassion.

The question is whether or not we can view Trump as a powerful version of Kurtz. There is something “contemptibly childish” about the character in the novel. Is there not a really childish quality to the showmanship of Trump? When Trump described nations as “shithole countries” he was clearly engaged in constructing a racist discourse that would have fitted in with the simplistic imperialism of Conrad’s time.

Sections of the mainstream media are keen to give Trump legitimacy. Their line is that if he can achieve X or Y then we might have underestimated him. But the point is not whether Trump can be efficient. Why should we tolerate intolerant rulers who do not care about the lives of ordinary people? It makes sense for people to campaign for change, instead of passively waiting for change to happen. Trump is a dangerous distraction who must be displaced: it is ‘business as usual’ for some of the elites who run our lives.

Why is Paul Mason attacking Louis Althusser?

“In the early 1960s the pro-Kremlin French sociologist Louis Althusser “solved” the problem of the Paris Manuscripts by declaring them to be un-Marxist.”

Paul Mason.

It is often thought that the media star and writer Paul Mason is squarely on the left of British politics. He has not been a savage critic of Jeremy Corbyn, and this means that he is often perceived as being a benign commentator on political and economic matters. Nevertheless, he occasionally says or does something which makes you think he is not to be trusted. His intemperate and inaccurate attack on the dead philosopher Louis Althusser is a case in point.

Althusser is known for his conceptual innovations and for his ability to learn from different disciplines. He was not a simple Stalinist, and it is unfair to his subtle thought to depict him as pro-Kremlin. Althusser was born in Algeria, but putting him in the French category is not necessarily inaccurate- although it should be remembered that the English historian E.P. Thompson gave the Frenchman a hard time back in the day.  Nationalism may have reared its head there, although Thompson had the sense not to produce a philosophical model of his own.

Mason continues his own assault strangely, by calling the philosopher a sociologist. This could be a typo, but it may be that Mason thinks that philosophers have a status which sociologists lack. Althusser was a creative philosopher and his contributions to thought should be discussed on that basis.

Ostensibly, Mason is attacking Althusser because the latter valued the late work of Marx more than Marx’s early musings. For Althusser, there was an ‘epistemological break’ between the two sections of theory. However, he was the subject of withering criticism on this point by John Lewis many decades ago. And Althusser conceded that his thinking had pushed ahead too far:

“I was not attentive enough to the fact which John Lewis points out, that is, to the fact of the continuing presence of the said philosophical categories after the “epistemological break”.” 
Nowhere does Mason mention that Althusser took full ownership of this deviation. The original error is only of interest to Marxist philosophers. So why does Mason want people to dismiss Althusser and focus on the minor works of Marx? There are two possible explanations. One of these is the theory that Mason does not want workers to find things out by themselves. If they read Althusser they may take a dim view of the mass media and the role that Mason plays within its reactionary systems. The other is the hope that Mason really believes in the Hegelian output of the young Marx.
It would be nice to think that Mason is an idealist, a man who wants to share beautiful thoughts about fighting the alienation of labour. However, Mason could do this without traducing a dead philosopher. Nor can one help wondering if Mason has an intellectual inferiority complex. His book sales may be great, but he is unlikely to be mentioned by the cognoscenti in the same breath as Althusser. Perhaps Mason should confine his polemics to his equals.

The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

Books  can be understood as relatives of other books. I would never have read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende if I had not experienced One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Magical realism and big families must have made an impact on my imagination way back when. Hence I picked up a memoir by Allende and found that real family sagas can be almost as dramatic as fictional ones.

Unfortunately, this memoir contains quite a lot of misery. Even when families have money they have their disappointments. Suffering comes in many forms. Some pain is haunting, occasioned by people passing away far too soon. Other anxiety is ephemeral, such as concern for fading personal appearance.

Much of this text is set in California. Allende is interested in politics and is broadly progressive in orientation. Certainly, part of the lengthy narrative is tormented by the excesses of the Republican Party. At the same time, Allende was of mature years when she put together this account. Comfortable with feminism, she seems less assured in her dealings with other aspects of the debates surrounding gender. Perhaps everyone could do with the insight of Professor Judith Butler. Professor Butler wrote:

“If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.”

Allende is a sincere writer. She holds a mirror to the difficulties inherent in composing fresh work. Furthermore, she is open about how much effort a postmodern writer has to devote to marketing. Prepared to travel and to give something back to less fortunate people, Allende is an admirable figure with a great sense of fun.

Her memoir ended with an honest tribute to the authentic love she shared with her husband. However, this neat conclusion has been ripped up by later events. Her marriage ended as her husband found further grief too much to handle. This tragic outcome shows that life has a way of throwing harsh challenges at people who have done their best. There is something random about the world which tidy arithmetic can never capture.



Of newspapers and Nietzsche

I always prefer to read progressive philosophy. But it is worthwhile to try to understand other perspectives. To that end, I was wrestling with some discourses of Friedrich Nietszche. And I discovered that it is not only philosophers of the left who have been troubled by the distortions of the mass media.

Readers may be aware of the pivotal social role accorded to the mass media by the neo-Marxist Louis Althusser. He framed the mass media as one of the central Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). He comprehended that the reproduction of capitalism was lent legitimacy by thought-making. For him, the capitalist state has never relied on repression alone. Following something of a structuralist path, attentive to the complex thinking of Jacques Lacan, Althusser postulated that ideology did not simply reflect the economic base of a society. The French genius reasoned that the beliefs we had were of massive importance to our working lives and stressed:

“above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production.”

Nietzsche was seeming less systematic in his analysis of the state and the media than Althusser. However, his comments about the media were scathing. Even if his remarks came from a reactionary viewpoint, they merit a cursory inspection. This is because they illustrate that newspapers are not simply neutral channels of entertainment and information. There is something disturbing about their unaccountable power.  Nietzsche ranted:

“They steal for themselves the work of inventors and the treasures of the wise: they call their theft culture- and they turn everything to sickness and calamity. Just look at these superfluous people! They are always ill, they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper. They devour one another and cannot even digest themselves.”

The advent of the social media has given more of an international dimension to these questions. It has challenged traditional news sources at home and abroad. The Guardian has become a tabloid and it has declined in quality. This has attracted a lot of attention. However, people who have stuck with the paper will have noticed its pursuit of readers in the United States and Australia. This strategy might not have maintained standards, but if we view a paper in terms of its attempt to spread an ideology then it cannot be seen as trivial. Liberalism was once viewed as a natural partner of capitalism, but the success of Trump, Brexit, Putin and China have thrown this assumption into doubt. Liberalism is not going to disappear, but reinventions of liberalism may be less liberal than its old forms. Liberal media will be increasingly exposed to socialist criticism as its distorting prism becomes more blatant.

Monopoly Capitalism Redux

The theory of monopoly capitalism has Marxist origins. However, orthodox Marxism never embraced the thinking of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. Their understanding of capitalist hegemony was viewed as heretical by some ideological gatekeepers. Non-Marxist influences were suspected, and some individuals thought that they accorded too much power to corporate oligopolies and monopolies.

This controversy might seem to be beside the point in a postmodern world. After all, the state has survived the apparent threat posed to it by neoliberalism. Globalisation has not prevented the nation state from intervening in markets. Nor have the crisis tendencies of capitalism been smoothed over by the forces of monopoly capital.

However, the debate is being revived at different scales of governance. Amazon and Facebook have challenged the state in various ways. International tax avoidance and corporate involvement in global politics has led to fresh controversy. In the UK, the idea of a merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda has also raised apprehension about the power of oligopolies.

British citizens are concerned about the cost of living. Brexit has added to this anxiety. But the biggest threat posed to the wallets of the people could really be coming from monopoly capitalism. We might think that we live in a postmodern world of fake politicians faking anger at fake news, but fractions of big capital may yet have the last laugh. The tragedy of postmodern politics is that it often evades big questions like climate change- while we are distracted, monopoly capitalism does not respect the planet or its people.

Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

This text has something of a masterpiece about it. I read a translation by Ellen Marriage. The prose carried the reader along in a remarkable fashion. Here was love, romance, Paris, sex, and money in a lively drama that on occasion seemed to anticipate the dark realism of Émile Zola.

Honoré de Balzac was writing before Freud, but he had an abundance of insight into the dynamics of the family. He comprehended that the bond between fathers and daughters may be a really strong one. This succinct novel will be appreciated by anyone who understands the strains which capitalism can place on the family. It is no wonder that some Marxists have appreciated the powerful writings of Balzac.

Certainly, money dominates the plot of this colourful narrative. It is all about the difficulties and hypocrisies of trying to get by in a world dominated by fashion. Balzac knew all about what Thorstein Veblen would later describe as conspicuous consumption. The question of credit gives the story a contemporary edge.

Altruists might not enjoy the tragic aspects of this tale. And sensitive people might object to unflattering references to Jewish people in the text. It is perhaps important to note that sensibilities change over time. Balzac died long before the Dreyfus Affair divided France, and it is impossible to know if he would have given his support to the progressive side. Balzac connected Jewish people with lending money, but in this work people from other backgrounds are engaged in this activity. Perhaps Balzac and Charles Dickens can be viewed as writers of their era. Nevertheless, it has been argued in literary scholarship that Balzac was too odd to be a consistent anti-Semite; the evidence across his work has been interpreted as showing complex and influential Jewish characters where they are featured.

While literary controversies rarely reach firm conclusions, the ending of this book is certainly a solid one. The protracted suffering of a man who has loved too much remains moving to this day. As one gets old, love can be perceived in new ways. Instead of seeming sincere and necessary, it may appear as a cruel delusion.