Not The New World Order II Postmodern Breakdown
Wherever the dogmas of 'radical' politics are preached in our Postmodern era, a jarring note of self-loathing and self-pity can be detected. We are confronted by a spectacular display of histrionics reminiscent of James Ensor’s monumental painting The Entry of Christ Into Brussels in 1889 (1888). In this work, which depicts a procession of masked figures escorting the Messiah beneath a red banner with the slogan ‘Vive la Sociale’, we see a horde of marchers carrying banners with absurd statements such as ‘Phalange Wagner Fracassant’ or ‘Les Vivesecteures Belges Insensibles’. The canvas is crammed with bizarre, cavorting figures carried away by the excitement of the moment. Some authorities have asserted the impossibility of assigning any positive interpretation to this frenetic scene; but look at the caricature faces, the gangling figures with their fatuous slogans, costumes and postures, the pompous officials, the mass spectacle, the anachronistic tone - surely this is all too familiar?
Welcome To Our World
Ensor’s painting is an image of semiotic excess – a vision of a world where meaning is undercut by the absurd. It is an accurately observed rendition of a particular ‘twilight zone’ of the political mind, a breakdown state where our cosy, homespun universe of social policy and ‘culture’ implodes into a bizarre hallucination, where psychic epidemics of persecution, self-promotion, bad faith, martyrdom and confusion reign supreme. This is the political experience of a hazy borderline condition of disjunction between sign and meaning, a prescient prophecy of a topsy-turvy world where the pseudo-sophisticated ‘theory’ of the Designer Decade shares the stage with futile policy initiatives, propaganda sound-bites, political special effects, atavistic fears and guilt-ridden urges. Here we see the Punch-and-Judy politics of a terminal condition, characterized by moral panic, mass hysteria, self-denigrating masochism, and petulant backbiting. It is all rather similar to the fractious dialogue in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, an unsparing exposure of the futile dynamics of power as striking, in its own way, as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Welcome to our world – welcome to the consensus.
Out Of Sight (And Out Of Mind)
An obsessive, moralistic neurosis has shaped the topography of our current political landscape. This consensus or ‘attitude configuration’, to borrow a phrase from marketing, generates a fluctuating variety of ‘concerns’ and different ways of ‘engaging’ with ‘issues’ often spilling over into epidemics of mass hysteria on the streets and moral panic in the media. Typical of a loose, apparently left wing or centre-left (‘progressive’ and/or ‘liberal’) outlook, it is a predominantly anti-modernist consensual perspective shared by most policy makers and opinion formers even if they seem to behave like political opponents. It is a worldview designed to obscure the real needs of the oppressed, the disaffected and disenfranchised, all the ‘untouchables’: all those invisible victims languishing beyond the pale in a paraxial sphere alongside, or on either side, of the dominant ideological axis.
Out of sight (and out of mind), perhaps this paraxial world of the unspeakable, of ‘the untouchables’ may be fleetingly apprehended in the mass media; it might be implied by symbols, rather like the alien Zone in Roadside Picnic or the far up-river Inner Station decorated with skulls in Heart of Darkness. These are among the favourite tropes for intrepid journalists reporting from the eye of the storm – from remote outposts of the War on Terror, from beside the Shatt-al-Arab, from rogue states in Africa, from famine-stricken refugee camps, or from disaster areas in South East Asia. In all such cases it is rare to find the population treated as anything other than local colour, cultural specimens, ‘ordinary people’ (‘just like us’), or current affairs ‘wallpaper’. Their images are endlessly recycled on twenty-four hour rolling news channels: mute symbols of desperation quickly assimilated into the pseudo-reality of the predominant ideological perspective. Somehow, they persist as agony traces; as poverty porno in post-cultural limbo; as emotional canon-fodder for producers of overblown, blockbuster fund-raising telethons, or for voracious compassion-junkies; all those who like to think they are engaged in some kind of elevated struggle.
In so-called advanced societies the same paraxial invisibility obscures a real underclass – the elderly, the mentally ill, the underprivileged; all the oppressed groups and other vulnerable sectors of an irremediably ageist, self-deluded and infantilized society. An out-to-lunch, on-the-make, corporate-managerial (‘don’t bother me with the facts’) society, obsessed with bogus ‘issues’, divided by class conflict and snobbery, crippled by a dysfunctional education system. A haven for fat cats and a playground for boy-racer whizz-kid wheeler-dealers, their anti-capitalist 'protest tribe' opponents befuddled by the pious fraud of a morbid lay piety dressed up as ‘counterculture’. A society blinded by anti-intellectualism and a smokescreen of ‘cultural sensitivity’, a society struggling with a discredited, threadbare political system of compromised democracy – a society with an electoral turnout lower than Iraq.
How can this be?
Pandering to a craving for wholesome, squeaky-clean ethical correctness, the gesture politics of this ‘consensus’ exists to absolve the intelligentsia, the media, decision takers, and the ‘chattering classes’ from ethical responsibility. Projected via the self-aggrandising posture of the crusade, we find Sartre’s Bad Faith dressed up in the emperor’s new clothes of Doing the Right Thing. This ‘ethical’ correctness may, at times appear the same as ‘political correctness’ (PC), a label denoting a confused and confusing bundle of tendencies, often used as a shorthand buzz-phrase to smear an opposing faction or ideology. This is partly because the ‘ethical’ posture applies to parties and factions of the centre-right as much as those of the orthodox liberal-left, and partly because all ‘ethical’ positions are inherently self-contradictory.
For some social conservatives, PC is Cultural Marxism, but this is a smoke-screen argument used to deny the ideological basis of conservatism itself. Cultural conservatism is, of course, entrenched in its own mode of ethical ‘correctness’ which it propagates in opposition to its ideological opponents and to make converts. However, cultural conservatism is occasionally vulnerable to some consensus thinking, especially in the area of what might be called the ‘respect agenda’ which is aimed at stifling any criticism of 'faith', tradition and related matters of ‘conscience’. At this point ‘right’ and ‘left’ join forces in an unholy alliance to protect the ideological basis of a monolithic but fractured cultural caste system which always feels threatened by any change or innovation.
Participants in the consensus like to feel they are involved with the major questions of the day in a ‘progressive’ way but only insofar as they can ignore the desires and always-inconvenient behaviour of ‘ordinary’ people, avoiding the problematic consequences of substantial change. Everywhere we find ‘activists’ engaged at a psychosocial level yet failing to achieve a position that might be described as truly ‘progressive’, or even, despite contrary spin, ‘anti-establishment’. This, sometimes, hectic activity, this grotesque carnival (so vividly depicted in Ensor’s painting), generates an ‘ethical’ form of pseudo-politics that is all pervasive. A ubiquitous form of politics that evades the pains of actual confrontation or transformation, on both an individual, personal level, and on the collective level of social groups and organisations – be they political parties, militant lobby groups, aggregations of ‘concerned citizens’, or self-legitimising ‘campaigners’
The current ideological ‘concerns’ of the politically aware include a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of tendencies that emerged during the nineteen seventies, the decade that gave birth to the notion of ‘Postmodernism’ itself. These include Multiculturalism, Environmentalism, The Pro-Life Movement, Animal Rights, Ethical Consumerism, Postcolonialism, and a variety of sub-doctrines packaged-up as either New Age Politics or populist pseudo-academic anti-science. This mode of engagement with the world has all the intellectual excitement of a high-flying mission with no flight-plan – it is also the terminal end-game of ideological exhaustion.
All of these movements had antecedents in earlier periods. Multiculturalism evolved out of theories like Social Pluralism and Cultural Relativism dating back to before the First World War, just as Ethical Consumerism has historical links to the Fair Trade movement of the sixties and Environmentalism to the anti-materialist, ‘back-to-nature’ and Organic movements of the inter-war era.
Opposition to ‘big science’ including scepticism about the motives of scientists, symbolised by Rotwang of Metropolis, the megalomaniac Doctor Strangelove and other crazy ‘men in white coats’ (Doctor Watt in Carry On Screaming) is a key factor in most of these campaigns, especially Environmentalism, the Pro-Life Movement and Animal Rights. This anti-science trend finds its roots in the notion of ‘socialist science’, a concept from the inter-war years, and from earlier controversies such as those preceding the First World War. In those days philosophers of science like Ernst Mach criticised technocrats and fellow scientists for developing the technology of the battlefield, for allowing themselves to become willingly associated with that dubious and sinister institution now known as the ‘Military Industrial Complex’, a term coined by Eisenhower in a later period. For Baudrillard the shift into ‘the postmodern world’ was marked by the ‘psychotropic dream’ of the Vietnam War (1959-1973), a conflict that further increased distrust in technology while promoting a televisual experience of mass protest and political trauma. Here was a conflagration of special effects; a war ‘become film even before it was filmed’, a psychedelic war that has entered the anti-establishment subculture via movies such as La Chinoise (1967), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1989).
Despite an official ‘atoms for peace’ message, public paranoia about science and the Military Industrial Complex escalated in the Nuclear Age and throughout The Cold War. The issue has been further complicated by contemporary reactions to ‘Frankenstein technologies’ such as genetic engineering and GM (genetic modification), not to mention advances in stem cell research, embryology and fertility treatments (‘saviour siblings’, ‘designer babies’) for both heterosexual and – most alarmingly – same-sex couples. The age of the post-nuclear family arrived in 1978 with the birth of the first ‘test tube baby’ an alarming development that seemed to many disturbed observers the harbinger of a Brave New World style dystopia.
For the anti-Western ideologues of Afrocentrism, Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism science is closely identified with a catalogue of perceived evils typical of anti-WASP racist sentiment. These perceived evils include factors such as ‘criticism’, reason, atheism, ‘post-positivism’ and rationality. Correspondingly, it is claimed, modern science is the product of a ‘materialistic’, mechanistic and arrogant Eurocentric cultural system characterised by diminution of feeling, emotion and those capacities of reverence, awe, respect and admiration deemed typical of ‘other’ (i.e. non-scientific) cultures, or of previous historical periods. Consequently, the idea of ‘respect’ has gained a strong influence, usually signalling an anti-democratic tendency to shut down adverse comment and free expression lest ‘offence’ be caused to ‘others’, thereby sustaining the hegemony of the status quo.
Most of these ideologies gained critical mass as doctrines of mainstream social mobilisation in the years following the announcement of the Canadian Government’s official policy of Multiculturalism in 1971. The Australian government followed suit in 1973, the year of the OPEC oil embargo and Small Is Beautiful. This was also the year Libyan militarist Colonel Gaddafi (‘Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution’), correctly anticipating the collapse of secular Arab Nationalism, declared Islam a ‘Third International Theory’. The enervating idea of a ‘crisis of the West’ gained currency after Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered a speech at Harvard in 1978. In typical sanctimonious style he castigated the failings of a society that, despite its moral breakdown and all-pervasive ‘decadence’ (as he saw it), was, nevertheless, prepared to recognise his ‘dissident’ status and provide him with a secure sanctuary from his enemies in the Eastern Bloc.
It was also in 1978 that Greenpeace, established in the same year as Friends of the Earth (1971) launched its campaigning ship Rainbow Warrior. In retrospect this event can be seen as a key symbolic moment in the popularisation of a style of quasi-tribal, revolutionary, Environmentalist utopianism guaranteed to appeal to a nascent army of millenarian campaigners whose preferred modus operandi lay well outside the sphere of conventional parliamentary politics. The Rainbow People are The Planet People, the doomed, ragged, post-flower power, quasi-Hippie, semi-Yippie hordes parodied by Nigel Kneale in his TV drama serial Quatermass IV, broadcast in 1978 (although written in 1972). Subsequently Post-Hippie Chic re-emerged as Protest Chic or, even Terrorist Chic, a change in the zeitgeist signalled by a move away from ‘optimistic’ images of cutie-pie Flower Power or streamlined Space Age futurology (‘the world of tomorrow’ explained Pierre Cardin) towards a more ‘edgy’ confrontational style. This was a style based on military accessories. For example, the 1970 collection for Harmon Knitwear by designer Rudi Gernreich, featured sexy, gun toting catwalk models decked out in dog-tags and dressed in ‘radical’ army fatigues. This was an accurate exemplification of the ‘new look’ of trendy issue-driven pseudo-politics. Gernreich, inventor of the topless bathing suit, was – it should be added – something an ironist, a self-conscious agent provocateur well aware of the satirical impact of his sartorial creations.
Building on the writings of, among others, Schumacher, Said, Feyerabend, Foucault and Lyotard, many of these Postmodern political movements were consolidated in the early Eighties by a professorial establishment comprising the ‘new Polyocracy’ or ‘Time Out Poly Left’. Ensconced in their post-redbrick Plate Glass Towers, dispensing with the principle of evidence, the New Polyocracy set about developing new model scholasticism; the Newspeak of Airstrip One was born. The vocabulary and lexicon of ‘theory’ with its ‘nuanced’ (convoluted) sophistry became the lingua franca of ‘advanced’ (reactionary) discourse and ‘difficult’ (confused) cultural analysis based on theories such as Social Constructionism (‘truth is constructed not discovered’). At the very moment when feminism started to fracture and the mainstream post-war Butskellist centrist consensus finally collapsed and the New Right seized power, Postmodernism arrived in the UK as a new form of that old problem la trahison des clercs. Its priesthood were always on the wrong side of every argument and easily recognised by their distinctive sartorial signature; the open-necked shirt – a ‘casual’ mode of dress pioneered by language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the late nineteen forties.
It was now all a question of style-as-statement against a backdrop of sub-cultural fragmentation. The ‘Post Modern’ designer avant-garde posture, Ballard’s Perrier avant-garde for weekend consumers, could mean anything from Post-Punk, to Fascinating Fascism; from Ironic Retro, to the Red Wedge or the Monkey Wrench Gang and beyond. For style critic Peter York, the direction of travel was epitomised by Brian Ferry singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ from his solo album with the apposite title Another Time, Another Place (1974). For the serious players, the really arty types, it was all about boundary 2 poetics (1972), the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, or novels like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1976) by Manuel Puig. Bofill’s Palacio d’Abraxas (1978-1982), represented a new eclectic hyper-classical architecture, a mode of Postmodern construction developed in opposition to the corporate orthodoxy of International Modernism. But that is a different story.
Meanwhile, various populist culture warriors and ‘social commentators’ correlated the convenient idea of Western Decadence with a ‘collapse of Modernism’. These anti-permissive elements viewed the previous decade, the sixties, as a watershed in a downward spiral of national moral decline: all those taboo-busting avant-garde plays, all those mini-skirts, that dreadful ‘satire boom’, all those frightful, orgiastic Love-Ins promoted by an irresponsible media riddled with gays and ‘Pinkos’.
So, although the relativistic element in Postmodern thinking was anathema to many of these mainly right wing voices and their apologists in the usual red top newspapers, through a strange trick of chronology certain aspects of the ‘alternative’ crusading ethos acquired, nevertheless, an odour of sanctity. The Green Agenda, for example, may indeed appeal to the nostalgia of a puritanical, respectable right who, horrified by the contemporary realities of our ‘broken’ society yearn for a return to an idealised, less ‘materialistic’ feudal order. A return to a misty, medieval heritage symbolised by that long-gone age of great cathedrals evoked by Kenneth Clark in his far-reaching, landmark ‘blue-chip’ television series Civilisation (1969). How anachronistic this viewpoint really is can be seen by comparison with other conservative social critics throughout the ages. For instance the ancient Greek poet-philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon was forthright in his condemnation of Homer and other poets for their ‘immoral’ tales of gods and goddesses: tales ‘full of every impiety’. He also denounced the ‘effete vanities’ of his fellow citizens, condemning their synthetic perfumes, purple robes and elegant hairstyles. Xenophanes sounds just like the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘speaking out’ against Footballer’s Wives.
Despite their anti-PC stance, right-wing cultural conservatives have much in common with politically correct anti-Western anti-imperialists. They also share the same world view as Maoist cultural revolutionaries and hard-line Stalinists whose ideal society would be a militarised synthesis of monastery and boot camp. Both Cultural Marxists and right wing commentators alike anathematise contemporary popular culture (particularly music) which they accuse of surrendering to an ‘escapist’, self-destructive, hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, sex and rampant ‘individualism’. In this discourse all desire is thought-crime and the individual is erased and replaced by the concept of ‘identity’. Not personal identity but collective identity – the identity of the group – the party, the race, the nation, the crusade, the markets, the general public, the family, the community, the congregation, the gang – the herd and the hunting pack or The Big Society. Why? Nothing unnerves the cultural elite caste more than the singularity of the individual. As Orwell observed in 1946, attacks on ‘individualism’ and moralising cant about ‘escapism’ are often part of a strategy aimed at not just identity theft, but also at the falsification of history itself. After all, there never was a golden age of moral rectitude and it was the most decadent Romans who longed for a return to Republican virtues.
But then it is always appealing to think that the current era is more immoral than the past, that contemporary society is seriously ‘broken’ and in dire need of strong medicine, of draconian measures to eliminate hanky-panky, to restore decency, healthy living, ‘values’ and, of course, ‘respect’. Perhaps the most emblematic film of the era was Roma (1971) directed by Federico Fellini, which shows benign Hippies in the Trastevere district bludgeoned by police in a brutal, anti-permissive crackdown. If the autobiographical factor is left to one side, this movie depicting the ‘entry’ of a film crew into the Eternal City is a cinematic equivalent to Ensor’s Entry of Christ Into Brussels. More an ‘internal city’ of the collective psyche, this Rome is depicted as a many layered phantasmagoria of terminal modernity haunted by fascism – sentiments articulated by Gore Vidal, who, in the closing sequences, delivers a soliloquy on the End of Days. Why Rome? What better place to observe the end of everything opines Suetonius Americanus: we can sit here in hedonistic luxury and watch the planet succumb to pollution and overpopulation – how very diverting.
Of course, these attitudinal viewpoints are ideological constructs of one kind or another: their main purpose being the promotion a particular ‘issue-based’ perception of society; a view serving the interests of demagogues, commentators, followers, devotees and fellow travellers. Such ideological systems depend upon the false assumption that reality can be grasped in totality – coherent and integrated. This is the case for all belief systems including those promoting anarchy, mystical transcendence, salvation or radical idealism. However, as ‘ultimate reality’ is chaotic, incoherent, incalculable and indescribable without obfuscation, what any belief system tries to do is negate the inherently distorting effects of real-world situations by providing an idealised perspective. By representing reality in such an idealised way ideology moves to repress the destabilising fact that the ideal itself is, in fact, a delusion. The purpose of any doctrine is reinforcement of the comfort zone, making it feel, well, somehow ‘right’ to bury one’s head in the sand. How easy it is to translate a ‘right’ feeling into a feeling of righteousness and to energise the crusading spirit.
The normative consensual mix may contain a diversity of apparently contradictory viewpoints in competition for ideological dominance. In certain cases (e.g. Environmentalism) a particular tendency may, over time, percolate across the traditional left/right spectrum. A classic example of this ideological transmigration is the rise of Eco-Toryism in the UK around 2005 – a political initiative that helped to revitalise a moribund party and launch the Big Society agenda. Furthermore, all positions, however contradictory, will be found to share a basic horror of reality, conniving in the erasure of inconvenient or ‘impossible’ facts. Such ‘impossible facts’ might include inescapable ethical breakdown (there is no morally acceptable interpretation of circumstances on the ground) or complicity in the very social evils apparently opposed.
For example, Multiculturalists and anti-racists may seek to promote social justice, but only at the expense of meaningful egalitarianism. By focusing on social relations between groups, between the margins and the mainstream and between the included and the excluded, problems within groups whose interests they claim to be protecting are always overlooked. Dissenting voices are consigned to oblivion in the name of a spurious ‘social cohesion’ while ‘communities’ are characterised as ideal integrated totalities – as unitary ‘cultural’ formations that, in fact, do not exist.
For multiculturalists non-intervention in ‘other cultures’ is essential. This is because intervention would reveal the irrationality of their position, the unspoken right-wing drift of their ideology and the essentially haphazard, dysfunctional nature of social relations within ‘communities’. Indeed, many individuals in these communities may not conform to, or event assent to, the ‘identity’ ascribed them by a self-serving, conservative, elite caste of ‘community leaders’ – or by disconnected political mandarins and well-meaning outsiders. One irony of this approach is the creation of a political vacuum now filled by parties and activists from the far right of the spectrum. Thus, fair comment has been suffocated because criticism directed at multicultural dogma is denigrated as, in itself, ‘right wing’. The notion that religion is a surrogate for race has created a situation in which fear of the accusation of ‘racism’, has effectively crippled the ability of disinterested observers to challenge social policies devised by cliques of politicians soft on theocracy to promote the interests of phantasmagorical ‘communities’ defined by religious labels.
Similar ethical incongruities are commonplace and far too widespread to enumerate comprehensively. By way of further illustration one might mention the failure of Environmentalists to recognise that, excluding inconvenient astronomical factors, the root cause of ‘man-made’ global warming is escalating population growth, not runaway technology. Just as the same groups fail to grasp that problems of energy security and the energy gap will never be solved by ‘renewable’ sources of power, low-energy light bulbs, or tacky ‘Eco-town’ developments plonked down on hastily categorised ‘brown-field’ sites’. There is a refusal to face the fact that climate change cannot be reversed, and a consequent rejection of the high-powered techno-industrial development required to safeguard the existing order. In the main this is because many Greens are actually opposed to the existing order on ‘ethical’ grounds and further opposed to the very notion of development per se – especially in the Third World.
Dispassionate observers might also draw attention to the irreconcilable differences between ascetic/patriarchal religious morality and the anti-sexist campaigns of feminists and gay rights movements, including such movements lead by religious insiders.
Pro-Lifers regard the Pro-Choice position as ‘mere political correctness’ (connotations of ‘loony left’ and ‘red menace’), while Pro-Choice activists will never ‘respect’ the views of their opponents simply because such opinions are defined as articles of faith. On the other hand, faced with the right-wing bogey of pro-natalism (‘family values’), the social reformers of the Postmodern intelligentsia dive for cover at the earliest opportunity. They remain oblivious of the ‘impossible’ fact that youth crime, like antisocial behaviour, is caused by bad parenting and the irresponsibility of a parasitic disconnected middle class of so-called professionals. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, remain blind to the implications of such exotic trends as the post-nuclear family. There can be little doubt that the issues most likely to inspire moral panic among ‘concerned’ citizens from both ends of the political spectrum are those arising from matters to do with child protection, ‘family’ and the increasingly futile ‘war on drugs’ (a phrase coined by Richard M. Nixon). Cultural conservatives and ‘radical’ Leftist thinkers alike drift closer to the mentality of the witch-hunt at the mere hint of scandal while policies that ‘send the wrong signal’ to ‘our’ young people always cause frenzied outbursts of hysteria, synthetic ‘fury’ and moral panic among the usual suspects. The mindset of the vigilante always demands ‘respect’ for ‘values’ as a devious way of asserting moral authority over dissident or anarchic elements. So-called liberals never contradict, expose or criticise the ideological basis of such ‘values’.
Again, however hard they try, Animal rights campaigners cannot refute the scientific claim that experiments on animals, like breeding pigs with cystic fibrosis, help combat disease and save human lives. Ethical Consumers, who love cheap goods, routinely overlook the corrupt and tyrannical behaviour of predatory Third World governments. The desires of local populations who may aspire to mass consumerism are duly disregarded by ‘activists’ ego-tripping on a self-aggrandising ‘ethical’ mission to boycott garment ‘sweatshops’ thereby driving the victims of child labour into the sex trade.
Obviously it is quite impossible to reconcile the problematic factors inherent in such ‘issues’ as these. Fault-line clashes between race and gender, population and the environment; industrialisation and conservation, faith and sexual diversity, science and religion and so forth are utterly intractable. The radical chic ‘politically correct’ policies of the liberal-left – policies that may also be expedient for the ‘progressive’ centre-right – always implode when dealing with such incalculable dilemmas. The consensus remains paralysed – neutralised and inactive – frozen at the event horizon of the next ethical singularity, terrified by the threat of de-sublimation while creeping ever further to the right. Furthermore one is left in no doubt that, in this context, ‘liberal’ never means libertarian, and ‘liberalism’ is poor substitute for liberation – most ‘progressive’ policies in the era of the breakdown state and the hyper-culture are in fact right wing policies.
A Horror Of Impurity
The consensus is very likely to project its own negative motives and its complicity in the erosion of freedom onto some eternal agency or reified Other, usually a soft-target or a scapegoat, preferably a Western politician or agency easily stigmatised as ‘neo-colonialist’ and tainted with stigma of Orientalism. The Iraq Situation is a geo-political entanglement that has consumed a vast amount of energy from ‘activists’ in recent years. In this case the liberal-left projects its own negativity at a stereotyped, ideological construct like ‘Western Imperialism’ or at a major protagonist, such as the USA, personified by the archetypal hate figure of George ‘Dubya’ Bush. (The New World has been the target of European prejudice for several centuries, so there is nothing new in this. As for ‘imperialism’ one has only to look at the political history of the East to confirm the all-pervasive colonialist expansionism of local cultures from the earliest times. For the ‘radical’ left liberal, however, the only form of imperialism that matters is ‘Western Imperialism’ which is, of course, code for Anti-Americanism).
Here, the quasi-Pacifist position (a form of Lenin’s ‘revolutionary defeatism’ as reformulated by the movers and shakers of Respect and the Socialist Workers Party) is found opposing the same hate-factors as local ‘insurgents’ – and idealising terrorists as heroic resistance fighters in the process. This kind of ethico-political sleight-of-hand absolves ‘us’ from the responsibility of facing the results of any deeper, more penetrating analysis of ‘the situation’ while promoting the seductive allure of terrorist chic. By effectively directing aggression against a convenient ‘them’, like the dreaded Dubya and his Poodle, opponents of the war can idealise the actions and objectives of illiberal local factions (a ragbag of brigands, militarists and puritanical religious fanatics) obscuring the real cause(s) of the chaos ‘on the ground’. So it absolves itself of any ethical responsibility for the sufferings of a civilian population used as a ‘human shield’ by ‘insurgents’ who, in pursuit of sectarian objectives, victimise minority groups such as the Yezidi and the Assyrians, terrorise Baghdad hairdressers or use women with mental disabilities as suicide bombers.
The need for positive transformation in the lives of toiling masses with no interest in ‘issues’ like the Dodgy Dossier or WMD is erased from the list of options. Such a possibility is relegated to an unseen realm by obfuscation or by formulaic platitudes from the ‘concerned’ chattering classes and a media rife with ‘commentators’ and ‘campaigning’ investigative journalists schooled in the traditions of the old Time Out Leftist Polyocracy.
Clearly the activities of the anti-war lobby (born during the Kosovo Crisis of 1999) and their quasi-pacifist fellow travellers are a form of diversionary distraction activity design to obscure the ‘impossible fact’ that the Iraq situation is an extension of the Middle East Conflict. This indefinite conflict, like the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ is a religious war, a war which cannot be properly discussed because many vested interests, indisposed to any form of criticism whatsoever, will take ‘offence’ if inherently schismatic religiosity is exposed as socially divisive at both national and international level. This is the reason why so many peace initiatives have failed, and it is also the reason why there can be no ‘two state solution’ to the Palestine Problem – another ‘impossible’ fact.
It is difficult to recognise that anti-imperialist action usually works against the general good, because for the liberal-left, ‘anti-imperialism’ is a compulsive, dogmatic fixation backed up by hyper-intellectualised pseudo-sophisticated Postcolonial ‘theory’. This is why the consensus will align itself with any agency articulating views conforming to its expectations. If such agencies are regimes or forms of social order in contradiction with other idealisations it still becomes impossible to directly question their actions because the anti-imperialist stance is more important to the soggy punditocracy of ‘liberal’ believers than factual reality.
Thus, the year 1992 found many on the hard left in denial over the Serb concentration camps located at Omarska and elsewhere because the Serb forces, hell bent on the creation of a racially pure, ethnically cleansed Republika Srpska, were anti-American. The purveyors of relativism find such a stance quite easy to justify. After all, in the hall of distorting mirrors, bad faith and doublethink that is the world of contemporary ‘theory’ one body of political ‘discourse’ (propaganda) is as valid as the next. The notion of ‘incommensurability’ plays into that old ‘noble savage’ doctrine of an organic ‘culture’ of cutesy, happy, poor people, sustaining the consensus in its futile attempts to negotiate the hazy borderland between a ‘progressive’ on-message ‘anti-establishment’ position and its complimentary ‘reactionary’ antithesis. All ‘culture’ is hegemony and all culture is tyrannical just as all faith is slavery and siege mentality. Culture is a caste system that keeps everyone in his or her place. Culture crushes those at the bottom of the heap; the subaltern classes; all those anonymous ‘untouchables’; all those ‘unclean’ masses, all those women that embody our abject and inarticulate purgatorial horror of impurity – the horror that is the dynamic force driving the logic of extremism.
The present regime in Zimbabwe presents another such conundrum. Here we have a classic case of a brutal government projecting a smokescreen of ‘anti-colonialism’ to wrong-foot its pro-democracy opponents. This regime uses the same anti-Western lexicon as the leftist bloc in this country. Nevertheless members of the UK consensus can be heard (ironically no doubt) espousing the idea of military intervention. (‘If we can do it in Iraq why can’t we do it in Zimbabwe?’ The standard rhetorical answer: ‘Because there’s no oil in Zimbabwe!’). However, any serious action against the ruling elite in Zimbabwe has been effectively neutralised by the UN and the frontline states of Southern Africa that at a diplomatic level cannot confront or dissent from the anti-colonial posture. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the so-called Rainbow Nation where hate crimes like ‘corrective rape’ are endemic, the ANC government used anti-colonialism to justify its ‘HIV denial’ stance, causing the deaths of more than 330,000 of its own citizens while illustrating the close association between anti-WASP Postcolonialism and anti-science.
Engaging, like Kuwait, in land-grabbing campaigns of ‘food imperialism’ in South East Asia, not to mention its own ‘scramble for Africa’, emerging non-Western superpower China, is a supporter of both ZANU-PF and the genocidal government of Sudan. In Sudan, a country controlled by another aggressively anti-Western regime, nomadic Arabic-speaking Janjaweed (‘devil on horseback’) militia, are, with the overt military support of the authorities, systematically exterminating the sedentary black population of Darfur. The Family of Nations, also known as the ‘International Community’, does nothing of consequence to stop either the slaughter or the mass displacement of refugees.
Throughout history same use of similar anti-modern rhetoric has characterised the diplomacy of other non-Western regimes, like the Pan-Germans and the Pan-Slavs (including Russian Nationalists and Stalinists) or the militaristic Japanese State Shinto warmongers of the Nineteen Forties. One only has to think of the misogynist, gay bashing Iranian theocracy, and its anathemas against ‘Westoxification’ or ‘The Great Satan’, and watch similar tyrannies exploit the ‘progressive’ obsessions of both the soggy middle ground of ‘ethical’ European politics and the missionary activities of Postmodern ‘activists’. Doubtless this tactic is some small help in maintaining dominance over geo-political spheres of influence, and in brutalising helpless populations. ‘Western Decadence’ is a very convenient shibboleth for everyone, including our self-legitimising intelligentsia, a menagerie of hysterical campaigners, philanthropic celebrities, armchair radicals, parlour anarchists, rent-a-mob revolutionaries, freaky ‘sandalistas’, saloon-bar rabble-rousers, champagne socialists and cappuccino conservatives – a political class whose ascetic/puritanical tendencies are all too obvious to the weary observer.
All totalitarian systems have an antagonism toward factual reality because ultra-right movements (it is said) have a particularly deep investment in the plausibility and effectiveness of ideological fictions – the mere existence of any alternative viewpoint is a threat. However this reflex of antagonism toward ‘alternative’ positions is, in varying degrees, a characteristic of all ideologies. It is a common factor that defines a belief system per se because of the primacy of the defensive function.
As they all share in the fundamental mystification of actuality this reflex is true of all beliefs, including those not necessarily defined as political ideologies. The left-liberal consensual ideological ‘group think’ is driven by an emotional empathy for under-dogs or supposed fellow sufferers. But bad faith ensures the real needs of victims are conveniently commodified (‘adopt an elephant’, ‘add ethical kudos to your shopping trolley’, ‘strike a pose/save lives’) or rendered invisible by the sanctimonious nostrums of Cultural Relativism endorsed by gullible ‘luvvies’ (‘we can’t impose our Western-style democracy on them’). Indeed there are innumerable white-wristband wearing, publicity-conscious A-Listers for whom ‘concern’ is a good marketing ploy (‘it shows we care’). Desperate to ensure that they are seen ‘doing the right thing’ they will jump on any and every band wagon, especially campaigns like ‘Global Cool’ (2007) endorsed by the upper echelons and involving invitations to Number Ten for serious talks with The People Who Matter.
Behind the baroque elaboration of an improbable ideological apparatus lurks a tortured form of self-contempt not only portrayed in Ensor’s 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels' but also detected by Nietzsche as early as 1886. For him this mode of self-contempt was a corrosive strand of collective self-mortification that was, even then, undermining the European worldview from within. Following Nietzsche’s hints it is possible to speculate that this strange complex or syndrome of ‘self-dwarfing’ arose as early as the late eighteenth century for he claims that Italian economist Galiani had also detected the phenomenon in the period before the French Revolution.
One might pin the blame on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But that would be far too simplistic, especially taking into account the obvious prophetic/apocalyptic/millenarian messages lurking between the lines of the propaganda emanating from such movements as Environmentalism with its self-created legend of the Rainbow Warriors and the ‘original sin’ of industrialisation. Many on the left would claim, by way of self-definition, a historical affinity with such ‘heretical’ fundamentalist, puritan movements of the past as the Ranters, Winstanley’s Diggers, the Levellers or, even, the Albigensian Cathari. Not only are such sects of mendicants, flagellants and heretics seen through an ‘ethical’ prism of purity and moral correctness, reinvented for the modern world as ‘religious anarchists’ they also project at aura of ‘revolutionary’ anti-establishment subversion, proto-communist collectivism or even ‘mystical feminism’. While remaining safely in the comfort zone of sentimental, if unconventional pseudo-theology, heretical ideas feed into utopian, anti-capitalist notions of a ‘decentralist commonwealth’ and have become part of the counter-culture ethos and have migrated into the mainstream under the banner of Localism.
Today, this curious form of ‘sensibility’ (more bathos than pathos) has developed into a vicarious egoism in love with all possible varieties of masochistic anti-materialist, anti-Western defamation, and which is – as was mentioned at the outset – an obsessive, neurotic syndrome. It is a kind of guilt-ridden, hypochondriac, neo-phobic ‘radicalism’ disguised as a fashionably ‘ethical’ attitude energised by the emotional charge of penitence and reparation. In fact this syndrome is very archaic, being a reassertion of the doctrine of sin-atonement, humiliation and purification common to most mythic ideologies of deliverance (salvation) conditioned by an innate psychopathic predisposition. In this context the ‘original sins’ of the Postmodern era are such tendencies as Imperialism, Industrialisation and Consumerism. The dominant sensibility of this ‘attitude configuration’ is a form of voyeurism dressed up as empathy for the unfortunate, a form of nostalgie de la boue masquerading as an elevated struggle for high ideals, plagued by a perpetual sense of threat. This sense of threat – the threat of retribution as emasculation – is always there in the background. It will be meted out when the barbarians, the enemy at the gates, finally break in like the sinister biker gang roaring over the neon-illuminated Ponte Garibaldi at the end of Roma.
Of course, for many the ‘ethical’ agenda is merely a lifestyle choice: simply a question of age and temperament, a demonstration of how political commitments are, primarily, a matter of personal character and social opportunism. We chose the outlook that suits us best on the basis of psychological predisposition and in the light of socio-economic circumstances. Then, as our circumstances change, so do our ‘commitments’ even if our inflated sense of self-importance does not. That is why, once the Designer Decade was over, so many ‘student radicals’ of the seventies, who looked to the Angry Brigade or Baader-Meinhof gang as lifestyle gurus of terrorist chic, mutated into neo-liberal right-wing commentators or state functionaries. It is also why those once-fashionable Sandinistas have ‘sold out’, making a political pact with Vatican elements against the interests of the entire female population of Nicaragua. As is so often the case it is women who are the invisible and anonymous victims of oppressive cultural practices and political game playing. But all ‘radical’ worldviews are prone to opportunist manoeuvring, because bad faith is both endemic and inescapable: just watch the Greens ‘go nuclear’ under pressure from events as the energy crisis deepens. How long before Eco-Toryism becomes Eco-Fascism?
A Strangely Empty World
We, the offspring of post-war generations nurtured by a welfare state, protected by the US nuclear umbrella, and by huge loans from the same source, have come to hate Modernity because we are just so deeply dissatisfied with ourselves. We seek out opportunities for humiliation on order to assuage our burden of unconscious guilt through the self-indulgent dynamics of moral masochism.
By extension, we loathe our ‘sick post-imperialist society’, to borrow a phrase from E P Thompson, a campaigning anti-nuclear academic who exemplified the morbid psychology of early nineteen eighties political lay piety. We are Hamm (the red-robed Establishment) and Clov (the under-dog) and their warped, self-indulgent angst defines ‘us’. The vanity of our virtue dictates we salve our souls through empathy with the suffering of the entire world. This specious ‘world’ is an abstract hallucination of left-liberal or ‘concerned’ politicians hooked on a poverty porno fix, and of ‘protestors’ who like to fill their leisure time with recreational rioting. This delusional pseudo-reality is also shared by the cappuccino toff culture of ‘progressive’ UK Red Tory Conservatism, a political cabal whose old-Etonian leaders just love the ‘common touch’ of Red Wedge era hit singles.
This sanitised, virtual ‘world’ of wishful thinking, this consensual comfort zone where we luxuriate, is the sphere of the Postmodern breakdown. It is a strangely empty world – for all the subaltern masses whose real circumstances we hesitate to confront, whom we dehumanise by our self-righteous, neo-phobic obsessions with cultural purity, spiritual cleanliness and ‘difference’, have been vaporised into the paraxial. Vaporised or erased to preserve the integrity of our holy purpose. Always anonymous, their desires defined as thought-crimes by puritans for whom truth can be constructed but facts never established, the Invisible Victims of our Postmodern neurosis have ceased to exist – and their inconvenient aspirations have been consigned to the toxic landfill site of political oblivion.
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