The Political Economy of Reaction
Thinking Out loud
“Theories and schools, like microbes and globules, devour each other and by their struggle ensure the continuing of life.”—Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah
“Literary men exist not by the preservation, but by the destruction of their own species.”—William Hazlitt
This post is going to be a rather long and meandering attempt to gather my thoughts, so may not be entirely a coherent essay.—
Recently, I fell for a provocation online. The hosts of the Red Scare podcast posted a picture of themselves with Alex Jones, the infamous conspiracy theorist and far-right radio host. (Red Scare, for those of you who don’t know, started out as an ostensibly left-wing podcast with bohemian airs, it has a a conservative slant on cultural issues, and has grown steadily more reactionary.) This made me very angry at first, because I felt it was obscene: Jones has recently been found guilty of defaming the parents of the murdered Sandy Hook children and his entire public performance is a kind of pornographic display of paranoia and hatred. But I realized quickly that my reaction itself was taken account for in advance‚—it was designed to upset the fuddy-duddies like me, and I fell for it. It was one some level a very clever piece of negative public relations. It drew up battle lines in the culture wars and created the field on which to take positions. And it attracted attention and audiences, which is what everyone in the situation was really after.
A now-familiar list of names rallied to the photo, putting themselves—if not quite on the side of the provocation—at least against the people who were upset by it: The blogger Frederick de Boer, wrote a rather excited celebration of the event, Glenn Greenwald, perennial media bete noire, made sure to get in on the action, Bari Weiss, one-time New York Times editor and now a self-styled salonniére and dissident intellectual, retweeted de Boer’s article, etc. (Some of these people are roughly associated with what I tried in an earlier attempt to call the Sorelian Left, or anti-dreyfusard left, and at another times called Bohemian criticism.) All present themselves in opposition to mainstream liberalism, “wokeness,” “political correctness,” “cancel culture.” (I am sorry if this is all very boring, inside-baseball media stuff, but hopefully it will go somewhere interesting.)
I think de Boer actually hits the nail on the head when he points out how lucrative involvement in these sorts of provocations is for him: he describes getting many more subscribers when he inserts himself into some media fracas. I’ve noticed the same thing a while ago on a much more limited scale, where when I was being attacked and abused on Twitter, my paid subscribers on this platform went sharply up. Let’s think for a a moment about the dynamics of production here. I am roughly in the same social class as these people: I am a writer, a journalist, who is not permanently associated with a major institution like a newspaper or magazine, which anyway are perhaps less relevant these days. In order to survive or grow, we all rely on subscriptions and often have to directly publicize ourselves.
It is possible to make a living, even to be quite successful and gain a degree of fame or intellectual legitimacy and recognition in mediums like podcasts and newsletters, but the threat of irrelevance and obscurity hangs over the cultural producer and the need to publicize, to reach new publics and markets is ever-present. We are sort of cultural small-owners or shopkeepers, and a kind of proletarianization can be the result of a failure to distinguish ourselves: either in the form of real destitution or, just as likely, being swallowed up in the indifferent Grub Street crowd of scribblers, bloggers, podcasters, the relative losers in the struggle for recognition. So it’s imperative to constantly beat home the point that “we” are the really interesting, radical dissenting voices, and “they” are the conformists and cowards. Or that “we” are among the wits and “they” among the pedants, etc.
Needless to say, being involved in some public outrage is a very quick and effective form of publicity. So, this need for new publics creates an incentive for histrionics. I mean this in the old sense of the term, as a reference to the theater: there is a theater of public position-taking. These poses—in this case literally posing for a photograph—then create opportunities to strike other poses, and to get the acclamation of the crowd. The Red Scare photograph quickly attracted a bunch of cultural producers who knew that they could benefit from taking a a stance on it. De Boer, to his credit, pretty much states this openly. Often these stances involve a sort of cant or “whiny heroism” to borrow a wonderful phrase from Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair. This is how the crowd knows who to applaud and shower money on.
This connection between journalism, theatricality, and cultural politics feels very familiar to me from reading about the 19th and 20th century. (It’s interesting to note here in the context of theatricality that both lawyers for both Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones have tried to make the case that what they are doing is more akin to a performance than actual news.) I recently recommended Philip Nord’s The Politics of Resentment: Shopkeeper Protest in Nineteenth-Century Paris and his description of the dynamics of the literary culture of the Third Republic feels apposite: Many of the cultural figures Nord describes tried at careers in the theater, took up political writing and activism, many of them began on the radical or socialist left, and then became right-populists of some sort another, Nationalists, and anti-Dreyfusards. Part of the reason was just the declining prospects on the cultural scene: the boulevard life of writing, cafes, and theaters that once offered career opportunities and the chance for recognition was fading. This gave them an intrinsic cultural conservatism and nostalgia for better days. And there was what Nord describes as a “crisis of overproduction” in literature, making the game of public distinction all the more crucial. Nord writes:
One line of argument views the Nationalist man of letters as a frustrated failure, another as a besieged establishmentarian. The two interpretations, however, can be reconciled. The green-clad Academic and the demimondain journalist represented the twin poles of boulevard life…The eclipse of the boulevard culture brought disappointment to journalists and littérateurs whatever their position in the old hierarchy of success. The marginals could never hope to rise in a world of shrinking opportunities. As for the successful, the emergence of new cultural hierarchies devalued their achievement. They were equally victims of a profound cultural change. The old world, of course, did not vanish noiselessly but made a supreme effort in anti-Dreyfusard Nationalism to postpone defeat.
Something like this can help us to understand the superficially odd alliances of convenience that dot the media universe: the former hero of the radical left Glenn Greenwald finds himself allied with Tucker Carlson, the once-bow-tied insider-GOP product of high preppie-dom, now a self-styled populist making a play for Alex Jones’s audience; or, Bari Weiss, once groomed to be part of the elite neoconservative opinion apparatus finds herself exiled, and must recreate herself, with inflated rhetoric to make up for her rather limited talents as a journalist, as tribune of the cancelled. She’s now involved with an attempt to create a kind of avant-garde academia, a contradiction in terms that reveals the paradoxical type of recognition a lot of these figures seek: at once old-school, establishmentarian, hide-bound, and respectable and radical, outré, and daring. Red Scare is the product of a fading downtown scene that no longer provides either a sense of exciting place and zeitgeist, viable artistic careers, or much cultural relevance, despite desperate attempts to keep it going. (Funnily enough, one person who I know who loved their provocation is an aging habitué of this downtown bohemia.) Their idol is Camille Paglia and their highest aspiration seems to be to be guests on Bill Maher, figures that belong to the 1990s cultural pantheon. All of these people sort of imagined themselves places in the old bourgeois cultural cursus honorum.
This is where I part company with De Boer’s characterization of this recent effrontery as cool or avant-garde in some way. Really, I think the moment has passed and it is really an attempt, like much of what we’re discussing, to arrest a process that the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “social aging:” a bid for relevance and attempt at shock to buoy one’s fortunes. It may well have worked—for the time being. But each of these examples shows a cultural producer who was forced to sort of recreate themselves according to the force of circumstances. Jones is probably in some financial difficulty now with the lawsuits. Greenwald’s old brand of left-liberalism, which included stentorian assaults on the GOP and defenses of Hillary Clinton (!), would be pretty unremarkable in the present media environment. This is what I think explains the need to alter his public image here and the stark difference between his journalistic work in Brazil and the United States: as an artisanal, single-owner concern Greenwald & Co. has to make sure it has very special goods for its different markets.
But what of the audiences, the publics, the crowds? Well, here is where the presence of Jones is notable. Jones is undoubtedly figure of the mob and they’ve apparently all sort of realized that they are more and more attracting the mob and rely upon it for their livelihood. But what is the mob exactly? It’s the part of society that has a similar structural relationship to the “mainstream” as these types of cultural producers—the inside-outsiders who do not feel they are getting their allotted share of the spoils. Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire called this group, in his inimitable style, “the scum, offal, refuse of all classes.” Arendt writes they are the “déclassés of all classes”:
The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society. While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob always will shout for the “strong man,” the “great leader.” For the mob hates society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented…
It is given to conspiracy-thinking and attacks on representative institutions:
Excluded as it is from society and political representation, the mob turns of necessity to extraparliamentary action. Moreover, it is inclined to seek the real forces of political life in those movements and influences which are hidden from view and work behind the scenes.
She writes that the mob is not just the “refuse” but the “by-product” of bourgeois society and “never quite separable from it.” She notes, “high society’s constantly growing admiration for the underworld, which runs like a red thread through the nineteenth century, its continuous step-by-step retreat on all questions of morality, and its growing taste for the anarchical cynicism of its offspring. At the turn of the century, the Dreyfus Affair showed that underworld and high society in France were so closely bound together that it was difficult definitely to place any of the “heroes” among the Anti-Dreyfusards in either category.”
It is this same same “anarchical cynicism” of the mob that’s being celebrated today with the Jones stunt and by Freddie de Boer’s purple prose, which clearly sees in the mob “in the mob a living expression of virile and primitive strength.”:
There is a second front, in this war, a hidden battlefield on which the social justice movement is slowly losing to the forces of… not liberalism, not reaction, not conservatism, not civil liberties, not plain ol’ common sense, but anarchy, resistance, revulsion towards piety, the desire for revenge, the death drive, animal spirits, the id, the unheimlich, Jungian impulse, and most of all utter and total moral exhaustion. These are chip chip chipping away at the arrogant command of our moral betters…I am not saying the forces of opposition are good; they are, indeed, bad by their elementary nature. But still, in the conflict ahead I have my money on chaos, the ever-turning gyre, and the will to disobey. Tomorrow will not be like today, and the ones who now indict the unclean and issue verdicts and dole out punishments and deny every application for parole will wake up one day and wonder where it all went wrong. The witching hours approaches, the rabbis will be chased from the temple, and no one can say how the wheel will spin. Take shelter and tremble, or better yet, enjoy.
This is surely nothing but a bohemian cultural elite’s “temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards, to wear publicly the mask of cruelty if everybody was patently inconsiderate and pretended to be gentle, to parade wickedness in a world, not of wickedness, but of meanness” that Arendt writes of. The resentments, failures, and disappointments of the mob, its hatred of the society it feels bitterly excluded from but it also relishes outraging and shocking, are all reflected in these popular tribunes’ battles with society. They grow to reflect and admire one another’s cruelty and cleverness, and to become one entity.
It is surely possible for someone to find something louche and romantic in all this, or to find in this some kind of revolt or radicalism, but to any clearsighted observer, it’s all pretty dingy if you take a closer look: it’s just in the service of petty grubbing for money, status, power, and recognition. All it promises is destruction and humiliation of one’s enemies. A perpetual churn of spurned egos, anger, disappointment, and resentment. In brief, it’s a shadow-play of the operations of capitalist society in general. Or, even better, a kind of petri dish where we can observe all its metabolic processes at work. And interesting as it may be to contemplate for a time, it’s all sort of gross.
This dovetails with my belief that many of the most irritating among these people would be perfectly happy living normal lives with normal, non-reactionary opinions working for some midsized newspaper or second-tier magazine. As those careers no longer exist, we're all thrown into this white noise machine where the key to being able to pay rent is either being unutterably brilliant or just extraordinarily loud and good at self-promotion.
This is only tangential, but I think a “crisis of overproduction” is a really useful way to think of the current media environment. By media I mean both news media and basically all of the entertainment/"content" industry. There are simply so many creators and so much money to be made from consumers' attention that the competition inevitably becomes vicious.
By the way, I showed your podcast to a friend, and she asked that I recommend the Clue movie to you. Technically, it's from the 1980s, but it is very zeitgeisty.