Deleuze’s "Bartleby; Or The Formula"

Deleuze, Gilles. 1998. “Bartleby; Or, The Formula,” pp. 68-90 in Essays Critical & Clinical. Verso.

This is a sometimes-breathtaking work of social-literary analysis, see especially pp. 84-90.

(According to Melville,) “If humanity can be saved, and the originals reconciled (with secondary humanity, the inhuman with the human), it will only be through the dissolution or decomposition of the paternal function…As Joyce will say, paternity does not exist, it is an emptiness and nothingness-or rather, a zone of uncertainty haunted by brothers, the brother and sister…Melville will never cease to elaborate on the radical opposition between fraternity and Christian ‘charity’ or paternal ‘philanthropy’…(The fraternal/sororal society) requires a new community, whose members are capable of trust or ‘confidence,’ that is, of a belief in themselves, in the world, in becoming…Long before Lawrence, Melville and Thoreau were diagnosing the American evil, the new cement that would rebuild the wall: paternal authority and filthy charity” (Deleuze 1998: 84-88).

“And what was Bartleby asking for, if not a little confidence from the attorney, who instead responds to him with charity and philanthropy–all the masks of the paternal function?” (Deleuze 1998: 88).

If they haven’t already (and I’m sure they have), someone should take Deleuze’s essay as foundation, and focus more penetratingly, in a more sustained fashion, on Melville’s anti-conservative unfinished-Enlightenment politics, his class politics, and how they inform his critique of the (Anglo-)American Confidence-Man–i.e. the betrayal of fraternity/sorority and confidence/trust for the sake of profit/surplus accumulation, power accumulation (Not necessarily one’s own; usually one’s employer’s or client’s surplus/power accumulation).

Doesn’t the Confidence-Man betrayal = Magical Rectitude, eg. liberal social progressivism?

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social progressivism and economic neo-liberalism

Sociologist John Gulick responds to an article on Japanese austerity politics:

“Also interesting here are the reform measures being backed by the international tutors of neo-liberal austerity. “Socially progressive” measures such as a more open immigration regime and a higher labor force participation rate for women are being proposed alongside the usual deregulatory, free trade, anti-welfare state nostrums. The Wall Street Journal editorial board really forces one to consider the homologies between social progressivism and economic neo-liberalism. (Yeah, these homologies will differ according to socio-cultural context.)”

My response to Aziz Rana’s nplusone article “Obama and the Closing of the American Dream” –the article claims that the American Dream has been reduced to advancement via educated professional status:

Well, I remember a study not but a few years ago that showed quite the opposite–regardless of whether their businesses survive, Americans have very little regard for education-based professional status. It’s not their dream. They just feel it’s not attainable, whereas thanks to teevee they can incredibly imagine themselves as Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Kardashiods, or a lotto winner. I don’t remember what that study was, but Michele Lamont got similar ethnography and interview data in her comparison of US v. French working class men’s attitudes.

If the American Dream is dead, it’s because we have conservative business policies in place of social democratic business-hudsbanding ALMPs and a policy bias toward quality work and full employment–and that means we have both tremendous incentives to flee a feudal labor market and a high rate of small business failure, reinforcing the options- and freedom-reducing conservative ideology benefitting the top 1% (and scattering Little King incentives below). If the Dream is dead, that’s how it died.

In other words, the causation behind the educated professional path remaining as an insufficient vehicle of social mobility–if you compare Anglosphere countries to Scandinavian countries– surely appears related to the Anglosphere’s characteristically conservative approach to managing the business and labor market policy landscape in such a way as to produce a high business failure rate and feudal workplace conditions.

If you don’t own capital, educated professional status is the one of the few strategies left that provide to the working class a hope of semi-comfort/semi-discomfort and demi-status. The other remaining strategies include patriarchal status (Perhaps that’s why so many women are getting higher ed degrees.), employment in a military, prison, or police institution, and of course deployment as a Conservative Expert or Agitator. In contrast to these latter remnant socio-economic strategies, to be an educated professional today requires enthralling levels of debt for the working class, and, often, insecure income. That debt combines with the disciplinary force of the steadily-growing army of the underemployed (and feudal workplaces); educated professionals today are thereby reduced to just another managerial (manhandling), retainer class. Being a retainer is not anyone’s dream; and it’s better to manhandle than to be manhandled, but it’s not autonomy.

Magical Rectitude:
Synthesizing observations on the coincidence of economic neoliberalism and ineffective social progressivism, with Rana’s analysis of the educated-professional death of the American Dream, as well as observations on neoliberal adoption and diffusion in the professional sublcass

I would very much agree that educated professional status, as one of the last refuges of American-dreaming scoundrels (though it operates the same in other countries as well), requires under the circumstances a desperate careerism that causes the elaboration of both economic neo-liberalism and justificatory, superficial, myopic “social progressivism” (of the quality Nancy Fraser critiques).

The temporary neologism I’m using for this kind of neoliberal social progressivism is “magical rectitude“, because it requires professional, emotive marketing. But I’ll try to get back to Mills and see if he has a term.

I think Rana’s right in pointing out that that American Dream remnant–mobility through education and attaining professional status–when it’s all that’s actually left (aside from authoritarian employment and the reifying fantasies of winning the high-inequality society jackpot) to the working class, is part of a system of feudal social immobility and appropriation. Not least because in that very context, the activity of educated professionalism reduces to serving as either a retainer or a labor repressor/manhandler.

Today’s professionals don’t have the independence Gramsci observed in Traditional Intellectuals. Their work is subordinated to and tied up in economic neoliberalism. At the historic “neoliberal” moment Traditional Intellectuals lose all vestige of autonomy, they have to legitimize their fading middle income and status. To promote a political agenda of non sequiturs, they thus they feel compelled to marketing, to mystifying idealism, framing their captured work as though it were driven by an independent, professional, community-oriented altruistic impulse following a linear path of progress: Deunionization on behalf of the children. Labor market deregulation for the immigrants. Austerity for the immigrants and women. Academic proletarianization for the students and world’s poor. Oil imperialism for Muslim women and Arab democrats.* It’s all fairly transparent (translucent) marketing, sales on behalf of oligarchy. So today’s educated professionals appear contemptible (to the working class, to the elite, to each other) on numerous fronts, and from a social movements perspective they appear captured.

…I think, though, if you think about this sub-class and its co-dimming autonomy and status, especially compounded with its educational, etc. debts, there is a structural, material wedge between educated professionals and the 1% that can be worried to good effect. Hence, OWS.

Gulick responds:

“Degreed professionals are increasingly crowded on one side by neo-Taylorist efficiency experts, and by the cultural hegemony of the self-promotional PR/social media ethos on the other. (Mills was on to this 60 years ago, quite fabulously!) And they are both the administrators and the administered of this.”

* Managerial, professional neoliberal social progressivism has conservative coalition-building and legitimation functions. As compared to such professional neoliberal social progressivism, more properly conservative doublespeak seems to deal more in abstraction: Student debt for the principle of responsibility. Unfettered police powers for freedom. Enthralling women for freedom. No health care access for free commerce. The agenda-setting conservative abstractions are exclusionary and not designed to directly co-opt their victims, but rather to co-opt a protective layer of would-be Little Kings.

For further discussion, see:

Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Melville, Herman. 1857. The Confidence-Man.

Strange Fruit: A Nice Kid Savagely, "Legally" Cut Down

Young Treyvon Martin was hunted down and murdered in cold blood because ALECNRA machine-written law, in the context of the undead slave society legal and cultural tradition within the US, identifies all black male activity (including even walking to and from a convenience store to buy a box of Skittles) as a “threat” that legally can be “met with deadly force.”

That’s right. We find that our corporate overlords (including Walmart), via their venal, despicable ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), have been going from state to state, flogging the legalization of hunting neighborhood black children (The Castle Doctrine Act/ Stand Your Ground law. Yes, it is not a coincidence that the legislation titles sound like they were written by a penis. The Little King strategy). Corrupt policy for an apartheid military society.

Look, this is clearly a case where liberals should be in there, taking on the conservative corporate warlords. The ALEC / NRA legislation is nothing more than Klan policy in a Jim Crow country.

“You live in a country where your son can get A’s and B’s in high school, be well liked by his teachers, never get in trouble with the law, and run out to buy a snack during the NBA All Star Game, and never come home…because someone decides he has the right to execute your son…That’s the country you live in, if you are black in America” Lawrence O’Donnell.

The rotten-hearted US, devoid of the union strength required to set a brake on and break a corporate-feudal law that elaborates itself as a greasy film of excuses for abominations against humanity.


Likewise, ‎”Florence, an African-American, was driving with his pregnant wife and four-year-old son in March 2005 when he was pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper. He was arrested on a bench warrant for an unpaid fine. The warrant had been cancelled two years earlier after the fine was paid, but it had never been removed from the police data system. Florence was taken away in handcuffs and spent the next six days at the Burlington County Detention Center, where he was ordered to undress, sprayed with a delousing agent and inspected for contraband and gang tattoos. He spent an additional day at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, where he was stripped and ordered to squat and cough, a maneuver designed to eject anything hidden in the rectum. Brought before a magistrate, he was released without charge.” 
The anti-democratic Supreme Court says, “no problem”.

The militarized NYC police “elite gun unit” has been outed for systematically treating black people, and black people alone “like animals,” as policy. 

“They didn’t care if it was kids in there, they didn’t care if it was women in there, naked women,” the detective said. “. . . They treated them as if they had no rights whatsoever. It was disgusting.” 

“What white American majorities have been collectively attempting to redeem for the past 40 years, is a White Man’s Country. That’s why they have voted Republican in presidential elections since 1968, with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. That’s why, in the wake of the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties, white electorates in every state put in office politicians that methodically constructed an overwhelmingly non-white Prison Gulag that now warehouses 1 out of every 4 incarcerated persons on the planet, half of them African American. That’s the essential truth of Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, under which Blacks are criminalized as a people in order to return them to the status of a subjugated class. 

The Stand Your Ground-like laws that have been enacted by more than two-dozen states are very public manifestations of unreconstructed white nationalism on the offensive.”


I don’t look at the Right wing blogotwitterosphere. That’s a pastime for others, and not my schtick. But I am somewhat interested in how the Right cannot effectively spin the spate of state terror unleashed on innocent black people these days. I did happen to stumble upon one conservative comment thread trying desperately to damage-control spin the topic of Martin’s murder. The political tack that the conservative tweeter was trying to flog was this: “The Left (which hesheit calls “neoliberals”–either for obfuscation purposes if hesheit is a paid conservative dittohead, or because hesheit is honestly politically clueless) has politicized the Martin murder. Good people will simply see Martin’s murder as an inexplicable act of God, not think, and just sadly FEEL the unaccountable tragedy, and then quietly walk away, nothing to see here folks, get back to your workstations.” 
So you, Little Lord Faunteleroy, declare it’s exploitative, it’s impossible, it’s wrong to both feel and think. To start, I gotta alert you, junior. The Right, though they believe they are the only humans, actually do not have a monopoly on feeling bad at the death of boys. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence, historical and contemporary, that conservatives’ feelings are shockingly absent at the death of black boys; and the Left, the thinking, political Left, is decidedly more human, more feeling in this regard. 
Not only that surprising fact, but also: Someone let the politicization out of the bag a loooong time ago, Twinkles: Hence the NRA, ALEC, their Castle/Stand Your Ground political campaign to militarize American civil society, as well as the similarly elite, antidemocratic use of constitutional law to allow wealth to dominate politics and to give free reign to state terror. That’s all political, Virginia. And it’s politics that results in political corruption, economic pillaging, brutality, state terror…and murder. Are you still telling us to stop feeling and thinking together? I’ve got to wonder what’s wrong with you.
This conservative schtick did not seem to be getting much traction (not much of a conservative yes-men choral response) on-line, leading me again to believe that this tweeter is an unpaid conservative tool. (Or conservatives are just completely busted on selling their brutal polity achievements these days.) [UPDATE: No. This nothing-to-see-here/back-to-your-workstations conservative gambit was reproduced for a mass audience…by The Daily Show (Larry Wilmore & Jon Stewart), in April 2012. It should be noted that The Daily Show positions itself as a “fair & balanced” liberal political commentator. See here and here for analyses of conservative liberalism.]

I do have one thing to say to unpaid conservative internet trolls:

If you are attempting to flog conservative dogma, and you don’t get a piece of Koch’s prodigious black gold accumulated and reserved precisely for such a commercial service (as protected by the antidemocratic SCOTUS), then you need to examine your life, son. There’s a term for someone who does unpaid work for a wealthy, freeloading tyrant who could easily pay for the labor…No wait. A slave wants freedom, but is brutally constrained. Something (self-)objectified, that is dedicated to be used by a boss, that aspires neither to commodification nor freedom, well now that is specifically a tool. A tool, son. We all know what the Limbaughs, Malkins, and Palins are doing: Paying for the estates, the nannies, the Manolo Blahniks, the Mercedes-Benz SUVs, and the Viagra stash, working for a massive, high-rent industry. The question is: What are you doing, Littlest Hobo King? I’ll tell you what. Since you come so cheap, I need a squire. I’ll pay you  a little above your going rate: a strand of licorice and a gumdrop for your lifelong service. …Or maybe you should consider opening up some books, going to some new places, making some new friends, listening to some different voices, do some reflecting about which side of history you do the free work for. …And for the record, you can keep feeling as well as reflect. It’s a little razzle-dazzle we Leftists like to call being human.

And, conservative pros, good luck with your Right-wing pro-feudal state terror spin. All your dogmatic court and legislative coups spew brutality and crisis. You don’t know how to rule worth a damn.

Researcher Fournier likewise finds a pattern of institutionalized racism in Anglo-American (Canadian) courts (forthcoming, Canadian Criminal Law Review 2012). The courts are lenient on men who kill their families in a fit of “passion”, iff the men are white.

Why are Leftists Today Econ Illiterate?

A response to Nick Srnicek’s Disorder of Things blog post “Has the Left Given up on Economics.” Basically, I agree with Srnicek: 1) There is too much economic illiteracy, 2) There is too little economic innovation, and 3) We need to organize. 


My two cents (argued below) is that we would do well to think about the challenge strategically, keeping in focus class’ impact on social networks and the legitimacy and spread of ideas.





Where have you gone Maynard Keynes? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Mrs. Robinson, Lemonheads version

It has been argued here that Marxian economics are stalled because Marxists have not done the work needed to capture the Left’s imagination, which is, according to the blog author, designing post-capitalist transitionary structures and “expanding the variables” in its economic models.(*1) I might support the author of that blog in exploring these projects (Again, I’m all for the proliferation of Marxist work, including packaging old wine in lovely, new, well-written bottles.), but I can’t agree that this (more writing, or adding variables and some tiny academic community’s jargon du jour) is all Leftists need to become political-econ literate. (Although if thinking so motivates you to hit the keyboard, good on you!)


Leftists are political-econ illiterate because 1) outside of social democratic countries, there is no union confederation that employs prominent Marxist economists and disseminates political-economic literacy, and 2) there is no social gravitational force making political-econ literacy a normal thing. For example, there’s no critical mass of political-econ literacy, and unlike earlier eras, there are no Leftist economists from capitalist backgrounds today. 


The Left will readily accept the first explanation without controversy, so I will do my best to elaborate here why I think the second point matters.





The Siren Call of The Fancies


The problem I see for the spread of Left political-economic literacy has partially to do with why Keynes is so influential. Keynes is influential not because he was the most imaginative lefty-liberal of the 20th century (though he was an iconoclast and brilliant), but because he was a very centrally-elite independent thinker. (And even then, Keynes’ most important ideas were not implemented in policy, and they were censored in the economics discipline.) Even Marxist  economist Paul Sweezy was revered and could influence government, develop his work, and support the development of Marxist economics partly because he was a super guy, and partly because he was a hegemonic elite male. 


Wait. Do not go fetal on me here. This is not a love song an identity critique.


(OK, Sweezy was a dick to Schumpeter’s wife in “The Future of Capitalism” 1946-47 debate, so it could be an identity critique, but it won’t.)


There are no radical, square-jawed, econ-literate, white-hero elites anymore. They were methodically wiped out by a campaign organized throughout the Anglosphere by conservative economists and their funders. What  we’ve got left are weak-jawed, middle class, econ-literate heroes,(*2) and that means that de facto they’ve got smaller influence networks. So small Srnicek fails (Really, we fail. I’m just being literary there, blaming it on Srnicek.) to notice a lot of them.

We have fantastic political-economic ideas right now and for a long time (including many from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, etc. that have yet to be translated into English). But their spread is actively suppressed, first by the assault on unions–which can disseminate alternative ideas about how to run society, and second by the assault on non-neoclassical economists, the political economists. 


For one late example, just at the moment that the neoclassical econ emperor was fully exposed as naked and bereft (post-2007), the last dean here, with the support of mobilized conservative econometricians within the department, destroyed the nonorthodox base of this “N.A. Siberia” university’s holdout econ department and loaded the department up with econometricians and other economic servants of capitalist hegemony. Those marxist economists (eg. John Loxley) spent years strategizing, designing and implementing economic alternatives–including nascent social enterprise networks. They have a lot to contribute right now.

Left political-economy is not dead and it’s not irrelevant. Go into an anarchist bookstore (eg. Viva Mondragon in Winnipeg), and there are shelves and shelves of contemporary and historical books describing and proposing alternative economies. They’re just written by insufficiently-connected people. It’s not their individual fault they’re not Weber’s apocryphal charismatic prince.

Moreover, there are still some of us sociologists who (semi-)self-teach political-econ, as well as great non-neoclassical economists who’ve been forced out of economics, to hang their shop sign in sociology, geography and business departments. The Union for Radical Political Economics, for one, is full of them. Monthly Review folks are terribly proud of their political-econ analyzing record.

The problem right now is that while decent job markets have constricted with decades of neoliberal inequality initiatives–including the campaigns to wipe out working class institutional bases such as unions and social citizenship rights, at the same time, we’ve been assaulted by a concerted, coordinated, funded conservative campaign to ferret the non-conservatives out of the paid-ideas market.  Zombie econ and postmodernism are symptoms of that doxa chokehold, not failures we need to take responsibility for. They are the epistemologies over which elites still cast their heartening, radiant blessings.


To address the continuing political-econ literacy and innovation deficit, in and out of paid employment, knowing we have no shining elite knights to grant us courage through the long dark night, we need to be collectively committed to honing the work (that is, in a disciplined way, forgiving temporary missteps, forgoing ego indulgences, and pointing out fruitful paths), connecting to past thinkers, promoting, and celebrating the leftist political-economists who have managed to haul themselves through this hegemonic war period, rather than waiting for another Keynes.

We are not Blaine.



Elites aren’t any greater minds or men than non-elite intellectuals; they make mistakes and develop too; they just have head starts and better PRespecially in a high-inequality era. It’s not a deal breaker that non-elite intellectual contributions tend to have to occur later in life. But we need to make up for no PR–Because relentless exposure to oppositional framing can wear away at individuals’ and communities’ confidence and sense of purpose, undermining development and the adoption and diffusion of ideas. 


Advancing ideas broadly is very hard to do without the grease of money and the protective social networks money forges. But as MR’s John Foster reminded us (but hardly practiced) at UO, feminist successes came with promoting their own institutions and networks. Do we need another White Hope (White Emigration)? Why not recognize the special social challenge of a movement that valorizes and champions the working class within a capitalist milieu, and strive to husband socialist political economics to the very best of our social abilities?

(*2) This statement is tongue-in-cheek. Signals: 1) the context: I am saying that “middle” (working)-class intellectuals contribute good econ work that can be more widely distributed if such intellectuals recognize and strategically act upon the knowledge that they are working without the facilitative social status conveyed elites; and 2) I symmetrically apply the complementary “heroes” trope in this sentence to both left elite intellectuals and left middle class intellectuals. These two constructions should be able to indicate to a good-faith reader that I am not actually critical of working class people’s facial features. If this were a real publication instead of an obscure blog entry, I would probably get rid of it, but it’s not and the phrasing is intended to reinforce my point that working class people are not viewed with as much credit as elites are–a social phenomenon. However, I readily concede that as rhetoric, the tongue-in-cheek phrase’s (“weak chinned”) castrating qualities  probably outweigh its metaphorical utility. 


Further clarification:


Building Credit for Non-elite Political-economic Ideas

The point I was making above is that rather than getting frustrated with leftists for leftie social movements’ current lack of access to economic knowledge, we ought to recognize something sociological–that at this historical juncture there is a lack of political-economic leadership– both a lack of union leadership (due to the decimation of unions), and a deficit of critical mass or elites engaged with left political-economics (Compared to the early 20th century. Because of the lack of legitimate communist threat/alternative.), and because of deliberate conservative organizing as well as neoliberal drift, and this means that the spread of left political-economic ideas in the contemporary era is excessively constrained. Without critical mass or the (capitalist elite) leadership that can jumpstart it (example here), the motivation to economic literacy in the left is dampened.



We (Americans, Leftists, scholars) hate to think of ourselves as impressed with elite leadership; but it’s time to face it. We’re human. We’re social. We respond (not necessarily happily or healthily) to social status. Frankly, we are not living in an intelligence meritocracy, and as brilliant as they are, the contemporary editors of Monthly Review don’t have enough capitalist gravitas to impress even Leftists into becoming literate in political-economics. This is a social problem that can’t be beat by simply doodling a bit more upon a gigantic, diverse body of elaborate theory and observation.


Yes. This is quite a conundrum for the Left. It’s a strategic challenge to take seriously.

If we analyze the political-economics literacy deficit and strategize how to combat it, which I agree is important, I suggest what we need is some creative thinking about what to do about the smaller social networks, and especially-contested legitimacy accompanying good work by non-elite intellectuals. 



Screw it. Our work is good. And the only instance in which  a liberal or conservative is going to acknowledge that is for divide-and-conquer purposes. Fuck ’em. Hold up your head and don’t apologize for another Leftist’s work, even if apologizing is an oblique way to flatter your own doubtlessly-, comparatively-superior work, you easily-manipulated psychological weakling.


Discourse, communication is far from simple. Intention is difficult to discern without being able to grant people a certain amount of credit; the elite sense of entitlement and elite social networks help a lot with that. Does the Left have social strategy that can compensate for a lack of elite leadership?


Obviously, we need to organize working-class unions as a long-term strategy. As well, movements such as OWS can help develop the credit needed for sowing political economic ideas and literacy. 



My simple suggestion was that we ought to consider as well whether political-econ leftists could be better disciplined to support each other–to simulate the credit that people give over to elites, which allows ideas and influence to develop and spread. 


A war of position is going on around us. Capitalist conservatives, their conservative managers and hegemonists, and their multiple layers of publicly-funded police are one obvious bloc opposing Left community and ideas development. As well, capitalist conservatives’ ally, liberals (including North American unions, which are not by, of and for the working class) will continue to counter the non-elite credit conditions for the spread of political-economic literacy. 


A bit on their back foot right now, liberals will, for one, simply lie about the content of left or Marxist political economics. Brad DeLong does this. Today he claimed that because of the labor theory of value, Marx opposed Keynesian monetary policy. Yeah, um, WTF? For two, they may invoke Magical Rectitude, reasserting the traditional, elite-sanctioned, pomo de-valorization of political-economic literacy, which in the present case may be boiled down to, “This [Occupy movement] is trivial. Who cares how ‘white Americans’ (contemporary global elite code for ‘working class’) are faring? They’re a mob of assholes. Won’t someone please think of the [insert identity group].” 

The liberals’ Helen Lovejoy strategy



To foster the credit conditions needed to improve Left political-economic literacy, the Left needs to keep liberals on their back foot, by not engaging their opposition directly, but recognizing their identities and cultural contributions, while continuing to build and assert an inclusive working class praxis


The Left has to take a page out of Corey Robin’s analysis of conservatism, successful Occupy mobilizations, Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” model, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets analysis, and create a privileged space for passion–writing with passion, speeches with passion, singing and dancing with passion–and figure out how to link it to economic literacy. Most (though not all) people who live in unequal societies are mobilized with passion. The sign that our own minds have become colonized and crippled by the opposition is when we’re incapable of expressing ourselves with passion. People read (masculine) passion as confidence, and we need confidence in our political economic literacy.


Have and build confidence in our capacity for solidarity. Have and build confidence in our capacity for political-economic literacy. Have and build confidence in our capacity to disrupt the system and, if not overcome it at this moment, at least modify its components.



(*1) The blogger appears to be a student of Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai. His post is interesting in that if you follow comments and links you will find out part of what Alan Freeman is up to intellectually, which I’ve personally found impossible to pry out of him in polite conversation; and you’ll find out that Radhika and Alan are part of an effort to publish a series (including their own writing as well as works by Marx, Keynes, & Perry Anderson) on “The Future World of Capitalism.” 





Actually, over the weeks, I’ve come to disagree a little bit with the “economics-ignorant Left” formulation of the problem. As Nancy Fraser discusses in “The Cunning of History,” 1970s anti-economism met neoliberalism and devolved into excessive mass disengagement with political economy. But that is not all. Economics promoted itself as a capital-serving profession by becoming proudly divorced from, contemptuous of, and unaccountable to Left constituencies and intellectual perspectives. It has been personally hardest on the Left economists, and they are due respect for their monk-like perseverance. For the Left it was a tragedy of separation and cloistering that cannot be resolved quickly with simple exhortations for everyone to submit to the economists. While I argue above for confidence, I think economists could stand to recognize that their oftentimes-prohibitive competitiveness and lack of cooperative humility extend from their deep socialization and  identity within a social-professional group that crippled its own critical capacity.

Well, I’m accustomed to the smooth ride. 
Or maybe I’m a dog that’s lost its bite.
I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more. 
I don’t expect to sleep through the night.

Feminism & Neoliberalism: Dovetail Development

Nancy Fraser on the co-development of the latter-20th century feminist movement and neoliberalism as a form of capitalism.

Neoliberalism wants cheap women workers.

Pillars of 2nd wave feminism (against state-organized capitalism) that melded with neoliberalism, post-1970s, to create the degraded form of feminism characteristic of the conservative age:

1) Critique of economism/focus on distributive justice –> cultural determinism, glorifying political-economic ignorance.
2) Critique of androcentrism, male family wage–> uncritical embrace of wage labour.
3) Critique of managerialism/technocracy/nation-state as arena of political contestation

–>market over state, deregulation, welfare state retrenchment.

It’s not just that feminism has been hijacked by capital.

There is an affinity between feminism & neoliberalism that enables their coalition: They both oppose traditional authority. Ideally, feminists oppose the traditional authority of elders, fathers, husbands; capitalists oppose traditional authority that slows or broadly redistributes profit accumulation. But capital has the resources and some feminists have the motivation to efface those specificities, or to cohere when the specifics overlap; and it’s capital’s terrain.

Current trends in feminist neoliberalism:

1) Today, feminism is less a critique of capitalism, and more of a contribution to neoliberalism, eg. microcredit finance as “answer” to poverty.

2) Gender and sexuality departments in universities are used to pioneer academic proletarianization, privatization and other neoliberal policies.

3) With the explosion of surveillance states, especially the US, feminist anti-male violence politics and policies are used as a tool to enforce US-centric state monopoly on violence and conservative policy orthodoxy within the capitalist World-system.

4) Feminist obeausity entrepreneurs oppose pro-working class food, health, and transit movements.

5) Neoliberal feminists continue to insist that we have to valorize popular political-economic illiteracy, which, they hold, is within a properly female domain, whereas they hold that political-economic literacy is “male.” This conceptualization translates in practice into the Victorian Progressivist/feminist assumption that a competent, educated woman’s work is properly low-paid/unpaid caregiving and hegemony transmission, wherefrom eventually elect women are promoted into caregiving and cultural management.

6) “Polyvocality” busywork keeps the young women fussing, fretting and preening about in the house, forever perfecting cocktail party guest lists and chiding each other about their manners, even as the house is being systematically dismantled by bulldozers, and plundered by Christian patriarchs, bankers, and oil men. It’s a prefigurative technique; it’s not political engagement. It’s a partial gesture, thats game-changing effectiveness requires social preconditions.

I agree strongly with Nancy Fraser’s dead-on observation that feminists (maybe because we come from different political and material vantage points) have not in this conservative era figured out how to oppose traditional authority in a way that makes feminism distinct from neoliberalism (that is, US-centric global monopoly capitalism).

While feminists who acknowledge this prefer to claim that feminism is just weaker than conservatism, and there is truth to that, it is also true that mainstream, liberal feminist politics and policies cohere feminists to neoliberal initiatives as well.

Eisenstein, Hester. 2009. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder: Paradigm.

Eisenstein essentially takes up Viriginia Woolf’s enlightened charge in “Three Guineas” (1938).

and cites Johanna Brenner: “(M)ainstream feminist goals are entirely compatible with the economic doctrines of corporate globalization” (ix).

Judith Orr (2010) reviews the feminist terrain from England.

But for one anti-neoliberal feminist example, Naomi Wolf is always in there, drawing the line in the sand between capitalist class political projects and feminist commitments. You may prefer the (co-optable, acontextual) brand of female “purity” offered by liberal or radical feminism, but I really appreciate the dirty public role Wolf takes on in these controversies.

Prominent, reliable anti-neoliberal feminists include:

Nancy Fraser
Ellen Meiksins-Wood
Selma James
Judith Orr
Johanna Brenner
Hester Eisenstein
Naomi Wolf
Angela Davis
Barbara Ehrenreich
Julie Matthaei
Amy Goodman
Marilyn Waring
Jacqui M. Alexander
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Pnina Werbner
Frances Fox Piven
Arlie Hochschild
Juliet Schor
Holly Sklar
Diane Elson
Mariane Ferber
Julie Nelson
Mimi Abromowitz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Kim Phillips-Fein
Stephanie Coontz
Lani Guinier
Brooksley Born (?)
Naomi Klein
Sasha Lilley
Kate Drabinski
Emily Drabinski
Karen Orren (?)

Historical left-feminists:

Alexandra Kollontai
Alice Field
Jenny Marx Longuet
Eleanor Marx
Annie Besant
Silvia Pankhurst
Virginia Woolf
Raya Dunayevskaya
Dora Monefiore
Clara Zetkin
Dolores Ibarruri
Lena Morrow Lewis
Harriet Taylor
Evelyn Reed
Kate Millett
Bernice Shoul
Teresa Ebert
Marlene Dixon

TBC…

What will feminists replace traditional patriarchal authority with, besides the orthodox, male-dominated US-centric market daddy wagon we’ve way too often been hitched to and steered by since the 1970s?

 Neoliberal feminism is not so much an abeyance institution as it is a technique for advancing conservative initiatives that feast on the blood, sweat and tears of women– while letting feminists feel those familiar feminine feelings: righteous and altruistic and busy…and exhausted and frustrated. This is a central problem to feminism that should no longer be pussy-footed around in the interest of maintaining a vagina- and queer sexual identity-centered coalition.


It does not increase women’s freedoms to answer “We shall replace the capitalist capitan of our hearts with polyvocality,” the idealist, romantic, pluralist “substitute” for sometimes-coalitional, sometimes-contentious political democracy, and a diluted, denatured and anxiously-respectable form of resistance. Which is not to say polyvocality isn’t difficult. Indeed, under present might-makes-right social relations, polyvocality can never be substantively accomplished to challenge the order. That difficulty doesn’t mean it is the prime lever to order change.

We don’t exit hierarchical, exclusionary, patriarchal “gang” relations by urging an interdependent pluralistic voluntarism (AKA  polyvocality). There’s an alluring micro-macro homology to that theory–and it’s too easy, and the US has shown that the valorization of pluralism cannot counter social human organization and power within a hierarchy building, surplus accumulating framework.

Instead Enlightenment’s champions fight together, over centuries, to found institutions that systematically, broadly redistribute  resources, surplus, status, and power (This is the Frodo Baggins theory: Concentrated power is a burden that corrupts. Control tyranny by distributing power to those least capable of (ab)using it, and keep it moving around. I’m sorry, it’s very nerdly; but essentially, in this view, Lord of the Rings is an Enlightenment story about how you get to communism. It should be rewritten by a socialist-feminist.), and we fight to beat back organized, capital-backed coalitions of conservatives–people who specifically want to restrict power, status and surplus to a small group most able to abuse it.

This is a long haul. Sometimes it requires disruption; sometimes it requires coalition-building and alternative institution building. Because there is an outside context of motivated power that systematically rapes and pillages, you cannot (figuratively) expand the acequias outside the remote interstices (figuratively, Northern NM) unless you repeatedly fight the long fight, as well as build alternative institutions and culture. Here is where historical-materialist feminists do not buy the capitalist portrayal of communism. Yes, communists fight, and that is needed. Pacified alterity cannot induce change by itself, because surplus-accumulating power is complex enough and flexible enough to absorb it; and it is not enough to celebrate the marginalized existence of pacified alterity within a dehumanizing, environmentally-destructive system. We need to re-engage strategic, contentious politics, to disrupt, as historical political sociologists Frances-Fox Piven and Domhoff will agree.

As Lichterman says, it is strategic not to reify specific individuals and groups as opponents, so that we can recognize the moment’s coalition opportunities; but we always have to be able to recognize the conservative difference and oppose it. We understand that egalitarian liberation requires a role for creative, contentious collective strategy when we recognize, as Zizek notes, that an order, including patriarchy, mobilizes its defenders.  The twentieth century’s basic passion, “the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths,” (Hobsbawm 2012) has not been superceded, only suppressed for class warfare purposes.


Polyvocality is necessary, but so extremely insufficient, that by itself, it does more harm (contributes to tyranny) than good (moves us toward broad egalitarian, developmental relations). Within the context of organized conservatism, the process and goal of polyvocality, and the prefigurative politics of polyvocality tend to deliver not polyvocality but conservatism, in the form of neoliberalism (conservatism-cum-liberalism). This is because the capitalist market grotesquely amplifies the voice of the powerful, the accumulators. In a putatively-polyvocal (pluralist) regime, the automatically-amplified voice will drown out all others. Like voting, polyvocality is an utter and complete mirage under capitalism. It prettily promises that immediately we can model and deliver equal and sufficient liberation for all, and with herculean effort it may provide a freedom here or there, at a scale sufficient to keep the ladies busy with manners and guest list projects while egalitarian freedoms are crushed en masse. Not unlike white women’s traditional role in the US South. So far, polyvocality’s chief accomplishment is to support capitalist class cohesion, and insofar as feminists subscribe to it, to subsume non-elite women under the project of multicultural capitalist class cohesion. Polyvocality alone cannot reduce women-exploiting, women-crippling business as usual.

You cannot move toward either political or cultural democracy if you are studiously neglecting and forever deferring to disrupt the egregious, overbuilt, institutionalized, hierarchically-structured relationships of tyranny and domination–our relationships within the oikos, our relationships to the surpluses extracted and amassed, and to those who control them–that structure our everyday lives. That neglect is the result of making the wrong (respectable, proper) coalitions.

Polyvocality has to be a preservation practice of monastery communities, and a second-tier goal, after feminists have stopped forming “coalitions” with (being co-opted by) capital’s primitive accumulation and exploitation initiatives, and have instead embraced the long hard road of forming capitalist order-disruptive, organization-building coalitions with the working class, which is not male (even if conservatives have had some of it wishing it were). It’s obvious that US working class institutions are heavily to blame for this coalition failure–but they’re nearly obliterated now. 


The point I am making in this post:
Feminists need a socialist backbone not because socialism is a more transhistorically-essential political program; not at all. Feminists need a socialist backbone because without a critique of capital, in a capitalist context, feminism will be emphatically subsumed by and subordinated to conservative surplus and power accumulation projects that eviscerate feminist achievements and obstruct feminist goals.


The conservatives are showing us that in the US, time and time again, they can invoke and wield Little King politics that promise, no matter what else might be going on, that every dispossessed American can join together with the political-economic elite in ruling with an iron fist over women as a group. That political strategy cannot be beat back and held down unless feminists can join together with socialists to advance, both with some prefigurative politics and with plenty of non-innocent, political conflict, both the egalitarian distribution of the wealth society collectively creates and post-feudal freedoms for all.

Women who have emerged from abuse know–You cannot overcome systematic abuse with a culture of “egalitarian” respect and listening, practiced by only one side, the abused. Now consider this difference in this analogy: We cannot exit our abusive relationship (based in surplus and power accumulation)–We cannot exit our planet, and find a more supportive “women’s shelter” planet. Ours is the long, hard battle not just to maintain a distinct, better vision of human relations, but to engage in conflict, to subdue, and to conquer the oppressor–as the political-economic opportunity strikes (as he loses coherence, confidence, hegemonic monopoly), and put him on a new track, within which he is motivated and compelled to share in the reproductive provisioning and to share resources, status, and power.

At that point the idealists–the anarchists and postmodernists have an important role to play in fostering reinforcing polyvocal culture and art. The monks and nuns of prefigurative politics will take care of themselves today. We need to be fostering, valorizing, and protecting organizers, strategists, communist horizon theorists (including socialist-feminists), monkeywrenchers, and fighters.