Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One Is Flattered

One would be evincing just unbelievably crass and self-important behavior if one were to point out that Joe Bageant, in one of his finest stemwinders yet, on the subject of Middle-Class Alienation, which inspires one to dig out a Herbert Marcuse essay one hasn't revisited since one's thick-sweatered, beardy Che Guevara period and ponder why one doesn't suspend the nearest handy plutocrat from a lamppost by his scrotum...

..quotes one (see graf four).

So one won't. One will resist.

9 comments:

Gavin M. said...

Yes, he's right.

Matt said...

I can see why your flattered -- that's a barn-burner of a post.

However, I have to say that the more I read, the more I realize that people have always had the sense that the world is going to hell. In the nineteenth-century, it was the steam-engine that broke up communities. Now it's Walmart and blogs. But the very bucolic communities of his youth that Bageant idealizes came about after the steam engine, the plane, the car, the suburban developments, and a million other technical and commercial innovations had supposedly relegated such communities impossible.

When I am Bageant's age, I have no doubt that I will agree with many of his points. But I think that it's important to recognize that what we idealize from our youth -- your experiences in the suburbs of Washington, for example -- were built on the very things that others saw as signs of an impending apocaplyse.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And there is nothing new under the sun.

Matt said...

and one other thing: isn't the 18th/19th century slave plantation another example of a self-sustaining, farm-based community of "neighbors" that no longer exists? Can the 1950s farms that grew out of slaveholding, sharecropping, and/or feudalistic systems be separated from their pasts?

Gavin M. said...

However, I have to say that the more I read, the more I realize that people have always had the sense that the world is going to hell. In the nineteenth-century [...]

As Americans, we must guard against our natural impulse to think that a statement about events since the 19th Century can be extrapolated into 'always' or 'since the dawn of time.'

A traditional next stop in this argument is Socrates's gripes about young people (via Plato):

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

This passage, which pops up all over the place, is generally interpreted (by contemporary Americans) to mean that elders have 'always' thought the same about children as Americans have since the late 1960s.

What it really says is that there are times of social upheaval such as took place in Greece in the 5th Century B.C., and such as is ALSO taking place in contemporary America.

For the classical Greeks as well as ourselves, the world is going to hell.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And there is nothing new under the sun.

Right, Ecclesiastes. And yet, more was written after that epigram that became a 'New Testament.'

Neddie said...

Well, Matt, Joe's point isn't really a matter of "everything going to hell in a handbasket" or the destruction of a rural way of life.

It's Alienation.

Joe's never very far from the Marxian analysis, and his portrait of middle-class anomie and desperation is an illustration of Marx's principle that the farther we are separated from our species-being, the more alienated we become. (That's why I linked to the Marcuse essay, BTW: Very influential on the Sixties counterculture.)

Over Joe's lifetime, he was part of a generation whose intellectuals weren't desperately afraid to be associated with Marxism. His generational cohort acted on their beliefs (unlike ours, who are utterly stymied by apathy, irony and fear), and attempted in their way to create a counterculture where Alienation was acknowledged and compensated for. It all came crashing down around their heads, of course, and set off a 40-year backlash we're all still living with, but Joe saw it rise and fall.

Now he lives in an Aftermath. And his colleague Hunter Thompson killed himself.

I think it's time to stop being afraid to be called a Marxist.

I can't believe my word verification:

I am history's akctr!

PS: It bothered Socrates that chidren crossed their legs?????

Matt said...

Gavin -- I chose the 19th century only because it is therein that my very limited expertise lies (in both senses of the word).

I didn't mean to undermine the value of historical specificity and contingency, or to suggest that all eras are essentially the same (though I can see how the flippant quotes at the end of my first comment make it seem that way). I just want to suggest that despite the fact that our values are threatened at every historical turn, those values seem to survive every supposed catastrophe. And the emerging, inauthentic culture that the present generation deplores will be hailed as the newly lost, authentic culture that the next generation mourns. I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself.

Neddie -- how is alienation in Bageant's (or Marx's) sense different from "everything is going to hell in a handbasket"? Isn't it just the explanation for why everything is moving in that direction?

I'm sorry for parading my ignorance here. As always, I have a lot more reading and learning to do, and appreciate the opportunity to engage these issues here with those more learned than I.

Neddie said...

Alienation in Marxist thought isn't a sort of shorthand for social entropy or degradation. Its cause is mechanical, and things that are caused mechanically can be uncaused, if you follow.

Here's a pretty good (and refreshingly jargon-free) essay about alienation.

"For Marx, the history of mankind had a double aspect: It was a history of increasing control of man over nature at the same time as it was a history of the increasing alienation of man. Alienation may be described as a condition in which men are dominated by forces of their own creation, which confront them as alien powers."

Marx wasn't alone in this perception; Freud thought along the same lines. And if you squint up your eyes real hard, you might see the revolutionary sedition of Jumping Jiminy Christ in there as well: After all, what, to Christ, was authentic? Answer: The poor. Everything else was unreal.

A hint that Joe had this idea in mind lies in his use of the jargon term commodity fetishism, which is characterized by Marx thus:

"To find an analogy, we must have recourse to the nebulous regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities, with the products of men's hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, as soon as they are produced as commodities."

Yeah, I'm gonna have to dive back into this stuff.

Matt Hasselbeck, yvbsakt!

Neddie said...

Smack my ass with a ping-pong paddle. The link to the essay about Alienation led back to my post. There *are* problems with tabbed browsing after all.

This link is correct.

umvzw: Humvee Zone Warfare

Gavin M. said...

I just want to suggest that despite the fact that our values are threatened at every historical turn, those values seem to survive every supposed catastrophe. And the emerging, inauthentic culture that the present generation deplores will be hailed as the newly lost, authentic culture that the next generation mourns.

I appreciate this discussion, first of all. But I just don't see any historical evidence for that. It seems, to me, to be a commonsensical analysis based on notions of 'authenticity' that are quite new, historically, and that have represented the very factors most in play (and at hazard) since the mid-part of the 20th Century -- or, if you want to go way back, since the rise of modernism.

I think it was in comments at SadNo, although I can't access the site properly now because of server issues, but someone just quoted a long passage of Paul Krugman quoting Kissinger's doctoral dissertation (it's from the foreword to Great Unraveling. The gist is that when confronted with a revolutionary power, people have a terrible time believing that the situation they're facing isn't simply business as usual, an artifact of the normal ebb and flow of political tides.

And yet, when we take a long view of history, we find gigantic, unprecedented disruptions scattered century by century, region by region.

Things, in short, happen.

This is a sidelong thought, but I met Francis Fukuyama once briefly, after The End of History and not long before 9/11. He seemed like a very nice guy, but you could practically see a haze of contemporary-milieu around him, fogging his glasses. His insight at the time, which made him famous, was that history had effectively ended, thanks to Capitalism, and that everything would forever be exactly as it was at that moment, only more so.

Now, if you want to claim that nothing is really new under the sun, there's an argument that Voltaire anticipated Fukuyama nearly three centuries earlier with Dr. Pangloss...