This whole notion of running a government like a business — a business is the least democratic institution — the government is supposed to look after the welfare of people.
— Dionne Brand, in interview with Ashante Infantry
Do we need a plainer-speaking critical language to
mobilize against fight the new feudalism?
1. “The New Dumb”
I recently read a series of shrewd, sharp blog postings by Tobias Van Veen, posts that try to make sense of — and resist — emerging social and political trends like “the rise of the New Dumb,” “cultural fascism,” and the corporate mobilization of proudly uninformed groups and movements to destroy democracy: “Moloch’s multitude,” he calls it. This last point is a common theme in these posts:
The supercorporate state is on the move, and it appears to be using the angry multitude to do its dirty work — which is nothing less than to undermine democratic governance itself. Is such an entity a new form of the State? Not really; it is more or less an agglomerate of competing and disorganised interests who are nonetheless aiming in a similar direction: the destruction of the democratic sphere. We are entering a feudal, warring period on an international scale.
These posts make for some dread and dire reading; check out their tags: cryptofascism, Weimarization. This last comes courtesy of Chris Hedges; Van Veen notes a recent interview Hedges gave CBC Radio’s The Current:
Hedges contends that we are now entering the “Weimarization” of the United States, ending his interview (somewhat to the shock of Tremonti [The Current‘s host]) with the contention that we stand at the bring of the complete downfall of the United States of America.
Hedges has sounded this kind of alarm before — on a global scale.
2. “Inverted Totalitarianism”
In March he posted an essay called “We Stand on the Cusp of one of Humanity’s Most Dangerous Moments”: it’s a terrifying and inspiring call to action, well worth reading. “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” Hedges places the blame for our present precarity squarely on the increasingly unregulated rule and rampage of corporate capital and the fascist politics it has produced:
Our democratic system has been transformed into what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin labels inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, a free press, parliamentary systems and constitutions while manipulating and corrupting internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. […] The free market’s assumption that nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by the market allows each to be exploited for profit until exhaustion or collapse. A society that no longer recognizes that nature and human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they die. This is what we are undergoing.
I’ll let you read on to find out where the inspiring bits are in this impassioned yet deeply reasoned essay, one that at times resonates with the ominous tone of Old Testament prophecy.
I’ve quoted at length from Van Veen and Hedges because I’m struck by their forceful but different uses of language. Van Veen, a philosopher, makes learned and esoteric references, and works with some of the most complex philosophy going (the inescapable but infinitely productive Deleuze and Guattari, for example). But he also makes biblical allusions (like Moloch, which I guess is also a beat-poet allusion now), and, after the fashion of major continental theorists, coins his share of portmanteaus and neologisms. That is, mashed-up or made-up words. Like “cryptofascism” (which could be someone else’s, I don’t know). Or, more plainly, “supercorporate nonstate.” Or, plainer still, “the New Dumb”: a great phrase for the kind of politics Van Veen sees as common to Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, and to the alarmingly fast-growing Tea Party thing in the USA.
Hedges has done his homework too, but tends to use more consistently plain-speaking language. I’ve quoted his discussion of “inverted totalitarianism” because it’s a bit of an exception to the plain-speaking rule. But “totalitarian” has proven a useful enough ingredient in coinages minted by some of the New Dumb’s heaviest hitters: remember George W. Bush’s “tomatolitarian Islamofascism”? It would sound positively academicalistic, a neologism to rank alongside différance or biopolitics — if it weren’t just so much
nonsensical bullshit racist propaganda.
Otherwise, Hedges tends to stick to plain-speaking language, using words like corrupt, thwart, and cannibalize to sketch our apocalyptic present and its abysmal future. (Not to mention his inclusive, collectivizing use of “we” and “our” — a tactic to
involve the reader, to “invoke the You,” as Constance Rooke liked to say.)
3. The Aristocrats
The simple, forceful language in these posts reminds me of an earlier essay, Phil Agre’s 2004 “What is conservatism and what is wrong with it?” It’s a stridently partisan essay, written specifically to intervene in the election that ultimately gave Dubya his second term: “Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century,” Agre writes. “In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it?” Agre’s answers to these are pointedly plain:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
The essay goes on to support these points in great detail. What I like here is his opening tactic of simply re-defining “conservatism,” by calling it out for what it is, now: “aristocratic rule.”
So what other words need to be re-defined, to help not just scholars but the public (whatever that is, now)
apprehend understand the present state of emergency? What these readings and reflections lead me to wonder is whether those of us working in progressive-to-radical criticism, commentary, research, scholarship, and/or praxis could gain firmer purchase get more traction in the public sphere (or whatever it has become) by deploying a plainer-speaking, common language of critique. This idea should not at all be misunderstood as some “revolt against theory,” as a caricature-communist purging of the “ivory towers,” or as some other kind of anti-intellectual rant. I’m thinking of something more in the line of bell hooks’ “Theory as liberatory practice”: a carefully crafted, deeply nuanced, and widely influential essay on “theory,” its complexities, and the urgent necessity of translating its insights and applications into tools for everyday people. An essay that gave us what Len Findlay calls (in an essay I’ll cite when I recall it) “the wonderfully plain-speaking portmanteau”: “white capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 71). Findlay himself is another public intellectual worth considering in this connection: a trenchant, eloquent defender of rhetorical sophistication and critical rigour, whose essays and extemporized remarks combine vast learning and reflective reasoning with radical politics — as well as scathing wit and a colourful salting of sailor talk. “A new goal for Englishes,” Findlay writes (in an essay I do recall: “Always Indigenize!”), “is an enhanced capacity for analytical and imaginative critique of the current (Amerocenric, neocolonial, capitalist) hegemony” (326).
So I’m certainly not claiming any originality here. There must be dozens or hundreds of attempts, from dissertations to diatribes, to renovate critical language in the service of progressive, equitable, and just social change. In addition to the interventions and reflections discussed above, John Foran has just published a “manifesto for radical social change” that advocates, among other things, for re-defining the field of “globalization studies” as “global crisis studies.” The crisis in question here is a crisis of communication, of understanding, catalyzed by the all-too-easy domination of the terms of public discourse by the slightest fraction of its richest members, passing off their own narrow, short-term, and selfish interests as those of everyone else. Hegemony. How to deploy counter-hegemony against a corporate mediascape in which such highly concentrated ownership purports to represent (while redefining in its own way) the public interest?
Well, maybe not by using terms like counter-hegemony.
The numbered neologisms from the aforementioned essays and blogs are just a few of the rhetorical crowbars we might use for prying open the doors of perception and kicking out the corporate thought police that have taken up squatting all too comfortably in our heads. For now I’ll wrap up these reflections with a few extra entries for the long-overdue next edition of the Devil’s Dictionary:
crapitalism: a better word for the world-shitstem that has elevated its “race to the bottom” to the status of a commandment. That would reduce any and every element of life to the abject status of a mere commodity. That has tried to convince us that recycling is an adequate solution to the bloated over-packaging of more stuff, that’s more cheaply made than ever before, by people who are paid less to make it than ever before. That is garbaging up the world, in the process.
democrazy: what passes for a “knowledge” of democracy among “the New Dumb.”
the new feudalism: a plainer word for globalization; though Negri and Hardt’s model of Empire also works well.
Wanted for this list:
a name for the now-ubiquitous brand of businessperson — your Ralph Klein, your Sarah Palin, your Rob Ford — who campaigns for a government position on an anti-government platform. (That more people aren’t inherently suspicious of such a platform speaks to the success of Empire’s PR machines.)
Print Works Cited
Findlay, Len. “Always Indigenize! The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University.” ARIEL 31.1-2 (2000): 307-26. Rpt. in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. Peterborough: Broadview, 2004. 367-82.
Foran, John. “From Critical Globalization Studies and Public Sociology to Global Crisis Studies and Global Justice Work: A Manifesto for Radical Social Change.” New Global Studies 4.2 (2010)
hooks, bell. “Theory as liberatory practice.” Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Infantry, Ashante. “The voice behind a novel full of sound” [interview with Dionne Brand]. Toronto Star 26 May 1996: F6.