A Review of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-and Why This Harms Everybody
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
“Social Justice is Marxism repeating itself as farce.”
By Aris Janigian
Imagine a society run by psychoanalysts, where everyone is on board with their program: the school principals and janitors, the students, the mayor, and the members of the city council. Everyone is mandated to track the machinations of the unconscious, hour by hour, as it manifests in every gesture, word, decision. Imagine you are required to admit that you are neurotic in order to even get a job.
Every moment provides a new opportunity for insight. Might your delay in turning in an assignment be an instance of passive-aggression toward your boss? You were kind of over-the-top in your praise of that new hire: jealous? Might your complaint that a colleague down the hall takes sloppy notes be a projection of your own tendency to do the same? And that slightest slip of the tongue around the water cooler is now part of your personnel file and up for consideration at your next performance evaluation. Everyone believes that they are making society healthier, but before that point of maximal health is reached everyone must first discover just how sick they truly are.
Most people would find such a reality revolting. Yet, with a few changes in terminology, this is exactly what is unfolding across institution after institution today. Substitute “power” for the “unconscious,” “officers of diversity, equity, and inclusion” for “analysts,” and Michel Foucault for Sigmund Freud to know where we’ve arrived.
But how did we get here and what does the future hold? These are the questions that Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay answer in Cynical Theories, a learned and pivotal book that takes us deep inside the ideas of the Social Justice movement, which is roiling American society today.
Foucault is a central figure in Cynical Theories, one of a group of French philosophers that includes Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida, who form the backbone of what the authors refer to as Theory. Nietzsche was their intellectual mentor, and their own work echoes his monumental attack on the hallmarks of Western Civilization.
Atheism was de rigueur for 19th-century savants, so although Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” may have been his most notorious claim, his most important was that God’s death would leave a void that myriad false gods, let’s call them, would fight amongst themselves to fill for decades, perhaps centuries to come. “The death of God,” Foucault put it, “is not merely an ‘event’ that gave shape to contemporary experience as we now know it: it continues tracing indefinitely its great skeletal outline.”
Borrowing from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and sociology, these wildly energetic and ingenious French philosophers, that were collectively called The Postmodernists, developed an array of methods to smoke these “false gods” out of hiding. Foucault was born in 1925, Deleuze in ’26, and Derrida in ’35, so they grew up in the wake of World War One and under the monstrous shadow of World War Two. They knew of the mass murder of the Armenians by the Turks, and experienced Nazism first hand, but it was the horrors of Stalinism that steeled their resolve to counter any readings of reality that pitted one group against the other. This was especially true of Marxism with its emphasis on “the dialectic” that required negation (revolution) in order for a new order to emerge.
But their radical reading of reality was intended to destabilize the internal structure of all systems. They saw totalitarianism lurking in science, economics, philosophy; in the concepts of freedom, progress, enlightenment, rationality, and even the unconscious. They took entire systems of previously unassailable beliefs considered foundational to the West and showed them to be self-satisfying artifices that needed unseating.
Derrida went so far as to call into question the integrity of writing per se: the book, which he renamed “a text,” was a confabulation of words that makes sense only in relation to other words, a closed circuit, unable to break free and correspond to, much less address, the outside world. A text was a kind of improvised explosive device masquerading as a locus of depth and redemption and meaning. Derrida showed just where the fuse was, and what happened when you lit it. This is what deconstruction does. After the debris had settled, what was left were motley parts separated from their moorings, which one could now put together in whatever combination one wished—a radical form of play.
Again, this radical form of play was meant to subvert totalitarianism, that, for the postmodernists, was present everywhere and most ruthlessly in Marxist societies. With that said, after Stalin’s excesses (as they were sometimes called by the US left) were exposed to the world even Marxists in Europe and United States were forced to rethink Marxism. There were those who remained faithful to the utopian promise of the USSR, but from the 1950’s going forward, most Western Marxists, especially those known as The Frankfurt School, would shun Lenin, Stalin, the revolution and all the rest, and to salvage Marx they would return to Marx himself. They paid special attention to his less revolutionary early writings where they found a whole set of conceptual tools—chiefly the concept of alienation— that they could bring to bear in a critique of capitalist society.
But there was another trend that made revolution less and less relevant or likely: the proletariat was disappearing, and in many Western countries the state itself was becoming a leading actor in the lives of its citizens. In the US, median family income increased by a third during the 60’s, Americans were recreating and eating out more, filling their homes with all the latest household gadgets and enjoying multiple weeks of yearly vacation time.
True, during the turbulent 60’s, protests against the Vietnam War and US imperialism in general, the Watts and Chicago riots for instance, were aimed at undermining “the system.” They were all Marxist to a degree and reading Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book was obligatory. But the “working class” was no longer front and center of the struggle as more and more them were busy barbequing in their backyards and handing their grievances over to labor unions. Where revolutionary Marxism did survive, it moved from class struggle to identity struggle: The Black Panthers, the Chicano movement, Marxist Feminism, and Gay liberation. But before long, even these movements would find themselves struggling for legitimacy. In 1972, their newest champion Mao, who had railed against Nixon, invited the US President to Beijing. “It’s hard to exaggerate how inspiring it was that Mao, our hero and the scourge of the bourgeoisie all over the world, would predict our inevitable victory,” a comrade observed before ruefully concluding, “So imagine our shock when, less than two years later, Richard Nixon, the world’s leading imperialist pig, was invited to Beijing. He turned up quoting glibly from the Red Book as Mao hummed ‘America the Beautiful.’”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the sole remaining guardian of Marxist orthodoxy, in 1991 most of these identity-defined “liberation movements” would all but peter out, relegated to exchanging and refining their ideas in small journals and occasional conferences.
But Marxism would always have big staying power. Its strength in identifying the foe and friend of humanity, capitalism and communism respectively, had no equal in philosophy. In fact, to find such infallible certainty in the Western Canon one had to go to back to religion. The Postmodernists—Foucault et al.— left the enemy undefined, or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, the enemy was present everywhere, making it difficult to draw a distinction between oppressor and oppressed. This left them vulnerable to critics, and by the 1990’s those critics had shown up. The Neo-Marxist philosophers Frederick Jameson and Jurgen Habermas denounced the postmodernists for obfuscating the real human costs of capitalism, its continued exploitation of labor even if drawn from overseas, its degrading of the environment, and its ever-tightening hegemony over social life. From the point of view of these Neo-Marxists, the postmodernists and their many devotees were decadents, or, at best, unwitting abettors of despotism. Derrida was fiddling with deconstruction when clear-cut human destruction was happening before the world’s very eyes: AIDS, gender inequality, Black incarceration, the Palestinian struggle, and, soon, climate change.
The clarity which the Neo-Marxist critique brought to bear on its enemies resulted in its surprising re-emergence as it took on the followers of Foucault and Derrida. The postmodernists were out-flanked from the left, and Neo-Marxism ultimately threatened to demolish the reigning postmodernist paradigm—which countless academics had ridden to tenure.
This background battle that I’ve detailed is not part of Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book, but I think it vital to understanding the emergence of what the authors call “activist postmodernism.” This new form of postmodernism was an answer to the Neo-Marxists’ criticism, one which required redeploying Foucault’s concept of “power” into a more actionable context. For Foucault, power wasn’t something one possessed at the expense of an Other, nor was it a tool of subjugation used against a particular group. Instead it was elastic and omnipresent, a vast and creative web necessary for our control and regulation of human reality, a reality that willed such regulation and control over itself in order to achieve all the benefits that it afforded: order, identity, predictability, knowledge. In any given epoch there were “regimes of truth,” which nearly every institution, and every facet of that institution—its programs, protocol, paperwork, and even its architecture—participated in.
There were, however, those who lived on the outside-of-the-inside, who were not participants in this system, who had a different and sometimes ulterior way of being and seeing. People of Color, those of indeterminate sexuality, native people of colonized countries, even fat people, all those whose voices were never accounted for and who fell between the cracks: the marginalized. Post-Colonial Theory, Critical Race Theory, Feminist and Gender Studies, Queer Theory, Fat/Disabled Studies,” (collectively called Theory by Pluckrose and Lindsay) were all developed to elucidate the realities of these marginalized identity groups per se, but also how their realities when combined might be used to deconstruct the edifice of society as a whole. This is called Intersectionality, where the claims and cause of one group become the claims and cause of them all. Presently, I will argue that these Intersectionals occupy a position in postmodernism that the proletariat do in Marxism.
Pluckrose and Lindsay cover each of these Theories, from their inception to the current day; a remarkable contribution to our understanding of these heterodox world views, and how, almost overnight, they insinuated themselves into the orthodoxy of many American institutions. As the authors patiently and perspicaciously take us through the arcane ins and outs of these Theories, they help us answer some disquieting questions, like “how did academia go, in just a few years, to a place where open debate was encouraged to a place where debate was considered a form of hostility?” This is a rhetorical complaint of conservatives, of course, but I would argue that Cynical Theories, with its evenhanded tone and meticulous research, is actually geared toward traditional liberals who pose that question sincerely and can’t recognize themselves in this Theory movement. For good reason: it bears, at most, a surface resemblance to traditional liberal struggles on behalf of racial and women’s equality, sexual liberty, freedom of speech, etc..
Starting around 2010 even that surface resemblance disappears, as activist postmodernism became supercharged, militant, so much so that the authors believe it deserves a name all its own: “reified postmodernism.” This movement also goes by the name Social Justice. It is characterized by self-righteous certainty, the abandonment if not overt resentment of liberal principles of fair and open debate, compromise, reasonableness and even reason.
Pluckrose and Lindsay resist describing this movement as Marxist. They see a single, though hardly straight, line connecting Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, published in 1974, all the way through to Robin Di’Angelo’s White Fragility, published in 2018. There is good reason to agree with the authors. Social Justice rhetoricians rarely use the words “poor,” or “disadvantaged,” much less “the proletariat.” They rarely mention our homegrown Occupy Wall Street movement that demanded an end to American crony capitalism in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. The names of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google zillionaires are absent from their screeds. If theirs is a breed of Marxism, it is a strange version of it indeed.
Yet, I would argue that Marxism has made a return. Its terms have changed, but the goal, revolution and societal scale transformation, is the same. This Marxism is perhaps the worst form of Marxism, the one that Western Marxists like Adorno, Marcuse, Jameson, and Habermas rejected. Here Identity politics takes the place of class struggle. Straight, white people take the place of the bourgeoisie, and the Intersectionals take the place of the proletariat. Oppression replaces exploitation of labor. Capitalism is now White Supremacy, white privilege, and The Patriarchy. Diversity, Justice, and Inclusion take the place of socialism, a bureaucratic state that will be the bridge to a pure raceless, genderless (communist) society.
To understand what animates the Social Justice theorists and their all-encompassing description of the our current system and its ubiquitous iniquities, I return to George Lukacs and his 1923 masterpiece History and Class Consciousness” (a book I must have read twenty times as it was the foundation of my doctoral dissertation). Lukacs believed in Bolshevism, but also believed that its crude dialectical materialism was insufficient to explain the elusive effects of capitalism in advanced societies. He observed that advanced capitalist societies would resist revolution because, however sick they might be, they had no means of diagnosing themselves. To help explain those societies to themselves he developed a whole new set of concepts. He showed how capitalist ideology moved so fluidly and unobtrusively in the circulation system of society that it amounted to a kind of inviolable law of physics, or, what Lukacs called, a “second nature.” In politics, art, jurisprudence, journalism, and, of course, the workplace, society had completely internalized capitalist ideology to the extent that its citizens suffered from what he called “false consciousness.”
Though, as I’ve argued above, the Social Justice theorists have deserted the fundamental economic argument, there is an uncanny likeness between their key concepts and those of Lukacs. “Wokeness” would have been repellent to the likes of Derrida and Foucault, and, for different reasons, it would have been repellent to Lukacs. Still, he would have immediately recognized “wokeness” because it was functionally identical to his concept of “class consciousness.” In both cases, people needed to be coaxed out of a kind of mental stupor in order to apprehend the cancer eating away at them.
Likewise, the individual and individual experience melt away in Lukacs total analysis of society, just as they melt away in the concepts of systemic racism and systemic sexism. “Neither I, nor anyone I know, thinks that way about Black people,” is a useless statement as per Social Justice scholarship, as systemic racism starts with, and accounts for, the totality of experience.
With Social Justice, there is no aspect of society—from what is displayed in art galleries, to what is spoken at school, to how zoning laws are written, to the very language of mathematics—that is not subsumed within the system. Again, this totalizing, reductionistic approach is thoroughly Lukacsian. Lastly, the activist component of Social Justice, what they sometimes call “the work that needs be done,” echoes Lukacs’ idea of “praxis”: theory + practice.
To this point, I’ve hoped to demonstrate how Social Justice used Foucault’s idea of the marginalized—those individuals whose very existence lay outside the regimes of knowledge—to form a class, Intersectionals. This class would prove the avant garde for unseating the existing order, and, in turn would become almost structurally identical to Luckasian Marxism. Structurally identically but emptied of its substance. To crib from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Social Justice is Marxism repeating itself as farce. Hence, I prefer to call them Post-Marxists, and will do so for the balance of this essay. 1
We should be grateful to Pluckrose and Lindsay for carefully tracking the evolution of postmodernism to its current incarnation in the Social Justice Movement. But, at some point the change became so pronounced and the final form so unfamiliar that insisting on linking this movement to its postmodernists roots is unintentionally misleading. The name Post-Marxist also more accurately adumbrates the Social Justice Movement’s aims. It helps us understand what’s going on in Portland and many other US cities today, and why this movement so seamlessly joined ranks with The Black Lives Matters movement, which is indisputably a racialized variant of Marxism. The protesters are done writing and theorizing; the “work” requires they bring words into action: praxis. They have no intention of working within the democratic process. The law, the courts, grand juries (as in the recent Breonna Taylor protests), and “democracy” itself is subsumed with the system they want to bring down. Their destruction of monuments which venerate America is part and parcel of this goal. Marxism “continues tracing indefinitely its great skeletal outline.”
Like all good books—as you read them, but especially after you put them down—Cynical Theories got me asking questions the authors hadn’t asked, and occasionally coming to conclusions they hadn’t come to. Having spent over two decades myself studying and later teaching Foucault et al, one of the questions that kept tugging at me was, “what would Foucault say of the Social Justice/Post-Marxist movement? Would he be saying, ‘Good work! Viva la resistance!’ or would he be rolling in his grave?”
To answer that question, it’s important to remind ourselves that Foucault was deeply suspicious of “regimes of truth” that promised societal scale cures. In fact, he believed that regimes that came in the name of justice, rehabilitation, and healing—what the Post-Marxists come in the name of today—were in many ways more oppressive and sinister than earlier regimes which brooked no mercy and exacted pure, yet precisely defined, revenge. Modern regimes of medicine, psychiatry, “health,” schooling and law, captured one’s mind more than one’s body, plundering humans’ inner worlds. In such places there was no endpoint to one’s sickness, only an ever-assiduous introspectiveness. This accurately describes what Nietzsche called “slave morality,” and as a devoted Nietzschean, I believe Foucault would view Post-Marxism as yet another incarnation of that slave morality.
Nietzsche demonstrates how in ancient society the “good” was associated with the noble and the “bad” with what was common and base. Nobles approached life head-on, courting adventure, even danger, and their values sprung quite naturally from their experiences in both victory and defeat. Slaves confected values synthetically, from feelings of resentment, misery, frustration, and over a long course of history, in the form or religion and philosophy, they developed an imaginary system of revenge. Mobilizing and justifying their revenge by characterizing their superiors as “evil,” this system emphasizes shame, guilt, incessant self-reflection—what Nietzsche calls “ressentiment,” a creative force that would alter human history and destiny. Henceforth, the nobles would be delegitimized and lose their forward momentum, turn upon themselves and be made to prostrate before a “Priestly Class” that arrogates to itself the power to assign blame, determine responsibility, and sit in the seat of judgement. Slave societies, their ancient and modern incarnations, thirst for such a Priestly Class, one that will set thresholds, both internal and external, that we are forbidden to cross; one that oversees condemnation and metes out damnation on the “evil.” Thus they create a sanctified stage whereupon we enact our human drama.
But there is another aspect to all of this, according to Foucault. Thresholds function in two ways: they limit us, but they also define a line beyond which the rules cease to have purchase on our reality. The human condition bound by taboos and the clock helps us to fit snugly into the machine, a cog in the wheel of civility and even civilization. But we also desire what lies beyond, the realm of gutters, dens of depravity, drunkenness, the profane and irrational—where what constrains us falls away.
Alas, we return to our poets to reckon with our lived human experience rather than our academically manufactured one. Bukowski—through the lucidity of his drunkenness—said, “I think degradation, prostitution, black pimps are the flowers of the earth. I think those joints [bars] where this is going on—there is great happiness there, and terror and horror. When you clean up a city you kill it.”
There is a reason Burning Man is in the middle of nowhere; we must pass through civilization and journey to the heart of the desert, in fact, in order to reach the other side. There we ritualistically set the lie—an effigy of “man” (ourselves as polite little machines)—on fire, and begin our “drug addled debauchery,” as one observer described that event.
Every society that has thrived has made space for what lies beyond the limits; what the philosopher George Bataille calls the space of “excess,” “luxury,” or “squandering.” Mystical ecstasy, alcohol, drugs, Mardi Gras, Carnivals, sports, comedy acts, and most of all, sex—these are all tools and occasions where we transgress, where life becomes luminous and where, if even for a moment, we transcend. Limitlessness. This is the “oceanic feeling’ described by Jung and sought after by mystics and visionaries of every epoch, culture and religion.
Dynamic civilizations require respecting both realities: boundedness (including the rule of law, rules of engagement, structures of governance, etc) and limitlessness. America’s genius lies in the fact that it creates the nearly exact conditions for the two to exist in balance, a condition where the self can release from the boundedness of the self, not into Buddhist emptiness, but into discovery and conquest that stops just short of madness or ruin.
Our rebelliousness and originality started with the Pilgrims crossing an ocean at risk of death; it continued with our Western Expansion and “discovering” the North Pole, straight through to the Wright brothers and Charlies Lindbergh, landing on the moon, shooting for Mars, and probing the remotest corners of the universe. Only a nation with squandering in its DNA could produce Whitman, Martha Graham, Charlie Parker, Merle Haggard, Rothko, Richard Pryor. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, U2, were not American, but America is where their music was given the license to soar, America, a place where both boundedness and limitlessness exist in rare dynamic balance.
The controlled speed and violence of the sports we invented, football and basketball, or those we perfected, like boxing: Joe Louis, Frazier, Foreman, Tyson were singular American inventions. Whitman, Faulkner, Saroyan, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Morrison broke the boundaries of syntax. Allen Watts, Timothy Leary, and Woodstock broke the boundaries of consciousness. Jazz broke the boundaries of the musical score. Gorky, Pollock, and DeKooning broke our reliance on form to navigate human realilty. The internet shattered the bounds of communications. In free-soloing the sheer face of El Capitan, Alex Honnold even broke the boundaries of mortal fear. Yes, a thousand sins and injustices were committed alongside this thousand shattering of norms. The encyclopedia of our achievements must also absorb into itself an index of our sins, our genocide of the Native Americans, and the institution of slavery, to name just two. And yet we have also been the wonder and heartbeat of the world for some 200 years. We can neither deny these realities nor wither away from them in shame.
All I have said so far also does not amount to a naked embrace of capitalism. Far from it. Capitalism can create its own impregnable boundaries, including when it plays puppeteer to an economy that concentrates the vast majority of wealth in a handful of oligarchs. Or when corporations reach ever more deeply into the personal lives of their employees so that privacy, and all the humble transgressions it confers, disappears; or even more so when capitalism folds those personal lives into the hideousness of the “work environment,” as do Silicon Valley’s so-called “campuses”, which have done away with the need for employees to have their own home and private retreat.
Capitalism’s monetization of squandering in countless sectors of human activity has been occurring for decades, but its recent inventions of virtual worlds, and our willful immersion into them—for sex, violence, community, feats of heroism, and destruction—throws a psychotic pall over our society. As can social media and its exteriorization of our inner worlds. Privacy, private property, and individual sovereignty are necessary for American dynamism but, increasingly, what we are seeing is a fusion of Capitalism (stripped of libertarianism) and Marxism (returned as sinister farce). A new system; and if one looks in the mirror we are startled to recognize it looks very much like China’s.
All totalitarian states, or what is often called “systems of totality,” have one thing in common: work, and indeed all energy must be directed towards the predetermined needs of the system as a stand-in for the collective or greater good. The transcript of the 1964 Soviet trial of the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky is illustrative:
Brodsky: I began working when I was fifteen. I found it all interesting. I changed work because I wanted to learn as much as possible about life and about people.
Judge: How were you useful to the motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That’s my work. I’m convinced . . . I believe that what I’ve written will be of use to people not only now, but also to future generations.
Judge: That is, you think that your so-called poems are of use to people?
It is no accident that the sign over Auschwitz reads, “Work makes you free.”
Hardly anyone remembers today that one of the most notorious anti-Semites in American history, Father Charles Coughlin, edited a magazine titled Social Justice. Measuring culture by its fidelity to a collective cause, its utility towards a predetermined end; indeed, all programs directed toward eliminating the differential between people are hallmarks of a system of totality. Where squandering is permitted by these systems it always takes the form of bloody revolution, human liquidation and cancellation, first of its own intractable citizens and, eventually, the citizens of other states. Holocausts are allowed, even necessary in such societies, of course, but after the smoke has cleared everyone must be shaped from the misshapen detritus into carbon copies of one another. Where the precision of a goose step is required human carnage is a precise step behind. Turkish Nationalism, Nazi Germany, The USSR, The Cambodian Genocide, and more recently Isis, all considered “degenerate” any form of “work” that did not prove useful to the common good as they defined it.
Today the Post-Marxists, with their taboos and endless litmus tests determining who can write what, or what one may or may not think, or what and what is not rude or offensive or hurtful; which hair styles and clothing are allowed and disallowed; these people with their sexual catechism that prescribes where, how, and when one can touch or even glance at others—and with their reducing of that most innocent and delicious conquest—sexual seduction—into a virtual crime; these people with their nauseating fetishization of victims and martyrdom and their microscopic probing of one’s past sins; with their zero tolerance for an off-word or tasteless joke, their remorseless vindictiveness and summary social media executions: they are building something that resembles the most vicious of totalitarian systems, a stateless police state utterly adverse to a dynamic civilization.
In her 1928 Essay, How it Feels to be Colored, Zora Neal Hurston wrote, “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries.” Everything about the pinched and priestly Post-Marxist catechism, it needs be said, is an affront to this Great Soul, and especially the soul of Black Americans, without which, as everyone knows, America would not be America at all. Of course Black people occupy their share of all the widely admired and lucrative professions—doctors, dentists, engineers, etc.—but, let’s face it: in their repeated demonstration of the most jaw-dropping creativity, in their surge that seems to appear from out of nowhere, shape the culture, disappear, and then astonishingly reappear again, Blacks Americans have no equal. In fact, they have taught the entire world whole new ways to surge, from the Jitterbug to Hip-Hop, from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, from singing the Blues to slinging their bling. We bound them for centuries since the Middle Passage and they in turn became our thrillingly built-in obliteration of nearly every social code and norm.
All of this sickliness and humorlessness, all this pale, Portland severity that demands we defer to the collective “work” of righting our wrongs is an affront to this entire nation. America lets each of us remain within our own identity and tradition and transcend those as we choose. It has allowed for fluidity between where we come from and what we are and anything we might (in)conceivably become. Our greatest strength is our endless experiment with and fusion of worlds—tastes, beliefs, values, rhythms and sounds—that shouldn’t be found in proximity to each other. My daughters are half-Korean and half-Armenian; the blood of thousands of year old cultures located thousands of miles apart impossibly intertwined here.
Post-Marxists, on the regressive other hand, want to turn us into a living stasis. With their special brand of imaging machines they hope to keep us motionless so that they might better biopsy the cancer of racism and sexism spreading in each one of us, as well as our extraordinary body of history. They see sickness everywhere, even in love. In marrying my wife, they’d likely claim I had contracted the disease of “Yellow Fever.”
As I write, they are concocting chemotherapy-like social therapies with the prefix “re” (meaning “backward” or “back”): “reimagining,” “renaming,” “recontextualizing” and just good old fashioned “removing,” regardless if by fire or a crane. But there’s also “diversity and inclusion”— which amounts to flattening the (bell) curve to the point that the surface will become so frictionless that we will invariably glide, without even knowing it, into the social justice abyss. All of this taming of the will to transgress, conquer, and transcend, however doomed the enterprise, will create a culture doomed to suffer illness and atrophy, and eventually catastrophe.
With our current illness, The Pandemic, already we are seeing the signs of what lay ahead.
When bars, dance clubs, concerts, sporting events, churches, all the so-called non-essentials, are censored or shuttered; when venues where humans lose themselves in the elation of the moment and each other are barred—drug and alcohol abuse, madness, the embrace of extreme paranoic theories, and even suicide, the most savage form of squandering, squandering one’s own life, will invariably balloon.
The pandemic required sensible constraints, to save our own lives and the lives of others. This is incontrovertible. But at some point, in some places, the vector of death tapped into our deepest fear of losing dominion over the boundaries of our bodies and prompted Scientology-like bureaucratic injunctions to keep those boundaries intact—no matter the cost. There would prove a price to pay. Notice how those who most scolded others for not following the rules, for whom washing hands took on the religious enormity of ablution; who sanitized their groceries; who sheltered in place like pious hermits and compliantly donned their facemasks/niqabs (even when driving or walking alone on a pathetically empty neighborhood street?); those for whom the term flattening the curve became a kind of rosary; those who still demand that schools remain closed, and human contact remain contactless (in perpetuity if necessary, they warn us)—notice how this very same group of Zoom super enthusiasts—in Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and Seattle, four of the most obedient cities in the US—suddenly embraced the ecstatic convulsions that shattered the revolting tranquility of their streets. The sight of the social distancers now shouting and screaming and chanting and stomping shoulder to shoulder, spittle upon spittle, was spectacular, a profane pagan eruption against our servility to the mundane and mendacious dictates of the state, a guttural cry against the human hideousness of our four month long governmental decreed incarceration.
This is the path that human squandering takes when boundaries are drawn too tight and too much of life is reduced to a utilitarian cause. The fire and looting that followed the protests was completely predictable in the parallel dimension of life that Foucault, and his mentor in these diabolical matters, George Bataille, illuminates for us. American life—where squandering and irrationality is integral—cannot forebear the ship of “science” for long without the risk of bloodletting mutiny. Epidemiology subsumes the individual into the aggregate to generate models and make predictions— but for the Great Soul of America as opposed to the Chinese or even Norwegian soul, the idea of collective sacrifice, short of the collective sacrifice of war, is an abstraction one step short of war on our very beings. It had to be hammered into believability, first by fear and repetition, and later by threats of fines and even arrest.
That we must work together to defeat the virus, and we must work together to defeat systemic racism are both cut from the same cloth. Above and beyond everything else, this work for many Americans requires the erasure of a differential, and, traditionally, there is nothing more ominous to their ears than this erasure. That we have remained as compliant as long as we have goes a long way in telling us just how much our 244-year-old soul has changed, how ready we are for something else, something less and something collectively, perhaps terrifyingly, more.
- The term Cultural Marxism has also been used to describe this movement, but I think that name fails to adequately describe the caesura between the Social Justice movement and The Frankfurt School/ Neo-Marxists. “Post” suggests a strong break, and yet retains “Marxism” as a ghostly resemblance, just as Postmodernism is a break from Modernism and yet retains a ghostly resemblance. The name Cultural Marxism also implies “cultural” matters are at stake, when, in fact, the activist strain of Post-Marxism seeks to unseat the entire social order.