GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 23, 2019

Some further inquiry into HLvM

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:46 am

In formalist terms, the left is the cadres of militants levied by those elites interested in furthering the power directly exercised by the state over the individual, by undermining intermediate power centers. Power over individuals can always be further centralized: the state can arrest you for all manner of crimes, including crimes generated by your interactions with the state, and can surveil you for a wide range of purposes—but it can’t yet tell you what to eat for breakfast. It would be very easy to show how each leftist advance enables the state to single out something new for attention in each individual.

It still needs to be explained, though, how those agents interested in more direct state power over the individual go about mobilizing the masses they need, or, for that matter, why they want this centralization. Regarding the latter, there might be all kinds of reasons: corporations want to open up markets, which might require breaking up local monopolies and regulatory and tax regimes; for those within the state apparatus itself, it might be felt necessary for making uniform rules of operation across the country, and eliminating various logjams created by the diverse and often confused local prerogatives. In each case, some kind of resentment towards central authority is involved, ultimately for not being central and authoritative enough, as proven by the fact that one can challenge, revise and circumvent it in these very ways.

But the “low” is not simply bribed, even if there is also some of that going on—leftism is always a racket, among other things. But extortion rackets must also depend upon resentment: information can be used against someone because the dissemination of that information would change the way others interact with that person, and that depends upon the social norms dictating the grounds on which we resent. The left establishes rackets at vulnerable “choke points” in the social field of resentments—sites where attempts have been made to minimize resentments, and where the levers for exacerbating them also therefore exist. To say that those resentments subjected to minimization efforts were themselves ginned up by previous centripetal movements would be true, but ultimately leads us to an infinite regress if we can’t assume an originary form of resentment that sets the whole machinery in motion.

There are two ways of thinking about the “elemental” form of resentment animating the left. First, it’s a product of social and economic inequality: serfs resent lords because the lords have land, wealth and power and the serfs don’t; a wage laborer resents a corporate executive because the executive has far more money and perks, etc. I don’t think this provides a powerful mode of analysis, for the simple reason that these inequalities are constant, while shows of resentment are intermittent; furthermore, there is no clear correlation between “amount” of resentment (assuming there was some way of measuring that) and the degree of inequality—Bill Gates only recently ceded his position of the world’s richest man, but has never been a particularly intense target of either the right or the left. It may be that we will one day find a perfect correspondence between elite funding of specific resistance foundations and the manifestation of political activity along those specific lines, in which case the elites would be impeccable puppet-masters and there wouldn’t even be any way of distinguishing between more and less active modes of resentment. I’m going to assume that elite funding is more like seeding than recruiting—it is widespread and long-term, and no foundation thinks in terms of generating a protest of this size with this specific legislative impact on a regular basis, even if opportunities like that arise. So, the question of what form the basic mode of resentment of the lows takes is a real one.

The other way of conceptualizing the resentment of the lows is as a response to perceived violations of the trust dependents and subordinates must have for those with authority over them. This would mean that, even with the original victim group of the Western left, the working class, whose grievances seemed mostly focused on wealth inequality (not according to Marx, though), class resentment was more focused on the tyranny of employers and managers, and the broader encroachments upon traditional ways of life (and authority) on which the state and capitalists jointly engaged. While, even on strictly logical terms, there’s no reason to see some equation between degree of inequality and degree of resentment (does my resentment of my richer neighbor automatically go up another 10% when he gets a raise that extends the gap between our respective salaries another 10%?), when it comes to misuse of authority we can assume a direct “production” of resentment. Here, the relation is virtually axiomatic: however my level of moral maturity might enable me to process it, I can’t help but notice and therefore resent the injury done when agreed upon (tacitly or explicitly) rules are violated to another’s advantage and my disadvantage. The very form of interaction and cooperation is harmed in this way, and I have to respond by either exhibiting or disavowing resentment, and doesn’t require that I look into something far outside of my everyday sphere of activity (like average executive salaries).

So, this means that when the highs target the lows for mobilization, they will, insofar as they are effective, focus on breaches in trust and derelictions of duty indicating a failure of authority. This is important to keep in mind, because it means that insofar the resentments motivating the lows can be taken as legitimate—as is no doubt often the case—what the assuagement of those genuine resentments really requires is the restoration of stable and well-founded authority, rather than pay-offs (which mostly go to the leaders). Re-establishing authority detaches leftist foot soldiers from the left’s officer class, as the latter live off of perpetual resentment and therefore develop Big Scene theories guaranteeing its perpetuity—it is here that we see the “struggle” framed in terms of equality vs. inequality, because that opposition can never be resolved. But it also gives us a way of studying leftist propaganda, by sorting out the appeal to perceived failures of authority (including of course, attempts to raise the bar for the due performance of authority in such a way that failure is included in the very definition) along with the way such appeals are plugged into perpetual struggle models. So, if the Black Lives Matter protestor is genuinely interested in the institutions of policing and incarceration, there is a basis for discussion; once this gets framed in terms of “systemic racism,” there no longer is.

Meanwhile, insofar as the right is the “middle,” we can define that more precisely as well. The middle is those with an interest in preserving workable modes of authority within intelligible chains of command. Of course, what counts as a “workable” or “legitimate” mode or exercise of authority is not self-evident, but if you’re on the left the burden of proof is on those defending authority and if you’re on the right the burden is on those challenging it. But this focus on one’s relation to authority helps us to see all kinds of overlapping and possible shifts in position—so, for example, a black man, insofar as he is interested in patriarchal and parental authority in the home, is part of the middle; insofar as he focuses on himself as a potential victim of police violence, he is “low.” In these grey areas, then, is where we can expect to see all the ideological warfare and pedagogical activity taking place. This field is not infinitely elastic, of course—one reason why it has become open season on white men is that is very difficult to figure them as “low,” in part because most white men will themselves resist such an identification. Some alt-right activity is in fact a series of acrobatic efforts to slide white men into the low position, but since alt-right politics largely involves signaling against other low-designees, and you become low by joining more than by elbowing out others, this will probably prove impossible. White men are forced to take up the mantle of the middle, which in turn becomes part of the bill of indictment against them.

The Middle, then, is a kind of anomalous position. It doesn’t fit into the structure of incentives liberals have built, which is why leftists are always frustrated by the fact that the middle seems more concerned about things like abortion and gay rights than acquiring free medical care from the government. The constant bombardment of the middle (which can almost be a definition of liberal modernity) is multi-layered: the New Deal was really an attempt to erode the middle by bringing them into the welfare state, and European countries have proceeded much further along this path, making their middles correspondingly more flaccid. Sexual and cultural revolution, the cult of the criminal, and other measures, are far more obvious assaults. The middle persists, in part because it’s still not quite possible to abolish the material difference between lives of the middle and lives of the low—but this is itself because once you let yourself go low, you’re very unlikely to sustain the basic discipline needed to organize your life, even with government support. So, the horror of becoming low keeps people on the middle path—but this still wouldn’t maintain the middle, because the real incentive here is to give some “high” enough of what he needs to extend you support (i.e., keep you employed) while signaling along with the highs for the low. So, within the frame of liberal incentives, the prototypical middle would be a minimally competent, lazy worker within the safest regions of the corporate or public world, while presenting as hating this fellow middles not only in explicit statements but in manners, tastes, personal associations, and so on. So, why isn’t there nothing but the wealthy and powerful on one side, those who live off of grievances on the other side, and the guy I just described in the middle? (Of course, this would map out quite a bit of the contemporary world—but far from all of it.)

The Middle is the anomaly liberalism can’t account for. It persists because almost everyone has had delegated to himself some form of authority (the middle actually extends very low—and very high) and it is very difficult to treat such delegations complete cynically. We could explain this in terms of such features of social life (in which liberalism is completely uninterested) like tradition and order, but that would just beg the question of what prevents those structures from completely collapsing. Someone has to run things, but why should anyone in particular see himself as the one who should do so? I think we have to see this as a question of language and meaning. When someone asks you, “what do you do?,” what do you sound like when you answer? You have to be able to say something that you don’t mind others repeating; that you don’t mind repeating to yourself. Insofar as the highs and lows must also do this, they must find ways of making themselves sound like the middle: they are fulfilling obligations and meeting responsibilities, they are transparent, and so on. The anomalous Middle is really the pipeline to the Center.  You can demonstrate this socially by extracting and representing the “middleism” that must structure the high and the low insofar that they institutionalize themselves. But you can’t justify this on liberal terms, so any demonstrations place you outside of liberalism. It is impossible to exaggerate how terrifying liberalism must find it that in its very heart there is an ineradicable alterity (to speak in the postmodern argot of a onetime high-low articulation). Further middlizing your demonstrations, which is to say making them more law and authority abiding, will be more, not less terrifying to liberalism. But this may be an ineffable terror, difficult to articulate and act on, and so maybe easier to alleviate, assuming one is ready to accept some slings and arrows—even more, assuming one can read those slings and arrows back to those firing them as desperate cries for a sustainable authoritative structure.

The maxim of the middle is, power should be made commensurate with responsibility. If someone has a job to do, he should be given every bit of power he needs to do it; if someone has power, the responsibility that power can sustain should be attributed to him. An entire way of reading the world and therefore engaging culture is implicit in this maxim. In every problem we look for a mismatch of power and responsibility—we rush to help someone with “too much” responsibility by supplying the needed power, and someone with “too much power” by laying the groundwork for appropriate exercises of responsibility. In every utterance we listen for the evasion or adoption of the responsibility implicit in the power of the utterance itself—if one fairly ordinary person depends a bit on what you have to say, then let your discourse be turned to the needs of that individual; if thousands hang on your every word, then choose your words so as to contribute to their education, to make them communicants, and pedagogues in their turn. Seek to make those with power more responsible, not less powerful, by sharing their presumed responsibilities; in trying to fulfill the responsibilities delegated to you, try to tap into unused and misdirected forms of power. Ultimately, everyone is of the middle, except for one man, whose own power and responsibility is indistinguishable from its middling distribution.

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