Brian Holmes on Sat, 8 Jul 2017 10:54:19 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> The alt-right and the death of counterculture

This is one of the more challenging pieces I've read on nettime. It must speak to many people's experience - certainly it does to mine. I wonder if anyone else might like to repond to this one?

The alt-right has latched onto the transgressive and paranoid libertarian
style of culture jammers and hackers, which always sat uncomfortably on the
left, and celebrates the liberation of the individual against ghastly
sheeple and normie culture. In the process they have disrupted the poles of
youth culture, allowing for an easy slippage between gaming, lib-hating,
trolling, unbridled misogyny and fascism. As Nagle writes: ‘When we’ve
reached a point where the idea of being edgy/counter-cultural/transgressive
can place fascists in a position of moral superiority to regular people, we
may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn
countercultural ideals.’

Though I could not have imagined the alt-right at the time, after 2008 I chose to withdraw from the European art circuit in order not to be lured into the self-serving postures that I had analyzed years before in "The Flexible Personality." I got into activism because capitalism was steering society to a bad end. In the early 2000s had a serious go at updating Marxist thoery with Toni Negri and the rest. After the crash, when our very sophisticated leftist theories could not stir any effective resistance, I did not want to go on inertially mouthing stylized slogans whose patent unreality seemed to bother no one. I could have moved from France to Spain, where the efforts of the 2000s were not drained into art-circuit spectacle but instead drove an attempt to change both institutional politics and daily life. But for personal and family reasons, I chose rather to return to the US, where at least I had to face the increasing irrelevance of both the post-68 counterculture and the classical left. How to do this without cynicism and bitter disavowal of one's own former strivings is, I think, one of the real questions that confronts people of my generation, those who went through the wild enthusiasms of the late 90s..

Nagle writes, ‘every
bizarre event, new identity and strange subcultural behaviour that baffles
general audiences … can be understood as a response to a response to a
response, each one responding angrily to the existence of the other.’ Nagle
correctly identifies that this self-referential world has as its end an
amoral ‘liberation of the individual and the id’, and a pathological
enjoyment at the expense of an other.

These lines, while pitched at Milo and the young sexy neofascists, describe a lot of the cultural pranks we used to celebrate in the festival circuits emanating out from Amsterdam. The big difference is that until very recently, the world was stable and the pranks were inconsequential. Now the ways that such nihilism feeds monsters have become all too obvious. The style of paranoid critique that many of us in the theory-world practiced is complicit in these devastating outcomes, because no matter how bad things may be, it is one's responsibility to seek for possible ameliorations of the common lot - by which I mean somehting much more widely shared than the rarified concept of "the commons." From my viewpoint, the breakdown of techno-utopianism requires a sweeping reassessment, a new departure, a change of life in short. And obviously, that entails corresponding changes in cultural expression. Anyone not working on at lest those too levels is way out of date. Liberation can no longer be the keyword for the middle-classes, that's for sure.

The clarification of terms, the
bracketing of difference and the weighing of utterances from different
subject positions, cis-males at the bottom, all attempt to make the
banality of online life urgent and political. In a manner that mirrors the
data colonisation of the social by new media companies, every difference
must be celebrated, problematised and deconstructed. Thus there are
hundreds of genders, Marxist universalism is misogynist, and effacement of
agency requires reparations through any number of micro-payment platforms.

However the above lines are just as void as what they denounce. There is no disciplined Marxist universalism to fall back on, because the industrial proletariat was long ago bought off, functionalized and absorbed by the industrial welfare state, whose productive promise, celebrated by all true Marxists, has turned out to be a Promethean overreach culminating in climate change and the many disasters of the Anthropocene. The crucial thing now is not to claim any theoretical high ground, but to try to understand and pragmatically embody what unites those who resist, not only fascism, but also the self-destructiove excess of liberalism. Sure, the gender-changing drives of the younger generations may be seen as a kind of escapism, but they are also an attempt to incarnate, in one's own direct experience, the oppressed marginality of the proliferating racialized underclasses who bear the brunt of contemporary social violence. The question is not how to condemn the kids, but how to be an adult that anyone could possibly care about. How to create a transormative outlet for the raw energy of alienation? How to work through the really existing institutions, towards more responsible kinds of social relations that can withstand all the stresses of imperial breakdown?

The great threat of the alt-right identified by Nagle is that they best
embody the political potential of networked affect, and that they are able
to use this infrastructure to accelerate a pure fascist politics of
jouissance and libidinal frustration. The prevailing tendency on much of
the self-identified left has been to retreat from the kind of broad popular
struggle that could be attractive to the politically curious, making ‘the
left a laughing stock for a whole new generation.’

That diagnosis undoubtedly holds for the specific ecosystem of neofascists emerging from the expressive orgies of 4chan, but if you think that sums up all the world's problems, and that you can cure them with Lacan reinterpreted by Zizek, then you are still stuck in the illusions of net-critique. The world is going through a giant demographic shift that realitivizes the historic privileges of whiteness, PLUS a shift in economic and technological power from Euro-America to East Asia, PLUS the looming disasters of climate change. The neoliberal forms of production, justice and state power are all unraveling in the face of these epochal shifts, and the only way to keep people from reacting to the chaos in a thousand erratic and dangerous ways is to find new social forms to replace those which have become irrelevant. This article is great because it pushes you (or at least me) to seek out all the hollow illusions of an outdated counter-culture that lingered on as a luxury subjectivity, and is now just a useless impediment for anyone who remains tangled in its repetitive tropes. But the fantasy of a disciplined Party able to take over and dominate the historical stage is just a distraction from the real problem of formulating and embodying those missing proinciples of production, justice and legitimate state power, which all have to be remade anew to meet the demands of the future.

And with that little note I'll rest my case!

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