I would someday like to write a pamphlet called “Left Wing Communism: A Personality Disorder.”
I find some of the intellectual content of the left communist milieu compelling, especially as filtered through some friends of mine, but in my experience of that milieu socially I find it less compelling. An older radical I met once said “all the Situationists I’ve ever known have been morose alcoholics.” That’s a bit unfair but it’s not *just* unfair. The Situationists shouldn’t be reduced to that emotional tenor, and I’m not here trying to reduce anything or anyone in that manner, but still, these emotional and social dynamics are real. That is to say, a lot of left communist ideas are worth taking seriously, but so is the fact that that milieu tends to be socially disfunctional, and the connection between the ideas and disfunctional character of the milieu is worth taking seriously as well.
To put it another way, there’s a left communist structure of feeling that’s problematic. As I wrote here, “Our traditions, organizations, milieus, networks… whatever it is we move and act within, they are as much a structure of feeling as they are a body of ideas. Particularly in terms of the elements that shape our actions.” As I wrote here,
The British marxist Raymond Williams wrote about what he called a “structure of feeling” made through a combination of people’s conscious efforts and unconscious activity. Williams used this concept to analyze common qualities in the everyday experiences of life in specific places and times. A structure of feeling is a set of outlooks, perceptions, and common impulses that people share. Structures of feeling tend to differ across different generations and groups of people. They are intimately bound up with the value system and world-view of a group and are often have as some of their core components imagery, metaphor, style, and narrative.
I think part of the left communist structure of feeling is a readiness to throw in the towel and move along, to retreat to more comfortable ‘critical’ positions, which means in part networks of people that involve primarily talking to people we already agree with in terms we all share rather than having to deal with the difficulties of lacking a common vocabulary and having to try to establish common values with people in order to move them toward our values. The theory provides a justification for that, and encourages the structure of feeling that’s ready to pick up and go. Part of what underlies all of this, though, is that emotional readiness to up and go, to unplug from relationships and from contexts. The relationships that are maintained are in part ones based on or tied to strong ideological agreement as much as or more than other forms of affinity.
Little of this seems conducive to the happiness of the people involved, as they often seem dour and abrasive (“morose alcoholics”) nor does it seem like it helps them accomplish much in the way of the goals they’d like to see. That self-defeating character is part of why I feel comfortable using the term ‘personality disorder’ though I mostly just meant it flippantly.
Inquiry is a collective social process, which requires conversations. In my experience a large part of the left communist set of conversational moves are moves that up the temperature in conversations. Often conversations get heated enough that they start to erode the social/relationship basis for conversation in the first place: they become self-undermining and inquiry seizes up.
Those interpersonal (anti!)social conversational habits are part of maintaining the tenor of the left communist structure of feeling, maintaining the propensity to say “fuck it, I’m out.” Another piece is a sense of futility.
In my experience, people are generally held back by fear or futility or both. I don’t think there’s any real correlation between political ideology and getting over fear and futility, I think it’s something else. I think a lot of left folk are sometimes an organized voice of futility when it comes to certain kinds of projects. To some extent the insurrectionary anarchist milieu is a voice against fear and futility to a limited extent — with their whole “ATTACK!” thing. I think this is a lot less a matter of theory than it is an expression of where they’re at otherwise,it’s a matter of their structure of feeling. To put it another way, I basically agree with Martin Glaberman that “action precedes consciousness”, which means in part that in any given moment the clear conscious ideological aspects and decisions people have made are only part of the total set of things going on in their actions. I think it’s really more like a process of action-then-consciousness-then-action-then-consciousness with tiny changes each time, and I think “consciousness” is at least as
much or more about gut level impulses and vague terms like right and wrong and fairness and justice (terms that are so vague that they’re almost meaningless in terms of their idea content but which still
express people’s deeply held emotional responses to their world).
In terms of people in the grip of fear and futility, I think they’re not going to be talked out of it via ideas alone — some cats just aren’t believers right now in terms of lived outlook/emotional orientation. They believe in future big stuff, and current big stuff far from them, but they’re not willing to plug away and deal with messiness. And the left communist ideology helps craft a story each time along the lines of “I knew it wouldn’t work out…” or “I should have known…”
As I’ve mentioned, I’d eventually like to try to write a sustained and serious piece on the philosophy of language and speech practices in left circles. I’ve talked about this a bit with regard to institutions of schooling and their effects on people: speech practices are real. They shape how people act and feel. They’re not the only shaping force but they’re one piece of the puzzle. This is one of the things I think is useful in Ranciere’s work on education. I think these dynamics are especially powerful, speech is especially powerful, when it’s a matter of stories people tell and stories people imply. Narratives and metaphors have power.
Part of what I like in Badiou’s work is his insistence on “keep going.” For me “keep going” means in part “maintain commitment.”