When Jordan Peterson debated Slavoj Zizek, Peterson pointed to his typical villain, the “cultural Marxist”. Douglas Lain rightly saw that this was Peterson’s Lacanian symptom. Jacques Lacan describes the symptom as such: “the symptom can only be defined as the way in which each subject enjoys (jouit) the unconscious in so far as the unconscious determines the subject.” Zizek exposed Peterson when he demanded Peterson name one such figure of so-called cultural Marxism.
For Peterson, everyone in power was a cultural Marxist, so how could he point to any one person? What is the state of the American left if their symptom is nearly the same as Peterson’s? Of course, it’s more complicated for the American left. Zizek claims the difference between the Stalinists and the Nazis is that the Stalinists sincerely believed in what they were doing. Likewise there is a difference between the American left and American right. The American right sees liberals and leftists as the same. The American left sees itself as the Marxist the right fears, just without the cultural priority. Instead, the left claims to be material.
Of course here is where I think while the postmodern shift was too critical of Marx, they were at least structural thinkers in the same way as Marx. Thus, when they claimed there was no reality they had a real material argument. Now it’s almost the reverse. Instead of having leading leftist thinkers actively responding to Marx we have an embrace of Marx that isn’t Marxist at all.
How do we respond to this? I think the first thing we have to do is embrace Marx. This is where we can claim postmodernism. Even though postmodernism was subconsciously from the Marxist tradition and in fact organized its thought is as such, the postmodern dismissal of Marx has been taken up within the subconscious of the modern left, and manifesting in the conscious mind of the modern leftist is a cultural, rather than economic understanding of Marx.
This is where they go wrong of course. Marx as the cultural figure is barely useful at all for understanding modernity which was why postmodernism intervened. However he remains useful in an economic sense, but why are so few on the left using him this way?
It is because the symptom on the left, the point of enjoyment, is in a sick place, and that’s because of capitalism. Let’s be more specific. I am not being so hard on the left because I have given up hope. To the contrary, the left is the only hope and I think if the left can become truly populist than there is nothing that can stop the left.
For now, I have to say I’m not a leftist. I want to intervene from the outside in order to see my heroes with clarity. I do think the left is heroic. I want to be the left. I say I’m not a leftist because I don’t feel I’m good enough to be a leftist. It’s from this place of servitude that I would like to speak to the left, who has given me the Marxist framework for understanding history, and as a result has made the world make sense.
For Peterson and most everyone on the right, their greatest fear is the liberal-left coalition, which is why they always conflate the two. This is where the left has to go. Whenever one wants to beat their opponent one has to ask what their opponent does not want them to do. If the right is our opponent, we should ask why the left and liberal are always seen as on the same side, even when they sadly too often aren’t.
I come at this as a liberal, as I recently have stepped out of the left. Being a liberal is nice, but I don’t see it as the final destination. I think the future is left. The leftist train is ready to leave the station so to speak, but something within the machine isn’t working.
The left is constantly asking: why aren’t we winning? It’s complicated. I would say if there is one blockage point it is exactly this misunderstanding of class. For the modern leftist, they are so keen on not being a cultural Marxist, and rather a purely material one, that they step out of society altogether, falling into sectarianism, distrusting all populist movements as too liberal, and fail to see their own relevance.
For the modern “dirtbag” leftist, the priority seems to be a cultural Marxist in opposition to liberalism rather than a material Marxist in opposition to capitalism. Perhaps my symptom is the cultural leftist, and without the toxicity of the cultural leftist, I would have no enjoyment.
Nonetheless, I see the desire to frame the moral question as a bourgeois one to be a position squarely against the free will of the working class. For Kant, the subject always has a choice, even when they don’t. Even when making the moral choice causes one death, or even when both choices cause death, one still has a choice within the act of making it. This is real freedom.
All those who frame freedom and enjoyment as the ability to be cruel towards others have adopted the ruling class mentality and have betrayed the solidarity of their own class. This is not what people actually want. We want the freedom to love. We want the freedom to care for each other. Our desire for socialism is not to feed ourselves (capitalism), but to feed the Other.
This is the dirty secret behind the left. It is a project of freedom. The left is demanding the freedom to live in a system that sustains itself, where enjoyment for the self comes from the enjoyment for the Other. Why does the modern leftist oppose liberalism, precisely when a left-liberal alliance is our path towards emancipation?
It is because being a material Marxist is hard work. It means that we don’t put people down because they are “culturally superior”. Being woke really means that one cares about the world they are in, a deeply ironic critique coming from a supposedly solely “materialist” ideology of leftism that actually cares more for the cultural Other than any other ideology. Okay, you get it. The left won’t accept its own winning argument.
More so, the Marxist isn’t necessarily just situated in a moral argument but rather can describe a material society in a logical way. Making a moral appeal to the logic of capitalism could inspire charity, but making an organized structural resistance to the system of capital could change the very incentives of said system, and instead of relying on capitalists to be good (not happening), we could create a society that encourages the right decisions through its economic policy.
But how do we get there? We have to ask the moral question. Eventually, yes, the end goal is communism. When this happens, no one will have to be moral, the incentive of the society will be to be moral. But for a society to become moral? First groups within the society must do it. Therefore the road to changing the economy is through the moral question.
In this way liberalism’s individualism is nothing to fear. However, this isn’t what we’re talking about, exactly. For the modern left, their symptom is tied up in a supposedly hegemonic cultural power apparatus that is tied to liberal culture as much as it is to real class values. While many on the left may know that class is the way to see things, the reason liberalism is added on as an extension of capitalism deserves examination.
Obvious is the use of the term “neoliberal”. Leftists on the ground not plagued by symptom like Ralph Nader advocate talking about corporate power rather than neoliberal power. On the one hand, I see the ruling class propaganda running so deep that nearly every leftist hides at least to some extent behind culture rather than class. On the other hand I think the left misses its own power and in spite of itself is changing a lot more than the left gives itself credit for.
But the left doesn’t understand its own success and this is why it still sees itself as failure. The left has inspired millions to organize for a better life for all. In the face of extreme material obstacles, the left has been remarkable. But ask any leftist and the left is failing because the left has been too tied to the ruling class ideology of liberalism and we just need to form more bonds with the populist right and we’ll have more power.
This argument reveals everything. By joining hands with the supposedly powerless conservatives we gain power, according to this argument. Here’s the contradiction. If the right was so powerless, why join up with them? This leads to the conclusion that society is run by a materially economic elite, not a culturally decadent class. Also according to this argument poor people aren’t left-wing and it’s actually the ruling class who is TOO moral and needs to be corrected by some immoral class of poor people.
This is off the mark. The ruling class shouldn’t be blasted for its hypocrisy. What does it matter what the ruling class says or even does? When thinking of class in economic, rather than moral terms, we find that owners of property, of means of production, must give up their power, not because they don’t live up to their own moral standard but rather because our own moral standard is one that denounces property, ownership and exploitation.
Who then is making the moral argument here? The working class is. The left is. Let’s not be so afraid of that. When politics becomes the sight of enjoyment then it ceases to be politics. I don’t think we should run from enjoyment but the purpose of politics should be to further enjoyment. It is a sign of diffident politics when the enjoyment is defining the politics.
A while back I tied the typical leftist critique of Obama to enjoyment, where sound economic critique that is liberating, leading to eventual systematic enjoyment through socialism, always is accompanied by a retreat into immediate individual enjoyment by linking Obama to the liberal conspiracy, individualizing and fetishizing his power, and giving the subject enjoyment, a little treat at the end of a hard day’s work of class analysis.
The project of the left should be systematic enjoyment. I am not against bashing liberals for the fun of it. I used to think that was pretty cool. But it has nothing to do with politics. I used to think of politics in these terms. Right is bad, liberal also bad, left is good. Yet that doesn’t say anything about the system.
What we need to do is make a socialist society. To do this, left and liberal need to collapse as concepts as they do in the imagination of the right. The right does have a cultural apparatus it uses to rule economically. It tricks many ideologically bent people towards accepting ruling class identity, often in the name of populism. But the right mostly uses economic power. To the extent liberals ignore economics, we must return Marx. However, explaining populism as Marxism misses the mark. Marx conceptualized class in relation to economy and if we continue to try to change class culturally we will never reach communism.
It is easier to do, but ultimately imagining a class culture will only change cultural conditions and leave the classes intact. Perhaps I am focusing on the wrong thing. But I see the left as very close to transforming society in a radical way. The only thing holding them back is their symptom, their claim to populism only undermines their natural alliance to it. The left ultimately uses the liberal as a shield against, a mediation for, class conflict. The ruling class does the same thing, begging the left to blame yuppie liberals rather than look at class.
The ruling class begs the left to fight within itself, denouncing other leftists as liberals. I can’t tell the difference between left and liberal people these days. This is exactly what we need. The left is becoming mainstream, but if this is only cultural, it won’t mean much. Instead, we need to make deeper class-oriented ties between the liberal and left. As far as I can tell the critique of liberals hasn’t been related to class, so organizing along class lines with liberals should be natural.