December 20, 2019

The Real Beneath the Real


I want to follow up on the article posted by Tia at the end of the last thread, an article called "Marcuse Today," by Ronald Aronson, publ. in 2014. It raises some very important issues regarding what would constitute real social change. Let me, however, begin with an anecdote. In May of 1968 students had taken over the Sorbonne, and public debate went on for two months. A friend of mine, a prof. of French, arrived outside of Paris by plane in May, and went directly to the Sorbonne, where he remained until the student movement collapsed in June. What he told me was this: that for two months he listened to debates about the nature of man, what real change was about, and existential questions of a sort that could never be discussed by Americans because Americans are clueless; they couldn't begin to understand these types of concepts. I call these issues "the real beneath the real."

The Aronson article makes it clear that Marcuse alone, during the sixties (One-Dimensional Man, 1964), in terms of sociopolitical analysis, was going for the whole ball of wax. He regarded the US as totalitarian because it had colonized the minds of every American. This, writes Aronson, "is wholly compatible with civil rights, a free press, and free elections." My own critique of the Occupy movement (which Aronson, oddly enough, regards somewhat favorably) was that its goal was the redistribution of wealth (hence 1% vs. 99%), rather than the core issue, namely the relations of power. I never saw a single article from the movement on the latter subject. But Aronson sees a deeper layer, even than that, in the Marcusean outlook. As in the case of Aldous Huxley, he is pointing to the "comfortable oppression" under which we "happily" live in a Brave New World. This reality is one that is so global, that the citizenry is unable to think in terms of alternatives, or to even be aware that alternatives might be necessary. Thus the core issue is not civil rights, or a free press, or free elections, or the distribution of wealth, or the relations of power, but the consumer society in which we are all immersed. "The pleasures of consumption," writes Aronson, "absorb political opposition." He doesn't, however, take a stand on the issue of false consciousness vs. Americans eagerly buying into the system, a la the Janis Joplin song--a weakness in the essay. But he emphasizes that there is, today, "no significant opposition to the system as a whole and its way of life." It is this that both Marcuse and Huxley targeted (along with Allen Ginsberg). Radical change, says Aronson, is not merely about alternative politics, but about creating a different sensibility and different values.

But if that is the case, then we have to talk about the consciousness of individual Americans, and how to change that. "How can a movement break with this all-absorbing world to demand and create a better one...And in the name of what?" Aronson asks. But this is where we hit a brick wall, because Americans are not Frenchmen. They can no more hold a May-June debate at the Sorbonne than sprout wings and fly. In political terms, they lack awareness of literally everything. In a word, they are children.

E.M. Forster raised the issue of individual consciousness in his essay "What I Believe," which I discuss in the Twilight book. One can regard the essay as an early manifesto of Waferism, I suppose. Marcuse had no idea of how systemic change might occur; Huxley provided an early reference to the New Monastic Option in suggesting that the dominant culture would remain as is, and that a handful of the alienated would live on the margins of this culture--like Native Americans on reservations (who have different values to this day). I also confront this issue in the chapter on Machiavelli in Genio. My argument is that his biographers all got him wrong, making him one of the most misunderstood individuals in the history of political theory. The bottom line for Machiavelli, the real beneath the real, was our actual day-to-day behavior amd values. Either they were about ego, or about decency; but like Forster, or Marcuse, or Huxley, he had to pose this mental breakthrough as an ideal, because he had no idea as to how a society might get there. Wafers have to live with the fact that decency is its own reward, and that as the whole constellation of capitalism collapses, there might be a different possibility on the other side. In that sense, he, along with these other writers, are utopians to a greater or lesser degree. But what else is there? C. Wright Mills called our present system "crackpot realism," which is where we are today.

Machiavelli died disappointed, but I hardly think his was a wasted life. Might as well go for broke, don't you think?