The Ends of Politics and Utopia

The Ends of Politics and Utopia

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 2001)
by Chuck Morse

The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy by Russell Jacoby. 240 pp, New York, Basic Books, 2000 The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the

Public Sphere by Carl Boggs, 310 pp, New York: Guilford, 2000

There is no doubt that the thinkers and activists who shaped the anarchist tradition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expanded our sense of social possibilities in ways that still seem vital today. Even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is hard not to be inspired by Proudhon’s polemical wit, Kropotkin’s generous radicalism, or the deep social reconstruction carried out by the Spanish anarchists.

But there is also no doubt that circumstances have changed radically since their time. A contemporary anarchism must be much broader than the old thinkers and activists imagined and we must contend with new barriers to the creation of an egalitarian, cooperative, and decentralized society. We would be ill-advised – to put it mildly – to try to build a movement on the works of a Proudhon or a Kropotkin (etc), but we can and should emulate their example by fighting the forces that hinder the realization of existing liberatory potentials.

Fortunately there is a vast literature that can help us in this task. Although we will often be disappointed by the lack of radicalism or absence of nerve in much of it, there are nonetheless many works that can help us build an anarchist critique for today. The two books I review here have instructive contributions as well as shortcomings. They are Carl Boggs’s The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere and Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. In different ways both Boggs and Jacoby want to confront an obstacle of serious concern to anarchists: the political and intellectual forces that obstruct the development of a radical opposition in America. Jacoby grapples with the decline of a utopian spirit among intellectuals and academics, whereas Boggs examines forces in our political culture that undermine the emergence of a challenge to the status quo. Although Jacoby and Boggs offer pessimistic appraisals of our current situation – as indicated by the titles of their books – they clearly hope that their critical diagnoses will play some role in the development of a remedy.

The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy
Jacoby’s objective in The End of Utopia is to describe the loss of a utopian commitment in American intellectual culture and to indicate the negative consequences this yields for theory. He is concerned specifically with the fact that social thinkers are no longer driven by the conviction that “the future could fundamentally surpass the present . that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.” (XI-XII). Although Jacoby weakly asserts that we should be worried by the demise of the utopian spirit because its radicalism gave liberalism its backbone, serving as its oppositional “goad and critic”(p. 8 ), it is clear that what really disturbs him is the disappearance of leftwing utopian social critics who oppose capitalism and yet remain democratic in culture and politics.

Jacoby begins his discussion of the retreat from utopia by chronicling the reconciliation to capitalism that is so common among today’s self-styled ‘left’ intellectuals. He cites numerous cases in which supposedly radical theorists either counsel us to accept the market as the ultimate determinant of economic life or advance ameliorative measures that are really forms of acquiescence (‘we should create responsible corporations’, etc). He paints a portrait of cynical ex-Marxists and Ivy League policy wonks who urge conciliation with capitalism to rationalize their own relatively comfortable positions within the social hierarchy. This makes for good but macabre reading, although Jacoby’s point is that by abandoning a confrontation with capitalism these theorists not only relinquish the struggle against the left ‘s historic adversary, but also the very idea of an alternative social order.

Jacoby’s discussion of the rapprochement with capitalism sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which he analyzes an intellectual culture that becomes increasingly adrift as it moves further and further away from a radical stance. Jacoby takes aim at a multiculturalism that descends, in the absence of any larger transformative vision, into estimable but prosaic exhortations (e.g., ‘we should respect people who are different’) or claims of ‘subversiveness’ that lack political content. Jacoby expands upon this by castigating academics for allowing the democratic critique of mass culture to devolve into a celebration of consumer culture (for example, he contrasts Dwight McDonald’s anti-authoritarian cultural criticism with contemporary authors who write appreciatively about things like soap operas and MTV). Jacoby points out that this gradual de-radicalization is accompanied by changes in the relationship of intellectuals to society. He treats the chilling professionalization of intellectuals along with trite claims of ‘marginality’ made by well-paid, high-status academics. If professionalization integrates intellectuals into the market, then claims of marginality often boil down to a demand for better salaries or more prominent teaching positions (that is, ‘market share’). Jacoby also takes issue with forms of cultural study that trade objective for subjective standards of truth, and thus abandon the utopian capacity to assert truths and universals against the existing social order. He argues that relativistic trends in academia facilitate a turn toward conservatism by discarding the right (and obligation) to pass judgment upon the world. Jacoby concludes his book by trying to refute common arguments against utopianism and pleas with us, as Theodor Adorno once urged, to ‘contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.’

Jacoby’s book is a trenchant indictment of left academics and he gives substance to a feeling shared by many (including myself) that the whole academic establishment – even its purportedly radical wings – is deeply conservative. It is certainly refreshing to see celebrated thinkers such as Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, and bell hooks taken to task for a lack of vision, self-indulgence, or accommodation. This is good material for anarchists who would like to see the reemergence of an embattled anti-authoritarian intellectual culture, especially those of us who have spent some time around the university.

But there are also real problems with Jacoby’s book. While he shows the consequences of the retreat from a utopian commitment – the absence of critical standards, accommodation to injustice, inanity, etc. – he lacks a utopian vision of his own. He faults others for lacking affirmative ideals, but Jacoby doesn’t advance any either. Jacoby wants to see a utopian left – an Antonio Gramsci, a Herbert Marcuse, groups with a bold critique and a politics for realizing it – but all he really gives to this project is his bitter elegy. Unfortunately the power to complain is not also a creative power.

Jacoby not only fails to advance a utopian vision but also abandons the terrain upon which one could be formulated. Utopianism asserts that the existing society can be criticized according to the standards of reason and ultimately rendered rational. It thus assumes a strong connection between the realm of ideas and the world as a whole: it criticizes ‘the real’ for failing to embody ‘the ideal’ and fights to reconcile the two. Jacoby could have helped legitimate this strategy by theorizing the relationship between the intellectual culture that he describes and larger social structures. This could have affirmed, at least implicitly, the possibility that ideas and the world can be brought into accord through a utopian synthesis. Although Jacoby does not deny a connection between ideas and other dimensions of social existence – and clearly believes that they are connected – he does not formulate this in any way. Jacoby’s defense of utopia thus neglects the basic precondition of a utopian stance. For this reason his book is more of a protest than an act of vision and, while valuable in many respects, it will ultimately disappoint anarchists who are committed to both critique and reconstruction. We can only hope that in the future Jacoby will join those of us who want to reconstruct a strong affirmative vision and apply his formidable intellectual skills to this task.

The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere
Boggs shares Jacoby’s preoccupation with the loss of cultural resources in America that would enable a confrontation with the status quo. Whereas Jacoby focuses on changes in the realm of ideas, Boggs focuses on politics. He contends that Americans have become mired in a political culture (or anti-political culture) that prevents us from challenging the sources of our social and ecological problems, despite the fact that we enjoy greater access to information and education than ever before. Whereas Jacoby points to changes in the intellectual arena, Boggs traces this development to the expanded influence of corporate power and economic globalization. Boggs’ effort to connect the diminution of the political culture to larger changes in the social structure renders his project a little more ambitious than Jacoby’s.

Boggs alleges that economic globalization and the expansion of corporate power produce two related crises for those who want to build a democratic movement against social injustice. First, the corporate invasion of social life turns American party politics into a façade, undermines the capacities necessary for civic engagement among citizens as a whole, and produces a mass media that consistently conceals or avoids substantive social issues. This leaves us with a hyper-alienated political consciousness structured by a hyper-antagonistic social order. Second, Boggs explains how this produces cultural and quasi-political trends that militate, at their essence, against a real confrontation with power. Boggs explores things such as therapeutic fads that cast self-actualization in utterly asocial and anti-political terms, collective outbursts of anger (such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots) that lack real political direction, and post-modern intellectual orientations defined by a spirit of withdrawal and pessimism.

These related developments shape what Boggs describes as a wholesale retreat from the public sphere, something Boggs seems to imagine as a common arena in which citizens can openly discuss shared problems and develop common solutions. It is only here, according to Boggs, that citizens can begin to confront the world’s problems, and the loss of this realm suggests bleak outcomes. Moreover, the major ideological tendencies of the past – liberalism and Marxism – are incapable of facilitating a recovery of the public sphere. The liberal emphasis on private strivings over the general interest and the Marxian reduction of politics to economics gives these traditions a deeply anti-political character that renders them more impotent than critical.

Boggs makes a powerful statement against our contemporary culture, and one that should resonate with many anarchists. While his description of the joke that party politics has become and the complicity of the mass media is common coin among most Americans, his critique is nonetheless a welcome corrective to the omnipotent calls for ‘renewed citizen’s participation’ bandied about by academics who refuse to acknowledge the deeply undemocratic and corrupt character of our political system or the endless emptiness characteristic of American political discourse. Likewise, his treatment of anti-political cultural fads should speak to those of us who believe that our personal development could be linked directly to a project of political transformation.

Boggs also treats anarchism rather sympathetically in several sections of the book and he clearly wants to align himself with popular movements against social injustice, although unfortunately he never fully commits himself to this project. The ambiguity of his commitments is first apparent in the difficulty he has defining the public sphere, a difficulty so grave that it is ultimately impossible to determine exactly what he means by the term. For example, he tells us that corporate behemoths “restrict the development of an open, dynamic public sphere”, which seems feasible, but then on the same page he tells us that these huge corporations start “to constitute a new public sphere of their own”(69). But, wait, what about the “decline of the public sphere” mentioned in the subtitle? This sort of confusion is compounded when he states that he wants “an enlarged public sphere”, that “the public sphere is broken down into a host of rival interest groups”(233) (so, how could you enlarge it?) or, in other places, that we need a “recovery of the public sphere”(135) or a “reopening of the public sphere”(113). Is the public sphere declining, broken up, lost, closed, or being refashioned? It does not seem unreasonable to demand that Boggs provide a better treatment of an idea so central to his book.

However, it ultimately becomes clear that his equivocations camouflage the retrograde nature of his political proposals. While he would like to side with radically democratic social movements, his conception of politics is utterly state-centered. In fact, it appears that what he means by the decline of the public sphere is only the decline of a political space through which citizens can influence government policy. For Boggs, government is the one public arena “that can effectively resist corporate hegemony”(258) and hence the solution to the expansion of corporate power and globalization. Boggs does not defend or explain this view of government, but merely asserts it and evidently believes that such a declaration alone is sufficient. That there has never been a just state, one that genuinely represented the will of the people, even according to the liberal democratic standards, is a fact that Boggs neither acknowledges nor denies, but yet it remains a mystery why he thinks the historic character of the state might suddenly be transformed. But, besides this, his argument that the state is the only institution capable of restraining global capital is hardly affirmative: nuclear war could also stop globalization, but does this make it desirable? And, even if a state-centered politics was attractive for some reason, it is far from evident that the state can in fact restrain the power of global capital. I happen to believe that only popular anti-statist movements can muster the deep strength necessary to confront the forces of capital. In any case, his panegyrics for the state make a morbid spectacle and it is here that those of us with truly democratic convictions must part company with Boggs.

The End
Both of these books struggle with important issues for anarchists, issues that we will have to confront in the course of building an anarchism for today. Surely we will have to transform the disposition of the intellectual culture if anarchist ideas will ever be fairly evaluated, not to mention embodied in popular movements. Likewise, anarchists will have to contend with the forces in our political culture that frustrate collective resistance and empowerment if we are to become a serious presence on the political landscape once again.

The failures of Jacoby and Boggs’ books are instructive. It is not enough, like Jacoby, to critique without also reconstructing. Works of this sort may exert a spirit of tragic intransigence in the face of an unwanted world, but such posturing offers little to those who want to build an alternative. It is also inadequate, like Boggs, to damn our political culture while remaining so restrained in one’s affirmative ideals. It is up to anarchists to build a radical social criticism that is grounded in the real world and yet deeply utopian. If we do this, then we will have emulated the most exemplary aspects of the classical anarchist tradition while also making an invaluable contribution to the realization of new liberatory potentialities. ~