What didn’t fit in the earlier post, in no particular order.
The old joke is that you’re a radical until you leave college. I assume this is something like Santa Claus for parents. Everyone knows it’s make-believe, but that believing makes Christmas: maybe this year Andrew will stop dumpster diving and calling himself “Skiv”. Of course, Skiv persists.
I admit that Andrew normally comes back, but it has nothing to do with growing up. He may retain some earlier politics, but even if he still Berns he’s got to admit that Kaine is kind of cute and [other liberals-get-the-wall-too things here]. Much like Christmas presents, the truth is a lot more banal.
Radicals tell themselves that this is because [White Collar] is now in the system and he’s protecting his privilege. On the other side, Andrew perceives this as resentment – Skiv never grew up, he’s a purist despite the trash, etc. Neither Skiv nor Andrew is wrong, and they’re both lying. Skiv’s frustration is real, but it’s not from the system; Andrew did renege but not ideologically, and what Skiv perceives as lip-service to [radical cause] really is that. More accurately: lip service to a movement. [Kulak] joined the system, but he isn’t “bought off” – he just got a job he cares about. Hoffer: It’s about doing something, anything, whatever fills the day with means-a-thing.
I’ll be damned if it’s r<0.5 for service job and Stalin memes, but that says nothing about service work itself. Sure, “a good job stops radicalization” is pretty obvious, but the import isn’t the kind of job. People doing things on the side is just as good. Take Gramsci-quoting art majors: the least radical artists I know are the ones actually fighting cultural hegemony, i.e. consistently making art. They might make coffee on the side, and they might draw Che in the foam, but they aren’t the core believers of any movement. This isn’t dissonance, it’s the same thing with writing about meaninglessness: it gives you meaning despite yourself.
Related, sure to piss someone off: who’s the most desperately radical person you know? The correct answer is “trust fund kid who doesn’t have to work.” That’s true of either side, left is just more popular right now. See also: tankie twitter.
Hoffer: people don’t become moderates (broadly interpreted) from socioeconomic status alone. It’s from working on something they care about. Turns out the Christmas Miracle is much like Santa Claus’s presents: it mostly comes from the daily grind.
That sounds obvious now that I’m writing it, but it’s a helpful reorientation. Still, Hoffer’s not a one-stop-shop, and I don’t mean this as some political supertheory. He gets you about 60% there. 10% is noise, and the last 30% is people navigating the channels to power. I believe the term to explain that is “comparative advantage”. Think about it.
Economic or familial instability (or both) can set a mass movement off. This advantages the left. Both sides may prey during the tumult, but only the left can easily cultivate the latter.
Right-wing movements have the “family” front and center. This means, of course, that they’re hopeless at obviously spreading familial discontent. The key word is “obviously”: they have to either bait the opposition into it or subsume the traditional family into a larger familial-like structure. The former happens all the time, but it’s not enough and most mass movements on the right fail to properly capitalize on it. The latter is both more successful, thankfully rarer, and terrifying.
It’s notable that successful right wing mass movements have been nationalist before all else, and all of them metonymically turn the nation into family. This maintains some vague adherence to their ideology while freeing them to actually destroy existing familial institutions. The priority of the nation is the critical motion: for most of those the family may be considered an enemy if it stands against the nation, in exactly the same way one can keep a family intact but disown any member that shames it. “Enemy of the nation” is so vague – essentially meaning “not a member of this group” – as to allow for the destruction of previous units. The Hitler Youth are a striking example of this – anti-Nazi sentiment in the family was to be reported to superiors. Authority is distributed by the party for the nation.
I suspect there’s a similar dynamic with regard to fascist views of husband and wife. A heavy emphasis not merely on separation between men’s and women’s roles but on the inherent superiority of the man’s disturbs a previous dynamic. I’m not saying things weren’t patriarchal beforehand, I am saying that extreme-right movements exacerbate it and play on the tension.
For the love of God don’t confuse this warning for advice.
As they say, epistemic status: really fucking wild guess.
I’ll get into this more with Lasch, but I think this is an interesting explanation for why Marxists (and the left generally) have recently adopted Freudian and Neo-Freudian paradigms. We accept it now, but it’s somewhat bizarre: Freud is not generally known as an egalitarian thinker.
A common response is that this is part of the left’s insistence on a blank slate view of human consciousness. I admit that the left loves Slate, but: a) Marx did not have a blank slate view of human nature. If people could simply adapt to any economic situation without problems, he would’ve been fine with capitalism (much more on this in some later piece, don’t come at me with a vague reading of the Manifesto). b) Freud, whatever you want to say about him, was definitely not a blank slate thinker. He may have prioritized developmental stages, but you need some underlying structure, some inherent neurology, to assume they can be uniformly analyzed. Civilization and its discontents implies [do I need to point this out?].
However, adopt a certain Marxian view of social change. Internal contradictions of economic forces will push society to destroy itself. One of the primary forces you’re going to see throughout history is economic, but one if its signs will almost always be the decay of the family. If you squint real hard, and you view all of these as developmental forces, and it looks like a way to make Marx and Freud track.
More: you’re also going to see the right adopting a patriarchal family to maintain its power, and I bet you can [something something] Oedipal complex this, especially because you’ll watch it undermine itself with this (see above). It’s not perfect, but you can basically pattern match economic stages to familial ones to developmental ones and all of it will relate to real political events. It doesn’t really matter if it’s from Freud or not, nor if it has anything to do with psychological effects: pseudo-father-figures keep filling the void, and someone has to explain that to you.
A general complaint about the left (often from the left) is a) that they aren’t very good at exciting the working class, and b) they aren’t very good at formulating actual goals. These are often connected, and it’s hard not notice that all of these are relatively popular positions: universal healthcare, unions, increased taxation, etc. I could go down the left shopping list, and almost all of them are above 50%. See also: this Jacobin article.
The only left goal that lacks popular support is cultural. For instance: free speech is hate speech, and/or violently eradicating all -isms, where “-ism” means “the entirety of pop culture depending on analysis, and most definitely everyone besides you and your friends”.
So, of course, that’s is what the left spends all of its energy on. No, not all the left – I mean the left’s mass-movement wing. Its social power.
This is no accident. Hoffer neatly resolves it: widespread frustration from the lack of politically feasible goals is precisely the point. It’s immaterial whether a movement is trying to achieve its goals. It’s not in competition with political forces – it’s in competition with other mass movements. And mass movements don’t grow from victory, they grow from frustration.
Related: critique as praxis, which becomes critique of critique-as-praxis, which becomes critique of critique-of-critique-as-praxis, which becomes…
Marina Abramović performed Rhythm 0 in 1974. NSFW, really. Abramović stood next to a table with 72 objects: roses, grapes, feathers (Abramović: things that cause pleasure), but also scissors, knives, a gun and ammo (things that cause pain). The 73rd object (her, according to her own account) stood still next to it. She would not move and she would not respond to questions or provocations. Until the end of the performance, the public could do as it wished.
You, reading this, know I chose this story for a reason. Here’s when someone finally loaded the gun:
This was a development. According to a present critic, whose quote I pulled from wikipedia because I’m not going to read a full book on this:
It began tamely. Someone turned her around. Someone thrust her arms into the air. Someone touched her somewhat intimately. The Neapolitan night began to heat up. In the third hour all her clothes were cut from her with razor blades. In the fourth hour the same blades began to explore her skin. Her throat was slashed so someone could suck her blood. Various minor sexual assaults were carried out on her body. She was so committed to the piece that she would not have resisted rape or murder. Faced with her abdication of will, with its implied collapse of human psychology, a protective group began to define itself in the audience. When a loaded gun was thrust to Marina’s head and her own finger was being worked around the trigger, a fight broke out between the audience factions.
The last piece of information: the moment Abramović finished (at 2am – she followed through to the conclusion), the audience fled. By her own account, they were terrified to look her in the eyes. Addressed as individuals, all former power vanished.
There’s probably enough data here for psychologists to spend years on. The most interesting thing to me is not “people are wild beasts”, which appears to be how most people take this. I’m ready for you, guy in the comment section: I know that this proves that democracy is bad, and also something with the word demolatry. You’re wrong. It’s the opposite.
This was no random trial group but self-selected members of the elite, and specifically of the performance-art-elite. Who else goes to exclusive Abramović pieces? They weren’t brutes looking to mangle some great artist out of sheer barbarism. The audience didn’t bring in their own props, they used hers. These were people who wanted to be the art. More important: they were invited to.
“What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you,” Abramović said, but she didn’t leave it to the audience. Like any good elite, I’ve personally watched the most boring, motionless art imaginable. While I admit to certain impulses, at no point did I act on them. Abramović explicitly made herself the object – with a sign that said, unsurprisingly, “I am the object” – and wrote “I take all responsibility” in the leaflet. That isn’t relinquishing power, that’s displaying it. She had to have to power to allow audience members to free themselves.
Better: everyone performed their role beautifully. Clint up there tried to make her shoot herself, and it’s hard to think of a better metaphor (despite it being somewhat obvious, good try but still a gauche B+). Add to this the fact that Abramović wasn’t an unknown quantity: she was already famous as an artist who endured and caused pain. Everyone going into the performance knew what she wanted to get out of it, what would make a successful performance, and helped her achieve that. Abramović’s take misunderstands her own art, bad, and she misunderstands her own power, terrible.
So why flee? Suddenly they were responsible. When the performance becomes recognized as such all illusions are dropped. Suddenly you’re identified as the individual you’ve been all along, you’re no longer allowed to dwell with the Olympians, to share their innocence. CF Hoffer and the role of giving your responsibility to the leader, as well as the resulting horror at the discovery that you were the one who did a thing. That’s not simply because people felt guilt. Note that the “protective group” fled as well – they weren’t protecting her, they were also part of the performance.
Hoffer is about a lot of things. I focused on frustration, but we should never forget power and responsibility (which are, duh, related). Real danger lies in relinquishing power, and/or not having it to begin with. She may not have known it, but Abramović was creating a perfect commentary on what leadership is in Hoffer. On what power is. Not the audience’s power, but her own.
But that guy has a gun! But that isn’t how power works.
Related: Hoffer focuses on mass movements around fanatics. We normally just call these dictators, but they’re the only ones who really believe in the end goal. Hoffer notes that if you kill the dictator, a mass movement degenerates into an organization, in his lexicon: a beige governmental body trying to lobby for its cause and do other boring, wonky things.
I can think of something scarier. If a mass movement had no leaders because the leaders didn’t know that they were that. Any attempt to stop it top-down would be impossible, but that wouldn’t mean that “everyone has power”. It would mean no one recognizes their own, making it impossible to reorient. Powerful people who don’t recognize that are far more frightening than those who know that they have it.
Performance art is terrible, I’m not going to lie. Terrible things are important to show you who you are, as with court jesters.
Still more related
The total surrender of a distinct self is a prerequisite for the attainment of both unity and self-sacrifice; and there is probably no more direct way of realizing this surrender than by inculcating and extolling the habit of blind obedience. When Stalin forces scientists, writers and artists to crawl on their bellies and deny their individual intelligence, sense of beauty and moral sense, he is not indulging in a sadistic impulse but is solemnizing, in a most impressive way, the supreme virtue of blind obedience.
The disorder, bloodshed and destruction which mark the trail of a rising mass movement lead us to think of the followers of the mass movement as being by nature rowdy and lawless. Actually, mass ferocity is not always the sum of individual lawlessness. Personal truculence often militates against united action. It moves the individual to strike out for himself. It produces the pioneer, adventurer and bandit. The true believer, no matter how rowdy and violent his acts, is basically an obedient and submissive person.
There is a darker reading of Hoffer. I alluded to it but commented less, and it might be where Hoffer and I break. It slips out line by line (“The well adjusted make poor prophets. […] ‘It is often the fanatics, and not always the delicate spirits, that are found grasping the right thread of the solutions required by the future.'”), until receiving all of four final pages (“Useful Mass Movements”). It’s genuinely dangerous, although that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.
A decaying empire might need mass movements, if not simply to fight others. Hoffer closes with this line, and it forces one to reconsider the entire book:
J.B.S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 BC and 1400 AD. It was a Judaic-Christian Inventoion. And it is strange to think that in receiving this malady of the soul the world also received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead – an instrument of resurrection.
Scott Alexander says this of liberalism, and it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t read Hoffer:
Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.
I confess that I agree with Scott here. Hoffer might as well. We ought to notice the dates, with liberalism invented to combat the earlier social technology.
But even more still: Tread carefully with this line of thought. Really, really carefully.
Part of the Uruk Series