A Postmodern Cave
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. It was first published December 20 2019.
All the astroid mining, Green New Deals and social democrats in the universe cannot stop the jack boots marching. ~Prolekult
This is a review of Prolekult’s YouTube Marxist documentary (see below for embedded video). In the past I have critiqued BreadTube (the dominant community of leftist YouTube creators) for its subsumption into a media ecology that pollutes and subverts its goals. Here, I show an example of how to get it right. This is an instance of political education that puts journalists and microcelebrities masquerading as left intellectuals to shame. That is not to say that it’s flawless or beyond critique, it is not the final word, but it does point to the discussion we ought to be having rather than the distractions (of capitalist utopianism, Weberian class analysis and social media posturing) into which most of the online left has farcically busied itself.
That it gets it right will be the essence of my review, but first, why it manages this has a lot to do with Prolekult’s nature as a collaborative project that thereby resists the temptation to form a parasocial relationship with its audience based on facile celebrity. Moreover, whereas BreadTube’s content is generally a well presented exploration of surfaces and moralistic rants, often irrelevant and sometimes even reinforcing capitalism’s surface symptoms, this is a crafted exploration of the meaning of some of those symptoms.
It is the standard by which future attempts to engage online political education should be measured.
As mentioned, this documentary is not hand-waving leftism, but explicitly Marxist. Drawing extensively from Henryk Grossman’s development of Karl Marx’s understanding of the tendency for profitability to decline under capitalism (TRPF), it is furthermore informed by an updated form of Marxist-Leninism that takes crisis theory seriously—a rarer and rarer breed, despite the robust empirical and theoretical defence of the TRPF position from Marxian economists of diverse tendencies: Andrew Kliman, Michael Roberts, Chris Harman and Paul Mattick Jr. for example. TRPF is outside the scope of this review, but its relevant implications are perhaps best summed up by Kliman in The Failure of Capitalist Production (2012):
Marx regarded capitalism’s economic crises as transitory, though unavoidable and recurrent[…] The political implications of TRPF are therefore not fatalistic ones. But they are revolutionary.
Prolekult begins less controversially, however, with Marx’s theory of the base and superstructure, emphasising the conclusion from The German Ideology that: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ This is then combined this with Antonio Gramsci’s notion of ideological hegemony, that is the dominance of cultural output by the ruling class to affect the self-policing of the working class in maintaining the status quo. One example given is ‘private schools, in Britain, cultivate an intelligentsia which rules the nation’s intellectual production.’ As the ruling class is so by virtue of material social relations, all of this is predicated on the sustaining those relations—even if the superstructure is not wholly reducible (that is, determined) by them.
the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force
This conception of culture forms the bedrock of the documentary and its critique of our predicament. That culture is predominantly shaped in the interests of preserving a capitalism that is necessarily in a state of crisis. And that this economic crisis, coupled with our ecological crisis, in all likelihood makes capitalism now an apocalyptic project which must be rejected wholesale. I am neither a Marxist-Leninist nor a Gramscian, but these conclusions are ones that I believe to be wholly justified by the above referenced Marxian economics, as well as the latest climate science.
Given these alarming stakes, it could seem odd for Prolekult to transition next to the subject of art. However, it is important to realise that it is through our aesthetic output and consumption that we most readily interact with the world. The nature of this output, and how it shapes our conception of our predicament, could not be more relevant to the problem we face. It is therefore apt for Prolekult to refer next to Christopher Caudwell’s definition of art as a social relation between an artist and an audience, as expounded in the Caudwell’s essay collection Studies in a Dying Culture. Because commodity relations under capitalism obscure such relations between people, this relationship is importantly obscured, as is generally the case under capitalism, by commodity fetishism. That is, not as a relationship between people, but the relationship between a person and a thing.
Prolekult notes that traditional artistic production remains, even today, largely ‘outside the capital relationship’, but rather is sold into it. That is because of the nature of its aesthetic production. Artists, therefore, exist outside the usual capitalist class relations, but also generally strengthen these revelations in their particular participation—that is, artists often must have existing wealth (i.e. are property owners or otherwise salarised) to exist in such a way in this society. Film, television, video games and studio artists (Damien Hirst is given as the example), however, are subsumed into normal capitalist relations with workers serving as ‘aesthetic technicians’.
What does this mean? Prolekult does not spend too long peddling only abstract problems, and applies this understanding of art under capitalism to comprehending the history modernism. We are told that ‘whereas prior to film’s emergence state intervention in the arts had existed in the form of censorship and patronage, this [new] type of intervention saw the state take hold of creative control in a very direct way.’ Modernism is an uneasy celebration of the new, largely directed by the capitalist class.
This helps us understand its development, in the wake of the carnage of two world wars, into postmodernism, which will serve as the primary object of critique for ‘A Dying Culture’. This movement of artists, philosophers and attitudes occurred in response to declining profits and domestic deindustrialisation in the imperial world, which was done to facilitate the movement of productive exploitation to the third world. Postmodernism, then, is chiefly concerned with obscuring these processes.
After the defeat of the working class in the imperial world (epitomised in the failure of the French uprisings of 1968, but could equally be exemplified in the Thatcher-Reagan consensus more broadly) those intellectuals previously sympathetic to class struggle adopted postmodernism. This ideology questions any self-emancipatory possibilities and is characterised as ‘parody without punchline.’ Such pastiche for its own sake has five significant features. It is staunchly anti-communist; it rejects imperialism’s existence; it focuses its attention on consumerism to obscure any analysis of capitalism; it embraces subjectivism and aestheticism; and it establishes ‘a malleable culture of perpetual flow dominated by the medium of video.’
Because of the integration of these video mediums into capital, Prolekult notes that they can more seamlessly reflect the ruling ideology than previous mediums. That is, whereas the modernist novel could at once reinforce and critique the hegemony, postmodern art collapses the basis for any such critique. This observation is the cornerstone for an analysis of what is termed ‘socio-ludic culture’—that is, the entwined mediums of the Internet and video games which are the predominant artistic mediums of our time. To understand this cultural form, it is necessary to understand games as an aesthetic medium, which are reduced to two essential features: mechanics (the rules) and roleplay (interaction with those rules).
Because video games depend on movement and obstacles, and have been enormously shaped by the US state and its interests, the conclusion is that ‘video games serve [foremost] as war propaganda.’ This has at least three facets: aestheticising conflict, depicting US imperialism in a positive light, and more specifically recruiting some gamers into the US army itself. In this context, we can understand a phenomena such as Gamer Gate far more robustly than BreadTube (a YouTube content creator movement that arose largely in reaction to Gamer Gate) has generally managed in its critique. For our analysis, Gamer Gate is exposed as ‘an almost fascistic backlash’ to alternative avenues that video gaming could have taken and might still take: i.e. games that eschew aestheticising violence, or at least deviate from the overt propaganda of titles like Call of Duty.
the dispossession at hand is nothing less than the plunder of our personalities
The gamification of the Internet is explored through the growth of data plundering (the stealing of user information to create targeted advertisements) that was pioneered by Google. It is made clear, at this point, that such practices are not so much a form of exploitation as of dispossession. Nonetheless, it is also the case that ‘the dispossession at hand is nothing less than the plunder of our personalities. That this only comes to form a part of capital after its dispossession makes it by no means less barbaric.’ This is an important point because it ties into the unproductive labour that defines ‘socio-ludic culture’, different to the value creating productive labour ongoing in the creation of, for example, a phone or a computer, as it cannot restore profitability and as, indeed, parasitical on a system with declining profits.
Despite this seemingly bleak appraisal of our situation, Prolekult are not pessimistic fatalists. This can be seen in their engagement with memes, which exemplify the non-deterministic nature of the superstrutcures relationship to the base. These throwaway pieces of online media ‘are a popular art, built on the self-selected debris of the data dispossession that underpins the entirety of our digital lives, written in the accent of the environment constructed for us by the dispossession. A peoples’ pastiche, written in an oppressor’s tongue.’ So often, by virtue of looking beyond appearances, Prolekult is able to characterise the nature of our situation with such clarity.
The consequence of socio-ludic culture is compared, then, to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Only for us, the ‘cave has a voice, it has seduced us, and we dare not contradict it.’ Even worse, we remain ‘content in our cave, even as the entrance is beings sealed shut.’ That is, as new VR technology threatens to plunge us even further into an enchanting pseudo-reality in which a new breed of politics takes possession of our societies. This is examplified in Trump, or perhaps more accurately ‘those who wield him, [who] have created a powerful, and authentically new, political form.’ Because this form is predicated on entropy: ‘Capitalism cannot sustain this new cultural form. What it is building, it must also shatter.’
This process of entropy is occurring most visibly on social media, and the monopolistic and chief example of it is Facebook. Social media algorithms mean that data is now used even more aggressively than Google’s experiments in plunder. It is now used to shape not only our experiences on the platforms, but to construct a simulacrum world in which our ‘vulnerabilities and compulsions’ are emphasised. Worst, the simple glut of information primes us to rely on the types of intellectual shortcuts that then become vehicles to further exploit our vulnerabilities in the form of contemporary propaganda.
One of the best known examples of the utilisation of this form of propaganda to control politics is Cambridge Analytica and its meddling in the politics of Australia, India, Kenya, Malta, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. However, the focus on this one example is a form of misinformation.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Cambridge Analytica was not the first of its kind; that dubious honour indeed goes to Google’s application of such data manipulation for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. What this amounts to is a new method of control: ‘The capitalists, organised through the technology sector, hold an unprecedented cultural power.’ However, this power is not held coherently, as the downplaying of its use for Obama and the exaggeration of its use by Cambridge Analytica reveals.
the most dangerous ideological weapon ever produced by the imperialist bourgeoisie was unveiled at the same moment that their ideological unity fell apart
To understand this, we must return once again to the capitalist crisis predicted by Marx. In short, ‘the most dangerous ideological weapon ever produced by the imperialist bourgeoisie was unveiled at the same moment that their ideological unity fell apart.’ This is simply because ‘there is no way to restore profitability to the system without annihilating the species.’ Or, put another way ‘there are no more capitalist solutions.’ Are we, then, doomed alongside capitalism? Not at all. In the final part of the documentary Prolekult lays out a sketch of the alternative:
The nature of each of the crises which today face us stems from our social and economic organisation under capitalism. At the same time, the economic, social and cultural forces that capitalism has summoned present us with the material basis to begin building a new society, that of communism: a stateless, classless society. This is today possible as in no other period in human history. ‘A Dying Culture’ is a bleak three and a half hours. It merits that length and it merits watching in full. I have encountered no other work of film of its scope or seriousness about the crisis we must overcome as a species. Prolekult are right about the scale of the disaster that confronts us, they are right about the ideological quagmire into which we have fallen at this crucial historical moment. This is the diagnosis, it remains for us to act on.
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