Myth, Reaction, Utopia
Updated: Oct 5
Towards a New Utopian Mythology. Some of the ideas in this essay were developed in discussion with Rad Shiba, whose YouTube channel is worth your time.
If you become a patron of Rowan Tree Editing you can now hear an exclusive recording of this essay as a bonus. (Oct 2021)
Until we express the Ideas aesthetically, i.e. mythologically, they have no interest for the people, and conversely until mythology is rational the philosopher must be ashamed of it. Thus in the end enlightened and unenlightened must clasp hands, mythology must become philosophical in order to make the people rational, and philosophy must become mythological in order to make the philosophers sensible.
In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
The first epigraph is from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s formative writings, ‘The Eeliest System-Programme of German Idealism’ collected in The Hegel Reader edited by Stephen Holgate. Written when the philosopher was distancing his thought from Immanuel Kant’s and developing what would become the furthest advancement of bourgeois philosophy. The second is an extract of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Motto’, quoted by Neil Astley’s poetry anthology Staying Alive. The idea of communicating philosophy through myth, and that the songs—myths—of a time are borne of those times, present both the aspiration and impasse I want to tease out and consider.
We are saturated with mythology. We have to contend, today, with the mythology of the social democratic left, that is a return to the Keynesian postwar consensus, but without its uglier nationalisms and repressions. This competes with the mythology of centrists, who seek the renewed historical death-stasis of the 90s bubble economy. In the sewers of society, bubbles up the mythology of the irrationalist conspiracies, in rejection of the so-called ‘new normal’. And at the depths of those sewers is the especially twisted mythology of the latest fascism, advocating a ‘return’ to a prelapsarian fantasy ethnostate.
None of these mythologies serve philosophy as Marxists and Humanists take it to be. What all of them have in common is a basis in reaction in the truest sense—they are merely reacting to current developments, to crisis, by positing an impulsive regression to a largely fabricated past. Implicit to almost everyone’s beliefs, the assumption that there was some point when all was well, and whatever set things awry was avoidable and is reversable. The delusions of time travel, regression, are everywhere.
Although the least conservative, of all of these reactions, even the social democratic left is in this sense conservative. And perhaps in being torn between conservativism and something else we find the reasons for its failure. Its emancipatory dreams of the future are based fatally on a devotion to the past; it lacks within itself the material resources to reach beyond that devotion and develop its radical spirit. Although the desires motivating its project are genuine, they cannot be nourished by parties and institutions that have always been in service to compromise.
The etymology of ‘radical’ has to do with roots. Radicalism is found in the act of a figurative uprooting. However, the ideologies of, to focus on the anglosphere, Bernie Sander’s New Dealism or Jeremy Corbyn’s Bennitism possess roots buried deeply in poisoned soils—in British patriotism, exceptionalism, empire, Labourism, Fordist nostalgia. Roots in long lost gains once secured on behalf of the working class, enabled by imperialisms and capitalism, by a caste of professionals. That is, in entrusting celebrity leaders to do the struggle on behalf of a passive membership as the tether to even more passive workers, members whose activity is never channelled beyond the disempowering work of a canvasser.
The left has often sought many ways out of radicalism and its great challenge of mass agency. In the twentieth century it did so through the economically naïve ideas of Georgism, whereby returning nature to the commons alone could overcome capitalism’s inequities. It would do so again by adopting the capitalist economics of John Maynard Keynes to manage and ameliorate crisis. To be a Marxist is to insists that crisis is not something capitalism can overcome, and that nothing short of the radical abolition of capitalism itself, through the self-activity of workers, is sufficient. The new social democrats rhetorically appealed to such ideas, but hopelessly within bourgeois structures, unable to imagine beyond a new third way management of capitalism.
At their worse, these movement’s endorsed ideas contrary to the self-organisation of workers, against the interests of immigrants and refugees wrongly framed as enemies of a nation’s workers, splintering the interests of a liberatory class. Moreover, they played to dreams of Keynesian redistribution during a profitability crisis; they failed to advocate robust alternatives to repressive policing, for community self-defence; they posited, overall, a stunted internationalism. As the UK’s Labour Conference under such a project showed, it was only the mass social base—never properly empowered within Labour’s structures—that pushed a more radical agenda on tearing down borders and counteracting global warming.
This was not a moral failing of politicians, as some would believe. These social democratic movements might have proved too weak and contradictory to make good on radical dreams, but a radical spirit could be found within them. And the disruption of business-as-usual within such bourgeois parties (including in Greece, Spain, etc.) shook establishments. In the UK, liberals were even willing to sacrifice a long-held commitment of retention of EU membership just to destroy Corbynism.
Ultimately, however, the liberal electoral basis of such a movement undermined its democratic goals. It sustained itself on a myth of capitalism tamed, of a humane capitalism as both pragmatic and radical. Reality showed the brutal truth: this halfway position was neither pragmatic nor radical.
The myth of a new 90s is too easy to scoff at, but even if it is at least as Quixotically impossible as fascist myths, it commands a great diversity of social forces. It is an article of faith for centrists of every type. The period following the 2008 crash appears to them as an historical aberration. Or, perhaps, since at the core of this self-reinforcing belief system is something like Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis, we are now undergoing history’s last revenge against a mostly perfected global liberalism.
The obscene regimes of creeping fascism and irrationalist conspiracism are, to devotees of reason, indistinct from anti-capitalism or even the more moderate vision of a return to a postwar consensus Keynesianism. In their hostility to left and right, their refusal to pick between oppressor and oppressed, they support the oppressor by default. For them, all that matters is electing new paragons of the establishment to resume business as usual. Once such a sensible person, an adult, a serious politician seizes control (a Clinton, Blair, Obama; a Joe Biden or Keir Starmer) all will be restored and the era (glitch?) of unreason banished.
They have no theory about why everything went wrong, other than that it did. If an explanation is offered, the cause is enigmatically foreign—often Russian. (Russophobia, the conjuring of Vladimir Putin as simultaneously pathetic but omnipotent, is their pet-50s nostalgia.) Conjuring Phil Ochs’s song ‘Love Me I’m a Liberal’, they are the Resistance, the FBPE, who despite appealing to an anti-fascism (of the barest, most nakedly self-serving sort) would not wish to be confused with antifa. They are those who, despite their rhetoric of the dangers of Donald Trump, earnestly believe in the processes and institutions that elevated him, who despite their justified opposition to Brexit nationalism will sermonise smugly on how the EU facilitates the persecution of non-EU migrants.
This myth looks, on the surface, like the least irreal, but that is only because it has the weight of received opinion. A return to the 90s that does not factor in the full threat of climate change or low-profitability, and ignores worker activism everywhere from China to India, as much as it does mass movements like BLM at home. Indeed, it is arguably far more detached and unmoored than the dream of a new Keynesianism, which for all its practical faults does posit itself in response to worker demands. What centrism owns are institutions well suited to its goals and, although it will fail to wield power, it can both seize and wield it more convincingly than others of these mythologists. Still, it faces a powerful rival, and not from its left.
If the myths of the 90s exist on one end of the continuum of respectability, at the other reside the irrational conspiracy movements. Uniting anti-vaxxers, climate denialists, and fantasists who believe the elite are a paedophile cult, reptilian aliens or some other outlandish threat, these movements are not simplistically fascist, but they are fascist adjacent. They are the people who detect, correctly, that there is something broken about society. And to this extent, their myth goes further than a return to some previous decade. Instead, they want to return to a setting altogether more suited to myth if less to reality, a primordial paradise before the Globalists (generally an antisemitic dog-whistle), paedophiles, elites, liberals, wokes, etc. corrupted reality.
Their banners proclaim a love of freedom, but what kind of freedom? The freedom of a death cult. Disease, climate change, bullying authoritarians, exploitation and oppression are defended vociferously, while the symptoms of disease, climate change, bullying authoritarians, exploitation and oppression are pointed to in evidence of the need for this defence. The circle is squared with aid of some bogeyman, the precise nature of which is less important than that it exists. Still, all too often it is a racial other, and even when not it is usually still some group of the oppressed aided by a decadent elite.
Marxist philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote of European culture that ‘they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men wherever they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.’ The irrationalists of the Anglosphere, Western Europe and elsewhere very much will never be done talking of freedom, and yet impose oppression in every form wherever they march. Their utopia of freedom gives way to a dystopia of chains and shackles. And their critique of power to power worship. Nowhere is this perverse dialectic of power-worship more apparent than the Trump cult that has called itself QAnon, worshiping a President even more than the alt right in its ludicrous fantasies of messianic God Emperors of Mankind.
The forces of irrationalism are not bound to a cohesive worldview, and their hydra-head can sprout from across the spectrum. Online transphobes stalk and harass the most vulnerable teenagers while adopting a faux-aesthetic of emancipation. People with few political views make the fascistic ‘thin blue line’ their Facebook avatars to express support for police brutality against minorities. Antisemites like David Icke team up with vaguer conspiracists like Piers Corbyn to hold rallies that draw in those with the germ of genuine concerns (about civil liberties, mental health, government incompetence), but to stand side-by-side men brandishing the flag of the British Union of Fascists. The trajectory, however, goes only one way.
Irrationalism is always the life-blood of fascism, but historically this has been hidden by fascist movements. Italian fascists kept their avant-garde Futurists away from the limelight, recognising that a fetishisation of war as art would repel most. Likewise, German fascists did not too visibly celebrate their occult factions. Fascisms, nonetheless, all have a deep vein of irrationality, however secretly. They are drawn to entertaining excesses of pessimism and optimism, and this is rooted in how they recruit from the social strata likeliest to have no clear social interests, no cause for authentic hope, finding a substitute in bizarre beliefs.
This middle stratum is susceptible to irrationalism in a crisis. Capitalism might have elevated them into positions of privilege, but they are kept aware that this precious gift is temporary. Thus, during turmoil, they neither seek—as bourgeois consciousness might—the simple continuity of liberal capitalist society, nor—as the self-conscious worker—the abolition of that society in favour of one without class. Having no channels to project meaningful visions, blocked up and unhappy, they turn to outlandish fantasies.
Nazi myths seek a perfect ethnostate, a pseudoscientific racial purity that has no basis in reality and is therefore endlessly mutable, its categories ever shifting. Perfection, purity, unthinkable continuities (a thousand-year Reich), childish power fantasies, collapse into a genocidal ideology of mass murder-suicide. And the absurdity of myths is not being held in check, even in appearance, by this latest iteration. Accelerated by the Internet’s strange spatio-temporal logics (about which I have written more elsewhere, and will continue to elaborate), fascist culture has found in outright mockeries of itself (in antifascist grim dark) or grotesque aesthetics (the meme factory of 4chan) a form of expression so transparently foul it is easily mistaken for irony.
But it is earnest. It is borne of a genuine rage, an authentic expression of a torn personality, shocked by its historical calamity. And if the increasingly autocratic regimes of Trump, Putin, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Victor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro (all venting middle strata anxieties) do not prove a seriousness of intention, the killings perpetrated by Anders Breivik, Dylann Roof, Brenton Tarrant, Elliot Rodger, and many others certainly show as much. Supposedly ‘black-pilled’ misogynists and trolling online white supremacists express a metaphysics of hate (including self-hate) in explosions of violence, a release to feelings of atomised disempowerment and dissatisfaction they cannot explain except in bathetic, blood-soaked media events.
But what about the utopian thinkers of all ages, from the Prophets who had a vision of eternal peace, on through the Utopians of the Renaissance, etc.? Were they just dreamers? Or were they so deeply aware of new possibilities, of the changeability of social conditions, that they could visualize an entirely new form of social existence even though these new forms, as such, were not even potentially given in their own society? It is true that Marx wrote a great deal against utopian socialism, and so the term has a bad odor for many Marxists. But he is polemical against certain socialist schools which were, indeed, inferior to his system because of their lack of realism. In fact, I would say the less realistic basis for a vision of the uncrippled man and of a free society there is, the more is Utopia the only legitimate form of expressing hope. But they are not trans-historical as, for instance, is the Christian idea of the Last Judgment, etc. They are historical, but the product of rational imagination, rooted in an experience of what man is capable of and in a clear insight into the transitory character of previous and existing society.
This was how the Marxist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm stated a possible Marxist relationship to utopianism, and it grasps what a philosophical mythology (as opposed to the aforementioned philodoxical ones) might look like for Marxists today. The question remains, can myth aid something other than irrationalism or nostalgia? Can we have a philosophical and humanist mythology? Can we outline new possibilities, new logics as the basis of a movement that both proclaims freedom, and seeks it?
For Marx’s conception of an emancipatory politics class is central, but not as commonly meant today—by social democrats, liberals and fascists, all of whom treat class as a static quality of individuals. Class for Marx was not just about someone’s relationship to economy, and certainly not only income brackets, cultural resources and so on. It was a political category that expressed historical agency (encompassing cultural and economic and individual variables). The working class were workers who organised, refused to treat one another as atomised competitors and perused a shared, singular interest. Ultimately, this interest lay in the abolition of the class society that gave rise to their condition.
Ideas of class become staid and reified because capitalist ideologies, which exist to obscure capitalist social relations, therefore do not, cannot, relate to the historical agency of workers. They can only express ideas about society in the abstract, since real social relations are mystified to them—and their ideas are therefore often based on whimsy and distorted memories of the past. The workers of the past (who have all the advantages of being fixed, and suspectable to abstract schemes and mythologizing) become the working class, while living workers are dismissed as too decadent, educated, privileged or some such nonsense.
To counter this, even saying ‘the working class isn’t this one thing, it’s all of these different things’ or ‘the working class is no long X, it’s now Y’ is insufficient as it ultimately repeats the same mistake. Soon enough, the different things, the Y, becomes this one thing again, becomes X again. The working class is not a thing at all, it is—in Marx’s understanding—an active process that seeks its own vision and self-abolition through struggle. Allowing this as its foundational and necessary basis, what would a Marxist myth, a Marxist utopianism, a myth and utopia for a historical agency that seeks a new society and a new humanism, look like then?
It would not look at all like any of the myths presented above, all of which deal in a world defined by changeability, by paradox and contradiction, by denying those qualities, anchoring to some great fiction of history. The fictions of such a utopianism would have to give truth its due, and therefore be a process utopianism—a utopia under construction, a vision of self-becoming. In his singular study of English utopian literature, the Marxist A. L. Morton finds just that quality in William Morris’s News from Nowhere: ‘the important things are the sense of historical development and the human understanding of the quality of life in a classless society.’ News from Nowhere is a historical document, and has therefore been overtaken. But in situating a utopian mythology in a development that allowed for class agency, it offers a sense of how new philosophical mythologies can be dreamt.
It is beyond my scope to dream such a mythology here. It is, arguably, beyond any one person, but must be a collaborative endeavour, which attempts to be close to the active struggle of workers and oppressed. It is, still, worthwhile saying here that this is a needed endeavour. Because, to return to Hegel, ‘mythology must become philosophical in order to make the people rational,’ and all the more when irrationalism is triumphant, and surely ‘philosophy must become mythological in order to make the philosophers sensible’ when accepted visions of the future are bogged in an irrationalism that clings to make-believe pasts?
We must dare to dream of utopias if we are to convince. To be radical, to uproot old systems, we must have new dreams that persuade and motivate, but those alternatives cannot themselves be new roots that will only need to be dug up all over again. We must discover a voice to sing about something other than our dark times.
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