Founding Editor’s Statement
With this statement, we launch a new magazine that we expect to move from an on-line to a print edition within 12 months.
We’re starting as a quarterly because we all have day jobs we’d like to keep. But we’ll see where the schedule leads us. In any event, our lack of a business model is determined by the historic process we call, in a solemn parody of Marx, “primitive disaccumu-lation”—by which we mean the tendency of our time to produce and distribute more and more information without the mediation of markets or the incentives of monetary gain. This tendency toward the de-commodification of post-industrial necessities has already made the “music industry” as obsolete as battleships in war and the “newspaper business” as quaint as powdered wigs in court.
Even so. Why are we doing this? Who needs another publication first planted in some Internet niche which then blossoms into print at 500 newsstand copies, having begged subscribers and patrons (or Kickstarter) for donations? Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1, the new youthful Dissent, the resurrected Baffler, aren’t these enough new magazines for now?
Maybe. Still, a sense of intellectual crisis and intellectual opportunity animates this enterprise, in equal measure. The recent proliferation of websites and journals like Jacobin, and the respectful attention they’ve been paid by mainstream media, tell us that the received tradition has reached a dead end—it’s an empty parking lot on the right side of town. But resilient green roots are beginning to break up the concrete, according to a desperate demand for new light, new growth, new thinking. The situation reminds us of the formative period 1900-1930, when little magazines like Poetry, The New Review, The Dial, The Crisis, The Whip, The Freeman, The Masses, Fire!, The New Republic, Modern Quarterly, et al., and new scholarly outlets like The American Political Science Review, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, The American Journal of Sociology, and The American Economic Review appeared to reinvent and reorient intellectual life.
We’d like to reproduce the cross-pollination between politics and letters the little magazines once sponsored. Therefore, we’ll happily mix polemic, manifesto, criticism, fiction, video, music, poetry—we might even sing about architecture—and we’ll treat every genre or subject, informally at least, as the occasion for experimental writing, even when the topic is a new Supreme Court decision or another White Paper on the NSA’s Bulk Collection of Telephony Metadata. We think the deadly poetry of legal argument, political economy, and administrative utterance represents the “bureaucratization of the imaginative,” as Kenneth Burke put it, so we’ll be digging for the phony, the fictional, and the imaginative in these lacquered piles of bullshit. By the same token, we’ll be looking for buried evidence of bureaucratic inertia in the “political unconscious” of imaginative work.
But unlike the beautiful souls over at The Baffler and The Hedgehog Review, we’re not “debunkers,” Burke’s mortal enemies. In other words, we’re not interested in demonstrating the difference between appearance and reality that translates as hypocrisy, mendacity, or bad faith. We want instead to know how appearance becomes, or just is, reality. So we won’t let the world’s endless supply of error go to waste, as debunkers do when they dismiss what they dislike or don’t understand—religion, say, or the rise of capitalism, or the corporation—as instances of ignorance, superstition, or greed. Along with Burke, also Kojeve and Lacan, we think that error, and therefore truth, are possible only where language has abolished any fixed relation between words and things, and therefore has driven us, willy-nilly, to keep remaking the world in the name of things unseen. We think Hegel was right to say that “the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.”
The crisis of our time is a general crisis, to be sure, in which the economic catastrophe of the Great Recession is compounded by what caused it in the first place—the social crisis of deindustrialization and deepening inequality that began in the 1970s. It’s a political debacle, too, when the Congress plays a budgetary game of chicken while the president, whether conservative or liberal, continues to craft a “unitary executive” from the supposed imperatives of a “war on terror,” seeking ever more power to intrude on the privacy of individuals, and, what amounts to the same thing, to limit their rights of free speech. Together the Congress and the president have constructed what Vaclav Havel—the man who refused “dissent” as his political vocation—called a “post-totalitarian society,” an elusive, even ghostly entity that has nonetheless outraced the dispersal of power from state to society by making surveillance of everything its signature.
So yes, the general crisis of our time is more than an intellectual impasse. But for now it can’t be addressed, by us or by anyone else, except as an intellectual problem and a cultural prospect: our question is, what is to be thought? Nor, to borrow again from Kenneth Burke, can this crisis be grasped as the non-heroic residue of tragedy, the narrative form that elevates irony to the highest rhetorical virtue. We intend, therefore, to write comedy according to this axiom: either we recognize our ethical principles (“ought”) as legible in the historical circumstances of our time (“is”), or we relinquish any claim on the future—any claim on the practical possibility of changing the ways we think about the past, the present, and the future. One of Burke’s favorite thinkers, John Dewey, enunciated that comedic axiom as follows: “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”
Here is how Burke himself outlined our program:
“Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. . . . The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. . . . Comedy requires the maximum of forensic complexity. In the tragic plot the deus ex machina [money, power, corruption, fate, or God] is always lurking, to give events a fatalistic turn . . . Comedy [by contrast] must develop logical forensic causality to its highest point, calling not upon some astronomical marvels to help shape the plot, but completing the process of internal organization whereby each event is deduced ‘syllogistically,’ from the premises of the informing situation. Comedy deals with man in society, tragedy with the cosmic man.”
We sense intellectual opportunity—great forensic potential—in these times because we don’t share the Left’s devotion to “dissent” against the mainstream from the margins, as if the ability to speak truth to power requires the will to powerlessness. Or as if that mainstream of political discourse has somehow remained immune to social-democratic idioms and goals. Or as if “dissent” itself isn’t as American as large helpings of violence, apple pie, and alcohol. Since the founding, to be an American has been to disagree about what it means to be an American. The mainstream of political discourse has always been constituted by this disagreement, not by abstention from the arguments that go with it. So to hell with “dissent”—we gladly acknowledge our ambition, and admit that we want to mix it up in this mainstream. From the standpoint afforded by recent elections, even inside the gerrymandered South, and by Pew Center polls showing that younger Americans favor socialism over capitalism, our will to power looks realistic.
We clearly don’t share the Left’s greatly exaggerated belief in its own demise. We don’t think the project of socialism expired in Eastern Europe 25 years ago because we know that socialism exists, abides, and expands quite apart from states, movements, parties, and cadres dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. On historical grounds, therefore, we think leading left-wing intellectuals are simply wrong to pronounce the Left dead.
These are ways of saying that the choice between capitalism and socialism is not an either/or. Socialism is not the hereafter, as heaven is to earth, it’s an essential component of actually existing capitalism. And vice versa. To accept post-industrial corporate capitalism as the horizon of our expectations is not, then, to exclude socialism from our thinking about the future, but rather to incorporate it. And vice versa.
One of our purposes in refusing the either/or choice between capitalism and socialism is to give the concept of capitalism the kind of specificity and mid-range explanatory scope it now lacks. So we’ll be asking what the development of capitalism, for example, has to do with the production of a perceived crisis in public education, here in the USA—do private enterprise and free markets actually require the “corporatization” of public universities, and the mechanization of secondary education via standardized testing? We’ll also be asking what capitalism has to do with the solution to an impending crisis in public health, here and elsewhere, in collaboration with states and NGOs—can business enterprise be a willing partner rather than an unruly servant in the production of public goods? In other words, how do business and reform go together?
Our more fundamental question, so conceived, is how to periodize capitalism as such, as markets devolve and socially necessary labor recedes in the post-industrial societies. We’re convinced by now that prattling on about “deregulation,” the “financialization” of tangible assets, and the rise of a “shadow banking system” is a ritual evasion of the relevant issues, all of which revolve around the problem of surplus capital (the “global savings glut” Ben Bernanke used to talk about). So we’ll be rewriting the history of capitalism by asking practical questions about how it functions.
By the same token, we will treat socialism as a matter of actually existing social relations, not a theoretical proposition with no purchase on the real world—we’ll be asking how, for example, the symptoms of socialism present themselves in the unlikely precincts of the all-volunteer armed forces. Or in CIA-funded NGOs, and in the private sector as such, where, without pressure from politicians or legal decisions, corporations are rethinking the question of their social responsibility and political weight.
Notice the premises that permit these statements. In history, as against theory, socialism has no predictable political valence: like capitalism, it can, and has, taken liberal, democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian forms. In history, as against theory, socialism is a cross-class construction rather than the exclusive property of “the” working class, however you define this social stratum: like capitalism, it cannot survive in the absence of active support from all social strata.
As Michael Walzer has observed, socialism has long been “the name of the Left’s desire”—it has designated what ought to be, not in the political sense of the possible or in the ethical sense of the necessary, but rather in the homely, pedagogical sense of what we should want because it’s good for us, something like public television. In theory and practice, socialism has accordingly appeared as the repudiation, indeed the absence or obliteration, of capitalism (and imperialism, etc.). We think it’s time either to rename our desire or to recognize that the object of this desire is not only ultimately obtainable, it’s already measurable as a dimension of post-industrial corporate capitalism. We aim to prove that even in the most neo-liberal renditions of capitalism, even in the USA, socialism abides as historical circumstance as well as ethical principle—indeed it remains as a normative standard precisely because it’s still legible in the “social relations of production” that constitute what we call capitalism.
On historical grounds, we also think that the pleasure principle residing in consumer culture is worth exploring as the harbinger, perhaps the social-psychological groundwork, of a post-bourgeois civilization—a civilization, that is, in which the consumption of goods is no longer justified by the production of value through work, in which the delay of gratification (“saving for a rainy day”) is no longer necessary because material abundance has made it pointless, and in which indolence, not achievement, is the goal of education. Unlike most of our friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues from the Left and the Right, we’re uncertain about what the reckless hedonism of consumer culture means. At any rate we want to ask how—not whether—the repression of desire in the name of the future has finally become a fetter on those fabled forces of production. But we also need to ask whether, and how, the exfoliation of our desires has had the same deadening effect.
We know that the Protestant work ethic has failed as a reliable index of either character or income: if you have to earn a living, you know that nobody gets ahead by working hard and playing by the rules. So our questions will be why and how, and what follows? After all the cuts in taxes on corporate profits, why hasn’t “job-creating investment” happened—in other words, why has the discrepancy between retained earnings and business investment been growing since 2000? Why do almost half of employed Americans qualify for food stamps, and a fourth of our children grow up in officially defined poverty? How did transfer payments and “entitlements” become the fastest growing components of household income in the late 20th century, so that by 2012, they represented 20 percent of all such income?
These brute facts suggest that Americans have learned how to detach the receipt of income from the performance of work—and so they are either prepared to live up to the modern socialist criterion of need (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), or to reject it on rational grounds. The political stalemate in Washington is the vernacular expression of this great philosophical divide. These same facts also suggest that the end of work as we know it is not a problem to be solved by means of “full employment,” but is instead an incentive to rethink the very idea of necessary labor.
The intellectual opportunity we sense now is not, however, a matter of arguing the world in terms of the inherited isms, including Marxism, or rehabilitating party politics by reassembling the armies that will fight tomorrow night’s war of maneuver—in other words, by rekindling the class struggle. We have nothing against Marxism or class struggle or political innovation, or even revolution if it comes to that; we merely acknowledge the practical limits of our abilities when we think about calling our fellow citizens to the barricades. We’re not activists, we’re intellectuals. Or rather, we’re writers and artists who hope to have an effect on the way some people think. In this sense, we intend to abide by the unpretentious example of the original Politics & Letters, the “open review” Raymond Williams founded in 1946 as the intellectual antidote to the inane political edicts and ponderous literary criticism issued, ex cathedra, by the Communist Left.
The intellectual opportunity we perceive resides in a crisis that has almost too many dimensions. In the humanities, the breaking point seems imminent when J. Hillis Miller, the Yale School deconstructionist, defends the reading of old-fashioned canonical literature on political grounds, as a hedge against the ideological deformations of rampant neo-liberalism; or when Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri become required reading in literature departments while being totally ignored in history and international relations; or when post-colonialism becomes a universe parallel to every discipline, complete with its own laws of gravity and rules of inquiry.
Of course the sense of an ending has soaked this corner of the curricular gymnasium for an entire generation, as the canon got reshuffled and cultural studies appeared to challenge either the integrity or the centrality of written texts. Still, the “crisis of the humanities” is no mere cliché: its most ardent defenders are incapable of explaining why cultural literacy, or just an English major, is a valuable asset in a digital age. This pathetic situation makes us ask two old-fashioned questions. How do we measure value in a post-industrial society? And, why would anybody want to measure it in terms of labor time, in plain view of the end of work as the social source of character and the economic index of income?
Meanwhile the social sciences also “lose audience,” as we now say. Economists are being driven back toward Keynes, Kalecki, Minsky, and Marx—or to von Hayek—because no one else can make sense of the Great Recession. Even Milton Friedman’s once hegemonic explanation of the Great Depression is under siege. Since 2008, every empirical attempt to prove a negative correlation between the scale of public debt and rates of national economic growth has become a joke within months; so we know that whatever the regnant theories were, they’re now perceived as professionally useless, possibly dangerous to careers. Outside of the true believers, economists are now making it up as they go along, and they’re paying very strict attention to historical evidence as against theoretical coherence, to the point where both liberals (Robert Gordon) and conservatives (Tyler Cowen) have convinced themselves that we’ve already used up every available—read: technological—source of economic growth, and so are now witness to the twilight of civilization as we knew it.
At the same moment, historians, always as contentious as economists but more polite about stating their differences, have decided after 150 years that they don’t actually know what happened during the big event called the American Civil War. Recent books on this hoary topic, particularly James Oakes’s Freedom National, read as revelations because they foreground the problem of slavery (imagine that!) in narrating the causes and the conduct and the consequences of the American Iliad. Even more recent books on big events like the New Deal, the Popular Front, and the Civil Rights revolution have the same effect because they emphasize the political extremities—the radical possibilities—of these times. And then there is the new movement toward a “history of capitalism” which insists that this mode of production is, above all, a cultural phenomenon, so that its students, now rid of any pretensions to knowledge of political economy, are eligible for readmission to the discipline.
In other pilot disciplines, things are no differently precarious. Political science and sociology, for example, remain divided between the quant jocks and the theorists, but political theory has recently acquired an urgent diction, as if re-imagining the body politic is something that can and must be accomplished, right now. In philosophy, too, the intellectual stakes have been raised by a profound skepticism about scientific materialism, even as interest in the so-called New Atheism crests. The rehabilitation of pragmatism and the concurrent rebirth of moral philosophy teach us, of course, that the absence of faith is a mental nullity. But you know the rules of the game have been suspended when Thomas Nagel, the heir apparent to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, announces that Darwinian theory as it stands is insufficient to the task of explaining consciousness, or anything else worth thinking about. Or when prominent physicists like Lee Smolin declare that time—history, even—is the missing dimension in completing, or disputing, the general theory of relativity. Or when Gilles Deleuze begins to look in retrospect like a homely pragmatist inspired by William James’s radical empiricism.
If we were describing an academic impasse, it would still be worth remarking, given how central the university has become to intellectual life. But as it happens—it is no coincidence—the larger culture is riven by the same existential doubts and epistemic failures that roil academia. Liberals complain, rightly, that conservatives won’t pay attention to “the facts,” appealing, as always, to a correspondence theory of truth that they themselves have put in question. They ask, What’s the matter with Kansas? False consciousness, they say, pure and simple—the benighted masses don’t know their own interests! Conservatives complain, rightly, about a liberal bias in the mass media (with the possible exception of AM radio), and behave accordingly, as a corrective. They ask, What’s the matter with America? The revolt of the liberal elites, they say, against the interests of the benighted masses!
No wonder liberalism itself has become a dirty word, reviled by radicals on both the Left and the Right. In fact, radicalism is the “new normal” of political discourse. How else to explain that the received constitutional tradition is being shredded by its appointed caretakers at the Supreme Court? Or that Occupy Wall Street’s slogans and sensibilities have been taken up by the mainstream media, for example by Joseph Stiglitz and the New York Times? Or that the two major parties have nothing in common except a commitment to “free markets” and small business? Or that the slaveholders’ strategy of “nullification”—the aggressive assertion of states’ rights on the grounds that the federalism of the Constitution makes sovereignty debatable—has become a routine parliamentary procedure in the Congress and a recurrent theme in the deliberations of the Supreme Court?
By our reckoning, these times are a new Machiavellian Moment. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the differences between previous truth and novel fact couldn’t be reconciled by recourse to the received intellectual tradition, which relied on custom (experience), prudence, and providence (faith, prophecy) to explain and justify the actions of monarchs and princes. So thinkers like Machiavelli and Harrington invented a new tradition, adapting what they knew of civic humanism—what they could gather from Aristotle and Polybius—to the task of imagining stable republics that didn’t require the imprimatur of the church.
We think we’ve reached a similar verge. We’re all of us historians, more or less, either trained in or respectful of the discipline, but we find ourselves in the strange position of claiming that we’ve reached the point in our development where the usable past—the received intellectual tradition—has only a limited utility in our present circumstance. We feel something like James Madison did between the winter of 1786 and the summer of 1787, when, having studied every theorist of republics from Aristotle to Montesquieu (and on toward Jefferson), he decided they were useless in designing a polity that could break out of the Polybian cycle of corruption, degeneration, and collapse. Nothing less than a complete break from this past would permit a “new order of the ages,” that novus ordo seclorum still legible on the flip side of every dollar bill (look under the pyramid, but don’t stare into the eyeball on top, that way conspiracy theory lies).
Against his own cautious, indeed conservative inclinations, Madison became a radical in his year of living studiously. Over the last few years, we have, too. This little magazine is the result of our conversion experience.
And yet we write as pragmatists. In fact, we hope to make this magazine the place where the meanings and significance of pragmatism can be fully explored—as a philosophical method, to be sure, but more significantly as an “attitude toward history,” to borrow once again from Burke, which treats the impending future as an essential ingredient of the usable past.
We’re perfectly willing to accredit the vernacular definition of pragmatism—an impatience with ideology and high theory, an emphasis on the consequences (the “cash value”) of ideas, and an urge to avoid moral philosophy of the Kantian kind. But we’re not going to leave it at that.
Practically speaking, our notion of pragmatism is a throwback. By this we mean that it’s more indebted to its early Europeans admirers and critics—among them, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Giovanni Papini, Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson, Georges Sorel, Jean Wahl, and Alexandre Kojeve—than to the figures on this side of the Atlantic who led the late-20th century revival of pragmatism—among them, Richard Rorty, Frank Lentricchia, Charlene Haddock-Seigfried, Cornel West, and Louis Menand. The European intellectuals understood pragmatism as a fundamental challenge to every category and every premise of the western philosophical tradition because its founders treated metaphysical problems as social questions. Us, too.
In fact, the original pragmatists insisted that social theory and its worldly cognate in collective action—social movements—could replace philosophy as the site of debates about the content of human nature, the possibility of self-consciousness, and the meanings of selfhood. Without citing it, they acted on Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is to change it.” The pragmatists were scientists, in this expansive sense: they believed that the condition of certainty about objects of knowledge was the purposeful manipulation of those objects, as in a controlled experiment conducted in a laboratory. They wanted to test their ideas by changing the world. Us, too.
These are claims that will sound obscure or bizarre unless we can honestly say that Marxism and pragmatism share intellectual origins and imperatives, and can demonstrate, accordingly, that William James, Jane Addams, and John Dewey improved on Karl Marx. For the time being, we’ll simply note that, like Marxism, pragmatism is the effect of intellectual collision, but also collusion, between German idealism and British empiricism—between Continental and Anglo-American traditions. Karl Marx refused the either/or choice between these traditions. So did William James.
So do we. By now we’re all steeped in the high theory issued from the European continent—when necessary, we will actually advocate for Irigaray, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Foucault, Ranciere, Balibar, even Zizek—but our goal is not to validate this or that theoretical position, and thereby to reinstate the logic of metaphysics. We’re here instead to ask disturbing, empirical, pragmatic questions like these: Who cares, so what? Does this idea—maybe even this sentence—make a difference in how you think about anything, thus act upon it, sing about it? If not, why bother with it? Why bother us?
We think that the intellectual’s worst sin, more deadly than the familiar seven, is the sneering, principled abstention from the profane world of mass (consumer) culture that enables the Stoic or the Epicurean cultivation of a beautiful soul. As pragmatists, we’re determined, and equipped, to avoid that fate. Among other things, therefore, this little magazine will be the comic record of our souls’ corruption, as we keep making really big mistakes, truly egregious errors, on our way to interpreting, and changing, that world.
This statement is not a general guide to our editorial policy, mainly because we don’t have one. Here, too, we’ll be following the lead of Raymond Williams, who, when asked if he aimed for editorial unity and consistency in founding Politics & Letters, said, “No.” He elaborated, uncomfortably, as follows: “We were determined to have an open review. . . . Hence the appearance of incompatibilities and inconsistencies in the journal.”
We, all of us editors, contributing and otherwise, are determined to keep our disagreements—we hope many “incompatibilities and inconsistencies” appear as we develop our ideas and find new constituents for them. But surely our general political purpose is by now legible. On the assumption that neither Marxism nor socialism has a predictable political valence or institutional articulation—they can be and have been instruments of dictatorship or democracy—we want to redefine the scope of the Left and, in doing so, we want to reorient its thinking, our thinking. On the assumption that revolution will never again attain the epic dimensions of the Russian, Mexican, Chinese, and Cuban renditions, as “wars of maneuver” bent on control of the state, we’ll think of our project as a “war of position” bent on cultural hegemony. We want to change the way people experience the world. We’ll do that by changing the meanings of the key words that mediate and determine our experience (words such as liberty, equality, work, pleasure, self, citizen, sex, democracy, and, of course, corporation).
In other words, we assume that the nature of politics has changed fundamentally since the 1950s, with the emergence of post-colonial societies across the globe, most obviously and effectively in the USA, where the decolonization of African-Americans—what we call the Civil Rights movement—became the cutting edge of a cultural revolution. As the nature of politics has changed so, too, has the political unconscious of fiction, poetry, film, music, and television, the residents of that centrifugal republic of letters once known as popular culture. But how and why did they change? We don’t have and we don’t want definitive answers to these questions, not yet, anyway. We want to keep our disagreements because without them, our magazine makes no sense.
We have, however, reached consensus on a few fundamentals. We agree that intellectuals on the Left have been too quick to consign the project of socialism to the dustbin of History, and too convinced that an explicitly anti-capitalist movement is the only way to retrieve it; as a result, we think, their programmatic thinking about the origins and effects of the Great Recession has been disfigured by nostalgia for the good old days, when the Communist Party of the Popular Front was the epicenter of intellectual life. We also agree that this same consignment of socialism to the proverbial dustbin has validated the Left’s will to powerlessness—its urge to stay on the margins, where “dissent” has no costs and no consequences.
And we agree that art of every kind is, or makes sense as, a political act, simply because artists stand at the heart of change, telling us where it can and should lead by depicting what is evident yet unknown—the “existing beyond,” as William James put it. The world, the scene, or the incident that artists convey in words, sounds, and images may never have happened, but it feels inhabitable (if not familiar) because it’s consistent with both the possibilities and the limits of human intentions—not just the learned or noble intentions spoken in stately, classical style by the well-born, but all of them, even unto the most mundane and murderous intentions expressed by the rest of us. The promise of literary democracy appears, for example, when vernacular speech becomes the language of character development, not the verbal signal of comic relief.
But we agree above all that we need fresh thinking and good arguments about the relation between politics and letters, and about the verge we’ve reached, this place in time where the disintegrating past looks like state socialism and the impending future looks like neo-liberal capitalism—as if the transition question of our time reads backward, so that we constantly ask not whether but how we’re regressing.
How to break out of this Polybian attitude toward the vicissitudes of historical time without denying the weight of the past?
That is the question we’re convened to answer.