The 21st Century is Becoming the 19th Century: Repeating Tragedy as a Farce

History repeatsfirst as tragedy, then as farce” … -Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

By Keith Preston

The present era of globalization in the early 21st century is very similar to the era of industrialization in the early 19th century, in the sense of both the way that it is transforming the world, as well as the conflicts that it is generating.

The primary political conflict in the early to middle 19th century was the battle between the rising bourgeoisie and the Ancient Regime. The present day equivalent of that conflict is the emerging conflict between the “national bourgeoisie” (represented by, for example, the declining WASP elite in the United States), who are the contemporary equivalent of the throne and altar traditionalists of earlier times. This declining ruling class sector is pitted against the globalist techno-oligarchs, financiers, and information/managerial class professionals that comprise the New Elites (the present equivalent of the 19th century bourgeoisie). The populist-nationalist movements of the West who serve as the ground level constituency for the national bourgeoisie are comparable to the 19th century European peasants and petite bourgeoisie who supported the royalists against the rise of the classical bourgeoisie (and whose opposition to the global economy is somewhat comparable to the Luddites who opposed the advent of industrialization). For instance, to understand the presidency of Donald Trump, and the rise of the Trumpians, one needs only to read Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which describes how “how the class struggle..created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte

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Donald Trump

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The rise of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, the subsequent institutionalization of the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class (replacing the monarchs, aristocrats, and clerics), the parallel growth of industrial capitalism, and the related class polarization, generated the rise of opposition to the bourgeoisie from the Left. This opposition took the form of the socialist, communist, anarchist, and labor movements of the 19th and early 20th century.

The global economy of the present day, rooted in the technology of the “information age” and the “cyber revolution,” is likewise having a similar effect in the sense of transforming civilization, and lifting many out of poverty. The global economy has produced a phenomenal growth of the middle class in Asia, Latin America, and, increasingly, Africa, just as the industrial economy produced a similar growth of the middle class in the Western capitalist nations of the 19th century. However, a side effect of the global economy has been an increase in class polarization in the technologically advanced nations,  just as the industrial economy produced a similar class polarization in the capitalist nations two centuries ago. This class polarization is the most readily apparent in the nations where the impact of the global economy is the most advanced, such as the United States and Western Europe, precisely the same nations where the class polarization of the 19th century became the most extreme.

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The rise of industrial capitalism, and the achievement of hegemony by the bourgeoisie as a class, generated the rise of opposition forces from both the Left and Right. On the Right, the opposition came from the aforementioned recalcitrant reactionaries, the throne and altar traditionalists and their peasant and petite bourgeoisie supporters. On the Left, the opposition came from the left-wing of the middle class, and from rising proletarian sectors.

The rise of globalization is having a similar effect in the advanced nations. The growing hegemony of the New Elite of techno-oligarchs, financiers and the information/managerial class (with the latter being what Joel Kotkin calls the “new clerisy,” i.e. a “knowledge class” whose primary social and political function is disseminating and inculcating the self-legitimating ideological superstructure of the New Elite) is rapidly becoming institutionalized. This process is generating opposition forces from both the Left and Right.

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On the Right, the opposition originates from the aforementioned national bourgeoisie and their populist-nationalist constituents. Just as the meaning of “conservatism” shifted from a defense of the Ancient Regime to a defense of the bourgeoisie in the 19th and 20th century, with throne and altar traditionalists becoming “reactionaries,” in the near future the national bourgeoisie will be the reactionaries, and the globalist techno-oligarchs, etc. will be the “conservatives.” Such a transformation in the ideological, cultural, and political balance of the Western world is already well underway. Ultimately, the national bourgeoisie and their populist-nationalist constituents will be no more successful at holding their position than the throne and altar traditionalists and their peasant and petite bourgeoisie constituents were successful at holding their own position in the 19th century.

Therefore, the important questions involve the issue of the nature and source of the opposition forces from the Left. In the 19th century, opposition to the bourgeoisie from the Left originated from a range of sources. One of these was the historic labor movement which assumed the form of trade unionism, and which was oriented towards the advancement of labor reforms such as the 8-hour workday, the right of collective bargaining, abolition of child labor, etc.

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The mainstream of the labor movement was always “conservative” in the sense of largely seeking reforms within the the context of the industrial capitalist system rather through revolutionary means. An appropriate analogy would be to compare the historic labor movement of the 19th and early 20th century with the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which was also about achieving reforms “within the system,” such as school desegregation, elimination of “Jim Crow,” equal opportunity employment, etc. as opposed to the more radical separatist ideas of groups like the Nation of Islam or the revolutionary Marxism of the Black Panthers.

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However, on the far left end of the labor movement were ideologies such as communism, socialism, anarchism, syndicalism, and others that sought to eliminate capitalism in favor of some kind of alternative system. Some of these were rooted in genuine workers’ movements (such as the old Industrial Workers of the World, or the “Wobblies”)  but others, most notably Marxism, found their adherents in the left-wing of the middle class.

Orthodox Marxism taught that the socialist revolution would first occur in the most advanced industrial nations, such as England and America. However, the historical reality came to be that there was never a Marxist revolution in any society where industrialization had become dominant. Instead, all historic Marxist revolutions were in pre-industrial agricultural peasant societies. With the single exception of Josef Stalin, no famous Marxist revolutionary or theoretician from history originated from the working class or the peasantry. The primary constituency for Marxism was always found in the left-wing of the middle class, and Marxist revolutions occurred in societies where the middle class found its political ambitions thwarted by an underdeveloped society, political inertia, and a static, ossified ruling class (Russia is the most obvious example).

It is therefore important to recognize that just as classical Marxism found its constituency in the left-wing of the middle class, it also true that what some have called “cultural Marxism” is finding a home in the left-wing of the middle class in the present era. By the middle part of the 20th century (the so-called “postwar” era), the material conditions of the working class had improved to the point that a period of “post-scarcity” had emerged in the sense that most people were no longer struggling for basic necessities such as food and shelter. A combination of economic and technological development, combined with a range of political, economic, and legal reforms (such as the incorporation of the labor unions and labor parties into “the system”) produced a situation where working class was able to achieve a middle class standard of living, and where the middle class became the most prosperous middle class in history. Consequently, labor militancy began to decline in the Western capitalist countries. Instead, the focus of Marxists and other radical leftists became cultural politics.

The post-scarcity era provided the material conditions that made a focus on issues beyond those of a “bread and butter” nature possible. Therefore, it was in the postwar era that issues such as the nuclear arms race in the Cold War, colonialism in the underdeveloped world, military intervention in Southeast Asia, racial discrimination, military conscription, women’s rights and gay rights, the sexual revolution, defense of domestic civil liberties, youth rights, alternative lifestyles, disability rights, environmentalism, consumer safety, etc. became prominent political issues. None of this would have been possible in the pre-post-scarcity era when material and physical survival was a primary concern. In fact, by the postwar period the working class had become a decidedly conservative force, primarily concerned with protecting their rising living standards, and therefore demonstrating tremendous loyalty to their national bourgeoisie and nation-states. Consequently, the radical Left began to shift its focus away from class politics and towards cultural politics. Marxist theoreticians from the era, such as those associated with the Frankfurt School, came to regard the Western working class has having been bought off by the consumer culture and high living standards provided by Western capitalism.

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Additionally, the loyalty of the working classes to their national bourgeoisie and nation-states created a political situation where the working class became the foremost proponents of national patriotism, and were therefore vociferously opposed to the rising antiwar and anti-imperialist sentiments of the radical Left. Issues pertaining to race and civil rights added further complications because the rising white working class tended to regard civil rights, desegregation, and integration as both a cultural threat and a threat to their upward mobility by seemingly having the effect of forcing the white working class downward into the ranks of the black proletariat. Consequently, some Marxist theoreticians of the time developed such concepts as “white skin privilege” or “labor aristocracy” as a means of characterizing upper strata white working class elements that opposed civil rights and desegregation, or Western workers who supported their national bourgeoisie and nation states against anti-colonial struggles in the pre-industrial world.

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The white working came to be regarded not only as hopelessly “bought off” or compromised by consumerism, capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism, but as an even greater enemy than the actual ruling class, the left-wing of which often supported a wide range of “liberal” social and cultural changes. For example, during the period of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the US federal courts were much more influential in pushing American society leftward than the actual working class.

Just as historic Marxism tended to find its adherents and constituents among the left-wing of the middle class, it was likewise true that the proponents of cultural politics in the postwar era tended to be drawn from the ranks of the privileged classes, e.g. students at elite universities, middle class youth, members of the professional class, academics, “liberal” educated suburbanites, and politicians. The only exceptions were minority radicals that were frequently drawn from the lower socioeconomic levels (the Black Panthers being the most obvious example). This trend has continued for the past 50 years. Radical leftist cultural politics is the “new Marxism,” as the paleoconservatives never tire of pointing out.

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As previously observed, in the 19th century the rising bourgeoisie was in the process of defeating the Ancient Regime while the bourgeoisie was simultaneously being challenged by the rise of proletarianism. In the 21st century, the globalist techno-oligarchs, financiers and information/managerial class that comprise the New Elite are defeating the national bourgeoisie, while being challenged from the Left by the “cultural Marxist” forces rooted in the contemporary left-wing of the middle class. Consequently, the the “cultural Marxist” forces should properly be regarded as the “new Communism.”

However, there are additional clarifications that need to be made. In the past, I have written extensively about “political correctness” and its ideological origins. I tend to hold to the view that PC has eclectic origins. Among the historical or ideological currents that feed into the development of PC as a modern ideological phenomenon are traditional Christianity with its notions of the suffering just (“the least shall be the first”), particularly more fundamentalist versions of Christianity with a pronounced tendency towards dualism, apocalyptism, millenarianism, millenialism, pietism, or puritanism. The Enlightenment concepts of univeralism, egalitarianism, human perfectibility, and the linear view of history is another influence. The anti-liberal ideas of Counter-Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Hegel are an important influence. Historic Marxism with its reductionist class theory, historical materialism, and neo-Manichean division of humanity into “oppressed” and “oppressor” classes is another. The Leninist idea of the “correct political line” determined by means of “democratic centralism” is certainly an obvious influence. Concepts developed by Western neo-Marxists such as “repressive tolerance” and “privilege theory” are obviously an important factor. Also, the influence of Maoist ideas originating from the Cultural Revolution and imported into the West by Maoists among Western radicals during the 1960s is one source that seems to be often overlooked by many critics of PC.

The advent of postmodernism and its influence in various academic disciplines has contributed to the development of political correctness in two ways. The first is the claim of postmodernism that knowledge is subjective. If “truth” is merely a matter of opinion, perception, or experience, then everyone can have their own “truth.” This kind of subjectivity means that “microaggressions” can take place simply because someone perceives or “feels” the speech or actions of others as aggression, whether they have actually experienced aggression by any reasonable standards or not. Also, the perspective of postmodernists like Foucault on the relationship between power and discourse has obviously influenced PC because of the view that whoever controls the narrative has the power. This why PCers are so obsessed with controlling language and policing speech, because they believe that controlling discourse is the means of controlling the narrative, which is a means of accessing power,

While understanding the historic and intellectual influences that have fueled PC is certainly important, it is also necessary to develop a clear understanding of the socioeconomic, cultural, and demographic base of PC. One failure that has taken place on the part of critics of PC, including much of my own previous work, is the failure to make the necessary distinctions between the New Elite and the New Communists. The New Elites (once again, the techno-oligarchs, financiers, and information/managerial class) are certainly to the left of the traditional national bourgeoisie on virtually every question. The New Elites are globalist, cosmopolitan, secular, and culturally “liberal.” They have no problem with social, cultural, or institutional integration along the lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and may even be enthusiastic proponents of this. They may favor environmental regulation, gun control, liberal immigration policies, abortion rights, gay marriage, and affirmative action. While they certainly favor neoliberal economic policies, they may have no general objection to the welfare state per se. Many of them would be fine with single payer healthcare. They may support transgender restrooms, hate speech laws,  special taxes on sugary beverages and fatty foods, smoking bans, and the radical empowerment of Child Protective Services. They may sympathize with feminist-inspired crusades against pornography, prostitution, or “sex trafficking” hysteria. Some of them may adopt vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. Certainly, the New Elites deserve the label of “totalitarian humanists” but their totalitarian humanism is only a “soft totalitarian humanism.” The New Elites are not reactionaries, conservatives, or fascists, but they are not the New Communists, either. The New Elites are simply the “new bourgeoisie” and their PC nanny statism is merely the new Victorianism, not the new Bolshevism. Even their frequently zealous support for military crusades on behalf of “human rights”(which ironically tends to have the effect of reducing the sum total of human rights, or at least reducing the sum total of humans) does not qualify them as the New Communists. The Samantha Power-like “human rights imperialism” of the New Elites is merely the modern version of the “liberal imperialism” of the 19th century bourgeoisie (the “white man’s burden” and all that).

Slaves in Libya: “Gee, thanks, Barack and Hillary!”

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However, the New Communists are a distinct category from the New Elites, and are a rising force that is challenging the New Elites even as the latter are in the process of consolidating their own hegemony. The New Communists are not merely paternalistic (or maternalistic) nanny statists or crusading do-gooders, however obnoxious, foolish, and often genuinely destructive these may be. The New Communists are outright totalitarians and generally make no claims to the contrary. Joel Kotkin aptly describes the distinction between the New Elites, who are largely centrist technocrats, and the New Communists. The national bourgeoisie are certainly taking a beating at the hand of the New Elites. As Kotkin says:

The Republican Party’s road to the 2018 mid-terms looks increasingly like Pickett’s Charge, the Confederate assault on fixed Union positions that marked the high-water mark for the southern cause. After achieving its greatest domination of elective office in 80 years, the GOP seems likely to get slaughtered.

As at Gettysburg, bad generalship, an unpopular, clumsy Donald Trump, constitutes one cause for the imminent Republican decline. But the officer corps is also failing, as the congressional delegation seems determined to screw its middle class base in favor the remnant of those corporate plutocrats who finance their campaigns and the Goldman Sachs crowd to whom Trump has outsourced his economic policy. Steve Bannon’s support for demagogues like Roy Moore can only further weaken the party’s appeal, rapidly turning much of the business community, out of sheer embarrassment, into de facto Democrats.

Only one thing can save the Republicans from themselves: the Democrats.

Indeed, just as the New Elites are consolidating their position, they are being challenged from the Left by the New Communists, and this scenario is being played out in US national politics. Says Kotkin:

“Who the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad.” Today this old Greek adage seems particularly applicable to the Democrats. In the past the party produced leaders, and endorsed positions, that appealed across a broad swath of the population. With the Republicans forced to defend Trump, and ally with the marginalized far-right, a more centrist approach seems almost guaranteed to create success, as we saw recently in the Virginia elections.

But, sadly, the much heralded “resistance” to Trump has radicalized the party’s grassroots, giving enhanced power to militant groups like Black Lives Matter, as well as the most extreme green and gender fundamentalists. Clustered increasingly in large urban centers, Democrats are moving more quickly to progressive extremes than the GOP is shifting to the right; the percentage of Democratic voters tilting left since 1994 has grown from 30 percent to 73 percent. Moderates in the party, argues Wall Street investor Steven Ratner, face a “freight train coming at us from the left.”

The centrist approach used in Virginia should show the way, and succeeded largely by winning moderate voters from the affluent D.C. suburbs. But in California or New York rank and file, suburban Democrats have little voice against the organized and strident habitués of the core cities. The various cultural imperatives of the media, the universities, the progressive non-profit and well-funded community groups wash out all other voices.

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It is within the context of “the media, the universities, the progressive non-profit and well-funded community groups” that the New Communists have embedded themselves. Kotkin goes on to describe the politics of the New Communists:

Three critical positions threaten a national Democratic resurgence. The first, and the most divisive, is immigration policy. Most Americans do not embrace the xenophobia of the Trump base, but they also do not favor such things as sanctuary cities, even here in California. They are not likely to celebrate immigrant law-breaking as does state Senate Leader Kevin de León, now challenging the more centrist Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bid for re-election.

The second vulnerability revolves around a strong move to a single-payer federal system, a position endorsed by increasingly powerful groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and New York’s Working Families Party. To be sure, this may be more attractive to most Americans than GOP attempts to scuttle the current Obamacare system, but it would require a massive tax increase that would alienate moderate, middle-income voters. A plan to impose this system on California was deemed so expensive — essentially more than doubling the state budget — that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon had to table it to the chagrin of the progressive lobby.

The third, and perhaps most critical, policy area relates more broadly to culture. Just as the antediluvian stances of a Roy Moore may make middle-of-the-road voters gag, many Americans also would have a hard time embracing such things as reparations, race and gender quotas, transgender issues, campus speech codes and even football protests celebrated by progressives. This aversion to identity politics appears particularly true for the middle American voters who swung in 2016 to Trump and the GOP.

One could certainly hold to many of the positions described above without being a New Communist per se. However, what distinguishes the New Communists is their unabashed statism combined with their unabashed intolerance of alternative points of view. A range of factors serve as evidence of this. During the 1960s, the radical Left made opposition to imperialist war into its defining issue. While much of this may have been more pro-Third World Marxism and anti-Cold War than “antiwar,” the radical Left continued to generally oppose US imperialist wars up through and including the Iraq War of 2003. While opposition to the Iraq War may have been more anti-Republican than anti-imperialist, it was opposition nevertheless. However, since the Obama era the antiwar Left has essentially disappeared even as the Obama administration largely continued the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Indeed, despite the Left’s almost pathological hatred of Donald Trump, the Left has been remarkably silent concerning Trump’s military attack on Syria, multibillion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, continuation of the war in Afghanistan, or even the efforts to abrogate the “nuclear deal” with Iran. Instead, the Left has been primarily upset by the “travel ban,” plans to build “the wall,” or exclusion of the transgendered from the military.

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The labor Left hardly exists anymore, which is not surprising considering than only 11% of the US workforce is presently unionized, and much of this involve public sector unions. Nor is the economic Left particularly active, even during a time of the greatest wealth gap in a century, aside from advocacy for centrist liberal policies like “single payer healthcare.” The Left could once be counted on to defend free speech rights for even the most extreme, controversial, or threatening people (for example, the ACLU’s defense of the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie in 1977). Nowadays, the Left is more likely to be staging riots in order to prevent center-right Republicans from speaking. The Left would once defend due process rights for even the most violent criminals to the nth degree. The ACLU even defended the Fifth Amendment rights of political opponents such as Oliver North. Nowadays, the Left is just as likely to regard due process as a means of coddling rapists and sexual harassers. The Left was always a bit weak on the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment regarding religion. However, today much of the Left apparently regards separation of church and state as an intolerable obstacle to ensuring an adequate supply of gay wedding cakes. Articles 52 and 53 of the Constitution of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania, drafted in 1976 by the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, stated:

Citizens enjoy the freedom of speech, organization, association, assembly and public manifestation. The State guarantees the realization of these freedoms, it creates the conditions for them, and puts the necessary material means at their disposal. The right to join various organizations which operate in the political, economic, cultural as well as in any other fields of the country’s life, is guaranteed to the citizens.

However, Article 54 went on to state:

The creation of any type of organization of a fascist, antidemocratic, religious, and anti-socialist character is prohibited. Fascist, anti-democratic, religious, warmongering, and anti-socialist activities and propaganda are prohibited as well as the incitement of national and racial hatred.

Of course, this sounds remarkably similar to our present day New Communists, particularly the Antifa and their anarcho-leftoid useful idiots. If anything, the Hoxha regime may have been more generous.

Enver Hoxha

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The two defining characteristics of the New Communists are race/gender/gay “identity politics” (tribalism) and Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance” (“No Platform!”). As Marcuse said:

Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc”

In other words, “repressive tolerance” would seem to mean extreme intolerance towards anyone deemed insufficiently “progressive” at the moment (and always subject to revision according to “evolving standards,” of course). As I wrote nearly twelve years ago, the ambition of the New Communists “is the creation of a totalitarian state ordered as a type of caste system where individual privilege is assigned on the basis of group identity and group privilege is assigned on the basis of the position of the group in the pantheon of the oppressed.

Herbert Marcuse

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As I have said in interviews before, I am actually to the left of the Marxists. My persistent tirades against “totalitarian humanism” are merely the 21st century version of Bakunin’s warnings against the authoritarian tendencies inherent in Marxism. My tirades against the therapeutic state are merely the contemporary version of Bakunin’s tirades against the theocratic state.

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To repeat, he national bourgeoisie are the new reactionaries, the populist-nationalists are the new Luddites and anti-modernist peasants who supported royalists against the rise of the bourgeoisie. The techno-oligarchs, etc. are the new bourgeoisie with “soft totalitarian humanism” as their self-legitimating ideology. The “hard totalitarian humanists” are the new Marxists, and the anarcho-leftoids who participate in neo-Communist and Antifa nonsense (having learned nothing from the experience of the First International, the Russian Revolution, or the Spanish Civil War) are merely the latest wave of anarchists to serve as useful idiots for the Marxists.

My own post-postmodern post-left perspective is the new anarchism. My politics are basically Proudhon’s economics, Bakunin’s lumpenproletarianism, conspiratorialism and anti-Marxism, Stirner’s egoism, Kropotkin’s analysis of the history of the state, syndicalism (with pan-secessionism being the modern equivalent of the general strike), Tucker’s individualism, De Cleyre’s anarchism without adjectives, Goldman’s bohemianism, the ethno-cultural anarchism of Landauer, Galleanist insurrectionism, FAI-CNT populism, and a range of other comparable influences. The question that remains is the issue of how to transform such a perspective into popular movements that constitute the revolutionary center.

The Spectrum of the Revolutionary Center

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2 replies »

    • Typically, anarchistic ideas only succeed when they are able to be spread into wider political or cultural currents that are not specifically under the anarchist label. There are a range of examples of this. The growth of a Murray Bookchin-inspired “democratic confederalism” among the Kurds, for example, or various startup societies and intentional nations/communities. The Pirate Party is an example of bringing anarchistic ideas into parliamentary politics.

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