Left and Right

On Paul Piccone’s “From the New Left to the New Populism”

By Telos

If a journal manages to survive for 100 issues, it is reasonable to assume that the editorial board has managed to reach some sort of internal consensus and can finally rest on its laurels. Such is not the case with Telos. . . . After all these years, nothing seems to be settled and [Telos] remains a hopelessly heterogeneous group still trying to come to some agreement concerning many crucial and not-so-crucial issues. . . . This is why this theoretical bellum omnium contra omnes may be interpreted as evidence of lingering internal vitality, an unwillingness to take anything for granted, and a suspicion of all positions even faintly resembling conformism and passivity.

With those words from Telos 101 (Fall 1994), Paul Piccone launched his critique of those who felt Telos had lost its direction and had settled into the role of the cranky old uncle of intellectual journals. Having just celebrated its 200th issue in its 54th year, those words still speak to the current state of the intellectual project he launched back in 1968.

Piccone’s critique of his critics, “From the New Left to the New Populism,” was intended not to lay claim to any settled doctrine for Telos but to demonstrate the journal’s ability to constantly rethink its position among current debates along the entire ideological spectrum. While the bellum omnium contra omnes Piccone refers to in his article specifically refers to Telos‘s own family, I think it is more than fair to say it was applied to any and all who asserted a suspicious and artificial ground for emancipation. Toward this end, Piccone begins by providing his own critique of the Western Marxist tradition out of which Telos arose. This in itself, in its pure compactness, is a tour de force of intellectual history and should be read by all those who seek an origin story, or who simply need to have their revision revised.

What emerged from Telos fundamentally was an ongoing project to understand the current logic of domination while vindicating the search for subjectivity. In the process, it came to terms with the fact that it had to confront the historical situation with a political theory that the Western Marxist tradition always lacked, lost as it was in the belief that capitalism would eventually collapse from its own contradictions and a revolutionary class spearheaded by a party or an enlightened group could just step in to fill the void. What that tradition failed to see was that the political institutions on which capitalism found its legal and ethical existence were not just an ideological superstructure. Rather, as Gramsci tried to point out, it resonated with a cultural and pedagogical presence that provided its own rationality for itself that was independent of the logic of capital. The tradition out of which Western Marxism arose failed to incorporate the historical political logic necessary to understand the ethical and legal frameworks that defined injustice, inequality, and domination as fairness, opportunity, and independence. Critical Theory was no less problematic in this area. While some of its fellow travelers, e.g., Neumann and Kirchheimer, attempted to deal with the collapse of the legal state with the rise of Nazism, they remained caught up in a social democratic program that could not be adapted to the United States once they emigrated here.

At the same time, any of the pathologies that program sought to address were lost in the prosperity of the postwar era and the Great Society programs that followed. Meanwhile, some in the group, such as Adorno, found solace in the Absolute Spirt, which failed to bring along an emancipatory interest with it. Others, such as Marcuse and Fromm, asserted a psychoanalysis that sought to understand social pathologies from the viewpoint of psychological repression, which when all is said and done is the repression of the transcendental ego. In short, psychoanalysis was trapped in the same solipsism that trapped Kant and Fichte. As Piccone’s article points out, all these projects collapsed. None of them could really explain the current logic of domination or provide a subjective foundation. None of them could provide a way for “the dialectic of subject and object [to postulate] the viability of a social system as a function of its internalization by the members living within it as active citizens.” If there ever was a program for Telos, it was the search for “an organic view of individuality, i.e., subjectivity constituted by the social and historical relations within which it is embedded.”

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