In this sour, apprehensive, and Bush-inflicted month of November, we should remember the great surge of activism set going by the vain attempt to stop the Republican juggernaut. If we are to honor its promise, though, we need to learn its lesson, and understand more deeply the nature of the enemy. For we have been here before.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .” The poet Yeats saw it coming, remarkably, as long ago as 1919. Since for Yeats history was cyclic, he saw it as coming again and again, building and rebuilding itself from the disintegration of society. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” He foresaw the perversion of the Christian eschatology by the monstrosity of war: not Christ, but a beast would return, even a beast claiming direction by Jesus. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Our apocalyptic Right--half Christian fundamentalism, half capitalist rapacity—is the beast for the moment. It is the abomination against which it warns, for the beast is nothing more than the human form become monstrous and ecologically nihilistic.
In the midst of these gloomy forebodings, one feature of the recent election especially sticks in the throat: even allowing for voter fraud, the propaganda machine, and the like, the fact remains that millions of what for want of a better word we must call “ordinary people” gave consent to, indeed, believed in, a man who is beyond doubt the worst president in American history, and certainly the one most harmful to their material interests, not to mention, those of humanity as a whole. It is as though Yeats’ beast has been reborn in the American soul, confounding, once again, the threadbare hope that workers will sensibly vote their class interests.
What can be wrong with so many? As London’s Daily Mirror blared after the election—picking up on a quip of H.L. Mencken, who once opined that nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people: How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB? But the affection for W. is not a question of being “dumb” in the sense of feeble-mindedness. It is rather a kind of bemusement, of being led astray by an inner force. It is an affair of the heart—that heart of which Pascal said that it had reasons of which Reason knows not. The Left has always been uncomfortable looking inward, and has paid dearly for being so. Again and again it crash lands with its economism, its rendering of “interests” in crudely materialistic terms, and its forgetting what “meaning” means in human existence.
In 1790 , William Blake, roaming the streets of London, did “mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear”
It is not just being crushed by circumstance and misinformed, then; we need to take into account an active, self-imposed bondage, an inner crippling. In 1927, Wilhelm Reich, in his “Mass Psychology of Fascism,” identified these manacles in the context of the patriarchal German family structure, which produced “armored” and sex-negative characters primed to submit to a Fuehrer. People tend to remember Reich as the proponent of “orgastic potency” as the cure-all for humankind’s woes, but they misinterpret him as recommending a kind of sexual athleticism. This is surely no answer in itself—and indeed, it was not the answer for Reich, either, who was a good Communist and insisted that the precondition for inner emancipation, including the emancipation of the flesh, was democratic control of the means of production. This conviction, which he called “work democracy,” stayed with Reich after his expulsion from the Communist Party, and throughout his spectacular and doomed career as the mad apostle of Orgone Energy. Even as he was led off to Federal prison in 1957 Reich continued to hold to the belief.
What Reich taught was that the “sexual question” and the “family question” as well are not distractions from the real business of politics; they are rather the side of politics that opens onto nature and human nature. The grousing about how the stupid Bush voters allow themselves to be distracted with non-issues like gay marriage or abortion when what really counts are the mangling of the deficit, the lack of health insurance and the nightmare of Iraq, is profoundly short-sighted. The masses who voted for W because of “moral values” may be deluded in their judgements about sex and morality. But they are not deluded in taking these things seriously, nor in demanding that spiritual coherence be given to politics.
Why are we puzzled that religion in class society should take class forms? Or, looking further into the matter, that ruling class religion should be hostile to life, or that it has to find ways of hooking itself into the lived existence of the masses, and needs to resort to delusion in order to do so. After all, there is a fundamental class opposition that needs to be mystified if the illusion of an organic society is to be sustained. The key to consent, as ever, is getting subaltern classes to auto-repress, to forge their own mental manacles out of their own best hopes, to take every authentic virtue and turn it into a curse without it ceasing to seem virtuous to the deluded mind.
The sexual sphere supplies the perfect raw material for the project, because its logic is heteronomous to that imposed by the regime of social production. Sexuality is ready-made for the nourishment of delusional thinking. In all its aspects it is a perpetual well of negativity; it is the instinct which refuses the real and can be twisted into innumerable fantastic shapes; it cannot be explained or rationalized without vanishing, and it will not vanish so long as the blood pulses in human arteries, Thus once the ruler succeeds in anchoring the regulation of sexuality in an enduring coercive institution like religion—especially if, like Bush, he can co-opt America’s cornucopia of populist evangelical faiths—he has created prime conditions for imposing mass auto-repression.
The remainder of this drama is played out on the larger social stage. How fortunate for the authorities that late capitalism draws on the potentials of Eros to spawn endless sex industries whose fantasies light up the circuits of advertising, entertainment, and fashion, whence they fascinate the sex-repressing mind. The drawing of sex into commodity circuits is an inherent potential of capitalist production; and under the conditions of late capitalism, with its ruthless expansive force, its overproduction, and its consumerist impulse, the potential becomes as fundmental an attribute of the system as competition or concentration of capital. We are, inevitably, a sexually inundated society, which is to say, one in which all of sex’s flamboyant negativity—the queer rejection of officially proscribed positions along with the negations of sex itself—coexist in furious combat, each thriving from the other. Consequently, the appearance of massive counter-erotic formations suitable for organization by repressive ideologues of the Right should not surprise. The nation which has gone the furthest in realizing the potentials of accumulation also maximizes the role of sexuality in accumulation, and in so doing becomes the nation with the most flourishing counter-sexualities. These seep upward from the ground of everyday life to nourish the Jimmy Swaggarts, Pat Robertsons and, most consequentially, the Karl Roves of this world, where they await a George W Bush, the born-again, “rough beast” President slouching toward Armageddon.
It is no accident that this complex affects those in the so-called heartland, whose principal identity is forged by backwardness with respect to modernity, with its empowerment of women and challenge to patriarchy. Typically, the legions of Bush supporters from this zone are more the victims than the beneficiaries of the system. Riddled with debt, their jobs crumbling, alienating and insecure, and subjected to the everyday terror of the health industries, they find a spurious salvation in projecting the sources of their anxiety outward to strangers, most notably Al-Qaeda, but also the “French,” instead of looiking inward and risking the dissolution of the belief–system that gives life a sense of wholeness and hope. Dwelling within a society whose innermost logic is to destroy community, their evangelical churches have typically become community centers, and sometimes soup kitchens as well. Thus religion for them is not only the “heart of a heartless world,” but also its stomach. They feel better when they ask God to bless America, because it makes them feel strong through identification with the awesome might of our military, and also enables them to forget for a moment their profound weakness in face of the monster that produces the need for the military and throws their children into its maw. They want to feel loyal because loyalty is a way of feeling whole and attached to something bigger than the self; and they don’t want to explore ways of thinking that might shatter this brittle world. They can identify with Bush, because like them, he is the object of derision of liberal elites. And they think of Bush as authentic, because he is the more honest imperialist and jingoist, however deceptive he has had to be in order to fake his way through the rigamarole of international rules of conduct (a French plot, after all) to get what he wants. And each of W’s triumphs allows them to feel whole.
The more adulation Bush receives, the more grandiose he becomes, and the more ruinous. Thus the more the people believe in him, the worse he reveals himself to be, the more alienated his subjects become and the more do they have to cling to their belief in order to not be shattered and face, alone, the truth about America. And if they have to sacrifice the rights of sexual minorities and the integrity of women to do so, well, so be it, for these are the immemorial victims of the God of the Fathers, the beast in whom we trust, Amen.
But here our lament must end. For there are other days after the days of defeat. And for these we need to recall the authentic wisdom of the Left, expressed in the words of its martyr, Joe Hill and its blessed Mother Jones: “Don’t mourn, Organize!”
Joel Kovel is Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism, in whose March, 2005 issue a version of this will appear.