It was in a context very similar to this description of American civil society and culture that resistance theory first rose into prominence - the epiphany of Marxists in the post-WWII milieu that a desperate tactical maneuver must be undertaken amid the devastation of profound, irreversible strategic losses within the culture. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment announced this new darkness coming in the post-Hitler world of New York and Los Angeles and concluded that, culturally, Hitler had somehow won the war. Walt Disney was the new face of totalitarianism, alongside pop music: the “culture industry” that has indeed proven all-absorbing to Americans, and now to everyone, everywhere.
It was an apparently irresistible process, said Adorno’s friend Horkheimer in 1960’s Los Angeles, as he watched generations of young people evolve into a socialized state of anxiety about being overheard when they spoke about politics, class warfare, or other controversial subjects. He described his graduate students’ fear that their radical opinions might be under surveillance, and observed their inclination to adjust their speech so as to avoid getting caught: but also, he anticipated, the had an inclination to adjust their thoughts themselves so as to deliberately not think something, as if to suppress saying it, and so eliminate that thought from their own memory.
This unmediated social paranoia and willed amnesia was the darkness that Adorno dreaded in the sentimentality of Walt Disney’s films and theme parks. What is a society of people who shed passionate tears over Disney’s sentimentalist nature-lover “Bambi” movie while mindlessly chewing the industrial cud of tortured McDonald’s hamburgers? What is a society that obsesses over identity politics while the earth is being killed by American “modernization” and the industrial crises on the oceans, forests, and atmosphere is accelerating into a crescendo? It is as if the meaning of life has been separated from its own violence, and voluntarily forgotten – a simulation of innocence by killers – not crocodile tears, but princely tears of assassination, of the killing we regret but tragically (pathetically, actually) cannot and will not stop.
America’s Left has taken the Neoconservative culture war bait. We have gay marriages enshrined by our Democratic politicians while wars pass like football seasons, the oceans die, the climate collapses, nuclear proliferation grows unabated, and the spy state flowers into dimensions comparable to those of the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse. We live in a nightmare of engineered democratic impotence: a global sucker-punch. We have a pageant of political correctness broadcast over the silent incoherent suffering of sensory-deprived sleepwalkers. After his sentencing for exposing war atrocities, Bradley Manning announced that he had decided that he is in fact female, and The Nation and other would-be “Left” publications immediately adopted his new name, “Chelsea,” in their pathetic critiques of injustice against this wonderful woman. The confusion deafened America to this story, which has disappeared from the headlines like mice after the Pied Piper. Legislation was in progress to enshrine transgender recognition rights in civil society, like the rights of men, women, and former slaves, in a mad chattering choir of identity politics.
This man, under psychological torture and solitary confinement for two years prior to trial and conviction to 35 years in prison, who by his own virtue and solitary risk had exposed massive imperial military decadence and a military culture of systematic, gratuitous violence, starting a movement of independent journalism to bring these facts to the public, has been degraded. In his historic moment of condemnation by imperial military court, like Jesus hanging on the cross for his republic before the Roman governor, in the moment that the Savior spoke to God, saying “why has Thou forsaken me?,” Manning announced that he is not actually a man. The intellectuals applauded, and the masses moved on to the next issue, the next TV show, the next football game….
The confusion and incoherence of the Left is amphibian. The effect in discourse is that no one appears to care that our immediate collective physical survival is threatened. This social death instinct undermines the Enlightenment. As surfeit of passion plays and otherworldly morality, Americans over-identify with their pets, buy organic pet food, and become animal rights activists. A decadent, malevolent sentimentality presumes to replace civic virtue. Gay rights confer imperial privileges, not republican rights, imitating the race rights activists and women’s activists who sought to perfect and open the imperial city’s commercial liberty to all comers. Inclusion in the imperial family has yet again replaced enlightened self-governance.
In this confusion of imperial ambition, a laundry list of minority rights emerged as the defining concept of equality as the republic itself, and its civil society, was abandoned. Ignored were the rights of families to survive on a single salary so that children would have a home to return to; ignored were the reductions in wages and bargaining power from the duplication of available workforce to corporations. As the rights of foreign workers and immigrants rose to prominence, triply, the rights of the citizens of the American republic were cast aside like so many oyster shells. Imperial privilege had trumped republican loyalty in public consciousness, and in domestic policy, which now is but a subset of security in the “Homeland.”
A myopic revisionism infused practical mainstream strategies of political resistance. Implicitly accepting the imperial circumscription of the republic, Ralph Nader curtailed the ambition of his critical intention to a principle of populist marketing, direct mail, and pyramid schemes intended to engineer public consent around the new victim-hero of public life in America: the consumer. In the fortress of this new power, even Nader has long observed the lack of ideas, and general lack of literacy among activists, who resemble pilgrims or paladins more than politicians.
Nader chose the consumer as a universal subject, and helped bore the world to death with platitudes of car safety, toy safety, clever ways to save money, clean government, and an even playing field for capitalism, while the wars raged, the atmosphere collapsed, and imperial shock doctrine politics trumped policy over and over and over again, like a serial abuser. Issue politics followed, with the public interest carved into a toxic rainbow of micro-constituencies – a people self-divided, self-conquered.
All these trivialized intellects of race, sexual preference, consumer advocacy and the like, have dominated the political discourse on the left while increasingly radicalized culture conservatives, perceiving their attack upon civil society (like gay education laws in grammar schools), have become increasingly fundamentalist, alarmist, and culturally polarized. A cadre of political eunuchs emerges in the empire’s many capitals, enforced by the hate police and a rapidly growing definition of psychopathology. As society gets less violent, crimes are invented to keep the institutions full. It is madhouse as utopia. Enter the gay neoliberal: the “death of environmentalism” is announced; nuclear power declared to be carbon-free, and new leaders emerge exhorting greens to grow up and eliminate technological prejudices to GMOs and nuclear power. The degree of dissembling and unrestrained poesie is beyond Orwell; it has the narcotic, mutative, perverse, dyslexic pathos of Huxley’s SOMA in Brave New World.
The blade of empire is double-sided, cutting in any direction, and infecting all organs. For their part, today American ecologists are buying up huge regions of the Amazon rainforest to protect ecosystems against the very indigenous people who have lived there in ecological harmony since long before the industrial revolution. Ignoring neoliberal policies that have opened up the forest to foreign corporate development, and displaced the peoples who work for them, like fanatical witchdoctors or Grand Inquisitors in a global purification ritual, they seek to purify the forest of Indians. Many ecologists today believe overpopulation causes climate change and damage to ecology, not corporations, not governments, and not America’s neoliberal hyper-growth agenda, despite the fact that most CO2 is caused in the least populated, most developed parts of the world (with the exception of newcomers China, India and Brazil because of longstanding neoliberal modernization projects to make those countries develop themselves in America’s image). Like Britain’s Prince Phillip, these ecologists would prefer a Holocaust, however unfortunate, to a change in economic policy, which they consider immutable and permanent. Like Crusaders, they would hazard all and question nothing. This depressed hysteria or ennui of The Intellectual is the classic formula that tolerated Hitler’s rise to power. Unfortunately, this dyslexic indolence has bound American political discourse for over half of a century.
POSITIVE DIALECTICS AND THE LOCALIZATION OF DEMOCRACY
2Positive Dialectics, a theory I proposed in a 1992 University of Chicago thesis based on the study of anti-racists propaganda in Austria and Germany during the Revisionist Crisis of Marxism (that may explain the emergence of National Socialism), was a response to Adorno, whose Negative Dialectics recommended a pessimistic strategy for the hermetic preservation of the Enlightenment (which he understood as the actual cultural capacity of enlightened discourse and historical memory of the genuine event from Francis Bacon on). English ideas about the power of Reason to overcome all other powers on earth – be they religious, military, or other--, had been opposed by Johann G.V. Herder and others as a sterile invention of organic culture, like religion and loyalty. For post-Marxist Adorno, a second Dark Age was upon us, with the Enlightenment lost to technical domination, and the only chance of keeping historical memory also lost for good. The most we could hope for in this second Dark Age, reasoned Adorno, was lesser surrogate tactics.
Adorno’s theory was the entire foundation of resistance theory, which was, in so many words, a desperate effort to preserve the memory of lost Enlightenment knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s related work posed a use of farce in art, and spawned a movement in felonious political art. But he viewed the change in light of the concept of millennial time, in which people no longer view their lives as empty time being filled with (private) experience, but as a single moment (the present) looking back into the furnace of history – a backward tragedy and confidence game. Adorno’s own interest in music also reflects the simulation-oriented trivialization or “lightening” that characterizes all resistance theory. Archeologically or philologically finding the kinds of practices imagined by Benjamin’s view of time as afterglow and the future as the vision of an angel being blasted backward through time, looking at us standing here in the present, Michel de Certeau identified seeds of “resistance” in criminal ghetto behavior.
Having myself grown up in such ghetto conditions, I was horrified by the naivety of this theory, though I still considered it the greatest version of resistance theory I could find. The common dyslexic understanding identifies strength with big muscles, when in fact big muscles signify illiteracy and social weakness. The strong play weak, and the weak play cock of the walk when they meet on the street. The idea that this was resistance, I found as maddening as it is mad. On the other hand, I should acknowledge that I was a major vandal as a child, starting with churches and then, when the plum orchard near my trailer park was razed to the ground by developers, I targeted newly built houses. In time, I would vandalized my public schools too, and finally the home and limousine of the owner of the Oakland Raiders, an American football team. While drawn into the drama of resistance, defying priests and vandalizing buildings because I hated them and wanted to do worse, I was drawn also to the discovery that there was no power in resistance; thus, I ultimately understood, no virtue either. By means of such resistance, I could not accumulate knowledge or political content; but it did instead turn me psychologically into a criminal type of person – or nearly did so, until I understood the lack of virtue that such resistance involves. My criminal resistance was eventually turned around into so-called “pro-social” behavior. How? The transformation had nothing to do with any doctrines or discussed opinions about environmentalism, energy, politics, or even people. Like Nietzsche, I couldn’t care less, and I do not feel responsible for humanity. I rather recognize our filthy animal selves, and look to other things.
The first idea I had on the lack of virtue found in resistance was actually a question: how to get out of the cage of thinking at American colleges and universities? From the politically correct right Born-Again to the politically correct Left Gay movement, it is all a sentimental journey of imperial utopians pretending they will have a perfect society through endless symbolic tweaking – no Exit, no way out, but Marcuse’s late-term fantasy about revolution through sexual experience. Communism discredited, and the cream of the crop digging around for bones of resistance, back in 1989 when the Wall came down, I wanted to turn this discussion around 180 degrees and ask the questions: What is our genre? Can we do something other than critiques and farce? Why be so desperate about theory out of anxiousness over mass power, when we can simply govern directly? Not just by “participating” generally in politics based on the flavor of the month, but by strategically applying and making happen a specific, unthinkable but needed change to the rules of commerce for major commercial leviathans, that either threaten or harm the welfare of the world’s people. On this field, and provided a legal democracy, the individual can compete against a behemoth. Is this not an opportunity?
Benjamin’s understanding penetrated into the role of time in the imperialist mentality. To the religious right of Benjamin, Martin Buber observed that life is empty time that you must fill with your experience; Marcuse pointed towards the self-programmers; Foucault assaulted schools and psychiatric hospitals, archaeologically holding up the voice of Unreason as a repressed revolutionary cultural DNA. Ivan Illich would have returned to Aristotelian, pre-Roman Christianity: that is, to cultural liberation by way of conviviality based upon the acceptance and embrace of death. But these imaginary fragmentary spectacles of resistant poesies shepherded no new agency of history. They merely reflected the turning-inward of cowards hiding among the corpses. Norman O Brown provided unlived life within us that Marcuse would sexually subvert in order to bring about a new form of class consciousness and thus deliver the long-awaited Revolution; Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone machine attempted to free the inner madman to release us from an oppressive and violence-inducing Freudian Victorianism. High theory bled into street theater. Really, it was a circus of pagan frenzies. Turning away from these relics and hallucinations of human virtue, without the Athenian (localist, diasporic) example, how was Enlightenment to proceed? Is this not the dilemma of Adorno’s Dark Age? We need an example to go forward, a scriptural success, or demonstration. Imperialism is over: we need to achieve this paradise: here.
The core concept behind Positive Dialectics is applying historical, philosophical knowledge and know-how to a different activity other than eulogies, apologies, tragedies, and farces. It is an attempt to resurrect theory in relation to an action, rather than to metaphysics. Positive Dialectics is a theory of changed locution, a different scriptural practice using the skills of an historian of philosophy: a transformed scriptural practice of history.
This is in part a story of Rip Van Winkle – a 20 year walkabout through the valley of the shadow of American capitalism, trespassing and vandalizing as I went, according to a simple premise: I would undertake a scriptural practice of a direct imminent participation in a strategic industrial corner of contemporary history. I would build it into a crusade to realize a different energy future in mainstream U.S. politics. The theory was that this would provide direct contemporary information as a basis for dialectically generating a substantiated transcendent critique of that history. This secondary polemical force in politics would empower the language by filling it with relevance in the immediate future. It would also, for historical writing about the present and immediate future, provide original material by which to explain the historical past. An engagement, yes; but not praxis separate from theory; nor theory unbridled into poesie `a la Derrida; nor archaeological assaults from the otherness or so called “alterity” – the æther of postmodernism. Ultimately, without a better foundation, the philosopher always goes for the little guy. And this turns him into a fraud that is always conspiring with the enemies of all foreign governments! He would claim high ground, call himself an internationalist….
The practice of virtue and action of character imagined from Cicero to Diderot and Karl Marx (the dismal theory of Praxis) would change not just in terms of writing about something different; it would no longer write about, but within, its subject. It would no longer criticize, but propose. It would not resist, but protagonize. It would speak across the empty time of public policy, but maintain principles of visionary simplicity and political non-compromise. It would rest upon an action of direct governance by one intellectual working, in the end, with a small group of others to establish a practical foundation of enabling laws, authorities, plans, standards, and practices to make energy localization not merely imaginable but legally implementable by city council ordinance: the basic building block of all democracy. This practice of virtue and action would, moreover, proliferate across the world’s communities.
The basic idea was to produce writing de-sequestered from within critique and applied to law. Rather than observe and advise power, in the tradition of political theory, Positive Dialectics proposed that an action of Enlightenment should be accomplished directly, not through institutions, but through original scriptural production. As such, I proposed to make a personal demonstration of how Positive Dialectics is a viable alternative to resistance theory, to the Roman model of the lost republic, to our own failed resistance to empire.
First, this required the conceptualization of a project that would solve a big problem. As a proof, I determined to transform the U.S. electricity industry. I did so for the reason that this is the hardest industrial sector to change historically, and is both the single largest cause of pollution worldwide and the largest concentration of capital that exists in most of the world’s economies, with nuclear power adding a military impact from proliferation and resulting military threats based on the presence of nuclear materials in plants and uranium enrichment facilities. Energy is the center of the domestic economy controlled mostly by power and gas monopolies and cartels. Indeed, the control of foreign energy defines the U.S. military.
These industries are causing climate change and actively campaigning against anyone who tries to do something about it. They lead the Left in a circle between bad regulation and criminal deregulation. The energy industry has resisted technological change for decades, corrupting and controlling governments and using this leverage to erect barriers to policymakers and competitors who might achieve public objectives inimical to their private interests. This has produced policy collapse worldwide as well as a rapidly collapsing atmosphere and ocean die-offs from increasing acidity and radiation. Fuel is a destructive business upon which power was built, but from which power must now firmly divorce itself. Clearly, a successful application of theory to such a great problem as this would constitute proof of the general viability or integrity – and magnitude! – of a more general political theory. This would be the first such theory since the 18th century other than that proposed by Jurgen Habermas, the student of Horkheimer and Adorno who focused on communication and got lost in the scholastic belly button of communication theory, when he should have focused on legitimation and the fact (the easily verifiable fact) that communication and information conditions are always imperfect. Only the past may be woven into a moral or a tragedy.
Energy clearly represents the greatest and hardest theoretical nut to crack within the admittedly ambitious purview of a theoretical experiment that aims to change scriptural practice from critique to direct governance. In theory, if successful with this effort to shift intellectual locution to the legislation and fomenting of an alternative to the incumbent energy industry, then Positive Dialectics would stand as a politically feasible alternative to resistance theory and postmodernism. This positive dialectical legism would provide an alternative process by means of which communities could transform any policy area where important failures of democracy relative to business and public institutions have created urgent problems and dysfunction, such as food safety, health insurance, and financial security. A principle of localism is essential to this way of reestablishing democratic sovereignty. Municipal government, understood not as a subsidiary of state, federal and international government organizations, but as the natural, organic right of every community to control its government and of every person in that community to control his life: this is the sort of localism that Positive Dialectics identifies as an intellectual opportunity.
To date, the project has involved 20 years of continuous writing in virtually all areas of electric utilities, power markets, power generation technologies, demand reduction technologies, and building automation and micro-grid technologies; state and local permitting rules and procedures, public finance, energy cost modeling, financial modeling, local governance and charter amendments, and many other technical areas of work. But this project has also involved direct political leadership on major campaigns against deep-pocketed energy companies that are hell bent on silencing any and all opposition to their monopolistic control of the millions, and in truth, billions of dollars associated with keeping everyone’s light on.
The Cold War dialectic of American capitalism versus Eurasian communism is the impasse and threshold of a post-postmodern political philosophy. It is also a challenge to economics itself, specifically “price theory,” and more broadly the naivety of market fundamentalism. With world carbon markets failing by design and regulatory collapse compromising public control of the energy economy, humanity totters in circles like lost chicks pecking for some foothold in a simple, local economic resilience. Separated from the very same imperial regimes and state social engineering that brought about the collapse, the democratic institutions of America have grown tired and have in fact been destitute for half a century. America’s imperial navy and air force busily spread the domestic ideological disaster known as Modern Life throughout the post-Cold War world. Who would dare deny this darkest of truths? The United States is the defining historical disaster of our time.
Changing this historical disaster will require a reawakening of basic inalienable political power. Municipalities need independence from the tired old institutions of the twentieth century, and must rest on a firmer foundation of public wealth. In order for the Enlightenment to avoid killing itself, democracy must be improved upon, not merely defended or circumscribed for transgressions. In order for democracy to improve, it must deal with serious failures of civil society to participate in self-governance and confront the very real barriers to successful local governance and autonomy imposed by federal control and corporate power. In order for civil society to self-correct and become sufficiently literate to avoid economically-caused catastrophes unlike anything it has faced before, municipal autonomy must be affirmed as the constitutional foundation for a new and improved localist democracy. What stands in the way of these needed changes is the fear that local power competes with personal power. This fear is not new. As early as the eighth century, the venerable Bede identified such fear as the cause and motive force of England becoming so vulnerable to invasion and so incapable of self-defense. Similar stories abound in the European invasion of the Americas, where cities of millions could not do battle against twenty armed conquistadors; and in Constantinople, where a small group of Franks destroyed the greatest city on earth against an utterly disloyal cosmopolitan civil society. The ambivalence of cultural disappointment and isolation in displaced American communities is mirrored in these series of historical Fromm-like “escapes from freedom.”
Affirming local democracy is like giving a job to an ex-convict: necessary, but dubious. One must choose between evils: the corruptibility of the individual vs. the corruptibility of many. Arithmetically, the Demos has better odds against corporations at City Hall than at the Capitol. Localization is at the bottom of this new "socialism" – this municipal anarchism as Murray Bookchin called it, or “free socialism.” At issue is a reorganization of constitutional power upon the individual, then the municipal, on which state power is based, with federal power resting upon state consent. This will not be easy; but no solution would be easy to undertake. To think that passing voluntarily from the lie of empire to the oath of republic would be easy is simply outrageous. We must embrace the complexity and improbability of our predicament as the fullness and promise of a real life.
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