Interview with Brian Holmes: Steps Toward a Cultural Strategy

Michael Wilson: Earlier this year, you were a part of a group of artists, students, educators, writers and theorists who came together at The Public School in an attempt to understand the crisis and to formulate radical responses.  Were your recent pieces on this site conceived in light of that project?

Brian Holmes: Of course. The students’ movement in California and around the US is a real opening for radical politics. It raises basic questions about what society has become and where it is going. I am a long-term critic of neoliberalism, I am convinced that this form of capitalism is totally unsustainable and unlivable. Since, however, it is squarely installed in the realms of knowledge, culture and information — since it is cognitive capitalism — it seems there is no more strategic point for opposition than the universities. That doesn’t mean that every point of opposition is not important, just that this one could become crucial if enough people would raise the basic questions of value, what’s society good for, how am I participating, which consequences does that have on others, etc. Those kinds of questions form the basis of the practical philosophy that interests me. The work at the Public School is one expression of this practical philosophy that comes to grips with the currently existing forms of society and asks how do these social forms make us who we are? How could we transform ourselves and the world we share? As the economy tanks and the basic insanity of the current mode of development reveals itself in the social unconscious, I guess there may well be increasing chances to get involved in this kind of thing.

MW: You seemed to experience a lot of hope at the US Social Forum – conjuring up an atmosphere of something like visionary realism. Did you feel a new kind of energy there? Is there a continuity with the anti-globalization movement or is this something new?

BH: I think it’s totally continuous, but social movements are directly confronted with the times, they are the expression of people facing today’s problems on the ground. To that extent, whenever such movements are active they are new. Perhaps quite a large number of movements are more active now than in the preceding ten years, because the needs and opportunities are greater. I definitely felt a new kind of energy there because I have never been to such a thing in the US (I lived the last 20 years in Europe). I guess most everyone involved in radical politics is somewhat visionary — they see the possibility of a different society — so when you all meet it’s an assemblage or concatenation of visions, that’s pretty inspiring. What’s new to me is the resolve of the American activists to go on with a double program, which involves opposing one or several facets of society as it is, usually on the national or systemic level, while pursuing some already existing transformative process on the ground, at the community level. This doesn’t function in the same way as the diffuse “hope” around the Obama campaign. It’s both more pragmatic and more idealistic. I left the Social Forum feeling very respectful of peoples’ capacities to sustain their systemic resistance on their home territories.

MW: That seems to be key — sustaining resistance on home territories. If our home territories are education, research-based art, journalism and more academic systems analysis, how important is it to integrate our approaches? Through something as disciplined as a collective re-imagining of pedagogy or just by resisting the star/fashion systems of their various disciplines and working together?

BH: That’s a very precise question. Actually the answer demands such an articulation in practice, to see what it produces. In France I used to work with an association of graphic artists based in a city called Ivry, just outside Paris. That association involved journalists, sociologists and also a version of systems analysis called Marxism. Popular education was one of the main concerns of this group, which was called “Ne Pas Plier” (Do Not Bend). Most of the work was around unemployed people’s movements, immigrants’ rights, homelessness and the general theme of exclusion. It was a very strong experience, and we made some significant contributions to the counter-globalization movement. From my perspective there was a limit to the way the group articulated itself, in a kind of national-communist framework that had made a lot of sense for several generations but was now seeing its institutional base erode without being able to connect to anything emergent. So I ended up leaving, but I always had this desire for exactly the kind of articulation you are suggesting. The tendency for me has been to work out of a more active moment — artistic research, activist campaigns — rather than beginning with pedagogy. In the US there is a kind of implied neutrality to pedagogy which undoubtedly has its reasons for existing in a multicultural democracy, but which makes political articulation difficult. There are definitely kinds of knowledge that have value in and of themselves, but knowledge about society does not fall into that category, it has a purpose, it’s political. So there is a kind of intuitive progression whereby journalistic or artistic investigation of society leads both to activism and to the analysis of social systems, with all of that providing the material for an engaged educational practice that is in itself politically motivated (though not simply subordinated to any of the components that go into it). Whether you unfold that progression by a disciplined process or just by working together with some kind of healthy repulsion toward prevailing norms, is a question of taste, of inclinations, of opportunities, whatever. Working across the disciplines, without denying their particular capacities and expertise, is definitely what I find most promising.

MW: In Fault Lines & Subduction Zones, you say that “we missed the opportunity of the 2008 meltdown and failed to impose any re-evaluation of the basic tenets of neoliberalism.” Could you elaborate on this?

BH: Hmm, we just went through the biggest financial crisis since 1929 and there has been no revision of the major tenets of neoliberal economics as put into practice by public officials. The whole recovery effort, including the Keynesian stimulus packages, has been conceived as a way to return the economy to its finance-driven, just-in-time production of hyper-consumerism. The models incarnated by Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart — lightening fast computerized trading for the few, massive importation of cheap Chinese products for the many — remain the ideal figures of this society. As soon as the credit-card bottoms out it doesn’t work anymore, and obviously people are not going to get jobs out of that economy, just read the headlines. What I found impressive was the almost total absence of any expertise to support an opposing vision. Of course there are opposing visions, notably around the idea that the whole pattern of energy usage in our society needs to be reformulated through the production of basic tools and infrastructure: better insulated living spaces, more efficient transportation networks, multiple and decentralized energy production through solar and wind methods, healthier food production with less industrial inputs and so forth. There is also a growing recognition that these transformations involve basic changes in values and desires, therefore, there is an imaginary side to it, a need to rework “the imaginary institution of society,” as Castoriadis would say. But no one is able to act on these perceptions. One reason is that a broad constituency perceives no need to act: huge sectors of society see no urgency in climate change, they have no cultural problems with big-box consumption, they’re nationalist and militarist and they want less taxation. But the other reason, closer to us, is that for the last thirty years all the experts educated in the neoliberal universities have been trained only to fine-tune and perfect the formulas of finance-driven growth, global supply chains, human capital etc. Which is more functional and therefore more deadly than atavistic nationalism. It will be interesting to see whether the continuing decay in our quality of life leads to the appearance of some new ideas on the political and administrative stages.

MW: In the same text, you call for a “powerful utopian vision … with a concrete grasp” and “a new kind of common sense.” What characterizes this common sense? Fundamental assumptions about possibilities beyond the present crisis? Or a ‘sense of the common’ that others have talked about?

BH: I’ll go with both of those. You know, the theme of “the common” put forth by the Italian autonomist Marxists has been echoed very powerfully in much wider social circles by the Nobel prize awarded to Elinor Ostrom for her work on the commons, that is, on the management or stewardship of collectively used resources like grazing grounds, forests, fisheries and so forth. That’s a big turnaround for a prize committee that has been promoting Milton Friedman’s disciples for so many years, all of whom subscribe to the “tragedy of the commons” thesis that makes the free market into the only effective way of managing scarce resources. What we have been proposing for many years in autonomist circles is that culture itself — including science and technology — is a commons of language, image, affect and ideas, that it grows in productivity and value through the sharing of inventions and that this offers a new basis for social wealth in the knowledge societies. You can find these ideas throughout Hardt and Negri’s work, and they were developed quite extensively in France by participants in the Multitudes journal. Behind that, Karl Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation, has been a huge inspiration for me. However, when I referred to a “common sense” I wasn’t actually thinking about such subtle things, more about the need to regain a political program that many people can agree on and share broadly as first principles on which the rest depends. For those purposes, an insistence on the common or on common goods as a kind of productive antithesis to private ownership and profit is probably too abstract. Still there’s obviously an interest in pursuing fundamental philosophical work in that direction!

MW: You seem critical of eschatology, but it seems clear that you also believe that we are at the end of an age or at a time of profound transformation. Is this in response to what might be called a fetishizing of ‘the end’ on the left?

BH: Since the time of Marx, leftists have always believed that capitalism was about to end in some mega-crisis. That belief has been obsolete since the Thirties, when Keynesian social-democracy added a new wrinkle to the capitalist state and proved that even major economic crises can be managed. In the wake of the Great Depression, and also of the long-term recession of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of financially-driven globalization, what’s become evident to many social theorists is that the capitalist economy goes through technological, organizational, political and geographical changes in the course of each major crisis. So instead of focusing on “end times” we should look down the pipe and try to imagine what it might be like to come out on the other side. It may not look good, but it can’t be changed if you just deny it. People love the apocalyptic imaginary, but I am more interested in pathways through chaos.

MW: Is this a mirror of what we see on the right – an ‘end’-fetish/death drive channeled into fascist expressions?

BH: Everyone has their favorite psychological interpretation of Cheney, Palin, the Tea Party, Joe the Plumber and so on. But it’s easy to get lost in psychology. I just wanna say that a practical definition of fascism is when corporate elites seize on nationalist sentiment to carry out a program of police repression at home and militarism abroad, with state control over industrial production dictated and legitimated by those same urgencies. That sounds a lot like what we had from 2000 to 2008. I’d also maintain that the issue of state control over the banking and financial sectors is not the same as the militarization of the industrial economy. The latter is more closely associated with the right, and it’s built deeply into this society, Obama has done very little to change that. If there is a failure to get financialization under control and to achieve any transformation of consumerist desires, then a full-fledged war economy is likely to reappear as a pseudo-solution to the decline of American credit. That’s a present danger, given the dysfunctional nature of free-market thinking and the increasing likelihood that its Republican proponents will return to power. Industrial elites, nationalism and the militarization of the economy were the central facts of fascism back in the mid-twentieth century and their relevance to the present can’t be ignored. I do wonder about the denial of the ecological consequences of hyper-industrial society, the outburst of nationalist aggressivity, the underlying death-drive that suggests and so on. Max Blumenthal has written a fascinating but also somewhat simplistic book on James Dobson and Focus on the Family which takes the psychological road, check it out. I would be interested in going back to Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which seems to be the founding text of leftist psychology, and exploring the long series of left-right conflicts that have knotted themselves around interpretations of childhood and sexuality. However I have not done the work and it’s probably a good class for The Public School.

MW: That’s an idea. Do you think work like Blumenthal’s is indicative of a liberal-left analysis in general – one that seeks to marginalize all radical challenges to neoliberal hegemony by labeling them ‘extremist’?

BH: Well, I’m sure the liberal left perceives me as an extremist! But even on the further left we are quick to toss our adversaries off as loonies. The thing about the neocons is that for a long time they have been playing a very canny game with the reactions to capitalist alienation that continually arise from their grassroots base. The neocon elites take those expressions of angst very seriously, then blow them up into nationalist, racist, anti-government rhetoric that they can use to win elections and impose their neoliberal program. On the left, we prefer to diagnose the Tea Party types and explain why they’re nuts, twisted, complexed or whatever. Blumenthal has some important psychological insights, but he follows this old leftist bent which is the easy way out, because it explains social problems rather than confronting social actors. At least Reich had a cultural strategy, he was suggesting the need for a different kind of childhood education, exactly the opposite of the disciplinary kind that Dobson recommends. Yet that still avoids the problem of making political arguments against people who have a well-defined stand on issues of national sovereignty, social cohesion, jobs and so on. The thing would be to use the Reichean psychological insights to understand how the nationalistic reactions are constituted, then find an analysis that reopens the connection between those reactions and their initial departure point, which in my view lies in the shock of continuous expropriation, deskilling, economic dislocation, financial predation and manipulative advertising culture. Up until recently the liberal left wasn’t really concerned about these things — they were able to get lucrative jobs out of informationalism and globalization, plus they enjoyed the mobility and the pleasures of hyper-consumerism. Now we have to offer our own answers to much more difficult questions.

Childhood education is a big part of this — authoritarian forms of organization on the level of education emerge directly from capitalist austerity, don’t they? Instead of talking about the de-funding of the public sector, we’re obsessed with discipline and standards-based achievement goals. This is what Dobson wants to produce from the start, but he certainly doesn’t stop there and neither should a movement that seeks to oppose fascism and/or capitalism. Dobson, and the right in general, consciously operate on many levels. But you seem to be asking for a way of understanding why someone would be mobilized by reactionary passions rather than liberatory ones and that leads one into the dynamics of resentment — precisely the thing capitalism produces more efficiently than anything else, even when it’s in freefall, no?

BH: You are right, an economic collapse can set off the dynamics of resentment, it’s been seen before. But the thing is to find the affective nexus where resentment and authoritarianism spring, and to offer some different resolution, a kind of constructive play — far away from standards and discipline. That was done with the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies, but in a utopian way that surfed on an economy of abundance. The utopianism was often libertarian in the broad sense of the term and so it got absorbed into the New Economy, it became the raw material of entrepreneurial innovation, what I call the flexible personality. In that regard, the Nineties marked a dead end in a cultural strategy of play. What has remained alive on the left and is re-emerging now is an ecological constructivism that seeks a positive response to the crisis.

MW: We seem to be collectively desiring some sort of cathartic rupture with the present – militant religious movements are one response, but the analysis you propose is a long way from rapture. How does the left reconcile that gap?

BH: I dunno, I try not to get apocalyptic. Then again, consider that the Book of Revelation was written during the decline of the Roman Empire. You are right that the contemporary sense of meaninglessness and disarray goes deep, and it may be that something more than just the American empire is ending. A full-fledged ecological crisis would ultimately entail a transformation of industrialism itself, a change of civilization. It’s obvious that the Old Left, a praxis philosophy for industrial civilization, has done nothing to overcome the gap you are talking about. Mike Davis goes around the planet of slums and finds only religious prophets. Surely it is more valuable to go to the Andean regions of South America and see how indigenist movements are transforming the leftist call for equality and redistribution. Those are materialist ecological struggles, of tremendous political importance. But I think when you come back, you still have to find out where the roots of social change can take hold here, and what they can blossom into. In the Sixties we started to understand that our frontier society was deeply imperialist, and that the difference between conquest and co-existence is profound. To make that discussion exist again in contemporary terms would be a beginning. To extend the discussion to include the problem of co-existence with our own intellectual faculties and tool-making capacities would be even better. We have to learn to live with the tremendous disruptive capacities of our own minds, it is a civilizational challenge.

MW: If an engaged, critical pedagogy is a way to mediate between activism and theory, how can we keep it vital? Paolo Friere emphasizes the need to work with those who are directly affected by what he calls the ‘thematic of domination’. Pedagogy is crucial to the revolutionary project for him, but it’s a dialogical, generative process facilitated by the ‘teacher/student’ from below — not a process of illumination executed by a vanguard elite. It seems like this form of ‘teaching’ is both more difficult and urgent than ever, considering the standards-based approach that’s infested the educational system in this country.

BH: You’re a working teacher, so you have a far better understanding of what’s possible in the classroom than I do. Particularly when it’s a matter of undoing the strange hierarchical relationship that has emerged between the precarious adjunct and the paying, loan-taking student. What interests me right now are co-educational processes that arise out of a desire to go on exploring ideas and interpreting information, long after the formal learning experience is over — or while it’s happening, for those students who don’t find what they’re seeking in the universities. I think this kind of experimental process could constitute a very different sort of vanguard, one that’s not based on an elite but instead on a radical difference in social relations. There are lots of people starting up such experiments right now and I just want to join them, to collaborate. If we — by which I mean the self-organized educational movement that’s now arising — can manage to develop situations that are intrinsically valuable, then maybe that will influence the wider culture. New ideas and new desires always have to be created by someone, sometime, somewhere. The current restructuring of the public university system is an invitation to look elsewhere, to investigate other possibilities.

3 Responses to

  1. Mi

    Probiotics for my digesting mind. This article fed me so much. I studied “development” as an undergraduate as a goal for “developing” countries. Those with radical viewpoints don’t possess the “master’s tools” (orthodox economic understanding) and those who study (neoliberal) economics as a “natural” system only gain access to ‘development frameworks’ at postgraduate levels.  The field of development on a u.s. National and local level is largely reduced to low income housing developments and urban planning. I think we need grassroots enterprise to begin vindicating ” shock of continuous expropriation, economic dislocation, financial predation, and  manipulative advertising” Community centers that address those issues are needed (e.g. instead of using those centers as youth incubators. An ecological movement alone is not enough, what about the “cultural commons!?” Few organizations deal with these issues in terms of “developed” countries – new economics foundation is one.