The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.
Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.
You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake.
This is not, I think, a mere oversight. The problem is much deeper than that: it is that the dominant ideologies of the left-wing anti-neoliberal sphere are constitutionally incapable of presenting a positive moral vision, because they seek to reject the very foundations of moral argument. E.g. Marxist historical materialism, with its pretensions to being an anti-metaphysical exercise in objectivity, explicitly rejects the necessity of a normative argument for socialism or communism. (Outside the work of G.A. Cohen, anyway, though he is far from orthodox.) Moral principles become mere cultural artifacts, interesting only because they seem to benefit the interests of one class or another. Postmodernism and post-structuralism are even more explicit in their attempts to problematize the whole of normative ethics into oblivion. There is no foundation from which one might construct an ought because “ought,” like all positive assertions, is a foe to be defeated.
But politics without an “ought” is a shapeless gesture. Most communists see some reason to prefer communism beyond craven self-interest, yet they deny themselves access to the vocabulary with which they could express reasons for that preference. Same goes for the post-anarchists. Where’s the reason or imperative for this other, better world? References to coercion or oppression are just an exercise in question-begging. Strip away the dross and they become strong moral claims that have been unmoored from any deeper normative context.
It doesn’t have to be like this. At one point, I hoped that Occupy would be the soil out of which a new “ought” would grow. By reconstructing the public left-wing communal sphere, I hoped that the first occupiers had created an environment in which the next Big Idea could be found. But that never quite came to fruition — the very thing that made Zuccotti Park such a great communal space, its famous inclusiveness, was the very thing that made it an inhospitable climate for attempts at philosophical holism. Something still might have emerged, given more time, but the physical space in which that could have occurred has been destroyed. Zuccotti is unoccupied, and its former residents have fractured into a thousand worthy causes. There is no unifying principle, for both good and ill.
We need to look elsewhere. I don’t have any answers, but I at least have some ideas about where we might start. For example: with a recently dead, critically revered postmodern novelist.
Counter-intuitive, I know. And probably likely to prompt eye rolls from regular readers, who know about my longstanding David Foster Wallace obsession and might expect me to use any excuse I can to work him into a post. But I think a close look will show that DFW deeply understood the predicament that we now face, and was trying to find his own way out. To him, the great dangers of the modern era were solipsism, selfishness, loneliness, and the seeming inaccessibility of capital-T Truth. He tended to frame this struggle in the language of the personal and the abstract, but a brief glance at some of his interviews and minor works show that his concerns were also very much political. If we were to put those concerns in political language, we might say that DFW feared the cult of radical individualism. He saw it as not just socially, but spiritually corrosive. The only escape appeared to be some sort of impersonal moral truth, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was, and he took seriously the threat postmodernism presents to moral truth. So he used the tropes of postmodern literature to answer the postmodern challenge and try to find a way to the other side.
He never completed that project, but he dropped some hints as to where the answer might be found: see his occasional reverential nods towards Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, two great writers who confronted the challenges of an earlier modernity head on. Both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were deeply religious, but neither shied away from the challenges of atheism, nihilism and materialism. To them, the man of faith was not just permitted but required to stare into the darkness and struggle with what he found there.
Their answer to the darkness, of course, was Christ. DFW doesn’t seem to have been a Christian, but he does have what one might call the religious attitude, best expressed in his commencement speech to Kenyon University:
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
I submit that when the left finds its “ought,” it will find it in the religious attitude. We need to find something that we can worship together. The non-neoliberal right already understands this, and that’s why they remain a much more organized and powerful force in American politics than the non-neoliberal left. But what they worship — a mythologized and heavily militarized nation, an atavistic and gender essentialist notion of the family, a creedal theistic system that you reject at your peril, and so forth — is not what we should seek to emulate. Worship can be naturalistic, nontheistic, non-creedal and inclusive, even as it remains philosophically rigorous and normatively potent.
Getting there from scratch, of course, can be sort of tricky.