What is it with James Burnham? I associate him — via Curtis Yarvin — with the alt-right. And Burnham is the founding text of what I call the Alt-centre (of which I am the founder and which I’m hoping to parlay into world domination if only I can get some time away from the keyboard). And here is Burnham and the Marxist left. Well, Burnham was a Marxist, but his big contribution was the two books he wrote as he emerged as Trotsky’s best American mate and headed rightwards — The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. And they’re the texts discussed in the video.
Anyway, I can recommend the first presentation. It addresses Burnham’s concerns well. The only telltale sign that it’s from the Marxist left is the occasional creepy reference to where Burnham fails to be ‘dialectical’ in his thinking. I recall the phrase from Czesław Miłosz’s descriptions of the Stalinist intelligentsia in The Captive Mind. I hadn’t realised before then the imperative that Marxist regimes felt to ensure that all serious thinking to be done by the intelligencia be ‘dialectical’.
Apart from that, the talk seems very thoughtful and unflinching about the current state of the Marxian left (it’s in roughly the same state as the star of the parrot sketch). Following the links I discover The platypus Initiative no less — it’s a good name for putting reality ahead of thought (fancy that!) via this story. And here’s its premise:
Platypus contends that the ruin of the Marxist Left as it stands today is of a tradition whose defeat was largely self-inflicted, hence at present the Marxist Left is historical, and in such a grave state of decomposition that it has become exceedingly difficult to draft coherently programmatic social-political demands. In the face of the catastrophic past and present, the first task for the reconstitution of a Marxian Left as an emancipatory force is to recognize the reasons for the historical failure of Marxism and to clarify the necessity of a Marxian Left for the present and future. — If the Left is to change the world, it must first transform itself!
The improbable — but not impossible — reconstitution of an emancipatory Left is an urgent task ….. To abdicate this or to obscure the gravity of past defeats and failures by looking to “resistance” from “outside” the dynamics of modern society is to affirm its present and guarantee its future destructive reality.
That seems an excellent platform for developing an alt-left, one not weighed down by historical commitments and the sentimentalism that has so marred the left and its politics in the past.
Sad that, instead of dedicating themselves to reviving an emancipatory left, (or better still an emancipatory politics), they want to revive a Marxian left. Not that I have anything against Marx particularly, but .… well apart from anything else, this is guaranteed to bring in all the pimply, pamphleteering, performative, petty politicians just beginning their journey from the Socialist Workers’ Party to KPMG (via the Greens).
Anyway, the headings of their “Short History of the Left” make sure it’s all neatly coraled into one intellectual silo — you know the one that brought us nothing but misery, disaster and dead ends?
Marx and 1848
Lenin, Luxemburg and 1917
AdornoFrom ’68 — and ’89 — to today
It’s a pity I think. The first speaker made much of the way in which liberationist Marxist politics pursued in one way produced a new top-down tyranny. I think this is a very significant thought because our own lives today are very top-down. They’re not top-down in a dictatorial way. Everyone can pretty much do their own thing, but the structures wherein power is organised are profoundly and increasingly uniform and top-down. Economists are taught to think that the market is bottom-up while governments are necessarily top-down.
However, both of these ideas disguise increasingly important realities. In most markets, almost all of what goes on is the same. Competition between suppliers drives down costs and prices which is a mercy, (though it’s also a source of toxicity around the disparities between what makes money and what’s good for people — see fast food, and far more importantly, media). Beyond that, businesses are run by grand systems which are essentially uniform among organisations. Finance, Legal, HR, Comms and social media, Marketing, Purchasing, Government affairs. These predominate in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, though in not-for profit sectors there are additional functions — like ethics, though they may not be identified as such. Those without university education are increasingly rare in these areas and junior people are recruited as graduates with specialist qualifications — like marketing. This is the structure that Curtis Yarvin calls The Cathedral.
I couldn’t help thinking of the value of the kinds of things I go on about — such as sortition and what I’ve come to call ‘de-competitive‘ merit selection — as a response to this. Seems to me it is a direct response to the kinds of domination that was spoken about in the talk on Burnham. I can’t say this appeals across the aisle, because Yarvin thinks democracy is a bad idea in itself — that however nice it sounds it leads to decline and disaster. But why wouldn’t it be music to Marxist’s ears? My pointing to very specific institutional possibilities might seem strange as a response to Marxists. They’re thinking of grand systems — of government and ideology. But I think they make an instructive contrast. One is modular, and thus, scaleable and protean. The other is grand. It seems like the wrong place to start.
Anyway, there you have it. Two responses to the domination of those at the top of systems. Mine is to look for social and political artefacts that seem to address the issues, and which can be used in ways that seem safe and potentially benign. It doesn’t display the motivated impatience of the ideologue going from a powerful analysis of our problems to a solution. (We have a lot of powerful analyses of cancer, but we’re proceeding to the solutions slowly because the alternatives to that are worse.) I don’t know what the Platypus folks plan, but we do know that whether it works or not, whether it’s benign, or whether it leads to the next hell on earth, it will be Marxian left.