A Dialectic Of Normality

Today, I just finished reading the very interesting Nihilist Communism. In what I see as the major text of the book, which comes at its end (it begins, after a 2009 introduction by Frere Dupont–the one of the book’s two authors who did not completely abandon politics in the wake of their project–with an edited set of letters between the two authors, and follows with a collection of various articles and interventions the pair produced), “Cruelty, or, the Inclusion of the Distributive Sphere,” the author(s) engage in a very pointed analysis of the movements of the Seventies. (This period of time has been the subject of a remarkable amount of analysis in the decades since; it’s hard not to conclude that, despite the mutually-exclusive nature of many of these analyses, they all refer to something real. In Lacanese, they are so many Imaginary narratives trying to make sense of the injunction of a Real trauma into the Symbolic order of everyday life. Consider: postmodernity, de-industrialization/post-industrial society, Autonomia’s (in)famous notion of “immaterial labor” or what Hardt & Negri will later re-name “biopolitical production”, the communisateurs’ narrative of the “death of programmatism”, etc…) On a certain level, the thrust of Monsieur Dupont’s analysis touches on recurring theme of capitalist civil society: the relation between the individual and society in terms of “normality” or “normalcy.” Here, I will simply lay out some rough thoughts in my preferred form of a dialectical quartet.

1. Normality as such. In many ways the collapse of the post-war Golden Age of Capital was the collapse of precisely this. All of a sudden, normality became the purview of the Right, relegated to the past of the Tradition which was, suddenly, on the losing side of the (unending?) Culture War(s). Here in the US, the figure here is of course that of the 50’s, the Heartland Homeowner with their White Picket Fence (and white skin, of course) and their Real Job and two cars and (sometimes a) GI Bill funded college degree. This is something of a retroactive reconstruction, a fantasy image that didn’t actually exist; the mythical Suburb where this fantasy is set wasn’t created until the mass White Flight that was largely a response to the very forces which this image is constructed to fight against (the Counter-Culture from the Beats to the Hippies, to say nothing of all the other, non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cis, etc., figures in this story). Normality as the the two-child (a brother and a sister, natch) nuclear family with a smiling, shopping-loving housewife and hardworking breadwinner bringing home the bacon, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor.

2. Next, simply put: everything left out of the above image (impossible to adequately account for, as the list of non-‘s in that one parenthetical illustrates). From King and Malcolm to Huey and Stokely, from Stonewall to the GLF and STAR, from the Hippies to the Weathermen, from apocryphal bra-burnings to the very real burning of draft cards. While this following point most properly belongs to the third moment in the sequence, it’s interesting how these elements of our history have become reflected in, or perhaps through, the collective narrative of individual development in general: the very notion of “teenage rebellion” as a period every individual unfortunately goes through is part and parcel of the development of this period in history (to just take two major examples from the period, Rebel Without A Cause and The Catcher In The Rye).

3. To take the title of a good essay on a related topic: the limit point of capitalist equality. In Monsieur Dupont’s analysis, and I broadly agree, this limit is that, with all the radical exceptions proving this rule, the above rebellions remained as such and were unable to become revolutionary. In other words, their historical legacy is the expansion of capitalist citizenship while leaving the underlying relation of exploitation intact. (And moreover, the story of crisis of the 70’s and its solution through the 80’s is a massive counter-attack by the ruling class in the form of intensifying this exploitation.) To be sure, this expansion was incomplete–in other words, “capitalist equality” is a contradiction–but what’s important is that this asymptotic goal of “equality” was adopted by the ruling order itself; as MD puts it, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-etc capitalism is the explicit project of the United Nations. The defeat of traditional normality was the forge of liberal-capitalist normality.

4. But, to repeat, this normality is limited. This perverse anti-normal normality, where every deviation is solicited and enabled as long as you can put a price on it (rural exceptions notwithstanding), is nevertheless riven with antagonism and oppression still. (As one of the more illustrative of the many relevant politically-charged statistics goes, there are more black men in prison now than there were slaves at the start of the Civil War.) Call it what you will (Debord‘s category of the “integrated spectacle” is one of the better ones), and bemoan its lack of world-historical fervor on the level of the fantasy image of the Old Workers’ Movement if you like. The question is: what’s a pro-revolutionary to do? MD’s answer, provocatively, and where many would fall into an accelerationist position, is Do Nothing. Unsurprisingly, they don’t go to the full end and tell people that activism is a waste of time (though they clearly believe so), but rather more precisely that they think it shouldn’t be the job of pro-revolutionaries (an epithet they coined to deflate the “revolutionary” pretensions of so many radicals) to advocate for the further expansion of capitalist equality, especially based on their view that the strategy of “raising (class) consciousness” is a fantasy with no historical basis at all. In my view, this is another version of the central radical question of our time, which no one has ever been able to answer for the obvious reason: how can revolution be made in–whatever you want to call it, the First World, the Global North, developed nations, advanced capitalist countries, societies of the Spectacle…?

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