Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Myth of the Paid Protester

This is probably the worst way to begin a blog post, but I can't shake the figure of the paid protester. I am less interested in the rights fascination with George Soros (something that others could analyze better) than I am with the particular mythology of the paid protester. Although, I will say this about the former, the specter of a billionaire using his money to influence politics seems strange coming from people who ostensibly have no categorical problem with billionaires using their money to influence politics. I guess it could be understood as part of the spectacular division of capital, just as there are "woke" and "MAGA" brands, there are woke and MAGA billionaires, opposition to the specific actions of one circumvents any discussion of the entire system. 

Cittons concept of a mythology , or mythocracy, can be understood as a solution to a particular problem concerning the concept of ideology. As it is well known, Marx defined ideology in part with the assertion that the "ruling ideas become the idea of the ruling class." It remains unclear, however, how those ideas are supposed to gain their particular hegemony especially since, as Marx writes elsewhere in The German Ideology, that "life determines consciousness." If people's consciousness is determined by life, including their class position, how are they to think with a perspective imported from another class? Or as Balibar writes, "domination by an established order does indeed rest, as Marx argued after Hegel, on the ideological universalization of its principles. But contrary to what Marx believed the dominant ideas cannot be those of the dominant class. They have to be those of the dominated." Balibar offers what could be called a Machiavellian revision to Marx, the ruling class must appear to be of the people, presenting itself as one of them, sharing their values and concerns, and even occasionally donning a stiff pair of jeans, a baseball cap, and showing up a county fair. Or to take a more series example, tax cuts invariably favor the rich but are framed in terms of the revenue squeeze that most workers are facing. 

Citton's intervention is less Machiavellian than Spinozist. It is not so much that ideology must be of the dominated, universalizing their particular experiences or principles, but it must connect to a lived experience and quotidian reality. It must encompass the common sense of daily life. As Spinoza argues in the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics, superstition, religious doctrine, is always a modification of the fundamental "consciousness of appetite and ignorance of causes" that constitutes prejudice, or the spontaneous ideology of daily life. As much as the paid protester is a conspiracy theory, and a rather outlandish one at that, its basis is in a daily life in which everyone is motivated by self-interest and financial gain. One could say that if the old response to political protesters was to yell "Get a job!" assuming by their presence on the street that they are just dirty hippies then the new response is to assume that protesting is their job, that they are organized by some shadowy network or series of apps. 

I am tempted to call this shift neoliberal, after neoliberalism's intellectual project is to remake all of social life in the figure of homo economicus--interpreting every action in terms of maximum gain for minimum cost. However, that is too easy or two quick. The suspicion that activists, protesters, or organizers are acting out of their own mercenary interests predates neoliberalism. After all it is part of every anti-union campaign and has been for some time. Or to take another example, in Elio Petri's great The Working Class Goes to Heaven the workers wondering again and again who pays the leftist students outside the factory gates. When your life is spent trying to gain a wage, to make money to survive, it is easy to imagine that others do so as well. Or, as Spinoza argues, we judge other's temperaments from our own, imagining them to be like us. The time and energy to dedicate to politics appear to be an unimaginable luxury to many working to make a living so they make sense of it according to their own immediate concerns. 

I will say as something of an aside that I think that some of the misuse of the term neoliberalism and its current rhetoric exhaustion has to do with the fact that people use the term to refer to the subjective dimensions of capital, capital's particular production of subjectivity. This is in part because neoliberalism is more committed to an anthropology of capital than other economic theories and practices, making homo economicus an explanatory principle for all of life. It is not the first time, however, that economic thought produced its anthropology, or economic practices sought to produce that particular subjectivity. It is neither the first production of subjectivity from an an economic order nor is it the first time that a historically produced way of looking at the world has been naturalized.  Just think of Smith's natural propensity to "barter, truck, or exchange" or Marx's identification of the sphere of circulation with the "eden of the innate rights of man." Homo economicus predates neoliberalism even if the latter has brought it increasingly to the fore. 

Returning to the mythology of the paid protestor. It is easy to mock this particular conspiracy. I have seen many posts on social media of people joking about their "Soros checks." To cite Spinoza one more time we should comprehend rather than deride. We should understand that the excesses of the conspiracy have their basis in the reality of daily life, and its destructive effect on the utopian imagination. The conspiracy theory is itself a symptom of the destruction of any utopian imagination, any sense that there is more to strive for than a few dollars more. 

Since this post started with a tweet it is necessary to say something about twitter and its function within the field of ideology. Some have argued that Trump's use of twitter is a sign of his fundamental weakness and inability to wield power. It is a medium that anyone can use after all, and there is something comical about a man who could call a press conference that would be broadcast on every network using a medium that is available to anyone with an internet connection (see the clip from The Simpsons above). I think it would be a mistake to see things that way, to fail to understand how power often functions by masking part of itself. As Citton argues, myths become all the more pervasive and powerful in their ability to not only take advantage of their "spontaneous" basis but to appear spontaneous as well. Reality television works on this principle, as much as it is staged, edited, and manipulated its awkwardness makes it feel unmediated and real. Trump's use of twitter and his citation of conspiracy theories are part of his willingness to operate not at the level of official ideologies but there more spontaneous and inchoate underbelly. To appear to be "of the people" as Machiavelli argued. That is is strength and also possibly his weakness. 

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