Whither Jeff Wilson? Retort to Paul Mattick, and a Reply

Retort to Paul Mattick (1-22-06):

We appreciate the serious attention paid to Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War in the December/January issue of the Rail. However, there were a number of aspects to Paul Mattick’s review that call for a response.

Regarding the chapter on the US/Israel relationship in the current imperial moment, Mattick claims that it “leaves out” the actual strategic role Israel and its military have played in the service of American Cold War and imperial interests. In fact, the chapter explicitly recognizes that role but argues that it has effectively come to an end. Disagreeing with the argument about Israel as a failed spectacle would have been one thing; misrepresenting the argument is another.

Mattick’s comments on our final chapter “Modernity and Terror” and its discussion of vanguardism likewise misstate our case. To claim that we “don’t notice” that “most people” are attempting merely to survive everyday struggles, and are not necessarily attracted to the vanguard ideal, is fatuous. Instead, what the chapter discusses is the present moment’s most effective organized political resistance to global capital, a version of revolutionary Islam, which (once again) takes vanguardist forms.

The book’s argument about spectacle is also misconstrued. It seems to be common among practitioners of art and media studies to restrict the notion of spectacle solely to the world of commodities and their visual representations. To the contrary, Afflicted Powers goes to some lengths to describe the spectacle as a complex matrix of social control, as one (but not the sole) aspect of state power which includes appearances and ways of (not) thinking that are strongly abetted, but far from exclusively determined, by visual images. Nor does the book argue, as Mattick ventriloquizes through his puppet proletarian (“a building worker friend”), that the spectacle is “so determining.” Indeed we insist throughout the book on the broader nature of the spectacle, and of its role in conjunction (and at times tension) with other cruder forms of state power.

The above objections alone, however, would not have prompted us to this response. Instead, it was Mattick’s use of a facile, ahistorical duality (we don’t call it a distinction because the work of drawing a clear distinction is never actually done) between “intellectuals” (also referred to as “professors and writers” and “symbolic analysts”) and the working class (undefined, but suggested to be exclusively the “makers” of concrete objects) as so effortlessly embodied by his builder friend. Fetching the true proletarian from a building site (was the proverbial “taxi driver” too sedentary for the role?) is merely ludicrous. But matching noble manual workers against neurasthenic intellectuals —by the way, where is the reviewer situated in all this?—utterly ignores the developed world’s variegated realities of modern labor in which the people between these two false poles toil, the overwhelming mass of working people. This phantasm duality also sets up a moral universe in which an industrial proletariat is invariably and exclusively the source of truth and justice while everyone else—presumably including wage laborers of all other sorts, and certainly anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking—exists in some pampered purgatory of capital which permits them to ignore the hard truths experienced by “those whose work remakes the world each day.” This is the rancid stuff of Socialist Realism, with a whiff of the Cultural Revolution.

Mattick projects a cartoon world that is itself a piece of spectacular imagery, doing capital’s bidding by maintaining false distinctions (the authentic from the inauthentic, the “true” working class from the . . . what?) among people who labor in different ways. Part of the spectacle’s great success is in alienating working people from each other, offering the false notion that it is the type of labor one does, and the consumer prizes that can be claimed, that defines one’s place in the social field, rather than one’s relation to capital. Trotting out this tired, divisive trope serves insidiously to reinforce capital’s grip; we didn’t want to let it pass unremarked.

Paul Mattick to Retort (1-25-06):

Afflicted Powers makes its most novel contribution to the understanding of contemporary capitalism, and of the face-off between the U.S. and political Islam in particular, by asking the question, “Do the concepts ‘society of the spectacle’ and ‘colonization of everyday life’ help us to grasp the logic of the present age?” For this reason, I concentrated the critical energy of my review on that question, concluding that the answer seems to be, “No,” at least on the basis of Retort’s analysis. But there is probably something of use to be extracted from these concepts, and I was hoping that the review would initiate a discussion in which these issues could be explored.

Instead I find myself in the middle of some sectarian struggle from the 1930s, filled with insult and invective, pitting Retort’s sophisticated mode of analysis against “the rancid stuff of Socialist Realism,” with its “noble manual workers.” I’d like to duck out of this brawl, which doesn’t have anything to do with what I wrote. I asked why intellectuals “think that images, appearances, spectacle are so determining” but this is not to contrast their class position with that of workers, noble, manual or otherwise. (Retort seems to have confused this matter with the contrast I do draw between the “movement of movements” and the working class as potential agents of social change—between thinking of opposition to capitalism in terms of activist minorities or in terms of conflicting class interests.) The question of “the relation to capital” of various kinds of mental workers is a complicated one (if anyone is interested in my opinions on this, see my essay “Class, capital, and crisis,” in the anthology The Culmination of Capital, edited by M. Campbell and G. Reuten); but I’m sure, in any case, that the kind of job you do, and the social milieu you spend your time in, have effects on your knowledge of the world and the terms in which you think about it. However, the contrast Retort’s letter draws between “an industrial proletariat” and people who spend “an inordinate amount of time thinking” is their own invention, of a piece with the idea that the guy I quote must be a “puppet” through which I speak. I assure them that my friend Jeff Wilson, though a manual worker, also spends an inordinate amount of time thinking, on and off the job, and that I was doing him the same courtesy in acknowledging his ideas as I pay to, say, Guy Debord, in citing him.

A few comments on Retort’s more substantive complaints: A glance at my review shows that I in fact do not say that Retort restricts “the notion of spectacle to the world of commodities and their visual representations.” On the other hand, the book does argue specifically for the “determining” nature of the spectacle for the modern state, described as having come “to live or die by its investment in, and control of, the field of images.” A chief example is the assertion that American attachment to Israel is determined “now at the level of spectacle,” with the U.S. “in thrall to the image of its body-double.” Here I did not misrepresent Retort’s argument, but disagree with it (the truth is that Retort doesn’t actually make an argument in its chapter on Israel, for the most part relying on assertions without evidence.): It seems to me that Israel’s military significance is as great now as in the past (at the moment, as Seymour Hersh tells us, being well imbricated in the Iraq adventure, and probably already intervening in Iran). The thought experiment of imagining a Middle East with Israel removed (or even just lacking the daily $10 million in aid that keeps it going) should clarify this question.

Finally, my “fatuous” remark derived from Retort’s own claim that “human beings… seem drawn ineluctably” to vanguardism to fight “against the mereness of the everyday.” In asking why they didn’t notice how untrue this is of most human beings, I meant to question their location of politics, potential as well as actual, outside the “everyday,” seen as enthralled by consumerism. As I see things, vanguards are actually part of everyday life, which is a complex structure of activities and relationships unrealistically flattened out by its conceptualization as “spectacle.” Beyond the bizarre reading of Osama Bin Laden as a figure of “political resistance to global capital,” Retort’s focus on the Islamic vanguard as an alternative to a hoped-for Left espousing a “non-orthodox, non-nostalgic … critique of the modern” points to a conception of radical politics as external to the normal experience of most people. Just as I don’t see intellectuals as the only people to do useful thinking, I don’t see radical politics as a specialization of political activists. If capitalism is ever to be challenged, in fact, that challenge will necessarily come from the heart of “everyday mereness” itself.