Jameson – An American Utopia

This is the reading for our March 18th meeting.  Visit us at meetup.com for the location and details.

There have been very few utopian ideas over the last few decades; most of our cultural production goes toward imagining dystopias.  Some of the reasons for this are internal to leftist thought.  In the 1950s, when leftists thought about power, they imagined pre-agricultural societies without power.  This eventually morphed into a thinking of power’s origin.  Factors such as the work of Foucault and the “revelations” of the gulags, turned thought about power into a near paranoia concerning collective action and practical politics.  This is the context that Jameson is writing An American Utopia in, and it straddles the line between a political program and a utopian vision; this summary leans heavily on the utopian side.

Jameson thinks that utopian visions contribute to discursive struggle, “the process whereby slogans, concepts, stereotypes, and accepted wisdoms did battle among each other for. . . hegemony.”  It is the attempt to delegitimate the slogans of the other side, as Thatcher and Reagan managed to do with nationalization.  The strongest evidence that Thatcher and Reagan won is that so few people today can imagine an alternative to the market. Liberal parties are good for keeping repressed ideas in circulation, by “talking socialism.” Words that we need to discursively struggle over are words like austerity, which has a whole neoliberal framework behind it, or debt, which functioned as an empty signified for Occupy Wall Street.  We need to rehabilitate ideas of collectivity and even bureaucracy against “big government”.  

These are the ideas that need to be legitimated in the long term:

… [T]he nationalization of finance, of banks and insurance companies and investment institutions of all kinds; … the wholesale seizure of all energy sources, the appropriation of the oil wells and the coal mines and the destitution of the immense transnational companies that control them. … the need for draconian taxation of the great corporations, if not their outright appropriation; the gradual redistribution of wealth, not excluding the eventual abolition of inheritance as such; the establishment of a guaranteed annual minimum wage; the dissolution of NATO; popular control of the media and the prohibition of the most noxious right-wing propaganda; universal wi-fi; the abolition of tuition and the reconstruction of free and universal public education, including substantial reinvestment in teachers’ salaries; free health care; full employment; and so on and so forth, in no particular order.

With the emergence of the concept of “history” in the French Revolution, we saw the possibility of an intentional transformation of society for the first time.  The revolutions of modern times have all involved various kinds of incredible utopian impulses, like the 19th century Russian obsession with space flight and technologically-achieved immortality.  The Cold War produced its own concept of utopia and attached it to to the “ideologeme” of totalitarianism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good” has become an anti-utopian political position, indicating that any radical change is both impossible and inevitably leads to violence.  Anti-utopianism became a vehicle for anti-communism and anti-radicalism, and the political use of the term “utopia” was neutralized.

In recent years, utopia has again changed its meaning and has become a rallying cry for left movements, a virtual synonym for communism, especially among those who came of age in the 1990s. That generation was in a position to see that first, there is no real distinction between capitalism and electoral politics, and second, that Hayek was right to say that capitalism and genuine mass democracy are incompatible.

Despite moments like Occupy, this new utopianism is not an organized movement.  It does embrace a negative analysis of capitalism, but is not attracted to the larger cultural, social, or political traditions of 20th century communism.  The retreat of utopianism in our culture indicates a set of deeply rooted fears, more fundamental than the fears expressed in an anti-totalitarian tract like 1984.  It is about fear of the collective, or of losing one’s individuality in that collectivity.  Utopian thinking has to be a therapy for dystopian thinking and draw these fears out into the open.  Jameson takes all this to mean that today, utopianism needs to elaborate an alternative, rather just argue for the need for one.

When it comes to political programs, the left used to believe in revolution, but now it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism, so we no longer dream of overthrowing capitalism.  There was also the strategy of socialist reformism, but those efforts and parties are in shambles.  However, there is a third, somewhat forgotten strategy: dual power, which is associated with Lenin’s provisional governments, but there are shades of it in the Black Panthers and Hamas.  Jameson describes the basic idea of dual power this way:

In such situations, power moves to the networks to which people turn for practical help and leadership on a daily basis: in effect, they become an alternate government, without officially challenging the ostensibly legal structure. The point at which a confrontation and a transfer take place, at which the official government begins to “wither away,” a point at which revolutionary violence appears, will of course vary with the overall political and cultural context itself.

Which currently existing institutions could function as a dual power?  Unions, the post office and the medical and legal professions are considered and dismissed. He says churches are an interesting alternative, “many of which do function as a nation within the nation and provide solace and the proverbial ‘heart of a heartless world’ to families alienated by late capitalism.”  However, he thinks religion is the most dangerous of all candidates for dual power, because it makes the basic ideological move of confusing the superstructure for the base.  While religion is a fundamental element of American culture, a place where communities are organized, it is also the context for “all kinds of manias, fantasies, and wish-fulfillments of an individual as well as collective nature.”  There is a place for this in society, but it ought to be restricted to culture as such.

Which already-organized institution is left in late capitalism that could provide dual power?  Jameson got his idea from an old Eisenhower cartoon: “Well, if they want socialized medicine, they have only to join the Army as I did.”  It is this possibility of medical care that is the first indication that the army is a good choice for dual power.  The VA is already a system of socialized medicine.  Its terrible condition is just one more example of the fate of socialist enclaves in an all-embracing late-capitalist system.

William James saw war as America’s equivalent of collective action in an exceptional state, but in the context of late capitalism’s economic anarchy and impending ecological doom, we need better versions of the exception.

The current army is a volunteer force, a commercial career like any other.  In the past, there have been citizen armies, which were used for nation building—mixing people from disparate provinces, and so on.   These days, the media performs that function.  However, the analogy remains useful in that under a federal system, the army is the only institution which transcends the jurisdiction of state laws and boundaries, boundaries which were among the most important counterrevolutionary principles included in the Constitution.  No real change can take place without an abrogation of the American Constitution, as it is one of the most successful counter-revolutionary documents ever written.

Inasmuch as the army continues to be associated with the various coups d’état of modern times all over the world, as well as with all the wars it has been called on to wage in recent years, I will at once specify the most important steps in the process. First of all, the body of eligible draftees would be increased by including everyone from sixteen to fifty, or, if you prefer, sixty years of age: that is, virtually the entire adult population. Such an unmanageable body would henceforth be incapable of waging foreign wars, let alone carrying out successful coups. In order to emphasize the universality of the process, let’s add that the handicapped would all be found appropriate positions in the system, and that pacifists and conscientious objectors would be placed in control of arms development, arms storage, and the like.

In this world, the army would become the centre of healthcare and medicine production.  There would be a reorganization of education as well, both for children and advanced degrees, such as the army corps of engineers.  Further:

We may think of the socialist (or ex-socialist) countries for models of our situation, in which the various armies included such functions as the manufacture of clothing, the production of films, the eventual production of motor vehicles, and even (as in China) a writers’ union, in which intellectuals and writers and artists found their space and income. The army is also notoriously the source of manpower for disaster relief, infrastructural repair and construction and the like; the question of food supply would immediately place this institution . . . in charge of the ordering and supply of food production and therefore in a controlling position for that fundamental dietetic and agronomic activity as well.

The Utopian tradition has many examples of using an army-based approach, like Plato’s Republic.  One of the key elements in these traditions is that of discipline. This universal militarization is not about weapons, but discipline.  Partly, we should take the defence of discipline as a criticism of representative political systems.  We need to set aside the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” (while defending its spirit).  A word like “democracy” has been reduced to the property of US foreign policy, and can only regain its force when we take it in its strongest form: “namely that democracy and capitalism are incompatible (big business cannot function in a situation in which budgets and fiscal policies in general are decided by popular vote).”

Often, freedom is associated with wage labor: for the liberal, freedom means the free market.   This amphiboly (or confused concept) of freedom easily slides from actual history to metaphysical fantasy.  It is one of the basic roots of anti-utopianism and anti-communism.  The transcendental content changes less quickly than its empirical referent (e.g. the market, gun ownership, etc.) which ends up being given some eternal philosophical value through its confusion with the loftier concept.

The utopia of the universal army is based on the presupposition of the withering away of the state and of politics.  This would leave us with two elements of social life in direct contact with one another: production and culture, or base and superstructure. There are two issues of production: time and distribution.  When it comes to time, the question is how long people need to work in order to produce necessities.  Jameson considers it a sad development that this question is rarely asked anymore. As for distribution, utopian thinkers have come up with many alternative schemes.  Jameson’s own suggestion is a two-tiered currency, in which financiers use something like a “foreign currency” and everyone else uses standard cash.  The second problem of distribution is jobs and tasks.  In today’s structural employment crisis it is clear this is not a matter of freedom; it increasingly appears that we will bounce from career or career or face long-term unemployment.  In Jameson’s utopian system, full employment is the highest social priority and a presupposition of social organization, and everything is planned around it.  Full employment is more important than productivity.

The distribution of employment involves the most crucial utopian problems, such as specialization, hierarchy, and efficiency.  Information technology plays a key role in this discussion.  The question of computers (the new version of Heidegger’s ‘question of technology’) has both fuelled and shut down utopian fantasies.  In Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, computers handle the distribution of work and resources, taking the place of the traditional philosopher-kings. An alternative to computers is Barbara Goodwin’s idea of a lottery.  Theoretically, a lottery would sidestep all the problems associated with representative democracy and guarantees a mechanism for equality.  However, this raises questions of specialization and competence in a technological age.

It might be impossible to abandon ideas of individual talents or gifts, and how any individual could function efficiently in any job.  Jameson says that here, we need to argue against the very idea of efficiency.  An argument against efficiency is a central component of any utopian cultural revolution.  He wants to single out the commitment to efficiency as a fundamental value, which morphs into a justification of austerity as a political, economic program and a belief in progress as a mode of temporality.  Efficiency has been critiqued in many guises, such as Adorno and Horkheimer’s specification of it as “instrumentalization.”  Along with mathematization and quantification, this reorganization of social life is the phenomenological side of the “capitalist cultural revolution.” A repudiation of the ideology of efficiency opens the space for rethinking many themes surrounding technology and progress.  It might even provide a whole new worldview, if we accept the strategic essentialism of grasping human nature not as good or evil but inefficient.  In the least, it would be a move towards breaking down the regime of austerity and downsizing.  It would be a refunctioning which could then be extended to other ideological motifs, such as instrumentalization.

Fears around the military include issues of violence, hierarchy, discipline, and ultimately aggression itself, which is fantasized to be a fundamental feature of human nature.  Jameson reiterates that his universal army is not the professional army responsible for wars and coups, whose ruthlessness would make anyone suspicious of the idea of entrusting a society to its control.  Removing such justified fears would be the first task of any utopian therapy.  The “nation at arms” is a general population in which everyone participates, and a principled reaction against any monopoly of violence (he brackets off the question of foreign policy).

We can assume that a certain amount of obligatory training would be involved, and maybe combined with a medical regime.  For the sake of the thought experiment, we do not have to fear, as Oscar Wilde did, that “socialism” would “take too many evenings.”  It would be a regime of minimal production, and weekends would not be sacrificed to drills or Trotsky’s “voluntary labor.”

In an affluent and permissive society like our own, regimentation and discipline are serious concerns, and the threat they pose to daily life is exacerbated “by the usual ideological confusion around the idea, or at least the slogan, of freedom.”  Revolutionary changes generally take place during catastrophic moments, and the habits of daily life disappear and make way for new ways of living and thinking.  He says, “Every reasonable person will understand that as social and economic equality becomes more generalized there will necessarily be a lowering of what are prejudicially termed ‘living standards’ for the privileged (and not only for the rich).”

When it comes to the relation of the army to aggression, something apparently deep-seated in human nature, or perhaps in masculinity in particular, this is essentialism with a vengeance.  If we have to talk about aggression, it is worth asking whether or not the aggression of the warrior is much different than the aggression of the businessman.  This aggression has to be nurtured and developed at a young age if one is to be success in high finance. Military aggression is more an economic and generational matter: it is unemployed youth who join armies, paramilitary groups, and gangs.

A final resistance to utopianism is Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people.”  It is an “originary trauma” which explains the existence of small groups.  This might explain the most visceral rejection of the army: quite apart from violence, it is the only institution in modern society in which members have to mix with one another, across race, class, and gender lines.  The army is actually the first glimpse of a classless society, with all the anxieties such an idea has historically aroused.  However, there is a more concrete level of experience than class: not only gender, but at the level of personalities, the distaste we have for certain kinds of people.  Despite this anxiety, this “social promiscuity” is the zero-form of democracy and what every utopia must entail.  It is species-being, as Marx said, and to “undergo its pedagogies” is the deepest meaning of “cultural revolution.”

Traditionally, European militaries have also had a nonmilitary, social function—the fraternization of classes.  It does not abolish classes, but suspends them for the duration of the war. Before the standardization of the European languages through legislation, schooling, and the media, military service also created a sense of centralized power.  What gets produced here is the nation itself, and this has little to do with warfare.  Jameson’s proposal is to refunction this production, a plan “in which this forced class promiscuity becomes the production of genuine classlessness and social levelling.”  Here, “classless” means the elimination of collective antagonism, and so the heightening of individual ones.  The thing is, no one really believes that dislike for others would disappear from a perfect world, or that rivalry would disappear, even if other rewards were substituted for cash.  

Jameson actually puts forward the high school movie, with all its clashing social relations, “as a revealing expression of the deepest utopian impulses and the reality principle associated with them,” which is basically Kant’s radical evil.  It is a world in which material needs have been satisfied and necessary labor is suspended: but there will still be assholes.

Or in other words, the social is always antagonistic.  Part of the solution here is a different vision of society, which would take groups as its building blocks, not individuals.  Jameson see the work of Charles Fourier as key here.  Fourier’s observations do not presuppose a human nature, unless it is that human beings are parts of groups.  Fourier developed three different psychological types:  The butterfly passion (moving from one interest to another), the cabalistic passion (delight in conspiracy) and the composite personality (in which enthusiasm itself is the point).  Jameson says,

What is crucial is not this particular account of the human drives. . . but rather the fact of the group combinations themselves into which these various passions can productively interact and form their social molecules.  Fourier’s notion of harmony expresses the conviction that no matter how frustrated and unfulfilled, no matter how neurotic, hysterical, or compulsive, there will always be a collective combination in which the individual bearer of the sad passion in question, of the desperate or antisocial loner, the anorexic or bulimic of desire, the manic convert to ever new and equally unfulfillable hobbies and pastimes, will find relief.

Fourier points the way forward to a “realm of freedom, of culture and its superstructures, and to my mind the only thinker who has thus far discovered the way for collectivity or a multiplicity to coordinate the ineradicable individualities which make it up.”

His “calculus of passions” was not an attempt to repress antisocial drives, but to harmonize them so they they become productive.  His approach is the grain of truth at the heart of market ideology, in which excess makes the world go round.  He puts Spinoza’s sad passions to work as the wheels of a lively, ever-changing utopia.  Today, no utopia that has hints of monasticism about it can work.  It has to welcome self-indulgence and personal freedom in all things, including puritanism and the hatred of self-indulgence.  To carry this out, we have to imagine a new institution, designed to supplant traditional governments, to articulate the cultural level of our new society in a post-Fourieresque spirit. Mediating between the individual and the collective, it will be a union, a hospital, an employment office, a court, a market research agency, a polling bureau, and a social welfare centre.  What is left of the police would be integrated.  The state would wither away into group therapy.

Jameson imagines a double life, split between base and superstructure.  It would be a world in which social reproduction is performed a few hours a day, in work clothes and in teams.  The shifts could be morning or even, or could be 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. “Each of these temporal rhythms would not doubt generate a habitus, a kind of culture of its own, but what must be insisted on is that, whatever the labor, material or immaterial, it will in one way or another be collective and involve a distinct ontology, that of the collective project, collective life, the team as social being.”  As for superstructure, or culture, there would be no specifications; it would be purely for the individual to invent.  Gamble on the stock market, be a couch potato, raise children, go to church, anything.

I think that any properly global utopia ought to include immense vacations of displacement, in which the populations of whole cities—New York and Shanghai for example—swap homes and places for a time (this would be the utopian correction for the present-day new industry of commodified tourism), but that city dwellers, prone to novelty, should also leave room for the land itself and deep time, for the metaphysical illusions of some human incorporation into nature itself (even when the latter has ceased to exist).

This military utopia is founded on a strict division between base and superstructure, or in other words, between production and culture.  This relation between the realms of necessity and freedom will always be fragile, and subject to internal contradictions. One of Jameson’s programmatic paragraphs reads,

For the realm of necessity, it is not labor that offers any peculiarly unresolvable or untheorizable problems: necessary production can be calculated, hours reduced, transfers from one kind of work to another programmed on a voluntary basis, sabbaticals for study or retraining institutionalized—a systematic incorporation of information technology and a keen commitment to the development of new kinds of production, the production of new needs and desires, as Marx puts it.  The guaranteed annual minimum wage, distributed generously enough, removes the desperation that used to course through societies sickened by chronic as well as structural unemployment.  As for social and income inequality, I quite like Barbara Goodwin’s idea of five-year ‘life packages’ distributed by lottery, and making it possible for citizens to spend a few years in luxurious mansions and a few more improving slums on the point of being reconstructed out of existence.

The culture’s content cannot be predicted, but we can image the tensions within it.  It would be a culture of groups: groups in emergence and groups in dissolution.  These groups would not take the form of classes, but they could be factions because the fundamental permissiveness of this new society could not forbid them.   As for art, it would retain a negative, critique function, attacking the group as it ossifies into an institution.

The main utopian problem is the opposition between discipline and permissiveness:

Any insistence on radical permissiveness at the level of culture will necessarily have to deal with the bitterest envies.  The guaranteed minimum wage, the freedom to do nothing at all and to drug yourself into oblivion, obviously makes such a utopia into a paradise for slackers: yet this society is wealthy enough to let them go their own way,and a Fourieresque psychoanalysis will help us absorb the envy and bitterness, the sad passions, that will follow them from other workers in this vineyard, such as the religious fundamentalists.  What the latter must learn is that such bitterness and envy is itself a jouissance, a precious possession, a passion and a satisfaction that is productive in its own right.

This vision of a world of sex and drugs is the opposite number of dystopias of technological subjection and surveillance and nuclear winters.  They complement each other and are the imaginary reflex of a society divided between the rich and the poor.  These are the dual-fantasies of a society full of insurmountable contradictions which can only switch between impossible solutions and opposed futures.

This split is present in Jameson’s vision as well, which divides the day between work and leisure.  However, while wanting to avoid essentialist statements about human nature, Jameson thinks it is clear that people are generally unsatisfied with the unproductive, just as much as they are unsatisfied with dictated production.  We need to hope for a future in which work and leisure become mixed.  Jameson concludes by saying,

We have only reached the point in which a universal militarization permits the organization of a minimum of necessary production sufficient to satisfy the multiple needs of a given population, from food and housing to education and medical treatment, thereby liberating a free time expected and unplanned for in a Darwinian evolution and the natural world.  This is the moment in which, as Sartre put it, existentialism supersedes Marxism as a philosophic horizon, and we can detect the nature of our own ideological reflexes by way of our reactions to it.  However those may be, it is at the very least at least one way in which an alternate future can be imagined as opening once again, a future sealed and effaced by the absolute limits currently imposed by late capitalism as such.  So this may not be the place to stop, but also to begin.


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