الخميس، 12 مارس، 2009

From the New Left to Postmodern Populism

From the New Left to Postmodern Populism:
An Interview with Paul Piccone 1
Jorge Raventos

Jorge Raventos: Between the 1960s and 1980s, both you and Telos
were regarded as part of the Left — or, rather, of the New Left. Would such
a description still be correct today?
Paul Piccone: Of course, Telos came out of the American New Left. To
leave it at that, however, would be too simple and maybe even misleading, without
first mapping out the internal structure of the New Left in the 1960s to indicate
Telos’ awkward position within it. Such a task is complicated by the fact that
most of what has been written on the subject by repentant as well as unrepentant
ex-activists only obfuscates, rather than clarifies, what it was all about (see my
article “Reinterpreting 1968: Mythology on the Make” in Telos 77, Fall 1988, pp.
7-44), for a critique of the self-serving nature of what had been published up to
that time). Such a short answer would not explain, for example, why, from the
very beginning, Telos was always dismissed, if not hated outright by most of the
“really existing New Left,” and why the journal did not follow the self-destructive
trajectory of the movement. Rather, it thrived long after drugs and opportunism
reduced the predominant New Left ideologies to rationalizing mechanisms,
whose unintended impact was ultimately to reinforce the irrationalities of the
very establishment they had sought to transform. In fact, already in the early
1970s, this outcome had been prefigured in the journal through what at that time
was called “the theory of artificial negativity” — a formal reconstruction of the
logic of the system, extending Herbert Marcuse’s analyses of “one-dimensionality,”
minus its psychoanalytic hallucinations and its lingering Stalinist residues.
Unlike various similar analyses being articulated at the time by, e.g., Michel
Foucault, poststructuralism, and even Jürgen Habermas, concerning the obsolescence
of subjectivity, the theory of artificial negativity acknowledged its decline
and progressive disintegration. Instead of celebrating it, the theory of artificial
1. This interview originally appeared in Spanish as “De la Nueva Izquierda al Populismo
Posmoderno,” in the Argentine journal Octubre Sudamericano, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Dec.
2001), pp. 27-50. A shorter version was published in 3 Puntos, Vol. 5, No. 235 (Dec. 23,
2001), pp. 52-56. Its English version is published here to help clarify the trajectory of
some of Telos’ political positions from its original program in 1968 to the present.
*
*
134 JORGE RAVENTOS
negativity indicted this process not only as pathological, but as self-destructive, generating
the conditions for the system’s eventual transformation away from both the
mere extension of existing trends and the various alternatives proposed by whatever
still remained of an opposition. At the risk of oversimplifying, what this theory stipulates
as that logic of the system — the dialectic of enlightenment that results in prioritizing
capitalist relations at the expense of all others, the domination of the
concept, and the tendentially “totally administered society” — unfolds smoothly
only as long as it parasitically relies on the traditional cultural structures it simultaneously
seeks to destroy as irrational residues obstructing progress. Without these
structures, subjectivity fades, thus depriving the system of that creativity and élan
vital essential for its effective reproduction. The result is the current paradox: the
more this process succeeds, the more it erodes the preconditions for the system’s
own reproduction, gradually precipitating new and unforeseeable crises.
As these crises unfold, the theory further stipulates that the system will
attempt to reconstitute artificially the needed subjectivity (negativity as one of
the system’s most important internal control mechanisms) through bureaucratic
and administrative means. Such a strategy, however, is doomed to fail, to the
extent that subjectivity, creativity and negativity cannot be spun out administratively
— artificially — without simultaneously becoming extensions of that same
apparatus they are meant to rationalize and modulate. The only way out is to roll
back the administrative apparatus to allow the natural gestation of “organic negativity”
— autonomous individuality — thus reintroducing precisely that subjectivity
essential for any self-sustaining social system. This state of affairs,
however, exposes the predominant system to challenges it cannot deflect, resulting
in radical qualitative changes (that revolutionary telos Marx had always
regarded as impossible to envision before its actual realization, promising to usher
in utopia, but also risking to degenerate, as was often the case in the 20th century,
into the horrors of Auschwitz, the Gulag, and Hiroshima).
Without elaborating the theory’s full implications, it is obvious why the New
Left — or at least those who understood what we were talking about — did not
buy it. It not only degraded the activists’ role to that of unwitting tools of the system,
but, in explaining why in many cases the political establishment even
financed it outright through educational institutions and other indirect means, it
predicted that the activists’ personal future would be in academia and the burgeoning
state bureaucracy (as in fact turned out to be the case, at least for those
who managed not to self-destruct). Thus, for the New Left, from the very beginning
Telos was, as Eugene Genovese once described it, a kind of theoretical Listerine:
necessary, but not very pleasant, and to be spit out as soon as possible.
While articulating and developing the best Left theories available in both Europe
and the US, Telos reached paradoxical political conclusions hard to accept by any
of the various groups of what was at the time misleadingly totalized by the media
and the culture industry as a unified movement.
INTERVIEW 135
This peculiar state of affairs had to do with the way the New Left developed,
out of the Berkeley “free speech movement,” opposition to the Viet-Nam war,
civil rights demonstrations, etc. — all of this taking place in the background of an
entrenched anti-communism, which had severely eroded the normative fiber of
almost all major American institutions since the days of McCarthy. On the whole,
in the early 1960s there were two major branches within the New Left: one
(reformist) committed to making the government live up to traditional American
values being violated by everyday institutional practices (freedom of speech,
equality, democratic policy-making, etc.); the other (revolutionary) rejecting the
so-called “American way of life” as inherently corrupt and functioning essentially
as a legitimating ideology for a new imperialism no longer predicated on
raw economic exploitation, but on a much more refined political and cultural
domination. The reformist wing was made up mostly of the new, loosely organized
SDS chapters usually operating independently of each other, while the revolutionaries
were primarily the various residual Marxist sects which had
managed to survive state repression throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The two
never managed to fuse. Any dream of consolidating a unified New Left movement
ended suddenly in the Summer of 1969, when the “revolutionary” Marxist
sects, seeking to replay the various Leninist scenarios dating back to the Menshevik-
Bolshevik split, tried to take over whatever loose organizational framework
the SDS and other New Left groups had been able to put together.
From the very beginning, Telos sided with the “revolutionaries,” not because of
any Marxist-Leninist sympathies, but out of an awareness that the traditional American
values the reformists wanted to vindicate had long since been seriously compromised
by misguided attempts to transform the American political system into
something rather different from the original model. Attempts during the second half
of the 19th century to transform the American federal model (based on self-determination,
communitarianism, local autonomy, etc.) into a national one, allegedly more
suitable to the new socio-economic realities, had resulted in its transformation into a
technocratic oxymoron emphasizing centralization of power, planning, rationalization,
and professional rule, while still subscribing to traditional American values of
individuality, local autonomy, decentralization, etc. To be sure, such a transformation
has never been fully carried out and, to this day, the two models — the federal
and the national — constantly clash within a contradictory political framework,
often in spectacular ways, as in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing (a desperate
and misguided political attack against the US government for having usurped and
abused power, conveniently degraded to plain “terrorism” by a government — and
the terminally conformist media — unwilling to confront the implications of the act)
or, more mundanely, in the innumerable jurisdictional squabbles between the Washington
bureaucracy and state governments. In terms of concrete policies, this meant
that, since anything can follow from contradictory premises, practically any policy
could be legitimated, especially in foreign affairs. Not surprisingly, since the Civil
136 JORGE RAVENTOS
War the US federal government has been able to act in the most opportunistic and
cynical way possible, while at the same time pretending to ground its policies on
whichever “national” value could be instrumentalized to legitimate them.
While in the late 1960s Telos had yet to develop fully such a critical reading
of American history, it had realized that the revisionists’ program never had a
chance, beyond generating occasional flashes of outraged moralism — as it did
against the Viet-Nam war and Southern segregation — while ultimately leaving
everything as it was, or worse. The only viable option for a genuine social
renewal seemed to be a qualitative axiological renewal, able to restore policy
coherence, a social-economic vision, and truly legitimate principles. This placed
Telos on the “revolutionary” side of the New Left, in the company of the most
dogmatic Marxist-Leninists and other fringe elements, with whom, however, it
had absolutely nothing in common. We knew all too well that the glorious “working
class” was politically irrelevant, Marxist economics was a joke, and that the
“Party,” at least the way it had developed in the countries of “really existing
socialism,” was no better than a bunch of gangsters (periodic revelations about the
internal functioning of Western political parties, such as operation “Mani Pulite”
in Italy, the Kohl-Mitterand affair in Germany, and the various exposés of corruption
in practically every political party anywhere, only indicates the extent to
which, far from providing an alternative, Marxism-Leninism merely exaggerated
the pathologies of bourgeois or liberal-democratic societies). This helps explain
why Marxist-Leninists of all stripes always regarded the journal as even more
dangerous than run-of-the-mill academic apologists or outright political foes.
Misunderstood by the “revisionists,” despised by the “revolutionaries”
within the New Left, and with no connection to the predominant academic “discourses”
in fashion at the time, Telos proposed a systematic re-examination of the
trajectory of radical thought during the last century, focusing especially on dissident
Marxist traditions that had been repressed by Stalinists and other orthodox
Marxists — first and foremost, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty had described as
Western Marxism, and what had come to be known as the Frankfurt School. Such
a program banished us, politically and theoretically, from all readily recognizable
categories and, unintendedly, spared us the bitter fate that befell the New Left,
even after such a program became integrated and domesticated as another run-ofthe-
mill academic sub-discipline of the now fashionable new field of “cultural
studies” — precisely as the theory of artificial negativity had predicted.
Jorge Raventos: Has the Left/Right split become obsolete now or
was it always a misleading description? In any case, what rendered it
obsolete? Was it globalization?
Paul Piccone: As political categories, both Left and Right have had different
meanings over time and in different countries. In Europe, to the extent that
INTERVIEW 137
traditional conservatism was practically destroyed by the French Revolution and
its ideological clones throughout the continent (resulting in the definitive displacement
of the feudal order by its bourgeois, “democratic” counterpart), the
Left/Right split has actually been a political Trojan horse, concealing an increasingly
important series of power struggles, not between capital and labor, but
between those with cultural and political capital and those without it. With the
traditional Right out of the picture, practically all political projects, including
Marxism and later fascism, came about essentially as modernizing programs
proposing different ways to rationalize the existing liberal order by depoliticizing
social relations and reducing politics to economics.
Since the new mode of domination is predicated not just on economic, but also
on political and cultural power, in order for the rising elite — the New Class of
professionals, intellectuals, experts, politicians, etc. — to legitimate itself, it was
necessary to translate all political power relations into economic ones, in which the
real power brokers present themselves as mere representatives of other interests.
Thus, today, practically everywhere in the West, Right and Left mean very little
and designate, at best, free-marketeers advocating a classical 19th century liberalism
predicated on minimal government and unrestricted economic freedom, and
statists preferring its 20th century welfare-state version, where the state turns into
the most important economic agent and seeks to control and regulate all features of
everyday life. This explains why political conflicts have been reduced to administrative
squabbles concerning the scope and extent of redistributive policies.
In North America, political relations have developed along rather different
lines, but with roughly similar outcomes. Since the US has not had a feudal past
and the American Revolution was radically different from the French, the traditional
European distinction between a bourgeois Left and an aristocratic Right
never made much sense. Only in the 20th century, after the nationalist turn following
the Civil War, did American politics become comparable to European politics.
Before the centralization of political power disrupted the original “American way
of life,” predicated on communitarianism, localism, self-determination, and loose
federal arrangements, it was difficult to categorize existing political parties such as
the Whigs, the Federalists, etc. as being either liberal or conservative. At the beginning
of the American Revolution, most of the real conservatives (those opposing
the break with Britain) moved North to Canada, to live in those territories that
had refused to join the rebels and had preferred to remain loyal to the British
Crown. Up to the 1860s in the US, there may have been centralizers and autonomists,
federalists and anti-federalists, but all sides were dedicated both to “equality”
or “liberty” — to use Bobbio’s popular, but misleading New Class criteria to
distinguish between Right and Left. The fundamental value was an autonomous
individuality, secularized directly out of the founding Protestant legacy, emphasizing
liberty as the precondition for real political equality, which meant, of
course, likely economic inequality as the outcome. The possibility of a powerful,
138 JORGE RAVENTOS
redistributive central bureaucracy empowered to curtail freedom, and with practically
unlimited fiscal options was unthinkable at the time. After all, the revolution
had begun precisely as a tax revolt with the Boston “tea party.”
In the late 19th century, the social dislocations brought about by rapid industrialization,
urbanization, and, in general, modernity, resulted in a political crisis
which paved the way for capital’s domination in practically all features of everyday
life. Despite New Class ideological recastings of the Civil War as a moral crusade
against southern slavery, what was really at stake was the reconfiguration of
American society along industrial, rather than agrarian lines — a reconfiguration
requiring considerable centralization of political power in Washington, and the
systematic marginalization of the states as the basic political entities. As the Lynds
showed in their classic work, Middletown, these changes eventually resulted in the
progressive commodification and quantification of all social relations, further disrupted
traditional life-styles, and triggered major political realignments. What
became the Left in the modern sense came about at the turn of the century as a
result of the mobilization necessary to create a strong “neutral” state administered
by the burgeoning New Class to contain and regulate the otherwise all-powerful
capital interests. It was meant to protect large sectors of the population — previously
independent artisans being systematically reduced to dependent workers —
disempowered by the new economic conditions, in a context in which existing
political arrangements (classical liberalism) allowed capital a free hand to do as it
pleased. In the classical Marxist scenario, the powerlessness of the new industrial
masses translated directly into a need for an American equivalent of the Leninist
vanguard party of experts and professionals, alone capable of defending the interests
of the increasingly proletarianized masses. Thus, from the very beginning,
whatever there was of a Left/Right split in the US was the direct result of the disintegration
of the country’s political infrastructure, and the main symptom of a
spiritual decadence which has yet to run its full course.
From this historical perspective, the Left/Right distinction retains some
validity. To reiterate, if today there is any real difference between Left and Right
it is in terms of adherence to two different versions of liberalism: the classical,
19th century laissez-faire variety versus its 20th century welfare-state version.
The first group indulges in nostalgia for a long-gone system de facto hostage to
dominant capitalist interests (typical of 19th century liberalism), while the second
advocates further institutionalization of a liberal-democratic, rather than a
republican society, terminally split between a New Class elite and a clientized
populace it routinely mediatizes. But, even in these terms, the distinction makes
very little sense today. In the 1960s, after the seemingly irreversible institutionalization
of the New Deal, what remained of the American Right was gradually
colonized by neo-conservatism: former Left-liberals horrified by the consequences
of modernist nihilism and the disintegration of 18th and 19th century
American values, as a result of the rise of a powerful culture industry able to
INTERVIEW 139
manipulate consciousness and thus mediate between a globalized mass production
and a programmed mass consumption no longer rooted in traditional needs.
Despite flashes of libertarian impulses such as the Goldwater presidential bid and
the early Reagan Administration’s effort to redimension the US government, the
American Right remains dominated by a neo-conservative ideology whose kathechontic
role is merely to contain the growth of the existing bureaucratic apparatus
by deploying the rhetoric of a faded classical liberalism.
What are still identified as Left and Right in the US are very heterogeneous
political aggregations comprising a wide variety of conflicting groups. On the
whole, the so-called Right (essentially the Republican Party) pretends to defend
traditional liberal values such as the market, free-enterprise, abstract individualism,
autonomy, etc., while the Left (embodied in the Democratic Party) operates
within the same ideological orbit, but insists on state controls to prevent the system
from self-destructing. In this sense, the Left is even more conservative than
the Right in that its state interventionism always claims to defend any feature of
public life perceived to be eroded by modernity, globalization, and whatever else
threatens them. What makes the distinction even more irrelevant is the electoral
logic of the two party system. In order for one of the two parties to win a majority
of votes, it has to capture the center, which pushes both parties to propose practically
indistinguishable programs. In order not to alienate substantial sectors of
the electorate, they avoid at all costs any divisive issue, focusing instead on relatively
irrelevant details such as character, style, background, etc. When all is said
and done, the differences between the platforms of both parties always tend to
reduce to minor quantitative differences.
This helps explain the striking continuity in both US domestic and foreign
policies, predicated on a de facto depoliticization of the political process, now
reduced to a contest between different sectors of the power elite. The crucial
issue of the legitimacy of state intervention in social, cultural or economic matters
has disappeared from public debate long ago. What remains, at best, is the
determination of what, how much, and where should the state intervene. This is
why the Bush and Gore platforms were so remarkably close and, not surprising,
so were the electoral results.
None of these developments has much to do with globalization — a process
already well under-way when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto.
Because of the overwhelming hegemonic power of bourgeois thought that
reduces everything to economic relations, today globalization has come to be
regarded as the fons et origo malorum responsible for practically everything
wrong everywhere. This hegemonic power, of course, means that opponents of
globalization also operate within the same liberal, ideological universe. Thus, by
prioritizing these economic relations over all others, critics remain trapped in the
predominant liberal framework, according to which the only solution is effective
government intervention on a global level. The paradox here is that, by opposing
140 JORGE RAVENTOS
the rationalization of global economic relations, the anti-globalization movement
ends up advocating a New Class agenda on a global level, thus extending the
same globalization it seeks to prevent, only on different terms. The earlier contraposition
of the state to capital in order to contain and regulate it on the national
level is now simply being extended globally — and with similar results: the
development and expansion of a cosmopolitan New Class.
Within this ideological framework, globalization has become the scapegoat
for the failure and inability of particular cultures to resist manipulation by powerful
economic interests. Ironically, this scapegoating of globalization is itself part
and parcel of the very logic of globalization: the quixotic emphasis on attempts to
reverse already de facto institutionalized economic realities occludes the primacy
of that cultural dimension where the devastating impact of globalization can be
buffered and even neutralized.
Jorge Raventos: Globalization has become such a popular term that
it has come to mean very little. How would you define the phenomenon?
Paul Piccone: There is nothing mysterious about globalization as such. In
strictly economic terms, it has to do with the development of an international
market — a process that has been going on for a very long time. The only novelty
here is the impact that new technologies and modes of communication have had
on financial and economic transactions in accelerating global integration. These
developments have had a devastating impact primarily on pre-modern cultures
that were unprepared and unable to function as the kind of autonomous economic
agents presupposed by rational market relations.
However, as Rudolf Hilferding showed almost a century ago, this state of
affairs can only be temporary, as these economic imbalances tend to rectify themselves
over time as a result of the unfolding of the very logic of capitalism. What
is even more important in this respect is the inevitability of a kind of modernization,
understood not simply as Westernization or Americanization (as marketed
by Hollywood and the rest of the culture industry) but as the gradual constitution
of collective economic agents able to compete rationally within a global framework.
It means that, whether one likes it or not, the whole world has to conform
to the logic of advanced capitalism. This is not strictly an economic question, but
primarily a cultural and political one.
Thus, the real problem with globalization qua international economic integration
has to do, not with participation in the global market (which is unavoidable),
but with the preservation and defense of particular cultures. This cannot be done
by simply resisting foreign penetration of local markets. More important is the
ability to retain cultural integrity, while trying to globalize on one’s own terms.
Contrary to the way modernization is usually understood, i.e., as something close
to and occasionally even interchangeable with Westernization and Americanization,
INTERVIEW 141
from the viewpoint of those being globalized, rather than that of the globalizers, this
implies the creation of the kind of independent political entities able to protect cultural
autonomy, while benefiting from participation in the global market-place. In other
words, it is not so much the economic impact of globalization qua modernization that
is a long-range threat to economically weak and marginal societies, but its cultural
consequences: the relegation of entire populations to a kind of permanent cultural
sub-individuality, deprived of the means to compete effectively in the global market.
The most effective defenses against this Americanization and Westernization
are not silly measures such as the French law to prevent English from polluting
French, but the strengthening of local traditional cultures whose
“rationality,” in the age of postmodernity, can no longer be questioned legitimately
from the viewpoint of any other culture. The belated acknowledgment of
the mythological roots of rationalism has undermined the pretended “superiority”
of any culture seeking to universalize its particular myths. Economic globalization
can be effectively resisted — or at least contained within acceptable
parameters — only by preventing cultural globalization. Unfortunately, what
usually happens is that, in countries other than, for instance, the G-7, a split
develops between a ruling New Class elite well integrated within the global
economy (and thus committed to that kind of global Americanization needed to
sustain existing economic relations), and a populace increasingly Americanized
and manipulated by the globalizing culture industry. The result is unaccountability,
irresponsible spending policies, and, tendentially, the bankruptcy of
these countries, because of onerous national debts incurred by regimes interested
primarily in self-aggrandizement and short-term fixes.
This is why opposition to economic globalization is the postmodern equivalent
of charging windmills: it reduces the possibility of marginal countries to participate
in the world economy — and thus eventually to escape marginalization —
while leaving unaffected an Americanized, and increasingly Americanizing populace
demanding the cultural products and lifestyles responsible for its dependence.
It is not a accident that the final draft of NAFTA, under pressure from the opponents
of economic globalization and an army of opportunistic fellow-travellers,
has turned out to be a document meant to defend innumerable, politically powerful,
particular interests having little to do with genuine free trade. Thus, it has
resulted in the further Americanization and trivialization of Canadian culture, the
Canadian economy becoming ever more dependent on Wall Street, and Canadian
dollars falling increasingly closer to the level of Mexican pesos.
Jorge Raventos: In your writings you mention frequently the concept
“New Class”: Could you explain it? Is it simply the bureaucracy or something
more? How does the power of this New Class find expressions ideologically
and politically?
142 JORGE RAVENTOS
Paul Piccone: The concept of the New Class is hardly new. It has anarchist
roots going back to Mikhail Bakunin, who deployed a crude version of it over a
century ago to explain the involution of the First International, and Jan
Machajsky, who further developed it — in an even more confused form — to
criticize social-democracy at the turn of the century. Marx and Engels themselves
had already prefigured something along these lines, although it was never developed
systematically in their writings. More recently, it was resurrected by
Gyorgy Konrad and Ivan Szeleny, but only to explain the development of bureaucratic
collectivism in the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Roughly around
the same time — the mid-1970s — a new, more theoretically sophisticated version
was reintroduced within Western sociology by Alvin W. Gouldner, using linguistics,
rather than questionable economic data or the vague power relations
underlying earlier formulations, as its main principium differentiationis.
Unfortunately, all of these efforts are inadequate, and the concept is now routinely
dismissed as yet another effort to recycle and update the long-since discredited
Marxist notion of class — a notion that Marx could never formulate
satisfactorily, and which in the truncated last chapter of Capital remains as a testament
to the impossibility to complete Marxism as anything more than a descriptive
account of the genesis and structure of liberal capitalism. Thus, even
Gouldner’s latest version turns out to be analytically and politically useless, to the
extent that it is itself predicated on the very same New Class ideology it was
meant to expose. Unlike earlier accounts, which dealt with intellectuals and other
holders of cultural capital as a rather homogeneous whole, Gouldner distinguished
between two conflicting groups within the New Class: progressive technocrats
and retrograde bureaucrats. Allegedly, while the first group is creative, committed
to change, and actually responsible for all the benefits resulting from the technological
revolution, the latter is parasitic, rule-oriented, and resistant to any
changes in the status quo. Such a reconfiguration of the concept no longer contraposes
the New Class to other social formations, but, in order to understand and
explain the dynamics of advanced industrial societies, it automatically assumes
the legitimacy of New Class rule and focuses instead on the social impact of the
conflicts constantly exploding between technocrats and bureaucrats.
Such an account is useless in making sense out of, e.g., the new series of conflicts
and crises that have come to characterize post-Cold War realities, and
remains stuck in the Enlightenment project of social engineering under the guidance
of a New Class elite possessing the superior, universally-valid knowledge
legitimating what it considers to be a much needed rationalization of society. Contrary
to fundamental Western values predicated on autonomous individuality and
self-determination — the axiological horizon within which all contemporary political
projects are ultimately modulated — such a posing of the problem of universalist
rationalization presupposes as permanent and unproblematic precisely the
kind of new social divisions and conflicts that the concept was meant to explain.
INTERVIEW 143
Consequently, it fails to thematize, e.g., the status of intellectuals and of the hyperprofessionalization
of knowledge as a pathological predicament of modernity, presupposing
a division between “experts” with access to universal knowledge and
values (thus able to plan and make decisions), and a clientized populace to be
managed and manipulated — even if, presumably, in its own best interests.
The exclusive emphasis on conceptual knowledge hypostatizes formal rationality
as the only legitimate mode of apprehending reality, and checkmates as
“irrational” those alternative, intuitive, and generally informal modes of being
which makes everyday life meaningful and manageable to ordinary people with
no intellectual or professional pretenses. The result is nihilism and a progressive
social disintegration. Without traditional cultural bonds, which automatically
provide individuals with personal identity, meaning, and readily-available means
to process everyday problems, life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate,
requiring ever more frequent interventions by professionals, experts, etc., thus
further legitimating New Class hegemony over all features of everyday life. In
this sense, the concept of the New Class encapsulates the predicament of modernity:
what the Marxist tradition identified as the problem of “alienation” (but mistakenly
reduced and relegated to relations of production), and Heidegger, Schmitt
— and most of the inter-wars “conservative revolutionaries” in Germany — misleadingly
attributed to “technology,” understood as the degradation of human to
mere mechanical functions. The resulting institutional paternalism, which the
Frankfurt School blamed for the working class’ proclivity to follow authoritarian
regimes, also helps explain the growing economic inequality and salary differentials
between New Class professionals and everyone else.
The extent of New Class ideological hegemony, neatly marketed as a neutral
liberalism claiming to embody the allegedly universally valid principles of
the Enlightenment, is reflected by the lack of any substantial opposition to it. In
addition to abstract individuality and formal equality, today professionalism, the
epistemological primacy of instrumental rationality, and what Adorno called
“identity logic,” remain the predominant dogma. One does not have to recycle
Gaetano Mosca’s theory of “circulating elites” to realize the extent to which
entrenched bureaucracies and technocracies remain in power, no matter what
other changes there are with the alternating of democratically elected administrations.
The Civil Service transcends democratic prerogatives and even
extreme radical shifts such as, e.g., the changes from fascist to communist
regimes in Eastern Europe after WWII, did not threaten the institutional permanence
of most technocrats and bureaucrats — at least, among those who were
neither shot or hung. The old US Army joke that old irrelevant documents can
be destroyed only after they have been copied in duplicate applies even more to
the New Class ruling apparatus. Despite Ronald Reagan solemn promise to
reduce the bureaucracy and the innumerable regulations, they thrive. During his
administration both actually grew.
144 JORGE RAVENTOS
The New Class is not a “class” in the Marxist sense of its relation to the
means of production, but only in a general, metaphoric sense, describing those
people with cultural capital (knowledge), using such capital to secure a privileged
social position with respect to those who lack it. To the extent that these
power relations can be maintained only by privileging formal rationality and universal
values, while dismissing other preconceptual modes of being as irrational
or, at best, pre-rational, the New Class demands the exhaustive codification of all
of reality as a precondition for its very recognition as such, thus legitimating its
particular skills as essential to access it. The institutionalization of this artificial
predicament paves the way not only for the huge salary differences between the
New Class and those lacking cultural capital, but also for the disempowering of
all those unable to negotiate their way through the new professional communication
networks within which universality obtains. This social fracture, obtaining
not only at the local, but also at the global level, generates a kind of inequality
much more pervasive than anything the old capital ever succeeded in creating,
and much more difficult to expose, confront politically, and eventually reverse.
Jorge Raventos: In your thought, and in Telos in general, there is a
strong defense of federalism, in terms of autonomy of people and communities
before centralist government. Can you define the concept of federalism
and the political role you assign to it? How can federalism operate as
an organizational tool for wider communities in the age of globalization?
Paul Piccone: Contrary to its original meaning — as a system meant to
guarantee local autonomy and self-determination, within a context in which some
limited prerogatives are allotted to a central government created specifically to
deal with common problems — today federalism refers primarily to the centralization
of power. A system devised specifically to guarantee the cultural particularity
of the political units constituting the federation has been turned into its
opposite, where the central government increasingly regards the various units as
nothing more than transmission belts to implement the center’s mandates. This
reversal of meaning is a perfect example of how the New Class exercises its
hegemony in order to redefine reality in its own image.
Despite a great deal of resistance at the local level, this substitution of a centralized
for a decentralized system has been going on for a long time. In fact, it is
still unfinished and, in the US, it remains the source of constant friction between
the central government and the states. What has made it possible, among other
things, is the successful deployment of New Class ideology: a managerial liberalism
far different from its classical 19th century counterpart. By contraposing a
central government predicated on allegedly neutral values, scientific knowledge,
and rationality, to local communities bound only by particular traditions, customs,
religion, dialects, etc., the New Class has progressively delegitimated the
INTERVIEW 145
latter — usually by instrumentalizing crises whenever they occur — thus paving
the way for the central government usurpation of most functions which were
originally meant to remain local prerogatives.
What has facilitated this process is an unresolved ambiguity within the US
Constitution, where the Bill of Rights empowers the federal government to
enforce it, thus practically deactivating the 10th Amendment that stipulates a limitation
of federal prerogatives to explicitly spelled out tasks. Combined with the
federal government’s powerful fiscal clout and its ability to coerce the states into
submission with the threat to withhold funding, the hypostatization of rights over
all other concerns has meant that, for all practical purposes, the US operates as a
centralized nation rather than as a federation.
The vindication of the original meaning of federalism in Telos has always
been connected with the critique of representative democracy as insufficiently
democratic, and with the need to have direct democracy operative, at least at the
lowest levels of decision-making. By sharply separating a knowledgeable political
elite of New Class experts from an increasingly alienated and therefore
incompetent populace, representative democracy falls prey to private interests
able to finance and indirectly control the political system. In this sense, the Marxist
critique of bourgeois democracy as tendentially a tool of capitalism has
always been more or less on the mark. Without a competent citizenry able and
willing to hold its representatives accountable, the latter become accountable
only to those private interests that support them. What is especially problematic
with this system is that, far from being self-correcting, it tends to increase the distance
between representatives and those allegedly being represented, resulting in
an ever more undemocratic New Class regime.
Exactly the same process is replicated at the global level, with equally debilitating
consequences. Despite the fact that the solution they usually propose —
world-government — may be worse than the problem, opponents of globalization
are concerned precisely with this lack of democratic accountability. Whether
generalizing federalism on a regional or global level is possible or even at all
desirable is hard to determine, since the financial powers that run the world economy
are not readily susceptible to political controls. It is obvious, however, that
the institutionalization of a federalism predicated on strict subsidiarity — and
thus ultimately based on grass-root direct democracy — within particular countries
would make it easier to translate such practices to a broader framework.
And, clearly, this framework would be preferable to the present one, where the
UN human rights ideology concealing US national interests seeks to homogenize
the whole globe in the image the American New Class has of itself and of how
the whole world should be.
Jorge Raventos: Is your concept of federalism only linked to the idea
of autonomous communities sharing a common space, or does it also
146 JORGE RAVENTOS
include the type of autonomy of functional communities (factory workers,
unions) and small independent organizations (mutual help societies,
cooperative buyers’ societies)? In any case, what similarities and differences
do you see in those fields for federalist ideas?
Paul Piccone: What you are describing is not federalism, but corporatism.
While there are broad similarities between the two, they are not the same. Corporative
entities are not communities in the strict sense, but more like voluntary
associations competing and/or cooperating in the so-called public sphere in order
to defend their members’ interests. Historically associated exclusively with fascism,
corporatism has in fact become the normal de facto organizational structure
of all advanced industrial societies, irrespective of their self-description as liberaldemocratic,
social-democratic, socialist, communist, etc. In a context in which
democratic elections have deteriorated to the level of spectacular legitimating rituals
for competing groups of New Class elites, the only way to administer effectively
a modern society is by modulating the demands and needs of various
corporative bodies. Even federations based on communities small enough to practice
direct democracy have to deal with whatever particular voluntary associations
or interest groups or, more generally, corporate bodies they contain within them.
Unlike corporative entities, in which participation is contingent and does not
permanently define personal identities, communities define individuals in an irrevocable
way. One does not choose one’s parents, race, place of birth, native language,
religion, etc. in the way one takes a job in a particular factory, joins a
union or any number of possible voluntary associations — nor is it possible to
change one’s genetic make-up, parents, or history. While these corporative structure
can come and go, communities do not, unless under catastrophic circumstances.
This also explains why it is so important to defend their cultural
particularity. In other words, communities and voluntary associations operate on
different levels, which helps explain why New Class ideology welcomes the latter,
but tries to systematically erode and homogenize the former. Communities
become political entities when they so define themselves, while voluntary associations
always remain, at best, economic agencies with or without some political
clout as pressure groups. Communities can form a federation if they so choose;
corporative bodies can only demand recognition and satisfaction of their
demands within whatever political system is in place.
Jorge Raventos: You defend populism. Because in Argentina it has
been associated with the Peronist movement, that term has been despised
and demonized from several sides: the liberals, academia, as well as the
Left. What is your definition of populism?
Paul Piccone: The demonization of populism is not a phenomenon limited
INTERVIEW 147
to Argentina. Populism is hated and misunderstood all over the world, especially
by the New Class and academics, who immediately associate it with fascism and
other authoritarian regimes. The problem with this association is that populism is
usually a reaction against democratic deficits and is always much more democratic
than any system based on representative democracy. With the possible
exception of Russian populism, populist movements generally come about in
particular historical junctures when the democratic process has degenerated so
much that it calls forth a truly democratic reaction. Since reactions of this kind
are never articulated and mediated by intellectuals able to reconfigure them
within coherent and “rational” frameworks, they end up including all sorts of
“politically incorrect” views about racism, immigration, religion, etc. As a result,
they are either demonized and dismissed as irrational and fascist, or, under the
pretext of representing populist interests, they are successfully instrumentalized
to legitimate collectivist New Class projects such as the New Deal.
It is amazing how otherwise serious academics that study populism, such as
Margaret Canovan, Yannis Papadopoulos, and even Pierre-André Taguieff invariably
preface their analysis with disclaimers that the term “populism” is ambiguous,
contradictory, or too vague to handle, and, on further reflection, also concede
that similar terms such as “democracy,” “federalism,” and practically every other
fundamental concept in political discourse is equally problematic. This instinctive
New Class phobia is due to the fact that populism is anti-intellectual in the sense
that it rejects the distinction between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, whereby
the former rule and the latter follow. In a truly democratic fashion, they demand
that everyone be considered equally qualified to participate in the kind of decisions
affecting their life. Consequently, even the most outrageous views manage
to be expressed and sometimes adopted as part of particular political projects.
This, unfortunately, is the price one must pay for real democracy unfettered
by liberal dogmatism defining a priori what is acceptable and what is not, down
to castigating minitiae such as second hand smoke, “insensitivity” toward any
particular social group, or even entertaining sexual fantasies about anyone under
age is a crime — not to mention the use of alcohol, drugs, etc. If democracy is
self-correcting — and it is so by definition, if no external values are hypostatized
above and beyond it — then all of these pathologies or pseudo-pathologies will
automatically be rectified in the normal course of events. Ultimately, populism
seeks to vindicate particularistic cultural values which, if they need to be
defended in such an explicit fashion, have either degenerated to what, from an
external perspective appears as a pathological level, or are threatened by developments
difficult to contain by normal means. In either case, populism is always
a symptom of a crisis of democracy and self-determination.
Jorge Raventos: Lately, in cultural and political debates and in
the media there has been a new censorship, under the form of political
148 JORGE RAVENTOS
correctness: there are some subjects which can only be mentioned euphemistically
or prefaced with negative comments, while others cannot be
mentioned at all. What is the cause of this political correctness? Is it an
American or European phenomenon or is it a transnational one?
Paul Piccone: Political correctness is just another name for a very old phenomenon:
dogmatism. If one thinks he has access to “truth,” all other alternative
accounts can only appear as errors, sins, or crimes. All religions — and the kind
of cultures that they generate — fall into this category. The Taliban and, to a
much less extent, Muslims in general, are only an extreme expression of this phenomenon.
Because of the secularization brought about by the development of the
modern state following the religious wars in the 17th century, in the West today
religions have been privatized and relegated to a pre-political domain. The modern
state has managed to contain and depoliticize the kind of dogmatism that centuries
earlier had resulted in the Crusades, the slaughtering of infidels, and scores
of other barbarities committed in the name of the one and only Truth. Of course,
the slaughtering stopped only in the West. Colonialism and imperialism continued
the trend well into the 20th century, as can be readily documented by the Belgian
experiences in the Congo and much of the history of Western penetration of
Latin America and Asia.
As long as no one else was harmed by some particular practices, classical liberalism,
at least in theory, defended primarily liberty and tolerance. When the
growing demand for social services and state intervention into economic relations
paved the way for a massive growth of the central government — and the empowerment
of the New Class needed to run it — classical liberalism gradually changed
into managerial liberalism. While previously the main concern was with liberty
and with preventing the resulting free activities from harming other people, the
managerial state came to emphasize equality and even potential harm to oneself —
since the state now would have to bear the cost of the consequences of any deviant
behavior. Responsible for the welfare of all, the interventionist state penetrated
practically every aspect of everyday life in order to insure conformity with the kind
of abstract individualism and formal rationality it presupposes as preconditions for
social well-being. This meant that what previously functioned as mere regulatory
guidelines were gradually turned into the kind of absolute values underlying traditional
religions and, at the same time, generating the secular equivalent of the kind
of dogmatism classical liberalism was originally meant to marginalize. Political
correctness is the form this dogmatism takes within managerial liberalism.
In extreme cases, anything threatening the dogma of equality — now not just
formal but also substantial — becomes anathema, and what before could have been
dismissed as mere wrong views are now demonized and even criminalized. In some
European countries it is a crime to question whether the Holocaust ever took place;
in the US it is absolutely taboo to hint that racial differences are not just skin-deep,
INTERVIEW 149
and particular cultural values such as patriarchy or others stipulating qualitatively
different gender roles are demonized. Political correctness does not stop at demonizing
overt behavior or particular opinion; it extends even to personal feelings. Socalled
“hate” laws seek to homogenize internal psychological states with moral
injunctions and legal strictures resembling those of the Spanish Inquisition.
The disproportionate passion and almost fanatical fervor of those advocating
political correctness can only be explained in religious terms. Especially in countries
with a rigorous Protestant or Puritan past, which have undergone rapid secularization
following modernity, such as the US and most of Northern Europe,
liberalism in general and political correctness in particular become the rational
substitutes for the kind of dogmatic religions now discarded as superstition and
myth. This helps explain why, for example, it is hard to find much political correctness
in Latin America or Southern Europe, where Catholicism is still predominant.
Unfortunately, to the extent that it is part and parcel of the predominant
human rights ideology being imposed by the US- and UN-sponsored New World
Order, it is beginning to spread in these countries as well. Of course, opposition
by fanatical sects such as the Taliban is ultimately counterproductive, at least to
the extent that it helps legitimate the very ideology they reject.
Jorge Raventos: What do you think of the cultural and political
debates in the US? Where do you see the strongest signs of vitality?
On the cultural front, the most intensely debated issue by far is multiculturalism.
But the terms of the debate are distorted and both those in favor and those
opposed to multiculturalism remain caught in the web of a managerial liberalism
concerned primarily with preserving existing social relations — even at the cost
of having to change everything, as the old French proverb goes. Under the pretense
of respecting cultural autonomy within a pluralist society, this policy is
actually a “new and improved” version of the old assimilationist strategy.
The US was de facto multicultural up to WWI, even if this multiculturalism
remained submerged within an overwhelming WASP cultural hegemony. The concerted
effort to homogenize the culturally heterogeneous populations concentrated
primarily in large urban settings, their “Americanization,” began only after it became
obvious that such populations did not meet the requirements of the new national market
predicated on Fordist mass production and mass consumption. Only a homogeneous
population with similar cultural references, needs, and desires could produce
and consume the standardized mass produced commodities. Thus, for advertisement
to work, it was necessary to be able to appeal to referents known to all: no peasant
with only a rudimentary knowledge of English could be persuaded, e.g., to
drink Coca-Cola, by subliminally promising the enhancement of one’s virility.
This Americanization strategy worked all too well, but it also had serious
unintended consequences related to the cultural disintegration it precipitated.
150 JORGE RAVENTOS
Reduced to its lowest possible denominator, American culture reduced to mere
consumption of whatever commodities were being effectively marketed: certainly
no substitute for the rich, traditional cultures the first and second generation
immigrants were supposed to leave behind. The collapse of American cities
(largely as a result of social engineering), the increases in criminality and other
social dysfunctions made it clear that such a policy was ultimately self-defeating.
Fortunately, in the meantime technology had developed enough to allow market
segmentation and the kind of diversified production it required. In other words,
in the post-WWII period it became clear that Americanization qua homogenization
was obsolete. It could have been carried out even more effectively by vindicating
cultural specificity, within the broad framework of managerial liberalism.
Thus, multiculturalism came into being as a way to assimilate minorities and
ethnic groups, not as formally identical to everyone else, but as minorities and ethnic
groups. The question of a common culture is irrelevant. The culture industry is
ubiquitous and continues to homogenize everyone by integrating whatever cultural
particularity it find expeditious to instrumentalize. Within this ineliminable horizon,
the integration of other cultures as other cultures only helps create a multicultural
New Class which, by pretending to preserve traditional cultures doomed to terminal
erosion, actually retards the effective integration of minorities and immigrants. In
this sense, the multicultural debate is between neo-conservative New Class ideologues
attempting to uphold a vision of America that never existed in order to
inflate their particular cultural capital, and multicultural wannabe New Class members
seeking to inflate their own cultural capital at the expense of the particular
groups they claim to represent. None of this has had any significant impact on
American culture other than multiculturalizing TV and mass advertisement at a
time when the computer culture and multi-media developments are rendering both
increasingly irrelevant. Within academia, it remains primarily an academic debate
about jobs, promotions, and the creation of ever sillier programs leading nowhere.
Politically, whatever debates were there about the direction of American
society, its character, etc. have been marginalized by the prosperity of the 1990s.
All that remains today is, at best, negotiations between the two main factions of
the New Class about the extent and scope of government redistributive policies:
the extent of the tax-cut, how to reorganize education, which new programs to
fund, etc. Other issues, such as stem cell research, are beyond the comprehension
of most people and, at best, are reduced to simplistic positions about the sanctity
of life or political non-interference with scientific research — although, strictly
speaking, this issue too was about whether and to what an extent should the federal
government fund such research.
Broader issues dealing with globalization, environmental standards, and economic
growth simply do not generate major political debates, unless explicitly
sponsored by some particular lobby, as in the case of the Middle East, where it
usually comes down to the extent of American aid and support of Israel. Relations
INTERVIEW 151
with China, the containment of Iran and other allegedly “rogue countries,” negotiations
with Russia about nuclear arms reduction, drug enforcement, immigration,
discrimination, etc. still make the headlines of major newspapers and are
regularly reported by other media, but they are usually forgotten as soon as the
reporting stops. At best, they only engage a tiny minority of intellectuals with a
professional interest in the particular subjects.
The kind of prosperity made possible by the technological revolution during
the past decade and the collapse of any significant geopolitical opposition to US
cultural and political hegemony has had the impact of a narcotic on American
politics, now more than ever concerned with purely local or regional issues:
housing, crime, traffic, etc. The current depoliticization in the US is not all that
different from a similar phenomenon during the Brezhnev years in the former
Soviet Union — a period an increasing number of older Russians are coming to
regard as “the good old days.” As long as the regime can guarantee an acceptable
standard of living, broader political issues fade from public consciousness.
Despite all this, the US remains a vibrant society with a very bright future,
much more so than any other comparable country. The constant flow of immigrants
— usually the best and the most enterprising part of the population of their
native countries— revitalizes American society and regenerates a sense of purpose
it would otherwise lose. The American ability to control the international
division of labor has led to a concentration of decision-making power which
reduces the rest of the world to a status of cultural, economic and political dependence.
For better or worse, the US is bound to remain the engine of world history
for the foreseeable future. In light of the potential problems with other alternatives,
this may not be the worst of all possible scenarios. What kind of impact this
state of affairs has and will continue to have on the rest of the world, of course,
depends on the particular countries in question.
Jorge Raventos: There is now a debate going on concerning the
project of a common American free trade zone from Alaska to Tierra del
Fuego. Do you think this will encourage more cultural and political interaction
between the US and South America?
Paul Piccone: It all depends on what one means by “free trade zone.” If it is
something like NAFTA, then it will only perpetuate or intensify existing problems
and misunderstandings. Despite the “free-trade” label attached to it, NAFTA is, at
best, a bureaucratic nightmare, catering to innumerable private interests and creating
even more obstacles to free trade than before it went into effect (except, of
course, for those commercial interests with enough political clout to influence the
final draft of the agreement). For example, there is no real rational justification for
maintaining a border between the US and Canada, were it not for protecting particular
interests on both sides and upholding a spurious sense of cultural and political
152 JORGE RAVENTOS
difference. The present Administration’s effort to rationalize economic relations
with Mexico is a step in the right direction, but even in this particular case it is
immediately obvious what kind of almost insurmountable political obstacles lay
on the way. If, by manipulating their local political representatives, the Teamsters’
Union was able to checkmate minimalist efforts to loosen restrictions on Mexican
trucks entering the US, one can only imagine the particularistic domestic objections
to even greater relaxation of border restrictions.
To be sure, changes of this magnitude cause major disruptions at all levels.
Yet, the eventual benefits by far exceed the price paid for them — especially for
Latin America. Such a development is not qualitatively different from the European
Union’s eventual integration of East and Central European countries. Not
only would it bring immediate economic benefits to South America, but, as has
been the experience of South European countries, e.g., Portugal, Spain and
Greece, after they joined the European Union, such an integration would be a
major catalyst in rationalizing the often bizarre legal and bureaucratic structure of
the countries involved. If this economic arrangement were to work, the eventual
standardization of the currency should also reap benefits for all countries
involved. Unlike the fate the German Mark suffered in the process of becoming
homogenized within the Euro, because of its massive international presence, the
US dollar would be hardly effected. After initial disruptions, Latin American currencies
would also benefit by achieving the kind of stability they desperately need.
As for the cultural impact on the US, it would help defrost the Puritan residues
still deeply buried within American collective consciousness, and enrich, even
more than has already been the case with Mexican immigration in Western states,
what outsiders still perceive to be a rather parochial and self-centered American
culture. Already flooded by the North American culture industry, Latin American
culture would not lose any more of its particularity than it already has, and would
lose anyway, whether or not it participates in a free-trade zone. On the positive
side, through economic integration with North America, of course, Latin America
would immediately find itself in a stronger position vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Traditional nation-states have already lost much of their sovereignty, and the
critics of globalization are right in predicting an even greater erosion in the future.
Calls by some of them for a world government as the solution, however, would
probably make things worse and actually unmanageable — even if such a global
political structure were to be a loose federation not much stronger than the current
UN. Intermediate solutions such as common free-trade zones, which Carl Schmitt
saw already institutionalized, if only in nuce and with explicit imperialist objectives,
with the Monroe Doctrine, are a much better alternative. But this discussion
may be already beside the point, since globalization, for better or worse, is already
precipitating this kind of integration. To organize it consciously, rather than leave
it to the whims of financial flows, may reduce the unavoidable disruptions it creates
while facilitating the development of mutually beneficial cultural ties.