Farenheit 11-9

Went to see Fahrenheit 11-9 this afternoon, Michael Moore’s new movie, with my friend Anna. Yes, the irony of the election night trajectory. Yes, the anti-democratic, self-destructive suppression of Sanders. Yes, the Flint, Michigan, racialist targeting of black Michigan by Rick Snyder. (Was he a model for Donald Trump?) Yes, Stoneman Douglas and the strong spirit of the survivor students. Yes, scholarly — NYU and Yale — validation that the “fascist” attribution is more than vitriol. Yes, the left militancy of the rising stars on the left. How do you narrate this story together?

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Not as Michael Moore narrated it. Which is not to say you shouldn’t see it. You should. Each segment is an award-winning documentary short. But, strung together? Meh.

What Moore is trying to grasp is a still reversible spirit; think the “Goebbels Project” but early on. Moore wants to say, we’re almost there — almost really fascist — but that there are counter-movements that are still very active. From that vantage point, the sharp juxtapositions of positive and negative, hopeful and pessimistic, offer fodder for discussion. It is a thought piece. Good.

But, unlike, say, Fahrenheit 9-11, which documented a descent into authoritarianism; or Bowling, which offered us a critique of the military-industrial complex — the central message of 11-9 remains buried and burdened by the layers through which it must climb to present itself.

That message is that the Democratic Party has sold out its working class constituents. Yes. The Christian Democrats and Liberals needed to migrate toward nationalist ideals (and away from Social Democrat and Communist ideals) in order to finally be compromised by fascism. They helped make fascism appear acceptable, much as the Democratic leadership were the opening act for Trump.

But this would suggest a narration that guides us to a coherent account of the mechanisms at play in this transition from — as Moore reminds us, in polling data — liberal, progressive America to fascist outcomes.

Yes. Progressives were deeply, fundamentally, absolutely disillusioned by Clinton and Obama. (The Obama sequence in Flint is for the ages.) They were aghast at a Party that so baldly and boldly and anti-democratically eliminated its own base. The margin in 2016 was far smaller than the disenfranchised excluded by the Democratic National Committee. And Moore’s highlight of candidates who are fighting the DNC is truly inspiring. I hope they win.

But the social and cultural and political analysis is at best weak and mostly non-existent. Moore  lets the events speak for themselves, which they never do. Moore wants the underlying moral weight of the narrative to justify itself. It never does. The implication, but only the implication, of Moore’s documentary is that democrats in general and the DNC in particular are complicit. But how?

The fascists have a clear narrative. In 1960 at best 10 per cent of the public shared this narrative. But the base, funded by wealthy patrons, kept the narrative alive. The left has never had a popular narrative. Their “narrative” was the close to $4.8B the public spent defeating the Japanese and Germans. Their “narrative” was: look what that $4.8B did to our economy. Bang.

Which means that when Germany and Japan recover and begin competing with the US, the progressives have absolutely no response. We should spend lots of public money to defeat . . . drugs . . . crime . . . poverty. Without the least recognition that it is the public distribution of the social franchise down the income hierarchy that generated the growth of the 1940s 50s and 60s.

Instead, the elites within the Democratic Party promoted a counter-narrative about free markets and free trade, that actually bore no empirical relationship whatsoever to the realities of the 1940s and 1950s. Sorry, but JFK’s narrative about the free world? It was a total fabrication.

Instead of wrapping his narrative around this clear economic story, Moore elected a moral narrative; that actually muddies and muddles his story.

But it also muddies and muddles the story of working families. And that, principally, is the problem with Moore’s take.


Moishe Postone

This Monday I participated in a celebration of the life and work of my dissertation advisor, Moishe Postone, who fell victim to a specially aggressive cancer at way too young an age. Since I met Moishe there is not a day I have not thought about him. Whatever scholarly success I have met I owe in large part to Moishe.

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Moishe served as co-chair, with Michael Geyer, on my dissertation committee (PhD, U Chicago, History, ’99). And I blame him, in part, for my never landing an appointment in history. My dissertation (and then book) offered a socially and historically embedded account for why Max Weber’s predictions of secularization, institutionalization, and disenchantment failed to materialize and why the most vigorously capitalist social formations proved also to be the most “spiritual.” Moishe’s reading of GWF Hegel and K Marx provided an answer: the value form of the commodity is the sublime form theorized by Immanuel Kant and then retheorized by GWF Hegel.

Because he isolated the transcendental value form from its material form of appearance, Max Weber never fully appreciated how deeply this form penetrated his and Marianne’s Sonntagskreise. Weber believed that this transcendental experience, which he shared with, among many others, Ernst Bloch and Georg von Lukacs, intervened from outside the “iron cage.” I argued otherwise.

But now I lecture in economics. And I have often struggled with how to bring Moishe’s insights to bear on a field to which he himself was only tangentially related. What I have discovered is how closely Karl Marx’s notion of abstract value parallels the treatments of his near contemporaries, William Stanley Jevons and Leon Walras. Because by the 1860s it was already clear that abstract value was the substance mediating social relations. What distinguished Karl Marx’s research from theirs is that Marx recognized the social and historical specificity of this social form. And he recognized its dynamic internal structure. Think Phenomenology §§18-19 and how dynamic GWF Hegel’s misrecognized spirit is. Marx recognized this socio-historical connection. And, by contrast to so many Marxian social theorists, Moishe Postone saw what Marx saw, and what I now see.

But, apart from this uniquely capitalist spiritual form, Moishe was observant. He was Jewish in a way I was not. Embedded deep in my own family’s past, Weiman became Wyman, and Jews became Christians; or, rather, they became Unitarians and transcendentalists. Personally I have resisted “spirituality.” I am convinced it is a surrogate of the value form. Which is why I prefer to think of myself as observant, as religious, not spiritual.

I am not inviting my students to leap over their own shadows. I am inviting them to reflect critically about the possibilities of real emancipation facing them. Not because a “natural” or “naturalized” class removed from the commodity form has appeared in our midst, but because here, not elsewhere, they can chart a course forward from a domination they comprehend to a freedom that is not unconstrained. These constraints mean that the path lends itself to modeling.

In his rejection of unmediated explanations of emancipation and domination, I believe that Moishe prepared me to think critically about economics; yes, of course, always as a surface expression of deeper social mediations. But I think that what Moishe never entirely grasped or at least never expressed was the degree to which neoclassical economics had moved beyond the rigid categories fetishized by so-called “Marxist” and “Marxian” theorists. He never fully grasped or at least never expressed how deeply contemporary neoclassical economics is a science of the “self-moving substance that is subject.”

And, yet, this I also learned from my mentor Moishe Postone.

Kristallnacht, Again

I am recalling a graduate course I took at the University of Chicago back in 1992 devoted to Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was the guy snapped up by Josef Goebbels in 1932 to head up the Nazi legal team. For four months we poured over Professor Schmitt’s works. Without question, Carl was a complex figure, as complex as any who served Chancellor Hitler.

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Better than anyone else, Professor Schmitt understood the political character of law. Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court reinforces the validity of this judgment. Law is political. Politics is law.

Obviously, as much as Professor Schmitt’s appointment, so Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment, is politically significant. The point I believe significant is that law — which is always politically significant — is not always obviously political. When law becomes obviously political, we have entered a different moment.

When a President can rally a political audience in support of sexual violence this marks a sea change in the political character of law; a sea change as significant as Kristallnacht, when Germans felt authorized to raze Jewish Synagogues and did so.

Yes. Law is political. Law plays parties against one another. And, yes, over the past thirty years, law has been gradually, slowly, lethargically creeping toward gender equality. We are now seeing a rebellion against gender equality. Mississippi exposes a deep crease, a breach, in the logic of gender equality. Large numbers of women doubt Professor Ford’s testimony. Large numbers of women are ready to cheer as a President mocks a victim of sexual violence.

And here we are again. It is 1932. My synagogue has been set on fire. Senators Collins and Manchin are turning their backs. Let it burn.

We have lost the political battle. It is now the day after 1932. It is now 1933. Brett Kavanaugh, the tipping point, is now installed. Now what?

Now what? Yes. Law is political. Which means that we empty into the streets, every day, every hour. We show our numbers against theirs. We drain them. 1932 is not a new normal. We cannot back down. Everything we love and live for is at stake. We must drop everything.

Ironically, the US has just become extra-judicial. Law no longer rules. Politics rules. The party that wins is critical, truly.