Monday, 21 May 2012

Culturale Hedonia!

Take your Desires for Reality.

In the mid 1960s Herbert Marcuse had reached a conclusion about capitalist society which went against the position he took in Eros and Civilization. He had reached back to utopian socialism for an alternative to the models of bourgeois capitalism and Soviet communism. In the work of Charles Fourier he had hoped to find a way of unlocking the instincts of human beings as part of the transition to a post-capitalist society. It was Fourier's view that capitalism compounds sexual repression in society with exploitation, driving down wages generating poverty. It's a fine system for the few, but it's disastrous for the many. The repression of sexuality is what led to perversions, if the passions were unleashed then we would be able to create a harmonious society. Fourier wanted to build a utopia with love and sex as the primary mechanisms of this new order. This is the origin of the leftist penchant for sexual liberation and the opposition to repressive norms.

Of course, there are various different variations on this cause. Fourier dreamed of a utopian society based on a primary unit, a communal block known as a phalanx in which as many as 1,800 people could live together. It would be a community built on solidarity without any of the repressive taboos of capitalist society. There would be complete sexual freedom and people would be able to change partners frequently. Radical stuff in the 18th Century. The family would be done away with as the phalanx would take its place as the centre of loyalty and affection. Fourier thought that entire countries could be organised in this way with these set up as councils where all participate in decisions. The phalanxes would form chains of councils across nations and coordinate through cooperation grand civil projects with volunteer armies. This was the material base of a vision that came with a metaphysical superstructure, a new religious order where priests advised congregants on sex.

At the heart of this utopian vision was the idea of Love, in which sex is just one aspect, the priests who would manage the dynamics of Love would 'cure' you of your unhappiness in the midst of rejection. We can see how this vision may have tapped into the hedonistic utopianism of the 1960s. All the different impulses of human beings require a diversity of roles suited to the variety of human nature, even potential murderers will be welcome and be put to work as butchers to work-off their own homicidal urges. Of course, Charles Fourier was written-off as a lunatic in his day. He conceived of a theory of history comprised of 32 stages, each ordained by God, beginning in savagery before passing through civilisation to socialism and Harmony. The advent of Harmony would herald an age of 70,000 years which would end in savagery as humanity approached the end of times. Civilisation could be shortened to bring on socialism much earlier and Harmony could then be extended in its duration.

Live without Dead Time.

As you might expect Fourier was an opponent of the authoritarianism and moral righteousness he detected in the Jacobins. He had little faith in governments and preferred a grass-roots oriented approach to socialism. Change was to be achieved from the ground-up and not from the top-down. After first entertaining the tenets of utopian socialism Marcuse had become pessimistic by 1964 when he wrote One-Dimensional Man. As part of his thesis Marcuse rethought the revolutionary project of socialism. The proletariat could not be relied upon to overthrow capitalism in Marcuse's view. The tensions were mounting to the point that the black under-class would be a better revolutionary agent. The capitalist system had no real focus on the manipulation of their desires at the time. The same goes for the exploited workers of the Third World. Then there are the student radicals of the West who have the power to see beyond false consciousness. We can see how both works related to the 1960s zeitgeist.

In the authentic socialist society women and men could live without fear and without being compelled to spend their lives in alienated performances. Marcuse thought that this element had been lost in the 20th Century with the advent of the Soviet Union. The Soviet project of socialism in one country necessitated Stalinism due to the material conditions of Russian society. The New Left sought to carve out a new project to do away with the old conventions that bound women to men as well as crushed gays and ethnic minorities. To some extent this was the beginning of identity politics and the post-materialist Left. But the line was drawn from the imperial adventure in Vietnam to economic exploitation at home in America. The early 1970s were an optimistic time for the American Left and there were a lot of radical ideas around. The commune movement sprung up as part of a utopian attempt to build an alternative model for society devoid of hierarchy, authority and power. It was a retreat in part from what the participants saw as the failure of the student movement.

The communal ideal was of nature, which they saw as a self-stabilising eco-system. It continues to serve as an effective means of organisation on the Left, but it fails to provide a positive vision. It was one of the biggest migrations in American history with over 500,000 participants. There were no alliances and no politics inside the communes, but there were sessions in which the communards would express themselves. This was meant to be the source of stability in the community, a sort of feedback system for the organism of many who act as one. In a set up without any factions allowed soon the strong bullied the weak. All of the communes failed, most lasting less than 3 years. Power could not be abolished and the self-organised system removed any obstacles to the domineering personalities of a few. So new hierarchies sprung up out of the egalitarian model, patriarchical power returned without any leashes at all. This is where Feminism emerged as a reaction to the catastrophic failures of the commune movement.

Enjoy without Chains.

The communal model spread to Europe, where the same failures were even more realised. The avant garde artist Otto Mühl set up the Friedrichshof commune as a kind of anti-society. The central aspect of this is a war against monogamy, he sought to replace fidelity with promiscuity in the extreme. This is where the tendencies towards sexual liberation going back as far as Fourier seemed to converge with the commune movement. The communards were forbidden to have sex with the same partner more than once a week and yet each were obligated to have sex five times a day. Fourier had developed a card-indexing system that would have facilitated casual sex for his communards - it would've been handy in Vienna! The commune outlasted its American precursors as it lingered for nearly 20 years when Mühl was thrown in jail for sex offences against children. A hierarchy had sprung up where the most attractive extricated themselves from the ugly herd, while Mühl laid claim to the virginity of the young members.

The commune had descended into the abusive exercise of power through desire. It was an extreme failure that came out of the one of the leftist modes of a politicization of sex as identified in Nina Power's book - it mistakenly took sex to be innately emancipatory and egalitarian. Desire isn't fair at all, inequality, hierarchy and anxiety are more normal than not. Certainly not all members of the commune were desirable and desire became literally tyrannical. There were other attempts at a sexual critique of bourgeois morality among the radicals. The Weather Underground had sessions where members were required to have sex with comrades they were not attracted to. Boyfriends were expected to watch other men sleep with their girlfriends. There was to be no more romance, only a destitution of the subjective and the sexual. This was the darker side of sexual liberation, the underbelly of the counter-cultural revolution of '68 which has been victorious in the destruction of stuffy conventions and rigid traditions.

As Badiou points out, one of the ways that a revolutionary movement can fail is to be defeated in its own victory in that it only takes over the old mantle of the enemy it vanquished. The utopian hedonism of the 1960s did fail in its youthful triumph over the old, it now constitutes the prevailing culture and there is barely anything left to rail against. The irony is that after this great liberation we find any lack of desire impermissible and intolerable. And yet we may live in a time of greater impotence and frigidity than we like to admit. The real problem seems to be love rather than lust. We can screw around as much as we want but the real difficulty is in long-lasting relationships. This is really what is behind the emergence of dating sites. The conservatives have no answer here, but to reinstate the old superstructure and hope that we enjoy cheating on the partners we pretend to love. There doesn't seem to be a clear answer here. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the Japanese invention of love colleges will catch on in the West.

No comments: