“That the Lumpen Should Rule: Vulgar Capitalism in the Post-Industrial Age” (2000)
Editors Note: In our view, the below analysis, describing the degenerate forms of activity at the top of the social heap simply reflect the utter depravity of the whole capitalist system in this, its most advanced stage and hopefully its closing chapter due to sheer senility. Extreme degeneracy inevitably produces these decadent manifestations.
Emperor of the French Louis Napoleon Bonaparte: in his time a good personification of the lumpen element at the apex of the social pyramid.
Paul G. Buchanan:
“The demise of left and right wing authoritarian regimes during the last two decades and subsequent rise of free market and pluralist-oriented philosophies have enveloped the globe in a sea change of political, social and economic reform. The most remarkable of these is the appearance of a nearly feral form of entrepreneurship in which black marketers, drug barons, arms merchants, rackets bosses, Mafiosi, and other profiteers are emerging as the economic and political leaders of the social transformations underway in their respective societies….
“Think about the common denominator among Ivan Bosky, Tupac Shakur, George Soros, Notorious B.I.G., Rupert Murdoch, Snoop Doggy Dawg, Donald Trump, Don King, John McEnroe, Anna Kornikova, Dennis Rodman, Howard Stern, Coolio, Silvio Berlusconi, Dodi AI-Fayed, Rio favela gang leaders, Chilean arms merchants, Russian disco magnates, Hong Kong real estate barons, the children, grandand great-grandchildren of European nobility and selfmade Internet entrepreneurs alike, second and third generation Arab royalty, a cross-national section of narcotics kings, and all the other noveau riche prancing around the globe in their Lear Jets, Ultra Yachts and limousines (to say nothing of the wannabes). Their affinity is vulgarity, greed and ostentatious lifestyles. They are neither high-cultured, traditional old rich or new innovators, but instead are backbiters and syndicators, currency and stock speculators, arms merchants, hustlers, money launderers, tycoons, spoiled children, carneys for prurient material and intellectual pabulum to the masses.
“For their part, the rapidly expanding ranks of subordinate groups (in many countries including former members of the middle classes displaced by the structural dislocations of the last decade) remain divided, materially debased, and individually consumed to varying degrees by immediate ‘survivalist’ interests. This has given rise to a range of informal economic activities, from street merchants, sidewalk entertainers, buskers and ‘facilitators’ to criminal gangs, all operating in an environment of declining civility and cultural degeneration.
“New forms of ideological extremism and nihilism have entered public discourse. These are in equal part a product of historical amnesia and post-materialist angst, in which the return to primary group identification takes on immediatist, self-absorbed, atomizing, and social Darwinian characteristics in a context of increasing globalization of production. This is a vulgar form of capitalist social organization, one that is highly efficient, highly stratified, utterly competitive and often brutish in its cultural and political dimensions.
“What is offered here is not the heroic vision of subaltern groups offered by some cultural theorists. Neither is it a nostalgic paean to classical Marxism or the possibilities of socialism, whose failures are too obvious to recount (For countless reasons, we strongly disagree with the author on this. The failures were not and are not inherent in socialism, but in the social framework in which such constructions were attempted. Afraid the author here is merely showing his lapsed Marxian formation, or bourgeois temperament and prejudices—Eds.]. Nor is it a blanket condemnation of capitalism as a social system. Instead, this is an assessment of the realities of the moment framed around the concept of lumpenproletarian, with the possibilities of resistance to the trend speculated towards the end.
“…In ”The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850,’… Marx notes that the lumpenproletariat
‘… forms a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, gens sans aveu et sans feu (people without tie or home), varying according to the degree of civilization of the nation to which they belong, but never renouncing their lazzaroni (dregs) character … (A)s capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices as of the basest banditry and the foulest corruption.’
“This included the economic and political elite: ‘Since the finance aristocracy made the laws,
‘was at the head of the administration of the state, had command of the organized public authorities, dominated public opinion through the actual state of affairs and through the press, the same prostitution, the same shameless cheating, the same mania to get rich were repeated in every sphere, from the court to the Cafe Borgne-to get rich not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others … The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the resurrection of the lumpenproletariat transported to the heights of bourgeois society.’
“The lazarroni ideology is examined in its political guise in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’
‘(A)bove all, Bonaparte looks on himself … as the representative of the lumpenproletariat to which he himself, his entourage, his government and his army belong, and from which the prime consideration is to benefit itself and draw California lottery prizes from the state treasury … The Bonapartist lumpenproletariat is to enrich itself.’
“Marx’s notion of lumpenproletariat covered more than just marginal elements in society, and included a political as well as an economic component that had specific socio-cultural traits. In this essay the vision is extended to the present era, which involves disaggregating the modern lumpen world view into three distinct ideological strands cum social characteristics….
Lumpen Social Characteristics and Ideological Base
“The most salient characteristics of ascendant vulgar capitalism at the tum of the 21 st century are atomizing pluralism, survivalist or immediatist alienation, and social Darwinism. Atomizing pluralism is marked by the breakdown of ‘modem’ (read industrial) collective identities and their substitution by precapitalist or new, post-industrial and post-materialist forms of identity that are less grounded in the social division of labor and material conditions of existence than they are on ascriptive rationalities rooted in culture, ethnicity, gender, race, or social perspective. Along with post-modem representations tied to music, age, environmental concerns or sexual persuasion, historically defined ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic groups have re-emerged as political and economic units, compounding the structural dislocations caused by the failure of state-centric models of accumulation
“…The new matrix of social discourse is a type of market authoritarianism coupled with electoral procedures for representation, in which economic weight, political history and cultural mores blend into a form of socially-imposed self-interested approach masquerading as freedom of choice. Under such conditions exaltation of individualism ideologically parallels and buttresses-the economic practices of the neoliberal ‘marketization’ project….
“In the final analysis the bases of atomizing pluralism may begin, as always, in the economic project…. At the present it is nothing if not self-centered and socially isolationist in character.
“…Tomas Moulian points out that the forms of domination in modern society are ‘plural, multiple, dispersed in the different social subsystems, covering morality, science, religion, law, entertainment, property, and the like.’…
“…In the post-authoritarian scenarios of the 1980s and 1990s there was no need for a dictatorial presence relying primarily on repression and acquiescence to conform to national or international market and ideological exigencies….
“In such contexts, combination of atomizing pluralism and market steerage decentralizes and isolates pockets of resistance to the neoliberal trend, since it encourages divisions within subordinate groups that make them susceptible to elite divide-and-conquer strategies….
“Post-industrial and post-modem identities downplay the importance of socio-economic class affiliation and exalt the primacy of individualism and primary- group identification along the ascriptive lines described above….
“…In all cases collective identity formation less requires direct inter-personal contact and more is based on the individualized pursuit of consumption preferences manufactured by telecommunications media and governmental fiat.
“There are movements against the individualist tide, some gathering in strength (such as the sem terra landless movement in Brazil, Mapuche Indian resistance groups in Southern Chile, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, political opposition movements in Indonesia and Malaysia, or anti-World Trade Organization, anti-International Monetary Fund and a host of other antiestablishment groups in Europe and North America). Yet the fact remains that present-day forms of identity formation have aided and abetted the rise of lumpenproletarian approaches to the social milieu.
“Notwithstanding dramatic political shifts during the last two decades, economic resources remain the fundamental basis for social group power, interests, and conflicts. That benefits those who are the most resource-endowed or most prone to ruthlessly pursuit material interests via first-best strategies….Think of the movie ‘Wall Street’ without bothersome regulators, the need to talk in whispers, and the requisite use of third party offshore banking fronts, and one gets a good approximation of how sweet it is for the emerging capitalist elite….
“Historical amnesia or ignorance plays a role in facilitating the current promotion of electoral capitalist regime types. Few of the under-forty generation in post-authoritarian societies have prior experience with other forms of representation, having been weaned and raised on various diets of political oppression, bureaucratic opprobrium and economic immiseration. This makes them thirsty for the freedom of choice inherent in the concept of liberal democracy but also prey for political opportunists, feral capitalists and lumpens of all stripes. The latter exploit their advantages because this is their window of opportunity.
Organization of Electoral Capitalism Under Neoliberalism
“What has emerged is a new form of electoral regime and capitalist state that unlike its authoritarian predecessors does not use terror and blanket repression to disrupt subordinate group identities and mobilization, but given that backdrop, supports the neoliberal project by encouraging the depolitization of social life and the depolitization of policy-making through the promotion of individual short term and private, rather than collective long-term and public approaches towards previously common issues….
“Given the uncertainties inherent in the transitional moment, and given the structural necessities of an increasingly transnationalized and competitive global market, what most often emerges in these situations is a generalized condition that for lack of a better phrase can be called Survivalist or Exclusionary Alienation….
“Disruption of collective identities and the emergence of atomizing pluralism and survivalist alienation as social constructs during times of rapid technological change has also led to the rise of individualist ideologies. Self-help books, pop psychology, escapist or apocalyptic cults are all rooted in the erosion of industrial-era collective identities and the ideologies that were the organizing principles underriding them….
“Ponder also the case of so-called mature democracies such as those once grouped in the NATO and ANZUS military alliances. Here long traditions of welfare Statism were rolled back and replaced by privatization schemes that removed social safety nets from the least advantaged sectors of the population (to include public health, housing and education). This in turn allowed class and income differentials to increase while at the same time social indicators worsened for those unable to afford private provision of what had once been public services. Corporations and wealthy individuals have seen their taxes decrease and the mobility of their capital increase (to include offshore), while the poor see their benefits reduced or eliminated, and the middle classes are left to sink or swim in the interest of economic efficiency and competitiveness.
“…(Even if income disparities continue to increase, in what could be called the ‘Brazilianization’ of the United States)….
“This alienation has produced a resurgence of social Darwinian perspectives, where notions of ‘survival of the fittest,’ ‘king of the jungle,’ ‘dog eat dog’ and ‘to each his/her own’ become the leitmotifs of the new social order. Whatever the specific approach (e.g. hostile corporate takeovers or selloffs), here evolutionary theory is twisted (since it is the adoption of cooperative, adaptable strategies rather than competitive, non-adaptive strategies that are the hallmark of biological evolution) while common bases of group identity and solidarity are further eroded….
“The language of the moment reflects the changed tenor of the times. Comparative advantage has become a substitute for super-exploitation. Mutual benefit through exchange (however asymmetrical) has replaced notions of economic dependency and cultural imperialism as the economic mantra of the moment….Global commodity fetishism driven by multi-media marketing- induced mass consumption replaces state provision of basic public goods as the common want (if not need) of citizens.
“Under such conditions people no longer think of themselves as historical subjects. Instead they become the passive recipients of the unilateral actions of the new transnational elite, incapable of seeing themselves as agents capable of transforming their own lives, much less destinies, even less the basic way in which social life is conceptualized…. As Marx pointed out, ‘(I)t is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.’….What consciousness exists is most often lumpen in nature.
“…Pluralism is to interest group relations what markets are to economies: they both promote greater intra- and inter-sectorial competition, thereby lowering the overall social wage bill. This may be advantageous to those who are resourceendowed by virtue of social position or strategic location, but it is distinctly disadvantageous to those who are resource-poor, be they workers, firms, politicians or nations, and who therefore must rely on the strength of their collective agents for equitable representation on an uneven playing field.
“The praxis of collective action has taken on a new meaning in the fluid context of these times, and has served to recast the terms of debate between elites and subordinate groups. The slogan tells it all: ‘just do it.’…
“…Shrinking of the State, complete with the selling off of national industries and the reduction of public good provision networks in compliance of IMF-dictated austerity and reconversion programs, further reduces and redefines the concept of basic citizenship rights under the law. Individuals are increasingly forced to fend for themselves in the marketplace for life’s necessities rather than look to the State to provide for their basic needs. Notions of citizen entitlements were narrowed under the authoritarian regimes that were the most prevalent political systems of the Twentieth Century, and are being reinforced by the neoliberal project today.
State, Regime, Culture and Markets After the Cold War
“The end of the ideological struggles of the Cold War and the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideologies has seen the Nation-State purposely and coincidentally divested of many of its reproductive roles, both economic and cultural. It nevertheless retains a central political role in the international system, and it remains the main agent of organized violence. But even in these areas it has seen its position eroded by a particular confluence of sub-national and transnational forces working, however unintentionally, in synergistic fashion. This has created a new global matrix centered on the triumvirate of State, media and markets.
“…Many regions have seen a rise in ‘gray area’ and covert activities involving organized crime, intelligence agencies and private ‘security’ organizations as new non-state transnational actors whose reach has been called both ‘glocal’ and ‘intermestic.’…This is one in which the blurring of responsibilities and nebulous condition of traditional political boundaries facilitates the rise of armed organizations with lumpen social origins and ideologies. but no revolutionary content.
“Such may be the ultimate ‘trickle down’ approach to democratic capitalist development, but it is prone to leakage: the debased material and ideological foundation of the emerging global order offers unsettled ground for the erection of new regime projects construed along these lines. The reduction in the threshold of popular consent may provide opportunists with short-term benefits, but over the longterm it raises the possibility of mass unrest. The more the social support networks contract and the more people fall through the cracks and fault lines of the transitional order, the more social conflicts are vulgarized and de-institutionalized (because of lack of consensus), the more we approach the point at which an alternative becomes feasible. At that point, high society lumpens may well give way to their lowbrow counterparts.
Organic Crisis and the Valley of Transition
“Whatever the manifestation, this is a type of anomie that can lead to an ‘organic crisis’; a condition of economic and socio-political dislocations where, as Gramsci noted, with the masses divorced from their traditional institutional referents, ‘the field becomes delicate and dangerous, and ripe for the emergence of ‘charismatic men of destiny.’ ‘ One may consider the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot as ridiculous gadflies rather than genuine expressions of social discontent, or see real danger in the presence of Jean-Marie LePen, Joerg Haider, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Pauline Hanson or any number of race supremacist or separatist groups led by culttype leaders. The fact is that authoritarian personalism in politics has taken on new life.
“There is a new demagogic form of politics in vogue, one in which even ‘gangsta,’ ‘wise guy,’ or hustler images are a political asset rather than a liability. The late Serb leader Zarkan embodied the style, and so does Joseph Ramos. It includes former Pakistani cricket stars, retired rugby, baseball and football players, singers and songwriters, bad actors (be it in the U.S. or the Philippines) even Pele and Maradona (who is the very personification of the lumpen philosophy). One way or another, all lay claim to political office as if it were some inherent right and are seen as social leaders….
“Under present applications of neoliberal variants of the democratic capitalist project, in which procedure substitutes for substance and incremental gains are not obtained by the many while maximalist strategies payoff for the few, perhaps the valley of transition does, in fact, become transitable. Here mass consent is replaced by mass apathy and the ‘Washington Consensus’ (that is, by a pact among national elites regarding economic policy), ordinary people no longer think that they can affect their histories, and in that vacuum of self-absorbed discontent anti-systemic inclinations begin to germinate. They start off as expressions of rebellion such as alternative music and forms of dress, physical appearance, behavior and the like (e.g. ‘Goths,’ bikers, skaters). But should they be channeled into the political sphere, currently vacuous and devoid of real significance because of the primacy of market solutions to social problems, then they may become counter-hegemonic. At that point, the elite driven ‘common sense’ is challenged by a massdriven ‘good sense’ that responds more closely to the realities of the moment, not what the elites say it is. When good sense rings more true to the mass of people than so-called common sense, the alternative posed by the counter-hegemonic possibility embodied in good sense becomes real.(31)*
“If legitimacy is defined as the absence of a viable alternative to which to consent, then this is the moment when it comes under question. Putting it simply, with little left to lose, people rebel, and they rebel because they believe in alternatives. This used to be the stuff of revolutions against oligarchs and authoritarians. If not so dramatic, perhaps it will also mark the end of the current experiments in neoliberal hegemony, its apparent strength notwithstanding.
(31)* “The original take on ‘good’ versus ‘common’ sense is offered in Gramsci, 1971: 325-326; 326, ff.5. These notions are applied to the formulation of counter-hegemonic strategies in modern-day Argentina in Buchanan, 1997. One may view the coalition of groups opposed to the WTO, IMF and World Bank as an example of viable subordinate group counter-hegemonic agents to the neoliberal project. The public displays of civil disobedience in Seattle in November 1999, Washington DC in April 2000 and over a broad array of nations on May Day 2000 offer evidence that not all believe in common sense.”
Paul G. Buchanan is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Latin American Studies at the University of Auckland. He is the author of State, Labor, Capital: Democratizing Class Relations in the Southern Cone (Pittsburgh: 1985) and Labour Politics in Small Open Democracies: Australia, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay, with Kate Nicholls (Palgrave/Macmillan, forthcoming).
“Journal of American & Comparative Cultures” Volume 23, Issue 4, Winter 2000.
|Paul G. Buchanan_That the Lumpen Should Rule_Vulgar Capitalism in the Post-Industrial Age
Paul G. Buchanan: “That the Lumpen Should Rule: Vulgar Capitalism in the Post-Industrial Age” “Jou…
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