I’m reposting these twin articles on the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory called “cultural Marxism,” which were originally published last year on the Infernal Machine blog at the Hedgehog Review. A lot of references were topical then, not so much now, but I think the larger points remain relevant. Thanks to them for permission to repost, and also for the top-notch editing.
Politics is Downstream from Culture, Part 1: Right Turn to Narrative
“Our lives—indeed, our very species—has storytelling wound into our DNA. From the earliest cave drawings, man has expressed himself in terms of story. Ancient civilizations understood that stories are vital to understanding our place in the world, so much so that they codified storytelling and found base rules that form it. Oral histories are a part of every culture across the globe.”
I’ll give you three guesses as to the author of this statement. In fact, I’ll give you thirty. It’s not Bill Moyers, and it’s not James Cameron, and it’s not some literature professor. It’s from Breitbart News. If you’re a member of the professional (or non-professional) humanities, that should get you to more than guessing. The quote, by Lawrence Meyers, appeared in a 2011 article headlined “Politics is Really Downstream from Culture.” It was an elaboration of Andrew Breitbart’s mantra, “politics is downstream from culture.” The slogan—a nice inverse of James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid!”—means what it says: Change the culture, change the government.
Now, six years later, national politics, we might say, is culture, and maybe even only culture. Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s successor, is not only in the White House, but, for the time being at least, enjoys a front-row seat on the National Security Council. John McCain, concerned about the elevation of a civilian political strategist to chief advisor on foreign affairs, has called Bannon’s NSC role a “radical departure from any National Security Council in history.” But the concern should run deeper than the possibility of war becoming but another mode of dirty politics. It should include Bannon making international relations into little more than a good story. This sense of story, as something that captures the attention, immerses the reader or viewer, and manufactures a desired political attitude, is Bannon’s stock-in-trade.
He’s explicit about his sources for his narrative techniques: “the Left,” conceived on a spectrum from Hollywood filmmakers to Lenin (whom Bannon has said he idolizes, with tongue pretty clearly in cheek). Since he left Goldman Sachs in 1990, Bannon has been first and foremost a worker in the culture industry, a producer of stories. After helping negotiate the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner, Bannon gained a stake in television shows like Seinfeld. He then got into his own brand of filmmaking, producing among other works, a hagiography of Ronald Reagan, a celebration of Sarah Palin, an encomium to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, and a self-explanatory exposé, “Occupy Unmasked.” After Andrew Breitbart died suddenly in 2012, Bannon took over Breitbart News and single-handedly retrofitted the fringiest part of the “Right Wing Conspiracy” into a slick, savvy, and at least partly fact-based operation. (At the same time, Bannon helped found the investigative research organization that produced Clinton Cash, the book that undermined the Democratic nominee long before anyone from Vermont got involved.)
In addition to left-leaning pop culture sources, Bannon has also borrowed techniques from the academic left, specifically from the Humanities. That’s why it’s now possible to find quotes like the one I led off with above, where it’s hard to tell if we’re reading literary theory or an article on Breitbart. But we have to go further back to the 1992 presidential campaign and Carville’s famous quote about the fundamental nature of the economy. It wasn’t fashionable to say this twenty-five years ago, but Carville’s story, condensed in his quote, was recognizably a Marxist one, that other parts of social and cultural behaviors flow from economics. Carville’s target then was Newt Gingrich and his “contract with America” and the result was a style of punditry that Bannon has been since been seeking to replace. There’s no substantial disagreement, it’s just that Bannon and his cohort are more explicitly prepared to borrow tools from the other side of the aisle.
So on both sides of the aisle, politics is downstream from culture, as we saw when it became apparent that Bill Clinton needed someone like Carville with his slogan to overcome George H.W. Bush and his Thousand Points of Light. Maybe the economy predicts the fundamentals of any election, but culture determines the enthusiasm-gap that adjusts the margins of the vote, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Since the French Revolution and the ideological split of “left” and “right,” there has always been a sense (distilled in the word conservative) that the right couldn’t possibly borrow the “tools” of the left. The two wings represented different takes on an organic historical process: the transition from monarchy to democracy. The left’s tools were not neutral, could not be used in support of an agenda that at least wanted to slow down the process, if not reverse it. What we’re seeing now directly challenges the vestiges of this logic. The right has conceived its own notion of progress. As Peter Thiel put it, “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic —‘The Jetsons,’ ‘Star Trek.’ They’re dated but futuristic.” There’s a new kind of progress in town, with its own theory of history and its own narrative.
The alt-right is a loose coalition of groups that appears to be following a logic that goes something like this: If something is working against you, borrow its strategy and change its content. It’s a bit like the motto of classicism in art history, as articulated by Johann Winckelmann (generally considered the founder of art history): “In order to become inimitable, we must imitate the Greeks.” This pronouncement came in 1755, when Frederick the Great was the king of Enlightenment Prussia, himself a sort of preface for an efflorescence of “culture” that encompassed Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Caspar David Friedrich, and Friedrich Schiller. Imitate the Greeks, become culturally powerful; imitate the left, “elect,” as comedian Dave Chappelle put it, “an Internet troll.” (Part 2 of this article will show just how seriously the trolls are suddenly taking the German Enlightenment.)
The alt-right, with Bannon at the helm, has adopted (Andrew) Breitbart’s idea of cultural appropriation, borrowing a raft of critical ideas from the academic left, putting them to use less in analysis that in production. In a March 2016 Breitbart round-up on the concept of the alt-right “for the establishment conservative,” Milo Yiannopoulos (who recently resigned from Breitbart and lost a book deal due to his positive comments about pedophilia) and Allum Bokhari called the very idea of an alternative right movement “amorphous.” Further, they tried to draw distinctions between actual practicing racists and those who are “just trolls” or “intellectuals,” like-minded culture warriors in their respective media. Yiannopoulos and Bokhari even recognize, citing a post from the “edgy” right-wing site The Right Stuff, the overlap between the identity and cultural politics of the far left and the far right. But they take it in the opposite direction. Think of the controversy that ensued when Miley Cyrus tried to twerk, then reverse the racial formula. Taking the notion that cultures can be but maybe shouldn’t be appropriated, the Far Right uses this not to defend minorities or the oppressed, but instead to isolate white culture, aiming to keep it unappropriated or uncontaminated: “The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The altright believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.”
“Politics Really is Downstream from Culture” told fellow conservatives that the title is “one of the most important phrases of the New Media Age.” Echoing humanities professors everywhere, Breitbart continued, “Most importantly, it isn’t only the text that is important. It is also a story’s context and it’s [sic] subtext that deliver messages.” Narrative is what unites content and form, unites the message and its structure. Humanities professors beware: there’s a text in what Mother Jones called “White Nationalism.” The level of signification below or around the content of a message is what consolidates the message, ramifies the narrative, forms the self. Everything runs downstream from there.
But for Breitbart, it isn’t a question of analyzing narrative; the point is to produce it. That’s what Bannon is up to, and it should be utterly unsurprising to anyone whose job it is to analyze messages and understand culture. The article continues: “Culture influences politics, and in ways the left has understood for a long time.” Narrative creates solidarity by combining contextual and structural markers with explicit messages. Maybe the left, precisely in its academic guise, has forgotten this. Narrative also trumps critique, and “Ideology Critique” is one tool you won’t find on the list of the alt-right’s borrowings. To point out the internal inconsistency or even the bias of an argument can show where a narrative doesn’t make sense, but not how it works. The narrative creates solidarity across a broad spectrum of groups that don’t have to be united except in the narrative. This is because narrative—according to the message from, of all places, the alt-right—is in our DNA.
Yiannopoulos and Bokhari use Jonathan Haidt’s 2013 The Righteous Mind as guide for the alt-right. Haidt’s book is a descriptive psychology of morals, and its central contention is that morality is deeper than reason and broader than the way we usually conceive of it. Haidt argues that there are as many as six “moral receptors” (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, liberty) planted into human DNA, but that liberal politics only usually appeals to two (care and fairness). According to Haidt, conservatives and the poor, as well as any number (the number is never specified) of non-Western cultures, think that there’s more to morality than fairness and equality. What about “authority” and “sacredness?” Haidt argues that these are so deep-rooted, in fact, that they are in fact baked into our minds. Citing the neuroscientist Gary Marcus, Haidt says these “receptors” are “organized in advance of experience.” For Haidt, these moral receptors are sociobiological, conditioned by adaptive characteristics in the human animal. So, for Haidt too, politics is downstream from culture, but culture is rooted in biology. What Haidt does is turn to biology for a story about morals. There are plenty of reasons not to do that, but my point here is that you can’t fight a story with facts, only with a different story. (Haidt’’s argument is more along the lines of if they want to retake Congress, Democrats should more “welcoming” to Trump voters, an approach that ignores the virulent cultural margins driven by narrative and media. It’s those margins that have the greatest effect when elections split close to 50/50. It’s not really clear why being nice to Trump supporters would work on the deeper-than-reason part of moral sensibility, even according to Haidt’s own argument. It would make more sense, it seems to me, to “forget swing voters,” or give them something to swing to.)
Haidt’s story metastasizes in the alt-right’s hands. Haidt doesn’t use the outdated term “instinct” in any systematic way, but Yiannopoulos and Bokhari do. Haidt doesn’t get into a biology of racism, but Yiannopoulos and Bokhari do. “For natural conservatives, culture,” the latter write, “not economic efficiency, is the paramount value. More specifically, they value the greatest cultural expressions of their tribe” (emphasis added). So Yiannopoulos and Bokhari exploit the connection made by Haidt and others in the genteel liberal world of sociobiology between the natural and the social to justify a spectrum of attitudes that range from the “conservative” to the racist. In this way, the narrative is designed to produce solidarity across the conservative spectrum, attaching it to enthusiasm for low taxes and a host of other run-of-the-mill conservative political platforms.
In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard, a would-be vanguard of the academic left, defined the postmodern age as the end of the “grand narrative.” But maybe Lyotard was simply seeing the end of one kind of narrative, one that stretches all the way back to the French Revolution, and the many optimistic theories of history of the first two centuries of unrestrained capitalism. And while the left was busy having the last laugh at this kind of narrative, the right has been developing another for some thirty years. On the left, and in the academic humanities, it’s time to let the emergency wash away the pettier conflicts, such as whether it is acceptable to embrace narrative at all or if economics or identity is more important. As Winckelmann might have said, we have to become inimitable again.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Politics Is Downstream from Culture, Part 2: “Cultural Marxism,” or, from Hegel to Obama
It was widely reported last month that Andrew Breitbart’s protegé Steve Bannon had said at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his goal was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The phrasing caused humanities professors and journalists alike to do a double take. Matthew Yglesias wrote at Vox, “[Bannon] presumably meant that he wants to destroy the administrative state, not apply literary theory inspired by Jacques Derrida to it.”
Or did he? What if Breitbart’s media empire, which grew from the slogan “politics is downstream from culture” (see Part 1), was based precisely on ideas that come from the lexicon of critical theory, literary theory, and media theory? That would go a long way toward explaining why the White House is flatly denying that it colluded not just with Russians but also with Internet trolls, those denizens of viral content-production.
Bannon’s right hand is Julia Hahn, a University of Chicago graduate who wrote her senior thesis on “issues at the intersection of psychoanalysis and post-Foucauldian philosophical inquiry,” influenced by poststructuralist queer theorist Leo Bersani. After decades of the far right attacking academia both institutionally and symbolically, it’s hard for us to imagine Bannon doing more than sneering at “the Cathedral” or “the Complex” (cartoonish alt-right names for the left-wing conspiracy that supposedly extends from Ivy League ivory towers to Hollywood). But Hahn isn’t Bannon’s only source for literary theory. The other is none other than his mentor Andrew Breitbart, who devoted a chapter of his 2011 book Righteous Indignation to “cultural Marxism.”
The term “cultural Marxism” is modeled on the notion of “cultural Bolshevism,” a Nazi conspiracy theory in which Jews and Soviets were said to be working together to lay low central European civilization. “Cultural Marxism” is, in that context, a dog-whistle for anti-Semites, as both historian Martin Jay and the Southern Poverty Law Center have argued. The phrase focuses on the Frankfurt School, the group of cultural theorists and sociologists who used Marx-inspired analysis to attack Hitler and capitalism alike, critiquing especially cultural and mass media institutions. With those ends in mind, they formulated the notion of critical theory, which had the goal not of “representing” the world, like most philosophical theories, but of changing it. The leaders of this movement—Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, and others—fled the Nazi regime, finding refuge in places like Breitbart’s hometown, Los Angeles. Breitbart wonders at their ability to remain critical in sunny California, and accuses them of having infected the West Coast and eventually the whole country with Marxist ideas.
What unites critical theory is a critique of capitalism based in the analysis of society and culture. Its advocates argued that capitalism was more than an economic form, and that the exploitation that Marx had identified at its core permeated narrative, media, even perception. Adorno and Horkheimer developed one variant of this argument together, trying to show that even the way we look at the world is not neutral, but colored by commodity exchange and the “instrumentalization” of humans and human relationships. This created a feedback loop: Our capitalist understanding of the world met with empirical confirmation, because our perception was informed by that understanding in the first place. If one wanted to resist capitalism, one would have to change that perception itself, and that meant changing culture and its media.
Andrew Breitbart’s account of “cultural Marxism” is breathtaking, or at least breathtakingly weird (watch him explain it here): Playing the role of an intellectual historian, he argues that first Hegel and Marx created a great evil, the “Rousseau-ian” doctrine in which state and community are bound together too tightly to allow for individual freedom. Breitbart adds that\ Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made the United States “Marxist” by allegedly placing the collective above individual freedom. This in turn generated a political atmosphere that was ripe for the arrival of critical theory, “a theory of criticizing everyone and everything everywhere. It was an attempt to tear down the social fabric.” (It’s hard to say if this is an intentional reference to Marx’s youthful essay, “For a Ruthless Critique of Everything that Exists.”) The great success story of critical theory, according to Breitbart, is Herbert Marcuse, whose ideas about sexual emancipation were responsible not only for the sexual revolution but also for performance art “and Susan Sarandon” (this was, of course, before her Trotskyist advocacy of Trump as a negative “awakening force” in 2016). Marcuse, Righteous Indignation tells us, was trained by Martin Heidegger, “the father of deconstruction,” and apparently also the founder of critical theory. The Frankfurt School had “weaponized the cloudy bacteria of their philosophy into full-bore ideological anthrax,” moving from the philosophical page to the lecture hall, the movie theater, and the home. Marxism, in this bizarre version of events, became the secret culture of the United States. Breitbart’s diagnosis is now a widespread belief on the alt-right.
Many establishment conservatives neither know nor care about the Frankfurt School, and they view Breitbart News as a departure from more moderate views. But even if Breitbart could not persuade all conservatives, he still shaped political and cultural debate. And his attempt do this, to set the terms and platforms for how political discourse operates in a media-saturated environment, is something he borrowed from the Frankfurt School. Righteous Indignation demonstrates a loose grip on intellectual history—Heidegger wasn’t part of deconstruction (much less of the Frankfurt School; he and Adorno carried out vicious polemics against each other after the war), and Antonio Gramsci, whom Breitbart invokes several times, wasn’t a member of the Frankfurt School at all—but that’s not the point. Breitbart was intent on showing that mid-twentieth century American conservatives stood by while Adorno, Marcuse, and others on the left quietly slipped communism into the American mind. How? With the complicity of the media, as Breitbart aimed to show in his 2004 book (with Mark Ebner) Hollywood, Interrupted. With the media mastered, according to Breitbart, the theorists consolidated their gains through community organizing. The anti-hero of Breitbart’s story is Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals has been a standard for left-wing activists since its publication in 1971. Breitbart writes in Righteous Indignation, “It took Alinsky to put the Complex totally into effect. Every successful interest group and social movement in the United States since the 1960s has used Frankfurt School ideology and Alinsky rules. It’s tragic it has taken conservatives so long to realize it.” Breitbart’s grudging sense of admiration for Alinsky is palpable. The reach of “cultural Marxism”—by way of Alinsky—extended as far as a young senator from Illinois who claimed that his years as a grassroots organizer were “the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School.” According to Breitbart, there was a direct connection between Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and its celebration of the state, Barack Obama’s background as a community organizer, and the Affordable Care Act.
Breitbart’s slogan “Politics is downstream from culture” takes theoretical insights from “Marxists” and reverse-engineers them for the right. Powered by the media empire he founded, Breitbart introduced a conviction into far right circles that the Frankfurt School had been correct: “As it stands, the Frankfurt School…is fighting the political battle on both the political and the cultural battlefields. Conservatives are fighting it only on the political battlefield.” But today, conservatives have taken the fight to the cultural battlefield. Breitbart, and Bannon after him, believe that to counteract the large-scale (and very fuzzy) conspiracy, they would need to foster an anti- Marxist counterculture, one that would refashion narratives (as Breitbart did in Righteous Indignation) and repurpose media to influence hearts and minds through movies, pop music, and, crucially, the aesthetic and political tinderbox of social media, especially Twitter and messageboards like Reddit and 4Chan.
Hollywood remains stubbornly liberal, but by repurposing social media, Breitbart and his followers created an effective channel to influence and manipulate political discussion, and politics itself. That’s not so far from what the Frankfurt School suggested, and the resemblance hardly seems accidental. Walter Benjamin, for example, famously argued that the left should “politicize aesthetics” in response to a fascism that aestheticized politics. For Benjamin, the medium for that work was film. For Breitbart and his followers, a complex multimedia landscape is the means to politicize aesthetics to a very different end. By recognizing that goal and the most effective means to it, Breitbart reversed the intent of critical theory dramatically while borrowing its central insight.