Hipster politics

by Rob Horning

9 July 2007


A longstanding conservative belief holds that until a class has risen above base material needs—until it is free from necessity—its politics are invalid, immature, determined, contingent, etc. In other words, they are not disinterested the way politicians, if they are to be truly noble and just, should be. This is the logic behind Rockefeller Republicanism: if politicians are already rich, they have no reason to be corrupt. And it’s the same idea that animated cultural politics in the so-called age of sensibility, the late 18th century, when much was made of disinterestedness as a precursor to rational judgment and true feelings (beyond greedy calculation and selfishness), a trend that culminates in Kantian ethics. And as Ellen Meiksins Wood argues in The Retreat From Class, her diatribe against postmodernized socialists like Laclau and Mouffe (my looking for perspective on Hegemony and Socialist Strategy led me to it), the notion that the poverty disbars one from clear-headed politics goes back to Plato. But her main gripe is that the postmodernist presumption that politics and ideology are constituted through discourse and not necessarily material conditions essentially leads to a covert assumption that the working class (bound by “economism”; tainted by material needs) doesn’t have the mental or ideological flexibility to promote a broadly successful socialist program. Instead, this would need to be led by a elite cadre of broad-minded intellectuals who can make the case for socialism without being tainted by the potential for getting something concrete out of it. Any desire for socialism beyond the altruistic, disinterested concern for justice and equality is discrediting for the practitioners of what Wood derides as the “New True Socialism”—a reference to Marx’s contempt for those who dreamed of a socialism so utopian that any action toward trying to achieve it was ultimately self-defeating in its apparent ethical impurity.

Wood’s argument is useful for contextualizing what is so off-putting about the political feints of hipsters and other fashionable leftists, who want to consider themselves against capitalism but don’t want to be involved in anything as grubby as class warfare. They want socialism without having their cocktail parties sullied with tiresome and potentially ill-mannered workers, who might not get their ironic references. Instead they can congregate amongst themselves, swap artworks and go on dumpster-raiding missions and reject animal products, and feel as though they are making a radical political intervention. Rather than focus on the exploitation of workers that sustains capitalism and class difference, and acknowledge that in this exploitation comes the animus to make a real assault on the system, they prefer to see themselves as exploited when the bands they like get too commercial or the neighborhood they live in gets more gentrified and less edgy. The evident distaste hipsters seem to have for those whose interests they occasionally claim to represent (as a pseudo-vanguard, though Wood is quick to point out that Laclau and Mouffe’s argument virtually precludes the existence of a vanguard, since there is no real gap between material interests and political practice that they could help close—it’s all constituted ad hoc in discourse), makes their politics so easy for the right to ridicule or dismiss. Plus, they can use the hipster archetype to discredit all leftist politics, plausibly paint it all as self-aggrandizing and patronizing and egoistic, about establishing the do-gooder’s identity rather than redressing any actual social problems. Unfortunately for John Edwards, he seems to be an emblem for this in the public’s mind—“he cries a lot for the poor, but he’s still getting his fancy haircuts and making his millions.” He comes across like an ideological carpetbagger, no matter ho wmuch he plays up his humble roots or courts union rank-and-filers.

In the Age of Sensibility, this phenomenon took the form of men and women of feeling doing things like visiting Bedlam or unwed-mothers’ homes and making a show of their feeling hearts by weeping, etc. And if they couldn’t do these things, they liked to read about doing them and fantasize. Often in fiction, these sensitive souls were not made for this world—they felt too much—and they would die some extremely noble, self-sacrificial death. But the point was to recognize and demonstrate your own virtue, prove that beyond a doubt—those who suffered were just convenient occasions for the establishing the proofs, and thus in some ways their misfortunes were necessary, not something that was to be eradicated. Of course, conservatives argue all along that there’s no eliminating others’ suffering, which is often their own fault and ultimately their own responsibility to rectify. So conservatives can work to ameliorate suffering without seeming hypocritical. They never pretend not to feel superior to the objects of their pity, so that their charity comes with a feeling of superiority doesn’t seem to invalidate it.

So the problem remains, the problem that has started me reading these political science texts—how does one declasss oneself so as to become a fellow traveler with the exploited classes without exacerbating their exploitation? In other words how does a bourgeois like me do anything to advance socialist causes without actually exploiting those who I mean to help via the process of establishing my political bona fides, for my own peace of mind? How does one contribute to the cause despite not being an “organic intellectual” of the class whose consciousness you imagine requires raising? I’m guessing there’s no simple answer to this question, but I imagine it involves finding yourself way out of your comfort zone, doing the hard work of bridging across the habitus gap between classes, trying to communicate with those indifferent to your plight or your sacrifice. But maybe that’s too pessimistic.

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