Review- Biebricher, “The Political Theory of Neoliberalism”

Thomas Biebricher, “The Political Theory of Neoliberalism” (2018) – German scholar Thomas Biebricher lays out the “neoliberal problematic” in this work of intellectual history and political theory, both abstract and applied. In the first two thirds of the book, he discusses six neoliberal thinkers, three German (Röpke, Eucken, and Rüstow), two American (Friedman and Buchanan) and one Anglo-Austrian (Hayek). He positions them in various configurations depending on their ideas on the state, on democracy, on science, etc., rather than discussing each in turn. It produces the impression of a sort of quadrille (sextille?) as they line up differently on the various issues. There’s a general trend line, though, between the German ordoliberals and the Anglo-American libertarian types. All of them placed a lot of chips on constitutional design in order to encase the market order away from political influence. But where the ordoliberals trusted centralizing institutions to do this, the libertarians (my distinction- Biebricher doesn’t make it) were more skeptical and believed in distributing power to bodies like states. The ordoliberals were worried (like Hannah Arendt!) about “mass man,” and wanted to find ways to de-massify by emphasizing institutions like churches and associations, where the Anglo-Americans didn’t go in as much for that kind of thing. In general, it leaves with the impression that the ordoliberals are understudied in English. I also wonder what this would have looked like if Von Mises and Rothbard were added to the mix, but Biebricher and other recent scholars of neoliberalism like Quinn Slobodian and Melinda. Cooper emphasize neoliberal approaches to government so strongly one wonders if those closer to anarcho-capitalism would count.

I don’t want to go into all the different ways the varying thinkers contrast each other, both because it’s a lot and because I read it a while ago (i.e. pre-pandemic), but there’s a lot of food for thought there. Biebricher then tries to apply what he’s laid out in the first two thirds to the crisis of the Eurozone, which to tell the truth I had a hard time following because fiscal politics just makes my eyes glaze over. Not a very responsible position, I know, but not a voluntary one either. All in all, a worthy addition to the literature on neoliberalism. ****’

Review- Biebricher, “The Political Theory of Neoliberalism”

Review- Hochschild, “Strangers in Their Own Land”

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” (narrated by Suzanne Toren) (2016) – Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild would, presumably, object to me categorizing her book along with others in the “Cletus Safari” genre, where educated types go out into the hollers and trailer parks (but seldom the McMansions) to figure out what those dang flyover people are thinking, what they could possibly want. And in some respects, she’d be right to object- she did spend several years with Tea Partiers in Louisiana, after all, and clearly does her level best to write of them sensitively. She makes a game effort to “scale the empathy wall,” as she put it, between her Berkeley-bound blue state self and her informants, and claims to have befriended several. I tend to believe it.

Still and all… there’s no rule saying Cletus Safari can’t be undertaken in earnest. What makes it Cletus Safari isn’t exploitativeness (though that’s inevitable in any researcher-informant relationship, no matter how respectful) but the relationship between researcher and informant as envisioned by the researcher. Acting as though the people of Middle America are this riddle that needs deep (or shallow, as the case more generally is with journalistic safaris) application of the tools that urban sophistication can provide in order to get what’s going on with them- that’s the essence of Cletus Safari.

Leftists get “the white working class” or “middle America” or whatever plenty wrong plenty of the time when they try to explain it, too, but Cletus Safari is a peculiar product of deep-freeze liberal, or even liberal-conservative as with J.D. Vance or Charles Murray, mindset. There’s just something about it: the individual, armed only with their advanced degrees, research assistants, and gosh darn broad-mindedness, getting down to cases with the canaille — and y’know what? LEARNING something about THEMSELVES in the process! — that just screams “domestic Peace Corps,” or “domestic counterinsurgency” for that matter (it might be a matter of time before the genre gets folded into the latter…).

I’m getting away with myself, here. My point is that Hochschild doesn’t need to be stupid or a bad writer or sociologist — she is none of those things — to produce Cletus Safari. She just needs liberal brain, which she has in spades. At its core, liberalism is about short-circuiting power conflicts through appeal to some sort of underlying harmony of interests and channeling the energy of power conflict into other streams of “progress,” economic, technological, political, whatever flavor. One such short-circuiting and channelling produced the discourse of “big government versus small government” or “government versus market.” It’s a way of not asking the question even a baby radical would ask- “whose government?”

Hochschild takes the terms of the debate over “government” at face value as presented in contemporary American political media. The image of the liberal professor arrogantly lording their perspective over others is wrong, or at least is in this case- this particular liberal professor has been captured by her sources, at least to the extent where she uncritically accepts a “big government versus small government” framing as though it means anything in and of itself. This is the heart of “The Great Paradox,” as she calls it- the fact that the people most in need of “government” by virtue of the economic screwed-ness of their communities are the most likely to want to gut it, to vote for people who refuse to help them and often make matters worse. Why, oh why, do they do this to themselves, the liberals cry out to know?

Thomas Frank often gets lumped in here and it’s called the “What’s The Matter With Kansas” question, but people (Hochschild included) get Frank wrong- Frank made it abundantly clear to anyone who actually read the book that Kansas was largely the doing of the Democratic Party, which abandoned whatever pretense it once had of looking out for the working class and/or the little guy. If you’re going to get screwed either way, might as well vote for the guys who at least throw you the bone of cultural solidarity and make liberal elites amusingly angry. There’s limits of how long I’ll go to the mat for the honor of Tom Frank, but he deserves more credit than he gets for “What’s the Matter With Kansas” from people who should know better.

Anyway, this book. Hochschild wants to explain What’s the Matter with Louisiana, a state in need of more and better governance if ever there was one, considering it is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico in no small part because of its main export, oil. The people she talks to, white inhabitants of the area around Lake Charles (which is half black but she doesn’t talk to many of them), are prey to one ludicrous petrochemical-linked natural disaster after another, from the BP oil spill to a massive sinkhole that consumes many of their homes caused by irresponsible chemical storage practices. Some of them grant that maybe the government should do more to fix this or that given individual problem (though they rightly point out the state authorities in Louisiana are in the oil industry’s pocket). But in general, they eschew “big government” and hail the oil industry as a great friend of Louisiana.

So she talks to a range of Lake Charles Tea Partiers. A lot of the book is her collecting quotes and anecdotes. From them, Hochschild excavates their “deep story,” a narrative construct that structures all their other ideas. This “deep story” is basically the idea that there’s an orderly line for the American dream, and that Tea Partiers (that is, older white people) are being cut in line by minorities, and moreover, the minorities are being praised and the Tea Party base scorned for their respective actions. Hochschild proudly reports that all of her informants related to the deep story when Hochschild explained it to them.

If I were one of Hochschild’s informants, I would jump at this story, too, because it’s a lot nicer than the simpler explanation: spite. Their lives suck (most people’s lives suck), despite their privileges, and they want to take it out on someone, so they take it out on others. No government could be too big for the task- Hochschild doesn’t record any answers to questions about police violence, but her informants are certainly in favor of big government capable of regulating your uterus, of closing the borders violently, of waging permanent wars in the Middle East. Why wouldn’t they be willing to spite themselves in the bargain, if it’s people like Hochschild who get hurt worse (or more performatively) by things like environmental degradation? Among other things, they’re old. They’ll be gone soon. To paraphrase a Zionist slander of the Palestinians, these people hate liberals more than they love their children.

I don’t know, man. I’m not trying to condemn this book entirely, out of hand. I get that Hochschild put a lot of work in. I get that she couldn’t just go out there and come back with “these people are spiteful” as the answer. Among other reasons, spite isn’t the only thing they’ve got- they also share their sweet tea and pictures of grandchildren with her. But a more complex view of the person than contemporary liberal brain (as distinguished from liberalism at its best, which can do more with complexity) allows shows that spite and at least superficial kindness to strangers (who you know are observing and reporting), basic niceness, can coexist. How personally mean were the bulwarks of any broad-based repressive system? I don’t think spite fails to exist in “blue” areas, and an ethnography of, say, the burghers of Newton/Wellesley (or my own dear hometown of Foxborough) would show that much nicer- maybe a tad more rational in their spite. But between liberalism and some very basic cooptation by her subjects, Hochschild whiffed it on this one. **’

Review- Hochschild, “Strangers in Their Own Land”

Review- Adichie, “Americanah”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Americanah” (2013) – Beyonce’s favorite feminist wrote this novel roughly around the time Beyonce made her famous, or at least famous for a writer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was reasonably prominent before then, a MacArthur genius fellow and all that, but it was the world’s biggest pop star taking a bunch of her words out of context and putting them in a music video that made her the figure she is today, about which position I understand (from her wikipedia article) Adichie herself is ambivalent. Understandable!

Beyonce-meme-ification or no, “Americanah” stands on its own merits, but is definitely a book by a prominent TED talker. The story of one Ifemelu, a Nigerian middle class girl who moves to the States for school, “Americanah” is part immigrant story, part love story, and part vehicle for the author’s observations and opinions about race, gender, the differences between America and Africa, etc. One of Adichie’s TED talks is about the importance of representation of varying viewpoints in media- to the extent anyone really founds any of the discourse of twitter and tumblr, she played a role in founding representationalism discourse as it exists today. One way this plays out interestingly is that beyond writing as a black African woman, Adiche writes as a specifically middle-class Nigerian- no starvation or war crimes for her, and she comments wryly on the white Americans she meets who expect such. Ifemelu’s briefly poorer in America than she is in Nigeria, but the book doesn’t dwell on that for more than a chapter or so. She winds up a young urban professional with a successful blog laying the cards on the table about race in America from a non-American black perspective.

The blog is interesting in that its observations are picayune even for a 2013 woke blog. Adichie’s observations of Ifemelu’s environment are inevitably more interesting and better-written than anything the character produces for the blog. Is this accidental, or is Adichie trying to say something about the blogging/social media milieu of the time? In general I’d say Adichie is a better novelist than an essayist, though I get the feeling as an essayist (based on Ifemelu’s blog and Adichie’s TED talks) she is pitching at a much more basic audience. She even depicts Ifemelu as dumbing down her material, especially her paid talks to workshops, for mostly white audiences. It’s interesting to consider if Adichie is doing the same thing.

As far as the novel goes, it’s not half bad. The characters are pretty well fleshed out. Incident in the novel is uneven, given how much of it is the opportunity to do observational bits, and at least one incident that should be harrowing (a teenager’s attempted suicide) kind of comes out of and goes nowhere. She has a good eye for the details of American life that blips sometimes but is generally reliable. There’s a central romance between Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend Obinze that’s made easier to believe in by how many obstructions it finds, and how ambivalent one feels about its final consummation. All in all, a decent read. ***’

Review- Adichie, “Americanah”

Review- Neel, “Hinterland”

Phil Neel, “Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict” (2018) – This is a very interesting and provocative look at the contemporary geography of class conflict from someone steeped in insurrectionism. Forget the “brain-hub,” “creative class” cities, Neel tells us- the most interesting spaces, both from an intellectual and an insurrectionist standpoint, contemporary capitalism has created are the hinterlands. Neel divides them into far — rural and exurban — and near hinterlands, the latter of which are the interstitial spaces within urban areas into which capitalism shoves both infrastructure and poverty.

The far hinterlands are, well, not “familiar” but are at least examined in many a post-2016 work. Neel is a native of rural northern California (the “State of Jefferson”), but doesn’t truck with the native tale-bearer/interpreter role that J.D. Vance has taken on. Neel does, however, borrow from Vance’s fellow militant liberal, counterinsurgent David Kilcullen, in arguing that in in the void left by the economy and increasingly by government in rural western areas, whoever evinces “strength and stability” will attract a following. In some places, Neel notes, militia groups like the Three Percenters and the Oathkeepers present more of that strength and stability than does the local government, and certainly more than any left-leaning formation. Ironically, most militia types can no more claim to be the salt of the earth hinterland types than most liberals, being largely well-heeled exurb dwellers, but could potentially attract a following.

I found the discussion of the near hinterlands most interesting. Geographers have long observed that the inner ring suburbs of many cities, originally all-white, are rapidly diversifying and becoming poorer as black and Latino residents flee the inner cities. Ferguson, Missouri is a good example of this outside of St. Louis. At the same time, the infrastructural supports of capitalism extend outward spatially into these same areas- the warehouses, the trucking depots, server farms, etc. This activates Neel’s insurrectionist imagination. He had a rioting bust from Occupy Seattle and is in general dismissive of most other leftist strains (sometimes eye-rollingly so, as when he puts too much analytical weight on identity politics as a failing of the contemporary left). He was on the ground in Ferguson, too, one of the much-maligned “outside agitators,” but there wasn’t much need for outside agitation. The people of Ferguson were pissed, and their situation isn’t all that different from the other near hinterlands- poverty, insecurity, racism, a state absent in terms of dealing with needs but omnipresent in terms of doling out fees and police violence. Ferguson, Neel notes, was the first major suburban uprising, and the geography was totally different than that of traditional urban uprisings, much less dense and more spread out, darker, both in the sense of fewer streetlights and just a general sense where the cops didn’t know what was going on.

Where does this leave us? Neel theorizes about the “historical party” of revolution, the implicit mass ready for what might come, and “overcoming the riot” – going from rioting (or occupying) to a more sustained revolutionary action. He wonders where the “ultras” of the American near hinterland scene may be, alluding to the soccer hooligans who did so much to bolster crowd resistance against regime forces in Egypt, Ukraine, and elsewhere. He calls for an “oath of water”: where the reactionary militias have an “oath of blood” to a community defined by exclusion, the advancers of revolution need an oath to the flood, the overcoming of all boundaries (I wonder if Neel has read Klaus Theweleit?). His prose flows beautifully and his observations are sharp. I can’t say I agree with everything here — Neel would probably find me a softie, with my book review and noise demos and tendency to stay put in dear old Massachusetts — but this is a fascinating, compelling read. *****

Review- Neel, “Hinterland”

Review- Hristov, “Blood and Capital”

Jasmin Hristov, “Blood and Capital: the Paramilitarization of Colombia” (2009) – Canadian sociologist Jasmin Hristov casts a critical eye on the war and peace process in Colombia. The decades-long war supposedly ended with the victory of the Colombian government (aided significantly by the United States) over both the far left guerrillas of FARC and the ELN and the right-wing paramilitaries of the UAC. Both groups formally surrendered and disarmed, AUC in 2006 and FARC in 2017.

Hristov argues that the paramilitaries won the war, effectively, by “paramilitarizing” the Colombian state. Despite their formal antagonism — the AUC was always illegal and part of the US State Department terrorist list along with FARC — the Colombian government frequently worked hand in glove with the paramilitaries, before, during, and after the time the AUC formally existed. Much of the book is made up of lists of deeds undertaken jointly by the Colombian military and one or another right-wing paramilitary group, of arms and intelligence funneled to paras, blind eyes turned towards their atrocities, and joint operations. Hristov wisely does not place as much emphasis on the AUC as an organization as the peace process did- it was always a coalition and never a central command for all paramilitaries in the country. Its inheritor groups continue to this day, exporting drugs, intimidating labor and social movements, killing to protect their rackets.

In most insurgency wars, there’s something like a ten-to-one ratio between kills made by counterinsurgents and those made by insurgents. This is why you still get whiners claiming that the US “won” the Vietnam War- we surely killed many more people, by a chasmic margin, much good it did us or anybody else. But in the FARC war, the titular FARC inflicted twelve percent of the casualties, and the armed forces of the Colombian government inflicted eight. The rest, eighty percent, were killed by right-wing paramilitaries. These wars generally make mock of the distinction between civilian and military, but the paramilitaries in particular ignored the distinction. They terrorized communities seen as in league with the guerrillas, which often meant nothing more than that the village organized peasant groups or labor unions. The paras are also notorious for “limpieza social,” bloody social cleansing of the poor, sex workers, LGBT people, and so on.

Hristov is a Marxist and she makes clear the class lines of the war. The paramilitaries are the armed forces of the (primarily rural) Colombian elite. Isn’t a certain other body also the armed forces of the elite… oh yeah, the government! So ultimately, six of one, half a dozen of another. Why, then, did the paras form? In part, it’s counterinsurgency strategy gone feral- the establishment of local anti-guerrilla patrols was a part of counterinsurgency from its beginnings in the late fifties/early sixties. As Hristov points out, at first it was the government creating paras and the elites supporting- later on, as the war heated up, the roles were reversed, with elites creating paramilitary bodies with tacit or overt government support. The paras, she holds, could get their hands dirty in a way the government was reluctant to do. The rest is history.

My one main quibble with Hristov is that she takes a rather either/or attitude regarding criminality and ideology- if you’re a criminal, you’re not an ideologue (and presumably vice-versa), and the paras are definitely criminals looking to protect ongoing criminal enterprises like drug exportation and land clearances, so, their ideology is bunk. I’m not so sure I agree, in general and certainly in the case of the more ideologically-inclined paras like the AUC- maybe she’s right about the inheritor groups. Colombia has a long history of patriarchal rural conservatism that goes berserk when challenged, and it’s far from the only place that fits that description. The particular kinds of violence and the rhetoric around them strike a chord familiar from the history of paramilitarism and vigilantism from Northern Ireland to Michigan in the Black Legion days. The righting of the world, the restoration of the natural hierarchical order, through spectacular violence is an ideology in and of itself, at least as common on the right as the notion of the existential necessity of armed revolution is on the left. Crime fits in- when the right people do it for the right reasons, it stops being crime, in this view of the world, and becomes a sacrifice made by superior men. In general, though, this is a fine and useful book about a conflict whose lineaments should be of broad interest to those interested in social conflict. ****’

Review- Hristov, “Blood and Capital”

Review- Ligotti, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”

Thomas Ligotti, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror” (2010) – Cosmic pessimism! The belief that existence is fundamentally worse than non-existence, generally coupled with the idea that consciousness in specific was a dramatic evolutionary mistake. As Thomas Ligotti, renowned horror writer points out in this dip into the nonfictional (or anyway philosophical), not a popular position. I remember when “True Detective” Season 1 came out and Matthew McConaughey’s cosmic pessimism (influenced, the showrunner admits, by Ligotti) provoked much eye-rolling from people who, as I recall, were mostly unified by their belief in a better future. These ranged from “hopepunk” Whedon-loving liberals to youthful revolutionaries somewhere on the post-Lenin evolutionary tree- cosmic pessimism was a big no no to them and a wide range in between.

I don’t know, man. I’m pretty lucky. Born white, male, middle-class (if downwardly mobile), American, to loving parents, in the late twentieth century, I’ve been dealt a hand so high in the top percentages of hands dealt that I don’t know how many zeroes would go to the right of the decimal point. And still… I can see cosmic pessimism’s point. Certainly enough to avoid hand-waving it away as though I’m above it. At the end of the day I do what I can to make the world better (or foil those who’d make it worse) but I’m not convinced of the ultimate existential validity of what I do- who can be? Recent events, between climate change, reversion to fascist barbarism, and now pandemics, give the pessimist position more of a hearing than you’d get even ten years before. Longer-term secular trends, like the uncovering of just how prevalent mental illnesses like depression are, help too.

I don’t think I’m going to resolve the cosmic pessimism/cosmic optimism question on my moribund blog or facebook wall. Instead of basing my review on how much I agree or disagree with cosmic pessimist Ligotti, but on how much I got out of the book. This alone makes me a dodger of the grim truths of reality in the cosmic pessimist book, but I never expected any thanks for flak-catching for Rust Kohle anyway. The book is honestly something of a mess. On a sentence level, Ligotti is clearly a very capable writer. I’d be interested in reading his fiction. But I had a hard time getting through the book, and not because it depressed me. It kind of bored me- which is precisely what a hope-clinging millennial would say in dismissal (that way millennials often say “boring” when they mean “offends me but without officially crossing established offense-lines), but I don’t mean it like that. I just mean philosophical speculation and neuroscience bore me and that’s a lot of what’s in this book. It doesn’t seem well-organized to me, though maybe there’s an organizing scheme I just didn’t get. I’ve read much juicier anti-life material, by John Dolan, say, and Schopenhauer (who gets name-checked but then moved on from for reasons I didn’t quite get). According to its own terms, pessimism has the entire vista of nature and human behavior to choose from to illustrate its points, but there’s very little in the way of illustration, here. All in all, more of a puzzling, sedate kind of book than one that grabbed me, one way or another. **’

Review- Ligotti, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”

Review- Lippmann, “Public Opinion”

Walter Lippmann, “Public Opinion” (1922) – Walter Lippmann created the op-ed writer as we know him. He was a sort of proto-Tom Friedman: newspaper columnist, author of bestselling nonfiction books, influencer of politicians. Though usually, a “proto” is supposed to be less than the later version, and Lippmann wasn’t as embarassingly silly, stupid, and bad at writing as Tom Friedman. Friedman describes forces beyond his (extremely limited) comprehension; Lippmann made a play, a not entirely unsuccessful one, at both portraying world-changing forces and shaping them himself.

In “Public Opinion,” Lippmann is coming from his experience working for the State Department during World War One, having taken part in what could be called the information side of the war (and just as importantly, the postwar peacemaking). The world, he announces, has become complicated, vastly complicated, so complicated no one can really understand it. At best, they understand a “pseudo-environment” composed of stereotypes (he was the first to use the word as it’s currently used). This is a problem, because human action still affects the real environment, not just people’s pseudo-environments.

Lippmann was writing for a general, if educated, readership and so takes his time laying all of this out, with examples (many of them drawn from the war or the peace process) and considering the case in it’s different facets, etc. Then he eases in to his attack on democracy, or, anyway, democratic theory. Democratic theory, he states, is based on the idea that everyone has access to the knowledge they need to make decisions. If this was ever true, Lippmann averrs, it’s definitely untrue now in our increasingly complex world. Lippmann depicts democratic theorists as hand-waving issues of complexity away by relying on “the human heart” to make the right decisions. I think Lippmann is about a quarter right here, both in terms of his depiction of democratic theory (resting largely on the American Founding Fathers, not the most notably democratic bunch) and his assessment of the knowledge problem. Democrats/republicans weren’t as unaware of the issue as Lippmann depicts; they went a long way towards trying to solve the problem through universal public education. For another thing, the republican notion of relying on virtue — or “the human heart” as Lippmann derisively puts it — didn’t come out of pre-modern somnolence, it came out of turbulence and chaos in places and times like Renaissance Italy, Civil War-era England, Revolution-era America. The idea, greatly simplified, was that fate and chance throw up all kinds of shit at you, and you’re better off having the inner resources to cope rather than try to have unique tools to meet every unpredictable situation. And these thinkers, from Machiavelli on down, knew that virtue could be a slender reed against the storms of chance and complexity.

But consider the other options! For Lippmann, the answer to the problems of governance in the midst of complexity lay in the creation of official fact-finding bureaux manned by the best experts and the “manufacture of consent” (a phrase he coined). You need the right people with the right amount of power, and they need to use modern media techniques to put them over to the people (Lippmann was a critic of democracy but knew it was here to stay). Where to find these people, Lippmann doesn’t say- he seems to assume the reader knows, and that the answer would be “people like Lippmann and his Harvard friends.” So, essentially, rule by universities, like a certain portion of the right’s nightmares. You don’t need to buy in to alt-right talk of a sinister university-based “Cathedral” to see the problems here. For one thing, nowhere in his system does Lippmann actually say that education is the way out of the pseudo-environment trap. If it was, the answer would be (and has been taken to be by generations of liberals) enhanced universal education. But if that’s not it — if even the educated operate according to stereotype and pseudo-environment — then who educates the educators? Where do the experts come from? How can we assess their expertise?

Like his spawn on contemporary op-ed pages, Lippmann was more of a condenser and expresser of elite opinion than he was a creative thinker (though again, he was much more creatively capable and competent at expression than his descendants). He leaves these massive lacunae in his work, but one gets the idea that’s almost intentional. Making too specific of a sketch of the expert-ocracy wouldn’t give his friends in government space to work. In many respects, Lippmann’s expert boards exist in the federal government today, just with less power than Lippmann would have given them. They are, like every other expression of power, public and private, ultimately dependent on political will and guided by political considerations. As it turns out, power isn’t reducible to expertise, though there’s always a buyer for people who promise ways to bypass the human element of power relations. Lippmann is an important part of a long liberal tradition promising to steer elites between the Scylla of popular uprising and the Charybdis of authoritarianism through the application of superior technique/knowledge. Sometimes, this even works, though it’s hard to see how today. ***

Review- Lippmann, “Public Opinion”

Review- Le Bon, “The Crowd”

Gustave Le Bon, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” (1895) (translated from the French by unknown) – Crowds act differently from individuals… is this a controversial statement? I’d be willing to entertain a challenge to the premise but from where I sit currently it seems pretty indisputable that something or other happens to people when they get in a united group. I’ve experienced it myself; though I don’t think my crowd-self and my alone-self are all that different, I do feel differently in a crowd than when I am alone.

In the midst of the great global freakout about the lower orders of society that arose in the late nineteenth century, French psychologist Gustave Le Bon decided to figure out what made crowds distinctive. Le Bon was a conservative social critic along with being a doctor and psychologist, and this is more of a work of social criticism (though “scientifically” based, in its own terms) rather than a work of science. Le Bon conducted no study of anything other than his own observations of crowds in Paris (including during the Commune) and reading about them in history. This isn’t all that different from a lot of social science at the time.

Like many figures of the big reactionary freakout of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Le Bon was fixated on concepts of degeneration. In his view, the crowd is a degenerate, a throwback to “primitive” man (or contemporary woman- women being less advanced than men in his hierarchy). It is less intelligent, less capable of using reason, more emotional, more volatile. Le Bon stresses this can sometimes be used for good — that a crowd is braver than an individual, like “primitives” supposedly were braver than “civilized” men — but in general, crowds were inimical to civilizing influences. He claimed it took decades for ideas to seep into the head of the crowd, which I guess is one way of explaining how the French crowds of the revolutionary period got quite excited about elaborate Enlightenment theory, the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect a “primitive” body to get.

Le Bon claims various things, like the race of a crowd (Latins being more hot-blooded than Anglos and other stereotypes) or what it was assembled for, can influence how a crowd behaves. Leaders can influence crowds, at least temporarily, through the right kind of words and symbols (simple, repetitive ones). But by and large, crowds and their traits are a constant throughout history, in Le Bon’s telling, only now we can’t control them, due to democracy, and things look due to get worse, due to socialism. One of his more interesting claims is that if democracy had existed before the industrial revolution, the latter would never have gotten off the ground- crowd democracy wouldn’t allow it.

Le Bon didn’t really offer any ways out. Various of his readers, which definitely included the fascists and might have included Lenin (I’ve seen the latter claimed but never verified), could argue they were regenerating civilization by creating and embodying ideals that could channel people to more constructive ends. Liberal and conservative critics took Le Bon and his ideas seriously in the early twentieth century, and arguably won out in the battle over “the crowd” by a strategy of neutralization. From the noble goals of education reformers (Le Bon pooh-poohed education as an influence, a major oversight on his part) to the grubbier ends of marketers, a lot of public discourse in the liberal democracies over the last century has been about individuating subjects, preventing them from becoming the sort of crowd Le Bon and his readers envisioned. Sometimes, this backfires- see any Black Friday. But by and large, capitalism has succeeded in short-circuiting the crowd by appealing to the individual, though it had to survive two world wars motivated by crowd psychology (if you buy that kind of thing) to do it. Civilization saved, I guess? That’s certainly what a Walter Lippmann (who I will be reading in this space) would say. I’m less sure. I think we might need our ability to crowd up back… and we might just be getting it. Time will tell. **

Review- Le Bon, “The Crowd”

Review- Mason, “Siege”

James Mason, “Siege” (1992) – This, apparently, is what the kids on the far-right are reading these days. There’s even nice little photos of James Mason with members of Atomwaffen Division, where Mason’s is the only face not blocked out. Despite endorsing aleatoric violence and terror as the only way forward for the white race (and hence, in his view, humanity), Mason has lived all these years quietly in Colorado… for my money, drawing a federal payroll for information on the idiots who come to kiss his ring, but I’m a cynic.

“Siege” was the name of Mason’s nazi magazine, which he started in the early eighties after nearly twenty years on the nazi right. He bounced from George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party to the National Socialist Liberation Front (it was the sixties, everyone had a liberation front) to remaining aloof from organization altogether. Many of us know the type from the left- the guy (usually a guy) just too damn smart and right about things to play ball with anyone else, and with just enough validity to his critiques of the (generally dysfunctional) movement institutions to make his stance make sense.

“Siege” took a line against mass strategy — efforts on the parts of Nazis and others on the far-right to engage a broader public — and in favor of armed struggle, but of a different kind than that in which other, actual, liberation fronts engaged. Those were generally born out of mass strategy, after all. Mason so despaired of the white masses that he believed the system needed to collapse to wake them up- or not, as the case may be, but either way, the government, economy, society as a whole needed to go up in smoke. To this end, he lauded serial and spree killers (as long as they were white) and took up a relationship with Charles Manson, on the idea that “helter skelter” was in fact coming and should come, and that Manson had done a noble thing trying to bring it about.

In most respects, the inception and reception histories of “Siege” are more interesting than the content. The content is repetitive- disses of other movement figures (though seldom by name), calls to get your shit together to be effective agents of chaos, lauding violence, rinse, repeat. What’s more, it’s not especially well-edited, and this is where we get into inception/reception history. “Siege” became a book in the first place due to the efforts of one Michael Moynihan. Moynihan is probably best known for his book “Lords of Chaos,” on the satanist/nazi Norwegian black metal scene (next up in this reading slot, as it happens). Moynihan befriended Mason and followed in many of his beliefs, including veneration for Charles Manson, and took up, edited, and released a book of pieces from “Siege” into the form we have it in today. For his part, Moynihan these days claims not to be a Nazi or far-right (part of this is lies, part is sleight of hand: Mason and other Nazis often pooh-pooh “the right wing” in the same way Communists and Socialists do with mere “liberals” or “progressives”), despite his extensive record in the space where music, occultism, and Nazism meet up. He had a lot of fans who should have known better and was published by Feral House, which features both in fond memories of nineties alternative culture and in the somewhat fevered imaginations of the dreaded “red-brown alliance,” where Nazis and Communists come together to haunt all our dreams…

There is a very eighties/nineties edgelord aspect to the whole Mason situation. He throws around hippie rhetoric about “the pig system” and so on. He blames TV for a lot and holds the supposed object of his efforts, the common white man, in pretty low esteem. Being impressed by Manson, claiming to be above right and left… you can see how his schtick would appeal to a certain kind of Gen-Xer. And we all know how those kinds of Gen-Xer/late-20th century alternative culture types like to wriggle out of their embarrassing phases in the eighties/nineties/oughts/last week, as though they never had any commitments and their words had/have no weight at all… a dispiriting tableau all around, and one we’re not shot of yet.

Anyway, to an extent I guess I read these things so you don’t have to, and with “Siege” you really don’t have to. It’s repetitive and poorly edited. Mason’s probably smarter than Moynihan and could’ve collected his own pieces, you’d figure, but c’est la vie. It’s not the worst writing on the far right- I’d still go with a tie between “Moldbug” Yarvin and Ayn Rand there. But it’s by a violence-worshipping dirthead, for violence-worshipping dirtheads, and knowing it’s out there and doing what Mason presumably wanted it to do is enough for the right-thinking population. *’

Review- Mason, “Siege”