Starstruck: The Social Role of Celebrities March 24, 2005 by RedStar2000
When things are difficult for revolutionaries -- as is characteristic of our own era -- there's a natural tendency for some to fantasize about how things "could" be different.
How much "easier" it would be for us if there were a few "really famous" (and really wealthy) people "on our side".
But trying to import one's fantasies into the real world is problematic; how likely is it, really, that some mega-star can be "recruited" into a genuine revolutionary movement?
It is most unlikely!
There are political forces whose approach can be called "101 sour reasons to say all people suck."
Their approach to the masses, and to figures like Eminem or anyone really, is to find ways to paint them as corrupted and reactionary (despite all evidence to the contrary.)
I can sort of guess whom you're talking about when you say that there are "forces" that view the (American) masses as "corrupted and reactionary"...and we both dismiss them as politically irrelevant.
The question of celebrities is a different one, I think. Can you be a celebrity in capitalist society and not be "corrupted and reactionary"?
Think about that. "Celebrity-hood" is capitalism's "highest award" to anyone not born into the ruling class; it's a kind of "knighthood" given to those who've shown that they are willing and eager to successfully divert the masses from their real class interests.
In exchange for entertaining the masses, the celebrity becomes a kind of "demi-god"...the wealth and life-style that is normally available only to the really successful capitalist is made available to the celebrity.
Particularly useful to the ruling class is the kind of celebrity who can be marketed as a "rebel" or "maverick". Someone who can articulate and seemingly "represent" the rebelliousness of the masses in such a way as to not endanger the system itself is worth every penny of those millions.
I, of course, have no more insight into the inner thoughts of any given celebrity than anyone else. What I think is that it doesn't matter what the celebrity "really thinks". Their social role is what really counts...to pass on ruling class ideology in "palatable" forms.
My favorite example of this is Jane Fonda (or "Hanoi Jane" as some of the reactionaries still refer to her). She really tried to break out of the limits of "celebrity-hood"...meeting with ordinary people, trying not to "queen it" over others, donating substantial amounts of cash as well as time and energy to radical politics (or at least quasi-radical politics).
And she just couldn't do it...she'd grown up around celebrities, she'd lived that life herself, and, in the end, it sucked her right back in.
When you are a "demi-god" (or "demi-goddess"), you can't go back to being an ordinary mortal. You psychologically need that constant re-affirmation of your "special-ness" and you'll do whatever it takes to keep that.
And, in a capitalist society, that means re-affirming the system that "raised you up".
And a particular method is what I call "the taint" -- if someone makes money off of something, if someone is not totally destitute, if someone can be seen to have a life that is somewhat elevated from the horrific conditions of the third world, then that person is assumed (by this mechanical and idealist method) to be benefiting from the system. Then (supposedly, by this illogical "logic") they can't really be progressive, or won over or united with -- they are probably pigs.
As a materialist, I don't see how you could deny the effects of "elevation".
But when you say "somewhat", I think that's misleading. What the celebrity learns to accept as "basic necessities" is so far beyond what you or I have ever seen that words are inadequate to express the differences.
In a very important sense, they live on another planet. The world that you and I encounter on a daily basis bears almost no resemblance to the "special world" that they live in...where everything is arranged to suit their personal whimsy, where an army of (probably third world) servants remove all forms of "unpleasantness" before the celebrity can notice them, where you are surrounded by flatterers who constantly tell you how "special" you are.
Tell me, do you think that you can be seriously angry about a system that has done this "for" you? That you would even contemplate the overthrow of such a system and your subsequent demotion to ordinary human again?
It's not just a little "taint" -- a small "character flaw" or something like that.
"Celebrity-hood" is utterly different from normal humanity...and any sensible person shuns it like the plague.
There is a saying among death penalty opponents that you can't simply encapsule someone by one act -- even a terrible one.
I disagree with that position. We could argue the question of "how terrible" an act must be to make a decisive judgment...but I do think that such acts can be demonstrated to exist.
When Friederich Ebert called in the German army to suppress the Spartakist Bund uprising in Berlin (January 1919), that was the definitive act of his life...so terrible that he will "go down in history" as the contemptible murderer of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 12, 2005
Rather than debate the hypothetical merits of this or that individual celebrity and their social role vs. "what they really think", I'd rather discuss the "inevitability" of class determination.
In a sweeping and ultimate sense "social being determines consciousness." (as Marx wrote). But that is not true if you apply it in a mechanical and linear way. Working and oppressed people are not automatically progressive (or revolutionary or communist), and wealthy-famous people are not automatically corrupt and reactionary.
There's not much in history or even nature that's "100% automatic"...so your statement is technically a correct one.
Yet if we are to make a coherent analysis of any phenomenon, we perforce must rely on probability and, where numbers are unavailable, on plausibility.
Marx was the son of a successful attorney and Engels spent a large part of his life as a medium-sized capitalist; their life-long efforts on behalf of proletarian revolution are, in my view, wildly implausible.
Yet it happened...and what has happened can certainly happen again.
But would you want to bet the rent money on it? Would you want to assume that people from such a background could be relied upon...in a serious way?
In fact, the revolution will find supporters and allies throughout society. Revolution is not "class against class."
Yes, at such time as revolution looms on the immediate horizon, desertions from the old ruling class will undoubtedly rise sharply. No one with any sense wants to be caught on "the losing side" -- and those who have a great deal to lose may well be especially attentive to the near-term possibilities.
But, IF Marx was right, then in a fundamental sense it will be "class against class". A proletarian revolution, by definition, is necessarily carried out by the proletariat.
Will celebrities be among those "supporters and allies"? Perhaps a few...but I frankly expect most of them to go into exile in countries that are still capitalist and where they can live as they always have lived (or as close to that as can be managed).
But while there is a link between class and conscousness -- it is very far from automatic, or direct, or linear, or determined.
In periods of reaction (like this one), I agree. But I think in periods of upheaval, the link approaches "automatic, direct, linear, and determined" -- though it never reaches 100% of those characteristics, of course.
In reactionary periods, the link between class and consciousness seems to be feeble and tenuous; in revolutionary periods, the link is robust and plain for all to see.
In the shantytowns of Latin America there is a pentacostalist revival, and not yet a communist one. This shows the relative independence of the superstructure -- and the relative independence of ideas from historic interests.
I would say "temporary" or "apparent" independence of ideas from historic interests. I think that what some have called "false consciousness" is a transient phenomenon -- it may last one or two or even three centuries, but sooner or later, material class interests prevail.
Similarly, there are many people in the artistic and intellectual world of the U.S. (including people who have attained both wealth and fame) who are deeply opposed to this society, and its rulers, and its direction, and its wars.
Some of the people of whom you speak might be "opposed"...but I seriously doubt if any of them are "deeply opposed".
More likely, some celebrities may strongly dislike particular features of modern capitalism...and may lend their names and "influence" to stop this or that particular atrocity or at least ameliorate some of its worse features.
In other words, some may become outspoken reformists.
Or at least, I disagree if you mean that all famous mavericks are just some kind of marketing ploy.
I'm inclined to think that, yes. Not because famous mavericks were not "sincere" but rather because their "maverick qualities" were not actually threatening to the system itself -- and thus could be successfully marketed.
Capitalists are not "gods" and thus not omniscient -- once in a while, something that is "threatening" slips through...but it's a rare occurance and it wouldn't surprise me if the celebrity responsible is "called on the carpet" and firmly instructed not to do that again, ever.
But are you arguing that this is inevitable -- that some "inexorable laws" meant that she could not have gone some other way?
Pretty much. Once you've lived on Mount Olympus, even Athens seems like a shithole. Perhaps you can come up with an example of some celebrity that permanently deserted Olympus in favor of the working class...none occurs to me.
Surely you don't want us to adopt some Calvinist rejection of "free will" -- and put forward that we are all slaves to our class!
In Calvinist theology, one was "pre-destined" by "God" to be among the saved or the damned at birth.
You were supposed to "try" to live a "sinless life" anyway -- but if you were a "born sinner", then sin you would and end up in the "fiery pit".
In the real world, the class we grow up in constrains our outlook...it predisposes us towards certain ideas and against other ideas. That doesn't mean we are "slaves" in an "absolute sense" to our class -- it just means that all other things being equal, we will incline towards the general outlook of one class or another.
All other things are never equal, of course...and there are many "weak determinants" that can "pull" or "push" us in unexpected directions.
A person of working class origins who "succeeds" in capitalism is still going to retain some working class attitudes -- you don't just "add money and stir" to turn a worker into a capitalist. (Hence, by the way, the resentment of "old money" towards "new money" -- the newly rich are "unwelcome interlopers" who "don't understand proper behavior" in the eyes of the established ruling class.)
But the ex-working class celebrity is curiously deferential to established wealth...they want to "fit in" very much. They have a whole new set of attitudes to learn...and learn them they do. Their kids, of course, learn them even better.
People in the traditional professions are pulled in both directions...and a few of them do "walk away" from the "middle class" and consciously "proletarianize themselves". Others are proletarianized whether they like it or not (and they usually don't -- and often take their revenge by becoming fascists).
So the connection between class and behavior is "tricky" when considering any single individual...but once you have a statistically significant sample, then I think you can make some pretty obvious predictions and be almost always right.
I think we have "apparent free will" -- because we simply cannot identify all the "micro-causes" that govern the choices we make...there are too many of them.
Do you really want to compare Ebert to Eminem, and suggest that because he dissed women and gay people in some earlier songs that we should condemn him forever?
Many working people have a bad habit of emotionally identifying with celebrities of various kinds...as both an escape from the alienation of their own daily lives and as a kind of hopeful projection -- this or that celebrity, in some sense, "speaks for me".
Thus, when someone says, "hey, this celebrity's actually an asshole" -- I think of it as an act of public service to the working class.
The smashing of icons is a revolutionary act.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 14, 2005
However let me just say, that the historical fact that leading artists, scientists, and other intellectuals in bourgeois society have been favorably inclined toward progressive struggle (and even revolution) is relevant to this discussion.
One distinction that ought to be made here is between artists and scientists. The latter are very rarely elevated to "celebrity status" in capitalist society and accordingly little subject to the kinds of determinants that I brought up in my earlier posts.
I would be inclined to "trust" a prominent and reputable scientist much more readily than a celebrity. During the upheaval of May 1968 in France, even the particle physicists at CERN drafted a manifesto demanding research controlled by scientists rather than by bureaucratic mandarins...their version of "workers' control".
When I spoke of celebrities, I had in mind a particular group -- those whose "lives" are "celebrated" in the media because of their demonstrated ability to distract the working class from reality.
I think such people may entertain, from time to time, vaguely "progressive" sentiments...but I don't think that any of them are likely to be "on our side" now or in the future. Indeed, I think the careers of guys like Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger show what happens when those kinds of people get "interested" in politics.
Not only does it happen, it happens constantly.
Many (or most?) communists and revolutionaries (leaders and activists) don't come from the poorest strata, but from those strata who have access to intellectual skills. Who have the opportunity to learn how to handle abstract thought, research, history and analysis.
I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say.
Down at the "bottom" of the working class -- where people live on a mixture of temporary employment, welfare, and petty crime -- the opportunity to come into contact with revolutionary ideas is very rare. Sheer survival is problematic and demands all their attention.
But as soon as you get into that part of the working class where stable work is the "norm", then time becomes available for the exploration of revolutionary ideas...if they are available in the environment.
It's harder, in some ways, for a working class kid (or adult) to learn a lot of this stuff...often because it is (unconsciously) written in a style that originated (in part) in an explicit desire to be inaccessible to "the lower orders". Writing was a class privilege in origin and we suffer from that to this very day.
Not to mention the class distinctions in education itself.
But you seem to imply that in order to be a conscious communist, one almost needs a degree from Harvard...and that's not true. One doesn't need a degree at all...or even a high school diploma.
The recipe for a conscious communist in my book begins with a deep hatred of life as it is currently lived and a burning curiosity to find out how we landed in the shit.
Where are these attributes most likely to be found if not among the working class?
It's true that when the communist movement is small and weak, there is a disproportionate number of petty (or not so petty) "bourgeois intellectuals" involved...but as a portion of intellectuals as a whole, the percentage represented among communists is still very small.
I don't think communism will have significant "appeal" to the bourgeois intelligentsia until a few days before the barricades go up.
First of all, there is all along great potential for winning over and uniting with and struggling with many different forces outside the proletariat.
I don't see a materialist basis for this approach...at least as you phrase it abstractly. Certainly, I can't even imagine "winning over" a contemporary celebrity...at least not for any significant period of time.
There was a famous British actress (I can't remember her name now) who became a life-long Trotskyist.
If you did it, it would be akin to winning the lottery.
In another forum (revolutionaryleft.com) redstar and I discussed the history of SDS -- here was a significant mass student movement that turned in revolutionary directions. It wasn't made up of proletarians (in the main). But of students overwhelmingly drawn from the middle classes (with some from the bourgeoisie and some from the working class.)
No one ever did (as far as I know) a real class analysis of SDS based on actual evidence...it "seemed" to be mostly "middle class", but who really knows?
Another consideration: at that time, higher education was still mostly limited to the middle and upper classes...and SDS simply reflected the class bias of its constituency.
But most importantly, SDS arose at a time when there was no adult revolutionary movement. We had no domestic proletarian communists to learn from (hence the fascination with China, the NLF, Cuba, etc.). As you know, the "old left" was thoroughly saturated with reformism, parliamentary cretinism, etc.
Second, to get where we are going -- to a transitional society that revolutionizes our life into communism -- we will need the work, vision, contributions, invention, effort, support and criticism of intellectual strata.
I don't dispute that; I do dispute that celebrities will likely be in those numbers. They are not going to like the things that we want to do...particularly that stuff about no one making more than an average working class wage.
Is there some law that says proletarians [can't] learn much from the political thoughts and creative work of middle class strata? I don't think so.
It's not a "law"...but rather, as I noted earlier, a "pre-disposition". I would not argue that the "middle class" has "nothing" useful to contribute; but I think that most of what they will say will sound very familiar to us -- as they say it to us now at interminable length.
Don't forget how important status stability is to the "middle class"...and how resistant they are to being "proletarianized".
Let me put it this way, if revolutionary support is limited to a hard core movement in the proletariat it can't succeed -- even if the proletarian forces seize power, they won't be able to hold it. Even if they hold it, the society this creates won't be worth living in, and won't develop toward communism.
Why do you say this? That seems to me to be extraordinarily pessimistic...especially the part about "not developing toward communism".
When I'm speaking of a proletarian revolution, I'm speaking of something that would necessarily involve the direct participation of tens of millions of working class revolutionaries with support from tens of millions of working class sympathizers...nearly all of the working class.
If you mean something much more limited by the phrase (proletarian revolution), then that might be the source of our disagreement in this thread.
I don't agree at all. Marx's concept was nothing like "class against class" -- he had a broad vision of alliances, and many different forces "playing their role."
He believed in broad connections with intellectual currents, with progressive bourgeois democrats, with peasant rebels. (His own vision of revolution was "a new Paris commune backed by a second edition of the German peasant wars" -- which is an interesting vision, especially if you grasp what both the Commune and the peasant wars were like.)
Well, Marx lived in the era of bourgeois revolutions...and I expect this had great influence on what he thought it was possible to do in his own time.
But his recipe for a "second edition of the German peasant wars" was a-historical. Remember that the German peasants during the first three decades of the 16th century were rebelling against serfdom...the French peasantry of the late 19th century were already independent landowners with nothing to gain (and much to lose) from a "new Paris Commune".
Nevertheless, Marx's remark certainly anticipated Mao's protracted people's war...for the Chinese peasantry were in much the same kind of situation as the German peasants were four centuries earlier.
Proletarian revolution does not fundamentally mean that proletarians do it, but that the historic and sweeping interests and vision of the proletariat guide the direction of this revolution.
Hegelian idealism...it's disconnected from the real world of conflicting class interests. If proletarians do not actually make a proletarian revolution, then why should that revolution concern itself with, much less reflect, the "historic and sweeping interests of the proletariat"?
This (to me) is a strange and very determinist view.
Well, I am a "determinist"...at least in comparison with the Leninist paradigm. I don't think that "strength of will" can overcome material conditions except briefly and partially.
Who wants a revolution or a society where "celebrities" are declared suspect or problem-people, before things have even started, before they have even been approached?
Who wants a revolution or a society with celebrities at all? What purpose would they serve?
And if we "must" have them, why should they be entertainers? Why not people who've made an outstanding contribution to the real progress of the new society?
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that we should have a "joyless" society without entertainment, amusement, etc. That would be stupid.
But cannot the working class create its own entertainment and amusement? Do we "need" a "star system" to distract people with? What's the point?
If our revolutionary movement is broad enough to bring over a Bruce Springsteen -- won't it be more likely to win than if it so narrow that a Springsteen is on the outside?
A "Bruce Springsteen" would get you a lot of free publicity; fans of his music might be more likely to at least give passing consideration to communist ideas.
But I'd rather have a New Jersey shop-steward...a man/woman who's already proven that they can win the respect of their co-workers and who will be listened to seriously when s/he talks about communism.
And I'm still stuck on the question regarding the materialist basis of your assumption that winning over a "Bruce Springsteen" is possible. Why should someone with his money and status even be interested?
Can we carry out the socialist transformation of education, production, and culture (for example) if our most radical and proletarian revolution doesn't inspire, win over, influence and lead broad strata outside the most poor? Teachers, filmmakers, TV producers, book writers, novelists, painters?
The non-celebrities in those groups may well "side with the working class" in substantial numbers; I just don't think those who were especially successful under capitalism are likely to do so.
What would a "Bruce Springsteen" do without his servants?
He'd have to clean his own toilet!!!
We can build this struggle in ways that repel middle forces, and isolate us from them.
This is very vague...so I don't know how to respond. If you are suggesting that we dutifully praise any celebrity who says anything that's not overtly reactionary...well, go ahead, give it a try.
If they should happen to hear of your praise, perhaps they'll choose you as "flatterer of the month", who knows?
And who would care?
We can focus only on our hard core base of support, and plan to batter everyone else with a big stick if we get the chance....
Well, you're the one who advocates "enlightened despotism", not me. In a "Paris Commune state", the only ones who'd have to worry about the "big stick" are those who pissed off a very substantial number of workers...and, frankly, their fate does not disturb my slumbers.
Yeah, I know...I'm not only "determinist" but also rather "instrumentalist" as well.
First posted at AnotherWorld Is Possible on March 15, 2005
...and I don't want to dominate the discussion.
One of the genuinely marvelous (and not without revolutionary implications) things about the internet is that "dominating a discussion" is actually a physical impossibility.
The hardware and software that connects us does not care if we are famous or not, or wealthy or not, if we possess "charisma" or not...it is totally uninterested in who we "are" or "what we look like" or any of that crap.
If we touch certain keys in the right sequence, our ideas go forth -- and while there are ways that they can be blocked, they are rather clumsy and ultimately futile.
The reactionaries used to be able to seize our literature and burn our books with considerable success...but what can they do now?
Further, no matter how "authoritative" any particular voice might be, anyone can jump in and say "that's crap!". If their evidence is good and their arguments are clear...they will be heard.
I don't think artists and prominent intellectuals should be thought of as mere "celebrities" or just "entertainers."
There's nothing "mere" (objectively) in being a celebrity...it's the "pinnacle of success" for anyone not born into the ruling class.
But I'm not clear about who you're speaking of when you mention "prominent intellectuals".
This is not France, after all, where intellectual ability may confer celebrity (if not wealth). Does Cornell West or Noam Chomsky make $150,000 a year? Britney Spears makes more than that in one "concert". Barry Bonds makes more than that in one at-bat.
One problem in this discussion is that we often seem to be talking about different kinds of people. I never thought of guys like Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or Stephen J. Gould as "part of the class enemy" -- if I had had the chance to speak with any of them personally while they were still alive, I would have tried very hard to get them to at least seriously consider the Marxist paradigm.
On the other hand, the typical prominent "intellectual" in our society is a vulgar capitalist lackey...a hireling who will say anything for money. We could also "hire" them if we had the resources...but, in my opinion, it would just be pissing the money away.
Generally speaking, when we speak of celebrities in America, we are talking about entertainers.
You say "rather a shop steward in Jersey than Springsteen." But did you ever stop to think about the role of a Springsteen (and here I am talking about as an artist, not as merely or mainly as a political spokesperson) can be powerful in winning over shop stewards, awakening them to political life, getting them to think more broadly and deeply around contradictions of many kinds?
Well, that seems to me to be "a real stretch". When I was a kid getting radicalized, I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, even Peter, Paul & Mary (and other "lesser lights")...and certainly appreciated the ways in which their music "resonated" (for want of a better word) with my new understanding of things.
But I can't really say that it was listening to folk music in the early 60s that radicalized me. I'm pretty skeptical of the idea that anyone has ever been seriously radicalized by simply listening to and identifying with certain musical performers.
You don't want to talk about examples.... but do you really think there is no difference between an Alanis Morissette and a Kid Rock? Or that Clint Eastwood's powerful film (that touches on the issue of "right to life" so deeply) is just "entertainment" or that he is just a "corrupt celebrity."
One difficulty that I face in discussing individual celebrities is that I've mostly lost interest in "pop culture" over the last few decades; the last semi-popular performer whose music I really appreciated was Pat Benatar...and that was back in the 80s. (!)
So if the discussion became one of "this entertainer's work" is "really progressive" compared to "that entertainer's work"...well, I'm often at a complete loss for words. I can assert with some confidence that the groups Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were "out in front" (politically speaking as well as musically speaking) during the late 60s and the 70s.
But, you see, that's really not saying very much. The "sound track" of a movement is not without interest...but no one would have gotten very far had all they done was listen to the music.
Also, you used the phrase "corrupt celebrity" in a kind of "moralistic way" -- as if they became celebrities "because" they were/are "really rotten people".
That's not really my point in this thread at all; celebrities may or may not be "personally rotten and corrupt"...it doesn't matter.
What matters is their social role...what are they being paid to do?
And here, I think, the answer is really clear. No matter how seemingly "critical" a celebrity may be of this or that aspect of social reality, the "message" is supposed to be another world is NOT possible.
And 99.999% of the time, they are "on message".
You have said many times, in numerous forums, that Avakian upholds "enlightened despotism."
His own words...in fact, you corrected me when I used the phrase "benevolent despotism".
Avakian's vision of post-revolutionary society is one in which political power will be exclusively in the hands of the vanguard party and especially its leadership...with the promise that as the masses become more fit to rule themselves, political power will be granted to them in increasing portions. In his view, the transition to communism is one in which power is gradually decentralized...at the sole discretion of the party's leadership.
But my argument is precisely this: with your approach a victorious proletarian movement would be forced to engage in precisely a form of despotism toward large sections of the masses (in the middle classes and among intellectuals).
All I can say here is that you could be right. The possibility of a post-revolutionary kulturkampf certainly exists.
But what can we do? Even after our enemies are overthrown, their ideas will remain...and must be struggled against in some fashion. Look, for example, at how the Catholic Church continues to stubbornly and even bitterly resist the on-going secularization of European capitalism. They are not "going gently into that good night".
It will take, in my opinion, an equally stubborn and bitter attitude on our part to finally defeat reactionary ideologies of all kinds.
We will have far too much to lose to risk complacency about this.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 15, 2005
I don't want to beat you over the head with your approach to investigation. But....
On one hand you claim that it is unlikely that leading actors and artists would be inclined toward lending their artistic work and voice to struggle....
But then you admit that you haven't paid any attention to popular culture and don't even know anything about the people I'm mentioning.
I think that's an evasion...I thought we were talking about a social grouping -- celebrities -- and not this or that individual who may have said something vaguely "progressive" at one time or another.
Look at it this way: if any of these people that you tout were seriously disruptive towards the existing system, do you really believe that they would still be celebrities? Do you think the capitalist class is so monumentally stupid that they are going to pay somebody tens of millions of dollars to get up in front of tens of millions of people and say "capitalism needs to be destroyed, root and branch!"?
Mao says "No investigation, no right to speak."
Fortunately, Mao doesn't run the internet, does he? *laughs*
I have lived for more than six decades in the United States and been exposed to popular culture for most of that period...it is only in the last 20 years or so that I lost interest in it. Why? Because it's the same old shit repeated over and over again.
When you actually look at its contents, you'll see nothing more than endless variations and re-cyclings of the same themes and, not surprisingly, the same ideology.
So do not tell me that I "haven't investigated" some "new variation" of something I first heard in 1955!
To be fair, I was vaguely aware that Gould's family were lefties but was not aware of the details that you provided...making me look "foolish" in suggesting that I would attempt to "win him over to the Marxist paradigm".
But I have read a fair number of his collections of essays; and while I learned some interesting stuff, I can't say that I felt any additional impetus to rebel against capitalism from his content.
Worse, he wrote one piece on science and religion that was actually pretty bad! Essentially, it consisted of a plea: "if you religion guys will leave us scientists alone, we scientists promise to leave you alone and not say anything critical about religion".
I don't think much of the "Marxism" that he learned "on his daddy's knees".
So there are many artists and actors who are quite radical and progressive. And the reason I think so is because I have investigated.
Is that the reason?
Or is the reason that you think "many" of these people are "quite radical and progressive" is that you are using a special definition of "radical" and "progressive"? One that's "designed" for celebrities...and far less demanding than the one you normally use.
Since you are a "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist", I would surmise that your definitions of "radical" and "progressive" would be pretty rigorous. Vague reformist sentiments would not "cut much ice" with you...normally.
But when it's a celebrity...?
The point of political work with artists is not mainly to approach them in an instrumentalist way -- i.e. to approach them narrowly in terms of what they can do for the immediate struggle. ("What have you done for me lately?")
It is fine for artists to donate money, to speak out on political issues, and so on. It is good.
But it is important for them to make art, and for there to be a culture of resistance which plays a huge role in creating conditions for repolarization and revolution.
I agree with you that a "culture of resistance" is certainly useful and maybe even more than that. But I don't think that culture comes from celebrities...though some of its creators may become celebrities later on. In the early 60s, Dylan, Baez, etc. were not celebrities...in many respects, they were "kids like us". And we did not worship them as "pop icons", we imitated them...that is, we sang the songs that they wrote when we were at demonstrations, in a car on the road to some conference, at parties, etc. It was only later (after 1964 or 1965) that people got into the habit of simply listening to music rather than making it themselves. (Rock music requires a lot more technology than just a six-string guitar.)
As to "working with artists"...well, perhaps you have some first-hand experience to draw on -- I certainly don't.
I wouldn't know how to tell an artist to "write revolutionary songs" or "make revolutionary movies" or whatever. If I knew how to do that, I'd do it myself.
But I'm really good at "picking up the message" and deciding what its political content is...and almost always, it's pretty bad. The bourgeoisie "pay the piper" and they almost inevitably "call the tune". This is especially true in the case of movie-making...which is an incredibly expensive art-form.
I think of artists as a kind of intellectual.
Up to you. I can't make that stretch, myself.
And then there are the intellectuals who produce theory and analysis and science. Some of whom become famous, some not.
Mostly not...and least not in the sense of real celebrities; i.e., entertainers. Einstein was probably the most famous 20th century intellectual figure...but his life was much closer to yours or mine than that of, say, Eminem.
If you want to adopt the meaningless term "celebrity" and measure people by whether they have money -- that is your business. But I won't do it that way.
Sometimes, you really puzzle me! What kind of "Marxist" is indifferent to wealth?
Michael Jordan helped Spike Lee make Malcolm X (the movie). Does that matter or not? Perhaps you don't know about that. Do you care?
Not a whole lot. If Mr. Jordan and Mr. Lee had asked my advice, I would have said forget about the movie. Make a compilation of Malcolm X's best (most radical) speeches, print up 10 million copes, and gave them away in the African-American communities. Not that they would have listened to me: Mr. Jordan was a basketball player who wanted to "do something good" and Mr. Lee was a movie-maker who needed financing.
But I can see why you feel differently, since this has come up before. Recall the disagreement we had over Bob Avakian's ideas vs. Bob Avakian as a person. I maintained that if his ideas were good ones, then that's what should be publicized; while you maintained that it was equally important that Avakian become widely known as a "person" and a "leader".
Well, who is typical?
Edward Said certainly wasn't typical, I quite agree with you there. But I think if you look at a list of contributors to any issue of, say, The New York Review of Books or the Atlantic Monthly or The Nation or The New Republic or the op-ed pages of The New York Times or the Washington Post...well, you'd get a list of names that turned up over and over again -- what passes for the "public intellectuals" in late American capitalism.
And I think you'd have to agree that they're almost all hacks.
I think many of these people make art (including music).
If you select out some portion of popular culture to honor with the prestigious term "art" -- well, that is clearly a matter of personal subjectivity. I won't argue that point; there is no disputing taste.
I do know that they are not being paid to produce "art"...their job is to convince the masses that what we live in is all there is. The better they do that...the more millions they make.
The counter culture and the music was a huge part of what made an upsurge possible and so broad in the 1960s. The influence of the culture often reached far beyond the politics, creating public opinion and drawing new forces close.
And every revolution has its cultural revolution. (Or else it isn't very deep and powerful).
All I can say to that is that it's a very idealist way of looking at what happened.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 16, 2005
You say [Gould's] essays didn't provoke you to revolt -- and I don't know how you view such things, but he fought on many levels for a scientific view (including of science), and for the teaching of evolution in the schools.
Indeed he did, as did others. And some are still fighting, as the struggle against Christian obscurantism is not one that's going to "just go away".
What I missed and still miss in the writings of many scientists on this and other questions is the willingness to "offend religious sensibilities" in the interests of the truth.
Particle physicist and Nobel laureate Steven L. Weinberg recently called religion "an insult to human dignity".
Such plain speaking is refreshing...but, sadly, all too rare.
You may not have been provoked much by him, but I always was! I learned a great deal about considering other viewpoints, understanding that the discredited often have a point, looking into the material basis for incorrect ideas (and considering what we have to learn from that). And to me, those issues are important to making revolution.
Yes, Gould "borrowed" from other historians the idea that you have to look at past "wrong" ideas in their historical context -- indeed, that may be the most "Marxist" element of his whole outlook on things.
Pragmatically, however, I think we still end up looking at past events through the lens of "our own time" (and the historical and material conditions that have shaped that lens).
When we ask ourselves "how did things develop as they did", we look at the past for the things that made us who we are and, by and large, ignore the things that "didn't work out".
Had Gould been a full-time historian instead of a scientist who investigated the history of science, I could see him writing a "balanced" account of feudalism and discussing "why feudalism made sense"...because it did make sense in its time.
This is a case where Marxism is clearly superior to "vulgar pragmatism" in "understanding the world".
But when it comes to changing it, the statement that such-and-such a contemporary practice by the existing ruling class "is medieval" has an impact that a "balanced account" lacks. People don't like being associated with ideas or practices that are "medieval"...and are more likely to resist them.
And even when he raised views I (and we) don't agree with -- I think we have to approach such thinkers from a much more lofty plane -- engage with them on their explorations, accept that we will agree at times and disagree over a long common journey. And genuinely seek to learn from what they are raising (not just dismiss or criticize).
Here we have departed far from the realm of celebrities. I am not unwilling to engage with the "best" of modern thinking...but I confess that I find little to engage with. I quite admire Jared Diamond's efforts to construct a materialist theory of history and believe a great deal of it could and should be incorporated into the Marxist corpus.
And even though we disagreed about Thomas Kuhn, I still think his ideas about paradigms and how they come to be overthrown and replaced is a very "Marxist" insight.
But the pickings are slim...in my very un-humble opinion. The capitalist social order seems to me to be intellectually stagnant for the most part...though, to be sure, there are new "intellectual fads" every year.
With very rare exceptions, they're usually the "same old shit".
Our process (as communists preparing the ground for revolution) is not just "fanning the flames of discontent" -- in some mechanical, repetitive, head down way.
Revolution takes consciousness -- creative and scientific thinking. Or we won't get where we are trying to go.
If you mean here that we must have a "positive vision" to go along with our hatred of class society, naturally I agree.
If you mean we must teach (to the best of our abilities) working people to "think like communists", I agree enthusiastically.
I just don't expect much help from the existing "intelligentsia" as a social group...though there may be some exceptions -- even outstanding ones.
I don't think of revolution as the revenge of the poor against the less poor. I don't think of it as "rich against poor" -- or at least that is not the heart of it.
Well, anyone who said something like that would certainly be guilty of a vulgar over-simplification, to be sure.
But I think that a lot of people are going to begin with that assumption in their process of radicalization.
But the revolution itself will draw in sweeping parts of humanity, from many spheres. And if it doesn't, how will we create a new society with education, culture, music, movies, science, athletics, etc.?
No argument on your general principle here. The argument is whether celebrities are likely to be a part of all that. I simply don't think they will...they lack any material basis for wanting anything much different than what we have now.
Further, the proletariat doesn't make revolution just to free itself. That's the whole point -- what Marx brought to all this, and what lies at the heart of Marxism.
What is unique about this revolution is that "the proletariat can only emancipate itself by emancipating all of humanity."
No question about it! As a "sweeping overview" of the "big picture", that's exactly what I expect to happen...and what historians of the 24th or 25th century will duly record and analyze.
But "the devil is in the details". The working class, in order to free itself and "all humanity" from class society must first free itself from all the versions of capitalist and other reactionary ideologies.
In the midst of a successful and even triumphant proletarian revolution, there will still be millions of people who will hate us and everything we stand for...no matter how "sweetly" we talk to them or how "nicely" we treat them. The threat to their class privilege is one that is intolerable to them.
I expect nearly all celebrities to be in that camp.
Some people said after the LA rebellion: "It was wrong to burn your own neighborhoods, you should have gone and burned the rich neighborhoods, Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica." This is exactly wrong. This would not have solved anything.
Well, yes and no. An attack on Beverly Hills and its adjacent wealthy neighborhoods would not have led to a change in the class structure of the United States.
But it would have been a better "strategy"...because it would have served to reflect the class nature of that uprising much more dramatically. I also think that in the short term such an attack (or series of attacks) would have drawn in more support from the masses (a lot of working people did think that burning down your own neighborhood was "crazy"); and possibly (though unlikely) resulted in more genuine assistance from a worried local ruling class after the rebellion was defeated.
Targets matter...they "send a message".
I looked at your link to the "artists & politics" site. It's a nice site...but it has no "big names" -- no celebrities. (It mentions some big names, but there are none that actually participate in it.)
It reminds me a little, in fact, of the Weimar Republic...which had an enormous amount of "cultural ferment" from 1925 to 1932 -- and which was often thought to be very "revolutionary".
Well, perhaps some of it was. But it didn't seem to weigh much in the "scales of history".
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 18, 2005
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What Did Marx "Get Wrong"? September 13, 2004
Class in Post-Revolutionary Society - Part 1 July 9, 2004
Demarchy and a New Revolutionary Communist Movement November 13, 2003
A New Type of Communist Organization October 5, 2003
The "Tools" of Marxism July 19, 2003
Marxism Without the Crap July 3, 2003
What is Socialism? An Attempt at a Brief Definition June 19, 2003
What is Communism? A Brief Definition June 19, 2003
A New Communist Paradigm for the 21st Century May 8, 2003
On "Dialectics" -- The Heresy Posts May 8, 2003
|...becoming part of the apparatus of repression...is treason to the working class.
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