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Modify Your Dissent

On the rise and fall of the Baffler.

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The Baffler was formative to my intellectual development. Founded by Thomas Frank and Keith White in Virginia in 1988, and published out of Chicago throughout most of the 1990s, the journal of political and cultural criticism was one of the brightest lights in the otherwise dim constellation of left-wing writing during those years. Hence I take comparisons between the Baffler and Jacobin as the greatest of compliments.

More than simply a collection of essays, each issue of the Baffler sang with a single voice, theoretically coherent, and yet undogmatic, led by Frank’s vision but sprawling beyond it. Compiled into two book collections, its greatest hits dissect the spirit of the era, making it not implausible to speak of a “Baffler school” of criticism. Clear-eyed, angry, and free of jargon, the essays in Commodify Your Dissent exposed the fatuity of “alternative” culture and its corporatized rebellion, while those in Boob Jubilee tackled a dominant neoliberal populism that praised the market as democracy’s purest form.

The Baffler was an important tributary of the faltering 1990s left, which helped form many of us who would later create Jacobin. It represents impulses that we strive to live up to and continue.

The Baffler was recently revived by John Summers. But despite carrying some valuable content, the new version is a pale reflection of the old. An attitude of generalized refusal that once seemed bracing and courageous now seems tired and redundant. And Frank himself, who still writes for the publication, has long been on a downward trajectory. It’s been dispiriting to see his tone, never particularly optimistic to begin with, turn in an increasingly cramped and reactionary direction. Beginning with What’s the Matter With Kansas, his voice has been ever more diminished, less telling it like it is and more unproductive carping from the sidelines of the struggle.

Frank’s latest salvo in the Baffler is about Occupy, and it begins on a hopeful note before curdling into frustration and contempt. Occupy, says Frank, was a manifest failure, done in by a predilection for academic jargon and a fetish for horizontalism. The timing could hardly have been worse, as the essay circulated just before the hurricane that prompted the emergence of Occupy Sandy.

But it was not an argument wholly without merit. Frank leads the essay with a quote from Natasha Lennard taken from a Jacobin-sponsored panel on Occupy, a rambling bit of postructuralism that he derides as “pseudo-intellectual gibberish.” It’s a criticism others on the panel that night might have shared, but Frank blows it up out of all proportion. Though Lennard was actually a journalist covering Occupy rather than an organizer of it, her comments are sufficient that he “knew instantly that this thing was doomed.”

The Theory-inflected quality of Occupy’s rhetoric was inevitable, however, given the wasteland from which it emerged. Most young people didn’t grow up reading the Baffler, nor did they have contact with whatever remains of the organized left.

Aside from a few isolated corners of the Internet, the only place they are likely to have encountered ideas to the left of liberalism is the classroom, where New Left exiles continued to teach radical thought through the lean years. Post-structuralism and related bodies of theory are therefore bound to make up much of the vocabulary for young activists attempting to develop their political analysis beyond gut-level rage. Frank mistakes these students for their teachers, carrying over grudges against nineties postmodernist academics into the present.

It is a mistake, moreover, to focus obsessively on the verbiage of Occupy’s theorists, to the exclusion of the inchoate sentiments of its rank and file. Frank briefly expresses his respect for the “We are the 99 Percent” Tumblr feed, before quickly turning back to his preoccupation with academia. His essay is, in fact, mostly not about Occupy at all, but about books about Occupy, some of them by aging academics who had little to do with it. In this regard it is far less useful than, for example, the effort of Roosevelt Institute fellow and Jacobin contributor Mike Konczal to extract the implicit ideology of the people who posted handwritten tales of hardship on the Tumblr.

Within his limited field of vision, Frank does score some points. He makes one especially astute observation, which he then misinterprets in a way that’s symptomatic of his broader misapprehension. He notes a striking similarity in rhetoric emanating from Occupy and the Tea Party: leaderlessness, protesting as an end in itself, a hostility to explicit demands. For the Tea Party, this is largely a sham, since its strings were always pulled by a handful of moneymen and political operators. Occupy enacts the same themes for real and to its detriment, Frank believes, with its refusal of hierarchical organization and message coherence leading to its downfall.

Frank is hardly the first to point out the problems with this style of organizing. But he makes a wrong turn when he offers it all as a testament to “the lazy, reflexive libertarianism that suffuses our idea of protest these days.” This demonstrates the limitations of the curmudgeonly politics that he pioneered with the Baffler, according to which apparent dissent was only so much viral marketing. Decrying the foolishness of everyone around you can be a revolutionary act when they’re all stock market swindlers and MTV rebels. But when the target is a movement that is trying, however awkwardly, to challenge capitalism, it amounts to an anti-materialist insistence that the dogmatic verities of the critic are superior to the organic impulses of the masses. Here the laziness and reflexivity is Frank’s.

Frank is unwilling to see the strains of thought in existing protest movements as raw material for something more effective, and treats them only as self-defeating dead ends. Perhaps this is why he seems to have no prospective vision whatsoever, beyond staging historical reenactments of the protest movements of the past. His essay ends by enjoining activists to “reenact Flint, Michigan, circa 1937,” or even “Omaha, 1892.”

The young Marx writes, in a letter to Arnold Ruge, that it is essential to avoid telling political movements “Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle.” His alternative was to “merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” This is much more in the spirit of Konczal’s approach of taking disorganized ideas and attempting to give them form, something I also tried to contribute to in an online essay about partisanship and ideology. There I claim that Occupy represents, in part, a move to transcend the hollow partisanship of Republicans and Democrats as political brands, and develop a truly ideological politics grounded in class consciousness.

The inability to empathize with the people who produced Occupy leads Frank to set himself up as a fun-loathing scold. He makes much of Slavoj Zizek’s injunction that Occupy needed to guard against falling in love with itself, because “carnivals come cheap.” The carnival is portrayed as a distraction from the real work of politics. But while the carnival was insufficient, it was not meaningless. The collective ecstasy of ows ’s “carnival” is something that needs to be part of the Left, even if it can’t be the whole of it. This is the point Audrea Lim makes in the last issue of Jacobin, and that Barbara Ehrenreich makes, about revolutionary joy more generally, in Dancing in the Streets.

This anhedonia is not a new problem for Frank, as pointed out in one of the sharpest critiques of his later style, by the late Ellen Willis. Willis classifies Frank as part of the vogue for class reductionist liberalism among a passel of mostly white men — Richard Rorty, Michael Tomasky, Michael Lind — who lamented the “culture wars” and argued that any serious liberal politics ought to be founded on a program of economic populism. But as Willis argues, the idea that cultural concerns are antithetical to class politics “rests on a populist identity politics that associates conventional morality with working class values.” This dour politics makes it “a point of working-class pride, solidarity, and salt-of-the-earth status to reject the decadence’ of the rich and the upper middle class as well as the fecklessness of the very poor.”

I make a related point in my review of Kathi Weeks’ recent book in an earlier issue of Jacobin, where I argued that we should not equate the work ethic with some kind of moral virtue. Instead, I follow Weeks in proposing that we must be open to “a politics that appeals to pleasure and desire, rather than to sacrifice and asceticism,” one which “simultaneously takes up the cause of wage laborers while undermining their identity as wage laborers.”

This way of thinking seems alien to Frank, and to the Baffler generally. The role of cultural scold, and the unwillingness to see positive aspects in popular culture, or to regard pleasure except in terms of accommodation, betrays his conservative streak. And the Baffler School’s persistent hostility to the pop element of populism telegraphs a later turn to crude economic reductionism, rooted in the conviction that the real working class only cares about the size of its paychecks. But the paycheck is only a means to something else, the ability to care more about other things — including the trivial, “academic,” hedonistic, and merely cultural. Moreover, the crude separation of the economic from the cultural denies the way in which feminism, for example, is inseparable from economics, as Sarah Leonard pointed out in our last editorial.

Perhaps the trouble is not just theoretical but also historical. Whatever its limitations, Frank’s brand of Mencken-esque dyspepsia was far better suited to the era of the original Baffler than to our own. Paging through the second act, it’s easy to forget how essential and inspiring the original run was, and how necessary for its time.

“Lazy, reflexive libertarianism” fits the era in which the Baffler emerged, but does it really fit ours? At a time when capitalist apologetics and “There Is No Alternative” resignation were emanating even from allegedly radical quarters, there was value in reminding us that the market was still “the God that sucked.”

Cultural studies was degenerating into a bizarre kind of obscurantist populism that found agency and resistance in every television sitcom. Investment boosterism elevated stock market speculation into an ecstatic demos in which the common man could command his own destiny. Drinking Mountain Dew and listening to Pearl Jam was sold as a revolutionary act. Even the best cultural criticism of the era, like the online magazine Suck.com, tended toward cynical snarking and what Fredric Jameson called “blank irony,” a degenerate form of ridicule that no longer recognizes any authentic standard of comparison for the things it derides.

Snark and sarcasm, on the one hand, and market boosterism on the other, still dominate the discourse, but their content and purpose has changed. Today’s culture is characterized not so much by pervasive nihilism as by a series of peculiar inversions, in which the Onion presents incisive news analysis in the guise of satire and TV news passes off cheap entertainment as useful information. Some of the most class-conscious and bitingly political commentary in the popular media can be found on Gawker, ostensibly a gossip site. These publications are the descendants of the Generation X culture of the nineties, but their young writers tend to use humor more as a container for sincere rage than as a vehicle for narcotizing apathetic detachment.

This represents an incipient failure mode of what Mark Fisher calls “Capitalist Realism,” the condition in which all political alternatives are obliterated, and the system persists through sheer inevitability rather than legitimacy. The tech bubble represents, in retrospect, capitalism’s last serious attempt at an overarching positive ideology, which Frank aptly diagnosed as market populism. What remains in the wake of its collapse is a grim politics based on fear — fear of terrorism, the Tea Party’s fear of the Other, and the fear generated by economic insecurity and high unemployment. The housing bubble briefly graced the fear era with a parody of a positive ideology. But the notion that we can all be rich by selling ever-appreciating houses to the next greater fool was weak sauce even by the standards of market populism.

Beneath the scares and bubbles there remains the exploitation of labor, which leads inexorably back to dissatisfaction and revolt. The thinkers of the young left have revived interest in Italian autonomist Marxism, which posited the resistance of workers at the point of production as the motor of history that impelled capitalists to transform their own productive relations. This approach is at least well-suited to the conditions of cultural workers churning out content for websites that soak up the attention of bored office workers. By identifying an appetite for class war in their audience, the blogging proletariat, doing a new kind of piece-work, has turned the amoral hunger for page views to subversive ends. This is not subversion in the shallow discursive sense of mediocre nineties cultural theory, but in that of fomenting solidarity with real movements, from striking fast food workers to Strike Debt activists.

The future favors the exploited. Predictions of a permanent Democratic majority in the wake of the 2012 election are premature, but the underlying trends are real. American politics is every year less dominated by the old and white. The class consciousness that seeps out of the pores of the culture these days may as yet be politically inchoate, but that it exists at all is a significant development.

Meanwhile, the Left is showing some hints of regeneration, with Occupy a symbol for broader developments, and Marxism is creeping back into the fringes of polite intellectual discussion. The trajectory of Jacobin itself is evidence of the increasing permeability of the media to leftist ideas. Despite frequently avowing solidly Marxist politics that place us well to the left of the Baffler, over our brief existence our content has been discussed or republished by mainstream media companies like the Washington Post and the Boston Globe and newer online outlets like Salon and Gawker. The Baffler’s best known mainstream media hit, meanwhile, was their role in hilariously trolling the New York Times and other outlets for printing a made-up list of “Grunge slang.”

A period of reawakening consciousness and militancy requires a different approach than a time of near-universal complacency. So even if the Baffler is one of the closest identifiable predecessors to Jacobin, the similarities conceal serious differences of purpose. Consider contributing editor Gavin Mueller, superficially the most Bafflerian of our regular writers: his stylistic panache and his amalgam of wit and insight about our ruling economic tropes evoke Tom Frank at the height of his powers. But when Mueller writes about culture, as the Baffler often did, he does so to quite different purposes. Compare his new bravura exegesis, of the Onion’s “Sex House,” with a typical Baffler counterpart, J. D. Connor’s essay on the Universal Pictures film “U-571” in issue 15 from 2002.

Mueller extracts positive political content from “Sex House,” finding a satiric pop culture rendition of the autonomist Marxist account of work-refusal. It expresses a radical consciousness, albeit one that has not yet translated itself into political action. Connor finds no such glimmers in “U-571,” which he portrays as a grim allegory of corporate filmmaking and media consolidation. “The submarine is an obvious symbol for the corporation, and the movie itself … is an allegory of its impending merger with a European conglomerate.”

Connor’s essay raises the reader’s suspicion that it may be just an elaborate jape at the expense of cultural studies, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. What Mueller does, and the Baffler almost never did, is seek out and foreground the radical elements in pop culture, rather than portraying it all as noxious industry propaganda. In this, Mueller evokes the kind of cultural criticism that Ellen Willis pioneered in her rock journalism of the late 1960s. It’s a criticism that doesn’t try to locate subversion in the act of cultural consumption itself, as did a certain variety of cultural studies, but one which allows us to link culture to real politics — from “Sex House” to the class rage of Gawker to Strike Debt. The Baffler’s hostility to that approach is partly due to the intellectual biases Willis identified. But it’s also a lot easier to find radicalism in culture in an era where there are a lot more such impulses to find.

This shift has been picked up by some of those who were involved with the original Baffler project. Recording engineer Steve Albini, whose “The Problem With Music” is one of the Baffler’s most famous essays, will appear in the next issue of Jacobin with a sequel, in which he strikes a more hopeful note about the post-Napster era than he did in his earlier anti-major label screed.

If Occupy, the Chicago Teachers Union Strike, and all the rest don’t prove to be the beginning of a renewed left, then Jacobin too will eventually fade from view. Hopefully we’ll have the good sense to know when our time has passed. Our success and our relevance depend on historical conditions that we have only the tiniest influence over. By the same token, the Baffler’s creeping irrelevance reveals it to be a quintessential product of the “long 1990s” stretching from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, when capitalism seemed to have culminated in a neoliberal end of history.

For all its mordant criticism of cultural studies, the Baffler was more in sync with its time than it liked to admit. It was in fact deeply postmodern, not in its explicit allegiances but in the way it partook of a certain cultural weather of the sort theorized by Fredric Jameson. The penchant for interpreting texts — seen in Frank’s privileging of books about Occupy over Occupy participants — mirrors the linguistic turn in academia. And Frank, in his insistence that the Left’s future can only be a pastiche of a fondly remembered greatest hits of movement victories, echoes postmodernism’s bricolage aesthetic and its privileging of the spatial over the temporal. It’s as if there was nothing new under the sun, only new ways to put old items together. Nowhere do we find any self-reflexive consciousness of ongoing history, of the possibility that there could be fundamentally new conditions requiring new forms of politics and new forms of writing.

The social revolution of the twenty-first century can’t take its poetry from the past.

Still, if Frank prefers to argue by historical analogy, let me offer one of my own. In a Dissent essay chronicling Andrew Ross’s evolution from hip cultural theorist to activist labor journalist, Kevin Mattson suggests that the passage from the 1990s to the 2000s parallels that from the 1920s to the 1930s. With the onset of Depression, “’the people’ — those whom writers like Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken loved to bash as morons during the twenties — invaded the work of writers and intellectuals and pressed to be taken seriously. Economic insecurity changed the work of the mind.” The Baffler’s tone was routinely compared to Mencken’s, an association the magazine affirmed and promoted themselves.

It does not diminish the Baffler’s importance if we now locate it as a morbid symptom of the Clinton interregnum, when the current system seemed hopelessly corrupted but fresh alternatives had yet to appear. Today, the old may still be dying, but the new is already being born.

Our task is to help it grow.


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