What is the nature of art in a period of extreme ideological confusion and inverted political frustration?” That’s the question the iconic art critic John Berger struggled with in the aftermath of the defeats of 1968. Some four decades later the Left’s inability to take advantage of openings created by the great financial crash has placed Berger’s question on the agenda again. That he asked this of artists and not more generally was rooted in Berger’s special concern with the distinction between our desires and the world as it currently is. “All art,” he provocatively asserted, “is an attempt to define and make unnatural this distinction.”
Looking back, Berger credited the Cubists with grasping and confidently expressing the potentials for collapsing that distinction. For all the pain that accompanied technological development, “mass production promised eventually a world of plenty.” For all its oppressions, “imperialism had begun the process of unifying the world.” But the outbreak of World War I showed the limits of the Cubists’ artistic optimism. The problem, Berger concluded, was that “the Cubists imagined the world transformed but not the process of transformation.” It is that larger question — the process of actually getting to another world — that takes us beyond the artist and challenges the Left as a whole to cope with what can be done in this current moment of widespread disillusionment.
That disillusionment is itself now a major obstacle to social change. Our times are defined by a pervasive fatalism, particularly — but not only among working classes. Popular dissatisfactions live alongside the conviction that there is nothing substantive to be done about them. Capitalism is the only game in town. This fatalism helps neoliberalism reproduce itself; its material roots lie in the intersection of capitalism’s deeper penetration of social existence with the limited political strength of those who oppose it.
The Specter of Fatalism
Capitalism once promised material security, a lessening of inequalities, a deepening democracy, and richer human lives. Such promises were central to its legitimation. The “American way” had a special status in all this; though attitudes in the rest of the world often reflected a love-hate relationship with the US, it was American production methods, patterns of consumption and popular culture that set the bar. But following the rebellions of the 1960s a historic shift occurred. Gains earlier presented as measures of progress were reformulated by elites as now representing barriers to success. Pressures mounted for the old promises to be abandoned.
Yet — and this is the disheartening paradox of the period since roughly the early 1980s — the reversal of capitalism’s promises led to no substantive crisis in its authority, and the neoliberal practices that brought us to the most recent economic crisis were subsequently not discarded but intensified. Moreover, for all the damage to the American model’s status as austerity was imposed on its working class, most countries nevertheless moved even closer to emulating the orientation of the United States. Germany, considered by many as the successor to Sweden and Japan in representing an alternative to the American variety of capitalism, now seems (in terms of its attachment to fiscal austerity at home and in its punishing demands on its neighbors) more American than America.
At a moment that should have led to the most serious discussions of alternatives to capitalism, such alternatives have in fact further receded from public deliberations. Capitalism’s defects are experienced as individual failures, and personal frustrations replace social critiques. This applies not only to “ordinary” citizens but also to intellectuals and activists who have too often believed that their broader perspectives would act as a protective shield against such a malaise.
How have we have come to this impasse? How has capitalism managed to present itself to the working class as not so much the best alternative as the only alternative?
The Left has, not for the first time, underestimated both capitalism’s resiliency and the powerful impact its structures have on popular hopes. Concrete hope — what we not only hope for but are committed to bringing to life — is always intimately related to and limited by what we consider possible. And possibilities are framed not only and not even primarily by explicitly ideological apparatuses (the media, education and religion) but by the daily impact on popular consciousness of unilateral management power, the discipline of competitive markets, pervasive commercialization, debt dependency, globalization, and the disappointments of liberal democracy.
Similarly, the continuation of the American empire’s leading role within capitalism is not a matter of America’s moral leadership, but of the capacities that the American state and American institutions more generally continue to bring to the making, deepening and expansion of capitalist social relations. Coming to grips with fatalism therefore demands addressing how lived experiences overlap with key economic trends like neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization and how this is reinforced by the Left’s inability to create oppositional forces.
Fatalism, it should be noted, is not synonymous with passivity. Injustice does, of course, elicit expressions of discontent. Workers file grievances and sometimes go on strike, people vote, demonstrations occur. What nevertheless characterizes these responses as fatalistic is their self-imposed limits in taking the existing social structures and power relations of society as given or in imagining an alternative but not believing there is a way of getting there. Fatalism is also reflected, as Leo Panitch and I have argued, in the fear “well-honed by twentieth century experience as well as ruling-class propaganda, of the perverse consequences of the attempt to put utopian visions into practice.”
Social democracy encompasses all these elements of fatalism. Its practitioners may in fact be both committed and active in pursuing reforms, but since such reforms are confined by capitalism and its logic, they have offered only a kinder, gentler neoliberalism. In the context of a world crashing down on people’s lives, the limits of such reforms (especially from a political party that is ostensibly “in opposition”) reinforces popular fatalism. And the justification social democrats offer to explain these limits (going further is impossible given the constraints of capitalism) only serves to educate its social base towards fatalism.
It might seem that emerging social movements, coming out of a new generation and bearing the slogan of “another world is possible,” stand in direct contrast to social democracy’s limited horizons. But their theory and practice, unfortunately, is also debilitated by a more subtle acceptance of the world as it is. Leaving aside the nihilism of some, the fact that activists remain very much in the minority among young people and that activists themselves often “move on” as they get older and their life circumstances change, the issue here is a strategic fatalism.
For all their energy, passion, and tactical creativity, the efforts of activist youth from 1990s through Occupy have tended (some notable exceptions aside) to be sporadic, localized, and symbolic. There has consequently been little consolidation of spaces of resistance and equally limited development of capacities for substantive popular outreach. The primary focus on protest carried with it an inclination to ignore and in some cases even scoff at seriously considering what it would take to fundamentally challenge capitalism and eventually replace it. Unable to think big, these protests have increasingly been unable to even win small. Unable to act more ambitiously, they are largely limited to defensively protesting the latest specific attack on our lives.
The theater of Brecht seems so appropriate to our times because it challenges his audience to directly confront the issue of fatalism. Brecht’s uncompromising starting point is that if we accept the social structures of capitalism, we are indeed left with the limited choices that undermine meaningful human agency. His technique of simultaneously engaging yet distancing the audience is intended to deny us the comfort of either romanticizing events or resolving, within the theater, the dilemmas posed. Whatever feelings and insights plays like Mother Courage invoke within the historical parameters of the action, Brecht is concerned to encourage the feelings and thoughts that go beyond this and look to transforming those very parameters. Art then becomes a weapon against fatalism.
Work, Art, and Revolution
The central Marxist critique of capitalism is located on the terrain of human capacities. Capitalism is unjust and undemocratic not because of this or that imperfection in relation to ideal conceptions of equality or freedom. We reject capitalism because at its core it involves the control by some of the time, creativity, and potential of others. And the narrowness of the market discipline capitalism imposes as part of that drive to constant accumulation frustrates humanity’s capacity for social liberation.
This critique of capitalism should resonate with artists on a number of fronts. Most obviously, the fact of being an artist invites solidarity with workers robbed of their potential creativity. And as producers, artists are constrained by who finances art in an unequal society and therefore on what is produced and for whom. When artists try to escape that limit and use their art critically, its access to an audience is generally limited. A society that increasingly reduces most of its members to precarious sellers of labor power, unsurprisingly, develop the capacity of the many to appreciate the language of art.
To return to Berger’s question, what then is the role of radical art in a time such as this? It would be a shame if art, taking fatalism as a fixed reality, was reduced to consoling us in our despondency. On the other hand, it would be naïve to expect too much from art. Though the years since Berger issued his challenge have confirmed that the soul-destroying world that capitalism more and more offers us is a fundamental barrier to human development, art itself cannot overcome this situation. Art can move us emotionally and intellectually, but however valuable it can be in this regard it cannot on its own transform the power relations of society. Such a radical change demands the development of radical political institutions and practices. Addressing this means that artists have to step out beyond their studios and workplaces to act in the world as directly political people.
The Belgian philosopher and art historian Lieven De Cauter has distinguished between “good politics,” which needs to be decisive in its goals and practices, and “good art,” which is by its nature ambiguous about moral and political commitments. To describe a character in a novel as “good” does not necessarily refer to their morality or politics but may describe the success of the artist in capturing a truth, passing on insights, taking us into exciting or troubling uncharted territories. This seems especially relevant to the present moment. With left politics in limbo, and being at an early stage in building the hope, confidence, and capacities for moving beyond capitalism, the current counter to fatalism is not certitude but possibility and experimentation — terrain that would seem to give special weight to the contribution of “good art.” The weight of art within the political is likewise reinforced by the fact that understanding often begins with the emotional and only then moves on to a concern with the structural limits on our lives.
Today, an activist art needs to have an ambitious agenda. It must assimilate a critique of capitalism’s impact on human possibilities. It must challenge capitalism’s restriction of the scope of who initiates and purchases artistic production. And it must work to broaden the audience of people who have been trained in the skills needed to appreciate art. When art refuses to be a shill for the status quo and thereby opens spaces to go beyond what exists, it takes on its crucial political role. Such art makes the invisible visible, the implicit explicit. It reveals the individual as social by showing or suggesting common hopes and frustrations. It explores — without shying away from complexities — the relationship between the local and the international, the particular and the universal, the static and the dynamic. It questions everything and engages in constant exploration.
Yet if art is to engage the world as an active force, it needs to be both grounded in the world of everyday life and, as Brecht argued, to go beyond it. An impressive example of this has been the remarkable exhibit “Liquid Assests,” which probed “how money and debt morality can define and deform interpersonal relationships.” In some cases art might be directly functional to political projects (political posters, agit-prop theater) but the emphasis on the political does not necessarily imply the subordination of art to politics.
In fact, art can best contribute to social change if it acts in an autonomous way alongside the political. Its explorations must share certain sentiments with its political compatriots, but it must also remain prepared to interrogate and critique the Left itself.