When Marshall Berman laments the decline of critical culture in America, he omits the implied and crucial qualifier: democratic. For there is no shortage of critical culture on the right, where free-market radicals inveigh against the remnants of state power and cultural conservatives attack every aspect of post-sixties culture from no-fault divorce to sexually permissive television shows. The left, in contrast, has run in panic from the cultural radical legacy of the sixties and is desperate to identify itself with “the majority of working families,” or whatever is currently code for “normal people.”
The prerequisite for a critical culture is a sense of possibility. Without some inkling that things might be different—and better—criticism doesn’t lead to struggle, but rather to pessimism and despair, or at best to gestures of individual rebellion against nature or fate. Convinced that what exists is all there is, most people will prefer to make the best of it. If their experience doesn’t quite jibe with the cultural common sense, they figure it must be their own fault: ironically, even Marshall Berman worries, if only rhetorically, about being a malcontent.
The left, at this moment, has lost that indispensable ability to connect what is with what could be. It is paralyzed by the culture of celebration and its constant assertion that we have reached the end of history: that capitalism is the final solution to the class problem—imperfect, perhaps, as the weather is imperfect, but inevitable and on the whole benign; that liberal democracy as we know it is the best political system to which human beings can aspire; that visions of cultural transformation are at best idle fantasy, at worst blueprints for tyranny. The proximate cause of this paralysis is the failure of the Russian Revolution—not just the fall of the Soviet Union, in effect the demolition of a building long since emptied and crumbling, but the devastating conversion of emancipatory theory into totalitarian practice, in one country after another—coupled with the absorption of social democracy into liberalism. With the collapse of the Marxist paradigm, the left has no ready answers to capitalist triumphalism. Yet without the belief that it is possible to imagine an alternative social and economic structure, there can be no democratic critical culture. For our present culture and our capitalist political economy are, while not without their disjunctions, fundamentally intertwined.
Berman appears to deny that connection when he asserts his cultural disappointment while conceding, “Our economy is thriving.” This is the triumphalist claim, but is it true? From a democratic perspective the test of a thriving economy is not simply the rate of growth or the number of available jobs, but the prospect of freedom from the tyranny of scarcity. The prosperity of the fifties and sixties offered that freedom to an unparalleled extent. The majori...
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