On Art and Populism: Generational Shift

With Canada’s New Prime Minister Cultural Marxism Finds Its Worth


01/02 2016 It might seem odd to invoke Marxism when talking about Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister of Canada, but it’s relevant. I want to focus specifically on the optics of his first months in office. It is in this respect that Marxism plays a role, specifically that part of its legacy known as Western Marxism. Considerations on Western Marxism (1976), a short book by intellectual historian Perry Anderson, itself a masterclass in concision and clarity, outlines the path the writings of Marx took from revolutionary playbook to object of philosophical study. Briefly, the rise of Fascism and the containment of the Bolshevik revolution by the West together combined to detach Marxist theory from its practice. From the point it was severed from a meaningful connection to the working class, to whom Marx had predicted the historical fate of seizing the means of production, the bulk of Marxist activity took place inside the halls of academia. “Henceforward,” Anderson writes, “it was to speak its own enciphered language, at an increasingly remote distance from the class whose fortunes it formally sought to serve or articulate.1

This is the backstory of the contemporary notion of “theory” as it is used in the academic world today — theory divided from (or in reference to) practice. The major thinkers of Western Marxism will be familiar to anyone who has had delved into the field of Cultural Studies — Gramsci (from whom we get the notion of “cultural hegemony”), Lukács, Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, plus the legions of cultural theorists that follow in their wake. In Marxist terms, the shift in emphasis was from base to superstructure, the belief that changes in culture could bring about a corresponding change in the economic order.

Considerations on Western Marxism (1976)

At considerable distance now from its Marxist roots, the idea that examples of symbolic change will bring about deeper social change remains highly influential. Take 44 year-old Justin Trudeau, our cultural moment’s best exemplar of the generational shift now underway. As I noted in a previous post, Trudeau was initially qualified for his job in a dynastic sense; his father Pierre is perhaps Canada’s most famous Prime Minister (1968–79; 1980–84); the younger Trudeau also benefited from a massive and, to a certain extent coordinated, vote against the incumbent, the much loathed neocon Stephen Harper. Regardless of these rather big factors that led to his victory, Trudeau’s early Prime Ministerial performance has been impressive. Blessed with the good looks (and with a good looking family) that make him a natural for the social media age, he has proved himself to be especially adept in the art of image politics. Trudeau’s appointment of a gender-balanced, ethnically-diverse and variously-abled cabinet was a pitch perfect way to usher in a new era, and as he noted in a press conference — Because it’s 2015! — this is long overdue. While the gesture marks the emergence of a Canada that better understands its strengths, Trudeau’s commitment to getting his optics right is part of a larger trend. Vocal disgust at the recent all-white Oscar nominations is another example of the deeply-felt demand that our image economies be truly representative of the world we live in. Optimistically, a cultural conversation that urges an Oscar boycott represents a form of people power (the filmmaker Steve McQueen commented, “I’m hoping in 12 months or so we can look back and say this was a watershed moment”), an actual point of leverage against entrenched interests, who remain perhaps only dimly aware of their irrelevance.

As Cultural Marxism became ensconced in the academy its ideas went on to become disseminated in guise of Political Correctness (PC), a form of cultural diversity sensitivity training that had vaguely totalitarian overtones. Much derided for its prescriptive nature, the basic ideas behind PC have been sufficiently diffused throughout the culture to now seem like common sense. In the best case scenario you get results like Trudeau’s “cabinet that looks like Canada.” As Trudeau said in the “Because its 2015” press conference that introduced his cabinet to the public, “Canadians elected extraordinary Members of Parliament from across the country and I am glad to be able to highlight a few of them in this cabinet here with me today.” He is not motivated by affirmative action so much as the outdated inertia of old boy networks and the like that resist the influx of women and minorities into their ranks.

If the persuasiveness today of Cultural Marxist ideas represents a kind of a superstructure critique, its advocates still lack the ability to meaningfully change issues like economic inequality, and this points to a larger problem. Rereading Anderson’s book (first read when I was a student, myself enamored of the world that beckoned through the portal of Cultural Studies) has made it clear to me how wide the historical divide now is between Marxist politics and the 21st century world. One major reason for this is the forty year long implementation of neoliberal thought. The economist Ha-Joon Chang notes that the neoclassical school of economics posits the discipline as a “science of choice,” one that favors the individual as the primary unit of economic action. Chang writes,

On this basis, many free-market economists have argued that there is an inseparable link between the freedom of individual consumers to choose and their broader political freedom.2

If Marx theorized the working class as exploited but nonetheless destined to inherit the earth, neoliberal economics eliminates class completely as a category of analysis. It is this ideological sleight-of-hand that is responsible for the changed set of circumstances under which huge swaths of the populace work as employees today, largely to their disadvantage. The theory of the 21st century employee class remains to be written.

1) Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, (London: Verso, 1976) 32.

2) Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide (London: Penguin Group, 2014) 175.

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