FOR AS LONG as socialism constituted a genuine threat, red-baiting remained a constant feature of United States politics. With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, red-baiting eased-off. Global capitalism was in a triumphant mood and its celebrants looked upon those who still espoused the socialist cause with a mixture of condescension and pity. In their eyes, at least, the socialists had missed history’s bus. The traditional Left had been left behind.
Taking the place of the old-fashioned, Soviet-style Marxist-Leninists in triumphalist capitalism’s new line-up of people to hate were the so-called “Cultural Marxists”. Their mission was said to be nothing less that the complete undermining of Western Society: its values; its traditions; its institutions.
Exactly why the cultural Marxists would want to do this was never made entirely clear. The traditional Marxists had sought to replace the exploitation and individualism of capitalist society with the co-operation and collectivism of socialism. Highly contentious though this goal may have been, it was also reassuringly rational. Cultural Marxism, on the other hand, was presented as being wholly negative. What the cultural Marxists appeared to want was the utter destruction of the system which had defeated “actually existing socialism” in 1991. It was a nihilistic quest for political vengeance – nothing more.
What the triumphalist capitalists failed to grasp was that the new philosophy they mis-named Cultural Marxism was in fact the ferocious enemy of all grand ideological narratives – especially Marxism. Post-modernism, far from being the enemy of the free market, was its principal protector. In a famous essay, published in 1984, the American literary critic and political theorist, Fredric Jameson, described post-modernism as “the cultural logic of late-capitalism”.
Fittingly, it was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, who best described capitalism’s terrifying capacity for cultural corrosion:
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Post-modernism provides the sort of philosophical architecture in which a ruling-class determined to strip society of its most cherished assumptions can find refuge. The triumph of global corporate culture has, however, left maladaptive conservative intellectuals stranded. To them, the world feels as though it is under attack from their worst (i.e. Marxist) enemies. The conservative mind, which clings so tenaciously to “ancient and venerable prejudices”, simply cannot accept that it is capitalism itself which is dictating the dissolution of moral certainty and the indiscriminate mixing of the present with the past. Post-modernism is the surest means of keeping “late-capitalism’s” opponents – the Right as well as the Left – off balance. People cannot walk on air.
People can, however, “face with sober senses” the “real conditions of life” and the real relationships within which they are enmeshed. And it is precisely at such moments: when culturally and politically people are freed from the myths that have constrained their lives; when the post-modernist Wizard of Oz is exposed for the charlatan he is; when reality shatters the screens onto which late-capitalism’s unrealities have been projected; that the politically impossible happens and a candidate espousing “democratic socialism” defeats the candidate of the Democratic Party machine.
What lies beyond the cultural logic of late-capitalism? The political logic of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Red-baiting is about to get a new lease on life.