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Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right Turning Sense into Nonsense and Nonsense into Sense i : Critical Theory to Refuse the Fallacy of Populism

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"Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right" Turning Sense into Nonsense and Nonsense into Sense i : Critical Theory to Refuse the Fallacy of Populism
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  1 "Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right" Eighth Biennial Conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society October 10-13, 2019, University of California, Santa Barbara Turning Sense into Nonsense and Nonsense into Sense i : Critical Theory to Refuse the Fallacy of Populism The past five years have seen a belated - and thoroughly contrived - backlash to the Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism, which first began more than a decade ago. In the US Donald Trump becoming president and Brexit in the UK have consumed the energies of much of the electorates of both countries in what is a fatally flawed channelling of those energies, and it is one of the contentions of this paper, in large part a displacement of class anger and consciousness. In Continental Europe, and indeed South America the far-right further confirms Walter Benjamin’s   maxim “ Behind every fascism there is a failed revolution" ii  to use discontent as a means to power, being in government in at least three countries. In the US, and UK to a lesser extent the ‘alt - right’ assumes an undue radicalism in shocking liberal consens us and ‘saying the unsayable’, this being of course what is itself merely ultra-conservatism. Critical Theory and Marxism - unlike populism - of course “make no promises” and do not pretend to offer easy answers to what are complex problems, but their inveterate negativity toward the existent and the false promises of populism the paper argues, can help find ways toward the radical alternatives: a reasoned critique fuelled also by cerebral anger, that is, anger  proceeded by thought   and underwritten by compassion empathy and  emancipation the expression of the means and ends of its theory and practice and  praxis . Make Believe Narratives of ‘Us and Them’: Authoritarian Populism’s Efforts to Mystify through an external ‘Other’ Both Donald Trump’s  White House and indeed its cynically confected lowest-common-denominator populism and the ongoing lumpen and inchoate populism of Brexit can be seen as perhaps the two paradigm examples of the rise of right-wing and reactionary populist narratives that have emerged in the second half of this decade.  2 These two stand out examples are of course from the US and UK, but a brief survey of other examples illustrative of the title of this conference and the contentions of this paper: Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right also provide further substantive evidence. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s - democratically elected - far-right regime and its rehabilitation of the military juntas of 1961-85 no less than its deforestation policies of slash ‘n’ burn laying waste to the Amazon, to Recep Erdoğan’s   ‘democratic Islamism’ in Turkey also coming to power through representative and secular democracy, a political form incompatible like Bols onaro’s with its authoritarian ideology it is nonetheless prepared to make use of, these are dark times for the emancipation of humanity. Elsewhere, Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism in India has cynically tapped into religious and sectarian feeling by making use of the country’s secular political system; something its own ultra -conservative and authoritarian ideology does not accept as necessary or desirable. Meanwhile in Asia Pacific in The Philippines Rodrigo Duterte practices a version of authoritarianism embodied in extra-judicial killings to target an internal ‘other’, whilst nationalism takes care of foreign policy. Heading back to Europe from South East Asia, we can go through Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s   caricature of ‘democracy’  is at once cynical of such ‘Western’ notions but finds the cosmetic of elections it always wins better for the projection an image of itself than ‘outright’ dictatorship. In Hungary Viktor Orbán ’s ‘national conservative’ government upholds its own version of traditionalism and nationalism having made use of the electoral channels it dismisses as it advocates “illiberal democracy” iii . Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Polish President Andrzej Duda ’s Law and Justice Party displays neither in its right-wing national conservatism to airbrush the country’s culpability in the Holocaust by retrospective ‘interpretations’ of history that fit its reactionary and ultra-conservative narrative. Into Western Europe , Italy’s populist ‘Conte I Cabinet’ coalition between the ‘post - political’ Five Star Movement and the right-wing Lega, Forza Italia and far-right Fratelli d'Italia put the far-right in coalition government in a ‘mature’ democracy. This survey of ten countries from South America, where Europe meets the Middle East, Southern Asia, back into Europe through the Continent of Russia and into Western Europe sets out the global nature of populism. Global regions with ‘local characteristics’ and   ‘local’ problems, but linked by the same reactionary and populist backlash. The radical right and the srcins of its populist surge can be traced to the Great Recession a decade ago, and in Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK we do indeed have paradigmatic examples. In Trump’s America as for the UK bitterly divided by Brexit an external ‘Other’ is found and used to displace (class) anger and mystify any burgeoning consciousness towards the social and political forces responsible for societal problems and the experience of them by many in the general population. In the US, the effects of 40 years of Neoliberalism: de-industrialization, off shoring, structural unemployment, and precarious underemployment are all framed as the fault of ‘liberal elites’ and worse, minorities. In the Brexit-divided UK, right-  3 wing and reactionary voices sing a siren song to a disgruntled and ‘forgotten’ section of the electorate of the EU and the UK’s membership of it being responsible for all its problems, Brexit now having become a catchall for anything and everything completely unrelated to it. In both examples, much is made of ideological obfuscation and mystification in holding the attention and credulity of - enough - of the majority: disingenuous and fallacious claims designed to be eye-grabbing and to play on the hopes and fears of those who are vulnerable to ‘simple answers’ to what are complex problems. Trump makes cynical use of lowest-common-denominator populism to hoodwink a swing demographic who may have voted for him in 2016 or may do so for the first time in 2020, as well as providing straightforward confirmation bias for his supporters iv . This has distinct similarities with Brexit and the extreme right-wing figures seeking to push for ‘No Deal’ in which the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement in place at all - with all of the cataclysmic effects that this would have. For Critical Theory and for a Marcusean Critical Theory especially, there is what was defined in One-Dimensional Man   “ In the equation Reason = Truth = Reality, which joins the subjective and objective world into one antagonistic unity, Reason is the subversive power, the “power of the negative” that establishes, as theoretical and practical Reason, the truth for men and things  –  that is, the conditions in which men and things become what they really are. The attempt to demonstrate that this truth of theory and practice is not a subjective but an objective condition was the srcinal concern of Western thought and the srcin of its logic  –  logic not in the sense of a special discipline of philosophy but as the mode of thought appropriate for comprehending the real as rational. ” v    Against ‘fake news’ and evidence -free assertions without any basis in fact propagandized ceaselessly online and on social media, we have the resolution of thought committed to the critique of this nonsensical account of the world which has been made and which is developed and continued by social forces determined to uphold and maintain this system and society. A social system and form of society of domination, exploitation and repression, and indeed oppression and which it also claims to be otherwise whilst diverting and distracting discontent with the concomitant social problems it creates yet brands as the fault of those who did not cause them   but who are nonetheless targeted as being responsible.   Reasoned Passion/Impassioned Reason: the Substance of The Great Refusal Taking this standpoint of Marcuse’s thought as a basis for critique of the One-Dimensional Society of 2019 and its false explanations for its state of crisis, the forces of opposition and resistance can take considerable succour from Marcuse’s Critical Theory. There is a rational critique based on Reason, argumentation and logic, but this is also infused by passion and emotion and the insistence of total  4 social change felt as a consuming need  . This reasoned passion and impassioned reason defines itself in terms of negativity  , toward the existent the given, and all that is seen as ‘natural, inevitable and immutable’  - the disingenuous claims made by populism being wholly about attempting to shore up the One-Dimensional Society of which it is a product, even as it claims to be its social reckoning. Populist narratives pretend to be ‘from below’ although they are very much ‘from above’ being the work of elites and vested interests. The populist backlash of the second half of this decade makes cynical instrumental use of social problems and displaces class anger onto the Other it arbitrarily defines as being less worthy and less deserving of help or even recognition than those who it tells are the ‘rightful’ inheritors of w hat they mistakenly believe they have ‘lost’.  However a Marcusean Critical Theory in bold contradistinction is coldly logical and bases its critique on reasoned argumentation and radical political practice, but also feeling and none more so than cerebral anger, that is as this paper has endeavoured to show, anger  preceded by thought   underwritten by compassion and empathy. This version of Frankfurt School-infused Critical Theory like that of Marx has emancipation as its expression of the means and ends of its theory and practice and  praxis,  and   understands humanity itself as the subject of this project not  just one section of it divided against it as being unlike it and external to it. From Black Lives Matter - a ‘particular’ concern which also contains the ‘universal’ demand for recognition and emancipation - to the youth-led Climate Justice movement and school children organizing school strikes globally to strike for the future understanding that we have to act now to even have a future, there are  prospects for radically progressive social change and contestation of crisis-ridden Neoliberalism and the fallacies of the populist backlash. However, as Marcuse himself noted in the closing paragraph of One-Dimensional Man   “ Nothing indicates that it will be a good end. But the chance is that, in this period, the historical extremes may meet again: the most advanced consciousness of humanity, and its most exploited force. It is nothing but a chance. The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal. ” vi   i  Marcuse, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Industrial Society   (Boston: Beacon Press) p.248 ii  Benjamin, W. (1930) Theories of German Fascism: On the Collection of Essays War and Warrior, Edited by Ernst Jünger   in   New German Critique No. 17, Special Walter Benjamin Issue (Spring, 1979), pp. 120-128   iii  Zakaria, F. (1997) The Rise of Illiberal Democracy   in F oreign Affairs , November/December 1997 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1997-11-01/rise-illiberal-democracy  iv   ‘Garland, C. (2018) ‘It needn’t be true as long as it’s believable: manipulating data to strategize propaganda in the era of ‘alternative facts’ in Discover Society, DS55  https://discoversociety.org/2018/04/03/it-neednt-be-true-as-long-as-its-believable-manipulating-data-to-strategize-propaganda-in-the-era-of-alternative-facts/  v  Marcuse ODM Part 2  –  One-Dimensional Thought 5  –  Negative Thinking: The Defeated Logic of Protest   p.123   vi  Marcuse ODM p.257
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