Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stylistic Reaganism and Right Wing Existentialism

A little while ago a good friend of mine who happens to be of a Marxist disposition, though not of the vulgar sort, introduced me to the hilarity that is Ronald Reagan's cult of personality. Now there is much that can be made about Reagan and the rise of Neoconservatism but that is not what I want to discuss. Rather his cult of personality is the origin for the Bolshevikesque rallying around of Party and Executive Branch that now characterizes Republicans and mainstream conservatives. This phenomenon, of course, is wholly unpolitical and is of the same nature as doing what your boss tells you to do because (s)he is your boss and not because you trust him or her to direct things in a positive fashion. It is the simplistic worship of the external which is so characteristic of modern life and is to be found on the Right with the belief in submitting to authority because it exists as such and on the Left with the preoccupation with Otherness simply because it is not the established norm.

But before the Reagan cult of personality became a rite of passage for GOP card carriers it was a symbol for the 1980s zeitgeist of egoism, easy money and consumer excess. In it's original form it was even more divorced from politics and celebrated the beneficial outcomes of neoliberalism for individuals rather than the actual policies. While it ostensibly championed free market capitalism in it's purest form, the emerging neoliberalism was really cutting against certain New Deal leftovers from the relatively more subdued social capitalism of the High Modernist era which ended with the Carter presidency. Nevertheless, the cooperation between private enterprise and the military would surely remain intact as Reagan favored increased military spending. But, again, this stylistic Reaganism, as I call it, was not so much concerned with the actual politics and marks the changing economic structure from High Modernist to Late Modernist and the attitudes which accompanied it.

The HM era was essentially a middle class utopia. The emerging jobs which most people could attain were middle level managerial and clerical jobs. While higher education became affordable for more people, a high school diploma still allowed many to get jobs in industries where they could rise up to managerial positions and make a decent salary. The accompanying values where thus of conforming to the norm and what we might cynically and correctly note to be mediocrity and babbittry. Nevertheless, this was the egalitarianism which the High Modernist era afforded. While the social conformity was attacked by the New Left from 1968 and on, the aesthetic Reaganites of the 1980s would finish off the midlevel complacency with a new standard of excellence.

These were young people who had grown up in mostly middle class homes with parents who enjoyed the benefits of the High Modernist era. They saw that the essentials of petit bourgeois existence were fairly easy to come by but that it lead to a boring, predictable life: put up with the workaday drudgery now and be rewarded later with retirement somewhere sunny. These upstarts wanted the best of the world now and new jobs in the financial sector offered them this. Here we see a higher level of education being sought, from MBA's to CFA's, but not for the purpose of gaining a greater knowledge of the world but rather for financial gain which would lead to the accumulation of expensive commodities which would be the determinant of status. This status, it should be noted, was wholly ethereal and malleable, changing with the trends of the zeitgeist. It also went beyond the traditional modes of wealth and power to include coolness, something previously associated with countercultural elements like the Beats or Hippies who were avoiding the very life these new upstarts were striving for.

The reason for this is simple. As is explained here, the New Left was victorious on the social front and this has remained their legacy ever since the 1960s, while the [American] New Right was victorious on the economic front with the replacement of the social capitalism of the HM era with the cutthroat policies of neoliberalism. The beginnings of the Late Modern era saw a synthesis between these two groups. Hence the stylistic Reaganites, now commonly called yuppies, often favored libertine activities such as recreational drug usage, especially cocaine, while the Reagan administration waged the War on Drugs. Many were also sexually promiscuous, enjoying the benefits of the Sexual Revolution, and among this new breed of moneyed, urban financial workers homosexuals were well represented. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration pursued social conservatism.

Another shift in consciousness which occurred between the HM era and the Late Modern one was the emergence of a vulgar, rightist existentialism which took many forms. The most mainstream version of this existentialism was expressed by Margret Thatcher when she famously stated, "And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." The stylistic Reaganites took these words to heart and found that the best way to counter this lonely atomized outlook was to become highly successful within the capitalist system achieving wealth, power and coolness. This strive for excellence was set strictly within the limits of materialism, like most postwar existentialism. But unlike the existentialism of the Left, be it either Fanon's racial Otherness or de Beauvoir's feminized Englesism, this new, nominally Right existentialism was strikingly asocial and even antisocial. The Left believed that alienation, be it of a class-based, racial or gender-based variety, could be solved by a new humanist society. I would term this a social existentialism as it is not rooted in religion as, for instance, Kierkegaard's theories were but believed that social and political acts could solve said alienation. The institutionalization of the New Left has lead to the establishment of the Therapeutic State.

The Therapeutic State marks the point where the New Left went from being a revolutionary force (even though this was always in name only) to a cultural addendum of the new liberal establishment. Hence, the New Left abandoned the theory that a new society was needed to solve the alienation of women and ethnic minorities. Instead, government-funded outreach in the form of affirmative action, cultural studies programs in higher education, and sensitivity training in the private sector became the solution. This inability to distinguish between organic community and an atomized society is part of what Thatcher was attacking in her famous quote. Nevertheless, Thatcher also denies that organic community even exists. Rather there are only individuals and families and no social units or bonds larger than those. Instead, these individuals are responsible for their own lot and cannot nor should not rely on society at large to help solve their problems, be they social, financial or existential. Participation in the marketplace was the one commonality which these otherwise isolated individuals and families shared. The market was also the place where the isolation of existence could be overcome, namely through the wealth, power and coolness which the stylistic Reaganites aimed to achieve.

There is another form of this materialist, rightist existentialism which actually predates the Reagan/Thatcher era though it shares the same outlook. This existentialism was relatively more populist in character and was rooted in a reaction to social changes brought about by the New Left. This mood is best exemplified by the vigilante films Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Taxi Driver. All feature lone individuals dealing with societal decay. In these movies there is never an appeal for some form of collective solution, rather the individuals in question must deal with rampant crime themselves and, true to the vigilante tradition, won't even elicit the aid of the police. There is also an implicit lack of transcendent values in these films. In Dirty Harry, it is the broad appeal for the preservation of law and order which is the justification for the extrajudicial killings committed by Harry Callahan. In Death Wish it is the desire to protect one's family that serves as the basis for vigilante justice. Taxi Driver features the protection of innocence against sexual perversion and exploitation as its underlying theme. In all three there is an appeal to base conservative values: law and order, family loyalty and feminine purity, but the notion of society being nothing more than a loose association of isolated individuals and families brought together only through economic transactions (i.e. jobs, purchases) remains intact. While these movies do not glorify consumerism and upward mobility, in part because they predate the Reagan years where this became a greater part of the zeitgeist, they certainly do not oppose it or in any way imply that this materialism could lead to existential despair.

A third form of rightist existentialism appears during the Reagan years and to an extent is a combination of the two previously mentioned. This form, while not putting forth a transcendental solution to the materialist despair of capitalism, at least recognizes that capitalism, specifically Reaganite neoliberalism, does lead individuals towards an existential crisis. The best example of this would be American Psycho by yuppie author extraordinaire Brett Easton Ellis. The novel tells the tale of Patrick Bateman, an investment banker, who commits horrific murders in his spare time. Ellis includes scenes of graphic violence alongside the mundane activities of modern life as if to give the impression that for Bateman there is no difference. The end of the novel leads the reader to question whether the murders even happened and thusly the objective nature of reality itself. Instead, Bateman's isolation and lack of connectedness to the world around him outside of the superficial banalities of yuppie living becomes the focus.

The relationship between homicide and atomized individualism is not new, however. Ayn Rand, mother of vulgar libertarianism, was duly impressed with William Edward Hickman, a psychopath who killed and dismembered a 12 year old girl, because he reportedly told police, "I am like the state- what is good for me is right." Rand found this to be the most genuine expression of Man's psychology to date. It has been speculated that Hickman committed the murder simply to gain notoriety and fame. The murder is strikingly similar to the Leopold and Loeb case (possible origin of the homosexual thrill killing theory of criminology) where two bright young men from wealthy families murdered a young boy simply to see if they could get away with it. The case was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's excellent film Rope. In Rope, one half of the murderous duo spouts a crude Nietzschean philosophy in order to impress his professor. It is also implied that this materialist interpretation of ol' Fred is the basis for which they justified committing murder.

Of course, these are extreme examples and for most part people stricken with this modern disease do not go out and commit murder. The point, however, is that this lack of transcendent principles leads to despair and the dread of modern life becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. That certain deranged individuals would go so far as to commit murder just shows what sort of 'alternatives' become available when the cohesiveness of metaphysical values are abandoned. As Julius Evola notes in Ride the Tiger:

Transcendence, like freedom, ought to furnish existence with a foundation of calm and incomparable security, with a purity, a wholeness, and an absolute decisiveness in action. Instead, it feeds all the emotional complexes of the man in crisis: angst, nausea, disquiet, finding his own being problematical, the feeling of an obscure guilt or fall, deracination, a feeling of the absurd and irrational, an unadmitted solitude (though some, like Marcel, fully admit it), an invocation of the "incarnate spirit," the weight of an incomprehensible responsibility- incomprehensible, because he cannot resort to overtly religious (and hence coherent) positions like those of Kierkegaard or Barth, where angst refers to the sentiment of the soul that is alone, fallen, and abandoned to itself in the presence of God. In all of this, feelings appear like those that Nietzsche warned about in the case of a man who has made himself free without having the necessary stature: feelings that kill and shatter a man- modern man- if he is incapable of killing them.

1 comment:

rmangum said...

A fascinating post, giving me much food for thought. I have to say that I've always been attracted to both the individualism of the libertarian old right as well as the social views of the New Left, however I am aware that it can take a rather vulgar form in the Yuppie (or the "pot-smoking Republican" as many libertarians are called nowadays), and do feel that it needs to be supplemented with some positive values (hopefully form art and science rather than religion).

I also agree to an extent with the view that "there is no such thing as society". This is not so much existentialism (although I was an avid reader of Sartre and Nietzsche in my High School years) as methodological individualism, which states that only individuals think, act, choose, feel, etc. The social whole has long been a convenient excuse to strip the individual of all rights. But this view need not mean that individuals can or should not take values from anything larger than themselves, or that society is some kind of Hobbesian thunderdome.

Your discussion of the films from the seventies is very interesting. I've long thought that looking at films, particularly popular films, is one of the best ways to apprehend a cultural zeitgeist. "Taxi Driver", you know, was inspired in part by the John Ford/John Wayne Western "The Searchers", and so taps into an American mythos. It is both a critique and more sophisticated version of the other films you mention.

Also the discussion of serial murder. Of course murder is the apotheosis of the anti-social mind-set, and a fascination with it has a long history both in existentialism and romanticism, the latter claiming that the individual is ineluctably alone and the former seeking the ultimate liberation of the individual from social constraints. One could bring up, vis-a-vis the "atomized" society, as well the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, who always said that he cannibalized his victims in order to keep them with him always, and a shrewd social critic might well find in his career the grisly reductio ad absurdum of "consumerism". But then the U.S.S.R boasted one of the most prolific murderers of the modern age in Andrei Chikatilo, who was able to kill for decades due to an inept and lying bureaucratic police force.