“Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall…”
The above is a line in Alexander Pope’s poem Dunciad (the title is an obvious spin on the word ‘dunce’). The ‘Anarch’ it mentions is Goddess Dulness (sic.). She is pulling down the curtain of ignorance, vulgarity and stupidity upon the Kingdom of Great Britain. Assisting her are her cronies and agents who have infiltrated the Kingdom.
It has been close to three-hundred years since the Dunciad was composed – it appeared in print in 1728. Goddess Dulness, however, seems to be still at work, not just in her home Kingdom but in multiple locations. Only she has assumed a new appearance – that of the ‘cultural Marxist’. Her accomplices today are the myriad ‘victims’ populating our political and social environs. They suffer from and induce people into a stupidity that is not placid but prone to fits of violent garrulity. This stupidity is sheer disruptive anarchy – one cannot reason with it for it rejects all reason as ‘oppressive’. It believes in nothing, wants to build nothing. This stupidity derives the most joy from dismantling societies and cultures. It seeks only to destroy faiths and traditions, for they are always ‘oppressive’. This dangerous, all too prevalent these days, stupidity subserves the Anarch’s hand. It valorizes destruction and persuades people to fly the flag of ignorant and faithless vulgarity upon the ruins of their own societies and cultures.
Too Many Victims
‘Too many notes’ is the remark that the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II is said to have made after watching an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Abduction from the Seraglio (that is what is shown in the Hollywood production Amadeus). Similarly, I believe, it will not be too inaccurate to suggest that our own age is increasingly looking like a vaudeville staged by ‘too many victims’ – the agents of Goddess Dulness. Everyone seems to be accusing everyone else of being an oppressor and claiming the tiara of the ‘victimhood’. By this I do not quite mean that all this victimhood has an objective or empirical existence. Most of it does not. What I mean is that we inhabit a time when newer victims and forms of victimhood are discovered by ‘activists’ and the ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ academia. This trend has been afoot in the west for many decades now. It all started in the 1960s with the emergence of the ‘New Left’ movement. It began, as Dr. Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at the Columbia University, writes in an article titled ‘The Liberal Crackup’ (published some time ago by the Wall Street Journal on its website), by raising the slogan ‘the personal is political’. The implication of this cry was that an individual’s political life is an extension of his/her preferred identity (race, gender, sexual preference). According to Dr. Lilla, this new politics was about seeking recognition for one’s ‘self-definition’. This attitude carried the potential of infinitely fragmenting politics. It did eventually happen when the ‘New Left’ lost its coherence in the 1970s amid an eruption of ‘victimhood’. As Dr. Lilla points out, this occurred as identity was set against identity. The male white leaders of the movement were accused by their black comrades of racism, the women accused all of them of sexism. And, finally, the lesbian women accused all heterosexuals, both men and women, black and white, of homophobia. Simply put, everyone claimed the coveted crown of ‘victimhood’ and branded everyone else an ‘oppressor’.
Soon, the malady, the seeking of ‘victimhood’ and the habit of pitting identity against identity, was contracted by many non-western academic elites. By the 1980s, for example, the savants at our own Jawaharlal Nehru University and Center for Studies in Social Sciences (located in Kolkata) were in complete grip of it. They did not care that they were inexorably fragmenting their own society and culture (even to the point of destruction). Instead, they acted, and still act, as though this is an awfully progressive and radical thing to do. They too are the agents of Goddess Dulness and the local franchisees of the global ‘victimhood industry’. They are impervious to reason, but, still, they must use some ideas as their tools. What are they and what is their source?
The Root of it All: Cultural Marxism
How does the victimhood industry work? Well, it employs this theoretical contrivance called ‘deconstruction’. It is a process wherein the wise and ‘noble intentioned’ ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’ folks diligently at work in the elite western universities (the Ivy League and ‘Oxbridge’ circuits) reduce (‘deconstruct’) a culture or society to what they perceive to be its ideological underpinnings, ‘patriarchy’, ‘Brahmanism’ or ‘normalization of heterosexuality’, and ostensibly demonstrate how those might be aiding the oppression of particular groups of people – women, Dalits and homosexuals. Thus, they create or ‘discover’ countless oppressor-oppressed binaries and, consequently, ‘victims’. Often, this ‘activist’ scholarship is called ‘cultural Marxism’ by those who dislike it. I am one such person. It also bears non-condemnatory sobriquets like ‘critical theory’ and ‘cultural studies’.
The origins of this tendency of ‘deconstructing’ cultures can be traced back to the efforts of certain learned gentlemen at the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt, Germany – Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermass. It is their scholarship which to a major extent laid the foundations of what we today know as ‘critical theory’ or ‘cultural Marxism’. What exactly is it? Its starting point was idealistic. It began in the 1930s by seeking a holistic understanding of contemporary western society in order to create progressive social and political conditions within it. As it evolved and grew in abstruse complexity, it also sought to uncover, explain and critique the dominant assumptions (cultural and ideological) that form the bases of western social formations and cultural production (the arts, literature and language use), the relations of power embedded therein and how they might be subserving the furtherance of the hegemony of capitalism.
Despite its origins in the west, ‘critical theory’ is today predominantly applied to discover ever newer victims and contexts of victimhood in the non-western societies, though enough asymmetries of race and class exist in the developed western countries like the USA and UK. A non-western society such as India is a particular favorite with the ‘deconstructionists’. This is since a lot of Indian scholars and academics actively collude with them – I have already mentioned the folks at JNU and CSSS. Further, as Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Nilekandan point out in their book Breaking India. Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, many Indian scholars who are in the employ of the western universities are actively engaged in ‘deconstructing’ their country abroad.
Exactly how do they go about this task? At the risk of sounding somewhat frivolous, let me illustrate this hypothetical situation. Let us imagine that you go to watch this Bharatanatyam performance, but, being illiterate in the mudras of this noble dance form, you could not make any sense of it. Congratulations! You are a victim in the eyes of the ‘deconstructionist’ and the ‘cultural Marxist’. The dancer, and all those who understood and appreciated her dance, just made a demonstration of their ‘cultural power’ and reduced you to ‘victimhood’. You have been culturally marginalized. By the way, are you a Dalit or even an upper caste non-Brahman? In that case you have also been a victim of the power asymmetries inherent in the institution of caste. Your victimhood is compounded. How is that? Well, the grammar of Bharatanatyam is derived from the Natya Shastra composed by Bharata Muni, who was probably a Brahman – the ideological underpinning of Bharatanatyam is ‘Brahmanism’. Are you a non-Hindu? In that case you are even more of a victim, for Bharatanatyam is a dance form that generally narrates episodes from Hindu mythology. By not comprehending the dance performance, you have just made the experience of having been religiously ‘othered’. Are you a woman? Bravo, then you are a victim indeed! May be, the performance did not make sense to you because the dancer was depicting the viraha of Shri Radha – clearly the dance form is underpinned by ‘patriarchy’, since it might show a woman craving the love of Krishna, a male deity. After all, in the radical feminist world view, a derivative of ‘cultural Marxism’, a woman needs a man (and, we can say by extension, a male deity) as much as a ‘fish needs a bicycle’. Finally, are you a homosexual (does not matter whether male or female)? In that case you are very definitely a victim. This is since the dancer, by depicting the viraha of Shri Radha, ‘normalized heterosexuality’. She acted as though the only ‘correct’ love is what emerges between a woman and a man (or a male deity).
This is how easily victims can multiply in the ‘cultural Marxist’ framework. That is why, these days there is no end to the discovery of fresher victims and the endless atomization of victimhood in our country. Victims and the contexts of victimhood keep on getting more and more specific. But why this ‘cultural Marxist’ obsession with fragmenting the types and sites of victimhood in the non-western societies? Let me try and offer an explanation.
The scholarly gentlemen at Frankfurt were under the impression that they were doing a critique of the capitalist forms of social formation and cultural production. But subjective impressions and objective realities often differ. Along the way, their critique became a tool in the hands of capital and its epistemic output – the intellectual efforts of the ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ academics inhabiting the elite western universities. I must point out here that the ‘New Left’ originated in the elite western campuses. Who funds them? Who fills the coffers of the Ivy League institutions? It is mostly American big business, isn’t it? Why is money provided by western big business majorly diverted to funding ‘critical theory’ type research and the discovery of newer and ever newer victims? More importantly, why is such research today predominantly directed upon the non-western, third world societies? Anyone who has been to the west, say, for example, the UK, knows that beggars and the homeless are almost as common in a British town as in an Indian one. The miserable lot of the Native Americans in the USA and Canada and the aboriginals in Australia is common knowledge too. Why is western academia then not concerned with the victims in its own backyard?
My explanation is that this is because the western academic ‘critical gaze’ (derived from ‘critical theory’) is now an unwitting ally of western capital (it is after all funded by it). Among the Indian academics, on the other hand, it has found willing and conscious allies because they crave the prestige that comes from association with the ‘metropolis’ of knowledge production – the western academia. They have, thus, allowed themselves to be recruited by western capital through their western colleagues. (A pity since those based in India do not even receive a commensurate pay for the service they render.) What interest might western capital have in funding and nurturing the ‘critical gaze’ focused upon the non-western societies and assist the proliferation of ‘victims’ within them? To me the answer is obvious – this is a good means of destroying the cultural coherence of the non-western societies or, at least, disrupting it. I have tried to demonstrate how it could be (and is) done with the Bharatanatyam example. Imagine this project being successful and all of us Indians ceasing to look upon ourselves as a culture or civilization. Imagine us becoming instead a billion and a quarter strong mob of ‘victims’ without ethical moorings and ashamed of our heritage. If this indeed happens, our cultural and civilizational coherence will die and our values and norms will die too. Perhaps, we will then gladly consume the McDonalds’ beef burgers and this giant global corporation will be spared the trouble of adapting itself to the Indian market by offering vegetarian ‘tikka’ burgers. Today, ‘cultural Marxism’ or ‘critical theory’ is but a historical stage in the development of capital and a means to disrupt non-western societies like ours. It is Goddess Dulness at work.
The Unholy Apprenticeship: The Marginal Left at the Service of ‘Cultural Marxism’
A further disruptive development is that ‘critical theorists’ or ‘cultural Marxists’, despite being visibly unlike the traditional Marxists, have formed an alliance with them. Their tendencies, thus, now threaten to creep into mainstream politics. Traditional Marxists were accustomed to only one circumstance of victimhood – the relationship between the owners of capital and the proletariat or the industrial labor. This circumstance, as they understood, had a concrete basis in the capitalist relations of productions which disempowered the working class and reduced them to the proletarian status, one in which they could survive only by selling their labor. In other words, traditional Marxists traced their victims in the obvious relations of production that could be surveyed on a factory floor and not in ‘ideological underpinnings’ such as ‘patriarchy’ or ‘Brahmanism.’ However, these days we see that it very enthusiastically endorses the ‘victimhood industry’. As the British journalist and commentator David Goodhart says, currently “socio-cultural politics increasingly trumps socio-economic politics” on the Left. This is why we witness this curious alliance between the ‘cultural Marxist’ academia, the political Left and Islamists in India. One may visit the JNU campus to check the validity of this observation of mine (I did my PhD there). The tumult that unfolded in that esteemed university in February last year was orchestrated by this ‘tripartite alliance.’ The political Left’s embracing of radical Islamists is significantly due to the reason that they have been identified by the ‘cultural Marxists’ as ‘victims’ of an Indian state whose premise is ‘Brahmanical Hinduism’. This is also why our left-leaning liberals’ hearts well with compassion for a character like Burhan Wani and they fail to feel any joy when the Supreme Court declares ‘triple talaq’ unconstitutional.
But now, the question emerges, why has the Indian political Left put itself at the service of the cultural Marxists? After all, it ought to be speaking the language of traditional Marxism. What prompted the Left to commit this farcical suicide? It is, I suggest, its marginality. In a caustic essay (‘Where Do Postmodernists Come From?’), the British literary theorist Terry Eagleton argues that the ‘post-modern radicals’ (close allies of the ‘critical theorists’ and ‘cultural Marxists’) of the western societies are actually the marginal and defeated erstwhile Leftists. Their embrace of ‘post-modernism’, according to him, is a desperate outcome of their political marginality. It is the same with the Indian political Left. Its embrace of the ‘cultural Marxists’ and, through them, of the Islamists, is a desperate outcome of its marginality and irrelevance. The Indian leftists too, along with all the ‘victims’, are dunces at the service of Goddess Dulness.
Eagleton, Terry, ‘Where Do Postmodernists Come From’ in Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (Eds.) In Defense of History. Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda, Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2006.
Goodhart, David, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Hurst & Company, London, 2017.
Lilla, Mark, ‘The Liberal Crackup’ – https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-liberal-crackup-1502456857?mod=cx_life&cx_navSource=cx_life&cx_tag=poptarget&cx_artPos=1#cxrecs_s
Feature Image: OpIndia.com
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
The author is Assistant Professor of History at O P Jindal Global University