December 9th, 2009


The underclass wants to become the overman!

I've discovered a connection between two battles I find myself fighting on Click Opera: the battle against people who think I should pay more attention to the downside of Japan, and the battle against purveyors of a 1980s-style identity politics focused on victimhood.

The connection became clear to me when I answered this anonymous comment in the early hours of this morning:

Momus' perception of Japan seems to be skewed by the fact that his mates are all successful creatives or else trust-fund kids; I mean, how many Japanese does he know who've been hospitalised through overwork, for example? I can count four among my Tokyo friends just off the top of my head, unfortunately. That's a side of this country subject to wholesale sweeping-under-the-carpet on this blog, unfortunately.

Now, I could have answered this by saying that I know very few trust fund kids, somewhat shun the ones I do know, and would much rather have dinner -- as I did on Monday night -- with a group of recent immigrants to Japan from Malaysia, people who get up at 6 in the morning to scour the markets for food ingredients for the Malaysian restaurants they cook in. Or I could have answered that Hisae's family, with whom I'm staying here in Osaka, are mixed Japanese-Korean. Hisae's mother runs a small clothes store on an arcade, importing items from China and Korea. (Neither Hisae's mum nor the Malaysians, by the way, complain about overwork.)

Instead, I wrote a mini-manifesto, between the lines of which anyone attuned to these things can clearly read the ideas of Marx and Nietzsche:

The fundamental premise of this blog is that you get to the essence of a culture via its talents, not its problems. Ability, as Joseph Beuys put it, is the true human capital. Now, of course there's a place for examinations of the stumbling blocks a culture faces on the way to its achievements. But I think the Dogs and Demons approach -- examining Japan through its problems -- does not get to the heart of Japan's amazing achievements, and its massive success. Problems are distractions from the essence of something, someone, or some place, not a key to understanding it.

The useful thing about this statement is, I think, that it expresses -- in the words of Joseph Beuys -- the single most powerful idea of Marxism: that ability, not money, is the true human capital. But there's also a Nietzschean element in the thought, an emphasis on contention, striving and ambition. The underclass wants to become, if you will, the overman. Problems and distractions cannot bend it from a historic act of will: the fulfillment of (in Marxist terms) its historic destiny to enjoy the fruits of its labour, and take the ascendent position warranted by its productive abilities.

Now that's what I call a left wing position! That's the long march! That's the shining future that justifies present austerities and struggles! Unfortunately, I think a lot of power has been sapped from the radical tradition by what I'd call "problem narcissism": the tendency to make problems, obstacles, or deficiencies the key to identity, and a destination in themselves, rather than mere distractions from the goal of dominance-through-ability. The result is the PC identity politics landscape we all know so well, with its emphasis on victimhood, on symbolic reparation and tokenistic compensation, on "respect" based on the hiding of (unchallenged) stigma via policed language, and, worst of all, on the built-in presupposition (so damaging) that all difference is bad difference, and must therefore be suppressed and spun out of view.

Anon's critique raises the spectre of class war in its association of success with "trust fund kids and successful creatives", but it's a phoney class war. As Beuys and Marx (and Nietzsche, for that matter) agreed, creative ability is absolutely key to all human ability. For Beuys, "everyone is an artist". Anon wants to say that rich and privileged people are the only artists, and that normal people are basically victims, falling by the wayside.

Of course victimhood is an important part of Marx and Beuys' thinking: Beuys said "Show your wound!" and Marx covered the problems of 19th century workers in enormous detail. The important thing is that Marx didn't end with that suffering, victimhood and failure. Marxism is a praxis dedicated to putting those who work, those who create, those who control the ultimate human capital of ability, in the place they deserve: the place of power, will, success and determination. Marx would have been appalled by the "problem narcissism" of identity politics, which -- like a sick man proposing you identify him entirely with an illness which is nevertheless unmentionable -- proposes the gaining of respect for "identifying deficiencies" ("deficiencies" mapped spuriously to identities based on difference: being a woman, being black, being gay) as the ultimate goal of radical politics.

Just as Japan reportage which looks at perceived problems (themselves, all too often, seen through an ethnocentric lens focused on "bad differences") rather than its core creative abilities as a nation misses the essence of Japan -- the Japanese people's extraordinary will matched to their great abilities -- so 1980s-style identity politics defines identity as a series of shortcomings, sees them as "bad differences" from the norm, and demands respect for them in terms which merely underline its bad faith; the perception it shares with its enemies is that it perceives difference as deficiency. And so political struggle gets turned into a series of semantic negotiations in which supposedly-bad differences are spun, if not into good differences exactly, at least into a series of respectful silences, compensations, tips of the hat, correct terminology (according to an endlessly-turning treadmill powered by stigmas which are never, themselves, challenged, probably because the stigmas encode the victimhood so essential to the whole enterprise) and "appropriate language".

I fundamentally reject the idea that this is a progressive politics. As I've said, this negotiation simply encodes more subtly the prejudice it seeks to rebuff. Progressive politics, for me, has to go back to Marx's basic, positive, clear and forceful idea (it was William Morris's too) that ability is the true human capital. We have to stop associating creativity with privilege or class. All human beings are creative. That, rather than problems or victimhood, is what's at the core of an individual, a class, a nation, and the species itself.