Tables, Ladders and Chairs: Telos, Artificial Negativity and The Big Society (1 of 2)

the late 60s and early 70s saw a series of annual occasions known as Telos conferences, some of which might be thought of as philosophical harbingers of the more recent and far more popular phenomenon known as ‘Wrestlemania’.

This little quotation, as I try and wrap up my reflections on communitarianism, not only made me chuckle, but recalled a number of the debates I have been involved in both online and offline. The well know Telos attitude seems built for our blog age. Inspired by Telos’ founder and guiding spirit Paul Piccone it is a combination of no-bullshit snark, polemical rudeness and occasional shamanic swearing alongside the deployment of sweeping generalisation and only semi-coherent theoretical categories to fence in intellectual opponents for quick dismissal. It is an attitude often coupled in a messy, contradictory, double movement which claims your opponents lack subtly and historical nuance while utilising your own ideal types to slap them about.

This is a move set one can have a grudging distant respect for in a blog like this, supposedly known for people fearing to even leave a comment. But it is a kind of flattening blow resplendent with trash-talking attitude that is like a four leg lock followed by a number of heel whoops. Its a totally Rick Flair (left): it might whip the crowd up, but on close examination, one can see that it is fairly thin and doesn’t even contain a modicum of skill or athleticism. Under real scrutiny, one cannot suspend disbelief that it realistically wins matches even when it topples better opponents. Perhaps then, when the move is done, we shouldn’t be inclined to sell it quite so much. Like with any heel, we might be able to respect some of its theatre, but eventually it becomes predictable and thin and allows the whole game to be dismissed as trivially fake. Our best move is then to break keyfabe and like some form of masked wrestler teaching the tricks of the trade, deconstruct the moves themselves in the hope of defeating the tropes as a whole. They will doubtless continue, but the fans will demand better and believe in it less. It would be transparent.

(At this point a guide to wrestling terminology might be useful. Obviously people have written for Telos (including people who write for this blog) who do not subscribe to their general theoretical orientation. Yet that the journal had a particular agenda and orientation mostly surround Piccone and his central clique is beyond repute and admitted by Piccone himself on several occasions)

If their conferences are Wrestlemania, Telos’ main theoretical calling cards, artificial negativity and the new class, are the theoretical equivalent of picking up a steel chair, folding it, and smashing it over your opponents head. This is something common in your archetypical heel (which Flair is to a letter): it refuses to play by the rules, but the ref probably isn’t looking or is out cold. Artificial negativity is an extension of Marcuse’s one-dimensionality thesis. For Marcuse capitalism was capable of quickly reversing opposed movements and concepts and absorbing them into itself – the commodification of rebellion is one example – Che Guevera on every T-shirt. The Telos innovation concurs with this thesis, yet adds that the rationality of the system is only checked by external elements of the system, which as the state and capital progress are erased, thus preventing its further reproduction. Faced with the a crisis, the crisis that Piccone terms the ‘crisis of one dimensionality’ it is necessary for the state-capital to generate internal opposition to check its bureaucratic excesses. It therefore creates a negativity, an opposition, which is purely artificial in character internally. Artificial negativity poses little real threat to the unfolding of the system and can be easily captured in the representative structures of state-capital concerned with rights and legal representation and the politics of recognition. For example, the debate regarding civil rights for minority communities moved from the genuine assertion of the political restructuring on the streets, to legal cases that were fully within the standard disputations of state managed courts regarding rights their extension and conflict. Acts of civil disobedience might seem oppositional, but they are merely rituals whereby the state-capital realises its over-reach and re-calibrates itself to be more innovative and efficient. Piccone’s move here is partially borrowed from the workerist critiques of Italian Marxism whereby labour conflicts drive innovation in production. Thus, artificial negativity for Telos characterises almost all protest movements since the 1960s: be it the civil rights movements of black liberation and thereafter, the new left, the anti-war movement, claims protecting human rights, colonial opposition or even anti-globalisation. While supposedly opposing the system, all such movements are in fact ensuring the system’s continued domination.

What is required, as opposed to artificial negativity, is ‘organic negativity’. Here, small communities or regions with practices sufficiently outside state-capital and its codes, resplendent with robust traditions, are capable of truly opposing the state and capital – a thesis that should be certainly familar to readers of this blog in its ‘the church as anti-capitalist’ modulations. In part, for a community to have organic negativity it must partially reject modernity as such. Hence Telos interest in all manner of communities and movements that it believes to be examples of organic negativity. Piccone’s personal favourite was the formulation of postmodern popularism and federalism. One example of this, he believes, was in the original project of the United States where local federated direct democracy combined with minimal centralised government designed to foster collaboration between individual and culturally specific and geographically delimited political communities. Everything, for Piccone, goes sour in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The punishment of the South for its practices of slavery leads to the centre, previously with strictly delimited functions, claiming control over the federation hegemonically. These “unbearable new relations of domination imposed after the Civil war” by the industrial North and Washington lead to resistance from the Midwest and the South against the destruction of their particularity. For Piccone the Klu Klux Klan (I kid you not) are self-defence organisations against the Northern occupation as Birth of A Nation allegedly shows. Hence “America is no alternative to Europe, but its future” – organically negative communities federated beyond the nation state, examples of which Piccone finds apparently across the Midwest and, presumably if he were still around, The Tea Party Movement. Pursuing further instances of artificial negativity lead to a collection of various instances: radical orthodoxy (where liturgy provides a critique of the flat empty time of modernity and connects the local particularities with the transcendent while not erasing their particularity), the French New Right (which broadly agrees with the analysis of modernity and liberalism proffered and recommends ethno-cultural regionalism against the nation-state and liberal European treaties) and one of its practical substantiations in the Italian Lega Nord. If artificial negativity is what is created, it is the ‘new class’ that is the creator. Piccone theorises that mostly The New Class is adapted from Marxist analyses of Stalinism, which claimed that the brutality of Stalin was the result of a formation of a new bureaucratic class of elites which replaced the bourgeois as the oppressors of the massed proletariat. In Telos’ analysis, the New Class similarly replaces the bourgeois in a Marxist analysis, but they are political and cultural as opposed to economic oppressors. Telos had always been indifferent to quantitive social science and the jettisoning of economics and political economy was the hallmark of Telos’ analyses even before its interest in organicity, yet after this turn any concern with the economic as significant category becomes itself complicit with artificial negativity – hence organic negativity is not concerned with economics but culture and politics, and indeed, capitalism is far from the enemy provided it is localised. The New Class is the embodiment of everything that Telos believes to be wrong and which is opposed by the forces of organic negativity: modernity, universality, human rights, large-scale capitalism and the welfare state, abstract individualism, rights discourse, the modern state, formal contractualism, multi-culturalism, affirmative action, repression of organic tradition etc. The New Class have had a fairly long history, and have flowed through a number of forms, including the New Deal and contemporary political correctness – Piccone sometimes traces the movement back to the 19th century, but some contributors, as we know, radical orthodoxy, trace it far further.

The case of multi-culturalism provides a vital illustration for Telos of the New Class at work and the distinction between artificial and organic negativity. The New Class divides society up into often arbitrary racial groups whose needs can be reflected in and satisfied by the state, allowing the state to interfere with their affairs – artificial negativity. Yet those apparently ethnically delimitated communities who have, in common parlance, kept themselves to themselves and not joined the mainstream of American culture and the New Class politics have been those who have flourished most – an example of organic negativity. To give a flavour – Piccone thinks African Americians have fallen prey to the New Class, but Asian Americans and Italian Americans have not, the kind of posit derived from the French New Right. Of course, the methodology of shovelling all you dislike into one broad category for dismissal is common to many positions, but is particularly common in those who favour communitarianism, as Holmes An Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism shows quite clearly – for most it is simply liberalism coupled with modernity, into which all politics not your own can be thrown, hence in radical orthodoxy, as we known, it is all positions derived from the post-Scotist fall.

Taken together, it is clear to see why the New Class and Artificial Negativity resonate particularly well with paleo-conservatives, libertarians and others in the American right. It rails against the enemies one might even see on Fox News – multiculturalism, feminism, the Left in general and Marxism in particular, egalitarianism the ‘big’ state, even Glenn Beck opposes ‘big corporations and special interests’ to local capitalism – while finding a systematic enemy not entirely dissimilar to the phantom ‘liberal elites’ conspiring to undermine and overturn American values. Despite the fact that Piccone believed the neo-conservatives to be a phenomena of the New Class, insomuch as they advocated a centralised large state despite their rhetoric, and supposedly humanitarian interventionism in the name of universal human rights, there is little to separate some of this analysis, other than its level of intellectual sophistication, from the day to day rhetoric of the American right. Again, the Tea Party Movement springs to mind as do Sarah Palin’s folksy politics.

Theoretical tools outlaid, in the next post I’ll consider their coherence, a classic example of their deployment and what it might mean for certain Big Society shaped projects in the UK. And I will continue the somewhat stretched wrestling metaphors.

5 thoughts on “Tables, Ladders and Chairs: Telos, Artificial Negativity and The Big Society (1 of 2)

  1. Q: is Piccone’s “New Class” theory related to Max Shachtman’s analysis of the USSR? (ie, that it was neither a capitalist nor a workers’ state, but rather a new phenomenon of “bureaucratic collectivism”)

  2. Adam,

    Paul Breines, ex-book review editor from their 20th anniversary edition. If someone could e-mail me the article the quote is from ‘Recalling Telos’, I’d be very appreciative. But it seems doubtful considering the online Telos archive only goes back to the mid-90s.


    I’ll get back to you in a little bit.

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