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

The second part of my critique of Telos’ theoretical inventions, the first part I posted a while back. Here I try and show how both artificial negativity and the new class are incoherent concepts – and that the examples of organic traditions Telos point to are false. I suggest, briefly (its long enough already and longer in the ‘proper’ version where I go through some more traditions!), that this shows the concept is purely polemical rather than analytic. I firmly apologise for transgressing the limits of acceptable blog post length, but hope someone, somewhere finds this a bit interesting, particularly the idea that the Tories ‘Big Society’ should be a prime example of artificial negativity thus showing the concept of artificial negativity makes no sense.

In a wonderful if hilarious article for the 1989 December issue of Telos, Timothy Luke, one of the primary progenitors of the artificial negativity thesis, writes a delicious article ‘Xmas Ideology: Unwrapping the New Deal and the Cold War under the Christmas Tree’1, which is replied to directly afterwards by Paul Piccone2. In it Luke claims that Christmas films such as It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn and White Christmas are an almost perfect example of artificial negativity. Against the crass commercialisation of Christmas, they appear to offer an authentic core of love and human compassion that are unspoilt. In fact, Luke argues, they are merely a way of briefly compensating for the aggressive fragmentation of late capitalism, and actually perpetuating it. The films “generate ideologies of self-gratification and fulfilment as in the cult of Christmas, which rather than being cast as a Christian celebration of Christ’s birth, is instead turned into a fantasy of self-fulfilment and collective solidarity as part of a celebration of materialistic giving (and receiving)”.


The Christian rituals of Christmas, then, have been remanufactured by capital and the state during WWII and the Cold War into “Xmas”. Without it, the rituals of life in consumer society might disintegrate even more than they have already, making Xmas an essential aspect of exchange. It mediates the forms of subjectivity in the intimate sphere of caring with corporate agendas of spending and having. Christmas as “Xmas” becomes in film the essential simulation of settled social traditions, family unity, and collective purpose for many modern American Pottersvilles that otherwise lack these qualities.

For Luke, as in It’s A Wonderful Life, such stories are a New Deal fantasy dealt out by corporations and one side, and the state seen as benevolent protector on the other through the medium of bureaucracy – Clarence the angel attempting to get his wing is after all part of a bureaucracy of angels much like the New Deal state.

Suffice to say, Piccone doesn’t like this much. He believes the films as quite capably critiquing the American they found. Indeed, rather than stressing the values of capitalism and welfarism, these classic Christmas films: “If anything, it is the concept of solidarity and, particularly in It’s A Wonderful Life, communitarian values which are idealized”. Indeed, one of the main enemies in It’s A Wonderful Life is the heartless landlord Mr Potter. The protagonist of It’s A Wonderful Life, George, is the son of the owner of a small bank Savings and Loan. When his father dies, the slum landlord Mr Potter wants to start denying loans to the working poor, because these loans are not profitable and to also take over the company. In an very famous scene in front of the board of directors, George argues that from an economic perspective the loans his father made may not have been good sense, but from a human perspective, in getting people out of the slums, they had been an obvious good “People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, […] they’re cattle”. This convinces the board of directors to reject this, and to put him in charge of the company. Thus the older, benevolent capitalism of the small town with its concern for human values and the desire to enable people’s ambitions even if it was not profitable, the bank as service provider for people not profit, is contrasted to the centralised despotic and money orientated capitalism of Potter where profit is the only concern and people are pure objects from which to extract it. The film speaks to spiritual and moral values over money values. The same is true of Miracle on 34th Street, speculative capitalism is opposed to kindly capitalism of the small banker who knew your needs and ambitions. These films are not artificially negative, but authentically and organically negative. But this leads to a problem – they were still created by the Hollywood and, as Piccone claims, became more popular during the Reagan years because of the family values agenda he articulated. How can they be organically negative if they are put so easily to use by the Reaganite neo-conservative New Class? Piccone never accounts for this – but whatever we think of the films at hand, this small example of the major theorists of the concepts of Artificial Negativity and the New Class clashing over a particular object shows some important conceptual flaws – how do we point genuine versions of organic negativity out and be attentive to false artificial negativities? In this light, after a little anaylsis we can see that these terms have, first, no theoretical coherence and second, fulfil only one role, a purely polemic way of labelling and dismissing the distasteful.

What are the problems with the ‘new class’ and ‘artificial negativity’ then? If we begin empirically, can we really imagine that the supposed examples of artificial negativity are truly generated internally by the state-capital system in order to check itself? Let us recall, for Piccone, almost every instance of protest is one of artifical negativity to save the the system from its own irrationality. The anti-Vietnam protests, for Piccone, were generated by the New Class, or so the theory runs: “During the 1960s, in some form or other, practically all opposition movements were subsidized by the government, from students to civil rights group”3. Yet, presuming the function of artificial negativity is the checking of bureaucratic irrationality and over-reach, we would assume it to either actually correct the irrationality, or that the response of the New Class, as Piccone appears to believe, would be further abstract bureaucracy as a result. artificial negativity presumes a kind of mapping of artificial negative problem to New Class solution that is not possible, can we really correspond each protest movement to an instance bureaucratic excess? Without being crassly empirical, we would expect the effect of an instance of artificial negativity to have the effects he describes. Yet if we point to a number of cases of opposition to the status quo it is not at all clear that they are serving this purpose or if they act as predicted within the theory. For example, in the case of opposition to the Iraq war, supposed instances of artificial negativity appear to remain for quite some time and fulfil no purpose in correcting anything that is internal to the system. Artificial negativity seems to presume both a call and a response from the New Class, that the New Class reacts to its negativity, whereas anti-war demonstrations seem to have been unanswered and have not – even at the level of basic feeling – been able to suppress this general dissent and have not resulted in further bureaucratic entrenchment. The state-capital appears to suppress rather than embrace and concede to protest, how is this accounted for? Finally, artificial negativity appears to imagine that the capital-state nexus is a single continuous and near omniscient actor pan-historically, capable of recognising the need for self-correction and rolling out an instance of artificial negativity in each case4.

Most worryingly for the concept’s coherence, how have the staff of Telos managed to from their critique being an example of artificial negativity? Traditionally, the answer has been that the journal had remained marginal, both in actually existing left-wing movements and in terms of academia. From the inception of Telos in 1968 and its opposition to analytical philosophy and sociological positivism, Telos always viewed itself as something of an outsider. Even prior to the invention of its two main theoretical battering rams in the early to mid-1970s, academia had been seen as terminally flawed and compromised. Most of those in the academy for Telos were member of the New Class, their work artificially negative, even the reception of the critical theory that Telos itself ushered in. This analysis, that negatively posits the exclusion of intellectuals incapable of conformity with the demands of New Class management and too critical of the status quo resonated with Piccone’s own unfortunate academic career. Despite having written an extensive and well regarded history of Italian Marxism5, Piccone was denied tenure at the University of St Louis, Washington. Even though those in the orbit of the Telos journal, then the leading intellectuals of the day, rallied support in terms of glowing letters of recommendation and an internal challenge was undertaken, Piccone remained without a permanent academic post for the rest of his life, dedicating himself wholly to the production of Telos from strictly (and admirably) do-it-yourself principle. Piccone’s friends and admirers tend to admit that the main reason for him being denied tenure was his inability to subscribe to the niceties of conventional academia, rather than being too radical a thinker as he claimed, a victim of the quasi-McCarthyite anti-Marxist hysteria of the time. Ironically considering his later commitment to a communitarian politics that prioritise the normative stances of communities and require the conformity to them over the beliefs of individuals, Piccone simply was too rude for tenure in the genteel world of education. Piccone’s personal exclusion (and the semi-exclusion of other early Telos supporters) and the fact Telos remained untethered from institutional support or affiliation, as well as the obscurity of the figures they considered and translated, led to the journal and its founder believing that they were outside the mainstream and capable of therefore capable of authentic and perhaps even organic negativity. Yet when one considers the educational background of almost all Telos contributors (hardly autodidacts) and the positions of the previous and current editorial board, all of whom are firmly within the academy, it is difficult to imagine that they are the outsiders and mavericks they wish to portray themselves as. Their readership (I presume all those dusty volumes people refer to in Telos memoirs were sometimes bought by libraries), is very difficult to establish exterior to the academy, the very New Class drones that they supposedly claimed were incapable of perceiving their critique. And if their critique is a genuine critique, unsullied by artificial negativity, then how it possible for them to have formulated it given this? Alasdair MacIntyre already realised as much when he dismissed Marcuse’s thesis of one-dimensionality in his early survey of his work6. If Marcuse was correct, states MacIntyre, it would not be possible for him to have written the book, since he would have been unable to evade the very phenomena he of one-dimensionality he describes in order to formulate one-dimensionality. The same is true of artificial negativity, it would have been impossible to formulate if the academy was the domain of the new class. There is an easy out for Telos, claim their thought is organically negative. Yet should Telos claim their thought is organically negative then artificial negativity is bunk and critique is more than possible within the system and there is no need to the kind of organically negative communities outside the system that they presume are the only one’s capable of generating real opposition. Which leads to the more obvious point – it is not at all clear that academics are not radically questioning the status quo. The academy may exclude some controversial figures, but it does generate real dissent – one only needs to consider the example of Noam Chomsky or even Paul Krugman to see that this is the case. Certainly, as Telos claim, too often critical intellectuals remain in the ivory tower, but many are conscious of this problem and attempt to popularise their work or connect them up with real social phenomena, journalistic simplification and movements – this goes for politics as well as economics, sociology and theology.

From the side of artificial negativity, it appears that the concept is flawed, how about its opposite number, organic negativity. How genuinely organic is organic negativity? This would require us to examine a number of their examples of organic negativity to determine if they were authentic traditions that were exterior to the categories of the New Class. For the sakes of space I will consider one example of an instance of Artifical Negativity, that via their theoretical friendship with the New Right they call on as an example: the Lega Nord. Alain de Benoist of the French New Right calls for a new regionalism where areas such as Brittany, Catalonia and the Northern Leagues would be allowed autonomy apart from the nation-state and a centralised Europe, a Europe of a hundred flags, one of which being the Lega Nord, all definite examples of community and organic negativity. For Telos, the Lega Nord recover pre-liberal traditions of political articulation, Lega Nord provides a tradition based upon a commitment to a particular place, an account of virtuous action and a shared history, a narrative, that grounds the arguments made within their society. This history traces back to their celtic origins, their unique take on Catholicism and spiritual relation to nature through this. The Lega Nord opposes the Rome based centralisation of the New Class and defines its elitist institutions in the Schmittian category of The Enemy. Thus unlike the fragmentation diagnoses by MacIntyre in After Virtue, the Lega Nord have at least stepped towards providing a communual way beyond the dark ages of modernity. Part of the reason for the vicious opposition to Lega Nord, and the horror of mainstream politics towards them is this rejection of the politics of modernity and their genuine artificial negativity. The central New Class state cannot even recognise the Lega Nord because it lacks the categories through which it articulates its politics. By refusing to define itself in terms of the abstract universalistic and liberal formation of the New Class, the Lega Nord are a genuine site outside its boundaries that cannot be reduced to purely artificial negativity, but must be organic. Or so the Telos narrative runs. However, in the case of the Lega Nord this is not clear. Italy as a coherent concept is certainly fairly new, yet the Lega Nord cannot be easily seen as a genuine tradition. As Daniele Albertazzi points out7, it is very difficult to see how the two sources of the tradition that the Lega claim are the forebears have any historical validity. First, their return to the Celts and the seems to have no validity in any real history. Much like the concept of ‘Celtic Christianity’, there are little records of the coherence across Europe of Celtic culture that would define the Italian North as having these peculiar characteristics and little history to suggest they remained in these parts homogeneously for any length of time. Second, the other source for their tradition, the heritage of the Northern Leagues has no coherence. The Lega Lombarda, who fought against the South and from whom the Lega Nord take their name first only came together because of the threat of the South, not because of any substantial shared cultural heritage, and spent times in between fighting the South not at ‘peace in diversity’ as the Lega claims, but warring against one another. Even the area of Lombardy was a geographical not a cultural express, the people of it never saw themselves and never were an area of shared tradition – “No one was fighting for ‘Lombardy’, let alone for any conceptions of a ‘north’”. The defender of the authenticity of the Lega Nord would at this point reply that all traditions have semi-mythical origins, that they articulate themselves through myth-making that do not necessarily have an entirely empirico-historical purchase. The first point is that this observation is a characteristically modern one – recognising that myths are not true in a truly historically sense, but fictionalised rationally, that may have a deeper truth, but not one that is the same as history proper. Pre-modern societies did not recognise this division – to even make this argument about the Lega Nord is modernist. The self-reflexive moment, when one realises one this is what one is doing is a modern moment. This is similar to modern discussions of enchantment. The often heard theological thesis is that we should re-enchant the world. However, this re-enchantment not only presumes the prior dis-enchantment, but would be a formally ironic stance. We would be choosing to believe in an enchanted cosmos because it was more interesting for whatever resistances to technological thought we are wishing to generate. Yet for the medievals, say, that their world is striated by spirits and demons and that objects had a holy or horrifying aura, or that the woods contained elves and pixies, or that children would be eaten by wolf headed men, or that the eucharist was a kind of white magic capable of bringing protection of crops was not an ironic stance, it was not a world-view one could adopt – it was the world as they perceived it. It was not a lens through which they categorised reality that could be chosen or ‘dis-enchanted’, it was their world as such. It is not so much that something is not a tradition if its narrative is recognised as created, but it is the idea that this is known that prevents it from being a truly anti-modern moment. This is very clear in the writings of the Lega Nord – the authors admit, in their more honest moments, that they are actively recreating the past, founding a myth to provide the backing for their political actions, rather than their historical tradition, including their myths, providing the justification for their political actions. This becomes all the more startling when one considers the reasons, materially, that brought the Lega Nord into being had little to do with a strongly localist tradition facing down a centralised states with concrete practices, but rather specific and modern changes in the economy of the north in the 20th century – the oil crisis in the 1970s, the high level of economic productiveness as a result of the peculiar (and yes rather corporatist and family based) form of capitalism that was the result of this – a kind of quite swiftly formulated modern traditionalism. Thus instead of the Lega being a organic negativity that remains outside the system, it was generated within the system by relatively recent historical events. This tension is even manifested in the description of organic negativity given by Piccone. Piccone appears unsure. On one side, organic negativity is that which is left behind by the system, it is, like theology opposed to the secularism of the New Class, not articulated within the parameters of liberal modernity so is able to defend it. Conceptually this idea in fact can be traced back to Marcuse himself. While Piccone, whose ties with Marxism in general are now utterly severed, would be loathe to admit it, organic negativity bears a remarkable similarity to those who Marcuse believed would be the agents of revolutionary change in an age of one-dimensionality. Marcuse looked to anti-colonialist struggles. The colonies were outside the circle of representation that resulted in every attempt at revolt being captured by capitals one-dimensionality – indeed they formally resisted one dimensionality in their colonial struggles. The organically negative are precisely this – those outside the orbit of the New Class and thus capable of true opposition. The oppose the system because they are beyond it and dislike its colonialism of their spaces, conceptual, cultural and geographical. Yet at the same time, at points, Piccone appears to suggest that organic negativity is not traditions exterior to the system, but rather a reaction to that system generated by it, that spring up practically automatically in response to its pressures. They are not then a long tradition that is unassimilated by the liberal consensus, but a reaction to it that imagines resources against it. Colonial opposition was the result of colonialism, the subject of resistance was generated by it, not some pre-colonialist subjectivity that was underlying it all along. Telos may support theories of secularism that oppose the subtraction thesis whereby religion is gradually removed to reveal a purely human layer, but they seem to subscribe much the same ideas with regard to organic negativity. Organically negative communities cast off the shackles of their New Class generated oppression because they have continuity a tradition that was interrupted. Yet on the contrary, just as the secular was formulated not subtracted, those organic negativity are created positively, asserting and formulating traditions a result of the New Class not because the New Class. As the Lega Nord example demonstrates, this is precisely what happens, the Nord’s ideas are created for particular ends. From this perspective, once again, how would we distinguish artifical from organic negativity as both seem to be produced by the system. Even the very recognition of group identities based on local cultures is surely dependent upon, or easily assimilated by, some formulation of identity politics tied to place and cultural specifics, a very specific and supposedly New Class formulation. Even the supposedly liberal centralised Brussels already recognises regionality, and this, as well as recognising previous claims to cultural hegemony over a specific area, has generated new claims for sovereignty that are the result of it inventing the system for registration and dissatisfaction with its imperatives rather than their being a particularly strong culture already present. Thus it appears that it is not at all clear that notions of organic community cannot be collated within the bonds of the New Class, and if so, how are they not examples of artificial negativity, correcting the systems irrationality in not recognising very strictly delimited regional identities.

This all becomes the more clear when one looks at the communitarian politics of my old sparing partner Phillip Blond. It is clear that Blond’s analysis owes much to a MacIntyre inflected form of the artificial negativity thesis. One one side, centralising bureaucracy, liberalism in either its right or left wing formulations, whereby the abstract individual is stripped of all particularity and only confronts the state without any powerful mediating organisations. On the other side, real associations, tradition, localism, the virtues and so forth – the Red Tory tradition as opposed to the Whig tradition. It is fairly easy to see, particularly when Blond considers the legacy of 1968 how one side maps quite easily onto artificial negativity and the other just as easily onto organic negativity. Yet Blond is a national figure now, appearing regularly on television news to have debates about policy, his columns in the mainstream newspaper present these ideas and they clearly have resonance with the political classes. Moreover, Blond is a major cheerleader for the Conservative party sponsored idea of the Big Society, which was certainly on the books before Blond’s rise to any prominence. The Big Society is the partial embodiment of the kinds of organically negative parameters that Blond is seeking, hence his endorsement of it. Yet The Big Society is a government generated narrative and initiative, that supposedly opposes government itself, that fits well into the various attempts at communitarian politics that have occured in the UK since Blair. How are we supposed to believe that it is an example of organic, as opposed to artificial negativity when it is presented precisely as a means to roll back New Labour’s excessive bureaucratic control and irrationalism? Indeed the Big Society seems to fit the description of artificial negativity far more than the examples of 20th century protest movements that Piccone gives, given that it formally seems to define itself in precise the irrationalism correcting terminology – that New Labour caused waste with the Big State, that they micro-managed everything and so forth. Vitally, how can we see Blond as not a member of the New Class? He speaks at the conference of leading political parties, through the media and is throughly enmeshed in the cut and thrust of political life which is presumably associated with the New Class. All of which suggest not the validity of the categories of New Class and the two forms of negativity, rather their complete inability to do proper analysis since organic negativity is itself a tool of the state. I am not suggesting that Blond is part of the New Class, but that his example, and the example of the Big Society, shows that these categories make no sense at all.

Once the theoretical insecurity and vapidity of artificial negativity and the supposed resistance of organic negativity are exposed, what precisely is it for? There is a very clear answer: polemic and dismissal of theoretical opponents. In their piece ‘Uses and Abuses of Carl Schmitt’8, Ulmen and Piccone claim that those suggesting that Schmitt is linked with right-wing Americian and even neoliberal thought are mistaken, and they are mistaken because they are members of the New Class, whose work polices and removes the genuine artificial negativity of Schmitt’s thought which it can only pathologise and then attempt to censor and smear. Rather than concentrating on careful conceptual analysis of why, say Schmitt and Hayek differ on the rule of law, they state that the authors involved are wrong because they are members of the New Class, a concept which I hope I have begun to demonstrate, has no real validity. It is instead a steel chair, taken from under the ring, used to attack opponents. An underhand manoeuvre, but one if done often enough is totally unconvincing: polemic without substance.

1 Luke, Timothy. “Xmas Ideology: Unwrapping the New Deal and the Cold War under the Christmas Tree.” Telos, no. 82 (1989-90): 157-73.

2 Piccone, Paul. “Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Good Smoke: Xmas Ideology or Reaganism?” Telos, no. 82 (1989-90): 174-84

3 Piccone, Paul. “Éléments Interview.” Telos, no. 117 (1999): 133-66.

4 See Frankel, Boris. “Identifying Dominant Misconceptions of States.” Thesis Eleven 1, no. 4 (1982): 97-123. p 111

5 Piccone, Paul. Italian Marxism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

6 MacIntyre, Alasdair C. Herbert Marcuse; an Exposition and a Polemic, Modern Masters. New York: Viking Press, 1970.

7 Albertazzi, Daniele. “‘Back to Our Roots’ or Self-Confessed Manipulation? The Uses of the Past in the Lega Nord’s Positing of Padania.” National Identities 8, no. 1 (2006): 21-39.

8 Piccone, Paul, and Gary Ulmen. “Uses and Abuses of Carl Schmitt.” Telos, no. 122 (2002): 3-32.

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

  1. Interesting, but it leaves me a bit confused. You say: “that the Tories ‘Big Society’ should be a prime example of artificial negativity thus showing the concept of artificial negativity makes no sense.” The former is interesting – as is the link to ‘good capitalsts’ propaganda (see billionaires are willing to sacrifice part of their wealth) – because it gives us a clue as to why ‘Big Society’ makes no sense (or is a scam, as you seem to say). But the latter seems unsupported by what you say – unless you mean that the tradional view of artificial negativity as applying to all protest movements has no sense (and that rather we have to find the concept tied to such ‘Old Class’ initiatives as film propaganda and like).

    Or maybe I missed your point entirely?

  2. Cheers for the comment. I am saying that artificial negativity applying to all protest movements makes no sense, because I am saying the whole concept makes no sense. I am not at all in favour of it.

    I’m trying to say that the phenomena of ‘the Big Society’ via Phillip Blond shows how the whole paradigm of artificial/organic negativity and the New Class is worthless. I am opposed to the Tories obviously, but I don’t think these divisions help the analysis. This is because the Big Society, as in Blond’s vision is an example of organic negativity, but it is, even by his own admission, a government initiative that actually maps onto the parameters of artificial negativity, that is anti-bureaucratic populism generated by the state. This, like the example of the Lega Nord, demonstrate that there appears to be little difference between organic and artificial negativity.

    The essential point is that it is impossible to pick out examples of either, because the concepts are not true analytic categories, but simply polemical tools.

  3. Hey Alex, I get it now I think, Big Society is propaganda and needn’t be referred to with another expensive term which is disguising that it is propaganda. But it was not clear: you’re using the categories you negate too much, and still seem to hang on to the difference between them, wanting to remain with a pejorative understanding of Lega Nord & Big Society and a positive one on protest movements.

    If there’s a difference why not apply the labels you oppose? I’m sorry if I am just being dense about this.

  4. It’s cool. I think you have misunderstood, but this is fine because I am hardly clear. I don’t use these labels because I don’t think they have any purchase on reality. I don’t believe protest movements are generated by the state to check itself and I don’t believe there is this magical other category of authentic communities that are the really resistant.

    I am probably negating the terms a bit too much and it isn’t clear, but I’ll try and make it clearer when this is crystalised. Its just difficult to tease out what I am getting at. I’m using the categories when I use them only to negate them. Its a kind of deconstruction or immanent critique. Telos say X is an organically negative phenomena, but couldn’t it be artificially negative by their own criteria for what this means? I am quite capable of describing their supposedly organically negative phenomena in the terms of artificial negativity, indeed, it would seem they far better fit this description. The choice if a given social movement one or the other is arbitrary not analytic and is based primarily on Telos’ desire to occupy a certain space in political discussion.

  5. Yes. But you do believe that there is inauthentic stuff which is generated by the current powers that be (“Big Society”), let us call it propaganda. I fully agree that whether or not a certain initiative is propaganda, or not, should not be called by a specific instance based on labels they invented (that is in itself just a way of doing propaganda – and appropriating the right to call good from bad w/o further transparency). If anything I would just simplify your treatment into what you say in your last paragraph: take 2 examples and prove that they, according to Telos’ critera, are both (after which you’d go to analyze with ‘classical’ means showing that you could quite easily separate the propaganda from the rest).

  6. Yes well, that is what I have done, no? It was already nearing 3,000 words and this is a blog, not my thesis. I agree it needs to simplification though.

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