On having a fake culture

On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.

Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.

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Stalin, CEO

In a public lecture, Zizek once said that it is only under late capitalism that Stalinism has truly come into its own. It was kind of a throw-away remark that I don’t believe he has developed any further, but as I study more about Stalinism and about neoliberalism, I’m increasingly convinced that he’s right and that Stalin, CEO would be an awesome subversive “management theory” book.

Some shared features of Stalinism and our present economic regime:

  • A cult of personality surrounding “visionary leaders” (Stalin, contemporary CEOs)
  • Continual demand for increased productivity to meet fundamentally arbitrary goals (five-year plans, exceeding analyst expectations of performance)
  • Purges (Gulags, mass layoffs)
  • Unpredictable micromanagement (Stalin’s unexpected intervention into various controversies, habitual short-circuiting of chain of command in corporate environments)
  • Reliance on scapegoating (the leader gets all credit for achievements but underlings always take the blame for failures — “If only comrade Stalin knew!”)
  • Rule by slogan (Soviet propaganda, management-speak)
  • The demand to control all of life (“totalitarianism,” affective labor)

Am I missing anything, dear readers?