I am right in the middle of #cancel culture. I don't like the term, for it's almost always used in the way 'political correctness' was used and continues to be used. Which is to say, as a way of justifying oppressive regimes of race, gender, caste etc.
It's a strange world in which those complaining about police violence, about structural injustice and fear for life and limb are being labeled illiberal while those who want to perpetuate their position at the top of the ladder clothe themselves in the flag of free speech.
Social media, especially Twitter, can be a mean place and both right and left wing partisans have gone after their opponents. I would think that anyone who looks at the world objectively will see that right-wing authoritarian regimes have gained power over much of the planet, and so the right-wing hate brigade has had much more success than their left-wing counterparts.
Then again, there's nothing to celebrate when people are fired or ostracized for remarks taken out of context or said when they were too young to know better. Forgiveness is generally a good thing and it's not a prized virtue among the partisans on either side. I am frequently guilty of harshness myself.
Right or wrong, something yuuuge is afoot. It's one thing to go after fascists but when there's genuine anger against people who represent the good side of the 'European Enlightenment,' we might be at the brink of a sea change in attitudes. People who were used to being seen as moral and intellectual leaders are now suspect.
The Answer My Friend....
I will give you an example: Chomsky is no longer a darling of the young left. That's a tragedy at one level, for he's a man I admire greatly. Then again, he's very much embedded in the 'natural superiority' of Euro-American culture. In none of his books does he engage in any depth with any non-Western thinker. Which has to be a conscious omission in a scholar who will unearth minor memos written by some state department hack as evidence for US imperialism.
All of which is to say that while the current debate focuses on the 'cancel' in cancel culture the real struggle is over the #culture in cancel culture.
That's the question I am going to explore, for I believe we are at the beginning of a millennial shift in ideas about culture and knowledge. For now: frequent short posts rather than chapter length essays.
Whose culture and why?
The Culture in Cancel Culture
The 'traditional' left was steeped in materialist history and in its mythology, the main struggle was over control over the means of production, i.e., who gets to own the factories and who gets the fruits of manufacture.
The contemporary left's struggles are over race, gender, sexuality and other markers of identity. Many of my traditionalist leftie friends are troubled by identity politics. They think identity politics are used by the capitalist class to divide the lower classes.
Which is likely true. Why else would a white blue collar worker vote for Trump?
But at the same time, the importance of identity reflects a major shift in the history of production itself. Industrial manufacturing produces stuff using physical mechanical devices – wealth and power accrue to those who control these devices.
In contrast, it's the manufacture of information – in the form of software, data and finance – that's at the heart of the cybernetic system we inhabit today and the manufacture of identity is central to this cybernetic system: just as industrial manufacturing produces widgets, cybernetic manufacturing produces people.
Another way of putting it: culture is not something incidental to the contemporary world, like going to church on Sundays to listen to sermons about humility while crushing your competition the rest of the week. Culture is actively being produced and reproduced; most obviously on social media, but also in other parts of the information economy.
Which is why cancel culture is so important: it's not a fight over a peripheral part of the world system while we neglect what's really real. Culture is what's really real.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter