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JA
C

O
B
IN

SUMMER 2011 / ISSUE 3 - 4

LIBERALISM IS DEAD

Dancing on its Grave
Liberals and Racism
Zombie Marx
The Frick Collection
Imagined Communities
Ulyanovsk
Responsible Imperialism
Avant-Garde Aspirations
Questioning October
Loud and Cheap
Rosa’s Mail
How Can the Left Win?
Two Steps Back
Žižek: The Jacobin Spirit
The Power of Nonsense

$ 5.99

Page 2

Editors’ Note:
Dancing on its Grave



The current political moment is not so much one of conservative triumph as of liberalism’s withering away. To say that the American “reform tradi-tion” is in crisis is to underestimate the extent of the debacle, since unlike
a crisis, no visible reason exists why the present trend – the gradual abandon-
ment of hope that liberal achievements of the past can be extended or even pre-
served – cannot continue forever. The great counterexample, Obama’s health
reform, proves the rule: passed only thanks to a once-in-a-generation Demo-
cratic supermajority and the approval of every major industry lobby it affected,
it emerged as a painfully inadequate, jerry-rigged palliative, already languishing
under the scalpel of austerity. The only true exception to liberalism’s demise
concerns equal rights for ethnic, sexual, and other minorities – a principle won
long ago at a cultural level but whose institutional consolidation is still incom-
plete and whose most recent advance was New York State’s legalization of gay
marriage. On all other questions, the watchword is despair.

For a few years, following the centrist resignation of the Clinton years, and
especially after the Iraq invasion, a certain spirit of rebellion seemed to well up
from the liberal base as it witnessed its Democratic leaders meekly concede to
the Bush administration on one issue after another. This impulse helped give rise
to the Obama campaign and the enormous, often inexplicable hopes invested
in it – a remarkable episode of mass projection, insightfully recognized as such
by the candidate himself. Today, except among the president’s most die-hard
acolytes, this hope has all but flickered out. It is clear to all that Obama, and the
Democrats generally, have made themselves the instruments of an energized
and revanchist ruling class which has seized a moment of economic dislocation
and working class disarray to roll back the meager but long-hated social protec-
tions of the New Deal and Great Society.

Traditionally, liberalism’s troubles have inspired two kinds of responses
from the Left. The first is an abandonment of any critical distance as a crisis
atmosphere takes hold and the need to confront the “threat from the Right” su-
persedes all other considerations. Conservative resurgence is painted as a fascist
menace and any liberal alternative is by comparison invested with a “progres-
sive” halo. This dynamic played a part in Obama’s rise as a surprising number
of figures with impeccable leftist credentials made themselves appendages of
the “Obama movement.” The second kind of response is a sort of theoretical
Schadenfreude, a philosophy of “the worse, the better” applied to the political
realm. The labor historian Jefferson Cowie has observed this dynamic at play in
the late 1970s, as seen through the eyes of the socialist intellectual Michael Har-
rington: “Unlike many leftists at the time, he understood that the Left depended
upon liberalism being strong in order to build upon. Others saw it differently,
operating from the idea that if activists tore down liberalism then people would
move to the ‘true’ Left.”

Harrington was right. Any future resurgence of the Left will almost certain-
ly coincide with a revival of liberalism, and the liberal ranks will surely supply
a disproportionate share of recruits to the radical cause. The 1960s offers a case
study of this process. In his history of Americans for Democratic Action, the his-
torian Steve Gillon chronicled the group’s transformation over the course of the
decade: starting from a stance of sterile anticommunist “growth liberalism,” the
organization was transformed by a new breed of “reform liberals” who swept
into positions of power, pushing out the most conservative stalwarts, bringing
Michael Harrington onto the board, and swinging the group by 1969 toward
democratic socialism. “There was not a bit of difference between the ADA and
Socialist Party on economic issues in the 1970s,” remarked one leading ADA
liberal from that period.

Radicals must avoid submerging our identities into an insipid and ahistori-
cal “progressivism”; we must remain firmly anchored to the socialist tradition
and never shy away from the ruthless critique of liberalism. But socialists should
also be wary of slipping into a rhetorical posture of unrestrained invective that
only cements the Left’s marginal status in American political life. Don’t dance
on liberalism’s grave. There’s nothing to celebrate.

— Seth Ackerman & Bhaskar Sunkara

CITOYENS
EDITOR,
Bhaskar Sunkara

EDITORS-AT-LARGE,
Seth Ackerman, Peter Frase

ART,
Rufus Krieger, Loki Muthu

DESIGN,
Web Array

CIRCULATION,
Priya Darshani

SALES,
Cyrus Lewis

PROOF,
Madeline Jane O’Connor

SENIOR WRITERS,
Mike Beggs, Chris Maisano, Gavin Mueller

IDIOM,
Stephen Squibb, Jessica Loudis

DISTRIBUTION,
Disticor

Jacobin (2158-2602) is a magazine of culture and
polemic that Edmund Burke ceaselessly berates on his
Twitter page. Each of our issue’s contents are pored
over in taverns and other houses of ill-repute and best
enjoyed with a well-shaken can of lukewarm beer.

Jacobin is published in-print four times per year and
online at http://jacobinmag.com

Subscription price: $24 per year, $34 intl.

P.O. Box #541336, Bronx N.Y. 10454

© 2011 Jacobin Press. All rights reserved. Reproduction
in part or whole without permission is prohibited.

Page 28

27 JACOBIN, SUMMER 2011

About once an hour during the summer I spent working at Video Spectrum – a rental house in
Bowling Green, Ohio – someone would
burst through the door and demand a
film that had been released in theaters
the day before. Staggered release dates, a
business technique as simple as it is well
established, continually confounded our
citizenry, much to my surprise. Worse,
this seemed to result less from ignorance
than from contempt: People were actually
offended to find the shiny new thing on
TV unavailable at the store. For all the
ink spilled on the magic of the cinema,
on how it creates mass spectacles, and
on the overweening awe of the giant
screen and its attendant bombast, the
truth is that most people would rather
just watch that shit at home. Yeah, they’ll
miss elements of the mise-en-scene of
Citizen Kane, and that pan-and-scan
transfer of Ghostbusters is notoriously
sloppy, but your average customer
doesn’t really care. Theaters are places
for mooching A/C and getting hickeys;
movies are for forgetting your bills and
getting your kids to shut the fuck up.

I confess I was sad when I learned
of the Spectrum’s demise. Not for the
authentic shopping experience, as in
“Future generations will never know the
ecstasy of serendipitously discovering
The Howling IV – instead they shall merely
‘Google’ it!,” but for Bowling Green itself.
Nestled in a small homogenous town in a
state locked in protracted decline, Video
Spectrum was a refuge for all the queers,
pinkos, artists, stoners, and mentally ill of
Wood County. This bizarre assemblage
of VHS detritus was a space to engage
briefly with the public between private
viewings of vampire erotica, serial killer
documentaries, and the late, lesser work
of Godzilla. One guy’s entire rental history
was Clean and Sober starring Michael
Keaton, and I like to think that the store
was as responsible for his sobriety as it
was for my intoxication. The Spectrum
paid me just enough to cover the requisite
PBR and schwag to secure my master’s.
It lent me my documentaries for free

I’ve seen two summer “blockbusters”
this year, two more than usual and two
more than I plan on watching ever again.
Neither cineaste nor cinema buff — indie
video store job notwithstanding — I

find most movies scab-pickingly boring,
especially those most desperate to be
otherwise. This is probably why I found
J.J. Abrams’ patently inoffensive Super 8
so execrable. It’s a blockbuster about the
magic of blockbusters. More precisely,
it’s a Spielberg production about the
magic of Spielberg, father of the modern
blockbuster and living instantiation of
the ultimate fanboy mythos: geek out,
do it your own way, and, eventually,
you will rule the world. Abrams, an
entertainment industry brat who grew up
in L.A., inserts the Spielbergian ideology
directly into the time period of his own
childhood, opening his film with an
irritatingly plucky group of youngsters
who make science fiction shorts in a
surprisingly mountainous Dayton of
1979. Even amid alien shenanigans,
Abrams pasting his own face onto
the master’s biography is the most
interesting part of the whole convoluted
presentation, the sort of thing that
would be creepy even if Spielberg hadn’t
produced it, which, of course, he did.

“... it’s a
Spielberg

production
about the
magic of

Spielberg”
Once this incestuous backstory

wraps up, the rest of the film spills out
like a low-fat smoothie of Daddy’s
greatest hits: Menacing off-screen
monster hinted at via reaction shots
(Jaws); telepathic connection with
aliens threatened by scientific-military
intervention (Close Encounters of the Third
Kind); abused alien wants to go home but
his ship is broken (E.T.); monster attacks
a bus, trapping kids inside (Jurassic

Park). The ragtag bunch of would-be
Goonies is only missing a one-man Asian
minstrel show and Corey Feldman.
Abrams even manages to squeeze in a
gratuitous concentration camp scene.
But it’s not Abrams’ pastiche that grates
– that battle was lost decades ago — it’s
his hamfisted execution. It’s almost as
though he actually believes that the trite,
white love story between the bland one
and the blonde one – the only female
character Abrams doesn’t preemptively
kill off or mercilessly belittle – is enough
to compensate for the total absence of
memorable action sequences, music, or
visuals. Charles, the chubby, aspiring
director, voices Abrams’ screenwriting
M.O.: saturate your monster movie
with a romance subplot. “You feel
something. You don’t want them to die
because they love each other.” Color
me unconvinced. Not only is chaste
schoolboy romance the only thing more
boring than rote CGI explosions, but by
placing it center-stage Abrams actively
misinterprets what exactly Spielberg
did to break all those box office records.
There was, in other words, always a
certain cynical reason at work in the man
who invented the PG-13 rating. In his
movies, schoolboys get eaten by sharks.

Super 8, once it abandons its over-stretched meta-filmmaking frame, boils down to a simple allegory:
The military-industrial complex
destroyed small town America right
around Reagan’s election. Steel mill
accidents and references to Three Mile
Island build into a set piece wherein
U.S. tanks blow each other up while
incinerating quaint bungalows. There’s a
shade of the hypnogogic effluvia of Time
Bandits in the shower of vinyl siding,
but with the edges smoothed off. Unlike
Gilliam, mainstream hacks like Abrams
never indulge in the weird pleasures
of the surreal fantasies they construct,
hustling us quickly past like cops at a car
crash. He’s got to contain our enjoyment
of suburban destruction with liberal
platitudes about “bad apples” and
“strong families.” In another reactionary
break with Spielberg, Abrams pits Air
Force bullies ripped from the Cobra
Kai dojo against the virtuous cop-dad,
forgoing his mentor’s insistence on

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Cheap
Hollywood and its discontents

BY GAVIN MUELLER

Page 29

JACOBIN, SPRING 2011 34

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“L IFE CAN’T BE ALL BAD WHEN
FOR TEN DOLLARS YOU CAN

BUY ALL THE BEETHOVEN
SONATAS AND LISTEN TO THEM

FOR TEN YEARS.”


~ WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR .

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