In a recent longer essay of the lumpenproletariat and Bonapartism, I tried to open up a revisitation of the Marxist theory of Bonapartism, namely, a theory of how the ruling class restores its power through the rise of an unrepresentable political figure.
Bonapartism not only provides a useful way of accounting for the rise of Trump. It also helps us to distinguish between fascistic tendencies that emerge within the liberal bourgeois order. Bonapartism is a logic of historical repetition, it is in Marx’s essay 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that the famous, ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’ comes from.
A Bonapartist seizure of power within the liberal-capitalist parliamentary system ushers in a new hegemonic bloc of the bourgeois liberal order despite the unrepresentable and often incoherent status of the Bonapartist leader. I proposed a new periodization of Bonapartism, its relation to fascism and the lumpenproletariat, and more in this essay.
What I aimed to show in this essay, in addition to this important logic of crisis and repetition, was that “lumpenization” is another, closely related logic to Bonapartism. Lumpenization is both a structural economic effect of capitalist accumulation and a wider tendency of intra-class fragmentation that affects a multiplicity of classes, not only the proletariat. In moments of crisis in which Bonapartist political figures emerge, it is likely that this parasitic lumpenizing process is accelerated. Lumpenization is thus what starts in the margins of the proletariat and takes over every class.
In what follows, I want to share a portion of this essay that I did not publish, in part because it is more speculative. As I developed in this essay, lumpenization is one way to understand the notion of a decadent breakdown of the social order. There is, after all, the view which Lukács develops in the Destruction of Reason which associates the viability of class struggle and the agency of the proletariat with rationality and reason. In this view, a social order is decadent when the antagonisms of the proletariat are washed away in moments of bourgeois triumph. The very coherence of class conflict disintegrates in the context of lumpenization, and the result is a disorientation in the superstructural domain: ideologically the situation is, like our own present situation, profoundly vulnerable and confused.
Jacques Rancière argues that the effects of the 1848 quelling of the worker’s movements across Europe, which witnessed the rise of Louis Bonaparte III, brought about a crisis of lumpenization across the various classes. This crisis, by the end of its sequence and the conclusion of Bonaparte’s reign created the conditions for a world in which the entire world was made bourgeois. Because Bonaparte was a figure who was effectively unrepresentable politically or ideologically with any one bloc on the political spectrum, the bourgeois order persisted in a decadent form, that is, without ideological coherence but with all its power retained. Thus, the crisis of 1848 was not merely economic but rather extended to the heart of the crisis within the nation-state-capital nexus. The crisis has representational effects in the sphere of the state for which the Bonapartist figure comes to ameliorate, and it also has effects in the superstructural sphere: culture, ideological, moral and aesthetic sphere.
For Lukács, the post 1848 social order which projected a total bourgeois logic was nonetheless one riddled with contradictions and decadent absurdity. This is why the post-1848 European literary and artistic movements possess a distinctive style and pathetic flamboyance. It is also in this period in which Marx formulated his new science in Capital. In Rancière’s reading, Marx’s Capital aims at a total destruction of the social order. We should pay careful attention to the emphasis here between the dissolution of classes that lumpenization brings about and this decomposition giving rise to a new order of the world in which everything is bourgeois. Similar to our own time, the post-1848 social order possessed the growing sense that bourgeois life was inescapable. In this context, the proletariat needs the science of capital to exist, not merely to become educated about the value form. Without Capital, bourgeois society would persist with its masquerade of irrationalism and decadence, which is the effect of a society of general lumpenization. Liberalism is after all a society of atomized individuals constantly re-atomizing and foreclosing solidarity.
It is striking to note the literary resonances that Marx and Engels had with nineteenth century realist authors such as Balzac, whose writing on the decadence of bourgeois life pointed to Marx’s idea of the total image of the world made by the bourgeoisie. Engels wrote of Balzac: “I have learned more [in his writings] than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.” It was in Balzac’s writings that Engels found “a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction.”[i] These pessimistic and reactionary accounts of a bourgeois society in permanent decay—yet remaining hegemonic—also resembles the idea of a “serialized” social existence taken up by Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason and even in Alain Badiou’s idea of contemporary society as atonal or as lacking sites for decisional breaks with the bourgeois order. If everything is bourgeois, then there is no outside. The absence of an outside to capital, the proposal that capital is fundamentally world-less, as Badiou claims, are by now familiar ways of analyzing capitalist society.
The sequence of revolutionary upheaval that post-1848 calls forth, is a different idea of the proletariat, one in which its agency and organization must be set on bringing about a total break with the bourgeois social order. If the decadent double caused by lumpenization is inescapable, then the proletariat is forced to mold itself into an artist to avoid lumpenizing itself or, which may be the same thing, to avoid becoming bourgeois. The proletariat must master a different art of becoming a historical agent such that they avoid lumpenization, for to embrace lumpenization is to embrace the double and thus the irony of bourgeois life. Rancière writes:
History will be ironic until we see the birth of the new actor, the anti-comedian, the historical character who alone is worthy of the modernity of the big-budget production: the young proletarian who, endowed with humor, can send into retirement the old handmaid with her whole cast of extras.[ii]
In Kojin Karatani’s discussion of the lumpenproletariat in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, he writes that the lumpenproletariat emerged as a “non-class” founded on a “contentless discourse.”[iii] The lumpenproletariat is a mirror for what Karatani calls the crisis of representation endemic to the capital-nation-state system. The lumpenproletariat comes about to plug the “hole” in the system of representation, just as the Bonapartist figure does. Karatani writes: “the (representative) system created in modern times contains a hole that can never be filled, one that exists quite apart from the actual, visible king, president, or emperor; furthermore, it is precisely this hole that is repeated as the “return of the repressed.”
Lumpenization is thus a structural feature that mirrors the rise of the Bonapartist figure who comes about to resolve the crisis. Both the Bonapartist leader and the lumpen plug the hole in the system and enable it to continue with bourgeois dominance. The Bonapartist and the lumpen are general figures of repetition in any capitalist social order, but their “plugging” of the hole in representation does not resolve the crisis of representation. Rather, it forestalls it.
As Clyde Barrow reminds us, the Black Panther militant Eldridge Cleaver’s prediction of a coming “lumpenization of humanity” is prophetic, not only for its global pertinence—an observation he owes to Frantz Fanon’s lumpen-centered theory of post-colonial praxis—but also, as early as the mid-1970s, Cleaver predicted the rise of Trumpism by showing how the lumpenization of the Black proletariat would, in a matter of time, lumpenize the white working class. While Cleaver’s prediction of lumpenization relies on a theory of automation discarding workers from productive labor, the role of technology has played a significant role in literary attention to the theme of the double.
The Monstrous Double
My speculative hypothesis is that there is a relation between the lumpenization that takes on the hue of a total bourgeois order and the motif of the double or the doppelgänger in art that emerges in such conditions. From Goethe’s Faust (1829) to Hoffman’s The Sandman (1871) the doppelgänger is a literary motif that emerged in the early industrial period. The main thrust of the doppelgänger trope is the power of technological power to double the human being as a mere prosthetic appendage. In these Enlightenment-era myths of the double, it is the robot double that haunts the early machine age as a threat to the very integrity and authenticity of the core humanity of man.[iv] But today the motif of the double has reversed its footing, moving from the Enlightenment fear of technological usurpation and castration of authentic humanity, to a lumpenization fantasy wherein the double stands in as the repressed lumpen other of the middle-class self.
Hollywood films involving the double and dissociative fantasies of racial and class identity have grown more common in recent years, from Us by Jordan Peele to Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley to Antebellum by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) reveals a lumpen-bourgeois doubling, portraying a Black, invisible lumpen underclass, mysteriously connected to their surrogate middle-class doubles in the above-ground “real world.” The film stages the anxiety of lumpenization and the attendant shame that comes with middle class bourgeois life—an anxiety tied to the fact that one may slip into lumpen status at any moment, or the shame associated with leaving the lumpen community behind to enter into liberal bourgeois property ownership. The repression of the lumpen underclass is a metaphor for how the lumpen is an unconscious remainder of middle-class politics but held at a terrified distance. A similar lumpen monstrous double is treated with comedic effect in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You wherein the tele-work corporate elite experiment with modifying their human workers by turning them partially into-horses, thus casting the precarity of the needy opportunist worker with the castrating fear of losing their humanity along with their labor.
The motif of the lumpen double is akin to what René Girard calls the “monstrous double,”: a figure that is both inside and outside the community. The monstrous double is associated with the pharmakon or the excluded class on the margins of the Greek society who were eligible for sacrifice without legal intermediation.[v] In this way, the lingering surplus populations, from the opioid addicts to the hallucinated lumpen-other of the middle-class subject, must be sacrificed in order for a psychic equilibrium to be restored. The lumpen stands for the monstrous double with which the community originally dealt at its founding moment and must be purged in order for a semblance of order to reign. Girard writes: “every member of the community must be able to consider the beast, before its metamorphosis into a “very sacred object,” as the logical target for his anger.”[vi] This Girardian reading of lumpenization thus provides the means to see this very process as one of mimetic rivalry, wherein the lumpen stands for the third other that must be excised in order to restore a social order beyond mimetic violence.[vii] Was it Trump on his bully pulpit alone that terrified and upended the stability of the public sphere, or were the legions of rabid Trumpists, with all their disavowed lumpen connotations, not also a source of a monstrous double that must be excised?
For Freud, the double is a phenomenon of the familiar becoming unfamiliar, to which he gave the name Unheimliche in his essay “The Uncanny.” Lumpenization points to a much wider social decomposition in which the familiar becomes foreign. Lumpenization is thus a process of Unheimliche, to which a class and its individual members may be subject. This can lead to a self-hatred of one’s identity qua lumpen or qua potential lumpenization, a condition perhaps for civil war. It is also worth examining the way in which lumpenization fuels resentment politics as it turns classes upside down.
Doubling also describes the effectiveness of the liberal denunciations of Trumpism as poor white lumpens. Part of the enjoyment in denouncing Trumpism comes precisely from affirming one’s education and superior social position over racist Trumpist scum. The fact that Trumpism is reduced to racial animus as the exclusive driving motivation of Trumpism becomes another way to purge oneself of the guilt involved with poor white people and to elevate a morally superior position vis-a-vis these lumpen racists. Similar to the guilty conscience often attributed to the ascendant Black middle class, as depicted in Peele’s Us, is there not a white guilt at work in hatred towards Trumpists? The current political moment has brought about a “politics of affect” around the double, which works overtime to keep the lumpen identity repressed. Contemporary political discourse has weaponized the lumpenization of classes as a means to fortify a bourgeois-dominated political culture, a culture that resembles the total bourgeois social order.
[i] See Engels’s letter to Margaret Harkness, April 1888: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1888/letters/88_04_15.htm.
[ii] Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor, 121.
[iii] Kojin Karatani, Repetition and History, ed. Seiji M. Lippit (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
[iv] The word robot derives from the Czech word ‘robota,’ which means “forced labor.”
[v] Pharmakon denotes a substance that is simultaneously toxic and an antidote to its own toxicity.
[vi] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 286.
[vii] I do not have the space to elaborate a more thorough Girardian reading of lumpenization, though this remains a project worthy of further elaboration
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