Review of James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010). ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-3541-1. 179 pages.
Review by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
“Keep arguing.” James Livingston, 2010
Professor Livingston needn’t worry. His new book will keep people arguing. For The World Turned Inside Out is nothing if not maddeningly counterintuitive. Some of my friends and colleagues who have read it inform me that they agree with nothing in it. Of course, these same friends and colleagues also tell me they have never agreed with a single word Livingston has written. And yet, they keep reading. And they keep arguing.
In his first major contribution to intellectual history, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (1994), Livingston argued against historians who made the Populists out to be history’s tragic, if fallen heroes, celebrated for their resistance to the corporate order. In contrast, Livingston marveled at the material surpluses offered by the new corporate order and, furthermore, contended that the emergence of corporations merited intellectual innovation in the eyes of pragmatists, especially John Dewey. “In the narrative form of pragmatism,” Livingston wrote, “the decline of proprietary capitalism loses its pathos, and the triumph of corporate capitalism appears as the first act of an unfinished comedy, not the residue of tragedy” (1994; xvi). Livingston thus inverted the historical trajectory posited by Christopher Lasch in his 1991 The True and Only Heaven: whereas Lasch understood “progress” to be mere ideological cover for the bureaucratic and technocratic constraints of the corporate order, Livingston pointed to the newfound freedoms made possible by that order. Unfortunately for us all, Lasch died in 1994, unable to respond to Livingston’s provocations.
In his next significant book, Pragmatism and Feminism: Rethinking the Politics of American History (2001), Livingston contended that the intellectual revolutions otherwise known as pragmatism and feminism were very similar in structure, largely because both were made possible by consumer capitalism’s obliteration of older bourgeois restraints. In opposition to most feminist theorists, especially those who framed their ideas in the Marxist tradition, Livingston theorized that feminism not only worked well alongside consumer capitalism, but that the latter created a context that allowed for the former. He wrote: “So if the cause (in both senses) of modern feminism is the extrication of women from an exclusive preoccupation with domestic roles—a process that both presupposes paid employment and permits the detachment of female sexuality from familial objects or reproductive functions—and if modern feminism is by definition a cross-class social movement because it claims to speak for all women, it would seem to follow that the necessary condition of modern feminism is the rise of corporate capitalism” (2001; 176). Somewhat ironically, Marxist theorist Nancy Fraser recently came around to this view, not to celebrate consumer capitalism, as Livingston, but rather, to critique second-wave feminism.
And now, in The World Turned Inside Out (2010), Livingston makes a whole series of counterintuitive claims that serve as an intellectual defense of consumer capitalism and the corporate order. Here are a few of his central points that should keep us arguing:
1. The left won the culture wars, and in fact, most political struggles since the 1960s.
2. Postmodernism and poststructuralism are American inventions, prefigured by pragmatism and other American intellectual revolutions.
3. Mass consumer culture (television, film, music) anticipated even the most radical forms of postmodern thinking, such as deconstruction.
4. All of these developments were good, and happened despite Livingston’s recognition that a spike in economic inequality caused the financial crisis of 2008.
This review will focus on Livingston’s first point, that the left has been largely victorious, since, more than the others, it will likely engender the most cognitive dissonance in those who lived through the past thirty years, when even the eight-year interruption to conservative rule, in the form of the Clinton administration, needs to be qualified by such pesky facts as Ross Perot, NAFTA, and Welfare Reform.
“The cultural and intellectual revolution that changed North America and the world after 1975,” Livingston writes, “was so successful—it was so formative, causative, and measurable—that we can take it for granted, and then look past it, to the point where some of us even argue that conservatism took over American thought and culture after 1980” (2010; xiii). At first glance, it seems Livingston is making an argument similar to that made by historian David Courtwright in his new book, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America. Courtwright shows that where the cultural right failed, the economic right succeeded; where the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition fell short in turning back the tides of secularism, the American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce achieved lower taxes and fewer regulations. Courtwright’s thesis is that contemporary American life is dominated by both cultural and economic libertarianism, the twin legacies of the boomer generation. Like Courtwright, Livingston accentuates the cultural effects of “the fabled 1960s,” arguing “that the tendencies and sensibilities we associate with that moment decisively shaped intellectual agendas and cultural practices… in the 1980s and 1990s” (2010; xv).
But unlike Courtwright, Livingston thinks conservatives failed in the economic arena as well. In other words, the Reagan Revolution was not very revolutionary, at least, not in the sense we are accustomed to thinking about it. Livingston offers up as evidence the ineluctable growth of government, even its redistributive arm, which for him includes the military, a redistributive agency for the poor. Livingston says that an “unspoken socialism” became an entrenched national consensus, as transfer payments—“income received by households and individuals for which no contribution to current output of goods or services has been required”—“were the fastest-growing component of income in the late twentieth century, amounting, by 1999, to 20 percent of all labor income” (19). This is compelling stuff, though it requires a mild suspension of disbelief, since, in this instance, Livingston ignores that transfer payments likely increased in response to the loss of millions of well-paying unionized jobs. To this extent, deindustrialization better describes recent U.S. political economy than does socialism, and the growth of transfer payments should be understood as necessary to political stability in the face of growing inequality. At a more basic level, the fact of growing inequality calls into question the premise that the left is winning the national political battle. By what political spectrum does a society with a victorious left equate to an increasingly unequal one?
Livingston is on firmer ground when he limits the scope of his analysis to the culture wars. On this battleground, the left did much better, even if, again, Livingston overplays his hand. It is beyond doubt that the United States is now more tolerant than it was sixty years ago, when many more forms of discrimination were still legal, and that this tolerance led to conservative frustration in the culture wars. “Whatever the issue—whether sexuality, gay rights, reproduction, education, women’s rights, racial equity, equal opportunity, affirmative action, or freedom of expression—the domestic debate was… always lost by the so-called cultural conservatives who kept citing ‘family values.’” The key to Livingston’s point here lies in the recent history of the university, for, as he writes, “the New Left of the 1960s grew up and got jobs in all the right places, especially, but not only, in higher education” (20). In accentuating the importance of higher education, and in claiming that the left controls the “commanding heights” of the university, Livingston is rehashing conservative culture war contentions, most famously argued by Lynne Cheney, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and Allan Bloom. But whereas these right-wingers lamented left-wing academic hegemony, Livingston brags about it.
Livingston is certainly correct in asserting the centrality of the university to American society: the university credential system has become the principal gateway to the professional world, a sorting mechanism for white-collar hierarchy. The numbers tell the story: in 1960, there were about 3.5 million Americans enrolled in universities; by 1970, this number had more than doubled to around 7.5 million, as the size of faculties grew proportionally. Livingston nicely relates this demographic explosion on the nation’s college campuses to the culture wars, or to what he generally describes as the “debates about the promise of American life.” “By the 1970s,” Livingston writes, “the principal residence of that promise was widely assumed to be the new ‘meritocracy’ enabled by universal access to higher education” (21). To this extent, class resentment aimed at intellectuals—and tropes about “political correctness”—made sense, in a misplaced sort of way, since intellectuals indeed held the levers to any given individual’s future economic stability. Similarly, Eric Hobsbawm recently related the growing importance of a university education to the redirection of class animosity against “toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us.” But whereas Hobsbawm detects false consciousness in this rhetorical arrangement, Livingston, rather, implies there is truth in such charges since, by his estimation, the left did indeed control the university, the culture, and thus, the postindustrial, postmodern political system.
If Livingston is correct to place the university at the center of American cultural politics, he is mistaken to assert that the left controls the university. Of course cultural leftists gained positions of power in departments of English, American Studies, and to a lesser degree, history, sociology, and political science. But so what? This fact needs to be weighed against the ever-decreasing percentage of students who major in the disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences. What does it mean that leftists occupy English departments when the largest and fastest growing major is business? Furthermore, I am genuinely curious as to how Livingston would respond to the research conducted by Marc Bousquet and others that details how universities are increasingly organized as profit-making institutions that slash labor costs by replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts and graduate students. Reorganizing the university along the lines of a corporation that offers a product to consumers—to students and their tuition-paying parents—has lessened the impact of the university as a creator of culture, at least, of the type of culture I would call leftist.
Another less noticeable yet no less significant problem with Livingston’s postulation that the left won the culture wars is that he unintentionally repeats the vital centrist theory of American history: those who disagreed with the American consensus— whether it be the Cold War liberal consensus of the 1950s, or the postmodern cultural consensus of the 1990s—stand in the way of progress and, as such, deserve scorn and condescension. Just as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. labeled both communists and right-wing isolationists dangerous reactionaries in 1949, Livingston implies that both modernist Marxists like Fredric Jameson and traditionalist conservatives like Robert Bork were atavistic remnants of a culture that had passed them by. While silly Marxists like Jameson persisted in anachronistically prioritizing material conditions over language, crazy conservatives like Bork made wild arguments about how the 1960s enshrined the radical individualism of the Declaration of Independence. Livingston ignores that both responses to the postmodern condition were no less innovative than, say, deconstruction. Take Bork, for instance. While his argument was undoubtedly strange coming from a notorious conservative figure, especially given its anti-American implications, it was also, paradoxically, straight out of the book of Nietzsche (though Nietzsche looked nihilism much more squarely in the face, and dated its modern beginnings to Christ not Jefferson).
One of Livingston’s problems is that he does not take conservatism very seriously. Following Roger Kimball, he claims that the culture wars were largely an “intramural sport on the left” (53). From my view, it goes without saying that conservatives were also deeply engaged in the culture wars. Think about Mississippi evangelical Donald Wildmon and his organization, the American Family Association, which coordinated protests against Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Also remember that it was the American Legion and other conservative veteran’s groups that derailed the Smithsonian’s proposed Enola Gay exhibit. The list goes on. Even in academia, where the “intramural sport on the left” characterization is most accurate, conservative culture warriors had their say, made evident by the critical and commercial success of such conservative missives as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, and Lynne Cheney’s non-ironically titled, Telling the Truth. Livingston mentions these thinkers only to brush them aside, and to conflate their worldview with anti-postmodernist thinkers such as Alan Sokol, the physicist who wrote a hoax article in 1996 for the journal Social Text to prove the bankruptcy of the entire postmodern project. Livingston writes of Sokol: “Like Mrs. Cheney, he believed in a fixed external reality governed by scientifically proven laws of motion and… he believed the academic Left had lost its way when it made the linguistic turn and decided, following Charles Peirce’s semiotic lead, that ‘matter is effete mind’” (51).
Livingston lumps Fredric Jameson together with the Sokols and Cheneys of the world, as equally conservative, even reactionary. But Livingston does not analyze Jameson’s work in any depth. This is unfortunate, because had he done so, he might have found a way to reconcile the contradictory claim that the left was winning the political struggle in spite of increasing inequality. Or not, which is perhaps the point. Livingston is correct that Jameson eschewed postmodern trends and continued to categorize reality and perception differently, particularly in his famous 1984 New Left Review essay, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” On the one hand, Jameson scoffed at the idea that social classes had disappeared in real terms, made evident by the “ever greater quantities of structurally unemployable subjects.” On the other, he understood why the perception that class no longer mattered resonated in a postmodern context, inasmuch as the new forms of capitalist organization had “flung workers in archaic factories out of work, displaced new kinds of industry to unexpected parts of the world, and recruited work forces different from the traditional ones in a variety of features, from gender to skill and nationality…” In this way, by bracketing off reality from perception, Jameson was pretty convincing, to me at least, in explaining the link between postmodern epistemologies and what he considered “pure” capitalist economic policies.
Livingston is absolutely right that there is no return from pragmatism, which he argues anticipated deconstruction at every level. Pragmatism (and deconstruction) endowed human beings with a history. In other words, pragmatism (and deconstruction) was a theoretical move that explained how humans could not have preceded the first attempt to understand humans, through the social use of language or signs. Livingston writes: “These propositions become downright threatening when you realize that they drive nails into the coffin of the modern individual… For it suggests that individuals are not somehow prior to any social contract or political community or linguistic convention… and that language is not the transparent medium of the truth-seeking capacity we call reason” (43). This is intoxicating stuff. But it still does not explain inequality, nor help us overcome it. For Jameson, such postmodern epistemologies made Sartre’s existentialist version of Marxism a tempting if flawed resolution. In the fanciful world of the postmodern, where political identities, like gender, were as fluid as performance, Jameson seemed to suggest that inventing a new leftist political subject, a necessary precondition of liberation from capital, would have been no less fanciful. Such a suggestion, however, did not create a way out of the postmodern condition so much as represent the hopelessness of the left. To me, Livingston’s book also represents such hopelessness in that, even in the so-called left-wing victory, inequality reigns supreme (not to mention war!)
This review only touches the surface of The World Turned Upside Down. The book includes several chapters on popular culture, one on American empire, and an appendix dedicated to analyzing the recent financial collapse. All of it is grist for the mill. Readers will find Livingston’s takes on mainstream films like Blade Runner and Robocop, “perhaps the two best movies of the 1980s” (61), alongside B-movies like the disgusting I Spit on Your Grave (recently remade!), equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Readers will either love or hate Livingston’s scatological exploration of South Park. Either way, if you pick up this book, you will not be bored. And you certainly will not stop arguing.