U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On BBQ Sauce and Rhizomes

Two weeks ago I posted about “Neoliberalism and the Spirit of the Sixties.” A few readers took issue with my argument in the comments section. At Ph.D. Octupus, Nemo, while agreeing with my argument to a point, writes that I risk “downplaying the period’s genuine radicalism… [which] explains why the United States government saw the period’s activists, particularly the Panthers, as a major threat, and did everything in its power to destroy them (often breaking the law in the process).” Nemo lands his best punch in an embedded image of Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, dressed in leather, rifles brandished, with a sub-heading that asks the ironic question: “Harbingers of Neo-Liberalism?”

If I were into scoring cheap shots, I would point out that Bobby Seale might be the quintessential sixties-radical-cum-neoliberal, now that he trades on his fame as a Black Panther to sell BBQ Sauce recipe books. I paste the preamble to Seale’s Barbeque Bill of Rights for your reading pleasure:

WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT it becomes necessary for us, the citizens of the earth, to creatively improve the culinary art of barbe-que’n in our opposition to the overly commercialized bondage of “cue-be-rab” (barbecuing backwards); and to assume, within the realm of palatable biological reactions to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle us, a decent respect for all the billions of human taste buds and savory barbeque desires; we the people declare a basic barbeque bill of rights which impels us to help halt, eradicate, and ultimately stamp out “cue-be-rab!”

Not only would this be a cheap shot, but following the biographies of individual sixties radicals would allow arguments that swing both ways. For instance, Angela Davis remains incredibly active, especially in the anti-prison movement, which, as Nemo implicitly points out in a satirical piece on the prison-industrial complex, “A Modest Proposal: Job Creation through Incarceration” (his audition to write for The Onion), is taking neoliberalism on at its source.

Rather, I would like to rephrase my argument, which is theoretical and historical, not moral or accusatory. I do not blame sixties radicalism for neoliberalism. Quite the opposite. Their activism inarguably helped make the nation a better place. It is less racist, less sexist, and less homophobic than it used to be, reflected in laws and in attitudes. But nonetheless, the spirit of sixties radicalism was sopped up by and incorporated into U.S. corporate capitalism, in the ways that I alluded to in my previous post, and as pointed out by Walter Benn Michaels and others. But I would argue this process is nothing new. It is a recapitulation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) that, in modernity, new constraints take the form of resistance to older constraints.

The neoliberal dialectic is best exemplified by two pieces of legislation passed by the current lame-duck Congress. On the one hand, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, discriminatory to the core, was thankfully repealed. I should recognize that prohibition on serving in the military discriminated against gays economically as well, as pointed out by George Chauncey, since the postwar road to the middle class has often been traveled through the military and the benefits accrued veterans, such as the GI Bill. But on the other hand, Congress also extended all of Bush’s tax cuts, including for the wealthiest Americans, thus ensuring that inequality will continue to rise. So gays have been given a route to the middle class as the door to the middle class shrinks in the never-ending race to the bottom that is neoliberalism.

In my previous post on this topic, I also briefly addressed the ways in which another side of the spirit of sixties radicalism—the ethos typified by the antinomian protest slogan omnipresent during the late 1960s, “It is forbidden to forbid!”—wormed its way into the mainstream. A recent London Review essay by Adam Shatz on one of the strangest philosophical collaborations ever—that between Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari—illustrates this point. My introduction to Deleuze and Guattari was via Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s tome, Empire, heavily reliant on Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of rhizomatic resistance, a way to think about resistance as a network, as opposed to a structure. Going off of Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri argued that any resistance anywhere, whether the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, plugged into the global network of capital (what they termed “empire,” not your grandfather’s empire), thus altering it, at least somewhat. Shatz writes:

The warmest welcome Deleuze and Guattari received outside Italy’s Red Belt was in underground America. In 1975, Guattari’s friend Sylvère Lotringer, a professor at Columbia, organised a conference on “schizoculture” in their honour and put them up at the Chelsea Hotel. They were beginning work on A Thousand Plateaus, the sequel to Anti-Oedipus, an alluring, enigmatic essay on the “rhizome”, a non-hierarchical, hyper-connective open system in a state of constant flux and transformation, without origin or destination; they contrasted it with the root-obsessed “arborescent” or tree model. (“We’re tired of trees,” they wrote. “They’ve made us suffer too much.”) Radical New York – Black Panthers and gay activists, Marxist professors and anti-psychiatrists – turned out en masse for the symposium; John Cage and William Burroughs came along; and Foucault flew in from Paris. It quickly became a circus.

Is it any wonder they were embraced in the prototypical land of neoliberalism? More from Shatz:

Their names are invoked more often today than they were when they were alive. D&G have a rhizomatic afterlife online, cited in articles on art and film, anthropology, avant-garde jazz, colonialism, disability and military strategy; WikiLeaks has been described as an exemplary “rhizomatic, deterritorialised, itinerant war machine”. Politically, their “tool kit”, as they liked to call their work, has proved useful to everyone from Hardt and Negri, the authors of the alternative globalisation manifesto Empire, to the counterinsurgency theorist Shimon Naveh, a retired general who teaches at an Israeli military academy and speaks in fluent Deleuzo-Guattarese, describing his effort to “smooth out” spaces that are “striated” in Palestinian towns.

What would Deleuze and Guattari have made of this domestication – this perversion – of their arguments? It seems that the further their ideas have traveled from their roots on the far left, the more they have been incorporated by the system they opposed. Indeed, the language of desire, multiplicity and all the rest is no longer the language of revolution. It is the language of cyberspace, and of neoliberal capitalism. Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring machines, constantly seeking out new sensations, look a lot like today’s permanently distracted consumers and websurfers. François Dosse is keen to portray his subjects as visionaries, but they anticipated a future neither of them would have wanted to live in.

This last bit—“they anticipated a future neither of them would have wanted to live in”—should be the motto of the neoliberal dialectic.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post. I’m glad to see that we seem to agree much more than it first appeared. I’m especially happy to see that we both think that sixties radicals helped make the country a better place: “less racist, less sexist, and less homophobic.” That said, I still think that it’s a stretch to argue that the Tea Party represents resistance to neo-liberalism, even in dialectical form.

    My only other comment here would be to note that the future trajectory of 1960s activists tended to swing one way much more than the other. That is, they more often followed the Angela Davis route than the Bobby Seale BB-Q model. “Big Chill” stereotypes notwithstanding, in her book A Generation Divided, Rebecca Klatch provides strong evidence that a majority of the period’s leading radical activists remained involved with the political left–often to their economic and professional detriment–well into the 1980s and 1990s. The idea that most of them up and became yuppies, so often promoted in popular culture (a view which I realize you are not defending), is false.

    Although if you extend this picture to look at the counter-culture more broadly, the findings might be very different. The counter-culture’s antinomianism, as sixties “politicos” often pointed out themselves, seemed dangerously apolitical. Although they would probably agree that it helped produce some great records.

    Again, nice post. Now I’m off to Amazon to buy “Barbeque’n with Bobby.”

  2. that legislative doublet (repeal of DADT and extension of the tax cuts) does work nicely for your argument. Although I am sympathetic to the anti-deleuzian argument that a philosophy of desire is a perfect screen for capitalism, it seems to me a bit unfair. neoliberalism and consumer capitalism (not quite the same, after all) require regulated desires, canalized desires.

    ethan kleinberg’s “From Revolution to Ethics” is an excellent study of the French 1970s and the transformation of exactly this antinomianism into, basically, human rights discourse. for him it’s a positive development. his evidence looked to me very much like the story of a state that successfully placed limits on this antinomian impulse, and the eventual acceptance of these limits by the former revolutionaries. that is, a story about state power, not about creeping neo-liberalism.

  3. Your comments are always smart, Eric. Thanks. I don’t think about neoliberalism and state power as being at odds. The neoliberal state is as powerful as the liberal state, but works towards different ends. And although I am pro-human rights (who isn’t?) I think the global human rights regime works well alongside or even internal to the neoliberal regime, especially in its partial or selective application to those parts of the world that aren’t already prostrate. It’s why so much is made of Venezuelan or Cuban human right violations, for instance.

  4. thanks. but they’re not to smart that i didn’t screw up that last one: the book, which I really do like, is by julian bourg, not ethan kleinberg.

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