“What’s Left” podcast host Aimee Terese recently tweeted, “Marx and Engels were friends with Balzac, noted reactionary monarchist who they perceived as far more insightful, and his work a much greater contribution to the socialist cause, despite his rank, than all the bourgeois economists, historians and writers of the day.”
It’s not that I was unaware of Marx and Engels’ enthusiasm for the work of Honoré de Balzac (an enthusiasm that I share), it’s that recent evolutions in my politics opened me up to internalizing this historical literary fact in a deeper way. I’ve long advocated intellectual engagement with art and theory that expresses the entire spectrum of political ideologies. Up until roughly 2019, I assumed naïvely that most people on what I thought of as “the real Left” would agree with me. And then, I had to face the harsh reality.
The obnoxious cultural politics of the Left aren’t just a misguided belief system, they are a disciplined class politics that represent the material interests of the predominantly professional-managerial class that makes up the professional Left’s composition.
I realized why so many avowed leftists are so quick to silence or “cancel” its adherents who start to take seriously the ideas of thinkers who disagree with its orthodoxies. As propagandists for the bourgeois state, they must dehumanize (write off right wingers as “fascist” or “authoritarian” and left wingers as “class reductionist” or insufficiently “intersectional” or what have you) anyone or anything that might expose contradictions within their incoherent political logic to serve their political economic function as neoliberalism’s ideological manufacturers.
Liberated from the mental prison of contemporary leftist ideology, Marx and Engels’ admiration for Balzac makes more sense to me than it ever has prior. As a monarchist who longed for the restoration of full inheritance rights to the aristocracy, Balzac’s disgust for the burgeoning, post-French Revolution bourgeois society—and the culture of greed and competitive narcissism that it spawned—was visceral. In Balzac, there is no mystification of realpolitik; just a brutal pessimism that gave the rising liberal order the bleak representation that it deserved. There is neither good nor evil in Balzac, just human characters who fall into disparate sets of material conditions and act accordingly.
Balzac’s fiction depicted an intrinsic incompatibility between the rising consumer capitalism and the values that he considered to be noble: patriotism, dignity, family, loyalty, discipline, obligation, and otherwise. Though Balzac’s political proscriptions might be reactionary, his prose—laced in melancholy and mournfulness—is vital towards developing a Marxist critique of political economy. “Balzac ‘invents’ the new century by being the first writer to represent its emerging urban agglomerations, its nascent capitalist dynamics, its rampant cult of the individual personality,” writes Yale professor of comparative literature Peter Brooks in his 2014 introduction to a re-publishing of The Human Comedy.
How could this be? How could a reactionary novelist be more important to Marx and Engels than the bourgeois socialists and liberals of their time? To clarify, I think it’d be useful to isolate Marx’s critique of social democracy. “The peculiar character of the Social-Democracy is epitomized in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means of, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony,” Marx writes in 1852’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .
The reformist mindset of liberal idealists and bourgeois socialists mystifies the exploitative nature of capital. In Balzac’s reactionary desire to return to the social order of old, he stresses the brutal dysfunction of the capitalist system of now, whereas the socialists and idealists cushion the illusion (to varying degrees) that that order can be improved with one reform or another. If your political project is to abolish the current political economic system, your project would be better influenced by a reactionary who wants to abolish the contemporary order and reinstate an older one than by an idealist who prioritizes reforms to the system as it currently exists.
In 2020, the year that the Left definitively was exposed as little more than the shock troops of the left side of capital, this relationship between Marxists and reactionaries is pronounced once more. It should surprise no one that the arguable best work of material analysis comes from a right-leaning thinker like Michael Lind and his book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (the Left, as managerial elites themselves, would never be able to so clearly assess the reality of our class war dynamics for fear of implicating and exposing themselves as part of the problem) or that the most insightfully critical postmortem of the failed Sanders campaign was published by Julius Krein’s populist right-wing American Affairs Journal. No leftist journal would have allowed Michael Tracey and Angela Nagle to expose all the antithetical cultural principles that make the Left so widely despised by the working class people that it (dubiously) claims to be on the side of, would they?
That’s not to say there are no leftist thinkers of usefulness, but the Left as a political force is one that mystifies the stakes of realpolitik to such a degree that to bury yourself in its orthodoxies results in a disjointed ideology that couldn’t possibly assist in the formation of a mass politics.
I find far more value in many of today’s conservative, reactionary, or ideologically idiosyncratic writers than I do its avowed Marxists. Does this mean that I’ve abandoned Marxism? Not at all. On the contrary, reading the following writers sharpened my materialist critique of political economy where so many leftist thinkers before had dulled it. As Sam Bate-Francis has argued, leftists are “the real reactionaries” and “determined professionals who practice deliberate mystification, gaslighting, and appropriation in order to advance a politics irreconcilable with working-class interests.” Reactionaries, conservatives, and other thinkers who fall outside the Left, however, allow readers, especially Marxist readers, to fully comprehend the violence of our political economic contradictions.
The British writer and artist DC Miller understood earlier than most that our culture industries were serving an increasingly propagandistic function, and his commitment to clear-eyed critique of left liberal cultural hegemony against social and cultural ostracization is nothing short of valorous. While certainly not a leftist, it’s difficult to neatly describe Miller’s political orientation using the common signifiers of Left versus Right, Marxist versus reactionary, and so on. The best I can do is “conservative leaning Schopenhauerian liberal,” or a liberal pessimist, of sorts.
His views are idiosyncratic and complicated, and often fascinating. In the article “The Occult Left,” Miller demonstrates that leftists are now more akin to “cynical realists” than they are to historical materialists, or genuine political radicals. According to the article, left cultural hegemony thrives in its weakness; losing, Miller argues, is a feature and not a bug of left hegemonic power. As it functions now, the Left is a movement designed to empower but a select few of public figures, academics, NGO-employed activists, and journalists.
Despite its branding suggesting otherwise, it is not a movement that is meant to abolish or even meaningfully challenge the capitalist mode of production or emancipate the working class. “Insane lunatics or spineless careerists are praised as important thinkers and artists or experts, while heretics and anti-cult critics are cancelled, as a spectacle of deterrence, to disincentivize other Leftists from getting any ideas,” writes Miller. While Marxism necessitates immanent critique—a ruthless examination of capitalism and its contradictions—contemporary leftist ideology is riddled with dubious orthodoxies and wields a system of targeted harassment and social ostracization (cancel culture) to prevent its adherents from questioning its credos and, by extension, fails to achieve any form of coherent critique, immanent or otherwise. Miller beautifully illustrates that it is in fact leftism that stymies the critical thought that would be necessary to build a mass, emancipatory politics.
Miller’s 2014 essay “Against Political Art” notes that since artists have always flirted with radical rhetoric, and because “fascism discredited the radical right in a way that communism didn’t discredit the radical left,” that the default mode of radical expression for contemporary artists is that of a left orientation. But, “What has changed is the creation of a market for it with the embrace of political discourse by traditionally conservative institutions—like museums—in support of the establishment of political art as a collectable genre of artistic activity,” writes Miller.
In his observation of the ways in which mainstream institutions have learned to absorb their dissent and reproduce it as propaganda (an observation that in some ways mirrors theories of communist thinkers like Slavoj Žižek), Miller’s illustration of the pathologies behind these cultural tendencies is ingenious. Because artists are prone to radical Left political expression, and because that political expression is now produced and controlled by bourgeois institutions, Miller demonstrates that artists reproduce bourgeois state narratives while falsely believing that their expression is radical and threatening to state power, all while living in a cancel culture of intimidation that prevents them from ever thinking critically about these dynamics.
Miller’s political commitment is to free speech and expression (a necessity to enacting any real revolutionary fervor), and unlike the hordes of reductive thinkers that comprise the Left, he doesn’t mystify his political goals or larp as something that he’s not. And for that commitment, he’s endured total ostracization. His defense of the London-based LD50 gallery that was shut down by Antifa protesters for platforming reactionary thinkers resulted in Miller’s loss of position within the art world and targeted smear campaigns that threatened his livelihood. How many Left-associated thinkers would so willingly put themselves in the firing line? Not many, I’d wager.
Miller’s work, and his cowardly enemies’ responses to it, expose leftists as the ideological gatekeepers of neoliberalism. While leftists get high-salaried jobs at powerful NGO organizations, Miller remains independent and unaffiliated.
Nick Land can also be difficult to place politically. He’s a neo-reactionary who had direct influence and pedagogy over some of the most brilliant Left-aligned political theorists of the 21st century: Mark Fisher, Kodwo Eshun, Sadie Plant and many others. At the same time, his later work—especially his notorious essay “The Dark Enlightenment” —has been cited as an influential text on at least some ideological sects within the often conflicting belief systems that comprise the alt-Right, and I don’t wish to dilute or minimize the controversial nature of some of Land’s work. On the contrary, it is Land’s refusal to conform to his critics’ expectations that can make reading his work nothing short of a mesmeric intellectual experience.
In Land’s theory, the decay of the neoliberal order takes on a metaphysical despair. His depiction of capitalism renders technological acceleration of political economic trends as a macabrely awesome force of nature.
Reading Land should foremost be approached as an aesthetic or literary experience. The texts can be unsettlingly hallucinatory; a hypnotic blend of theory fictions, Deleuzian psychoanalytic explorations, techno-philosophies, and an occulted conception of the contemporary. “Advanced technologies invoke ancient entities; the human voice disintegrates into the howl of cosmic trauma; civilization hurtles towards an artificial death,” write philosophers Robin McKay and Ray Brassier in their introduction to the collection of Land’s writing from 1987-2007 Fanged Noumena.
As the most prominent figure associated with the 1990s theory group CCRU, Land’s work contributed to the formation of what we now call both Left and Right accelerationism, and indeed his thought can be taken in both directions. Land’s theories of acceleration were initially met with widespread contempt from orthodoxic Marxists who were predictably appalled at Land’s advocacy for the acceleration of capitalism’s disintegration of society. But I hold an alternative position. At a time in which most self-described Marxists spend all their resources advocating for light harm reduction reforms, Land offers a discordant reminder that there is no reform that can rectify capitalism’s contradictions and tendencies towards crises.
Land is an excellent critic of academic cowardice and the self-defeating pathologies of the Left. In Land’s essay “Critique of Transcendental Miserablism,” Land observes that the Left has “buried all aspirations to positive economism” (or ‘freeing the forces of production from capitalist relations of production’) and replaced it with a “limitless cosmic despair.” Land notes that “neomarxists” have been forced to admit that capitalism will always outperform its ideological competitors in terms of productivity and desire. In an echo of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto claim that capitalism liquidates all social relations beneath its radical productive capacities (“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”), Land writes: “For the Transcendental Miserablist, ‘Capitalism’ is the suffering of desire turned to ruin, the name for everything that might be wanted in time, an intolerable tantalization whose ultimate nature is unmasked by the Gnostic visionary as loss, decrepitude and death…”
Land’s emphasis on this essential defeatism and failure that defines the Left holds utility in attempting to understand the phenomenon in which even the most interesting leftist thinkers often capitulate to inadequate reformist positions laced in nostalgia for theories that have already failed. For example, consider Mark Fisher. As Efraim Carlebach has written, Fisher rose to prominence with his theory of “Capitalist Realism,” which criticized the Left’s ceasing to imagine a world outside the limitations imposed on it by capital. But shortly before Fisher’s suicide, he was openly hopeful about Corbynism—best understood as nostalgia for the labour principles of the old Left—and was constructing his theory of “Acid Communism”—a fetishization of the hippie principles of the New Left that Fisher himself had once accurately blamed for the rise of neoliberalism. Fisher, it would seem, became afflicted with capitalist realism himself, and Land’s work dissects this resignation.
In “Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest ,” Land interrogates the existence of racism. His explanation is fascinating. Invoking the arguments posed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus to explore the ways in which capital is constantly moving and spreading outwards beyond itself, Land states that capital needs an ideological basis to “disaggregate” itself from blame for its processes and destruction of social relations. For example, when an imperialist nation enforces its economic system on the Third World, it can then blame the erosion of that Third World society on the Third World’s cultural tendencies. Land cites Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to argue that this modernity is defined by Westerners’ tendency to know about “the other” through “a priori” subjective reasoning divorced of any real experience (“a posteriori”). Thus, Land argues, racism doesn’t exist in the “superstructure” or the culture around the means of production, but within its economic basis itself because it needs to create these “others” to justify its primary mode of accumulation: exploitation. “The origin of wage labor relations is not itself economic,” writes Land, “But lies in an overt war against the people.”
Though I disagree that ideology drives capitalism and instead adhere to the inverse belief, that capitalism drives ideology (it’d be interesting to read a sequel to this piece in which Land analyzes the capitalist class’ loud shift from racist to anti-racist allegiances), Land’s work facilitates a better comprehension of capital as not an anti-ideological system, as Fisher asserted, but as a deeply ideological one.
And this is why Land, though not specifically an anti-capitalist himself, can be so useful to developing a politics rooted in anti-capitalism. In Land’s perpetual outsider status and his interest in taking philosophical and political concepts to their often surprising end points, he allows us to disunite the mode of production from its ideological underpinnings and understand how the two feed one another. Since “The Dark Enlightenment,” there have been widespread attempts to smear Land as a fascist unworthy of engagement. Ignore them, there is great value in his thought.
If late capitalism, or liquid modernity, or post-digital capitalism or whatever you want to call our strange and alienating epoch, had its own reactionary literary artist who performs a political economic function equivalent to that which Marx and Engels found within Balzac, it would be Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq has become synonymous with a transgressive, critical and idiosyncratic artistic stance against consumerist society that appeals to artists, radicals, edgelords, and political thinkers on both the Right and the Left. His image—Houellebecq is widely meme’d for his decrepit, alcohol and cigarette-battered, goblin-esque look—is emblematic of the last gasp of a vital literary figure. Dostoyevsky called it “the underground man.” Joris-Karl Huysmans described the stance as “against nature.” Colin Wilson dubbed it simply “the outsider.” Now, we call it “Houellebecq.” Houellebecq is perpetually antagonistic to political, philosophical, and cultural orthodoxy. He refuses to accept the conditions placed upon him and his dismissal of bourgeois progressivism allots him an insight about our epoch similarly to that expressed by Balzac in the 19th century.
Houellebecq’s literature, which can be as sublimey vulgar as Louis Ferdinand Céline and as decadently pessimistic as Huysmans, manifests the incongruities between society’s values and its political economics brutally visible. Perhaps better than any contemporary artist (other than maybe David Chase and “The Sopranos”) Houellebecq has been able to elicit the sheer pain, despair, and loneliness that characterizes modern life. In his work, socioeconomic conditions are a Shakespearean tragedy, and he imbues cultural decay and political dysfunction with an emotional resonance. While good Marxists stress materialism, it can be invaluable to read a writer like Houellebecq and dwell in the alienation that most people feel, which can rejuvenate a moral purpose for abolishing the liberal order.
Houellebecq’s first masterpiece The Elementary Particles, also known by its utterly appropriate alternate title Atomised, is a vicious takedown of the selfish free love values of the Boomer-era New Left that paved the path for neoliberal individualism to become the defining belief system of the postmodern West. The story follows two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, who shared a hippie, free-spirited mother whose sexual adventurousness and loose lifestyle wrought havoc upon both her sons’ lives. Michel ends up raised by his paternal grandmother and becomes a molecular biologist who is forced into solitude and celibacy as an adult; his only real achievement in science becomes, humorously, the basis for the discovery of a process that ends human reproductivity. Bruno, raised in and out of foster care, becomes a sexual hedonist whose perversions and inability to seek anything other than immediate sexual gratification lead to his life also being one of loneliness and collapsed meaning. Note that the book was published in 1998 and written in the midst of the early neoliberal boom times and before the years of terrorism and economic collapse.
Before there was substantial material evidence of neoliberalism’s economic failings, Houellebecq identified its definitive spiritual affliction: alienation. Houellebecq saw better than any other artist that no one could exist outside this system, and that this system was failing.
A culture’s most prophetic and insightful thinkers and artists are historically treated with scorn and derision. By pinpointing uncomfortable truths, they make us face that which we refuse to accept as our bleak reality. Houellebecq’s talent for prophecy is uncanny, and he has on more than one occasion written fictional scenarios that would eventually materialize in the real world. And despite or perhaps because of his oracular nature, Houellebecq has been the recipient of unfair criticism and smears.
Houellebecq’s Atomised is for me the most devastating portrait of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He shows how permissive hedonism turns into the obscene superego universe of the obligation to enjoy. Even his anti-Islamism is more refined than it may appear: he is well aware how the true problem is not the Muslim threat from the outside, but our own decadence. — Slavoj Zizek
In Platform (my favorite Houellebecq novel), published in 2001, Houellebecq somewhat contradicts the thesis of The Elementary Particles in that its protagonist (again named Michel) meets the love of his life (Valérie) while experimenting with sex tourism on vacation in Thailand, thereby flirting with the same free love ideology that he rejected in his previous novel. With his new love and her boss at a travel agency, Michel plans to open his own sex tourism hotel in Thailand, where they also decide to live so they can revel in the bliss that they experience there. That bliss comes to a shocking and violent end, however, when Muslim extremists storm the beach where they’re vacationing and his beloved is killed, and the story ends with Michel’s suicide. It was only a year later that a similar terrorist attack would occur in Bali. It’s tempting for leftists and liberals to write off Houellebecq for his Islamophobia, but as Žižek has noted, it’s more complicated than that. Houellebecq is a sagacious critic of doctrines, especially doctrines that appear to arise in response to postmodern political decay. Islamism is one doctrine, but so is the permissive liberal hedonism practiced by his characters. These doctrines accentuate the innate contradictions of late capitalism, and attempt to rectify themselves through bloodshed.
Simultaneously, Serotonin’s (2019) depiction of the plight of French farmers in a globalized economy and the violent protest movements that emerge from it was shockingly close to the Yellow Vest movement that began shortly after the novel’s publication. Houellebecq appears to grasp the ideological fluidity of the contemporary proletariat better than any writer, and never fails to point out to the liberal intelligentsia how far out of phase with ordinary people their liberal values are.
He once remarked, “I am part of the class who votes for Macron, because I am too rich to vote for Le Pen or Mélenchon.” In an era when poor white Donald Trump voters are derided as “Deplorables,” Houellebecq is refreshing in that he understands that populism on both the Left and the Right is a perfectly rational response to a free market liberal order that has profaned all that ordinary people find sacred and that demands their allegiance even when taking food out of their mouths.
Houellebecq has been said to be a “pain-in-the-ass Calvinist,” and he once clarified this by saying that he believes “the moral character of people is fixed, until death.” But Houellebecq is mostly atheist, so we can take this phrase’s meaning as his belief that people are forcibly embedded into socioeconomic conditions, and that it is nearly impossible to transcend those conditions. The materialism of that sentiment is infinitely more erudite than anything I’ve heard said by any contemporary fiction writer who leans Marxist (however few there are). Houellebecq feels the soul crushing solitude of modern life, and he forces us to unburden ourselves of our own repressed alienation and to experience it in its totality through his beautiful art. And for that, I remain indebted to Houellebecq.
Please, don’t take this essay as an endorsement of conservatives like Jordan Peterson, who are often every bit as reductive and incoherent as the leftists they antagonize. The reactionaries I am drawn to are the likes of Wyndham Lewis, Yukio Mishima, Céline, and the writers that I have chronicled here. I’m not going to suggest that they don’t have any agenda, as some of them most certainly do, but these thinkers all wield acute insight into the dysfunctions of bourgeois society. In their tendencies to react, they develop an intuitive sense and rejection of what doesn’t work, even if their solutions to these problems can skew off the mark. But as I’ve written previously, leftism has become the cultural hegemony. Leftist cultural values are the norm in anything from mainstream media to corporate HR culture. Reactionaries, due to these conditions, are now outsiders to that system and looking in, while most leftists are actively reproducing the ideology that protects the system from its own dissent. To remain virulently critical and engaged, I try to maintain ontological flexibility to detect shifts within our political economy as they happen. I suggest anyone committed to a Marxist analysis of political economy do the same, and reading the great reactionaries will assist you in developing that intellectual versatility.