Navigating the Crosscurrents: Reinvigorating the Emancipatory Project of the Left in a Postindustrial Age

by Caspian Vale

In the turbid depths of our contemporary political landscape, leftism finds itself adrift amidst a tempest of valorization of trauma, powerlessness, and victimhood. The once formidable vessel of class struggle, which navigated the tumultuous waters of revolutions and reform, now lies beached upon the treacherous sands of identity politics, its crew ensnared within the labyrinthine intricacies of micropolitical grievances. To decipher the roots of this metamorphosis and divine the means of revivifying the efficacy of the leftist project, we must embark on an odyssey into the abyssal depths of late capitalism’s structural shifts, the novel modes of subjectivation, and the entwined dynamics of technology and power.

The metamorphosis from an industrial mode of production to the postindustrial era has precipitated a profound reconfiguration of the class structure, fragmenting the proletariat into a diverse array of precarious and atomized laborers. As traditional blue-collar work and stable employment have become increasingly scarce, a new workforce characterized by flexibility, temporary contracts, and service-oriented occupations has emerged. This fracturing of the class experience has generated a fertile landscape for identity politics to flourish, as the erstwhile unifying banner of class struggle is replaced by a kaleidoscope of subjective particularities grounded in race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identity markers.

Within this complex and rapidly changing socio-economic context, the figure of the traumatized and powerless subject has gained prominence as a central motif in leftist discourse. The emergence of this figure is closely intertwined with the proliferation of new social movements and the increasing emphasis on the politics of recognition, which seeks to address historical marginalization and promote the visibility of diverse identities. In this new political landscape, the collective pursuit of emancipation from capitalist exploitation has been increasingly overshadowed by the struggle for individual rights and validation of one’s identity.

This nascent form of activism, deeply rooted in the micropolitics of grievance, has shifted its focus from the macroscopic stage of systemic change to the microscopic domain of subjectivity and interpersonal relations. Rather than confronting the larger structures of power and inequality that underpin capitalist societies, these micropolitical struggles center on the personal experiences of oppression and marginalization, often privileging individual narratives and affective expressions over collective action and strategic engagement with the broader socio-economic and political context.

The retreat from the systemic arena has been further reinforced by the growing influence of post-structuralist and postmodern theories within leftist thought, which have interrogated the very foundations of grand narratives, the universality of class struggle, and the possibility of achieving comprehensive social transformation. These intellectual currents, while providing valuable insights into the complex and multifaceted nature of power relations, have also contributed to the fragmentation of leftist politics and the erosion of a unifying vision for emancipation.

But the problem is not solely internal or theoretical, the rise of the digital age and the pervasive influence of social media have amplified the focus on individual experiences and personal narratives, as the boundaries between public and private spheres become increasingly blurred. In this hyper-connected environment, personal stories of trauma and victimhood can rapidly gain traction and visibility, further fueling the emphasis on subjective particularities and the politics of recognition within leftist discourse.

As a result, the contemporary left finds itself at a critical juncture, grappling with the challenges posed by the fragmentation of class experience, the ascendancy of identity politics, and the retreat from systemic change to the realm of subjectivity and interpersonal relations. In order to rejuvenate the emancipatory potential of the leftist project, it is imperative to engage in a deep and nuanced exploration of these complex dynamics and develop innovative strategies that can bridge the gaps between the micro and macro dimensions of political struggle.

The unforeseen byproduct of this pivot towards micropolitics has been the enervation of the leftist project’s transformative capacity. The quest for emancipation has become mired in the morass of individual grievances and the impotent rage of moral indignation. Within the realm of affective politics, the pursuit of catharsis has eclipsed the quest for praxis, ensnaring the left within a self-perpetuating vortex of symbolic victories and moral crusades.

In order to apprehend the full extent of this transfiguration, we must first attend to the incisive observations of Michel Foucault regarding the dynamics of power and resistance. Power, as Foucault posits, is not a monolithic entity possessed by a select few; rather, it is a pervasive and productive force that courses through the capillaries of society, shaping and modulating the very fabric of our subjectivities. This is a very useful insight that allows the left to reconsider the nature of resistance. One such, his notion of the “care of the self” (an ethical practice of freedom) has, however, been appropriated by the proponents of identity politics in a manner that obscures the deeper implications of his work. Rather than focusing on the transformative potential of self-fashioning as a practice of resistance, contemporary leftism has become enamored with the superficial aspects of self-expression and recognition.

Foucault’s work resonates with the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, who have sought to articulate the imbricated nature of power and resistance within their concepts of molecular politics and rhizomatic assemblages. In their work, they emphasize the importance of dismantling the ossified structures of the state and capital, replacing them with new, fluid, and dynamic forms of political organization. They envision a body without organs—a political space unencumbered by the hierarchical and bureaucratic constraints of traditional institutions, wherein novel forms of life and resistance can emerge.

However, this emphasis on fluidity and deterritorialization has inadvertently contributed to the atomization of leftist politics. The emphasis on the molecular and the rhizomatic has led to a fragmentation of the left, as political struggles have become increasingly focused on the particularities of individual identities and experiences. While this turn towards micropolitics has engendered new forms of resistance, it has also sapped the transformative potential of the left, as the collective endeavor of emancipation has been supplanted by a myriad of disparate and disconnected struggles.

This fragmentation of leftist politics is further exacerbated by the relentless onslaught of neoliberalism, which has effectively colonized the terrain of subjectivity through the commodification of every aspect of human life. The corrosive logic of the market has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our identities, reducing us to mere consumers of our own subjectivity. As Bernard Stiegler astutely observes, this process of commodification has engendered a widespread sense of disenchantment and despair, which in turn fuels the proliferation of micropolitical struggles and the valorization of victimhood.

Stiegler’s work on the techno-capitalist malaise and the commodification of subjectivity under neoliberalism serves to illuminate the processes that have driven the left into this quagmire of inefficacy. Drawing on Stiegler’s critique of the market’s colonization of our desires and the reduction of our subjectivities to mere commodities, we can begin to recognize the necessity of reclaiming our capacity for collective action and resisting the entropic forces of commodification.

Neganthropy represents a critical concept in understanding the potential for resistance and transformation within the context of the techno-capitalist society. Derived from the combination of “negation” and “entropy,” neganthropy refers to the creative, inventive force that counters the entropic tendencies inherent in human systems, particularly those driven by capitalism and technology. It is through neganthropy that we can envision possibilities for change and renewal in a society seemingly trapped in an endless cycle of consumption and degradation.

In Stiegler’s view, entropy represents the tendency towards disorder, dissolution, and chaos present in both natural and human systems. Within the context of techno-capitalism, entropy manifests as the exhaustion of natural resources, the homogenization of culture, and the alienation and fragmentation of individuals. This entropic process is exacerbated by the logic of the market, which continually commodifies every aspect of human life, from our desires and relationships to our very subjectivities.

Neganthropy, on the other hand, embodies the capacity of human beings to create, invent, and generate new forms of life that counteract these entropic forces. Stiegler sees neganthropy as the human capacity to produce meaning, value, and purpose that transcends the mere reproduction of existing social and technological systems. It is through neganthropic actions that we can challenge the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalism and reclaim our collective agency.

To foster neganthropy within the techno-capitalist society, Stiegler emphasizes the importance of education, culture, and the cultivation of new social practices that promote collective action and solidarity. In particular, he calls for the reorientation of our relationship with technology, shifting from a passive, consumerist stance to a more engaged, critical, and creative approach. This would involve the development of alternative technological practices that challenge the dominant logic of consumption and foster new modes of cooperation, sharing, and democratic decision-making.

Stiegler’s concept of neganthropy resonates with the transindividual philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, as both emphasize the importance of nurturing the creative potential of human beings and cultivating the shared connections that transcend individual subjectivities. By focusing on the neganthropic potential inherent in human societies, the left can develop new strategies for resistance and transformation that counteract the entropic tendencies of techno-capitalism.

In the context of these theoretical insights, the resurgence of class struggle as a unifying force becomes crucial in reviving the emancipatory potential of the left. As David Harvey reminds us, the exploitation of labor under capitalism remains a fundamental source of injustice and inequality, cutting across the multitude of identities and experiences that constitute our contemporary world. By recentering our analysis on the material conditions of exploitation, we can move beyond the confines of identity politics and micropolitical grievances, forging a new solidarity among the precarious and fragmented laborers who form the backbone of the capitalist system.

The interplay between the ideas of these thinkers serves as a rich foundation for the development of a more efficacious and transformative leftist project. By synthesizing their insights into a coherent, multidimensional framework, we can begin to address the shortcomings of contemporary leftism and chart a course towards a more just and equitable future. This entails the cultivation of new forms of collective action and solidarity that transcend the boundaries of identity politics and the fragmentation of the left, fostering a renewed commitment to the transformative potential of class struggle and the power of resistance.

The path towards a reinvigorated left lies in the creative interweaving of these theoretical strands, as well as in the recognition of the interconnected nature of our struggles. By engaging with the complex networks of power that shape our world, embracing the transindividual potential of our collective endeavors, and forging new alliances grounded in class struggle and material solidarity, we can revitalize the emancipatory impetus of the left and work towards a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for all.