The Orpheus Complex: The Error of Progressive Neoliberalism

As Michéa has stressed, the new Left of the rainbow is today a victim of the “Orpheus complex.” In order not to lose his beloved Eurydice forever, the singer Orpheus—as Ovid writes in the Metamorphoses (X, 50-52)—could not “look back until he had left the valleys of Avernus” (ne flectat retro sua lumina, donec Avernas / exierit valles).

At the mercy of the cult of progress (id est, of forced capitalist modernization), the neoliberal leftist Orpheus never looks back: he is convinced that the present and the future, in all spheres, can only be better than the past and tradition. he considers that every modernization, in all spheres of human life, is in itself a positive fact and, by this means, achieves reconciliation with capitalist globalization. On the other hand, on the whole, this is the liberal-progressive vision of absolute-totalitarian capital, which advances by annihilating as “regressive” every link and every limit that resists its progress; that is, its march of integral mutation of every being into available commodity and exploitable fund in the name of the infinitely empowered will to power.

Far from preserving the order of things, techno-capital is, to use Jünger’s category, “total mobilization” (totale Mobilmachung) of beings. It ceaselessly transforms the world: Progress is its founding myth. For part of the adventure of Modernity, being in favor of progress may seem a perfectly reasonable option, insofar as progress brings with it emancipation and the development of human potentialities. The mistake, however, consists in confusing progress with emancipation, insisting on implementing the former even when it acts directly against the latter, as has been increasingly evident since 1989. The unreflective adherence to the myth of progress is the error co-originary to the paradigm of the Left and—paraphrasing Engels—is absent in the “socialism of the origins”: that is why today, the recovery of socialism is necessary; that of the Left is impossible.

The original vulnus of the forces of the left quadrant—Michaéa is correct—lies in the mechanical praise of progress and modernization as such; a nucleus that necessarily leads them to reconcile (and, in fact, to merge) with the order of progressive neoliberalism and that it is not imaginable to “extirpate” from the Left’s own code. In fact, this code—Michéa writes—belongs “to the hard core of the metaphysical program of any possible Left, a program it could not renounce, even in part, without completely denying itself.” The myth of progress is the incurable disease in the paradigm of the Left; that which today determines the demand to free ourselves from the Left and its disempowering progressivism in order to resume the path of socialism as the emancipation of the oppressed classes and, with them, of the entire human race.

This hermeneutical framework explains how the Left, which was part of the real opposition to capital in its dialectical phase, becomes useless in the framework of liberal-progressive turbo-capitalism, with which it ends up merging and becoming confused. Also, by virtue of the unbreakable code of progressivism, the opposition to turbo-capitalism can no longer be from the Left (nor, obviously, from the Right), but will have to be founded on new categories, beyond the old cleavage, but nevertheless capable of metabolizing the lessons of Marx and Gramsci, and of their dialectical and socialist anti-capitalism.

The category of “progress” is, in effect, the quid pro quo that has induced the metamorphic new Left to adhere to the rhythm of neoliberal modernization. Until we say goodbye to the myth of progress—and with it to the Left—it will not be possible to pursue a project of real emancipation from capitalism, in a socialist key. This is what Christopher Lasch demonstrated, in the most argued and solid way, in The True and Only Heaven (1991): the thesis according to which “progress cannot be stopped” inevitably brings with it the thesis that “capitalist globalization cannot be stopped.”

The indiscriminate demolition of all figures of limit and tradition—typical of those who are obstinate in “maintaining the left”—does not lead to a socialist society, but to the nightmare of global capitalism; another thing, however, is the reasoned overcoming of limits and traditions that generate oppression and subjugation, such as—among other cases—the servitude of the glebe or prejudices about the anthropological superiority of presumed privileged categories. If capitalism and the Left aim at the indiscriminate deconstruction of all traditions and bonds, socialism should, for its part, selectively protect the bonds and traditions that promote human emancipation and, on the other hand, fight against those that deny it.

In the light of a different perspective, the main task, from an authentically socialist point of view, would be today the revolutionary transformation of that which opposes human emancipation and the selective preservation of that which promotes it. In other words, unlike the Left (which automatically identifies progress and emancipation, even when the former denies the latter), socialism should promote emancipatory progress and oppose disempowering progress.

For example, the neo-language complementing the processes of neo-liberal individualization sanctifies as “progress” the deconstruction of any safety net linked to welfarism or tradition, to community or bonds of solidarity; it liquidates each link in the chain and favors the idea of a society of mutually indifferent and independent atoms, interested only in competing in the arena of the deregulated free market. Would not the priority task of any socialist program be to resist this “progress”—rigorously managed by capital in its own interest—and selectively preserve social rights and class conquests? For the mentis form of the referential new Left, it would be, naturally, the umpteenth form of reactionary and populist opposition to the magnificent future of progress. But, in the light of what has been said, it should be clear in what sense—today hegemonic—there can exist a “progress” that, in relation to emancipation, manifests itself as regressive and, therefore, worthy of being fought.

The deviation consists, ça va sans dire, in accepting indiscriminately as emancipating any modernization and any break with the past, according to the “Orpheus complex.” To overcome the mistreatment and subordination of women is certainly so; but to abandon the study of the Greek language or the wage and labor conquests of the 20th century, is it in the same thing? Clearly, not every step forward is necessarily a step in the right direction. If one finds oneself on the edge of a precipice, the gesture of taking a step forward represents the least desirable and emancipatory progress that can exist. And just as there can be a regressive and counterrevolutionary progressivism, as was that of Marinetti, who theorized the need to kill the “always tedious and oppressive” book, there can also be a communism that is the enemy of progress, as fueled by that of Pasolini or, in a different perspective, that of Benjamin.

Apart from that, the blunder lies in not distinguishing between bonds that enchain and that, as such, deserve to be sacrificed, and bonds that, in a diametrically opposed way, generate freedom and emancipation, and that, therefore, must be selectively protected and preserved. The bonds that enchain, such as the asymmetrical nexus of servitude and lordship on which capital is based, demand to be broken (and instead capital declares them immutable, if not outright just and good). But the bonds that generate freedom and solidarity, such as the family or the school, the trade unions and the “ethical roots” (Wurzeln der Sittlichkeit) of civil society, must be protected (and instead capital aspires to dissolve them, calling this annihilation progress).

In short, the project of a socialist anti-capitalism today must base its program on the emancipation of man and labor, selectively accepting the progress that favors it and rejecting those that deny it.

On the side of the modern adventure—we must insist—progress and emancipation march together. And in most cases, they seem difficult to distinguish. This is precisely what Marx shows in the Manifesto, when he evokes, in a dialectical tone, the emancipatory character of capitalist progress, which is determined in the overcoming of the Ancien Régime, and in the development of modern productive forces.

The modified framework of absolute capitalism, for its part, radically distinguishes progress and emancipation, development of capital and liberation of the dominated classes: to such an extent that—to paraphrase Pasolini—the progress of capital (the “development” of the productive forces and of the corresponding socio-political nexuses) favors dis-emancipation. And it determines social and political regression, disintegrating the very conquests obtained in the framework of dialectical capitalism itself (social rights and spaces of democracy).

It is, in synthesis, the history between 1989 and our present. In the absence of a clear distinction between bourgeoisie and capitalism and between emancipation and progress, from 1968 to the present—and especially since the 1990s of the “short century”—the new Left has fought the bourgeoisie by favoring capitalism and has defended progress by fighting emancipation. The paradox is all the more striking if one considers that in essence capitalism, far from being “static” and conservative, is governed by the incessant transformation of beings and by the permanent revolution of its own conditions.

It was already clear to Marx and Engels when they wrote, in 1848, the Communist Manifesto: the capitalist mode of production lives in the incessant Heraclitean transformation of the world it has forged in its own image and likeness. Its essence lies in the infinite love of unlimited valorization, the secret norm of capital’s innate predatory drive. Unlike the preceding forms of production and social relation, which were based primarily on the conservation of the given conditions and the “unaltered maintenance of the old order of production,” capital exists by permanently revolutionizing the instruments of production and the social relations in which it is structured. It makes incessant mutation its own fundamentum. The total mobilization of beings is its inescapable basis, consistent with the accelerated cycle of the production and circulation of commodities. The only transformation it does not tolerate is, naturally, that which aims at transcending it and generating new and different forms of production and existence.

If the progressive overcoming of the power relations of the pre-modern world was, eo ipso, emancipatory, turbo-capitalist progress as it has unfolded since 1989 is dialectically posed as intrinsically dis-emancipatory and, therefore, worthy of being combated in a socialist key. The principal of the illusions du progress—as Sorel earlier qualified them—and of their religious and intransigent faith resides, in the last instance, in becoming the foundation of the legitimization of the existing, in the form of a dogmatic guarantee according to which what we are today we can continue to be tomorrow in an enhanced form. The ideology of progress, that is to say, of ordered growth according to the temporal figure of the continuum, ends up posing, in the framework of speculative capitalism, as the main obstacle to socialist revolution understood as a “leap” and as a “rupture”—in Leninist terms—of the linear evolution of market society.
It would not be a difficult task, then, to demonstrate how the triumphal march of progress, in which the “victory bulletins” sung by the left-oriented heralds of globalism follow one after the other, is accompanied by social regression and disempowerment of the popular classes. This is translated, for example, in the processes of mass individualization that are determined in the dissolution of the solid and solidary links of the “ethical roots” of society: from the family to the school, from the unions to the power of the State with the capacity to govern the animal spirits of the economy. Such “progress” favors capital and certainly not the national-popular masses of workers, who will be further weakened and deprived of forms of cooperation and protection. For example, the “progress” of the creation of the European Union has led to a hemorrhage of the rights of the working and middle classes. And the same could reasonably be said of the “progress” of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the “citadel” of social rights, Welfarist conquests and labor protections.

In short, the progressive demolition of social rights and of the Welfarist conquests, in the name of the demands of market rationality, produces “progress” only for the neo-liberal oligarchic bloc, determining, for the “people of the abysses,” growing inequality and poverty, but also the lack of growth of wages and the exponential increase of the working poor. In this regard, it is enough to recall what the economist Marcel Fratzscher showed in Verteilungskampf: Warum Deutschland immer ungleicher wird (Distribution War: Why Germany is Becoming Increasingly Unequal). Fratzscher explains that in 2016 German wages were lower than twenty-five years earlier. The triumphal advance of progress has evidently not involved the working classes of that Germany which—the spokesmen of the neoliberal order claim—is the permanent point d’honneur of progressivism and growth.

On the other hand, can we really celebrate as “progress” the trajectory that—as revealed by Luciano Gallino—led, in the first decade of the new Millennium, to the figure of 50 million poor people in the United States and, in the European Union, to no less than 120 million people (a quarter of the population) being at risk of poverty or social exclusion? Can we really automatically associate the slogan “progress” with the pictures, circulating everywhere, of the increasing number of Greeks, Spaniards and Italians who, in the very progressive neo-liberal European Union, rummage through the garbage in search of food? Or those of the homeless on the streets of the United States, the forge of the glorious progress of capital, who are trying to find shelter from the cold so as not to freeze to death? Or perhaps we would identify as “progress” labor conditions that are increasingly precarious, helpless and abandoned to the unquestioned will of the laws of the market?

Diego Fusaro is professor of the History of Philosophy at the IASSP in Milan (Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies) where he is also scientific director. He is a scholar of the Philosophy of History, specializing in the thought of Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. His interest is oriented towards German idealism, its precursors (Spinoza) and its followers (Marx), with a particular emphasis on Italian thought (Gramsci or Gentile, among others). he is the author of many books, including Fichte and the Vocation of the IntellectualThe Place of Possibility: Toward a New Philosophy of Praxis, and Marx, again!: The Spectre ReturnsThis article appears courtesy of Posmodernia.