TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Paul Piccone and Critical Autonomy

Welcome to the launch of TELOSthreads, a new website feature that showcases the online archive of Telos articles from the past decade. Each Tuesday in the TELOSscope blog, we will reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. We’ve also set up an index of TELOSthreads topics, which will allow you to browse the archive thematically. For the first article in this series, we turn to Jorge Raventos’s 2001 interview with Paul Piccone, “From the New Left to Postmodern Populism: An Interview with Paul Piccone,” published in Telos 122 (Winter 2002).

In a 2001 interview with Paul Piccone, Telos‘s founding editor discussed the emergence of the journal within the context of the New Left of the 1960s. For Piccone, Telos existed as a kind of opposition within the opposition, a political force that drew critical strength from what was then a vibrant New Left, but which also largely took issue with the movement. As Piccone put it:

[F]or the New Left, from the very beginning Telos was, as Eugene Genovese once described it, a kind of theoretical Listerine: necessary, but not very pleasant, and to be spit out as soon as possible. While articulating and developing the best Left theories available in both Europe and the US, Telos reached paradoxical political conclusions hard to accept by any of the various groups of what was at the time misleadingly totalized by the media and the culture industry as a unified movement.

Piccone describes the original two main branches of the New Left: the reformists (basically the SDS and other movements) who attempted to return the country to traditional values of free speech and equality, and the revolutionaries who rejected “the so-called ‘American way of life’ as inherently corrupt and functioning essentially as a legitimating ideology for a new imperialism no longer predicated on raw economic exploitation, but on a much more refined political and cultural domination.” It was with these revolutionaries that Telos then sided, though not, according to Piccone, out of Marxist-Leninist sympathies.

According to Piccone it was the New Left’s eventual assimilation into the machinery of the central government that nullified its voice. By contrast, he insists, it is only autonomous individuality, outside the establishment, that

exposes the predominant system to challenges it cannot deflect, resulting in radical qualitative changes (that revolutionary telos Marx had always regarded as impossible to envision before its actual realization, promising to usher in utopia, but also risking to degenerate, as was often the case in the 20th century, into the horrors of Auschwitz, the Gulag, and Hiroshima).

If not precisely identified as the inspiration of Telos, this nevertheless seems a fitting characterization of the journal’s political position: decidedly outside the established discourses, pursuing an autonomous vision, and hoping to spur change through critique.

With the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy, the last vocal supporter of a previous generation of liberalism, it is worth reflecting upon the transformation of the Left in the time since the journal’s founding. Kennedy’s vision of an expansive role for government in the lives of individuals was in certain ways the target of the journal’s original critique: the specter of the totally administered society that had taken the ideals of liberalism to a decidedly managerial extreme. Much has changed in forty years. But as so much of the debate over health care reform has recently demonstrated, the United States remains deeply ambivalent about the government’s role in the individual lives of its citizens, even in an area like health care where widespread inequality in treatment and insurance coverage directly impacts the well-being of many. Is this newly resurgent liberalism, which once again pursues the sort of reformist agenda that Piccone criticized, merely a resuscitation of the political project of an earlier era? Or is the era of Obama qualitatively distinct from the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s? Does it call for a different kind of critique than the “theoretical Listerine” that Piccone unsparingly administered to the liberalism of Kennedy’s generation?

Alternatively, could it be that the Obama phenomenon is an example of the type of populist movement that Piccone elaborates in this interview, a national upheaval due to a crisis of democracy and self-determination? Many of the early issues of the election season signaled an unhappiness with elements of national policy, particularly the wars abroad and the Patriot Act. But as the economic crisis deepened, national debate again centered on issues of the economy, just as Piccone describes: not whether the State should intervene, but how and to what extent. What would a populist movement look like in the United States today? Would it be regional, like the “Real America” that Sarah Palin courted? Piccone describes a movement outside the bounds of political correctness, but what sort of movement could break free of today’s generally accepted discourses?

Click here to read Jorge Raventos’s full interview with Paul Piccone in Telos 122. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this interview and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

Comments are closed.