Richard Seymour's second book, The Meaning of David Cameron, is out, and from the intro to it given as a launch talk, it looks to be a worthy sequel to The Liberal Defence of Murder, an informative and thoroughly persuasive denouncement of imperialism and a debunking of the liberal political tradition's claims to various virtues. I haven't read the new book yet; I was happy (and a little surprised, considering) to see Seymour taking on the ideology of excellence/myth of the ladder/cult of individual merit as a bogus and hackneyed old justification for social hierarchy and material inequality.
While in the early Thatcher era this petty bourgeois cult of excellence and individual talent went over well with pundits and flourished in the punditry of ordinary public discourse, as it does today, and was propagated zealously in the mass cocaculture, as it is today, there was an explosion of rage and ridicule in response to it from the realm of the arts (parallel to some predictable participation in its propagation). This is perhaps most interesting because it had been this very realm which pundits like Nietzsche and Rand and their spawn used most often as ideal exemplar and model of meritocracy to be imitated across human affairs. It was not long after Thatcher's assumption of the UK's helm that petty bourgeois aesthetic theory began aggressively to denigrate this realm of contemporary performing arts which increasingly rejected not only the myth of existing meritocracy but the values expressed by the offering of meritocratic hierarchy as a goal, which repudiated the pseudo-progress of neoliberalism as both illusory and undesireable, and which was developing practises designed to undermine the individualist mythology serving as its justification. The new wave of contempt for "agitprop" and the "experimental" took a populist tone against the "pretentiousness" of avant-garde work and a haughty aestheticist-elitist one against "preaching" in traditional forms, and simultaneously laboured to elevate in their places, with the help of purpose built exegetical habits geared toward representing it as a kind of popular culture, the mass commodity cocaculture which relentlessly promoted that individualist mythology that justified its own enterprises of exploitation and accumulation, celebrated and protected the privileges of the demiurgic creative intellectual proprietor, and laboriosuly enticed audiences to enjoy the spectacle of the virtuous, wholesome and thrilling properties of competition.
Caryl Churchill's Top Girls (1982), instantly a "feminist theatre classic", is a dramatically ornate and politically simple play about exploitation in capitalism, poignantly exhibiting the "failures" [refusals] of bourgeois feminism to grasp [acknowledge] the intolerably unjust totality which produces the limited problem of women's unequal opportunities - disadvantages as individuals in competition with men - it recognises, isolates and confronts. The play more than deserves its imposing reputation, though it suffers from Churchill's blindness to imperialism and race and the faint but not insignificant Anglosupremacism permeating all her work. At the time of its appearance there had already been several years of public criticism of white bourgeois feminism (embodied for Churchill by Margaret Thatcher and depicted by her through the heroine of Top Girls, the new managing director of the Top Girls employment agency whose career advancement has depended on her ability to shift the labour of child rearing onto a subordinate woman). Much of the most powerful such criticism came from radical black American women who like Churchill illuminated the reformist bourgeois feminist movement's fatal individualism but from a perspective concerned and acquainted with the function of race and imperialism, as well as gender, in capitalist exploitation and the division of the exploited by hierarchies of oppression. Marred by a repressed but operational Euro/Anglocentrism and White/Anglosupremacism traditional to the most prominent strain of British Socialism, Churchill's dramatic attack on the petty bourgeois cult of meritocracy as adapted by a mass culture commodity version of feminism, was nonetheless uncompromisingly dissident, impeccably socialist in the strict sense, and insightfully didactic. It was hugely popular and successful in 1982. In the same period, other hits of the West End and Broadway stage exhibited progressive and leftist creative intellectuals' preoccupation with this question of equality of opportunity, which throws elite individuals marked for representation up against glass ceilings, as the capitalist changeling substituted for socialist social equality. Among those mainstream plays most successful at the time and memorable today were August Wilson's Fences and Charles Fuller's A Solider's Play (filmed as A Soldier's Story by Norman Jewison in the mid 80s).
The same era also saw Amiri Baraka's autobiography, LeRoi Jones, raise for a (relatively) wide audience this question through an examination of the costs to African Americans of integration of institutions (such as Major League Baseball), a victory achieved by the Civil Rights Movement which had, until the ferocity of the reaction known in the US as Reaganism was unleashed, always been seen by liberals and those to the left of them as unmitigated progress toward the goal of racial equality which though routinely imaged by visions of integrated social spheres of the highest privilege was understood to involve a transformation of society and not just the redistribution of roles for proportional representation of race and gender. That the social movements' paths, which had set out for "liberation" (from racism and misogyny, from homophobia, from oppression and persecution, but also from exploitation, thus merging in the struggle for socialism), could be redirected toward the infinitely distant and worthless "equality of opportunity" was only beginning to be widely understood by progressives and radicals in the US in the late 70s, after a roll of significant victories for humanity had come up hard against a new ruling class offensive. Somehow, between then and now (in the past decade especially, starting about when the current crop of hipster pundits was entering university) progressives and radicals in the imperial core culture industries, fed an endless diet of flattering Nietzschianism in fifty different flavours of jargon, seem to have largely forgotten, and perhaps become incapable of learning without great difficulty, what about thirty years ago their predecessors easily understood. So Seymour's focus on this most loathesome, and possibly dangerous if usually risible, strain of supremacist individualist mysticism in his new book is particularly welcome.