Let’s all join the army

Issue: 153

Sam Popowich

A review of Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (Verso, 2016), £16.99

The idea of “utopia” has been present in Fredric Jameson’s writing more or less from the beginning. In a capitalism focused on “efficiency” and “realistic” solutions to its problems, such as austerity programmes, left wing proposals that also try to be efficient and realistic can be seen as succumbing to the logic of capitalism itself. Utopias, Jameson argues, reflect a liberation of the imagination from the habits of thinking in capitalist society. His latest book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, proposes a utopia that is at once unrealistic and hopeful in its imaginative power. Basically, Jameson’s utopia is a thought experiment: given the failure of electoral politics and the absence of any other non-governmental agency to fill the role of the welfare state, what would it look like if social services were provided by an army composed of all citizens?

Jameson takes as his starting point a joke from the Dwight D Eisenhower period, that any American citizen who wants socialised medicine needs only to join the army to get it. Jameson is led from this basic idea to the examples of the Black Panthers in the United States and the social welfare programme of Hamas in Palestine providing social services to their neighbourhoods and communities independent of existing government services. The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children programme, which began in January 1969, was an example of the party being better able than the government to provide a particular social service. Hamas developed a social services wing independent of its military in order to provide childcare, food and other services to Palestinians. These support systems ran parallel to government services, even when the government was clearly failing in its duty to its citizens. Jameson links these real-world examples to Lenin’s description of “dual power”, the coexistence of the St Petersburg and Moscow soviets (workers’ councils) alongside the government after the February Revolution of 1917.

In Jameson’s view, revolution is unthinkable and reformism discredited; both are off the table (at least for the moment). In terms of revolutionary potential, the reasons he uses to support his contention—that the agency of workers “has disappeared”, that capitalism is “omnipresent”, and that revolutionary language has “become as old-fashioned and archaic as that of the Founding Fathers”—seem like a flimsy basis on which to make his utopian argument. The argument against reformism is stronger, in that Jameson sees the “reformist or social-democratic parties” as being without a serious programme. However, in the face of potentially disastrous climate change, his argument that reformist parties can perhaps at least “regulate capital so it does not do really catastrophic or irreparable damage” seems wilfully naïve. Jameson’s argument requires that he dispense with the potential for both revolution and reformism, but it is hard to take his arguments in this respect seriously. In both cases, it seems to come down to “no one seems to believe in [revolution or reformism] any longer”.

With revolution and reformism out of the way, Jameson looks at institutions that might conceivably offer social services in parallel with existing government organisations, for example the post office or the church. In the end he settles on the army since it already has the infrastructure and processes to do whatever needs to be done to take care of the production and distribution of goods and services in a utopian, post-capitalist society. The first step to creating such a society is therefore immediate, universal conscription, followed by immediate honourable discharge. In this way citizens qualify for healthcare and other social services due to veterans.

In Jameson’s utopia, the actual amount of work required to maintain the standard of living would be somewhere around only three to four hours a day. The “universal army” would take care of the work in the morning, under strict conditions of discipline. The rest of the day would be devoted to the individual’s self-development. Jameson speaks at length about Leon Trotsky’s model of military efficiency, though it’s hard to tell whether he is serious, or simply being provocative. This is a risk with any utopian proposition, but it does make Jameson’s argument less clear than it otherwise could be. The remainder of his essay is devoted to working out the details of coordination and assignment of work, as well as to the kinds of behaviour condoned and encouraged in the leisure time of the afternoons.

Jameson’s view is meant to be provocative. As a utopia, it deliberately flies in the face of the logic of capitalism that says that only the efficient, profitable and achievable has any value. As a result, there is much that could be criticised in Jameson’s programme, though too pedantic a criticism would miss the point. One area that seems especially hard to take is the insistence on the army as the institution that might provide an alternative social infrastructure. This is especially difficult given the history of the US Army, particularly its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. But Jameson here is being intentionally subversive and trying to engage the imagination which, he hopes, can be freed from the limitations imposed by capitalism.

Jameson’s essay only takes up roughly one-third of the volume; the rest of the book consists of criticisms or elaborations of Jameson’s ideas by other writers. The most forceful criticism comes from Jodi Dean, who draws on her own recent research into crowds and political parties to pick apart some of the ideas proposed in Jameson’s essay. The heart of Dean’s criticism is that Jameson is not offering a particularly new idea; he is instead simply conforming to a theorising that ignores or denies politics. For Dean, Jameson’s easy dismissal of both revolutionary and reformist activity, and the absence of any political activity within his utopia, ignore actual political units that do have agency within capitalist society: crowds and parties. Dean sees Jameson’s rejection of party politics as simply a reflection of a post-political, almost libertarian, tendency. Those of us who live in countries which (for now anyway) do not place such importance on our armed forces are bound to be uncomfortable with Jameson’s identification of the “universal army” as the site of resistance to capitalism. Dean reminds us that crowds and parties are options that Jameson has conveniently ignored.

Other writers such as Agon Hamza, Kojin Karatani and Kathi Weeks, follow up on some of Jameson’s notions, criticise others’ points, or offer their own perspective on left wing utopias. The largest contribution after Jameson’s own comes from Slavoj Žižek, who writes about the total control of our imaginations by capitalism which leads, paradoxically, to utopian visions like Jameson’s.

Jameson’s famously difficult style is toned down a little here, but the style of the book is still unapologetically dense and academic. This can be frustrating to readers, but the wealth of provocative ideas in this book—even if they are sometimes not sufficiently backed up—repays careful attention.

Sam Popowich is an academic librarian in Canada. He works primarily in the area of information technology, and his research interests focus on Marxism, technologies and librarianship.