Bohème

Drehli Robnik

The bohème comes up three times in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The term, partly synonymous with the famous Lumpenproletariat, serves to label French prince-president Bonaparte, after his 1851 coup Emperor Napoleon III, as a “bohemian”, and to label as “noisy, disreputable, rapacious bohème” (Marx 1990, 134) the personnel he assembled at high levels of government. The latter phrase is typical for the style of enumeration in Marx’s attempt to pinpoint the corruption of a bourgeoisie willing to “forfeit the crown” “in order to save its purse” (67). In his view, the bourgeoisie abandons its historical class mission of developing democratic public spheres and industrial production, in favour of an orgiastic filling of purses and bellies under authoritarian rule. Bohème is one of his names for this self-abandonment.

The most poetic of Marx’s outbursts into enumeration is the one that introduces la bohème as a French word, mirroring the Lumpenproletariat upon which follows his list of names for class corruption: Bonaparte made Paris’s Lumpen his political army, Marx writes, and he mimics that army’s composition in his writing, as he invokes the skandalon of an association whose organization is reduced to mere parataxis, opened up by the “alongside” at the start of a sentence (whose main clause doesn’t even have a verb in the German original):

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquerealls, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars-in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème (75).

As a political analysis, Marx’s Brumaire describes an ideologically non-class-based political rule in the interest of finance capital, which makes “all classes, equally powerless and equally mute, fall on their knees before the rifle butt” (121). As a piece of philosophy of history, this text famously opens with the historical events that repeat themselves, tragedy returning as farce. Being one embodiment of that illegitimate repetition called farce, the bohème itself has a career in its proto-conceptual repetitions in several post-Marxisms. These reappearances make up the margins from which this Marxian word is highlighted and stares at – not only – me. (Along the lines of problematizing recurrence – the impossibility to fulfil the tasks of history “ohne Rückerinnerung”, “without recalling” – Marx’s bohème could join the ranks of the unreliable Gespenster opposed to production-inspiring Geister in the Brumaire and other Marx classics and, ultimately, of Derrida’s Specters of Marx.)

Jacques Rancière’s 1983 reconstruction of Marx’s criticism of class (de)composition reads like a parody of Marx’s parody of the Bonapartist parody of history. Rancière highlights humorously the humour – and also the humus: the gardening and geology discourse – at work in Marx’s writing. Drawing on the Lumpenproletariat and its bourgeois counterpart, the “finance aristocracy”, both synonyms of bohème in the Brumaire, Rancière shows that what causes Marx’s indignation is ultimately the “inconsistency of classes as such” which his teleology runs into: a teleology of classes performing their tasks in a dialectics of revolutionized production (Rancière 2004, 95). Marx’s bohème/Brumaire-text features at an early stage of Rancière’s political theory of democracy as a tearing-loose from organic or functionally assigned social identities. In his 2005 conception of populism as the embodiment of politics, Ernesto Laclau references Marx’s work on Lumpenproletariat and bohème and their “distance from the productive process” in unfolding a theorem of heterogeneity. According to Laclau, in the high degree of autonomy of the state vis-a-vis society and in the impossibility to base politics of mobilization on class as a coherent foundation, Marx confronts nothing less than the “emergence of political articulation”. Laclau replaces Marx’s flowery names with the terms outsider and underdog, designating the heterogeneous (instead of functionally integrated) position of a part of the population that performs itself as a militant people through its political articulation (Laclau 2005, 142–53). 

To Rancière’s democratic and Laclau’s populist bohèmes we should add the early fascist bohème of sociologist, philosopher of history and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. In several studies on the bourgeoisie’s turn to the far right, culminating in his study of Nazi and Italian Fascist propaganda, i.e., a politics of mobilization, written in 1936-1938 (but not published because Adorno rejected it for its unreliable Marxism), Kracauer borrows two terms from Marx’s Brumaire: the concept of bonapartism, then current in socialist theories of fascism as a dictatorship that “pretends to stand above the classes” (Kracauer 2011, 371); and the bohème. This is his name for the popular subject of fascism in its early movement stage. “Remnants of the army”, “high-brow writers”, “unemployed”, “young people”: Kracauer’s enumeration, under the umbrella term bohème, of types that, lumped together, make up Mussolini’s and Hitler’s “cliques”, is reminiscent of Marx’s, from which he also quotes the “plünderungslustige Bohème” (Kracauer 2013, 17). So, does Kracauer see Nazis as a rabble of society? No. What he highlights about them, in connection with his view of them as a bohème, is, first, how they resemble “artists” in their conception of politics (propaganda) as an autonomous art of forming masses and even realities. (Kracauer later expands the critique of anti-realism in his film theory.) Second, there is Kracauer’s equation of bohème with his formal (almost proto-Laclauian) usage of the term outsider. Being outsiders relative to a stable (production-derived) organon of classes is Kracauer’s common denominator for the fascist “Faschingsbande”, carnival gang, and for the middle classes, especially the white-collar Angestellten. He theorizes the latter as being “ideologically shelterless” – “dispossessed” and “proletarianized” while constantly worried about their security, repressing the fact that Fordist capitalism has nullified their bourgeois privilege and identity (Kracauer 1963, 99). Middle-class philistines and bohemians (not to be confused with the more recent, politically greenish, fusion of bourgeois and bohemians into bobo’s) make up a non-class to be articulated politically – which fascism did all-too successfully.

Now that the fascist farce partially repeats itself roughly a century after the March on Rome, with right-wing populism and nationalist-authoritarian governance on the rise, how can the reiterations of Marx’s bohème serve political diagnostics? (Provided we are mindful of the anti-migrant and heterosexist stereotyping which the term historically implied.) Bohème can highlight differences between authoritarian rule well-established in a nationalist law & order-mode, and early, genuine movemental stages of right-wing anti-institutional mobilization. At these stages, colourful warrior types – from Germany’s AfD, mutated from a club of monetarist professors into a movement led by nationalist revanchists and paranoiacs, to Trump – rise to power; without keeping it for long unless they trade their bohème charisma for the habitus of “security” technocrats.

References

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1963 [1931]. “Aufruhr der Mittelschichten.” In Das Ornament der Masse: Essays, 81-105. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

———. 2011 [1933]. ““Oktoberrevolution”. Revolutionärer Realismus.” In Werke 5.4. Berlin: Suhr-kamp.

———. 2013. Totalitäre Propaganda. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London; New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl. 1990. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International publ.

Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Philosopher and His Poor. Edited by Andrew Parker. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Biography

Drehli Robnik

Drehli Robnik is a Vienna-based free-lance theorist in matters of film and politics, focusing on concepts of democracy, public history, pop culture; also edutainer, critic, singing disk-jockey. His PhD is from UvA. He is the author of German-language monographs on anti-nazi resistance in film, on Rancière´s dissensual film theory, on control-societal horror cinema (all publ. by Turia+Kant), and on DemoKRACy: Siegfried Kracauer´s Politics[Film]Theory (forthcoming). https://independent.academia.edu/DrehliRobnik.