The 2016 Elections, The ‘Bernie Revolution,’ And A Familiar Pattern

In The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 Eric Hobsbawm  writes:

In brief, the main shape of…all subsequent bourgeois revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance—mass mobilization—shift to the left—split among- moderates-and-shift-to-the-right—until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed…we increasingly find…that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.

Hobswawm was writing these words in 1962–about the post-Bastille, pre-Jacobin, pre-Terror, French Revolution–so he knew well of what he spoke. He could well have been speaking of contemporary times and politics, of the American election season of 2016, and its ‘revolution that did not come to be’ – the Bernie Sanders Insurgency.

On November 9th, American liberals and progressives of a particular bent will wake up to find out they’ve been snookered yet again by the Democratic Party, by the same old trick that has been reliably used to make sure the minds and attention of their reliable voting demographics will not go wandering, looking for alternatives. Their support for the ‘Bernie Revolution’ earned them little other than the abuse of their own supposed ‘comrades,’ the ‘liberal’ coalition that backs Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: they were reviled as sexist, tainted by white privilege, as unrealistic nihilists.  They were urged to make cause with their political foes, urged to pull back from the brink to which they were marching the nation; they were urged to settle for a chance to ‘pull Clinton to the left,’ to get ‘their demands written into the party platform.’ Meanwhile, that mythical creature, ‘the moderate Republican’ was also persuaded to join the Clinton Coalition. That fundamentally conservative bent in American politics–which reveres that undemocratic document, the US Constitution, which claims American exceptionalism is a wholly understandable and justified attitude–asserted itself all over again, all the better with which to discredit the nascent stirrings of a mass movement (which in its populist strains found some curious resonances in the groups who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy.)

When the smoke clears, for all the sound and fury of this interminable season, little will have changed: the Republican Party will have disowned Donald Trump and gone back to its reactionary ways; the Democratic Party, having long ago moved into territory occupied by the Right, will pat itself on its back for having performed a remarkable act of sheepdogging. A familiar pattern indeed.

Academics And Their Secretaries

In the preface to The Age of Revolution 1789-1848  (Signet Classic, New York, 1962, p. xvi) Eric Hobsbawm writes:

Miss P. Ralph helped considerably as secretary and research assistant Miss E. Mason compiled the index.

In the preface to the new edition (1969) of Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (University of Stanford Press, Cultural Memory in the Present Series, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, p. xi, 2002) Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer write:

No one who was not involved in the writing could easily understand to what extent we feel responsible for every sentence. We dictated long stretches together; the Dialectic derives its vital energy from the tension between the two intellectual temperaments which came together in writing it. [emphasis added]

In the preface to The Morality of Law (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1964, p. vi), Lon Fuller writes:

In closing I want to express an appreciation for the contribution made to this book (and to my peace of mind) by Martha Anne Ellis, my secretary….[her] dedication and perception have largely lifted from my concern the time-consuming and anxiety-producing details that always accompany the conversion of a manuscript into final printed form.

If you’ve looked long enough at the prefaces and acknowledgements of academic books written in the past century you will often find notes thanking secretaries for typing up the manuscript of the book. Presumably the secretaries in question took a pile of handwritten pages and painstakingly converted them into typed form before sending them off to the publisher for reviewing, typesetting, and then finally printing. (My guess is that the secretaries of Messrs Hobsbawm and Fuller typed their ‘bosses’ manuscripts as part of the ‘help’ and ‘contributions’ they provided.) Matters might be thought considerably different these days when sophisticated desktop publishing software sits on everyone’s desk, and publishers demand camera-ready copies of manuscripts and articles. But you would not lose too much money on betting that where academics can afford it–mostly at private universities–they will draw upon the assistance of their department secretaries in preparing their manuscripts. Most of whom, if not all, will still be women.

Intellectual work is always facilitated by the work of others. Back in the good old days, when most academics were men, they could count on the faithful support of their wives at home who would cook, clean, and bring up their children, and of their secretaries at work, who would type up manuscripts, prepare indices, make coffee and copies, and perhaps place calls to publishers in addition to typing up letters to them. Those with grace acknowledge such assistance in their prefaces and acknowledgments; others carry on blithely, secure in the comfort of knowing they live in a world which traffics in the myth of the ‘solitary genius,’ the ‘lone artist,’ the ‘brilliant individual.’ They imagine their reputation is constructed by their mental labors alone; they do not notice that it is propped up by the labors of others too. Theirs was the glamorous bit; the unglamorous bit is easily forgotten.

It takes a village to raise a child; it took an entire departmental office to write a book.

Tourism and the Invented Tradition

Ian Johnson interviews Tian Qing (New York Review of Books Blog, April 6th, 2012), the head of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, “an institution set up by the government to protect China’s native traditions in the performing arts, cuisine, rituals, festivals, and other forms of culture” in an attempt to figure out whether these cultural forms are “being recovered as living traditions or as objects for urbanized Chinese to enjoy as tourists in their own land?”

In the course of his interview, Johnson asks whether modernization can be reconciled with the imperatives to protect, preserve and promote culture:

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

Tian replies:

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function. Or after [the director] Zhang Yimou filmed Red Sorghum and showed the bride in a sedan chair. That used to take place in a really small area of Shanxi province. Now across the country at every tourist spot are people with sedan chairs for hire—hey, for 50 yuan you can ride in it. Tourism. It’s terrible.

Here tourism has performed a function similar to mass-manufacture: it has taken an artifact, possibly one crafted and custom-made, available only to a few in particular contexts and settings and suddenly, dramatically, made it available to all, to ‘the masses.’ In doing so tourism has made it more generic; its accessibility has increased, but it has lost a placement that made it possible, for instance, to possess the “religious function” whose loss Tian is concerned about. So, ironically, the ‘preservation’ of the cultural artifact or ritual require its displacement from those ‘privileged’ locations in time and space that granted that ritual its original meaning and raison d’etre. Its displacement from those locations preserves it by granting it popularized longevity at the cost of an acquired ordinariness.

And as Tian notes, now the ritual has a new function, that of ‘tourist-pleaser’, one that in time could acquire new significance;  future generations might view the water splashing followed by 21st century Dai residents of Yunnan Xishuangbanna as one about welcoming tourists;  presumably, this would be an interesting discovery about our times. In the case of the sedan chair ritual a cinematic force brings about the creation of a tradition; once the origins of the ritual are  forgotten, a new creation myth can come about which might ascribe that ritual a more elaborate and elevated provenance.

So tourism and cinema then most broadly can be seen as  bringing about what Hobsbawm termed the ‘invented tradition‘:

[R]esponses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition.

The interventions of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center are bound, then, to create new cultural forms even as they seek to preserve older ones.