Historical Amnesia And Stasis In Political Action

Over on his blog, and on his Facebook page, in response to a series of repeated claims stressing the uniquely dysfunctional and authoritarian nature of the present administration¹, Corey Robin has often made remarks which echo the sentiments expressed in the following:

We have a culture in this country that is relentlessly, furiously, ferociously, anti-historical. Whatever we’re going through, it’s always unprecedented. [on Facebook status]

The flip side of the ‘anti-historical’ regarding of one’s particular moment in time as being ‘unprecedented’ of course is a corresponding desire to believe that we are living through a historical moment–one that will be regarded as ‘historical’ by those who follow. The ‘anti-historical’ impulse is only directed at the past; for the present the impulse is  most definitely one that would like to write it, and crucially, oneself, into history. After all, what better way to make meaningful our lives, to grant them more significance, than to believe that the present moment is truly ab initio, bringing something to life ex nihilio? Put this way, political amnesia about the past becomes understandable as a kind of grasping for significance in the present, a refusal to believe that there can be meaningful novelty in the familiar–the study of whose particulars is likely to be far more revealing and edificatory than the hasty scramble to award it medals for novelty.

(A related, possibly converse, instance of this yearning was visible in the media reactions to La Affaire Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton–as it broke in early 1998. Those hyperbolic reactions made clear that Watergate had indeed cast a long shadow–especially as its associated mythology had anointed some ‘select’ members of the press as those who had ‘brought the administration down.’ Now, another possibly historical moment was upon the Republic and its ‘media corps’; which member of the media would ‘go down in history’ as the one who had broken the story, reported it to the nation, and finally, supervised the abdication of the old king and the coronation of the new one? Please dear God, let this happen on my watch; let me be written into the history books. Let me elevate the world-historical significance of this moment; in that act lies the existential redemption of my life.)

Thus a curious paradox of political action and resistance in the current moment: because we are so willing to grant novelty to the present, we confess ourselves puzzled and nonplussed and bewildered, cast astray and adrift. The stasis, in both thought and action, that results should be unsurprising.

Note: In a post on the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, I had noted:

Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is…extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump.

Chelsea Manning’s Bad Luck With The American Polity

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower(Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar writes:

If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use. Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the person who have us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft–yet–the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock–the 99% if you will.

There are two theses presented here by Madar: a) information is sterile unless coupled with political organization and action, and b) international law and the ‘human rights industry’ are ‘insufficient to stop wars and end torture’–they are ‘false hopes.’ (The former claim may be understood as a variant of Marcuse‘s praxis + theory axiom of politics.)

The seeming inefficacy of Chelsea Manning‘s leaks of a veritable treasure trove of revelations about the conduct of US foreign policy and warfare now becomes explicable; those seeds fell on infertile ground. Manning’s leaks were fed to a polity that is at heart conformist and accepting of authority, and whose most suffering faction–the staggering 99%–is disorganized, apathetic in large sectors, and all too easily resigned to a fate characterized by endless wars and a Nietzschean endless recurrence of the same cast of political characters and ideologies ruling the roost. ‘On its own’ information has no political valence; it is only when it serves as the premise of a political argument that it acquires traction.  At the risk of invoking the wrath of those who dislike military metaphors, perhaps we can think of information as ammunition; indispensable, yet insufficient without the right sorts of blunderbusses. (That pair of ‘false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry’ are similarly indicted: both, on their own, decoupled from the capacity to enforce and from organized political muscle, are reduced to platitudes, mouthed in predictable time and fashion by the usual suspects. No enforcement authority backs them up; and the political realism of the postivisitic conception of both law and rights appears ever plausible.)

America got lucky with Chelsea Manning; but the luck only went in one direction. Manning didn’t get lucky with her nation; she was feeding information to a polity that didn’t know what to do with it (and which instead, called her a ‘traitor’ and imprisoned and tortured her.) The reception to the Panama Papers, which despite the initial furore, and even the odd resignation or two, is best described as equal parts yawn and shrug, provides further confirmation for this claim. Artful dodging of local jurisdictions to enable ‘fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions’ is old hat; and there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

Back to rearranging chairs on deck.

Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.