Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Civil War and Farcical Politics

Well, it happened: We got Bill Kristol to quote Marx. He writes

Kristol is, of course, citing the opening of Marx’s 18th Brumaire. Let’s quote it in full:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the Nephew in place of the Uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances surrounding the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire!

We’ve been fighting a second-edition Civil War for some time now—since the electoral season that led to Obama’s first term. I've called it antebellism. It’s tiring and tiresome. The primary problematic effect of mobilization around the Confederate flag in South Carolina has been to displace concerns to take down white supremacist organizing into the symbolic field of the Civil War. (Of course, I’m happy it’s not flying, but we’re talking effects here, not moral norms.) In this regard, Kristol’s citation of Marx is telling. White supremacists and their mainstream allies have undertaken a discursive operation that attempts to shunt the possibility of a world-historical tragedy—a robust, decisive encounter between competing nomoi, a decisive encounter between the racists and the anti-racists—into something farcical, a re-enactment of the Civil War undertaken entirely through cultural symbolics. Kristol wants this farce. It’s far better than a material challenge to white supremacy, racial capitalism, and the racial state.

For anti-racists, the solution is to not get entrapped in this symbolic field—although this is hard. In the next paragraph of the 18th Brumaire, Marx writes

The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. And, just when they appear to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something which does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them; they borrow their names, slogans and costumes so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language. Luther put on the mask of the apostle Paul; the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire; and the revolution of 1848 knew no better than to parody at some points 1789 and at others the revolutionary traditions of 1793-5.

Here, Marx encourages us to think symbolic belatedness as an index of a movement’s political and social weakness in the time of its unfolding. It looks back because it possesses no idiom of itself to address the composition of the present—or the future. White supremacists present their politics indirectly, in the garb of future’s past, because the future of a white politics is the undoing of any futurity, the dissolution of the world. A fully whitened world would radiate disaster triumphant, and so the content needs to hide in ambiguous or illegible phrasing. A Confederate flag is obviously nostalgia for slavery—but no, it’s heritage! Hitler can’t be heiled without a numerical transcription of the alphabet. And most white nationalists, in their public remarks, deploy the idiom of liberal multiculturalism in order to pose whiteness as just any other political-racial-cultural identity. Political whiteness knows it can’t be present in its presence. To be sure, symbolic weakness does not equate to political inefficacy or an incapacity for outrageous violence; moreover, the order of the world remains white supremacist regardless of the political strength of white-supremacist movements. The point here, I think, is that the cultural-symbolic remains a safe space for white supremacists in public because it is the point at which politics can be articulated that otherwise can’t be, and in polysemous, unstable ways that refuse—at least notionally—fixity. Heritage, not racism.

White supremacy presents itself through “world-historical necromancy,” in other words, because it can’t offer a vision of the present or the future that most of the world would want. This is not to say, of course, that an anti-racist, non-anti-black world is a vision of the present or the world that most of the world would want, either. I do want to suggest, though, that we would do well to cede this past in our quest to build an anti-racist future. Most of the past—especially if white people, the state, and capitalism are involved—has very little to offer us, anyhow. So let’s let it go. It’s a field where, at best, to win is to break even. As Marx put it, as he attempts to call it quits with this necromancy, “The social revolution…can only create its poetry from the future, not the past.” In that claim I hear Fanon, whose poetry from the future seems to haunt Marx in the past: “comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man [sic].”      

Poiesis, not history. We need to dedicate time to writing pieces that will train people in practical anti-racist tactics for the present, pieces that will circulate with the speed and popularity that three dozen articles on the cultural symbolics of the Civil War do. We need to materially organize to develop new ways of thinking in order to create the new human. What if think-piece publishers gave space to this endeavor, instead of shadowboxing with history's poltergeists? When we make our new world, the Confederate flags will burn, anyhow, and the monuments of Confederate generals will topple, too.

1 comment:

Dermot Ryan said...

Thank you Chris for this powerful call for a genuinely new politics. And I agree entirely with your reading of Marx as a champion of poiesis. Indeed, I have tried to situate Marx’s interest in poeisis in a larger Romantic critique of the role of repetition in human action in an essay called “The Future of an Allusion: Poïesis in Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” (Shameless plug accomplished!!). But I think it is significant that Marx dedicates most of the I8th Brumaire to discussing how we repeatedly get politically mobilized as well as trapped by the political forms and discourses of the past. The “poetry out of the future” has always struck me as a galvanizing but ultimately utopian moment in this text. Yes, the revolutionaries of the future need to move from mimesis/historia to poeisis, but all revolutions up until the coming social revolution of the nineteenth century have been mimetic. They transform the social order by dressing up and pretending to be a previous historical movement. This is not necessarily negative. And Marx has some important things to say about the role of past political discourses and a historical imaginary in not only successfully deceiving the members of an emergent class of the “real” content of their historical action, but also persuading other classes to align with this historical movement. There is something like Gramsci’s concept of hegemony being developed here. I’m particularly interested in Marx’s brief but penetrating comments on the ways in which nationalism and imperialism function in France of the 1830s-50s (i.e. before and after the rise Louis) hegemonically: these discourses encourage other classes to rally around your bloc’s interests because they speak to some their interests/desires/values. In contrast to all other revolutionary or faux revolutionary upheavals, the next revolution must create new political forms, symbols, gestures, and languages to bring the new political order into being. Revolutionaries must forget history to make it. Yet, if the revolutionaries to come abandon this inheritance as their content, they still need a new content to work on: they will “draw their poetry out of [aus der] the future.” Quite literally, the revolution will scoop [schöpfen] its poetry out of the future (149). The creation of what does not yet exist will not occur ex nihilo; paradoxically, the revolutionaries will work on a raw material that will only appear as the end of their labor. Or to use Marx’s rewriting of Hegel: they need to dance more and act less. And yet, all the historical examples that Marx offers suggests that we generally make the new (1789-93) or fake the new (1848-51) through reenactment.