The astonishment that such things are “still” possible

Klee - Angelus Novus (1920)

Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” relentlessly attack the notion of any form of necessary social progress, whether liberal or Marxist. In the current election cycle, we may be witnessing a fresh “now of legibility” for this much-quoted text. Who can follow the bizarre events unfolding before us and still hold onto the illusions that the arc of history — or demographic change — will “automatically” save us in the end?

“Progress” in the conventional sense is simply not on offer here, in large part because we’ve had decades of “regression” in those terms. In the ostensibly “progressive” party, we are offered a choice between perhaps the most authentically conservative candidate in recent memory — Hillary Clinton, who promises to fight to keep things exactly as Obama left them — and an opponent who, in terms of the “progress” of recent history, counts as nostalgic and even regressive — Bernie Sanders, who wants to restore the elements of the postwar settlement that have been eroded and destroyed. To go forward, we must go back.

Meanwhile, on the ostensibly “conservative” end of things, we have people who are either “progressive” in the sense of wanting to hurry along existing trends (the neoliberal “Republican establishment,” such as it is) and outright revolutionaries — most notably Trump, but also Cruz. While much of their rhetoric seems “regressive” in the traditional “things should get more lefty” terms — how can anyone “still” embrace the KKK, for instance? Buy a calendar! — in reality they are offering us something unprecedented, something we truly cannot predict. The superficial nostalgia of “Make America Great Again” should not hide the fact that nothing Trump or Cruz is proposing is actually a “return” to any previous era. The embrace of white supremacy at the current moment, for instance, means something radically different than a similar move would have meant when even abolitionists were pretty much racists.

We can see the same thing on the state level. Bruce Rauner is not aiming to return Illinois to some previous state — he wants to impose an unprecedented arrangement upon it, and to achieve that he appears to be willing to literally shut down all state agencies for his entire term if need be. Here the Democrats are most vividly the conservative party, the party that is in favor of having a state government at all. And the telling thing, I think, is that — due to Rauner buying off a Democratic legislator — the Democrats are one vote short of the supermajority needed to render him totally irrelevant to the political process. All it would take is one Republican to say, “My God, this is lunacy” and it would all be over. And not a single one will.

We see a similar dichotomy in the response to public pressure. Republicans, going all the way back to George W. Bush, simply do not care. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and the only question is when they’ll get bored of the spectacle and call in the national guard. Democrats, by contrast, are the party of at least pretending to respond to protest. Illinois offers an instructive example here: there have been countless fruitless protests against Rauner, but the terrible, corrupt, conservative Democrat Rahm Emanuel has made some token gesture toward meeting protestors’ demands and even allowed protestors to disrupt Christmas shopping unmolested. His responses have been token at best, but even Rahm — who is surely the very worst the Democrats have to offer — acknowledges and responds in some way.

This is why I distrust all those who smugly inform us that Trump’s most outlandish plans are a dead letter. Presumably this is because of institutional constraints — but since when are Republicans known for working within institutional constraints? During the Obama years, they have systematically weaponized those constraints, turning the fillibuster into a de facto minimum vote threshold, repeatedly playing chicken with the debt ceiling, and now flatly refusing to entertain any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court. They have fought aggressively from a position of virtually unprecedented weakness and repudiation, and they have been rewarded electorally.

Does this mean that Trump really will carry out the most massive population transfer in human history? I don’t know. I hope not. But we can’t rule it out. We can’t rule anything out. He would be the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and he would have Republican allies at all levels of government, who control militarized and deeply racist police forces. Will the Republicans in the Senate literally let the Supreme Court die off one by one before they allow a Democrat to confirm a new justice? I don’t know. I hope not. But they could. They have the power to do that. Similarly in Illinois, do we really know that Rauner won’t continue his crusade for all four years? I don’t know. I hope not. But he could — there is nothing compelling him to sign any budget ever — and I don’t think we really know what that will look like for the state to be shut down for four years. And then we don’t know that he won’t be reelected.

In any case, demographics will not save us. The longer they’re in power now, the more opportunity they have to entrench their power. Conservative overreach will not save us. The more public institutions they destroy, the more they destroy the constituencies for them. Trump won’t lose automatically, because neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders can fully control events. The normal back and forth of politics, the trends and data, will not save us — because the unprecedented can and does happen. It is happening before our eyes.

7 Responses to “The astonishment that such things are “still” possible”

  1. JoB Says:

    So, Adam, your take saddens me also because it really feels like you wanted Benjamin to be wrong. The word progress is not by co-incidence the root of the word progressive.

    Personally I remain a cultural optimist. In reading Cavell, I am more and more convinced that the ‘grand political’ stage is given too much credit. Progress is made not by winning/losing elections and other grandiose media-friendly things but by a growing consensus on things like gay marriage, need for social protection, war-averseness and so on. That progress is being made, as far as I can see. Maybe frustratingly gradually but then again, every time progress has been forced to go in leaps and bounds we got close to violence (and violence most decidedly is regression). I know I am in a minority who, in this I learned a lot in reading Gadamer, both believe things need to be better and that the improvement can come only in small, undramatic steps (because otherwise we become unintelligible to each other and therefore we don’t see others as human beings anymore and it feels easier to be violent to them).

    That doesn’t mean that the public stage hasn’t been depressing for decades and that the rate of its depressing-ness has been accelerating quickly the last years. US politics is indeed bringing out the worst in this (although European politics is already since the 90s in that sorry state). Essential institutions are being eroded (although only rarely destroyed which is telling in itself, I think). The consensus of people with money and might clearly is that social progress can be risked (and that may well be because some are convinced it is an automatic effect, in this sense Benjamin’s warning is correct), and if it’s risked much more there will be regression because people will vote more and more for regressives (understanding that they’re going to lose out).

    The question is whether there will be a catastrophic revolutionary event (whether 8 years from now Trump is calling on Putin and Erdogan to figure out how to circumvent the US constitution to get to a third term, for instance). If not, then it will heal even if annoyingly slowly.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t know that I “wanted” Benjamin to be wrong. It would be easier, obviously, if progress were automatic. But then there would also, in a deeper sense, be no hope at all.

  3. JoB Says:

    True, in that sense it is not automatic but just the automatic result of people trying to do the good thing without attracting specific attention to it. It just works slower and therefore too easily sabotaged by a few definitely evil people. I am getting more and more religious, I guess.

  4. Nicholas Ballesteros Says:

    There is also the Benjamin who wrote Left-Wing Melancholy, which is indicative here: “left-wing radicalism is precisely the attitude to which there is no longer in general any corresponding political action. It is to the left not of this or that tendency; but simply to the left of what is in general possible. For from the beginning all it has in mind is to enjoy itself in a negativistic quiet. The metamorphosis of political struggle from a compulsory decision into an object of pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption.”
    Sanders might be old hat but his campaign has nonetheless invoked the conditions of power that we have through the state form. And he’s talking about political autonomy, deliberativeness, and equality and public accountability. He’s making a case for opportunities, for affecting influence on the political environment from the standpoint of collectivity. I don’t see the problem with his valorization of the “middle class” as that collective constituency thats going to perform a political function of enacting democratic rule.

  5. Hugh Thomas Says:

    This is kind of off-topic, but I was wondering what your take is on the “dwarf” of theology in the first of the Theses. Reading that Thesis independently of the others, it seems like the dwarf of theology that allows historical materialism to keep winning is a figure for the quasi-religious belief that there is some kind of force out there which will fix the problems — demographics, as you alluded to, being an example.

    On that reading, then, it would seem that the recommendation in that Thesis that historical materialism take theology into its service is intended ironically. However, in the rest of the Theses, Benjamin makes several moves which seem like he is *actually* making theology serve the purposes of historical materialism. But then, how do you understand the first Thesis?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think that your reading of the dwarf of theology makes sense. The key to me is the contrast between the mechanical appearance (things happening automatically, like demographics saving us) and the reality of human agency. From a hardcore Marxist perspective, the idea of free human agency may seem like a bourgeois illusion — like “theology” — but Benjamin wants to restore that element.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Also, more generally, there’s the “theological” idea that the regular flow of history can be interrupted — by the messiah, for instance, as in the last thesis. Revolution isn’t something that happens automatically by going with the flow, but must disrupt the flow, must stop the regular course of time in a quasi-apocalyptic gesture.

    Basically, I think your misreading comes from importing what you think religion is into Benjamin’s reading, instead of inductively figuring out what Benjamin thinks the salient “theological” aspect is. If anyone is “religious” by your meaning, it’s precisely the Stalinist historical determinists Benjamin is most concerned to argue against. Hence he must mean something different.


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