209 Summer 2012
The pessimism of time
The paradoxes facing the Left
Where are we, today? On the one hand: austerity measures, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and the attempt to dismantle whatever residual features of the welfare state remain. On the other: mass resistance in the form of occupations, strikes, riots, protests, a revival of interest in Marx, feminism, anti-racist and anti-fascist ideas and actions, and widespread cynicism about electoral politics.
From a certain angle, things look bleak for those most affected – which is to say nearly every-one – by the ideology of ruling elites, but, from another angle, there is rage, refusal and serious resistance.
The mood of contemporary politics is understandably complex: the viciousness of the attacks on the poor, unemployed, disabled and the related divide-and-rule tactics mobilised to undermine solidarity along the lines of race, employment and visa status, religion and so on are far advanced. The Right, ideologically and politically, seems to be winning (it has, as always, the police, law and prisons), while the Left seems to be in a permanent defensive formation, with the unions’ old slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ a desperate motto as increasing numbers are injured by the destruction of the welfare state (and/or by the police) and the ‘all’ becomes everyone able to fight back, even in a fragmentary way. Do I fight to save my local swimming pool? Protest against the raising of tuition fees? Campaign against the privatising of the health service? Oppose police brutality? Demand reform of the prison system? Stop the war? The truth is, there are lots of people doing all these things at once, but it’s exhausting to be on the back foot all the time.
There is a fundamental paradox when those who would describe themselves as revolutionaries are nevertheless forced into a position where they are defending the vestiges of reformist policies: when even mild forms of social democracy are all but destroyed, what else can you do but fight to protect the system that cares for those who would suffer and die without it? If you believe in an alternative that would involve genuine provision for need, it is impossible to turn off the desire to make that a reality in the present, against those who would callously and knowingly permit harm to occur in the name of future profit.
Alongside this exhausting, defensive work, there is a feeling of disappointment in some quarters at the perceived lack of new Left theoretical ideas and positions. We could put this in a slightly different way, equally pessimistic – if we cannot even save the welfare state and the last fragments of social democracy, or win a battle for free education, stop (one of the many) wars or even save a local library, can we still be confident in what we could achieve if we had a chance to do things differently? What positive set of ideas would move us beyond the defensive (and frequently unsuccessful) tactics that currently consume us and our time?
The concern that the Left has no more to offer is outlined in two recent articles. The first is by TJ Clark, author of The Painting of Modern Life, Farewell to an Idea and many other texts, a figure associated with the Situationist International, who presented in New Left Review earlier this year what he describes as ‘a rhetoric, an imagery, an argument and a temporality’ in the form of ‘For A Left With No Future’. The second is a piece by Francis Fukuyama, of ‘End of History’ fame, who published around the same time an article in Foreign Affairs called ‘The Future of History’. Clark and Fukuyama, though coming from quite different traditions and referencing very different figures, share a central conviction.
‘Left politics is immobilised … at the level of theory and therefore of practice,’ writes Clark.
‘[D]espite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response,’ says Fukuyama. ‘There are several reason for this lack of left-wing mobilisation but chief among them is a failure in the realm of ideas.’
Clark and Fukuyama concur that the Tea Party has instead captured much of the political and populist ground that used to belong to the Left (Clark: ‘The present form of the politics of ressentiment – the egalitarianism of our time – is the Tea Party’; Fukuyama: ‘It is conceivable that the Occupy Wall Street movement will gain traction, but the most dynamic recent populist movement to date has been the right-wing Tea Party’).
While Fukuyama desires a resurgence of Left ideas (‘the absence of a plausible progressive counter-narrative is unhealthy … serious intellectual debate is urgently needed, since the current form of globalised capitalism is eroding the middle–class social base on which liberal democracy rests … the alternative narrative is out there waiting to be born’), Clark wants the Left to question – even give up on – a future that many might feel was integral to its self-understanding. ‘[W]hat would it be like,’ he asks, ‘for Left politics not to look forward – to be truly present-centred, non-prophetic, disenchanted, continually “mocking its own presage”?’
He proposes for the Left instead ‘a tragic sense of life’ in which ‘there will be no future’ without ‘war, poverty, Malthusian panic, tyranny, cruelty, classes, dead time, and all the ills the flesh is heir to’. The late Tony Judt’s book Ill Fares the Land is similarly desolate, with its first line (‘something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today’) setting the tone for a melancholic homage to ‘the world we have lost’, as one chapter has it. Judt and Clark, but not Fukuyama, call for the avoidance of extremes, a kind of piecemeal approach to political change (Judt: ‘Big is not always better, more not always more desirable; but we are discouraged from expressing the thought’; Clark: ‘It … is wrong to assume that moderacy in politics, if we mean by this a politics of small steps, bleak wisdom, concrete proposals, disdain for grand promises, a sense of the hardness of even the least “improvement”, is not revolutionary – assuming this last word has any descriptive force left.’).
We could describe this, at least in Clark’s case, as a kind of Left Burkeanism (where the emphasis is always on slow, steady change and away from bold novelty and dramatic abstract and metaphysical principles such as universalism and equality that shook everything up in the French revolution).
But we might also wonder what on earth intellectual life has come to when neoliberals call for a strong Left with which to do battle and revolutionaries plead for a quiet life. There are several curious motivations at stake here – Fukuyama, raised on an bilateral image of the world in which communism and capitalism formed irreconcilable but immensely powerful economic and political blocs, does not enjoy a post-Cold War environment without intellectual opponents against which to hone his neoliberal rhetoric; TJ Clark, on the other hand, having been a part of the struggle for so long, is tired of ‘big ideas, the revolutionary stylistics’ of a Left he, like Fukuyama, sees as profoundly marginalised and self-marginalising.
Time itself seems exhausted. The Left has no future; something is profoundly wrong; there’s no counter-narrative. Susan Watkins’ response to Clark’s tragic pessimism (an essay, ‘Presentism?’, also in New Left Review) points to the ‘range of uneven temporalities at work within the same chronological time’ as a way of demonstrating that not everyone has given up on the future – or even the future in the present. What about, Watkins argues, ‘the young generation, the Arab revolutions … the world beyond the Eurozone or Anglophone left’?
Watkins is right, yet the centrality of the ‘no future’ question reaches far beyond Clark and Judt’s laments: Paul Mason and others have spoken about the ‘graduate without a future’, and the University of California occupiers penned a ‘Communique from an Absent Future’ back in 2009. As anyone who has ever awaited trial or been sent to prison knows, the weaponisation of time is an extremely powerful force. The centralisation of personal debt as a form of material and existential constraint has been an ongoing project for several decades, tying individuals not only to their particular ‘sum’ at any given time but also to their finitude – will the debt be paid off before I’m gone? SF writer KW Jeter’s notion of the ‘indeadted’ – beings kept alive to pay off their debts even after death – seems ever less speculative and more like an imminent press release from a right-wing think tank.
But should the Left be coming up with ‘new’ ideas all the time? Politics is not fashion – and, in any case, even fashion is more cyclical rather than endlessly transhistorical. Clark seems unaware that his claims about turning against the future are prefigured in some parts of queer theory (Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam etc.) and his presentism is arguably a feature of aspects of communisation theory (as Théorie Communiste put it: ‘Revolution is communisation; it does not have communism as a project and result, but as its very content’). Certain fundamental things that the Left seeks to abolish – exploitation, inequality, material poverty, exclusion – are more present than ever and while they may take on ‘novel’ forms, the real newness may simply be quantitative, as more and more people ‘pay’ for a crisis they didn’t create (which is not to buy into the idea that austerity is in any way ‘necessary’, of course).
Perhaps the real problem here is the way in which time itself always serves as the measure for all politics, and all critique of politics, whether it be the bleak future, the heroic past, the desolate present, the utopian tomorrow, the shadowy past or the dawning of a new day. Clark’s tragic presentism is the flipside of Watkins’ identification of forces that point to an entirely different, but oddly parallel, set of positive futural modalities. If time is a weapon used against people fighting against the speed and brutality of what is happening, we may be forced to use a different image of time – or perhaps an image of a world without time altogether – against those whose only measure seems to be the maximisation of profit in the shortest possible period. The question of whose finitude counts and whose doesn’t – a brutal marker not only of the division between life and death but between the more important distinction between those whose life/death ‘counts’ and those about whom nothing is counted at all – is played out in the only post-religious ‘infinite’ permitted to matter: permanent accumulation. The dedication to amassing at the expense of life itself reveals a terror of time so disturbing that any politics of temporal pessimism/optimism looks insignificant by comparison.
As we defend those who await trial, or write to those in prison, or sit in courts, job centres and universities as futures are crushed all around, time may be all we have left: time in which to abolish their notion of time and replace it neither with Clark’s tragic present, nor Fukuyama’s ‘ideology of the future’ but with a life in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time.