Rebecca Solnit is the Thomas Friedman of America’s liberal Left: a queasily bad writer stuck in a 90s parallel universe who isn’t great with reality but practiced at milking the stretched udder of metaphor.
Friedman gave us The World is Flat. Solnit’s new work is The Faraway Nearby. Friedman became notorious for using bizarre analogies to play down America’s suicidal venture into Iraq and to spin plusses out of minuses. (‘The first rule of holes,’ he wrote, ‘is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.’) Solnit’s also distinguished herself as a peddler of unhinged optimism – this time, to a fraught American Left – and her conceits are just as surreal and desperate. Twelve months after Occupy appeared, when the movement already looked derelict, an unfazed Solnit promised it was only the beginning:
Occupy is now a year old. A year is an almost ridiculous measure of time for much of what matters: at one year old, Georgia O’Keeffe was not a great painter, and Bessie Smith wasn’t much of a singer. One year into the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still in progress, catalyzed by the unknown secretary of the local NAACP chapter and a preacher from Atlanta — by, that is, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Occupy, our bouncing baby, was born with such struggle and joy a year ago, and here we are, 12 long months later.
Within one year, however, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had already produced an impressive Supreme Court ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Occupy’s only lasting achievement – as we’re continually reminded – was that it got people talking. The rest of Solnit’s rationalisations weren’t much better than her opening, with its strange protest-movements-are-like-babies analogy. Could it be – she wonders – that Occupy was actually ‘too successful a brand’? Or was ‘the mainstream media’ at fault?
Solnit never considers blaming Occupy itself for building its gambit on a self-limiting strategy like squatting. The idea of a Left that recognises its mistakes and learns from them before trying something different seems abhorrent to her. Instead, Solnit assures readers that ‘we live in the heroic age itself’ and ‘realism is overrated.’ She pleads: ‘Don’t be reasonable, don’t be realistic, and don’t be defeated. A year is nothing and the mainstream media is oblivious to where power lies and how change works, but that doesn’t mean you need to be.’
Now, to mark Occupy’s second anniversary, Solnit has another consolatory blog post in The Nation. She’s finally referring to the movement in the past tense – as a ‘was’ rather than an ‘is’ – but avoids much mention of where the Occupiers went. Again, she runs through a list of small victories. Bitterly, though, she also denounces earlier left-wing activists, the kind who were actually focused on success: ‘The old Left imagined that victory, when it came, would be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come.’
Could Solnit be writing about the same ‘old Left’ that gave us the eight-hour working day, the weekend and women’s suffrage? It’s an odd contradiction of terms from someone who also believes that ‘realism is overrated’ – an echo of the 1968 Paris student slogan: ‘Be a realist; demand the impossible!’ On one hand, it’s the old Left’s fault for not dreaming big enough. Yet the old Left also cops it for aiming too high, for having the pluck to demand total victories and calling a loss a loss rather than settling for Solnit’s miniaturist reassurances.
She’s been hawking that Pollyanna miniaturism since at least 2004, when her book Hope in the Dark arrived to soothe a despairing Left that had failed to stop Bush’s Iraq invasion. Yes, the future was metaphorically ‘dark,’ it argued – hence the title – but perhaps it was a ‘darkness of the womb as much as of the grave’. Right. And so what if the Left failed in its major goal of preventing the war? Solnit has the cheerful counter-narrative that political change is all about baby steps. Even if we seem to fail at something important, those failures might just be the butterfly wing-beats we need to stir future tornadoes (or so we can dream):
History is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away a stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.
Solnit explains in an interview how she found a way to give the events of the Second Iraq War a positive spin – much like ‘liberal hawk’ Tom Friedman used to do for the side of the warmongers; only her spin, perversely, comes from a liberal dove perspective:
When the Iraq war broke out, I felt like I had something different to say about it. In some sense we failed, yes, but we mitigated the nature of the war through the global antiwar movement; the Turks prevented Turkey from providing bases to support the war; the war started later; shock and awe was scaled back, etcetera. People have forgotten how different the world would be had we not done all these things.
It’s classic Frank Capra reasoning: ‘You see, George Bailey? Without you, what could’ve been Fallujah is now Pottersville! One life affects maaaaaaaany …’
And that’s why Solnit gives me goosebumps; everything she writes seems expressly designed to make the Left stupider and more complacent. When her fellow leftists fail at something, as with Occupy, she applauds them or tries to persuade them to lower their standards for what counts as ‘victory.’ When they actually – oh no, they’d never…! – threaten to ditch Obama at the polls (that is, wisen up enough to try and exert some leverage) she accuses them of ‘left-wing voter suppression.’ Reading her articles is like listening to a well-meaning teacher in a fucked rural school spouting euphemisms to make students jammed in the dumb stream feel good about the fact they’ll never amount to anything.
That’s Rebecca Solnit, Merchant of Counter-intuition: a Nation columnist set on paralysing the Left, not through despair, but with curare-darts of optimism.
‘I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank,’ reads Solnit’s July letter to Edward Snowden. In a somewhat Friedman-esque heaping, she titles the piece ‘Prometheus Among the Cannibals,’ casting Snowden as Prometheus (though also, dizzyingly, as Anne Frank, John Brown, Nelson Mandela and a match ‘sacrificed’ to light a bonfire ‘out of … secrecy and spying’). She first compares Snowden’s situation to a ‘live espionage movie’; but this changes, through a tangle of crossed metaphorical wires, into something more like The Hobbit:
Though in my world quite a few of us strike our small blows against empire, you, young man, you were situated where you could run a dagger through the dragon’s eye, and that dragon is writhing in agony now; in that agony it has lost its magic: an arrangement whereby it remains invisible while making the rest of us ever more naked to its glaring eye.
The hero-worship drags on. We hear about Snowden’s great ‘love’ for ‘our world … its possibilities, its dreamers and its dreams,’ about his ‘young, pale, thoughtful face.’ Oh Edward, you sparkle!
Solnit even manages to applaud Snowden’s unexceptional history as an Army Reserve dropout:
You were trained as a soldier, but a soldier’s courage with a thinker’s independence of mind is a dangerous thing; a hero is a dangerous thing.
Snowden, despite his ‘soldier’s courage,’ faces at most a civilian court in his native US: this has been the case for all previous non-military leakers. But that doesn’t keep Solnit from feting him as a new Chelsea Manning, as a ‘thinker,’ and, strangest of all, as a hero. She writes:
Pity the country that requires a hero, Bertolt Brecht once remarked, but pity the heroes too. They are the other homeless, the people who don’t fit in. They are the ones who see the hardest work and do it, and pay the price we charge those who do what we can’t or won’t. If the old stories were about heroes who saved us from others, modern heroes — Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi — endeavored to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.
Now it seems Solnit’s heroes aren’t dragon slayers at all – not like the heroes of ‘old stories.’ Rather, modern heroes exist ‘to save us from ourselves.’ It’s a gloomy mysticism you’d normally expect from old conservative authors, not Occupy supporters like Solnit. Indeed, Thomas Carlyle (one of the nineteenth century’s wittiest counter-revolutionaries) literally wrote the book on that subject: On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. (Ever heard the term, ‘the Great Men Theory of History’? Guess where it comes from.)
For Carlyle, heaven-sent ‘Great Men’ were integral to the welfare of every society:
To me, in these circumstances, that of ‘Hero-worship’ becomes a fact inexpressibly precious; the most solacing fact one sees in the world at present. There is an everlasting hope in it for the management of the world. Had all traditions, arrangements, creeds, societies that men ever instituted, sunk away, this would remain. The certainty of Heroes being sent us; our faculty, our necessity, to reverence Heroes when sent: it shines like a polestar through smoke-clouds, dust-clouds, and all manner of down-rushing and conflagration.
These issues return with a vengeance in Solnit’s August piece, ‘A New Planet: The Duty Is Ours.’ You rarely find much enthusiasm for Occupy this late in the game. As with Wikileaks, it’s hard to feel the movement still belongs to the Left, and not (in this case) to a scuttling mass of wingnuts, babbling about Agenda 21 or soursop cancer cures or how the Aussie tax office is an ‘illegal corporate entity’ with no jurisdiction over ‘Dave of Clan: McTinfoil.’ This situation wasn’t easily avoided. Occupy may have originated with Adbusters, a magazine devoted to condemning corporate brands, but awkwardly the ‘leaderless resistance’ was little more than a brand itself: a Guy Fawkes mask and a slogan (‘We are the 99%!’) that anyone could appropriate for any cause, no matter how insane or irrelevant.
In hindsight, a protest movement built on an open-license brand identity was a recipe for disaster. To Rebecca Solnit, though, Occupy was a success – some kind of success – or at least one of those minor steps-in-the-right-direction that our despondent New Left tries to sell as successes. In any case, she found ‘the recent leaderless rebellions’ successful enough to warrant repeating. Supposedly, what we’ve been seeing is ‘the next phase in the development of nonviolent, direct action, people-powered movements.’
Skipping Gandhi – whose movement was nonviolent, and even effective, but inconveniently leaderful – Solnit puts the start of Occupy-like experimentation roughly in the 1960s. However, she admits that the end product of these hippie-era experiments was, far too often, a cult:
In those years, members of cults (from Synanon and the Manson Family to the Moonies and the Symbionese Liberation Army) and others followed their leaders into madness and mayhem, even as some movements started to experiment with new forms of self-governance and to learn how to campaign without charismatic leaders. They began trying to transform liberation, equality, and democracy into internal processes as well as goals. The problem wasn’t just the cults, but the way political campaigns of every sort would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the people who assumed they were sent to Earth to explain it all and lead the rest of us (yeah, dudes, mostly).
Some deep irony there. Two months earlier, Solnit was happy to drool over Ron Paul supporter Snowden with inflated hagiography worthy of The Matrix – ‘So maybe, Edward Snowden, you’re a sacrifice,’ she wrote; ‘[Y]ou… [used] the power you had gained deep within the bowels of their infernal machines to empower us.’ At other moments, her letter sounded like the stalker mail from Enduring Love: ‘Which is to say you acted from love… The rest of us, what would we do for love?’ Now, after tarnishing her position with ditzy hero-worship, Solnit tells us she has issues with personality cults! Personality cults devoted to ‘dudes, mostly’ who ‘assumed they were sent to Earth to explain it all’!
Though Solnit assures us these were only early hiccups. In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘other radical democrats,’ especially the antinuclear movement, ‘pioneered new anti-authoritarian techniques, still widely used and prominent in the Occupy movement, including consensus process, facilitators and spokescouncils’; these ‘tools,’ Solnit writes, ‘rendered leaders of the old sort superfluous.’
Fighting words. But Solnit gets even bolder; not only has Leadership 1.0 become ‘superfluous,’ but the Glorious Future of Real Existing Anarchism is already here:
A body with a head can be decapitated, but headless organisms charge on as long as some of us remain. And many people — Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, David Graeber of the Occupy movement, Bill McKibben in the climate-change movement, possibly even Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement – have been mistaken for leaders when they were really something else: catalysts and voices for our movements. They weren’t and aren’t leaders because we aren’t followers. We don’t obey them, but sift through and adopt their ideas, frameworks, and strategies as we see fit, while contributing ourselves. No shepherds, no sheep — which is a triumph of political evolution and a measure of how far we are from the authoritarianism of the past.
Nope, don’t you dare call them ‘leaders’! Solnit’s Occupy-friendly term is ‘catalysts and voices’! Even historical figures who might seem like examples of good leadership were, again, just ‘catalysts and voices.’ Nice excuse! You might’ve thought that strain of circular Young-Pioneer logic had died out with the ‘classless’ USSR, but it’s seemingly endured into the twenty first century.
Bill McKibben is the oddest name on Solnit’s list of leaders(-who-aren’t-actually-leaders). His 350.org group has very little in common with Occupy and a lot more in common with PACs like MoveOn (and GetUp!, its Aussie cousin). It’s a tight, well-funded activism outfit, largely aligned with the Dems, which deploys such radical anti-authoritarian techniques as … um … asking supporters to co-sign an ‘Open Letter to President Obama.’ Yet from Solnit’s excitement, you’d think 350.org was an arcane experiment in revolutionary strategy based on fevered readings of Anti-Oedipus.
And judging by her interviews, Solnit calls quite a lot of things ‘revolutionary,’ even – Lord forbid! – Dalai-Lama-funded meditation research at Stanford:
I feel like we’re in a truly revolutionary period, not just in terms of practical activities to overthrow regimes in the Middle East or Occupy but also in terms of radical redefinitions. I feel like workers are a big part of it, but there’s so much more going on. The Bay Area has this Center for the Study of the Greater Good at Berkeley, which is a kind of altruism studies institute. And I forget, isn’t there another one at Stanford that the Dalai Lama funds? The Center for Studying Altruism and Compassion, I think? But it’s this kind of radical reconfiguring of what it means to be human, in who we are, what we want, and what we think we’re capable of.
It’s a peculiar sign of the times: every side of politics has become anarchist-flavoured, not only the hard Left. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t promising to smash something. On the Right, old-school ‘British to the bootstraps’ Toryism is steadily being displaced by a newer, youth-ier, Ron Paul libertarianism: an ideology that frames everything as an act of state-shattering rebellion. Meanwhile, at the Australian social-dem part of the spectrum, we’ve had ‘Destroy the Joint,’ a feminist movement less focused on destroying anything than it was on preserving the Gillard government. As for the UK’s Labour-with-a-‘u’, there’s the New Statesman, which runs Laurie Penny pieces headlined ‘Why isn’t Parliament Square on fire?’ while otherwise boosting Ed Milliband as Britain’s Last Hope.
Carlyle might’ve been describing the Statesman – or Solnit – in the last chapter of On Heroes, where he tries to account for a special kind of ‘Great Man’ who nonetheless seems outwardly like a revolutionary:
He seems an anarchist; and indeed a painful element of anarchy does encumber him at every step,—him to whose whole soul anarchy is hostile, hateful. His mission is Order; every man’s is. He is here to make what was disorderly, chaotic, into a thing ruled, regular.
We’re now stuck with a libertarian Right and an intersectionalist Guy-Fawkes-mask-wearing portion of the Left which often appear to be two sides of the same coin. (The Left’s recent shock over Julian Assange’s support for Ron Paul is just an example of how indistinguishable these two anarchisms have become.) Both camps, for separate reasons, have accepted the same disruptive hacker ethos: the faith that ‘old’ forms of organisation are ‘oppressive’ and need to be ousted by newer Internet-like mechanisms. Under this situation, the Old Right and Old Left are the big losers, left painfully unfashionable beside a technocratic, jargon-driven politics where everything aims to be 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0.
Philip Mirowski critiques the neoliberal-libertarian side of this ideology quite well in his book, The Road to Mont Pelerin. Here, he describes the dreary consequences of Jimbo Wales’ Wikipedia experiment – an attempt to organise an encyclopaedia through Hayekian free-market principles:
… by the criteria of the Wiki-workers themselves, 99.8% of articles were neither deemed to merit ‘featured’ not ‘good’ evaluations in 2006. The small proportion that was deemed superior often did not manage to maintain that ranking, however, since it is admitted that ‘featured’ articles experience a 20 percent annual decay rate. In other words, high quality articles tend to experience entropic degradation and backslide from the category as various Wiki-workers feel compelled to tinker with them. Although most Wikipedia activity is indeed volunteer work, the great bulk of that work is devoted to either (a) correcting ongoing vandalism, or (b) vicious infighting over the ‘correct’ way to implement deletion policies. In other words, most Wiki-work is a huge Sisyphean waste of time, since the vandalism never stops, almost no entry converges to anything in particular (much less ‘truth’), and many ‘deleted’ components have the vexing habit of recurring.
These words could almost as easily describe Occupy, which, to put it one way, applied the Wikipedia principle to real-world protests. Just as certain ‘Wiki-workers’ gain special editing privileges by sticking around long enough, anarchist campgrounds also tend to produce de facto leaders from the ‘permanent’ occupiers who act as the squat’s anchors. Like a Wiki page anyone could edit, Occupy practically invited people to hijack it with their own private agendas, creating the same ‘huge Sisyphean waste of time’ that Mirowski mentions.
Solnit’s partly right, though: catalysts are a rising force in politics. It’s one consequence of our new hashtag-driven political environment. The job of actually organising a movement or a party, weighing advice and developing policies doesn’t get much admiration these days. Wouldn’t it be far more rewarding just to try and go viral? You could claim success for kicking off a movement without the fuss of being in a position of responsibility – and influence without direct responsibility is a thing to treasure. Such a milieu explains the rise of figures like David Graeber (credited with coining the slogan ‘We are the 99%’), Jane Caro (whose tweets began Australia’s ‘Destroy the Joint’ movement) and, from the right-wing side, James O’Keefe (creator of the infamous YouTube hatchet job that sunk ACORN’s influence in US politics). For the career catalyst, it’s the show of spontaneity, not planning, that brings prestige: going viral becomes a sign of popular endorsement, and perhaps even legitimacy – a new form of legitimacy, drawn from the supposed direct democracy of the Internet. But, beyond this viral role, Solnit’s ‘catalysts’ are basically motivational speakers. They take their act from one place to the next, making small changes to suit each locale, like a stand-up comedian, and (we’d hope) leave their audiences inspired and energised.
More than that, it’s absurd for Solnit to treat ‘catalytic’ heroism as an invention of the anti-authoritarian Left, let alone its defining feature. Filippo Marinetti – whose psychopathic, anti-feminist, anti-intellectual, ‘Futurist’ brand of anarchism quickly turned him into one of Mussolini’s earliest supporters – was already declaring himself ‘the Caffeine of Europe’ a century ago. His fantasy, it bears saying, wasn’t to be Il Duce, but something more ambitious: a drug in human form, circulating through Europe’s bloodstream (perhaps like Philip K Dick’s villain, Palmer Eldritch, who can mentally invade anyone who ingests the alien hallucinogen he sells).
Then we have martyrs: those prototypical ‘catalysts’ who were so crucial to the early success of Christianity. Judging by her tone, Solnit’s just bursting to make a martyr out of Snowden. Besides that odd analogy of hers, likening him to a lit match, there’s this very random paragraph:
I think of a man even younger than you, Edward Snowden, who unlike you acted without knowing what he did: 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, whose December 2010 self-immolation to protest his humiliation and hopelessness triggered what became the still-blooming, still-burning Arab Spring. Sometimes one person changes the world. This should make most of us hopeful and some of them fearful, because what I am also saying is that we now live in a world of us and them, a binary world. It’s not the old world of capitalism versus communism, but of the big versus the little, of oligarchy versus democracy, of hierarchies versus swarms, of corporations versus public interest and civil society.
I’m not bagging martyrs: I’d like to think the Joan of Arc story was minimally true. But casting Snowden as a martyr prematurely and taking it as an excuse to worship him is a whole different matter. You can sense Solnit’s desperation, though: how, except through martyrdom, can you guarantee an absolutely pure ‘catalyst,’ removed from any hopes of leadership? A Wiki-catalyst who never dictates a personal view but simply acts as a screen for anyone to project their own goals and ideals onto? Part of Solnit seems eager to turn Snowden into a banner, an abstract rallying point like the Christian Cross became for the Emperor Constantine: ‘In this sign conquer! C’mon! Do it for Jesus!’
Not an easy task when your Jesus is still alive. And shouting for Ron Paul.
It never seems like Solnit’s ‘anarchism’ is at odds with her Obamabot liberalism. It’s a tweed-jackety anarchism, not a political philosophy so much as a politicised literary criticism. Beyond her outward antagonism towards ‘leaders’ and ‘hierarchies,’ Solnit rarely takes long to lapse into a Carlylean ‘Great Men’ theory of history, pitifully living out Carlyle’s own words: ‘Hero-worship exists forever, and everywhere: … it extends from divine adoration down to the lowest practical regions of life.’
She and Thomas Friedman might seem like an unlikely pairing, but their two brands of optimism have a common source: the 1990s Western triumphalism that followed the collapse of the USSR. To right-leaning liberals like Friedman, it was a cackling, Pinky and the Brain triumph for American neoliberalism, which now looked set to become the unchallenged ideology of a new age of globalisation. There would be peace and stability, Friedman predicted, thanks to his ‘Golden Arches’ theory of conflict prevention – ‘No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.’
Solnit won’t claim to be cheering for American global dominance, but (as she reminds us in article after article) the late 80s and early 90s were just as sacred to her lefty-liberal ideology. The same events always come up in her litanies of ‘heroic’ mass movements: the fall of the Berlin Wall … the Velvet Revolution … the Zapatistas. Twenty years on, Solnit is one of the few remaining progressives still jumping with excitement about those last two. Ironically, it was less a great activist culture that triggered the Velvet Revolution than rapidly folding Soviet influence – the exact thing Friedman’s liberal hawks were celebrating – and its mundane legacy was a changeover to Western capitalism.
While the likes of Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama could pretend that a quiet age of American hegemony was dawning, Solnit could pretend that people were simply getting nicer and nicer. The Czechs had had their bloodless revolution; why couldn’t everyone else? By golly, maybe human beings were just good by nature! Maybe they were good enough not to need the Old Left, with all its grimness and hierarchies and rules! Weren’t the Zapatistas inspiring, going to war not ‘to kill or be killed’ but ‘to be heard’ and ‘create a democratic space’? How could they fail? Academia loved them! If indigenous Mayans could become Chomskyites, surely the whole world would follow! Yes we can!
These were both terrible examples for any grand narrative of humane triumph. Czechoslovakia minus the Russians was the Northcote of Eastern Europe: Czechs weren’t keen on killing each other, full stop. As for the Zapatistas, their main gambit, above anarchism, was an experimental PR warfare which left them at the mercy of media cycles. Once they could no longer pretend to be mystery soldiers (or any kind of soldiers) or suffer bloodbaths regularly enough to make news, people’s attention wavered and their struggle became a stalemate. Heedlessly, as late as 2007, Solnit was still calling them ‘the most powerful voice coming from the Spanish-speaking majority of the Americas’ – forgetting somehow that the EZLN thought of Mexico’s ‘Spanish-speaking majority’ as oppressors. Though what really blew Solnit’s mind about the Zapatistas was their resistance symbol: a snail. Yippee! Another Big Metaphor she could milk to death! ¡Arriba los caracoles!
Could there be better ways to deal with failure than Solnit’s foetal-ball optimism? Here’s my view; our hopes lie with a robust, practical depression: a grimness that won’t yield to anything, including 90s Prozac optimism and lazy self-flattery.
For the Left, that means admitting when you’ve lost the battle and lost badly. It means analysing why you lost and painfully scouring yourself of all the flawed rhetoric, ideas, causes, strategies and alliances that killed your chances of success. TRY being a bit depressed! TRY blenching at your younger, naiver self! (Shout it – ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!’) Attack decrepit jargon wherever it moulders! Gather up a nice big Dictionary of Platitudes stuffed with words and phrases the Left should never use again! Don’t blame Murdoch; blame yourself for being less persuasive than Murdoch. Brutal self-criticism is a job you should never outsource to the enemy.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!