feature | Jess Whyte

188 cover

spring 2007
ISBN 978-0-9775171-5-2
published 20 September 2007


Jess Whyte calls for politics, imagination and bravery

In 2004, an unnamed Bush adviser accused a senior Wall Street Journal reporter of belonging to the “reality based community”. This “community”, according to the adviser, was made up of people who “believe that solutions arise from your judicious study of reality”. Not realising he was being insulted, the reporter nodded at the description and made some reference to Enlightenment principles and empiricism.

Before he could finish, the Bush aide interrupted him.

“That’s not the way the world really works any more,” he said. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”1

Overwhelmingly, US progressives responded to this anecdote by smugly deriding the irrationalism and the arrogance of the Bush administration. Bloggers emblazoned “proud member of the reality based community” across their banners; Wikipedia suggested the phrase as a rallying call for disparate opponents of the administration.

Three years later, the ability of the US to drop its version of reality on the world from a stealth bomber looks much more tenuous. In Iraq, the ‘mission accomplished’ exuberance has disappeared, with Bush recently acknowledging that the occupation has brought “a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day”.2 Given the continuing resistance to the US presence – 119 soldiers killed in May alone3 – it seems reasonable to argue that the Bush administration has fallen victim to its own ‘reality deficit’ in Iraq.

In such a context, a reclamation of ‘reality’ appears nothing if not realistic.

Yet something important is missed in the rush to accept membership of the “reality based community”. The easy dismissals of the Bush adviser obscure the extent to which his comments expressed an idea once central to the Left: the possibility that political action can transform reality. Today, few on the Left still believe it possible to alter the entire political terrain. The portrayal of the aide’s comments as delusional illustrates the extent to which those who once believed in the transformative capacity of political action have succumbed to pragmatic realism.

Many of the dreams, and the concepts, that once sustained faith in social transformation lie in tatters. Firstly, the ideology of progress has been undermined by the very history that was supposed to lead inexorably to a more humane world. In the wake of Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno starkly captured the shattering of the belief that technological progress necessarily heralded social progress with the remark: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanity, but one indeed from the slingshot to the H-bomb.”4 This loss of faith had a profoundly demoralising effect on a Left that could no longer conceive of its goals as the goals of history itself. In this sense, George Bush is correct when he argues that “the twentieth century ended with a single surviving model of human progress”.5 Today, only the neocons truly believe that history is on their side.

Our time is marked by more than the failure of progressive narratives, however. Almost two decades ago, the Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble; today, its shards are packaged into small glass jars, sealed with cork stoppers and sold to tourists on the streets of a unified Berlin. And yet the collapse of communism still haunts our political reality. If communism were only a wall, a collection of authoritarian states or a teleological conception of history, the profound effect of its loss would be incomprehensible. Communism was all those things. It was also the dream of a better world that gave strength to those who struggled amidst the brutality and the grinding drudgery of this one. It was an organisational form that united people across oceans, a source of historical memory that allowed the defeats and victories of the past to live in the present, and a source of political futurity.

Only by understanding the contradictory nature of this loss can we understand how we have lost the belief that political action might transform our reality.

As the dreams of the Left crumbled with the Berlin Wall, the Right took the offensive, claiming as its own not only the rhetoric of progress but also the belief that the world could be remade.

“Until now, the world we’ve known has been a world divided – a world of barbed wire and concrete block, conflict and Cold War,” George Bush senior announced two years after the collapse of the wall. “Now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order.”6

A year after this speech, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz drafted a document that advocated US interventions throughout the world to “encourage the spread of democratic forms of government and open economic systems”.7 Even amidst the new world order hype, Wolfowitz’s document – which suggested the US should “retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations”8 – was rejected as too extreme.

With the election of the current Bush administration, Wolfowitz’s manifesto was revived to underpin the doctrine of regime change, a doctrine that asserts the right of the US to wage wars to depose sovereign governments and remake political systems. The neocons, it seems, still believe it is possible to radically remake the world. As former Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens explains of his current alignment with US power: “I feel much more like I used to in the 1960s, working with revolutionaries.”9

As the neocons forcefully remodel the world, their ‘war on terror’ is eroding liberal democracy which is giving way to a form of state power that is neither liberal nor democratic. While the contours of liberalism’s replacement are still undefined, a discourse of permanent emergency has enabled the introduction of counter-terror measures that undermine central elements of the liberal rule of law, from freedom of speech to habeas corpus to the presumption of innocence.

Some random examples.

Millions of people around the world rally against the war on Iraq. Their voices are ignored – they watch, powerlessly, as the bombs fall.

Counter-terror laws allow for control orders that subject people to home detention, prohibit them from speaking to certain others and compel them to wear tracking devices, with no requirement to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ an involvement in terrorism.

After five years in Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks confesses to aiding a terrorist organisation. His ‘confession’ reads like a speech at a Stalinist show trial.

And so on.

Wartime emergency measures are nothing new. And yet the representation of the war on terror as a war without temporal limits – Dick Cheney infamously suggested it “may never end … at least, not in our lifetime” – provides little basis for believing liberal democracy will be restored unscathed in the future.10

Like the collapse of communism, the erosion of liberalism profoundly destabilises those who have seen themselves as its radical critics. Anatole France’s remark about the abstraction of liberal categories of rights and legal equality – “poor and rich are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges”11 – once marked out the chasm separating a liberal world view from a politics that sought not the management of injustice through a system of formal juridical equality but the overthrow of a system founded on substantive inequality.

Today, when the alternative seems to include everything up to the use of torture as a legitimate tool of state, liberal democracy seems, perhaps, the ‘least worst’ system. As the Right actively undermines the liberal tradition, a Left criticism of liberalism appears untimely, perhaps even treacherous.

Wendy Brown has suggested that while the death of communism is like the death of a beloved, the loss of liberal democracy is “like the loss of a hated but needed father”.12 The demise of the familiar, yet contradictory, enemy that was liberalism generates the temptation for radicals to step into the costume of the departed adversary, abandoning critiques of capitalism in the process. The belief that the discourse of rights, the rule of law and due process offers the greatest advantage in what is conceptualised in advance as a purely defensive struggle is underpinned by the assumption that it is no longer possible to change the world in any substantial way.

To escape our current impasse, we must find the courage to rethink the fundamental assumptions of liberalism, and of a political practice centred on progress, sovereignty and rights. In 1938, Walter Benjamin wrote of the need to develop concepts “completely useless for the purposes of Fascism”.13 Two years later he was dead, killing himself after border guards refused him passage across the border to Spain to escape the Nazis. The stakes in his attempt to develop new concepts could not have been higher.

Today, we too face the urgent need to develop a conceptual apparatus adequate to contemporary problems. Such critical thought, as Benjamin understood, is not a luxury to be saved for times of peace or subordinated to political pragmatism. Faced with the destabilisation of familiar political categories, we need to ask what effects these categories produced, and what other political possibilities they foreclosed. If we simply defend liberalism on its own terms, we abandon too easily a Left critique of liberal democracy that retains its past validity.

More importantly, we fail to recognise the connection between familiar liberal concepts and the newer political project of neoconservativism. Today, we need to ask why the rhetoric of liberalism, in which opposition to contemporary counter-terror measures has largely been framed, has proved so useful to those waging the war on terror, a conflict increasingly cast as a war for liberal values – for ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and the ‘rule of law’.

In a ‘war’ of a thousand battlegrounds, a war without spatial or temporal limitation, the categories of liberalism provide coherence to a narrative which recasts the ‘war on terror’ as a civilising mission. In Iraq, for instance – in the wake of the coalition’s inability to produce evidence of either weapons of mass destruction or al-Qaeda links – ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and the ‘rule of law’ provide retrospective justification for the war and occupation. Following the announcement that Saddam Hussein would be executed for his role in the killings of 138 Shiites from the town of Dujail – the only charge he faced in which the United States was not directly implicated – John Howard claimed: “There’s something heroic about a nation that is going through all the pain and difficulty as Iraq is, yet still struggles to give this monster a fair trial – that is the mark of a country that desperately wants democracy”.14 Bush likewise relied on a familiar distinction between tyranny and legality, referring to Saddam’s trial as “a milestone in the Iraqi people’s effort to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law”.15

Of course, there’s room today for an immanent critique which questions the democratic credentials of those who would export democracy by force and reminds them of their fervent commitment to the rule of law each time they introduce a domestic law enabling detention without trial.

Yet as rights discourses morph into demands for greater security measures – to ensure the primary ‘right to security’ – and ‘democracy’ and the ‘rule of law’ are used to justify bombings and military occupation, we need to recognise that imperial wars have always relied on liberal categories: the First World War was, after all, also the ‘Great War for Civilisation’. What we are seeing today is not simply a corruption of these categories, but an expression of contradictions already present in liberalism: a system which presupposes a state capable of maintaining social order.

It is therefore crucial to resist the blackmail that suggests that critiques of the rule of law or of liberal democracy somehow further the goals of the neocons, particularly given the current lack of purchase of this liberal apparatus in restraining the extension of the repressive powers of states. Rarely has a political discourse been so hegemonic and so ineffectual. Today, we must begin the critical work of developing new political concepts adequate to a struggle to transform our political reality – concepts that will only arise in struggle against this reality.

It may be that the possibility for such political innovation can be traced to the same source as the demoralisation. Giorgio Agamben has argued:

The fall of the Soviet Communist Party and the unconcealed rule of the capitalist-democratic state have cleared the field of the two main ideological obstacles hindering the resumption of a political philosophy worthy of our time: Stalinism on one side, and progressivism and the constitutional state on the other.16

Both of these were forms that anchored political imagination to the state. If we are to grasp the possibilities generated by the exhaustion of Stalinism and liberalism, we must do without nostalgia and sentimentality and develop a political praxis that no longer presupposes the continuing existence of the state. As long as we continue to rely on statist political categories, we will find our resistance recuperated into the project of state power.

If our time is to produce new political concepts, it will not be in a realm of pure thought, nor within a university system increasingly subjected to a neoliberal political rationality. The creation of new political concepts entails praxis and will require the courage to act and to experiment politically in the face of an uncertain future: without teleological certainty, without a preformulated political alternative and without guarantees.

True political action always lacks guarantees – a point obscured by the myth of progress. To act politically is to act without knowing the results in advance, precisely because real political action, as the Bush administration understands, can transform the very terrain on which its consequences are evaluated. In this sense, to act politically is truly to ‘demand the impossible’, as every political act contains the potential to make what seemed impossible possible.

Demanding the impossible requires imagination and bravery. Our time is not especially conducive to either. In our age, the mantra ‘there is no alternative’ serves to vanquish political imagination, while the policy of pre-emption colonises the future and high-profile terror raids foster – unevenly distributed – fear.

Yet it is still necessary to act – now more so than ever – because, despite all that is revolutionary about the neocons’ political project, they seek to transform the world only so it will never change again. They aim to prevent any future challenge to the global ascendancy of capital or to US military dominance, extending both into perpetuity. If we are not to acquiesce to a world that destroys both courage and imagination in the name of security, we must firstly challenge ourselves to think, and to act, against reality.

1. Ron Suskind, ‘Without a Doubt’, New York Times, 17 October 2004, .
2. George W. Bush, ‘State of the Union Address’, 2007, .
3. Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, ‘US Fatalities by Month’, Iraq Coalition Casualties, .
4. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Continuum, London, 1995, 315.
5. George W. Bush, ‘Remarks by the President at 2002 Graduation Exercise of the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York’, 1 June 2002, .
6. George H.W. Bush, ‘Speech to Congress’, 6 March 1991, .
7. Paul Wolfowitz, ‘Excerpts from 1992 Draft “Defense Planning Guidance”‘, Frontline, .
8. Ibid.
9. Quoted in David Horowitz, ‘Anti-Americanism and the War on Terror’, FrontPage, 9 December 2002, .
10. Hugh Dougherty, ‘War May Not be Over in Our Lifetime, Warns Cheney’, Irish Examiner, 22 October 2001, .
11. Quoted in Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Critique of Violence’, One Way Street and Other Writings, Verso, London, 1985, 151.
12. Wendy Brown, ‘Learning to Love Again: An Interview With Wendy Brown’, Contretemps, 6 January 2006, 25.
13. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, Fontana, Glasgow, 1973, 220.
14. John Howard, quoted in AAP, ‘Saddam Trial Heroic Says Howard’, Age, 6 November 2006, .
15. George W. Bush, quoted in Associated Press, ‘Bush Praises Saddam Verdict’, USA Today, 6 November 2006, .
16. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000, 109.

Jess Whyte is a Melbourne-based writer and a PhD candidate in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University.
© Jess Whyte
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 26-29

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