Nostalgia Against Desolation: For a Left Without Progress

"A society so undisciplined in its cultural foundations could obviously not help but be a victim, politically, of its own chaos, and so we woke up to a world eager for social innovations, a world that gleefully pursued a freedom it didn’t grasp and a progress it had never defined."
Fernando Pessoa

The ideology of progress seeks to make our fractured present unceasing. Both Georges Sorel and Walter Benjamin, from their divergent corners of the Left, saw this. For Sorel the progress narrative was a propaganda coup by the ruling class. Trust us, they say, under our benevolent tutelage everything improves (one can picture Steven Pinker pointing towards one of his interminable graphs: "see? Line went up!"). So you had better not rock the boat. Taken seriously, this would be the ostensible end of politics.

As for the progressives themselves, Benjamin believed they had a fundamental misunderstanding of what true transformation required. With their gaze set stubbornly on a future embedded in the predominant myth of the present, they were ignoring what moves a people to revolt: memories of oppressed ancestors, righting past wrongs. This was as much true for the Irish liberation struggle as it was for the subcontinent. And yet, to the extent the partisans of progress do consider the historical record, it is only to comfort themselves how much better "we" have it in comparison with the sorry multitudes of previous generations. Rather than honouring prior struggles, and considering what they both offer and ask of us, they fall into simplistic denunciation.

Terry Eagleton extrapolates: "what stops [Benjamin's Angel of History] from waking the dead here and now, calling time on history and ushering in redemption, is the assurance that history needs no such transformation, since it will carry us into a glorious future through its own momentum. It is the colossal complacency known as historical determinism that betrays the need for change." As such, progressives perpetuate the logic of the existing system; which, in the notes for the source text, Benjamin compared to a runaway locomotive. Rather than seeking to accelerate - or perhaps making the first class carriage that much more "diverse" - the genuine revolutionary had to hit the brakes.

"This system, with its relentless logic of profit, is escaping all human control. It is time to slow the locomotive down, an out-of-control locomotive hurtling towards the abyss."
Pope Francis

Sustenance and purpose can be found in tradition - the reason Benjamin considered it so subversive. And it is also why capital p Progress, supercharged in its capitalist mode, seeks to eradicate custom and tradition, along with every other impediment to financial gain.

The idea that capitalist imperialism is about building something, where before there was only ignorance and desert, is a self-serving fantasy. It destroys worlds, as it will the world, leaving only rubble in its wake. (Unless you somehow think Turtle Island was improved by having one unending strip mall.) The great modernist artists, be they of the Surrealist, Imagist, Dadaist or Cubist schools, knew this better than most. The progress they witnessed their countrymen impose so ferociously across the globe had brought about spiritual ruin, and not only in the colonial periphery. More and more Europeans, brought up to believe in the principle of universalism, were finding that the modern age had really done away with the notion of unity. Where once there were collective bonds, ancient in their inception, there was now a climate of radical subjectivity. Reflected through art this brought to fruition a succession of fragmented sentences as well as images. At its pinnacle (well, second to the mushroom cloud) modernism gave audiences Pessoa's heteronyms and TS Eliot's Waste Land.

Indeed, "subjective" was how another Frankfurt School member, Max Horkheimer, described the prevailing type of rationality. Contrasted with the "objective", cohesive, and totalising rationality of former epochs - be they religious, the schemes of Plato and Aristotle, scholasticism or German idealism - subjective reason was system-breaking. Necessary if a system’s dictates proved no longer relevant or even detrimental on a personal level. With this ethos’ proliferation and lacking a replacement, however, it also proved to be self-destructively self-interested.

There was a widespread belief among Enlightenment thinkers, most explicit in the great popularizer Thomas Paine, that the universal practice of subjective rationality would create a like-minded brotherhood of man. The so-called "common sense" which would emerge organically from the dissolution of the old systems. Free to think for themselves, away from the interference of Church, State and philosopher-king, everyone would come to accept that the principles of free expression, free trade, secularism, and unbridled individualism constituted the human ideal. Where there had been a violent divergence between contrasting systems of thought, there would be concord; universal and absolute. It was just reasonable.

In fact rationality mutated into its most debased form. With the degradation of overarching ethical and philosophical frameworks, there eventually proved no reason to take seriously Kant's (always a bit lame) exhortation against treating men as means. With Adorno, Horkheimer described this purely instrumental rationality as being "the court of judgement of calculation, which adjusts the world for the ends of self-preservation and recognises no function other than the preparation of the object from mere sensory material in order to make it the material of subjugation". This approach had long characterised enlightened man's relationship with nature, complimenting the demands of capital.

"Reason is a light; nature seeks to be illuminated by reason, not burned."
Giacomo Leopardi

Lacking objective standards, what was there to prevent this "liberated" rationality from equally objectifying humans? The Marquis De Sade seemed to give voice to this social development, once writing, "it seemed to me that the whole world should give way to my caprices and that it was only necessary to form them for them to be satisfied". Even more than Nietzsche, Christopher Lasch has argued, this French aristocrat was the prophet of our present.

"Sade defended unlimited self-indulgence as the logical culmination of the revolution in property relations--the only way to attain revolutionary brotherhood in its purest form. By regressing in his writings to the most primitive level of fantasy, Sade uncannily glimpsed the whole subsequent development of personal life under capitalism, ending not in revolutionary brotherhood but in a society of siblings that had outlived and repudiated its revolutionary origins.

"Sade imagined a sexual utopia in which everyone has the right to everyone else, where human beings, reduced to their sexual organs, became absolutely anonymous and interchangeable."

Ultimately, this constituted "the glorification of the individual, in his annihilation". Because without "the solidity of the past," freedom merely meant chaos. Reason undoing its own foundations.

For Lasch, this annihilation was not just metaphorical. Modern civilisation is, above all else, an excellent knackery for the two-legged beast.

-- Not so retorts the Progressive and his hard-nosed ally, the Liberal. For them, this civilisation is a miracle, an unreserved triumph that has abolished want to such an extent it has to be constantly manufactured. And through its appendages of steel and flesh, Civilisation allows them to vicariously "do good" in the face of an indifferent universe - just look at the inner city, or Afghanistan! (There are, too, those leftists who are under the illusion that this locomotive - this fabrication of Mammon, this bloated "megamachine" - if allowed to keep going, will eventually give them the opportunity to apply their transitory notion of good upon the world.) They can't accept the dark truth, and this has been the case for even the most unorthodox and intelligent liberal. In critiquing of the use of Conrad by the radical environmentalist Dark Mountain Project, John Gray writes:

"But even though civilisation is indelibly flawed, that does not mean it deserves to be destroyed; on the contrary, Conrad was convinced civilisation must be defended with unyielding determination. In reality, the alternative - a raw version of which he witnessed in King Leopold’s private fiefdom in the Belgian Congo - is madness and unrestrained violence, a state that can reasonably be described as barbarism."

Elsewhere he has fleshed out this perspective. In keeping with the predominant ancient view: the relationship between civilisation and barbarism is cyclical. Civilisation has a life cycle, and, once it ceases, barbarism reigns. (Being more than pessimistic enough for the New Statesman readership, he probably decided "that'll do.")

But this is far too simple. Modern civilisation inaugurated unprecedented levels of barbarity; the two concepts cannot be neatly opposed. After all, Leopold's government employed the same rhetoric and methods characteristic of all those other European "civilising missions" that have struck deathly terror in people as far apart as the Apache and Zulu. From a colonialist perspective, when they amputated a child's arm without anesthesia, they were providing an invaluable education. How else would the young rubber planter come to accept how much more advanced pale, Western gentlemen were and accept their domination? With this justification - at least for those Belgians who worried about it, the pillage took on the facade of an enlightened crusade. In practice it didn't differentiate men from lumber.

By the time that particular onslaught had ended, ten million Congolese had had their lives stolen.

None other than John Gray presented this counter interpretation in a discussion of that same masterpiece. This time in (the less mainstream) The Silence of Animals:

"When Conrad used his experiences of the Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899), he was not telling a story of barbarism in faraway places. The narrator tells the tale on a yacht moored in the Thames estuary: barbarism is not a primitive form of life, Conrad is intimating, but a pathological development of civilization."


“Previously only the poor and savages had been exposed to the untrammeled force of the capitalist elements."
Adorno and Horkheimer

The Enlightenment did away with the frontier, and not just physically. All of its defining concepts hint at the infinite. Being without boundaries, it was only a matter of time that what was wrought abroad would make its way home. Barbarism begins - as it must end - here.

In that sense, fascism can be understood - at least in part - as the logic and means of imperialism applied to the "core" nations themselves. With the methods developed while ravaging the Orient, Indian Country and the Dark Continent employed with the added vigour of men who had seen that justice has no claim to the material realm. ("As of yet," I can hear Benjamin gently chide.)

With the formalization of instrumental rationality, these civilised brutes found that their "modest hunting ground then [shrank] to the unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey" (Adorkheimer). Shrank because in adopting that boundless, universalist perspective which comes with progress, they denied themselves the personal realization that comes with belonging to a culture. As well as the greater awareness that comes with existing within a genuinely clustered world. Instead they entered an anonymous throng where self-enrichment is the only shared goal. The pessimist author Thomas Ligotti was certainly right in claiming: "the farther you progress toward a vision of our species without limiting conditions on your consciousness, the farther you drift away from what makes you a person among persons in the human community." It should be of no surprise that, coinciding with the development of the category humanity, came the birth of Arendt's "rootless man".

"We never know self-realization. We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky."

It was this sad product of modernity - rootless men - which proved to be prime candidates for fascist hunt masters. With an understandable antipathy for disorder prevalent under liberalistic regimes - especially those suffering capitalism’s perennial downturns harshly - they were attracted to the clarity and renewed sense of belonging that the proto-totalitarians appeared to offer. This was the psychological interpretation of yet another Frankfurt luminary, Erich Fromm. Not being properly individuated, these fragmented souls did not have the intellectual coherence to descry the many contradictions of fascist rhetoric. They were taken for a ride, and did untold damage in the process. The long assault on objective rationality played its part, too. With the crude democratisation of truth, who could say that the "intuitions" of the Führer were less valid than any other authority? Particularly when so much had been done to solidify the belief that might makes right.

In his striking study on Marxism's response to the Holocaust, Enzo Traverso emphasizes the relatively new character of fascism. Rather than being an aberration, "a regression" into feudal depravity, or even pre-civilisational savagery, it was a truly modern horror. Besides the psychological factors, the institutions which made the Shoah possible - the "barracks, penitentiary, slaughterhouse, factory and bureaucratically rational administration" - were all prefigured in modern, liberal, and proudly capitalist societies. And, we ought not to forget, the dangerous nonsense of race science was widely accepted as a key ingredient of a progressive worldview; implicating many a liberal hero. (This goes some way to explaining why liberalism so easily "tilted" towards its purported "opposite", to use Horkheimer's language. For liberals the dominant threat was always the Left.)

The technological aspect highlights unsettling questions which were raised by Marx himself, in his Fragment on Machines: are humans truly the masters of their machines? Or are our actions in fact being determined by them? Following Napoleon’s defeat, in Europe there was a general rule honoured by its leaders: civilians were not to be military targets. (Excepting Parisians in 1871.) By the time of the Second World War and the mass production of bomber aircraft, that had drastically changed. "Europe’s Civil War" resulted in over 20 million civilian deaths, many in cities. It has been argued by Benjamin’s cousin, the brilliant Günther Anders, that because acts like urban bombardment were technically possible, they became politically feasible. Just as the invention of the atom bomb triggered rational, intelligent and highly civil discussions about the obliteration of entire hemispheres. Society was playing catch-up with the increasingly apocalyptic advancements in technics. So much so Anders has suggested that, rather than any collection of persons, technology has become the subject of history.

It is in Anders that we can also find an alternative interpretation of modernity to that of the great sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. For the latter, modernity’s horizon was Utopia. In his telling, this encouraged groups, possessed by the idea of perfection, to become murderous "gardeners," pruning those less than ideal elements of society. But as Anders, and of course Benjamin, knew, the progress which characterises modernity strives for the Infinite: "eternal progression with a direction, but without an aim". That is what makes "permanent revolution of the bourgeoisie" (or we should say, of their tools) so perilous. The nearest thing we have to a god in this godless age, Progress can never be sated; not even theoretically.

"The perpetuation of history as such is nothing more than the perpetuation of a particular historical situation, namely that of capitalism, which has no desire to reach its end. It stabilizes itself as movement to prevent movement toward true stabilization. It adorns itself with the curve of the asymptote, because it is only ever here inasmuch as it does not arrive. Arrive, that is, at the reconciliation of the contradictions it itself created."


Utopian thinking had, in fact, been seen by the Left as a way out of this deadlock. But it seems, too, that those imagined communities belong with the vanquished of the past. Was that not the lesson of the 20th century? As a result, TJ Clark pours scorn on the idea that a Left condemned to the present like this could be anything but reformist (although he distances himself from the word itself):

"...Because there will be no future; only a present in which the left (always embattled and marginalized, always—proudly—a thing of the past) struggles to assemble the ‘material for a society’ Nietzsche thought had vanished from the earth. And this is a recipe for politics, not quietism—a left that can look the world in the face."

I agree with much Clark has to say, but his counsel - a resignation to the capitalist death drive - just won't do. As he readily admits, the locomotive's present trajectory will only bring more "war, poverty, Malthusian panic, tyranny, cruelty, classes," and "dead time". An honest evaluation must also add: ecological devastation, continued mass extinction, rising sea levels, genocide and, likely, nuclear holocaust. The human species - let alone the other poor creatures subject to the geological epoch to which it lends its name - can not afford to keep on keeping on.

Strangely for a Left-Nietzschean, Clark doesn't seem to realise where the master's dreaded nihilism truly resides today: in this incrementalism - this progressivism, which is really presentism.

Perhaps in response, the Left should strive, if not to be God-Builders in the vein of Bogdanov or Lunacharsky, then to be Romantics of the head. To accept that the pull of sentiment has not gone, and so seek to tell stories which may reconnect shattered lives with existences lost: those fragments, shored against our ruins. The objective must be nothing short of revolution, the destruction of capital.

"The genuine picture may be old, but the genuine thought is new. It is of the present. This present may be meager, granted. But no matter what it is like, one must firmly take it by the horns to be able to consult the past. It is the bull whose blood must fill the pit if the shades of the departed are to appear at its edge”

There is a racist idea that there exist "peoples without history". Often it is used to label those which do not complement whatever conceited narrative a higher-up employs to justify their station. If there is anyone deprived of a history, however, it those of us put through the wringer of modernity. We may yet find that the key to our future lies somewhere in this denied past.




Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn't have the slightest idea what's really going on - Bokonon

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LS O'Brien

LS O'Brien

Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn't have the slightest idea what's really going on - Bokonon

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