Costas Douzinas writes: Failure, defeat, persecution and the attendant paranoia are marks of the Left. The left has learned to be under attack, to fail, to lose and wallow in the defeat. An enduring masochism lurks in the best Leftist books: many are stories of failure and variable rationalisation. It is true that the Left has lost a lot: a united analysis and movement, the working class as political subject, the inexorable forward movement of history, planned economy as an alternative to capitalism.
It is also true that the falling masonry of the Berlin wall hit western socialists more than the old Stalinists. Using Freud’s terms, the necessary and liberating mourning for the love object of revolution has turned into permanent melancholy. In mourning, the libido finally withdraws from the lost object and is displaced on to another. In melancholy, it “withdraws into the ego”. This withdrawal serves to “establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object”.
Walter Benjamin has called this “Left melancholy”: the attitude of the militant who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal – and to the failure of that ideal – than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. For his part, Benjamin calls upon the left to grasp the “time of the now”, while for the melancholic, history is an “empty time” of repetition. Part of the Left is narcissistically fixed to its lost object with no obvious desire to abandon it. Left melancholy leads inexorably to the fetishism of small differences: politically, it appears in the interminable conflicts, splits and vituperation among erstwhile comrades. Attacks on the closest, the threatening double, are more vicious than those on the enemy. Theoretically, according to Benjamin, Left melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. In our contemporary setting, we have a return to a particular type of grand theory, which combines an obsession with the explanation of life, the universe and everything with the anxiety of influence. The shadows and ghosts of the previous generation of greats weigh down on the latest missionaries of the encyclopaedia.
The most important reason why radical theory has been unable to fully comprehend recent resistances is perhaps the “anxiety of the grand narrative”. A previous generation of radical intellectuals – such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Edward Thompson and Louis Althusser – had close links with the movements of their time. Contemporary radical philosophers are found more often in lecture rooms than street corners.
The wider “academisation” of radical theory and its close proximity with “interdisciplinary” and cultural studies departments has changed its character. These academic fields have been developed as a result of university funding priorities. They happily welcome the appeal of radical philosophers contributing to their celebrity value. But this weakening of the link between practice and theory has an adverse effect on theory construction. The desire for a “radical theory of everything” caused by the “anxiety of influence” created by the previous generation of philosophical greats does not help overcome the limitations of disembodied abstraction.
It is no surprise that many European Leftists are happy to celebrate the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa and to carry out radical politics by proxy, while ready to dismiss what happens in our part of the world as irrelevant or misguided. It may feel better to lose gloriously than to win, even with a few compromises.
Repeated defeats do not help the millions whose lives have been devastated by neoliberal capitalism and post-democratic governance. What the Left needs is not a new model party or an all-encompassing brilliant theory. It needs to learn from the popular resistances that broke out without leaders, parties or common ideology and to build on the energy, imagination and novel institutions created. The Left needs a few successes after a long interval of failures.
Greece is perhaps the best chance for the European Left. The persistent and militant resistances sank two austerity governments and currently Syriza, the radical left coalition, is likely to be the first elected radical government in Europe. The historical chance has been created not by party or theory but by ordinary people who are well ahead of both and adopted this small protest party as the vehicle that would complement in parliament the fights in the streets. The political and intellectual responsibility of radical intellectuals everywhere is to stand in solidarity with the Greek Left. [Continue reading…]