Friday, June 10, 2016

Historical Memory and Political Imagination: "When the Discourse of Politics Amounts to a Choice Between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton"

What's that I hear you say? More history, please! Or perhaps I'm hearing, at this far distance through the ether of cyberspace, the sound of only one hand clapping as I bring up the topic of history again.

As I was recently telling my friend Alan of the excellent Hepzibah blog (it's in the blog list here), history fascinates me because of how it undercuts the predictability of our expectations about the present and the future. Many historical narratives certainly do seek to smooth out the wild unpredictability, the stubborn odd facticity and givenness of history as it actually unfolded, but those flattening narratives are commonly superimposed on historical events that are far from smooth or flat.

Like Diarmaid MacCulloch (and I've mentioned this before), I gravitated to the study of the history of theology and of the Christian institution as a graduate student precisely because of the wildness (and wiliness), the unpredictability, the refusal of history to lend itself submissively to the smoothing and flattening narratives. As someone who is gay and who is all too often smoothed and flattened out of the narratives of the present, I cling to the way that actual historical fact (as opposed to many historical narratives) others the past and refuses to allow it easily to be harnessed to ideological projects of flattening and smoothing today.

Projects that always affect the vulnerable and marginal first and foremost, and should therefore always be held under critical scrutiny for that reason alone . . . . 

Remembering the past — remembering how different and discontinuous it was from the present, and how unlike the imagination of the past dictated to us by many historical narratives — is important as a corrective to the attempt of ideological forces in the present to control our imagination of what is possible. This week, as it became evident that the political choice facing U.S. citizens in the fall elections will almost certainly be either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Henry Giroux and Anis Shivani reminded us that the neoliberal project, which is driven by an economic elite representing a tiny portion of the world community that has now aggregated to itself the vast proportion of the world's economic resources, and in which both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are embedded, has worked very hard to convince us that nothing else is possible.

That there are no alternatives. That radical revolutionary change — systemic change that would dismantle and rebuild the economic system we now take for granted — is not to be thought of and would be futile if we attempted it. That the only alternative possible for our future is either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton: two flavors, albeit different ones, of the same neoliberal philosophy.

Shivani writes, 

One way to sum up neoliberalism is to say that everything—everything—is to be made over in the image of the market, including the state, civil society, and of course human beings. Democracy becomes reinterpreted as the market, and politics succumbs to neoliberal economic theory, so we are speaking of the end of democratic politics as we have known it for two and a half centuries. As the market becomes an abstraction, so does democracy, but the real playing field is somewhere else, in the realm of actual economic exchange—which is not, however, the market. We may say that all exchange takes place on the neoliberal surface.

And Giroux states, 

The American left and progressives have no future if they cannot imagine a new language that moves beyond the dead-end politics of the two-party system and explores how to build a broad-based social movement to challenge it. One fruitful beginning would be to confront the fact that our society is burdened not only by the violence of neoliberalism but also by the myth that capitalism and democracy are the same thing. Capitalism cannot rectify wage stagnation among large segments of the population, the growing destruction of the ecosystem, the defunding of public and higher education, the decline in life expectancy among the poor and middle classes, police violence against Black youth, the rise of the punishing state, the role of money in corrupting politics, and the widening gap in income and wealth between the very rich and everyone else. . . .  
When the discourse of politics amounts to a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, we enter a world in which the language of fundamental, radical, democratic, social and economic change disappears. What liberals and others trapped in a lesser-of-two-evils politics forget is that elections no longer capture the popular imagination, because they are rigged and driven by the wealth of the financial elite. Elections bear no relationship to real change and offer instead the mirage or swindle of real choice. 

The market, the ostensibly "free" market fetishized by both American conservatives and American liberals of the ilk of the Clintons (and Obama), is all that can be imagined. It's all that should be imagined. It is to be bowed to by the political sphere, since it is — so we're being told by neoliberal philosophy (and they're right about this: they're right about what the political sphere has actually become under the control of neoliberalism) — coextensive with the democratic state itself.

We, the ones doing the imagining: we're first and foremost consuming units within a world in which the market has become everything. You see what this ideology is about at a fundamental level, don't you? It's about throttling our imaginations — my imagination, your imagination, the imaginations of all human beings who resist allowing their humanity to be commodified, turned into a market-serving consuming unit.  

In the hands of its drivers — economic elites — and the political leaders who serve those drivers (both Trump and Clinton), neoliberalism works to thwart our imaginations about what is possible. To the extent that we maximize our own consumption and encourage others to do likewise, we'll be permitted to live with relative peace within the neoliberal project. If we don't comply, we will become obsolescent — because we are not consuming enough to keep the machinery of the capitalist enterprise well-oiled and have therefore lost our usefulness to the system. 

The ultimate effect of this project, politically, is to stunt our imagination about what is politically possible. It's to make us assume that we cannot dream that anything else is possible: you may have this Trumpian flavor or that alternative Clintonian flavor, both of them alternative flavors of one neoliberal brand. Nothing else is on offer. The neoliberal project — the political leaders who willingly serve it and the economic elites driving it — work in a very active way to stunt our imaginations about what is possible.

Hence the importance of history with its stubborn odd facticity: history (if not historical narratives) refuses to allow itself to be bullied into the ideological pigeonholes that would make it less refractory, less of a challenge to those seeking absolute power and control here and now. It informs us that something more is always possible for the future, since something more did, in fact, happen in the past. 

There was a time in which people were less easily pigeonholed, for instance, into a definition of their humanity as the consuming unit. There have been times when people rose up against economic exploitation and successfully recrafted the economis and political structures that had made their economic exploitation possible. There have been moments in history in which people have effectively turned back tides of racism. 

Women have not always kept to "their place," and have demonstrated their ability to plough and plant and gather into barns with no man heading them, even when told that "their place" did not include such ploughing, planting and gathering, and such no man heading. And now, because this verbose posting has already gotten too long, I'm going to break this into two pieces and post the historical bit in a second posting.

No comments: