The New Year is as good a time as any to contemplate history, and where one stands in it. As 2016 becomes 2017, we all know that we stand within disaster. A disaster that is gradually unfolding, and which seems to be moving ever closer to a fevered climax, like a great wave that seems forever about to drown our village, that just gets taller and taller but never quite manages to crash against the shore. Will 2017 be the year the flood will finally come, its waters knocking us all off our feet as we stand massed gawking along the wharf? Or will the new year just bring more of the same chaotic anxiety, that we have grown used to by now?
We desperately need more understanding of the disaster which besets us at present. We need to claw our way, however painfully, to an understanding of why this state of disaster has come about, why it keeps building; and we need strategies which might help us to diminish it, to help alleviate its effects.
I’m a philosopher (although having said that, as of this year I’m an ‘unemployed philosopher’), and I’d like to think that philosophy can at least contribute to this understanding. But philosophers, even very great ones, have typically been quite bad at thinking about historical disaster. The philosophical canon is dominated by Pollyannas like Hegel or Leibniz, who thought that the world as they found it was pretty much great and didn’t need changing. And even those philosophers who did manage to take political crisis seriously – Plato and Hobbes are good examples – often ended up with a distressingly affirmative view of philosophical authority, typically imagined as a perverse intensification of whatever presently exists, as if by a sort of magic that would result in stable consistency.
Of all the philosophers, it is perhaps Walter Benjamin who takes the threat of historical disaster most seriously – precisely by representing such disaster not just as a threat, but as a reality which we constantly and have always lived through. This is the view that, at any rate, Benjamin presents in his gnomic ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, written in 1940 as he attempted – ultimately unsuccessfully – to flee the Nazis through France to Spain. Detained on the border by Franco’s police, who had been given orders to hand Benjamin (along with the group of fellow Jewish refugees he was travelling with) back over to the Germans, and having already spent three months in a prison camp the previous year, Benjamin committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine tablets. Upon discovering his body, the police were so shocked that they ignored their orders and let the rest of Benjamin’s group through. The ‘Theses’ is very much a text formed in, shaped irreparably by, historical disaster.
As Benjamin notes, orthodox philosophy of history, which he calls ‘historicism’, has typically represented history as a process characterised by progress, the Pinkerish notion that things are getting better all the time. This, he claims, has rendered history the tool of the ruling classes: history, so the cliché goes, is written by the victor. Thus historicism, which sees progress as inevitable, must always characterise whatever wretched barbarism happens to triumph as the most progressive thing that could have possibly occurred. And of course it probably helps that most of the people actually writing history, at least in the bourgeois era, have been basically quite pampered sorts who benefit from their complacently affirmative attitude towards the status quo.
Having said this, even from the privileged standpoint of the professional historian (or, of course, philosopher) there are bound to be some moments in history which seem too regressive to ignore: the triumph of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s; the election of President Trump in 2016. But to the historicist, these moments are states of exception, brief stumblings of our footsteps back down the ladder of Inevitable Progress – perhaps because beforehand, we were simply scuttling up too quickly for our own good. But as Benjamin argues, if we focus on the experience of the oppressed, history’s losers, we will see that such disasters are not merely momentary aberrations: they are the rule. Something bad is always going on, as ‘progress’ is built someone’s back will always get broken. It should not amaze us, Benjamin says, that fascism is ‘still’ possible in our own era: no more, I suppose, than a slightly more intense hailstorm should amaze a people who experience hail on a daily basis, at least in certain regions of their country.
All of this can, of course, sound somewhat fatalistic. Horror mounts upon horror mounts upon horror… and when it comes to history, that’s all there is to it (at one point in the ‘Theses’ Benjamin gives this quite famous analysis of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, illustrating this blog post above, which to him represents the Angel of History, staring back open-mouthed at a pile of wreckage that builds and builds even as the Angel himself is blown, powerless, away from it towards the future). But even if this is all history has amounted to thus far, this does not mean that we are unable to do anything about it at all.
According to Benjamin in the ‘Theses’, each generation is endowed with what he calls “a weak messianic power.” This power is messianic because it is the power of redemption; it is weak because it applies only very specifically, as the power to redeem the past which one has – oneself – experienced. As Benjamin claims, “the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption.” But the sort of happiness that “could arouse envy in us” exists “only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us.” In short this idea of happiness, the sort that would require redemption, subsists primarily in things we have experienced ourselves as lacking. (Us ‘millenials’, then, must have a lot of weak messianic power – since we constantly experience the lack of what our parents had ‘at our age’, and so this pattern will repeat throughout our lives).
Benjamin invokes the idea of ‘weak messianic power’ only rather elliptically. But, through it, he seems to imply that we have the power to construct a better world for future generations, precisely by looking back to opportunities missed, needs as yet unfulfilled. What does this mean? Well for one thing, it implies that political activity must primarily be about resisting specific wrongs we have experienced, whether directly or indirectly, in the actual world. It cannot be about striving towards some abstraction we have dreamt up from our armchairs and sewn into the stars. For another, it means that what we build towards cannot be understood as universal: no matter what good our actions might lead to, they will not result in some final, settled state where everything is fine; only the actual coming of the actual Messiah (who I suppose would have strong messianic power) could do that. We cannot anticipate what injustices will be experienced by our descendants.
(in the ‘Theses’, Benjamin illustrates this point by relating the story of the Mechanical Turk, a puppet posing as an automaton, clad in Turkish attire and sat before a chessboard smoking a hookah. The Turk – which actually existed, and once played chess against Napoleon – was “constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move by a chess player with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game.” Though its opponents assumed it was a robot, the Turk was in fact operated by a “hunchbacked dwarf – a master at chess” crouched somewhere within the mechanism and able to observe the action with a series of mirrors. The puppet, Benjamin says, stands for Marxist historical materialism. If it is to win the game, it must enlist the forces of theology, which “today, as we know, is small and ugly and has to be kept out of sight.” The oppressed can always, Benjamin is suggesting, make an effective countermove against the forces of history: but only if we have weak messianic power animating our actions, aiming at the redemption of the past).
So how might these lessons be applied today? For too long now, I think, organised political activity on the left has been beholden to abstractions supposed to result in a permanent, settled state where everything will (universally) be better. This is manifested, for the radical left, in the utopian moment of revolutionary communism: the idea that ‘come the revolution’ all contradictions will sort themselves out and everything will be fine. Likewise the moderate left demand that all political activity must be aimed at securing, say, a Labour or a Democratic victory in whatever election happens to be next around the corner – because only then can the corrupt, out-of-touch saps they put up for office have the power to ‘really help’ people.
But surely if history teaches us anything here it’s that all holding political office typically amounts to is the right to administer whatever injustice happens to characterise the present evil: milk-monitor stuff, only instead of stretching up your hand the highest so that teacher will award you the privilege of giving out the class’s cartons of milk you’re doing it for the right to distribute the evil. The nicest thing one can say about most long-lasting ‘leftist’ governments is that probably the right-wing alternative would have managed to do even more damage. The left must not let the goal of holding political office sideline attempts to resist the present evil wherever we might find it – the understanding needs to be that holding political power at best constitutes a helpful step towards this goal, in aid of strategies associated with our real mission.
But of course this also means that even out of office, as the left now seem to be almost universally worldwide, there is still a lot of work that good people can do – indeed, that it will be very necessary for them to do if 2017 is to be any less awful than 2016. This is where our weak messianic power comes in. This power, if indeed it really does exist as Benjamin describes it, is something we possess in the vicinity of whatever air we happen to breathe. When the fumes of evil choke this air, that is when we must, however clumsily, attempt to wield our weak messianic power to redeem it. With whatever resources we have, with the small weapons of charity or friendship or tolerance or humility (and maybe even writing priggishly sermonising thinkpieces about Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history might help)… it is difficult, and it can feel hopeless sometimes, but just so long as we can wield these weapons, I think, we are not totally helpless against whatever disaster currently threatens . Or, perhaps better: even if we are indeed helpless against the disaster itself, we will not be entirely helpless against its effects.
The power of the powerless to give the powerless strength; the ignorant helping the ignorant struggle towards something like knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s own sacrifice, in a moment of utter despair, inadvertently gifting the other refugees he was travelling with their freedom.
Happy New Year.