The Threshold of Politics

in Amir Eshel, Arcade crosspost, Diary of a Bad Year, Francis Fukuyama, J.M. Coetzee, Walter Benn Michaels

(Crossposted at my new blog at Arcade.)

Amir Eshel has been composing a series of fascinating posts on his Arcade blog, which I presume are related to his current book project, on life after the End of History, the return of liberalism as an object of scholarly interest, and recent trends in contemporary literature. I recommend that you read all three posts (here, here, and here) to get context for what follows. In sum, Eshel proposes that the end of the cold war saw the renewed focus on a kind of political agency that had previously been absent from film and literature.

In my response to these inquiries, I questioned Eshel’s use of the term "agency." Wasn’t the end of history supposed to be precisely the time when politics went away for good, leaving only the refinement of technical systems, the solving of local problems, and a relaxation in ideological conflict? Walter Benn Michaels reminds us of this common interpretation of the End of History in the inaugural issue of the second volume of The Baffler.

When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history back in 1989, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was the ideological triumph of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them. Even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art.

I should start by saying that I agree with using 1989 as a periodizing marker; what my comment was asking was whether the transition from pre- to post-89 might have had more to do with a stripping away of political agency, more a sclerosis of the political imagination than its renewal. My own research on what I call postirony underscores the plausibility of this interpretation for me, because everywhere I look on the literary scene I see authors who wonder whether they have any agency in an era of the world market, of the total system, of — in a word — postmodernity triumphant.

In his thoughtful response to my questions, Eshel invokes J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee’s novel is a complex, highly ironized artifact, which stages multiple voices in conversation, voices which literally map onto the space of the page. One of our characters is the politically frustrated C., an aging South African writer, living in Australia, and author of Waiting for the Barbarians, a clear a stand-in for Coetzee. His short political screeds, "Strong Opinions," occupy the top stack or "story" of the three-story page. The middle story of the page features a diary C. is keeping, the eponymous diary of what is a bad year indeed for C. On the lowest story of the page we meet Anya, a sexy Filipina — arguably a cliched and unconvincing character — who is employed as a typist by C., and who comments on the inanity of C.’s political fulminations.

The crux of Eshel’s response seems to be encapsulated in a complex affirmation of Anya’s claim that “Politics is all around us, it’s like the air, it’s like pollution. You can’t fight pollution. Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt.” In a supportive gloss of this sentiment, Eshel writes, “politics today might simply mean making sure that as many people as possible have clean water, minimal healthcare, functioning sewage systems and opportunities to advance. Adapting might mean seeing how this kind of politics is, indeed, ‘all around us,’ and accepting that challenge.” This is ethics (we might also say politics) without ontology.

At one level, I agree completely with Eshel’s argument. What Eshel calls "politics today" very clearly describes the dominant, pragmatic relationship citizens have to politics today, a good description of how our world actually works, day after day. On another level, what Anya is arguing for might be understood as just another way of saying what I have suggested above. The problems of the world, problems of human making, are something that are “best to ignore” or “adapt” to. In light of the political impact C. wants to have, the impact he wishes intellectuals could have, this is the end of a certain kind of agency. But what about clean water and healthcare? Are these the intellectually nonsexy issues that C. should be focusing on if he wants to be a political “agent” post-89? What is missing from Eshel’s account, it seems to me, is a justification for what it is legitimate to disagree about, or criteria for determining what belongs in the category of small-p politics and what belongs to large-P Politics. What is up for grabs, and what is off limits?

If only the projects of the world’s Stalins, Maos, Hitlers, and Pol Pots count as capital-P politics, then C. should be celebrating the end of politics. But what about the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and the United Nations? What about labor unions, anti-war activists, and the ACLU? Preventing Anya’s boyfriend Alan from swindling an elderly intellectual: this is the crux of Anya’s "political" intervention in the novel, Eshel suggests. But is this politics or an episode of Law and Order? (And don’t get me wrong: I like Law and Order!) To bring this question back to the text of Diary of a Bad Year, let’s examine one of the most intense and uncomfortable essays that C. writes, “On national shame.”

C. informs us that

An article in a recent New Yorker makes it as plain as day that the US administration… not only sanctions the torture of prisoners taken in the so-called war on terror but is active in every way to subvert laws and conventions proscribing torture… The shamlessness is quite extraordinary … Suicide would save one’s honor, and perhaps there have already been honour suicides among Americans that one does not hear of. But what of political action? Will political action — not armed resistance but action within the ground rules of the democratic system (circulating petitions, organizing meetings, writing letters) — suffice?… In the present climate of whipped-up fear, and in the absence of any groundswell of popular revulsion against torture, political actions by individual citizens seem unlikely to have any practical effect. Yet perhaps, pursued doggedly and in a spirit of outrage, such actions will at least allow people to hold their heads up. Mere symbolic actions, on the other hand–burning the flag, pronouncing aloud the words “I abhor the leaders of my country and dissociate myself from them” — will certainly not be enough.

There is an obvious irony here. C.’s name-checking the New Yorker should inspire a bit of eye-rolling — despite Jane Mayer’s very important reporting on the U.S. torture regime, which is what C. must be reading. We might also sigh at the bombast of C.’s suggesting that the route to alleviating the shame produced by U.S. torture policies is suicide — as if this were a serious solution to serious political problems. And yet the question remains. Torture was happening. It was approved of at the highest levels, and openly applauded in the mainstream media and by esteemed public intellectuals after 9/11.

What if you, like C., don’t approve?

“Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt”?

Coetzee is here engaging in a form of postirony. C. and Anya ironize each other through mutual commentary, destabilizing C.’s skewed sense of what impact an isolated intellectual can have on mainstream political life. But the bottom line is that Coetzee, like C., cares about ending torture. Through all the novel’s layers of structural irony, his fear that he has no agency, his words have the force of conviction. I would argue that Diary of a Bad Year dramatizes the difference between Politics and politics as the difference between caring about Guantanamo Bay and caring about getting through the day. If the question is “what of political action?” and the answer is “Best to ignore it,” then perhaps C. has a reason to mourn the rise of the regime of small-p politics.

The question of whether to provide water or health care through the private market or public systems (municipal water, the Veteran’s Administration) is also a question for politics, of course, even if this is not the politics of a Lenin or Mao. And yet the nature of this political decision may turn out to be huge: transforming a private medical system to a public system, turning a public Social Security system into a big hedge fund. What seemed to have “ended” at the End of History was the viability of debate on matters that many — on the left at least — felt were not settled questions. Do markets lead to optimal outcomes? Is individual liberty really identical, or even plausibly correlated with, to the freedom to buy and sell on a market without interference?” Those who mourn the passing of capital-P Politics, more often than not, are mourning the narrowness of debate on a host of questions of enormous human significance.

Is C. not right to mourn?