The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I devoured Pynchon’s 760-page epic and absorbed his dichotomy between paranoia and anti-paranoia. Paranoia is the sense that everything is connected, has meaning, and is part of some larger pattern. Anti-paranoia is the sense that nothing is connected to anything, has no meaning, and is patternless. That basic duality has informed everything from my psychedelic drug experiences to my study of everything—history, politics, economics, society, spirituality.

As a lover of history who fancies myself an amateur historian, I consider history the best tool to study those other subjects. History is not just the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle). There is some level of pattern to be found in history. Civilizations, empires and nations rise and fall. War is a persistent pastime for humans. “Who benefits?” (cui bono) is always a good question to ask of any set of historical evidence or events. But to argue that “history repeats itself,” or that history demonstrates an ever-ascending line of progress, or that it’s possible to draw “universal truths” from comparing similar historical events that occurred at different times, in different places, under different socio-economic circumstances, to different groups of people, is fallacious.

Then there are the long-term, nearly permanent or slowly evolving historical structures mapped out by Karl Marx as modes of production and by Fernand Braudel as the longue durée. I tend to view these analyses as descriptive rather than prescriptive; as describing what happened rather than what must happen. One of these structures is the nation-state. In The State, Franz Oppenheimer argued that the modern nation-state is a historical structure of relatively recent origins, a product of conquest. The feudal state based on landed territorial empires was politically amalgamated with the maritime state based on coastal commercial city-states.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory describes a more complex development for the nation-state. As integrated territories and homogenous populations were achieved over centuries independent states and economies were consolidated. Centralized governments with extensive bureaucracies and large mercenary armies were attained by ruling elites—the local bourgeoisie. These nation-states regulated the domestic economy and controlled international commerce in order to extract surpluses, eventually industrializing their economies and democratizing their societies.

The Left has targeted the nation-state for complete destruction since the First International, with the anarchist project to abolish the state and the Marxist project to abolish the nation. Lenin put up obstacles to abolishing the nation-state by championing the right of oppressed peoples to national self-determination and insisting that the communist withering away of the state be preceded by a strengthening of state power under socialism. Marxism-Leninism has subsequently devolved into the dictatorship of the vanguard party and socialist struggles for national liberation, completely reversing the First International’s liberatory intent.

Given this betrayal, my propensity is always to look for Leftist non-state and non-national alternatives. Hence me calling myself an anti-state communist, and my interest in the EZLN in Chiapas and the YPG/SDF in Rojava. And it’s why I’ve studied how dispersed peoples like the Jews have managed to survive for millennia partially or entirely without a national state. The Jewish diaspora has existed since the Babylonian Exile in 597 bce and was complemented by influential cultural centers in Babylon, Palestine, Spain and Poland. This core/periphery historical dynamic was not merely central to Jewish survival but it’s also partly why Marxist-Leninist types have denied the Jewish people the right to the national self-determination they insist on for other marginalized peoples.

But history is not the only way to organize time. Traditional pre-modern societies have frequently used repeating cycles of ages and concepts like the eternal return to structure temporal reality.

The four ages cycle of decay and rebirth in Hinduism is the best known, comprised of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yugas. Comparable to the four ages in Greek/Roman mythology (Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron), cyclical time is what Frederich Nietzsche called the “eternal recurrence.” “Everything has returned. […] [A]ll things will return. […] [F]or mankind this is always the hour of Noon.” This radical reactionary’s promotion of what he considered simultaneously to be humanity’s heaviest burden and a love of one’s own fate (amor fati) illustrates a key distinction between antiquity and modernity, what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the concept of the “eternal return.” The desire and capacity to return to a mythical golden age is the theme of his flawed, simplistic study The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eliade covered not just cyclical time but the power of origins, the distinction between the sacred and profane and the importance of sacred time, the use of myth and ritual to become contemporaneous with a past golden age, and the terror of history. While in his 20’s, Mircea Eliade was sympathetic with, though not a member of, Corneliu Codreanu’s fascist Christian Legion of the Archangel Michael—the bloody, brutal Romanian Iron Guard that the Nazis considered too extreme. He distanced himself from overt rightwing involvements even as he maintained close friendships with parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola who advocated for similar notions of cyclical time and the eternal return.

“In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the ‘liberties’ that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?” Mircea Eliade wrote in The Myth of the Eternal Return of the terror of history. “We know how, in the past, humanity has been able to endure the sufferings we have enumerated: they were regarded as a punishment inflicted by God, the syndrome of the decline of the ‘age,’ and so on. And it was possible to accept them precisely because they had a metahistorical meaning […] Every hero repeated the archetypal gesture, every war rehearsed the struggle between good and evil, every fresh social injustice was identified with the sufferings of the Saviour (or, for example, in the pre-Christian world, with the passion of a divine messenger or vegetation god), each new massacre repeated the glorious end of the martyrs. […] By virtue of this view, tens of millions of men were able, for century after century, to endure great historical pressures without despairing, without committing suicide or falling into that spiritual aridity that always brings with it a relativistic or nihilistic view of history.”

Nietzsche may have coined the expression “historical sickness” (historische Krankheit) in critiquing the study of history, preferring the idea of genealogy to express the power of origins and relations. To be fair, an acceptance of cyclical time is not always an embrace. Buddhism expresses a terror of the eternal return in seeking to end the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation, which is the cyclical time of ages writ personal. The Sacred cannot exist within time according to Buddhism which seeks a transcendence of both the ego and the cosmic. And even within the profane time understood as history—that supposedly linear march of facts and events devoid of any inherent meaning or sacrality—there is the tendency to see cycles. Certain schools of Marxism contend that the ultimate goal of a stateless, nationless, classless communism is humanity’s original primitive communism taken to a higher level, implying that history is not cyclical so much as an upward spiral.

Braudel and the Annales School to which he belonged actually divided historical time into individual time, social time and geographical time. Individual time is the courte durée history of “individuals with names,” the superficial linear histoire événementielle chronicling of events, facts, politics and people that is without deep significance, pattern or meaning. Social time is the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures. Geographical time is the imperceptibly evolving repetitive cycles of the natural environment. These three types of historical time are to be contrasted with the cyclical time of traditional societies and rightwing politics which is rigidly patterned, drenched in fixed meaning, and eternally repeating. In Pynchon’s dichotomy, individual time is anti-paranoia whereas cyclical time is paranoia. Everything in between is history proper.

And the abolition of the nation-state remains on the agenda.

Notes on the Eternal Recurrence by Frederich Nietzsche
Capital by Karl Marx
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel
The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
The Modern World-System by Immanuel Wallerstein
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon




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Corporatist realities and conservative fantasies: “What’s Left?” February 2009, MRR #309

The debate on the Left, in the days when the Soviet Union still existed, frequently boiled down to those who championed socialism in the abstract versus those who defended “real existing socialism.” Abstract socialism refers to any type of socialism that, with brief revolutionary exceptions, hasn’t actually been tried out in the real world. Anarchism, left communism, syndicalism, council communism, De Leonism, autonomism, democratic socialism, utopian socialism, communalism, libertarian socialism—plus the scores of variations within each category—comprise the broad, inchoate field of socialism in the abstract. Real existing socialism is much simpler, consisting of a few shopworn social democratic and a half dozen Leninist regimes, some of which continue to function to this day.

A similar distinction can be drawn between political systems in the abstract and real existing political systems. Political science, as it is taught in most universities, is an example of politics in the abstract, and academe is the perfect setting within which to discuss democracy, libertarianism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, anarchism; all sorts of abstract political systems that have rarely, if ever, existed. In reality, all present-day political systems are but variations on a single theme, that theme being the corporate state.

This is an incidental insight that can be gleaned from a reading of The Contours of American History by William Appleman Williams. An inspiration for the New Left in the 1960s, Williams was a “hard revisionist” who argued that expansion and empire were essential to the American economy, and that the US was primarily responsible for the Cold War. He wasn’t so much a Marxist as he was an anti-imperialist populist, along the lines of Mark Twain, who found common cause with old school, isolationist conservatives like Herbert Hoover, and who valued American regionalism and small community.

In Contours, Williams contended that the worldwide crisis that began with the first world war, and culminated in the second, gave rise to a near universal form of governance that can be called the corporate state. Strictly speaking, the corporate state is a creature of Italian fascism, of Ugo Spirito, Sergio Panunzio and Giovanni Gentile, who posited that an authoritarian ruling party could use the state to mediate between various powerful social interests, most notably the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, by incorporating them into social governance. The triumph of Bolshevism in Russia after 1917 produced a corporate state skewed to the left, with the working class allied with, and disciplined by a totalitarian Soviet state. Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 established a corporate state tilted to the right, with the capitalist class allied with, and disciplined by an authoritarian Fascist state.

Bolshevism and fascism vied for influence in the United States after 1929, when social conditions during the Great Depression proved ripe for radical organizing. The labor movement in general, and the Communist Party in particular, were gaining strength and social revolution, not to mention socialism, was a distinct possibility. Roosevelt’s response, in the form of the New Deal, created a corporate state in which a democratic state regulated capital, the full partner, and labor, the junior partner, in what amounted to a tripartite governance of American society. Very little effort is required to fit most countries today into one or another corporatist model.

The clear relevance of the corporate state idea in explaining much of current nationalist politics comes at a time when theories of corporatism have lost favor among academics. The multiplication of powers and interests in a society that makes it unmanageable by any corporate state; the explosion of racial, ethnic, even regional forms of tribalism; the spread of neo-liberal, free trade economics around the world through rampant globalization; the weakening of the nation-state as a viable unit in the world capitalist economy; these have all been cited to mitigate the importance of the corporate state as a way to understand how much of the world is run on the level of nation-states. The political realities of the corporate state, however, have not evaporated simply because political science professors are no longer interested in talking about them.

Take the 11/27/08 column, “Socialist Republic,” by paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan. After noting that both George Bush and Barack Obama have learned the same interventionist lessons from studying the Great Depression, Buchanan sarcastically comments that “We are all Keynesians now.”

Consider what we are about to do. Bush in 2008 spent 21 percent of GDP. States, counties and cities spent another 12 percent. Thus, one third of GDP is spent by government at all levels. Obama and Co. propose to raise that by another 10 percent of GDP. We may soon be north of 40 percent of gross domestic product controlled and spent by government.

That is Eurosocialism.

Actually, it’s good, old American corporatism.

Another paleoconservative, Paul Edward Gottfried, points out in his book, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, that American conservatives have failed to tackle, let alone defeat the behemoth of the modern administrative state. That’s because conservative Republicans, no less than their liberal Democratic counterparts, accept as given the corporatist fundamentals of the New Deal (Social Security, unemployment insurance, government intervention in the economy) as well as certain additions made to it by Johnson’s Great Society (Medicare, food stamps, civil rights legislation). Not even the doyen of small-government conservative Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, managed to dent America’s administrative state. Indeed, the Federal government and the deficits accrued by it grew precipitously during the Reagan years.

The corporate state is real existing politics, whereas paleoconservatism is politics in the abstract. We’re likely to witness intense internecine conflict on the Right in the next few years as conservatives try to figure out “what went wrong” in 2008. Few will defend the real existing big government conservatism of George Bush as they fight over the mantle of small-government Goldwater/Reagan conservatism in the abstract. Yet, much as anarchism went down to defeat time and again against Leninist communism in the real world, I suspect that, in practice, small government paleoconservatism will be routed by big government conservatism every time. Well, perhaps not in the platform of the Republican party, but certainly in actual governance.

The administrative state, the corporate state, is inescapable. Nor would the capitalist class wish to get rid of it, even if they could. I once joked that, if the Libertarian party’s dream was realized tomorrow, and the state was abolished in order to achieve a pure laissez-faire capitalism, the corporations would purchase and install a new government the day after. Capitalists realize the need for a strong, regulatory state, if for no other reason than to bail them out when they fuck up. Then there’s the military, handy for enforcing capital’s interests overseas, and the police, equally useful in quelling riot, rebellion and revolution at home. Labor’s participation in the corporate state, as well as the social programs engendered by that participation, might be up for question or attack. America’s corporate state is not.