Just do it?: The Dilemma of Engagement

by cominsitu


by Simon Critchley (Artforum, 2017)

ONE BRIEF ANECDOTE amid the carnage; possibly a parable.

A few weeks back, I was involved-against my inclination, probably out of a misplaced sense of duty to students-in a debate with two theologians about the limits of secularism. This took place at the New School for Social Research in New York, where I have my day job. My intent was to say as little as possible, just respond politely to the theologians and make my excuses and leave to get a drink. (After all, it was Friday evening.) Inevitably, everyone started to talk about Trump and how depressed they are and what we should all do, etc., etc., etc. Inwardly, I sighed. I was tired. I’ve been tired a lot recently.

One of the theologians made a forceful argument that people like her, on the religious Left, should “reach out” (as Americans like to say) to Christian swing voters by quoting radical statements from the New Testament-“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate and persecute you”-and enlisting the radical gospel of love to bring the Christian masses back to a more liberal, or even leftist, position. She even imagined a kind of biblically based mass protest in Washington, DC, with huge floats bedecked with slogans about love, mercy, and forgiveness. Her plea was eloquent and persuasive.

At which point, a bright young man with black hair and dark clothes objected to what she said, asking why we should bother trying to bring Christian swing voters back into the fold of the Democratic Party. Why not do something else instead or, better, nothing at all? Why do we think that the present situation can be saved in any way?

This triggered a thought in me that perhaps addresses the central question of the politics of everyday life. In the situation we find ourselves in, there are two powerful, but opposed, temptations: to participate and to withdraw.

Let’s start with participation. I come out of a postGramscian leftist tradition indebted to thinkers such as Ernesto Laclau. This used to be called the Essex School. The key political concept for us was “hegemonic articulation.” What that means, roughly, is that the task facing any leftist group is to put together-literally, to construct-a common front, to forge alliances between groups that did not previously have anything in common (for instance, religious and secular groups). Hegemony is not something given or to be opposed as “domination,” but that which political activity has to construct and articulate.

Such an approach to politics is not rooted in any Marxist, economistic class reductionism based on a dubious historicist theodicy of revolution, but sees the task of opposition as a constant war of position, where the work of politics is the formation of alliances- temporary, contingent, but powerful coalitions between groups with often conflicting sets of interests. Such is the labor of deep democracy. In the US context, where many people on the Right identify as Christian, part of the task for the Left is the construction of an oppositional political force that would use elements of, say, the radical egalitarian, anti-statist, anti-elitist message that is at the core of the Gospels and is especially emphatic in the letters of Saint Paul. The question then becomes one of forging alliances between liberal and conservative Christian groups and others into an ever-growing common force.

The hope, here, is that the deep moral intuitions of everyday people, including a lot of Trump voters, could be harnessed to a more radical political agenda, the way they were in the US during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s. What we are asked to imagine is a leftist populism that might successfully confront the xenophobic and racist populism of Trump and his followers. The extraordinary dynamism of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign- before it was forced into submission by the liberal elite who run the Democratic Party and whose shady shenanigans led to Hillary Clinton’s disastrous failure of a candidacy-was, arguably, a potent manifestation of precisely this sort of grassroots Left populism.

Some days, I think the participation option is the right one: Abandon the failed tactics of the liberal elites and take politics back down to the level of everyday life; try to nurture the inherently decent moral intuitions of ordinary folk and mobilize them to different ends, which we might even call socialist.

But on bleaker days-actually, most days, recently- I hear the voice of that bright, darkly dressed young man saying, “Why bother?” This brings us to the option of withdrawal. We might call this the Genesis Breyer P-Orridge option. The Psychic TV option. Namely, that of embracing the conviction that normal politics is completely useless, corrupt, and a total waste of time. You can’t squander your life fixing up a house that’s falling off a cliff. What you can do, instead, is find a few people, some friends, and form intense psychic alliances, perhaps even covertly, secretively. It is always possible to bump into others in the darkness, to find mediums for visceral connection. (I am thinking here of groups such as Acéphale in the late ’30s, which formed around Georges Bataille; or Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, from the ’80s; or, more recently, the Invisible Committee.) According to this perspective, we should simply give up on the state, abandon all hope in relation to government, and slide off-world to find other forms of psychic connection. Indeed, one of the quiet miracles of American history has been the capacity of small groups-often intensely enthused spiritual groups like the Shakers, which emerged during the Second Great Awakening-to find one another and live in an alternative way, with a novel and radical practice of the politics of everyday life.

In this view, the United States has, since the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and the establishment of plantation slavery soon thereafter, been a disastrous, violent experiment in expropriation and the displacement or extermination of indigenous populations. The US, in short, is an infernal machine based on slavery and killing, so the idea that such a state is in any way redeemable or salvageable is a total delusion. Leave it, walk away, find a few other people you like, and make something else happen for as long as that is possible (and it might not be possible for long). As a metic in America, I have always found something compelling about the way in which certain forms of quotidian being-together have been possible out of the reach and under the radar of the federal state, and the way in which the energy that binds such groups together finds its source in religion or quasireligious orders-from the Harmonists in the nineteenth century to more recent weird outgrowths like the Branch Davidians and countless other groups.

It sometimes seems to me that our time in New York is a little like that of Alexandria in the fourth century CE, when people began to drift away from the motley, secular trading city that was in the process of internal collapse. Why not leave our small, overpriced offshore island, go out into the wilderness, and invent another way of life? That’s what Anthony the Great, the Father of All Monks, did in Egypt almost two millennia ago. Perhaps there is a lesson for us here.

Participate or withdraw, then? As I said, it depends what day it is. And I don’t really feel qualified to offer political advice to grown-ups, particularly not to the sophisticated readers of this magazine. What I am convinced of, though-and this is the romantic anarchist within me-is that ordinary people’s moral sense for the most part serves them well. They want dignity and a feeling of self-worth more than they want commodities, real estate, or opioid drugs. Moreover, I believe that they want such dignity and valorization for others as well as for themselves. I do believe that there is a moral sensibility that has not been entirely destroyed by neoliberal capitalism and that we can find one another at the only political level that truly matters-that of everyday life. Does that conviction entail participation in some new series of alliances, in the construction of a common front, or does it demand withdrawal from participation into a micropolitics of intimacy and secrecy? That is the question.