Monday, March 23, 2009

Looking Good in a Barrel

If you believe, with Francis Fukuyama, that we have reached the end of History and have attained with Western liberal democracy the summit, the endpoint of civilisation, and you also believe, with, let's say, Al Gore, that the clock is running out on the world's fitness for human habitation, you may be feeling sad but also a little proud: what a timely apocalypse! And what satisfaction in going out knowing that we have achieved what God (or Reason) had put us on this world to do. Too bad our children won't be there to see it.

Except dismissing Fukuyama's theory of convenience was always embarrassingly easy, and the disaster in Iraq and the economic news of the last twelve months or so would have convinced even the die hardest of believers that the rumours of the demise of History had been somewhat exaggerated. Which leaves us with undemocratic world institutions, a financial system in tatters, the impending end of days, and nothing to show for it in the ‘perfecting civilisation’ stakes either.

Relegated to historical document of a particular moment in time, however, Fukuyama's essay of 1989, the freeze-frame instant of the triumph of capitalism over its last known enemy besides itself, makes different, and possibly more interesting reading than in its original argumentative, ideology-serving role. There is the bordering-on-racism unpleasantness
For our purposes, it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso, for we are interested in what one could in some sense call the common ideological heritage of mankind.
The 'I can't believe he wrote that' silliness
But surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West. […] [T]he egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.
And finally, wrapped in more unpleasantness, a question of historicity that remains worth addressing:
The passing of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance. For while there may be some isolated true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fact that there is not a single large state in which it is a going concern undermines completely its pretensions to being in the vanguard of human history. And the death of this ideology means the growing "Common Marketization" of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.

Let's try not to focus for a moment on the fact that Fukuyama is a signatory of the statement of principles of the Project for the New American Century, therefore a believer in democracy so long as it's under the tutelage of the might of the American army, forever destined to be ‘Western’ in structure and purpose, or else. What’s more poignant here is the idea, hardly new or surprising, of course, but whose formulation by Fukuyama may have been the most timely and widely quoted of all, of the death of ideology, the vanishing of alternatives to a political system twinned to its hyper-advanced mercantile economy, both of which ought to henceforth be left free to realise themselves in their purest forms, unfettered, all-conquering, triumphant. Friedman Lives!

Here's the thing, though: following its Athenian inception, democracy didn't make a comeback in Europe for a couple of millennia, give or take. The door could have been closed on it, and the end of History declared, many times over by proponents of theocracy, military rule or feudalism, and they'd look pretty silly to us now. Because democracy survived as an idea and a utopian project under different guises before its modern incarnations culminating in universal suffrage and the various forms in which it is practised today. So immediately one is struck by the narrowness of the time horizon: victory in the cold war had barely been declared when 'The End of History?' was penned, and sure enough, barely two decades on, here’s a random snapshot of the ruins of Fukuyama’s ideal city.

Vanity Fair, April 2009 issue: Looking good in a barrel.

A facile pop reference, yes. But doesn't it also remind us that history is chugging along just fine, and that people will still look for past reference points in a time of crisis, to divine its solutions and possible outcomes? And those parallels will in turn help shape the public mood and the measures to be taken: quite obviously, choosing the word Depression has vastly different connotations and implications from 'deep recession', or the ludicrously optimistic 'crisis of confidence', whereas opting for an altogether new phrase, say, 'credit crunch' or 'financial meltdown', also makes a historical claim - of unprecedentedness - that enters into the discursive negotiations on the page that needs to be turned, or the way out that needs to be found (or the faire that needs to be laissezed, if you happen to be the CEO of something). But of course if you have had the good sense in advance to shut out of History a whole set of solutions and alternatives, the range of responses will be reassuringly narrowed. Hence Fukyama's resolute obituary of socialism, last of the credible alternatives.

As of last year and for the first time since 1948, this symbol is no longer represented in the Italian parliament.

In Italy, where it was comparatively stronger and ought to have been more resilient, less eager to concede defeat in the face of the admittedly significant ebbing of historical fortunes, the Left responded by cowering. Without socialism, an idea of socialism, an aspiration to socialism, politics on the Left became a question of which administrators could best fill the seats of 'il governo tecnico', the technical government, the standard label for a series of broad but rudderless makeshift political alliances that charted the uncertain course from one early election to the next in the frantic transition from the first to the second Republic, circa the first half of the last decade. And for that failure I also blame an uncertain if not duplicitous engagement with history, in the form of decades of ambiguous post-war relationships between the party of Gramsci and Stalinism, which ultimately squandered a base so capable of mass mobilisation, of practising a principled and capillary alternative politics, of furnishing the country with its most vital intellectuals (the chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini alone would require a barrel of ink or two).

But the base too needs to look at the peculiar ways in which it practiced its own tortuous ways of unbecoming. For being a Marxist in Italy at the time of Fukuyama's piece - and I'm quite determined to speak solely from my limited personal experience and observations on this point - still meant choosing your sub-affiliation, signing up to an interpretation of the doctrine but also a painstakingly selected set of historical circumstances. Repudiating Stalinism was obviously at the top of most lists, whilst the rejection of Mao - still a very commanding figure when my sister moved in those circles, a decade or so earlier - was more complicated and less indiscriminate. We used the word 'counter-revolution' a lot, but it meant different things to different people. And I'm not in turn repudiating all that, except insofar as it got in the way of forging alliances. Yet the analysis that went along with it was necessary work, but it meant continually eliding parts of the tradition, ritually pruning and chopping off after the fact the undesired offshoots of the tree, with a logic that - had it been practised by a political side other than mine - I wouldn't hesitate to call revisionist.

Speaking of revisions, this is not the post I had in mind for this week. It was reshaped by an email conversation with a friend (I'll call him comrade in private session), the reading of a masterly Perry Anderson piece on Italian politics, a brief dig through old emails from the time I left Italy and the time I got here, documenting growing degrees of perplexity and dismay at a broken political stage and the uniformly minuscule stature of its actors. From that came this half-thought-out and unfinished little article, in keeping with the think-in-progress, fail-to-reach-conclusions nature of your less than average blog.

Originally, I meant to write about this book.

A relic of a past crisis, from another swing of the pendulum. 1976, the West in the grip of stagflation and the oil crisis, the Novosti Press Agency sending out despatches from the home of really-existing socialism: a land without a housing problem ('Half the Population Give Housewarmings', announces in slightly perplexing fashion the title of the relevant chapter), a land without inflation, where incomes and purchasing power grow from one five-year plan to the next, where health, social security, gender equality and a modern car are guaranteed to all.

The original caption reads: 'Which of these brand-new cars will they choose?'

But also and more importantly, in perfect counterpoint to Fukuyama's mock-Hegelian edict, a land at the threshold of the end of History:
In a short historical period of time the Soviet people have built an advanced socialist society, and now they have approached the next stage - the building of a communist society.

Under communism the socio-economic differences between city and village, between physical and mental work will disappear. The very nature of work will be changed. Work will be mechanized and automated to the utmost, and this will require from every worker profound knowledge and continuous intellectual work.

The unprecedentedly high degree of development of the productive forces under communism will provide an abundance of material and cultural benefits, and lead to a new form of their distribution - from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

You know, I still live by that last sentence, or at least aspire to. Finding the political space to even think that way, in a society where increasingly you pay and are paid by the minute, is another tortuous exercise. But it is harder, too, and in a manner that ought to be welcomed, to ignore the history of that project, to read on and not shudder when the Novosti ghost-writers describe the holiday provisions available to the People, the wonderful resorts and the cheap, accessible sanatoriums, at the very same time as Solzhenitsyn was politely asked to pack his bags. At that time too, I remember or fantasise, in the late summer of 1975 and 1976, as a young boy, I would have been consuming fritto di pesce or pizzoccheri at a Festa de L'Unità in the middle of Lombardy, in the company of people of my parents' generation, comrades, my elders, my betters, more passionate and committed and fiercely intelligent than I'll ever be, who yet believed, some of them literally, that a mere couple of thousand miles to the East the end of History had arrived.