Continued from last post . . . I started this series a week ago with some reflections on an essay about the perennial critique and doubt that left-wing politics always faces. The contention that all progressive politics leads to government control over daily life, the most extreme expression of which was Stalinism.
The essay was by Louis Althusser, writing in the 1960s. He faced a more intense problem than democratic progressives typically have, because he was actually a member of France's Communist Party, and a pretty prominent activist in the Paris branch.
|There are people out there who take this image seriously.|
But lately, all progressives in Western democracies face that accusation, that we’re really all wannabe Stalinists. That’s rooted in the radical libertarianism of the alt-right, the most powerful grassroots reactionary movement in decades.
Althusser’s defence against this accusation rests on an argument about the contingency of history. It's a difficult concept for him to straddle, because he also dismissed the democratic notion that all individuals – no matter how poor or marginal – contribute in some small way to their society’s historical development.
Althusser dismissed that idea as a bourgeois illusion to hide the genuinely abject nature of most human existence. In other essays in For Marx, he argues that civilization’s cause and engine is a product of its superstructure. That civilization is a grand machine that dwarfs the actions of human individuals.
It's some pretty unforgiving structuralism, at least that's the sense I get so far. But you don’t have to embrace that conception of what drives social change to land at history’s contingency. If anything, Althusser’s extreme structuralism is in a pretty intense tension with his arguments for history’s contingency.
As I said yesterday, history’s contingency is a function of its overdetermination. Every event has a ton of different causes, more causes than would be needed to bring it about in isolation. So you can tell a huge number of stories about how the world got to be the way it is.
If there’s no necessity to the development of history, then we can keep trying different attempts at building a just society where people don’t have to live in poverty. All the hardcore dictatorships of the alleged proletariat fell apart? The soviet councils all fell to pieces and were purged by a totalitarian dictator? The Great Leap Forward caused a massive famine when it turned out farming villages were shit metallurgists?
|No situation is ever perfect, but you have to marshal all|
your powers to assess what you've done, see what can be
done, and get to work. Sometimes, you just don't win
the vote, but that doesn't mean you can't ever succeed.
Well, it looks like those plans didn’t work. But if history’s development is contingent, there’s no reason for you to presume that every attempt to wrestle the state into becoming an actual servant of the people will fail. One day, we can get it right and make it last.
That's the engine behind the basic income movement and the revival of social democracy that the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Occupy movement has driven in the United States. It comes down to the faith that we can build a better society together.
That faith rests on the principle that not every attempt to push society toward a more utopian existence will fail, that it is actually possible to figure out how to get it right.
It’s a faith that refuses cynicism and fatalism. That embraces the potential of humanity, even in the face of our most cruel and violent impulses, from the individual to the civilizational. It looks into humanity’s greatest abyss and demands that we make light shine, no matter how difficult.
I’m not a religious person, but that’s the only faith I have.