I have just finished reading Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society by Reinhardt Koselleck (MIT Press, 2000; although the book was published in Germany in 1959). I was pointed to this book by my friend Philip Wilson; I would never have come across it otherwise.
Koselleck is a follower of Carl Schmitt and I may, in a future post, have something to say about the lineaments of conservative thought as found in Schmitt and as articulated in this book.
For the moment, however, I just want to pick up on two nuggets from the book that gave me new ways to think about the current mess in the United States.
First, Kosseleck’s definition of crisis. “It is in the nature of crisis that problems crying out for solution go unresolved. And it is also in the nature of crisis that the solution, that which the future holds in store, is not predictable. The uncertainty of a critical situation contains one certainty only—that it will end. The only unknown quantity is when and how. The eventual solution is uncertain, but the end of the crisis, a change in the existing situation—threatening, feared, and eagerly anticipated—is not” (127).
That the US is a society and a polity currently incapable of “resolving problems” seems obvious to me. Environmental disaster is already upon us and only going to get worse. Homelessness, childhood poverty, maternal mortality, and other symptoms of social and economic inequality go unaddressed. A concerted assault on democratic procedures for the assignment and transfer of state power is underway in full view. And the scourge of racism continues to afflict just about every aspect of American life.
On the one hand, what I see is a society that is paralyzed, frozen in stasis. The ability of government to act effectively—or even to act at all—has been undermined, partly deliberately by the party hostile to government, partly by a kind of bureaucratic sclerosis. Institutional inertia makes change just about impossible. Transmitting directives down through the multiple capillaries of huge corporate or governmental structures means constant watering down or simple evasion of new initiatives. The operative metaphor has always been turning around an ocean liner. Settled habits, routines, prejudices, combined with resistance to doing things in new ways, all work against solving the problems that stare us in the face.
In short, I don’t share Kosseleck’s confidence (very German; think of Hegel and Marx) that a society that can’t solve problems in unstable and doomed to a short lifespan. Muddling along through a combination of willful blindness, aggressive denial that the problems exist, calculated distractions of public attention to other issues (rising crime!; immigrants!; inflation!; transgender people!; welfare cheats!), and simple economic interest (changed policies will threaten your livelihood) are more than enough to stabilize dysfunction. Jared Diamond’s tragic view that societies will obstinately stick to their prevailing practices all the way to extinction seems apposite.
And yet. It would be very foolish to think nothing has changed since 1980. Even as government has been paralyzed (unable to address even obvious problems like gun control, massive tax evasion, and securities fraud along with other forms of corporate malfeasance), change initiated by non-governmental agents has been everywhere. The shifts in economic production (global supply chains, outsourcing, the destruction of unionized labor, the creation of precarity and the gig economy, the full emptying out of economic activity from rural America, the continued growth of industrial agriculture, the movement of vast amounts of commerce on-line) and in social organization (the “big sort” which clusters people in like-minded communities; the increasing segregation of public schools along with the growing private education sector; the outsized influence of Fox News; the privatization of various parts of “the commons”) have hardly been insignificant. The world my children (now in their early 30s) have had to navigate differs greatly from the one I encountered in the late 70s leading up to 1983 (the year I turned 30).
So the crises of 2022 America is not exactly about standing still. It seems more to be a crisis generated by a) a failure to come to terms with several looming problems through either ignoring their existence, or denying their existence, or by adopting a cynical/fatalistic conviction that nothing can be done about them and b) the loss of any sense of a collective agency that identifies the government as the place where that agency can be mobilized. Instead, everything is left to non-governmental actors, who (predictably enough) pursue their own interests, grabbing from the commons whatever they can. The American version of kleptocracy.
What keeps this situation stable, it seems to me, is that the kleptocrats let enough crumbs fall off the table to keep lots of people in fairly decent economic shape. The mystery of the years since 1980 is that the kleptocrats are so unhappy; they keep yelping that their haul isn’t big enough. Being a millionaire no longer counts for anything. Only a billion will do. To increase their haul, they have beaten down wages, ended anything like job security, and taken ever larger chunks of any profits resulting from increased productivity. One effect of increased economic insecurity for wage earners (a result of “loss aversion”) is the desperate attempt to cling on to what I have—making me fearful of change, liable to vote for the shitty status quo rather than take the risk of endorsing change. So sclerosis can be endorsed at the voting booth. But you would think there would have to come a tipping point, a moment when the steady immiseration of the wage earners would generate a backlash against their economic overlords.
We seem further than ever from that tipping point—which is why I am saying we live in a crisis that seems to be unending. Yes, as Kosseleck says, we have multiple and highly visible “unresolved problems,” but that doesn’t seem to be unsustainable. We can—and probably will—fail to address them (imagining “solving” them seems laughably naive) for quite some time to come.
As a conservative, Kosseleck identifies that tipping point with “revolution,” an event he deeply deplores. He does so by deploying an interesting distinction between “civil war” and “revolution’—even as he eventually undercuts the difference between them (pp. 160-62, especially the long footnote on p. 160). Basically, a civil war is when two factions fight over assumption of power within the current political structures. Revolutions, by way of contrast, aim to abolish the current structures and replace them with something entirely different. In Kosseleck’s mind, that means revolutions are always Utopian, trying to create a new social and political reality out of whole cloth and according to a blueprint that has been imagined in the isolation of the study. Revolutionary dreams are delusory—and here’s where the distinction from civil war breaks down: revolutions always spur civil wars (think of the French, Russian, Chinese, even Irish, revolutions). From the Utopian heights of revolutionary dreams are born the more mundane, but usually horrific, war of factions that is civil war.
What Kosseleck comes close to saying, but never quite does, is that civil wars are reactionary (initiated by a faction that feels threatened by change and wants to insure that established privileges and possessed power/property are not undermined) while revolutions stem from the dispossessed, those at the bottom in current arrangements. So, if revolutions cause civil wars, it is because those currently on top won’t go down without a fight.
The American case seems more like Spain of the 1930s than either France in 1792 or Russian in 1921. Our nineteenth century civil war was instigated by reactionaries who felt slavery was threatened even as the North (and Lincoln) told them slavery was constitutionally protected. They thought they saw the writing on the wall in the efforts to keep slavery out of new territories and the growing demographic and economic strength of the North. So they forced the issue long before they needed to if their aim was to preserve slavery—and foolishly started a war they could not win (except if they could convince the other side not to fight it).
The similarity to 1930s Spain stems from the fight of 1861 being waged against a legitimately elected government—and was made in the name of anticipated horrors that that government would enable, not anything that government had actually done. And our current situation feels the same. What did Obama’s government do that would justify the belief that a Democratic administration would be such a disaster that it must be fought at every level—to the point of overturning election results to insure that only Republicans take office? [“Fought at every level” is meant to include: a congressional veto by Republicans on any measure, not matter how anodyne, that Democrats initiate; endless trumped up congressional investigations of supposed malfeasance on the part of the administration; attempted judicial nullification (sometimes successful) of any measures Democrats do succeed in establishing; rabid right-wing promulgation in various media (talk radio, cable news, on-line channels) of baseless accusations; aggressive gerrymandering and other ways of distorting actual voter preferences; the list could go on.]
As with the behavior of the kleptocrats, the question becomes where will the tipping point be reached. We have the obvious political crisis of Republicans putting the machinery in place to steal elections. Will they, by these “legal” means (since passed by state legislatures and unlikely—it would seem—to be overturned by the Supreme Court), install themselves in power without triggering a vehement response? In other words, will they be able to achieve a bloodless coup—avoiding civil war. Or will the power grab generate a more dramatic response?
Back to crisis. We have, then, three sets of unresolved problems: 1. The threat to the democratic peaceful transfer of power from one faction to another. 2. The undermining of government as the agent of collective decision-making and action, thus leaving the powers that are transforming our society in the hands of private actors, including corporations, philanthropic foundations, and the like. And 3. The inability to address the looming problems of climate change, destruction of the commons, economic inequality and precarity, and the gap between whites and people of color.
The reactionaries who are bringing us to the brink of civil war by undermining democracy (number 1 in the paragraph above) do so in service of resolutely ignoring numbers 2 and 3—the crippling of government’s power to act effectively and the continued refusal to face up to looming problems. In fact, they want to hasten the crippling of government, and they, at times, aggressively want to exacerbate racial tensions/inequities, along with enabling the kinds of economic practices the increase inequality and precarity. And they have no desire to acknowledge or do anything about climate change.
All of this in a world where the dream of revolution seems entirely dead. The left is adrift because it cannot imagine—or find a way to work toward—effective collective action. But that’s a topic for another day—and another post.