March 6, 2003

To have an ending, one must have a beginning

There are good reasons to prefer Foucault’s geneaologies to histories, to look at the past as a process and free ourselves from the tyranny of origins and endings.

The problem is, as Homi Bhabha has observed about modernity, that “newness enters the world”. History is not just one damn thing after another. It is not turtles all the way down. Things really do change, and have beginnings and endings.

In the past few weeks, I have read a lot of anti-war writers, both in and off the Net, who see the coming war on Iraq as the beginning of an American Empire which they necessarily take to also and inevitably mean the end of American democracy. I have also seen a tremendous variety of anti-war writers and intellectuals that talk about the erosion or ending of civil liberties and democratic freedom in the United States as a result of the general “war on terror”, and in observing this erosion, try to mobilize a wider population to protect or preserve those freedoms.

I am apprehensive about some of the same things. There is still to my eye something odd about the implied history of such fears, at least coming from some of those who voice them.

If we should now fear the inauguration of an American empire, it means that whatever role the United States has played up in the world since 1945, bad, good or a bit of both, it wasn’t an imperial role, or if it was, it wasn’t the same as the imperial role we now say we fear. Otherwise, how could we try to mobilize against the coming of some new rough beast? If it's just the same old same old American imperialism, then it's just the same old same old activism, and the rhetoric of unique urgency is misplaced.

If an American Empire cannot coexist with a democratic America, are we saying that America was not a democracy from the last third of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century? Because the United States had an empire: a small one, compared to England and France, but an empire all the same. If it was a democracy in those years, how did its democracy coexist with empire? How, for that matter, did Britain democratize domestically while ruling a steadfastly undemocratic empire, if the mere holding of empire always and inevitably destroys all democratic possibility everywhere?

If we should fear the destruction or erosion of civil liberties, and mobilize to protect democratic freedom in the United States, isn’t that a concession that the US was and still remains a free society whose existing liberties ought to be cherished?

Anyone who now forecasts an ending of good things in the coming war is necessarily admitting that those things had a beginning, a reality, that they once existed, and that they were good to have. You cannot lose what you never had.

This seems like an unexceptional observation until you look at who some of the people talking about the desperate need for the protection of precious liberties are.

Most of the anti-globalization left that came to Seattle and Washington cannot claim now that they wish to protect liberties that they have never previously acknowledged as existing. They cannot say they wish to save us from imperialism when they have habitually claimed that America and its agents like the WTO and the World Bank were always already an imperial actor in the world. The only distinction left for them is between bad and badder, and given the fervor of their mobilization against the bad, how much worse could it get?

The left of identity politics, the postmodernist left, the ‘cultural left’, mostly cannot claim to be trying to preserve hard-won freedoms, because they too have been largely unwilling to concede that those freedoms were ever won or meaningfully exercised by the communities and interests that they speak for. Before September 11th, don’t look to bell hooks or Molefi Asante, Andrea Dworkin or Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak or Trinh Minh-ha for affirmations and defenses of existing civil liberties and functioning democracies.

The Marxist left, old and new, mostly cannot claim to be trying to preserve precious liberties, because they largely have never accepted, with crucial exceptions, that bourgeois liberties are anything more than a weak prelude to genuine emancipation. What’s to preserve? Can a late capitalist world be worse than it has been in the eyes of Eric Hobsbawm, Thomas Frank or Howard Zinn?

If we speak urgently about the need to preserve what was, aren’t we acknowledging that what was is better than what might come to pass, that the late 20th Century world and late 20th Century America really wasn’t so bad after all?