The past after the future

John Torpey
29 August 2001

We are being buried under an avalanche of history. But this is a history far removed from the heroic, forward-looking tales that underpinned the idea of progress for two centuries. Instead, we are presented with tawdry chapbooks containing narratives of injustice and crime, and told that the unseemly past that they relate should be central to our thinking about politics, inequality, and human rights.

These censorious histories are not without their truths, and are often closer than their predecessors to the real story of how we got where we are. They also underpin efforts to obtain “reparations” for past injustices and to “come to terms with” the trail of blood leading to the present.

As many involved in the preparatory discussions for the UN Conference on Racism which meets in South Africa have insisted, any reasonable understanding of the inequalities facing non-whites in the world today must involve a focus on the racist practices and policies that underpinned five centuries of white supremacy.

Desirable though it is in certain respects, this exercise can turn into a vengeful pursuit of the past. The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, to give it its full title, taking place in Durban from 31 August to 7 September this year, may encourage a pursuit of the past that can only be understood as a response, at once compensatory and escapist, to “the collapse of the future”.

We are witnessing, in academia and beyond, the emergence of a cottage industry devoted to strumming the mystic chords of memory. This preoccupation reinforces the claims of particular identities to special ways of thinking, and bolsters the notion that it is people’s views of the past, not their hopes for the future, that require understanding. Memory talk also holds out the bland (not to mention dubious) prospect of “healing” an unspecific remedy to very amorphous harms. The implied hope is that the excavation of “memory” will salve the yearning for prospects of real, sustainable improvement.

The interconnected concerns of memory and identity claim to be collective. But they often amount to little more than an individualistic, bewildered response to the collapse of any invigorating ideal of a common destiny. Given the infinite possibilities for commercialising the past, moreover, the embrace of these concerns often reflects the invisible hand of the marketplace rather than a critique of its domination of the present.

Karl Marx – a future-maker par excellence – famously observed that the past “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”. Particularly, he added, “just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things.” The sort of “revolutionising” that is currently going on is not what Marx had in mind. But the contemporary intellectual and political preoccupation with the past is, indeed, a response to massive social change.

The defining aspect of our epoch is its “post”-ness, its quality of being “after” other, more future-oriented projects – most particularly, socialism and the nation-state. Deprived of these narratives of collective advance which animated the energies of large constituencies during the preceding two centuries, our era lacks a sense of direction. The only utopia around is that of a perfect market-based society. When the future collapses, the past rushes in.

The collapse of the future

The mental parameters of our age are shaped by the end of Communism and the Cold War. For all the dangers generated by the Cold War stand-off, the challenge of socialism was arguably decisive in pushing the capitalist democracies to institute welfare and other policies that blunted the sharpest edges of the market economy. Welfare states came to be the norm in more industrialised countries in the aftermath of the Great Depression as labour and socialist movements, bolstered by the perverted presence of “really existing socialism,” pushed for policies that smoothed the spikes of boom and bust.

Their challenge to the so-called “Free World” assisted the transformation of racist practices in the United States, helping to create a favourable context for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, not to mention de-colonisation movements in Africa and elsewhere. Today, visionary socialist movements have become largely irrelevant in the most developed countries while anti-globalisation movements – whatever shape they may ultimately take – have yet develop the institutional stability needed to be a credible force for lasting social change. The old is dying, and the new has not yet been born.

It’s not just Communism that has proven to be an illusion. The idea of the nation-state, too, has been widely discredited, largely reduced to its historical role – not to be gainsaid – as the platform for delusions of grandeur leading to tragedy. As the paradigmatic case of nationalism gone disastrously wrong, the Holocaust has done much to undermine confidence in the nation-state as a political form (even though, in Israel, it helped to motivate the creation of a new nation state).

Among the already powerful, developed countries, nationalism in its early twentieth century form is looked at askance by many and perhaps even a majority of people. The human rights agenda which received such an important boost from the international responses to World War II has also promoted skepticism about the nation-state as a force for good in the world, and reveals elective affinities with the neo-liberalism that today masquerades as a vision of progress. This is an enormous change of sensibility since the heyday of the nation-state.

It makes it difficult to recall that the nation-state was once seen, not as the antagonist of “the rights of man,” but as the vehicle for achieving them. Likewise forgotten is the fact that a sense of common membership was crucial to the extension of the social rights that fostered equality in the face of capitalism’s systemic inequities. Under these circumstances, the authority of the nation-state to mould its populace in the image of elite defenders of a collective national project has largely evaporated.

The identity-promoting authority of the nation-state has been replaced among substantial numbers of people in the developed world by a growing identification with the notion that they are members of a diaspora of some sort. In the Euro-Atlantic world today, the growth of diaspora consciousness reflects the fading of a cohesive, overarching sense of national belonging.

If the nation-state offers its citizens less (in the way of welfare and other benefits), and demands less of them (e.g., the shift away from conscript armies), it is hardly surprising that people would look elsewhere for the sources of their self-understanding. This tendency has been especially prominent in a context in which the culturally savvy view the nation-state principally as a force for deracination and cultural decimation.

The past without the future

The political interregnum created by the shriveling of the socialist challenge and of the cohesiveness of the nation-state has been filled to a considerable extent with identity politics and the “politics of recognition.” Much of the discussion of identity and recognition has taken place in and through the idiom of coming to terms with past injustices, and the upwelling of attention to the past has had important affinities with the preoccupation with “identity.” This is perhaps unavoidable.

We find ourselves, in short, in a “post-socialist” and “post-national” condition which, skeptical of new blueprints for a heaven on earth, fixes its gaze firmly on the horrors and injustices of the past. In the absence of a plausible vision of a more humane future society, the presence of the past becomes magnified; righting past wrongs supplants and replaces the search for a vision of a better tomorrow, or even of today. The reckoning with abominable pasts becomes, in fact, the idiom in which the future is sought.

We might call this the involution of the progressive impulse that has animated much of modern history – the deflection of what was once regarded as the forward march of progress and its turning inward upon itself. Ask yourself: where can one now find analogues of those early twentieth-century expressions of optimism in the socialist future trumpeted in the Italian socialists’ Avanti! or the German Social Democrats’ Vorwärts? Who today could imagine invoking the exhortation of those early twentieth-century seekers after new worlds, the Futurists, to “burn down all libraries so as to emancipate the senile spirit from the dead weight of the past,” as George Steiner has put it?

The pursuit of the future, the homeland of progressives throughout the modern era, has been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of attention to “memory”, “reparations,” and “coming to terms with the past”. Perhaps never has so much firepower been trained on history as a battleground of political and intellectual struggle.

We need the past, of course, to make sense of where we have been. Yet as we pursue the past, trying both to make sense of it and to “come to terms with it,” we should also be aware that this preoccupation has in many ways become a substitute satisfaction for paradises lost.

Concern with the past without the sense of a future may wither into nostalgia, instrumentalism or the call for blood. (In 1992 a Serb paramilitary said he and his comrades were “fighting for our past”). A realistic yet visionary agenda can, by the same token, begin to re-establish a truer and more healthy relation to the past able to discern the positive elements within it. The past also depends upon the future.

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