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Thoughts on “The Great Federation of Sorrows…”

I was very affected by reading Richard Seymour’s recent semi-review of Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia, and particularly struck by this passage:

“…what collapsed with the disintegration of the USSR was not just an appalling dictatorship, but an ‘entire representation of the twentieth century’ filled with revolutionary hopes. The Velvet Revolutions, unlike their forebears, did not arouse new utopias, but confirmed a regression to minimal liberal ideas of freedom and representation, already underway since the late Seventies…For some reason, this was not a sinless defeat. A sin can, in secular terms, be seen as a special kind of defeat, a capitulation which attracts guilt. And the internalised stigma and guilt arising from the reduction of communism to its ‘totalitarian dimension’ became, even in dissident, anti-Stalinist strains of socialism which had never invested their hopes in the Kafka’s Castle of the East, a resistance to working through this defeat. This ‘impossible mourning’ is one way to understand the pervasiveness of left melancholia. Even the spurious ‘optimism’ of some of the remaining shards of the Left after 1989 was a result of disavowed melancholia, the refusal to mourn, the refusal to accept a loss.”

I feel like all my failed attempts to write 20th century history have been so difficult because they are trying to do the work of “impossible mourning” of an object that has lost its representation. Whenever I attend a gathering of leftists such as the JSPE I find it impossible to avoid the profound atmosphere of sadness that envelopes everything at the event and the inability of the participants to sufficiently mourn our loss, always talking around the issue and never able to get at the heart of it. Reading this essay I was reminded of a statement written by the economist Makoto Itoh in the 1990s that the collapse of the USSR and the stagnation of the capitalist world had made it difficult to discern a progressive trajectory in events. This is exactly what is meant by the “representation of the twentieth century.”

I started studying the history of the socialist calculation debate because the ideas of the Austrian School developed in that debate were held up as fundamental to the neoliberal structure of thought and I hoped that studying them could help undermine neoliberalism. However my great error in researching this topic was to read the documents of the era and those that were written during and after the collapse of the USSR without reading those written in the period of Soviet vitality when the arguments of Mises seemed to be archaic nonsense. The force of the Austrian arguments became overwhelming because they were useful as a means of post-hoc rationalization of historical events, not because they had some timeless genius to them. I would like to say that I came to this realization because of a more thorough research effort, but that seems to me to be a stupid professional conceit when it seems much more likely that events of 2016 gave me a new perspective I could not have seen before.

In particular, I am referring to the collapse of neoliberalism due to the rise of the “post-liberal” right and the work of mourning that was made possible by the death of Fidel Castro.

The “Austrian School” as a body of thought was not formed during a period of triumph. It was created by a collection of defeated liberals who felt that history had passed them by but held desperately to the correctness of the beliefs formed during the period of liberalism’s vitality in Austria. It has often been noted that this embattled mentality made the ideas of the Austrian School well suited for use by the right wing fringe that would act as the vanguard of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s, but these comments were made during a period when neoliberal dominance was already an accomplished fact. Seeing the desperate rear guard actions of neoliberals against the insurgent ultra-reactionary right shone a very different light on the Austrian School and their ideas, highlighting not their triumph against all odds but the position of vulnerability and desperation in which they were formed.

On the other hand, the death of Fidel Castro provided the opportunity to see beyond the “sin” associated with the defeat of communism. Despite all of his faults, Fidel Castro was such an outstanding historical personage that even the obligatory smear campaign that followed his death felt half-hearted and weak. The weakened and conflicted liberal and conservative press could not take the recognition of the real accomplishments of Cuban socialism from us in that moment and even the smouldering embers of his revolutionary memory cast some light in the all-encompassing darkness of our times, allow for some things to be seen that had been previously obscured.

2016 was a hard year, 2017 will likely be just as difficult, but let us take the opportunities afforded us when we can.

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