I don’t care much for nostalgia. I look at the past not with regret that the present doesn’t resemble a past that never existed, but instead with regret that the past did not produce a present that could have existed. When I return to the topical writings of Karl Marx, I don’t wish Marx were here today, finding the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in today’s events. I am instead struck by the vast gulf between what we expect news analysis and opinion pieces to be today, and what they could be.
Here is a modern op-ed I find disappointing. On August 1st, 2010, Ross Douthat wrote on the extremely preliminary developments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He begins by very simply setting the scene:
For the men (and one rather polarizing woman) who might run for president as Republicans in 2012, now is the wilderness campaign. After the midterms, the struggle for the nomination will move out into open country. But for the moment, it’s all guerrilla warfare and tactical maneuvering — in the form of Web videos and op-eds, speeches and endorsements, and the occasional public dig at a potential rival.
Having established that the campaign has begun, he then introduces what he sees as the central dichotomy of the primary race today:
Right now, 2012 looks as if it could be another free-for-fall. In part, that’s because the populist temper is stronger among Republicans than it’s been since the days of Barry Goldwater. But it’s also because the most likely leaders for a populist uprising, Palin and Mike Huckabee, have a more devoted following than most earlier insurgents — and the current “it’s his turn” candidate, Romney, inspires little in the way of actual excitement.
The story, as Douthat sees it, is an emerging competition between the “populists,” lead by Palin and Huckabee, and the “establishment” candidacy of Romney. The background is that the Republican Party usually eventually comes to a consensus around an “establishment” candidate, but recently, there’s been a surge of “populist” sentiment among the rank and file. As a result, Douthat concludes, Romney must “co-opt some of the populist zeal” without “alienating the establishment,” and his candidacy will be exceptionally appealing if Obama is popular at the time of the election, because the party will want a proven, safe candidate to run.
That’s Douthat’s narrative. Here’s mine. For one thing, I see no difference between the “populists” and the “establishment” here. Both factions support essentially the same platform; Romney, Palin and Huckabee all oppose gay marriage, abortion rights and tax cuts. I also don’t see any of these candidates as outsiders. Huckabee and Palin were both governors, and Palin was even the vice-presidential candidate, chosen by (in Douthat’s view) the “establishment” candidate John McCain. The party tends to cohere around “establishment” candidates because primary voters realize that all of the candidates essentially represent the same platform, and therefore vote for the candidate who looks most electable.
Most importantly, however, I don’t think the campaign has actually begun. I believe that the various maneuvers that Douthat describes in the beginning of the piece are nothing but carefully calculated attempts at stirring up hype, intended to make the primaries a fait accompli where “everyone knows” a candidate will win before the first vote is cast. In other words, the intended audience for those maneuvers is none other than opinion makers like Ross Douthat.
The real problem with Douthat’s column is not that my narrative is right and his is wrong. It’s that, without knowing where Douthat’s narrative comes from, we lack the necessary context to correctly assess it. Douthat seems to believe a lot of things about the way American politics works; that social conservatism is populist conservatism as opposed to establishment conservatism and that what politicians say is related to what they do, for example. I generally believe that partisan politics are a shadow-play that creates the illusion of democracy while elites pursue their economic interests. When I contest Douthat’s narrative, I’m not really saying that Douthat analyzed this one case incorrectly. I am saying that I fundamentally disagree with Douthat’s world view. The problem I have with Douthat’s column is that I have to read between the lines to find his ideology. By not admitting up front that he is creating a particular narrative, Douthat is giving his column the imprimatur of indisputable truth, which it certainly isn’t.
In my favorite piece of Marx’s topical writing, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” Marx is analyzing Napoleon III’s coup d’état of 2 December 1851. But this event doesn’t make an appearance until the pamphlet’s first section. Marx instead begins with a condensed version of his philosophy of history:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. . . .Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weights like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time- honored disguise and this borrowed language.
By starting from the general, instead of the specific, Marx is letting us know what kind of story he is going to tell. Here is how history and politics works, Marx is saying, and you can dispute me here if you wish. From there, Marx proceeds to the specific events in question, transmuting the events visibly into his own narrative. The February period of the 1848 revolution becomes the “prologue of the Revolution,” the Constituent National Assembly period becomes “the foundation of the bourgeois republic.” There is a remarkable transparency that is achieved through Marx using his own distinct vocabulary. We know exactly who is telling the story here. It is not conventional wisdom, it is Marx and nobody but him.
I like “Eighteenth Brumaire” because in it Marx understands meaning as Raffi does in his post about the Breslover tapes. Meaning, even the meaning of events that actually happened, is fundamentally dependent on context. The meaning of events depend on the stories we tell about those events, which are ultimately dependent on our world view. Real analysis–whether we’re analyzing events, nigguns or poems–is never so simple as just examining one isolated text. It is creating another narrative, a narrative that describes a world that has a select history, a select landscape and a select physics to it. And the beauty of real analysis, the beauty of creating a world, is that if you make your own world, you’re no longer stuck with the often dismal one you’ve been given.