This is a guest post by Daniel Bertrand Monk, who is the George R. and Myra T. Cooley Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University, where he is a professor of Geography and Middle East Studies. His most recent volume is The Post-Conflict Environment (Jacob Mundy co-editor)
“I don’t want knowledge. I want certainty.” Bowie. Law (Earthlings on Fire)
Any serious effort to make sense of America’s post-election sense-making would have to begin with the observation that our forensics reveal more about a collective experience of dislocation than much else. Whether they suggest that what “we’ve been here before” or imply the inverse –that the situation is unprecedented because it recalls a Fascist past elsewhere– efforts to tease a truth out of the turnout in rust belt Michigan or suburban Pennsylvania tacitly assume that we must look to what has already happened in order to predict what is coming. As a genre, the American postmortem persistently resorts to the poverty of a shabby historicism.
Ransacking the uniqueness of the American past or the comparative universality of other people’s history, Americans observers of the present unwittingly advance Amor Fati, a loving identification with their own fate. In the exceptionalist version of this historicism, past electoral precedents confirm that Americans are still arguing with one another within endoxic parameters – that is, within the extremes of electoral politics. The present, they reassure us, is still more like Chicago in 1968 than Nuremberg in 1935. In the comparative version of the same historicism, the inverse is true: a much discussed “normalization” of the Trump-Bannon present is compared with the disastrous excuses made after the election of Hitler to the effect that he could be “boxed in.” According to this version of events, the lessons of Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws confer up on Americans an obligation to volunteer and register as Muslims in the same way that Danes allegedly donned yellow stars in the defense of Jews in occupied Europe. In both instances, resignation prevails, and to some extent presents itself as the inverse. Instead of sober political assessment, the given historical comparisons occasion a kind of catharsis in subjection. We are called to “action for the sake of inaction,” as an astute of observer of political resignation once put it.
There is no easy way to explain that a routinized and practiced form of historical tautology may help kill this republic. But, there is every indication that an impoverished imagination may rely on its knowledge of political history to disavow any knowledge of a new political geography. The more they look to their own repertoire of historical precedents, the less likely it is that Americans will be able to know if or when they’ve become part of something qualitatively new: an archipelago of states that are formally democratic and illiberally popular at the same time. These states are sometimes called “hybrid regimes,” “defective democracies,” or “electoral authoritarianisms.” It matters, because when you live in the archipelago no one chooses to let you know whether you’re back in Chicago 1968 or in Nuremberg 1935. Contemporary authoritarianism thrives on uncertainty about whether it is taking place to begin with. (MTV gets this, even if David Brooks and the New York Times are still waiting for something like the Reichstag fire to let them know what’s what). The archipelago’s denizens inhabit a political present and a geographic extent in which states are democracies by reputation, and the institutional features of liberal republics survive in them because they sometimes make no difference. In the authoritarian archipelago, there is little certainty whether one is –or isn’t– living in a dictatorial state of exception, and for that reason a state of exception is sometimes maintained by a populace that nurtures it as a “public secret” so it can advance its own illiberal ambitions.
Those who have lived through this situation and know it well are desperately trying to explain that the kind of dislocation Americans are now experiencing is itself indicative of life under this new kind of autocracy, or soft authoritarianism. The fact that you can’t always really know if you’re living in the chain of autocracies, its refugees report, is a primary feature of life in the growing archipelago of “illiberal populist movements” that may now include the U.S.
Many American interpreters of these cautions are furiously working to misinterpret them. In the U.S, the idea that collective experience of dislocation actually constitutes a right orientation to the present political geography will only be heard as a further invitation to plunder the past at the expense of the present. We will continue to be instructed in electoral strategies that will secure reversals in two, four, or eight years; or worse, we’ll be reminded to practice resistance strategies that never did anyone any good even when Franco, Mussolini, or Hitler were still in power –that is, when Fascism paid one the courtesy of passing laws that painted bull’s-eyes on one’s back. But here’s the thing: every time someone asks themselves, “Can this really be happening?” they are confronted with the authentic relation between experience and history for which those impoverished forms of historicism mistakes themselves. And, in the difference between our gut feeling about the present and the old names others’ give to that same experience, a politics proper to this moment will either emerge or be “normalized” into resignation in its own right. We’ll only know that a politics adequate to the present is starting to take shape when Americans start dropping the clichéd comparisons and start reading the manuals they themselves offered to pro-democracy activists already living in the authoritarian archipelago.
Adorno, Theodor W. “Resignation.” Telos 1978, no. 35 (1978): 165-168.
Diamond, L. J. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 13 no. 2, 2002, pp. 21-35. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jod.2002.0025.