Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Nameless Thing

Moses Hess’s phrase “the German misère” lends a name to the perception that Germany is continually waiting for its revolution, and to the absurd quality of this wait:

die deutsche Bourgeoisie scheint dazu verdammt zu sein, auf dem Stillen Ozean der deutschen Misere zwischen Furcht und Hoffnung so lange hin und her zu lavieren, bis der Sturm vom Westen losbricht und die Wogen des Proletariats aus der Tiefe herauf schäumend über Königtum, Adel und Bourgeoisie zusammenschlagen.

the German bourgeoisie seems doomed to tack back and forth, between fear and hope, on the Pacific Ocean of German misère, until the storm from the West breaks loose and foaming waves from the depths of the proletariat beat upon kingship, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie.

There's still no better name for the experience of the period from a Left perspective than the one Hess gives it. Writing in 1847, he makes misère ambiguously mental and environmental, inside and outside the bourgeoisie. Ever after, the term has been associated with the thesis of bourgeois failure, and in Germany, of German “backwardness.”

But as many critics have pointed out—most recently and incisively Rebecca Comay—the incompletion of revolutionary fulfullment is not a matter of German pathology. As Comay observes, it can take the form of a too late as well as a too early, an “after” as well as a “before.” If it seems strange that Germany manages a “restoration” without a revolution, as Marx complains, by the time of Louis-Philippe at the latest it is no less strange that France seems to have managed a revolution without a revolution, one whose core economic and political goals remain unfulfilled. Later in the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century, there would be similar debates about the “disappointing” results of Italian unification. Sixty years after 1789, Victor Hugo calls for attention to “la misère” in the Legislative Assembly. In response to a colleague’s reflection that “"Certainly there are 'misères' that can be abolished. But you cannot abolish 'la misère,'” Hugo replies:

“La misère’” is not suffering; “la misère”’ is not poverty itself; “la misère” is a nameless thing which I have tried to describe.... Suffering cannot disappear; “la misère” must disappear. There will always be some unfortunates, but it is possible that there may not always be “misèrables” on the Left.

Hugo mulls over the double meanings of “misery” and “poverty” within the French word “misère”—meanings also mobilized by Marx’s La Misère de la philosophie (1847), originally written in French as a reply to Proudhon’s Philosophe de la misère (also 1847). While the scale and indefiniteness of Hugo’s object may seem to presage interminability for the revolutionary project, Hugo dismisses that objection: the project is achievable, although not guaranteed; the goal is not impossible, only not simply physiological. That misery isn’t simply mental, either—that it’s a matter of material justice—goes without saying. Nonetheless, the provocation here is Hugo’s idea that the “Left” could cease to be miserable even in the face of poverty and suffering (up to some point).

Hugo ends up talking about the condition of “the Left” as well as of the poor, and we might ask why he needs to stake Left viability on the ontology of misery. Different entities are miserable in Hess and in Hugo. Hess’s “Pacific Ocean” of “deutsche misère” sounds vast enough to include everybody, although people have different places in it (the bourgeoisie sail on the surface and the proletariat lives in the depths). For Hugo, it is as a member of a political wing consisting of members of various classes, “the Left,” that one is “miserable,” and so implicitly as part of a political group that les misèrables would meet their goal of ending misery. In an ordinary kind of way, Hugo’s warning that things will not always be as they are now simply looks forward to getting the chance, someday, to govern. But through misery’s migration to the Left who are out of power, subtly and implicitly la misère comes to hold the place of Left ascendancy, as though it existed instead of it: la misère or us. So, to the objection that you can end specific “misères” but not “la misère,” Hugo responds that misery is not poverty and that the Left may not always be miserable. As Peter Stallybrass notes: “On the one hand, then, the Right with its claim that the poor are always with us; on the other, the negations and hesitations of Hugo—'not suffering,' 'not poverty,' 'a nameless thing’” (“Marx and Heterogeneity: Thinking the Lumpenproletariat,” Representations 31 (1990), pp. 69-95, 7). How do these ontological terms acquire the ability to drive the exchange?

Many radical narratives in the period assume that the problem of the nineteenth century is revolution’s failure: its failure to happen at all or its failure to take, to keep happening. By this logic the first remedy is Leftist self-criticism—looking back on concrete turning points and suggesting what should be done differently in future. One great relief Marx brings is his proposal that the main fault lies not in the failings of revolutionaries but in the structure of capitalism. What’s most devastating for radicals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, what makes them miserable, is the anxiety that revolution is neither failed nor merely absent at present, but that it is not real: that it does not exist, never really existed—even when it most seemed to—and cannot exist; that, ultimately, radicals themselves do not exist. Like Hess, one can think of revolution as structurally too early or too late right now, but the release that the trope of absence--faultless nonpresence—can deliver is fragile and collapses under the weight of anxiety or accusation. Then the moralization of failure returns with a vengeance, attached to the supposed privation of nonexistence. If we think about the whereabouts of revolution in this way—as being about nonexistence instead of local failure—Marx then brings a different but equally great relief by installing revolution inside capitalism, which (strangely) no one doubts exists. Capitalism is derealized by this, but possibly in a reinforcing way; and the Left is safe there, inside capitalism for now but more importantly bound to the dialectic of transition, which is the safest place in the world, the only thing that will continue to exist in a world of relentless transition. I'm not speaking of “determinism,” of confidence in its future actualization (an overrated problem), but of where revolution is thought to “be” before it is actualized—of Marx’s presentation of its elements, principle, and possibility. His presentation assumes something like the ontological anxiety of Hugo’s exchange with his colleague; it assuages by explaining the existence of revolution, not in the future but already, and therefore justifies ontologically the existence of the Left, since revolutionaries are themselves elements of revolution.

But, again: how did things come to the point where everyone agrees that what the Left needs to be doing is demonstrating its project's and its own existence? Why is there such a consensus on the ontological terms of the question, regardless of the merits of the style of the ontology chosen? If people say, as Hugo does, that that’s because neither the problem of misère nor the solution of revolution is strictly an empirical matter in the first place, that only reflects the way the accusation has come to be answered, not the source of the accusation itself.

Image: metamorphosis of the Tree of Liberty (1848), from Les quarantes-huitards, ed. Maurice Agulhon (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975).

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