Condemned to Barbarism

The Populist Doomloop

It’s not that there’s a spectre haunting Europe. It’s that there are too many.

Authoritarian personality. Centro Storico, Torino.

Hauntology, a concept that seemed a spent force several years ago, has made a comeback.

If the spectre of communism haunts Europe, it’s only in the form of a trace, an unrealised possibility, the afterimage of which is useful for making other things appear.

Mark Fisher’s name is the most commonly associated with hauntology after Jacques Derrida, who coined the term.

Fisher’s work has aged unevenly since his suicide in 2017. His full-throated defence of Russell Brand is probably best forgotten.

His criticism of joyless, self-defeating identitarian leftists as grey vampires was grumpy and over-stated, even if there are factions on the left obsessed with eating kale and self-flagellation.

Rereading Ghosts of My Life, I was struck by a line that touched on something fundamental about the temporality of the postmodern moment in which we seem trapped.

One of Fisher’s central contentions was that, under neoliberalism, popular culture had ceased to produce new things and was caught in an endless loop of self-pastiche and repetition.

Fisher noted, “[r]ather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms”.

A new temporality is suggested here, which touches on the concept of non-simultaneity developed by Ernst Bloch in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Like Fisher, Bloch left an uneven legacy. He spent the first decade after the Second World War as the leading philosopher in East Germany.

Bloch was only prompted to leave by the building of the Berlin Wall, although he had been forced to take emeritus status because of his deficient orthodoxy.

In the decades before WWII, his Marxism was of a very unconventional sort, with religious themes suffusing a highly expressionistic writing style that was often wholly opaque.

In The Spirit of Utopia (1923), Bloch argued that the defining feature of the modern age is abwaschbarkeit, which means “washability”.

What this implies as a critique of modernity is extremely difficult to parse.

On the other hand, Bloch could express himself with startling clarity. In a text written in 1932, Bloch wrote, “Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally because they can be seen today. But they are thereby not yet living at the same time with the others.” As Bloch would make clear in the pages that followed, the particular target of this remark was people seduced by National Socialism.

Confronted by the “barren Now,” young people, peasants, and the middle classes each coveted some aspect of the past preserved in the memorial traces.

The success of Hitler and his movement was to create a narrative in which ancient truths would breathe life into the emptiness of the modern world.

“The power of this untimely course has appeared, it promised precisely new life, however much it merely hauls up what is old,” wrote Bloch. “

“The masses also streamed towards it because at least the intolerable Now seems different with Hitler because he paints good old things for everyone.”

It is important to remember that Nazism was a modernism, a collage of atavistic seeming values and nostrums grafted onto an obsession with technology and its capacity to remake the world.

It is not difficult to see the homology between this approach to politics and that being pedalled by the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Geert Wilders.

There are superficial distinctions between them, but they are united by their willingness and capacity to bring the ghosts of lost pasts to bear on modern problems.

In thinking about this kind of politics, at least in the case of Trump, it is worth remembering the television offerings of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Shows like Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and Leave it to Beaver (1958-1963) transmuted the nuclear family made possible by the postwar boom into a norm-establishing trope.

Out of this grew the commonly accepted view that the patriarchal nuclear family had always been there and that the pre-Vietnam era was one of peace, safety, and universal prosperity.

That view of the world came to grief with the war in Southeast Asia and the social upheaval that plagued the United States in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the nuclear family was collapsing.

In All in the Family (1971-1979), it was under the thumb of an irascible bigot whose world of racial and patriarchal power and privilege was disintegrating.

All in the Family was an adaptation of the BBC’s Til Death Do Us Part (1965-1975), which addressed many similar issues, but in which the father figure was less of a tyrant.

More examples could indeed be adduced, and certainly, the change was not immediate.

From 1969 to 1974, American television audiences could still see The Brady Bunch, in which a man supported a family of six kids, a stay-at-home wife, and a maid on a single salary.

But for the most part, American television from the late 1970s through the 1990s portrayed the inexorable changes in social and economic life, and examples in European television could be found as well, mutatis mutandis.

Mark Fisher’s contention about the current era was that a change had happened around the time of the Oughties, in which new things were no longer being generated.

Examples of this are not hard to find. Fisher cited the Arctic Monkeys’ cut “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” as resembling nothing so much as an early 1980s guitar pop band.

Perhaps even more pronounced is the rise of artists like Amy Winehouse and Adele.

The latter is stylistically adjacent to Petula Clark and Cass Elliot, while the former seemed like the second coming of Ronnie Spector.

Pop stars are not responsible for populism, in the same way that they are not responsible for riots and revolutions, no matter how often that sort of thing turns up in their music.

But what Fisher put his finger on is that the stasis of the new is an element of a broader social and political transformation.

The persistence of the old in the face of the “barren now” means that it is tantalisingly within the grasp of those who feel culturally homeless.

The populist right demands the protection of the “good old ways” from the manifold threats of the postmodern present.

The old ways are threatened by crime as well as by changing pronouns.

They’re threatened by the prospect that a formerly integrated racial community is now being challenged by immigration.

Never mind “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” or “I was a stranger, and ye took me in.”

Even the afterimage of communism has become part of the symbolic narrative.

The death of “actually existing socialism” was, in the long run, a bonanza for the entrepreneurs of endangered culture.

As a narrative trope, socialism could be applied to anything.

This was most startlingly on display during the 2016 US elections, in which “conservatives” managed to maintain straight faces while asserting that Hilary Clinton was a crypto-Marxist.

Modern culture’s doom loop revives populism by convincing people that the past will live again if someone with the requisite charisma and ruthlessness brings it back to life.

The fact that the past to which this refers is imaginary seldom troubles.

Even when this can be shown, those trying to make France, Germany or the Netherlands great again only need to lie to keep their supporters onside.

No one knows who will inhabit this cage in the future. But the far-right consultants

who drive today’s politics have little incentive to stop their authoritarian project.

Mark Fisher had only been able to sketch the outlines of a way forward at the time of his death.

It remains to us, the living, to carry this work forward before we are submerged in Maga hats.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.