Nostalgia for the End

Hypertelia: “a process of something surpassing its function or objective”.

“With systems of economy, knowledge, and production, if they go too far in one direction they get carried away and over-reach their own limits, and at this moment lose themselves in reversal” — Baudrillard, Selected Interviews 

Kojève’s provocative suggestion was that the US, at its mad-Fordist height, was the end of history, and was effectively the achievement of the communist state of being anticipated by Marx and Engels. The Soviets were simply ‘poor Americans’, working feverishly to play catch-up. However insane this suggestion might appear, let’s assume, for the sake of blogging, the truth in it. The question instantly becomes: if that moment was post-history, what does it mean to be on the other side of it—to be living after the end of history has come to an end?

Contemporary society is characterized by a jagged paradox. On the one hand, there is the abscence of history, as an order organizing time (this doesn’t mean, of course, that events do not happen); while on the other, the symbolic deficiency that arises from this absence doesn’t eliminate meaning. The whole of ‘late’ capitalist civilization presents itself as a vast machine designed for the mass production of meaning, which rises up in the extreme vertigo of excessive presence. The intimate link between the generation of meaning and historical movement—history and meaning as the double-result of action— has become broken, leading to an intractable crisis of intelligibility and orientation. One side signals the reality of history, the other its disappearance. As a result the prevailing social order moves under the mushroom cloud of anomie.

Vince sees in China a different sort of posthistorical moment taking shape: under Xi, contradictory forms of governance, temporalities (witness the marriage of the traditional and the hyper-modern) and even modes of production are placed alongside each other, held together by direction of the Party now serving as a managerial regime. In a reversal of Thiel’s claim that Xi has brought posthistory to its close, the Chinese government carries out its work beyond history. This doesn’t mean that development is over: it is produced through the tensions cycling through this unification (not synthesis) of the One and the Many.

China thus seems to have figured out an alternative to the crisis of negation, the breakdown of the negation of negation, by simply advancing forward with Mao’s own jettisoning of dialectical resolution. In its place is the management of paradox—and compare this with the West, where the paradoxical runs amok with the full permissiveness of an acephalic leadership. Neither of the poisonous double gift of American capital that we see today—the ‘socially-conscious’ corporation and the terror of homeland security—indicate anything other than the promise of a tremendous void.

Everywhere is the aftermath of the 2016 election cycle: social democracy is dead in the water, and the ‘anti-establishment’ right plummets into reheated neoconservatism, incapable of abatting domestic catastrophe while ratcheting up international tensions (the real humor of the apparent war-path with China is that, behind it, the much longed-for act of ‘decoupling’ appears to have been quietly discarded as a policy agenda). There’s little reason to relitigate that election, or re-iterate what has already been said (and everything that can be said about it has been said about it), but the now-classic framing is that it was a conflict between a technocratic, centrist establishment and a populist insurgency of the left  and the right. As the center appears as the inheritors of end-of-history in the Fukuyamian mode, the sudden re-appearance of the masses as a potent political force made it seem like history was returning, inch by inch, to resolve contradictions that had been left dangling.

Yet look at the content of the left and right populisms. It wasn’t merely the status of outsider politics that they shared in common: it was a desire to turn time back to a previous stage of capital—each, in actually, desired exactly the same moment in time: the American posthistorical moment. Contemporary populism—and here is where it may differ from historical populism, at least in the American experience—is a politics logged in what Jameson called nostalgia mode. Nostalgia mode, an indicator of an eternal present haunted by past forms which it then ‘cannibalizes’, is for Jameson the defining cultural trait of postmodernism; it’s interesting, then, that postmodernism begins at the very moment that posthistory ends. While this might very well be an indicator of terminological insufficiency, it also hints at the strange topographical character of these entangling lines. Non-simultaneity, nonsynchronism: nothing is evenly distributed.

In his 1943 book The Road We Are Travelling, Stuart Chase—known best perhaps for being the coiner of the term ‘New Deal’—described the transformation, occurring in multiple countries across the world at precisely the same moment, of the free enterprise system into something he could only describe as X. The characteristics of were

A strong, centralized government.

An executive arm growing at the expense of the legislative and judicial arms. In some countries, power is consolidated by a dictator issuing decrees.

The control of banking, credit and security exchanges by the government.

The underwriting of employment by the government, either through armaments or public works.

The underwriting of social security by the government…

The underwriting of food, housing, and medical care by the government…

The use of deficit spending techniques to finance these underwritings…

The abandonment of gold in favor of managed currencies…

Etc, etc.

Chase suggested that nobody—not the capitalists, nor the ‘orthodox socialists’—desired or necessarily supported whatever was. But if X, in retrospect, marked the moment of posthistory, then it is the object of an all-pervasive political and cultural desire, even if it is not actively realized as such.

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