Journal Entry #52

Our fingers all in knots.

NORFOLK, CONN., JAN. 7— Cú Chulainn did not anticipate writing this year-opening Journal entry as America provokes—and exacerbates at every turn—a frightening and wholly manufactured crisis with Iraq and the Islamic Republic. Not one week into a new year and a new decade, the moment takes its place among the most fraught and perilous in the Irish warrior’s lifetime. Maybe it is just as well. Events prompt us to ask the only question worth considering as we look forward. Can we do better in the years ahead than we have in the decade now spent? Can we change course—authentically, fundamentally such as to make an enduring difference in humanity’s progress?

Alert readers will protest Cú Chulainn has just posed two questions (and proceed to the conclusion the Irish cannot count). With due regard to such readers, the Brave One does not stand corrected. It is the same question posed two alternative ways. To do better than we have requires us to change direction. If we cannot change direction, we will not do better.

A resort to Gramsci is in order as we consider our question. Even halfway well-read readers will know Tony’s noted mot: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” he postulated. Having thought through this nicely balanced binary occasionally over many years, for a long time I thought I detected an implicitly privileged pessimism reluctant to speak its name. It was as if the Italian political thinker were saying, You know good and well things will turn out badly. Your optimism is merely a matter of wishful thinking.

One may say the same thing about any optimist today. To assert we can change direction and therefore do better as the 2010s give way to the 2020s—seasoned with the threat of war, no less—seems to require a touch of angélisme to hold up. But it is worth considering Gramsci’s thought a little more carefully. It seems to me now upside-down to what I first took it to be. To be a pessimist is simply to take the measure of things as they are—to cast a cold eye. Never is this other than essential to moving forward. To be an optimist is a matter of radical affirmation, a form of defiance. It means to proceed according to the dictates of one’s conscience, no matter the outlook—this is to say, to act not because success is assured, but because it is right to take action.

In 1924 Gramsci published an essay called “Against Pessimism,” in which he seemed to clarify his thoughts on these matters. It turns out he was rather militantly opposed to pessimism. He considered it “a thick, dark cloud” that oppresses those who cultivate it. “It may in fact be the greatest danger we face at present, given that its consequences are political passivity, intellectual slumber, skepticism about the future.”

“Hmmm,” ponders the glowering mick, fingers to his chin.

“This pessimism is closely linked to the current situation in which our country finds itself,” he—the Italian, not the Irish—continues. He then wonders what good it would be “if we also knew how to work and were only actively optimistic in periods when the cows were plump, when the situation was favorable?”

To our question, singular.

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AMERICANS, IT SEEMS TO ME, are in for a shock of recognition during this, a heavily freighted election year. I do not follow the doings of the major parties very closely because I do not vote: I voted once, for Bill Clinton, and he promptly betrayed my ballot by sending a cruise missile into al–Shifa pharmaceutical plant north of Khartoum, the Sudan’s one and only drug-producing factory and supplier of half the nation’s medicines. I returned to my … to my pessimism, indeed. Declining to vote is my plebiscite, whereby I voice my refusal to lend legitimacy to what has become our insultingly fraudulent political process.

Be all this as it is, the 2020 contests are greatly worth following, for they will tell us something quite important about ourselves and our political order. The core question is self-evident: A very considerable proportion of Americans want none other than fundamental change and a new direction in our political economy so as to begin making the country work for its vast majority, as it does not now. Will this majority be served? Is America capable of serving it?

A few stats to make the point, courtesy of the Brookings Institution. It reported late last year that 53 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 qualify as low-wage workers. That is 44 percent of the American work force. The median hourly wage for this group is $10.22. Media annual earnings—are you ready for this?—are $18,000. To make the point again, without numbers, nearly half of this nation’s working people are caught in a cycle of poverty.

Inequities, deprivations, dysfunction, disorder—all suggest that America requires a departure, a new direction. The Sanders campaign reflects these sentiments very clearly; more technocratically (and engendering less confidence) so does Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination. Against these candidates stand the restorationists—those telling us all will be well so long as we return to what we were before Donald Trump came along.

This is the outline of a very fraught confrontation. It will be fought among the Democrats, among whom we find the front line of defense against those struggling with poverty and demanding authentic change. It may well be that the transparently deceitful Joe Biden, centrist-in-chief, will take the Democratic nomination, fooling enough of the people enough of the time, but I do not think this will come to be without the kind of corruption that blocked a Sanders nomination in 2016.

Late last year Politico reported in a long, not-very-good “magazine” piece that Barack Obama, fresh from counting his new, where-did-it-come-from fortune, says privately that if it appears Sanders is again close to winning the Democratic nomination, he, Obama, will campaign actively to block the Vermont senator—or Warren, presumably, or anyone sporting an other-than-centrist stripe. This crystallized my thinking: 2020 is the year we are likely to see whether or not America is capable of change.

Cú Chulainn’s perspective is simply stated. He finds it difficult to imagine the Democratic leadership allowing a “left”-populist candidate—left by America’s indulgent standards—to take the nomination. Such an outcome would shift the party decisively away from the corporations and hedge-fund managers who have paid admittedly good money for it. Such a candidate would lead the Democrats back toward the wage-earning majority they abandoned decades ago. The party’s bought-and-paid-for leadership simply will not allow this.

If the Irishman is right, and rarely is he other, we are in for an epic, very consequential confrontation. In 2016, the Democratic leadership concocted the Russians-did-it fable, whose original intent—how quickly people forget—was to mask the Democratic elite’s subversion of the Sanders campaign. What will they do this time? This could be positively biblical, or Greek, or the match of any medieval morality tale. We stand to face the tragic reality that America can no longer self-correct, can no longer change, is fated never to find a new national direction.

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THE POLITICAL IMPASSE we find out our windows is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. The contradictions may be sharpest in America—at least in comparison with other late-cycle industrial democracies. But the confrontation described above is to be found worldwide. The mainstream press marked down last year as one of “global protest.” This year stands to be another. Lists of nations in political and social turmoil run to the dozens. At the core we find resistance to the neoliberal order—the order our Democratic restorationists so doggedly defend, in America and abroad.

Shall we view this phenom pessimistically? There are plenty of justifications to do so. Hardly are the hands in which power is grotesquely concentrated going to give any of it up as a matter of the right thing to do. Frederick Douglass, pithy observer, said it better than anyone: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Here and there and more or less everywhere, the demands now made do not seem enough to yield fruit other than at the margins.

Gramsci told us what we need to know about the pernicious effects of pessimism. It is a defensible position, certainly. But Cú Chulainn sees cause for its opposite as he looks forward. And the muscular mick is neither a Boy Scout nor an angel.

The Times Literary Supplement, regular reading in this household, has published some pieces pertinent to our question over the last little while. The most recent is headlined “Greed is dead.” In it, Paul Collier, an Oxford don, reviews five books (including Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Ghiridharadas, once a colleague at the sadly defunct International Herald Tribune). Collier writes of what he calls Economic Man, “duly characterized not just as greedy, lazy, and selfish, which to some extent we all are, but as only greedy, lazy and selfish.” Elsewhere: “Thankfully, we now know that Economic Man is a travesty.” And: “The death of Economic Man will be a balm to the soul.”

I would add diabolically obsessed with efficiency and an exemplar of the irrationality of hyper-rationality to Collier’s list of attributes. But the point remains the same. As I read the generously long TLS review (and others on the same topic in previous numbers), I could not help remark how the books under review are measures of fundamental change in the discourse of the Western democracies. Economic Man, who is responsible for most or all that Cú Chulainn considers here, was so very recently the object of socially encouraged veneration and envy. Now he is roundly repudiated even in polite circles, for the “immense damage” he has wreaked. Collier: “Since Economic Man is incapable of being morally load-bearing, he cannot be trusted.” Etc., etc.

The TLS pieces I mention are merely one small indication of shifting political, social, and cultural currents. But these shifts are not to be missed. They are the work of a very great many people over a very long time. We are thinking and talking differently—this in search of none other than that elusive new direction. This indicates a departure, and we must not fail to register that we have set out on one. There is much to be done but also much to look forward to. Gramsci’s thick, dark cloud looks as if it will lift. Our fingers may not be so tied in knots as we have come to assume.

It is best to remind ourselves as we look ahead of two different kinds of change. Change can be instant and often is: A treaty is signed, a powerful official is sacked, a book revealing the hidden is published. Other kinds of change we may call generational: They are slow, building gradually over years. Changes of this latter kind are more profound and lasting. This is the kind of change we have set in motion.

I am reminded of an interview I conducted years ago in Ahmedabad with Shiv Visvanathan, one of India’s premier sociologists. When I asked at the conclusion of our exchange whether he was an optimist or a pessimist, Shiv leaned across his desk and didn’t miss a beat: “Do you have to ask? If I weren’t an optimist why would I bother?”

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