Brian Holmes on Mon, 20 Sep 2021 07:33:56 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Great Recoil

I am reading Paolo Gerbaudo's new book with a lot of interest, it's really good. I'm not finished yet, but it might be the best thing I have read about the present situation (since, say, March 2020).

First of all, the book is pragmatic. It recaps a lot of what has happened recently, whether it's social (labor, health care, organizing etc), political (evolution of parties, programs, media conditions, populism) or international (corporate strategies, global finance, interstate strategy and conflict). No one point of view is taken on all of this: instead the book shows how different groups and classes are reacting to, and in some cases fomenting, the above-mentioned trends. The result is that you are not reading a book by an expert in some particular field, nor a partisan tract from a particular tendency, but instead you are experiencing a year-by-year, event-by-event account of how multiple collective identities transform in very particular times, with their particular stresses and possibilities. And that's very concrete. We've all lived through a lot lately. We have seen entire social groups metamorphosing before our eyes. It's the right time for a book like this.

Second, The Great Recoil is philosophical. Above all it relies on a Hegelian notion of contradiction. It claims that through their very success, leading tendencies in society create the conditions of their own undoing - just as neoliberalism, with its exaltation of ownership prerogatives and market freedoms, has created desperate bottom-end conditions that call both for new social institutions of care and for a certain degree of withdrawal from global commodity circulation. The contradictions in question are narrated very specifically (offshoring, reshoring - that kind of thing) and often a linkage is made with recent philosophical ideas (Hayek, Foucault, many others). It becomes obvious that certain key philosophical ideas (maybe ones you don't like) are in fact essential to the articulations of society - something easy to forget amid everyday news and chatter.

Most interesting, though, is the use the book makes of the Hegelian notion of Erinnerung, or remembrance, a sort of inward-turning memory and reflexivity that is exercised at both the individual and collective level, during a pandemic no less. Here I just gotta quote Paolo quoting the Phenomenology:

"Erinnerung is the moment when the Spirit withdraws into itself and becomes self-absorbed, after recoiling at its outer existence. But, as Herbert Marcuse suggested, it is also a moment of ‘recapitulation’ which signals the end of a historical era and prefigures the opening of a new one."

This is held to be the central feature of the present: Entire societies are striving to understand the point at which they have arrived, in order to go forward. The claim is that because of all the damage that has been done over the past forty years, the way forward necessarily involves a whole-of-society effort, it requires the creation of a cultural and intellectual hegemony that can sustain and outlast specific configurations of the state (the state being, not just government, and not just direct government employees, but the full institutional structure of governance and relative social stability, including the military, civil engineers, health and education apparatuses, bankers, science labs, etc etc). The Great Recoil makes the audacious and yet weirdly plausible claim that all of that, the entire hegemonic state-of-things with all its sustaining publics, has taken pause, not just because of the pandemic, but above all, because of the very recent collapse of yesterday's governing ideas. Call it financial breakdown, call it social reproduction crisis, call it global warming. Under these conditions, change is not going to be driven by one person, or one tendency or one movement, it's too big for that. But to the extent that it does happen, a new form of society will have to absorb some part of what is invented during this crisis - and that's a strong philosophical encouragement to actually work with the really existing forms of collective questioning that are unfolding right now, on the edge of what suddenly appears to many as a precipice.

In my own country and region and neighborhood I see all the things that Paolo is talking about. I've not yet read how he deals with the concrete political programs that are emerging, but here in the US, every day the papers are full of a multifaceted attempt to really change the state of things through legislation, and a lotta discussion on how to actually do it. Not everything, but large chunks of the former raison d'etat seem to be up for grabs.

For people on the left, this still means that your everyday political focus is on protesting injustices and fighting the power. I do it whenever possible! But at the same time, I'm very impressed by what's happening on the level of formal representative democracy. On one hand, it's open warfare, and certain fascistoid perspectives are really apocalyptic. On the other hand there's an attempt to found a new kind of social democracy for the climate-change era. It's crystal clear that this attempt stretches back to the Occupy movement, which raised all the major themes of today, and incubated the politicians that are really dealing with them (for us it's Bernie, AOC, Elizabeth Warren, and all the progressives that have pushed Biden further to the left than anyone and especially me would've believed possible). That in itself is testimony to the continuing power and relevance of social movements, especially Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, which repoliticized the US cultural left and added fundamental new dimensions, especially ethical ones that bear fruit. But the Great Recoil is talking about a much broader turning point, when the vanguard movements, on both left and right, have already made their mark on the mainstream. It's talking about the stunned realization, on a mass level, that we've really got to do something about all this.

"Who's the we?" is the obvious question. As Hegel would say, the Spirit "in itself" or "for itself"?

Don't think you're gonna have time to just contemplate this stuff much longer. "Inwardization" and philosophical remembrance do not last forever. Nobody can yet predict its future course, but the Behemoth has already left the station. A new form of the state is going to emerge over the next few years, and that process is already underway. Not every invention, but at least certain inventions are going to be absorbed into a new state-of-things. The struggle decides which ones. It's time to take radicalism to the center. That's my perspective anyway. I find it strengthened by this timely book.

all the best to you surviving nettimers!

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