By Frank Brenner
We are being constantly told by the mass media that today is a day of 'history in the making'. And there are millions of people, including many workers and many on the left, who believe this, at least to some degree: the massive crowds that have come to Washington to watch the inauguration of Obama are evidence of that. In cities throughout the US and around the world, people stopped work to watch the event on tv.
It hardly needs to be said that as Marxists we understand that this is a huge case of political demagogy. But I want to consider something different - I want to ponder the notion of 'history in the making'. This is a telling example of the counterfeits of freedom that characterize bourgeois society and particularly bourgeois democracy. By this I mean that bourgeois society continuously offers the illusion of freedom while denying its substance. Thus today the masses are being invited to watch 'history in the making', which is to say that they get to be passive spectators while the powerful (and of course the wealthy) get to make history.
In feudal times the coronation of a new king served similar purposes, and the more astute and 'progressive' monarchs very much encouraged the participation of the 'rabble': the king was meant to be seen as the 'people's king' and much effort was spent to encourage a symbolic identification with him.
Bourgeois politics has taken this a good deal further: this symbolic identification is now bound up with the ideology of nationalism. This is by no means limited to democratic forms of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, fascism in particular took this kind of identification furthest of all.
Walter Benjamin talked about how fascism aestheticizes politics, by which he meant that it transforms politics into a grand spectacle or better still a kind of national psychodrama. The giant Nazi rallies, such as the one at Nuremberg recorded in the Leni Riefenstahl movie, “Triumph of the Will,” is a perfect example of that. No doubt many of those who attended such rallies were convinced that they too were witnessing ‘history in the making’.
To be sure, bourgeois democracy approaches these matters somewhat differently. But for a long time now, as the socioeconomic divisions have widened at the base of society, there has been a major effort to divert attention away from these divisions by an ever greater aestheticizing of politics. This has been most noticeable in the US, though American techniques in this regard have increasingly been copied by ruling parties around the world. From the Reagan years on, the principal narrative of this psychodrama was the so-called ‘culture wars’ whereby ‘honest’, ‘authentic’ conservatives were fighting to defend the family and American ‘values’ against liberal elites.
With Obama’s election, the narrative has changed – it is now about ‘the audacity of hope’, about social ‘cooperation’, ‘compassion’, ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’. Just as American capitalism survives on borrowed money, so the American political elite is now borrowing on the political capital of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. These are potent symbols and Obama and his circle are doing their best to capitalize on them. Under these conditions, it has never been more important for Marxists to draw the clearest possible distinction between liberalism and socialism.
One such distinction is over history and how it is made. The millions who come to Washington or watch on tv to witness ‘history in the making’ are actually being treated to a political ‘reality television’ show. What we need is not to watch ‘history in the making’ - by others! - but to make history ourselves. That is the dividing line between bourgeois and socialist democracy. The ‘beautiful’ illusions of freedom have to give way to a freedom from illusions.
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