Magazine article Artforum International

Just Do It? Simon Critchley on the Dilemma of Engagement

Magazine article Artforum International

Just Do It? Simon Critchley on the Dilemma of Engagement

Article excerpt

One brief anecdote amid the carnage; possibly a parable.

A few weeks back, I was involved--against my inclination, probably out of a misplaced sense of duty to students--in a debate with two theologians about the limits of secularism. This took place at the New School for Social Research in New York, where I have my day job. My intent was to say as little as possible, just respond politely to the theologians and make my excuses and leave to get a drink. (After all, it was Friday evening.) Inevitably, everyone started to talk about Trump and how depressed they are and what we should all do, etc., etc., etc. Inwardly, I sighed. I was tired. I've been tired a lot recently.

One of the theologians made a forceful argument that people like her, on the religious Left, should "reach out" (as Americans like to say) to Christian swing voters by quoting radical statements from the New Testament--"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate and persecute you"--and enlisting the radical gospel of love to bring the Christian masses back to a more liberal, or even leftist, position. She even imagined a kind of biblically based mass protest in Washington, DC, with huge floats bedecked with slogans about love, mercy, and forgiveness. Her plea was eloquent and persuasive.

At which point, a bright young man with black hair and dark clothes objected to what she said, asking why we should bother trying to bring Christian swing voters back into the fold of the Democratic Party. Why not do something else instead or, better, nothing at all? Why do we think that the present situation can be saved in any way?

This triggered a thought in me that perhaps addresses the central question of the politics of everyday life. In the situation we find ourselves in, there are two powerful, but opposed, temptations: to participate and to withdraw.

Let's start with participation. I come out of a post-Gramscian leftist tradition indebted to thinkers such as Ernesto Laclau. This used to be called the Essex School. The key political concept for us was "hegemonic articulation." What that means, roughly, is that the task facing any leftist group is to put together--literally, to construct--a common front, to forge alliances between groups that did not previously have anything in common (for instance, religious and secular groups). Hegemony is not something given or to be opposed as "domination," but that which political activity has to construct and articulate.

Such an approach to politics is not rooted in any Marxist, economistic class reductionism based on a dubious historicist theodicy of revolution, but sees the task of opposition as a constant war of position, where the work of politics is the formation of alliances--temporary, contingent, but powerful coalitions between groups with often conflicting sets of interests. Such is the labor of deep democracy. In the US context, where many people on the Right identify as Christian, part of the task for the Left is the construction of an oppositional political force that would use elements of, say, the radical egalitarian, anti-statist, anti-elitist message that is at the core of the Gospels and is especially emphatic in the letters of Saint Paul. The question then becomes one of forging alliances between liberal and conservative Christian groups and others into an ever-growing common force.

The hope, here, is that the deep moral intuitions of everyday people, including a lot of Trump voters, could be harnessed to a more radical political agenda, the way they were in the US during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and '60s. What we are asked to imagine is a leftist populism that might successfully confront the xenophobic and racist populism of Trump and his followers. The extraordinary dynamism of Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign--before it was forced into submission by the liberal elite who run the Democratic Party and whose shady shenanigans led to Hillary Clinton's disastrous failure of a candidacy--was, arguably, a potent manifestation of precisely this sort of grassroots Left populism. …

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