The Politics of National Despair
A Possible Interpretation of the Present
Usually around this time in the week, subscribers would receive my Reading, Watching round up, but I am chewing on something that I’m hoping writing a newsletter will help me to clarify. These are more my notes than a fully fleshed out theory.
As I edit my book, I’m trying to grasp at concepts that will bring together the subject-matter and link it to the present. What’s the unifying theme? I keep coming back to the phrase “the politics of national despair.” This is obviously borrowed in part from the title of Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair, but I am not exactly basing it on his notion.
Since at least the end of the Cold War, America has been mired in the politics of national despair. There is no positive vision for the country, no actual hope for improvement or good things: We are caught between resignation and rancor. Politics involves either meekly accepting the conditions of the present, trying to just hold on to what we have—reminders to “always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse—the embrace of “the normal” and “the decent” as being better than the alternative. Or, otherwise it involves an extremely dark vision of the national future: the frank acceptance and even the celebration of a zero-sum, Hobbesian world of gangsterism, civil strife, racial conflict, brute domination and the punishment and overthrow of enemies.
All our fantasies of civil war, national divorce, fascist dictatorships (as hope or as fear), evil cabals directing the world, sudden deliverances and violent upheavals and collapses are manifestations of the politics of national despair. So too is the open acceptance of corruption as unavoidable or even necessary.
Both involve different forms of cynicism: one a dejected and quiet one, and the other an furious and resentful one. They both say, “This is just the way of the world. Accept it.” These two positions are like two forms of despair that Kierkegaard identifies in The Sickness Unto Death; The Despair to Not Be Oneself and the Despair to Will to be Oneself: the first just accepts too readily the finitude and limitations of life, the latter rejects and rages against them. One is defeated, the other demonic.
Or to, to borrow form the terms of psychoanalysis, one manifestation of despair the “depressive” position and the other the “paranoid-schizoid” position. The paranoid-schizoid position views the world in terms persecutions and malevolent forces, the depressive position in terms of its own weakness and incapacity.
The strange and seemingly paradoxical combination of feeling frightfully perched on the edge of abyss of national catastrophe, just about to go over, and also extreme stagnation, boredom, and immobility is just the manifestation of national despair. As Kierkegaard writes, “despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do. What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do, to consume itself; this is an intensification, or the law of intensification.”
In the politics of national despair, there’s no concept of leadership, because leadership would imply a direction, a way out: There is just the desire for domination, destruction and vengeance or otherwise accommodation, mitigation and appeasement.
The word “national” does not just indicate the country-wide aspect of the crisis, but that this political despair manifests itself in the recrudescence of nationalism: in the rejection of cosmopolitan hopes in favor of a morbid collective egotism thats simultaneously both inflates and flattens.
This is hopefully not to add to the sententious cant about spiritual decline. The sickness in this case has a firmly material cause: the inability or unwillingness to come up with a system of shared prosperity and security.
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