On Anxiety and the Next Left

Whatever its considerable merits, there is a technical problem with Eli Zaretsky’s Why America Needs a Left: it assumes what needs to be explained. We might identify the source of this problem (also known as the “Whig fallacy of history”) in the fact that Zaretsky, throughout the pages of Why America Needs a Left, covertly engages in an extended conversation with the German sociologist and economist Werner Sombart (author of the classic 1906 study Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?). Zaretsky’s driving question (however inverted, customized, or reshaped) remains substantially in line with Sombart’s inquiry: why have the forces of the Left failed to take the form predicted by political or economic theory?

German sociologist Werner Sombart famously described American material plenty as the barrier preventing the spread of socialism in America. Credit: Creative Commons/Paulae.

This leads to trouble. Working from a tacit metaphysics of history (adopting the premise, for example, that the United States might have been expected to be more “socialist,” in some specific way, than it apparently was at the turn of the century), Sombart famously described American material plenty as the barrier separating workers from class consciousness and European-style trade unionism. “Too much roast beef,” Sombart suggested. But literally any other answer would have been just as plausible—which is to say, not at all. The flaw lies in the question. There simply was no reason, in 1906, to assume that America should have been more socialist in the early twentieth century. Similarly, there is today no convincing basis upon which to say that America has ever “needed” a “Left” (nor to assume that the meaning of these terms is stable and agreed-upon).

Despite its “Whig” deficiencies, Sombart’s question drove a good deal of postwar Left and labor history. In the 1970s, however, historians began to follow Herbert Gutman’s lead in rejecting Sombart’s mode of inquiry as leading inexorably to “just-so” narratives: history painted as a journey from a point of departure to a final destination, with the trip itself figures always as “progress.” To ask why there was no socialism in the United States was to beg the question: no more legitimate than to ask, say, why Americans “failed” to make more films about miniature golf in the 1970s.

In the wake of Gutman’s critique, however, a nettlesome question began to present itself. Were historians now never to make grand “historical arguments” in the manner that Zaretsky exemplifies in Why America Needs a Left?

Successes of the Left

Several generations of Left graduate students in history have gone to work in terror of making an argument. Now we select a given slice of historiographical literature and offer the utterly useless pseudo-critique: “it’s more complicated than that.” If conversations like this current one contribute, even minimally, towards a rehabilitation of the practice of bona fide, politically serious historical argumentation, they will have served a very useful function.

In contrast to Tim Barker, I am more persuaded by James Livingston’s argument that if Zaretsky’s definition of the Left is correct—that is, if “the Left” properly names the various coalitions that have self-consciously intervened in political conflicts in order to push for greater levels of equality––then the twentieth-century Left has enjoyed extraordinary success, regardless of the pathetic historical destinies of American vanguard parties.

For Livingston, the Left’s inability to stop mourning its superficial losses (losses that often derived, as in the case of the New Left, from self-defeating superego guilt cults and were often powered by intense internal confusion about whether some form of deep conservatism might not be proper response to the dilemmas of capitalist development) represents a perverse tendency to obsessively attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

While I agree with Livingston, it must be admitted that this argument, too, hinges on metaphysical foundations. To think with Livingston is to accept the Hegelian premise that there are “winning” and “losing” strains of political consciousness. It is to wager, for instance (to take a key example from Livingston’s work), that at a certain point in time, the agrarian populist belief that paper money should correspond to a real deposit of precious metals in some specific bank vault somewhere was simply unable to keep pace with changes in the real world.

Past a certain historical point-of-no-return, an accommodation to the fluctuations of floating currency simply emerged as the victorious intellectual current, to which any Left would have to accommodate itself (or accept its fate as the faithful guardian of a noble but moribund tradition). This is a historical metaphysics that might be easier to propose to a graduate seminar than Zaretsky’s necessitarian narrative. But, as Livingston points out in his response, even he has had mixed luck selling it to his students.

Moving from a Politics of Mourning to a Politics of Anxiety

What remains to be said here concerns the affective and psychoanalytic dimension of this quarrel over the Left that Livingston and Zaretsky have started. I would thus like to switch tracks here and shift our attention to a perhaps unanticipated question, the question of anxiety: what Freud in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis called “the nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence.”

In the most basic sense, what contributors to this debate are coping with––via various mechanisms of deferred action, passive aggression, love disguised as hate, or hate disguised as love––is anxiety. One author is perhaps anxious that a Left heritage has been traduced, and is increasingly inaccessible to those who need it most. Another is anxious, maybe, that we are repeating, yet again, the constitutive gesture by which the Left makes itself over so that it cannot even recognize its reflection in the mirror.

Freud described anxiety as the “the nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge.” Credit: Creative Commons/LIFE Photo Archive.

Both are anxious that a misunderstanding of the relationship between capitalism and the state will sabotage the political opportunities occasioned by the economic crash of 2007-2008 and its aftermath. And both are anxious that the mutations and mutilations of twentieth century history make it exceedingly difficult to formulate an ethical relationship between intellectual and social movement, so that the one takes the position of advocate and friend, while the other insists that the very conceit of “intellectuals” as “distinct” from “movements” vis-à-vis the real processes that actually bring about change is self-congratulatory and infected by the malady of the “beautiful soul.”

Perhaps the other younger participants in this debate share my anxiety about giving up on commitments to a more or less traditional sense of the Left, out of a worry that a difficult apprenticeship in Left intellectual history has been a waste of time, or concern with the seductive force of some ulterior form of depoliticization, or a panic that without fidelity to certain labels and texts and language we will just be so many more Ezra Kleins (who aren’t even particularly telegenic or any good at math). It seems not unlikely that we younger participants also share a common anxiety in the face of Left history. We know many people who have been swallowed by fealty to a certain oppressive sense of Left tradition, who have been charmed by this guru or that faction promising connections to this or that quasi-theological political miracle (the Russian Revolution, the sit-down strikes, May ’68, the WTO protests, and, before too long, the occupation of Zuccotti Park). Even with a flexible sense of what “sanity” might mean, that’s a fate that any sane person would be anxious to avoid.

At the same time, this affective development—this becoming-anxious of a certain part of the U.S. Left–– seems to me tremendously promising. We are apparently moving from a politics of mourning and melancholy to a politics of anxiety. With this shift we witness a decisive transition from an excessive, repetitive, and totally unproductive preoccupation with the traumas and defeats of the past to an anticipation of the future. A generation of post- and ex-Marxists (most prominently in Europe, but also here in the United States, where a powerful strain of anxiety-ridden political philosophy, à la Reinhold Niebuhr, continues to enjoy considerable influence) have devoted themselves to warning us that all future-oriented instrumentality and rationality leads straight to the Gulag, the killing fields, le pire (the French New Philosophers’ term for “the worst,” that is, the totalitarian disaster that awaits every utopian project). The new moment, and its characteristic anxiety, suggests, I think, an imminent repudiation of such archconservative “concern trolling,” whatever banner it might fly under.

Orientating Toward the Future

The future-orientation of anxiety is one of the key insights provided by Freud in his study Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety. The difference between anxiety and fear, Freud noted in that text (and here I draw on a helpful essay by Charles Shepherdson), was that while fear is triggered by some object that we encounter in the present, anxiety has no such object but is rather, as Shepherdson puts it, “a mode of waiting or distressed anticipation,” a form of “anxious expectation”— as though we are awaiting a threat (or could that threat be a promise?) that is impending from the future.

In contrast to fear, anxiety has no triggering cause. Credit: Creative Commons/marsmet481.

Anxiety, then, is distinguished by a certain temporality, a time with a distinctive durational character, and by a certain objectlessness, which means that rather than coping with or lusting for a “something,” anxious people are instead trying to establish a workable relation with a “nothing” (or to maintain that “nothing” as a protective intermediary between the self and other).

In psychoanalytic terms, both anxiety’s temporal character, and its organization around a constituitive lack put us in close proximity to desire. Anxiety gets to us because unlike our usual neurotic circumstance of not knowing how or what to want (a process that happens at the level of the ego, with all its defenses, and which is all too familiar politically), all of a sudden we are brought into close proximity with the fact that we do know what we want. We are not sure, however, how much we can take. For a left bedeviled—in James Livingston’s terms––by a “will-to-powerlessness,” our anxiety might well turn out to be an unexpected bit of good news.

Insights from Isaac Deutscher

This rather technical talk of anxiety and politics may be easier to understand when read against a classic text of Left-Jewish political philosophy: Isaac Deutscher’s “Message of the Non-Jewish Jew” (1967). Deutscher’s notion of the “Non-Jewish Jew” seeks to account for the heretical Jewishness of figures like Spinoza, Marx, Heine, and Freud, and remains a powerful frame for thinking about the tensions subtending the Jewish dimension of Left intellectual history.

Given the fact that we don’t usually think of Deutscher as a psychoanalytic thinker, “Message of the Non-Jewish Jew” is a text surprisingly rich in Freudian overtones. In particular, “Message of the Non-Jewish Jew” has a lot to say about anxiety, beginning with a Midrashic allegory that situates anxiety as the place where the politics of Jewishness, the politics of Leftism, and the politics of psychoanalysis converge.

An eruv stretches across the sky, marking the ritual boundary of a city. Credit: Creative Commons/cuboctahedron.

Deutscher begins “Message of the Non-Jewish Jew” with the story of the second-century Rabbi Meir, and Meir’s strange intellectual apprenticeship with the heretic Elisha ben Abiyuh, or the Akher (“The Other,” a term not without significance for psychoanalysis). “Once on a Sabbath,” Deutscher wrote, “Rabbi Meir went out on a trip with his teacher, and as usual they became engaged in deep argument.” The Akher rode a donkey, and Rabbi Meir (following the biblical stricture against riding animals on the Sabbath) walked by his side, listening so intently to “the words of wisdom falling from heretical lips” that he had “failed to notice that he and his teacher had reached the ritual boundary which Jews were not allowed to cross on a Sabbath.” (Here, Deutscher is referring to the eruv, a ritual boundary that, in modern cities, is often demarcated by hanging up wire between tall trees and buildings to form a virtual enclosure). “At that moment,” Deutscher continued, “the great heretic turned to his pupil and said: ‘Look, we have reached the boundary—we must part now: you must not accompany me any further—go back!’” Rabbi Meir went back, while the Akher rode on.

Deutscher’s exegesis of this tale is quite moving, particularly in its attention to a series of non-obvious questions. Why were Rabbi Meir and the Akher friends in the first place? Why did the great rabbi choose the Akher as his teacher? Was Meir in fact tempted to follow the Akher? To which we might add several other questions. Did Rabbi Meir and the Akher see the limit demarcated by the eruv in the same way? Why is the story constructed so that Rabbi Meir fails to notice that he is approaching a limit and has to be reminded by the Akher to turn back?

Is this Midrash not itself a seminar on anxiety, with something yet to teach us about the Left’s own psychic economy? Is it not a parable about the connection between wisdom, and self-imposed limits, and heresy and friendship? If it speaks to us, I think, then it also encourages us to move from the question of “America needing a Left,” or a “Left needing America,” to the more profound inquiry given to us as a mostly unopened gift by Spinoza, Marx, and Freud: what do we want?

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2014 print issue: Does America Need a Left? Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/left2014 to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)


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