The Enabling Boundary

Tom Nairn

  • What Should the Left Propose? by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Verso, 179 pp, £15.00, January 2006, ISBN 1 84467 048 1
  • The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Harvard, 277 pp, £19.95, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02354 3
  • Une brève histoire de l’avenir by Jacques Attali
    Fayard, 432 pp, €20.00, October 2006, ISBN 2 213 63130 1

Dans mes bras, un cyclone imaginaire
flotte sur moi l’onde solitaire
Je suis la rivière qui penche
Le torrent qui s’élance
Je murmure sous la glace,
je connais les abîmes, les méandres irrésistibles,
Dans mes bras tourbillonne un cyclone
imperceptible, Sous mes pieds, des jardins imaginaires…

Anabase, ‘Le Bonheur flou’

These books don’t propose easy answers to the current dearth of centre-left initiative and hope. There are no quick third ways, rehabilitations and smart sideways leaps, and this makes them worth reading. The authors recognise the deep-seated errors of all the left-wing utopias that preceded the ascent of neoconservatism and insist that the latter’s victory wasn’t accidental, or avoidable. As a result, a much longer-range search is required for any change, which can no longer be a replacement, or a direct continuation. The recent French presidential election rubbed the point in painfully; as has the elevation of Gordon Brown on this side of the Channel.

Neither Roberto Unger nor Jacques Attali undervalues the achievements of social democracy, or indeed of state socialism. But both suggest that in either case any reprise or development now depends on finding a different framework of ideas, one different not merely from neoliberal capitalism but also from much that went before it. Unger bemoans the continuing absence of alternatives; his aim has consistently been to build up a substitute for Marxism. What Should the Left Propose?, published two years ago, was only one blow in a long guerrilla war. He has always held that a lot of earlier revolutionary dross should be discarded – and so should the assorted defeats and dead ends derived from it. This year’s The Self Awakened tries to help the left further down the road, and no doubt Free Trade Reimagined, due soon, will be another phase of his unstoppable campaign.

Unger speaks primarily about the left and what it should do, but the old right finds itself in a similar, and possibly worse, dilemma. The Cold War’s conclusion rerouted a whole world, not just some parts of it. ‘In history obedience rarely pays,’ Unger notes drily in his opening chapter. ‘What pays is defiance. To the question, however, about the directions defiance should take if it is to further the promises of democracy, there is not yet an answer.’ Here he is repeating an argument made in 1977 by Wittgenstein’s pupil and editor, Georg Henrik Von Wright, who pointed out in ‘What Is Humanism?’ that the real advances of humanism had always been marked by challenge and defiance. Only in forced retirement had humanism become associated with platitudes and wholesomeness. Advances had always depended on disturbers of the peace, proclaiming what most people didn’t want to hear (even when they were allowed to); that, he added bitterly, was why a new humanism stood so little chance in the gymnastic confrontation of the Cold War. With equally bitter hindsight, one can now say that it stood even less chance in the 1990s, after the great muscle-building contest had been won by Gym America, fostering the global chorus of what Attali, adopting a well-worn phrase, calls la pensée unique, neoliberalism.

Would it have been worse if the other side had won? More than likely, but we’ll never know, since the Soviet imperium collapsed from within. What we do know a lot more about today is the winner’s discomfiture. The US ‘hegemony’ that took over the wreckage is itself exhibiting symptoms of collapse, from without and within. Always raucous, the brass band of neoliberality has, as neoconservatism, become hilariously discordant. Encouraged by Francis Fukuyama, trombonists and drummers are deserting its ranks every day. Thus the ‘End of History’ has made way for the ‘New Wilsonianism’ prospected by Fukuyama last year in After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads, an acknowledgment that both history and nations are returning to bother everyone. The contrast between neoliberalism’s abstract visions and the weird reality of the 57+ varieties of managed capitalism actually engendered by globalisation has become too gross even for op-ed pedlars and ex-Trotskyists. One-party China, Putin’s Russia and Yudhoyono’s Indonesia account for about half the globe, and are founding (or refounding) themselves with myths more diverse than those that betrayed Marxism’s Internationale of souls.

Many of the latter have retreated into an odd secular limbo, hoping that the globe has only temporarily run out of stocks of socialism. Inmates make regular return visits to the old dwelling, rather like the returning dead in Anthony Minghella’s film Truly, Madly, Deeply. The ghosts’ favourite video was Brief Encounter, which they watched so often that they all knew the dialogue by heart and couldn’t resist mouthing it ahead of the actors. Their shepherd from beyond (Alan Rickman) knew this wasn’t what was needed: his mission was to make sure the living world continued having encounters with the unexpected, even the unthinkable. But he found it difficult to herd the spirits back when their time was up.

Such returnees are responding to felt needs, but it would be wrong to conclude that their opium tinctures entail any real revivals of former spells and promises. ‘More and more people sense an inner void and are looking for something more to their lives,’ says Sister Scholastika, a former grammar school teacher quoted earlier this year in a report in Der Spiegel on German monasticism in the 21st century. ‘We don’t offer instant happiness,’ she continues, ‘but we do offer spiritual encounters.’ More and more people visit monasteries and convents, the article notes; yet ever fewer decide to become monks and nuns.

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[*] Tom Nairn reviewed Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde in the LRB of 26 January 2006.