This morning I taught Benjamin’s On the Concept of History to some baffled students, and I was struck by the contemporary relevance of Section VIII:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.
The basic attitude Benjamin is critiquing seems remarkably similar to that of contemporary “progressives,” who always seem to believe that if we simply wait out the current “emergency” of conservative governance, they will ultimately undermine themselves — or else simply die off, leaving the more liberal younger cohort to take over and set things right. Hence we hear continually that the gay rights movement is bound to triumph in the end, that it’s impossible for Roe v. Wade to be reversed, that once a major government program such as health care reform is promulgated it can never be taken back, etc., etc. There’s even a sense in which the conservatives themselves don’t believe their proposals are workable and are cynically promising, for example, to restrict abortion rights while in fact recognizing that fulfilling that promise would be disastrous.
Conservative ideas, in this reading, are simply out of date and won’t “work” — hence conservatives can by definition only discredit themselves when in power, and indeed there were many who were eager to declare the 2008 election the definitive death of conservatism. What’s more, we often hear that the reason Obama has suffered such setbacks is that he did not push hard enough for progressive policies, which necessarily would’ve “worked” and thus propelled him to greatness.
I’m not arguing that Obama couldn’t have done things differently — indeed, I do think, for example, that a bigger stimulus would’ve “worked” much better and likely led to better results in the mid-term elections. But what would it have “worked” to achieve? To promote economic growth along capitalist lines.
That would definitely be better than the economic stagnation we’re currently experiencing, but there’s no reason to assume that under capitalism, even a well-managed capitalism, the “state of emergency” represented by bigotry, demands for cuts in social programs, etc., would naturally whither away. Even in the supposed welfare state utopia of Europe, I’m pretty sure racism and homophobia exist! And I’m pretty sure that the welfare state is not automatically invulnerable to cuts and even outright privatization, even there.
What it would take to create a “real state of emergency” is perhaps not entirely clear, but I don’t think that the strategy of “waiting it out” and hoping conservatism discredits itself is going to deliver the desired results.