Parallax: Four perspectives on Russia

In recent weeks, I have had the sense that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destabilized thinking prevalent on the Left in ways that suggest a disruption in certain higher-order social-imaginary significations (a term I explain below). This essay explores that possibility via an experiment in parallax, the observed displacements of an object caused by changing the observer’s point of view, using a juxtaposition of people, locations, and times to explore how these destabilizations might be experienced and what they may come to mean in the future. The essay is divided into four sections:

Knowing/Not-Knowing is a brief overview of some aspects of the French Left in the 1950s, anamely the imaginary geography of the Cold War and the USSR’s place in it. It then describes some of the cultural and political impact of the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, as a moment of maximal internal dissonance for the Left’s main image of the USSR (a workers’ revolution being crushed in the name of workers’ revolution). The result was the gradual emergence of an expansive new space for reflection.

Seeing/Not-Seeing looks at a recent Financial Times article that details the views of chess grandmaster & Putin opponent) Gary Kasparov mostly on why “the west” did not heed warnings that Putin was heading to a dangerously fascistic place.

Problem Solver/Evil Genius picks up on a Twitter thread from Oz Katerji about the debacle that this Russian invasion has been for the so-called “anti-imperialist left.” Katerji’s perspective is informed by generational divisions, and I argue that it is in itself generation-specific. The origin of the US “anti-imperialist left” goes back to Vietnam, and I discuss this by way of the 1971 Pentagon Papers and Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics,” before circling back to Katerji’s thread –the object of which I examine from a different angle. Field of Shatter is a short piece that looks at contemporary social media as an image of a broader society in which democracy has been hollowed out.

For a long time, I’ve mostly been doomscrolling…

Knowing/Not-knowing. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and writing about the history of the French Left since World War II. So, maybe it’s no surprise then that, when I started to think about Russia in light of its recent invasion of Ukraine, I initially did so in terms shaped by that earlier work.

I used to wonder how people aligned with the Left were able to know (but not know) about the realities of Stalinism. I tracked early gulag publications from the late 1930s, those by Victor Serge and Ante Ciliga, examined how these writings were reviewed before publishing, and tried to get a sense of how they circulated. 

Then came the war… 

Viktor Kravchenko had been a Russian Communist Party official during the 1938 purges and defected to the US in 1944. Once there, Kravchenko began writing his memoirs (with some support from the CIA) which were published in 1947 with the title I Chose Freedom. A French translation appeared in 1949, upon which the French Communist Party (PCF), through party-controlled weekly magazine Les lettres français, began to attack both Kravchenko’s book and his character with unremitting enthusiasm. Kravchenko sued for libel. The result, at the time called the trial of the century, theatrically assessed the PCF’s claims about the author and what he had written. A series of witnesses from the USSR (including former co-workers and an ex-wife) testified for the defendant and others, including prominent survivors of the gulag, for the plaintiff. The accusations and counter-accusations in this trial were so extensively covered in the press that they propelled the memoir to a best-seller. Eventually Kravchenko won the lawsuit, but only received a derisory sum in damages due to the book’s commercial success –damages which were reduced even further on appeal. However, for a time, this trial served as a wellspring of information about the realities of Stalinism, but this information did not seem to linger in the air for very long. Perhaps Kravchenko’s association with the CIA activated the acronym’s talismanic power enough to prompt Leftists to discount the book, and the PCF to contain any damage it might have incurred. Then, as now, events were quickly swept into the past according to the media, which carries itself along by the next thing, then the next. People forget. 

These were the early days, both of the Cold War as well as its new imaginary geography. Any sense of geography is situated within a network of rules and/or assumptions, same as with maps and projections (England, for example, always being disproportionately large). In retrospect, one of the underlying characteristics of the Cold War’s new imaginary geography can be restated as a rule: A master signifier can only be opposed when there is another to replace it. One can only oppose capitalism in the name of communism, the US and its policies in the name of the USSR, and vice versa.

For the Left, this new imaginary geography built on two things. One a material with a deep past: Official Christianity’s separation of good from evil, and the enforcement of the border and the spaces of dissent that it had created (here alchemy, there hermeticism), spaces of esoteric knowledge that undid the simple binarism on which the dominant order of things relied. The other material was relatively new: Claims about the Russian Revolution as the culmination of the revolutionary tradition; the dual history of World War II; the prominence of Communist Parties in the Resistance [with 1939-41 edited out]; and the Red Army in defeating Germany. However, the work of fashioning the Cold War’s binary world was undertaken across the political spectrum. From all sides, political opposition to Western capitalism came to be associated with the USSR as if the latter was a signifier that legitimated (or delegitimated) the former. Even among opposition groups to the left of the PCF, positions had to be articulated with reference to the “The Russian Question.”

People from those groups understood themselves as militants.These were smaller organizations. Bigger organizations afforded a range of positions for affiliation: rank-and-file, communist, membership. For many of these people, militants were seen as “intellectuals.” In the Anglosphere. “militant” had been gradually replaced by “activist.” The figure of the militant is a junction between the binary world and individual, psychological and affective spaces.I unpacked the figure of the “militant” in my Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Haymarket: 2015) Socialisme ou Barbarie was a revolutionary Marxist group that operated primarily in Paris from 1948 through 1967. The group published a journal of the same name. Members included Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and Jean-François Lyotard among others. One became a militant over time. It began less as an identity than a “site” for psycho-kinetic practices. Psychoanalyst Piera Aulagnier once noted that the Left was a “textual” tradition, with its main purpose the rationalization of alienation. Reading is, then, a fundamental unifying practice. One fashions a sense of oneself as a militant by reading. One takes over a narrative viewpoint, becomes oneself a narrative viewpoint and thereby acquires a sense of identity. The viewpoint or identity is relational; it inhabits a projective space, a world rearticulated in terms that lean-on what was read. This rearticulation is not purely an intellectual matter. Rather, it transforms, and is transformed by, the affective investments that underpin the engagement and to which, for Aulagnier, alienation is central. However, these affective investments can involve a wider range of view, a sense of the relative weight or historical contingency of the present for example, that would bear on one’s ability to imagine society transformed in a future radically different from the present. Dispositions on this level are rather aesthetic, as well relying on a sense of symmetry, or of how elements in an arrangement fit together or do not, which itself can inform a sense of injustice. While these dynamics can be seen as consistent, the material they work with, and work on, is of a particular time and place.

In early Cold War Paris, not a single person or institution was responsible for engineering “The Binary World.” I think of it like a Tudorbethan house, architecture without architects or plans, except a top-down cultural engineer that used repetition as their material instead of wood or aspirational nostalgia. Imagine a complex media ecology saturated with the phrase “This is the world now!” stated or enacted in myriad ways. Repetition shifted available frames of reference, and along with them militants moved to reconfigure their projections of the experience-distant world. It is easy to imagine how the emergent binary world facilitated ideological claims from communist parties about their association with the revolutionary tradition, Marx and Engels, or the history of the workers’ movement that culminated with Lenin and the Russian Revolution through which emerged Trotsky the heretic, the symbol of dissent from within in the name of revolution. While, among a plurality of information streams, Trotsky-the-heretic allowed for a range of positions, there was agreement across positions otherwise bitterly divided on the centrality of “The Russian Question” for the Left. These same factors meant that, for the PCF and its fellow travelers, the nature of Stalinism was known, but people did not know it. Specters of the gulag drifted across the milieus, but people failed to see them. It seems that information was avoided more so than repressed, as if the underlying affect structure of political life had become a form of narcissism for which information about the nature of Stalinism threatened injury. The Party had the organizational and media capabilities to actively encourage and enforce. Stranger perhaps were those outside the Party like Sartre, and for whom the informational landscape was much the same.

I wondered whether that information registered in some ways nonetheless, whether in some ways it informed the shock from images of Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary in 1956 to crush a workers’ revolution in the name of a workers’ revolution. Those images were moments of exceptional dissonance. Imagine the signifier “USSR” and its various predicates as an array of metal tubes that the Binary World held in place such that they were always struck in the same place in the same way, the resulting notes producing a harmony that persisted across the decay in its pitches. Hungary 56 disrupted the harmony of that array of pitches. Relations between these predicates became explicitly contradictory: images of Soviet tanks in Budapest, crushing a revolution in the name of the Revolution. The dissonances scattered the PCF’s media ecology –as well the Party’s hold on the broader Left.For Communist Parties, the Hungarian Revolution was not the only destabilizing event of 1956. Kroushchev’s secret speech to the CP USSR’s XXth Party Congress denouncing the personality cult around Stalin did not remain secret for long, and was considered among the fault-lines when the images of Soviet tanks hit the Western press.

The weeks and months after Budapest were a proliferation of new political activity, in the context of an emergent scene for which Socialisme ou Barbarie became an important reference point –a change in situation that left the group scrambling to make and publish new material. New journals appeared, notably Arguments which pursued from a more politically ecumenical viewpoint, for better and for worse, questions parallel to those that preoccupied SouB. What possibilities for rethinking Marxism, revolution and revolutionary theory are opened by the dissolution of the USSR’s hold on the terms? What were the consequences of the reorganization of capitalist industry under the sign of Fordism for the above? And what, once those consequences undermined the descriptive and critical power of Marxism, did it then mean to be a militant? By the end of 1957, this scene was caught up with the Algerian War of Independence; it disappeared, for the most part, with the end of the Cold War. 

But it was a scene, an aspect of the left awakened by the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Not everyone was affected, and among PCF rank & file there was much “Oh, that was a matter for intellectuals. It concerned us none.”See Jpnathan Swartzman’s “The Impact of 1956 on the Left in Western Europe” available here.

Nevertheless, for the people who made that scene and who came into it or followed it, the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution (and the dissonances it created) undercut the hold of the binary world and the associations that had been piled onto the USSR. It was a moment of insight, but insight not as epiphany as in the abrupt arrival of vision in the ways of old mystics. It was more an opening of space for thinking, to propose and reflect upon questions, which had not existed previously.

Seeing/Not-seeing. A piece by Gillian Tett appeared recently in The Financial Times in which she describes a dinner party she threw in New York a few years ago. Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov was among the guests. Over dinner, Kasparov warned that Vladmir Putin was shifting dangerously into fascism, supplementing his authoritarian kleptocratic rule with imperial aspirations anchored in a Christian-Orthodox identity politics. Kasparov went on to say that, sooner or later, this shift was going to visit real problems upon Ukraine. Yet, the other dinner guests did not believe him. The wine flowed, arguments began and intensified, the party grew heated. Gillian changed the subject to chess.

In retrospect informed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Tett wondered why no-one believed Kasparov and contacted him for his thoughts. In addition to being a chess grandmaster, Kasparov is a long-time, very public critic of Putin. On his experience of being a “dissident” in the West more generally, Kasparov said that he has been “stunned by the unwillingness of people to hear [my] warnings” saying “because I grew up in the Soviet Union and knew all about the historical events of the 20th century, I knew that you could have stopped Hitler in 1935 and 1936 and 1937 and didn’t. But I had so much outright rejection of what I have been saying.”

Syrians know this all too well: As far as “the West” is concerned, most things that happen happen in the Big Elsewhere (distanced here by space, there by class). When something happens in the Big Elsewhere, “we” have trouble attending to (subaltern) people who are from the place where that something actually happened. That trouble can become acute when the subaltern who speaks is not easily situated on a (western) left-right political grid. This picks up on a motif in Yassin al-haj Saleh’s excellent piece in Newlines, “Chomsky is no friend of the Syrian Revolution.” Echoing, in a different register, criticisms from Volodymyr Artiukh in an article on efforts by “the anti-imperialist left” to understand the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “westerners” assume their particular right-left grid to be universally compelling. In that, it is an internalized prerogative of hegemony. Many western observers allowed difficulties of positioning, along with the global sectarianism of the “war on terror,” to relegate Syrian revolutionaries to a half-thought space of “hopeless complexity.” Kasparov’s politics were shaped by the Soviet-period opposition; like many who come out of post-Soviet spaces, his politics scramble the grid. So, he talks, but few westerners hear him. What does not map, does not exist. (This has contributed to the slowness with which people in the US have recognized international neofascism as well.)

Kasparov provides a different explanation for why westerners failed to hear him. The conversational path he takes to that explanation passes through an invocation of his childhood in former times. That invocation is peculiar. Kasparov was born in 1963, but grants himself a kind of concrete experience of “the historical events of the 20th century,” specifically World War II. He “knows” that Hitler could have been stopped with the announcement of German intentions to rearm or with the reoccupation of the Rhineland ex post facto as an observer who knows how the war turned out and who thinks of geopolitics as a very large-scale game of chess. Kasparov’s self-positioning, as having grown up in earlier times and therefore in a kind of special contact with history in its concreteness, also mirrors the way (reactionary) political theorist Carl Schmitt juxtaposed conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, Schmitt argued, distrust generalities and orient themselves toward the particular, the concrete, while by contrast liberals are enamored of general principles and abstractions. In Schmitt’s view, this explains why parliamentary democracies are prone to endless debate: The general does not match up with the particular and, invariably, the result is paralysis. For Schmitt, it followed that, when facing a state of emergency that requires decisions be made, parliamentary democracy should be suspended in favor of an undivided center of power, an Individual (Dictator) with the capacity for decision. (It may go without saying that such a “Decider” is unlikely to emerge from amongst liberals.)

In the FT piece, Kasparov follows his self-positioning with a diagnosis, and in so doing avoids the problem that might have followed had he simply drawn parallels between Putin and Hitler, and the West’s failure to see both then and now. The latter would have followed from some essence. Of course the West cannot see; it is in its nature not to see, and therefore criticism of it would be pointless. Instead, Kasparov sees not-seeing as a post-1991 problem. He argues that you (people in the West) tend: 

“…to presume that everyone else shares your innate world view. The key here is western ideas of motive and rationality. Western culture is soaked in a capitalist ethos, underpinned by a widespread assumption that the profit motive rules supreme in terms of shaping political calculations, and that it’s “the economy, stupid” that drives decision-making in Russia and elsewhere. Putin would never do anything like destroy business or invade Ukraine because, according to the “capitalist ethos,” neither “makes sense.” 

This is at once beyond parody as well as plausible. But for Kasparov, it is part of his explanation for Western blindness to what Putin had become –and that, he continues, should have been in plain sight. Putin did not hide a thing: He talked about his hyper-nationalism, along with the territorial projects rooted in it, in explicit terms, in public, time and again. Kasparov argues that what the West had ignored about Putin and his circle prior to 2014 should have become obvious with the annexation of Crimea, but again the West turned a blind eye, as it did to Syria in 2015. The other part of Kasparov’s explanation for this recurring puzzle of not-seeing is what the West appears to have meant by “winning” the Cold War. Capitalism had defeated communism; one ideology or worldview had replaced another. The assumption that a capitalist worldview would be internalized follows from that way of expressing what happened. Yet the idea was likely never formulated that, therefore, a single “capitalist worldview” had been internalized by everyone, everywhere, to the same degree and in the same way. The Cold War had been fundamentally ideological, and now it had been won. Full stop. Thinking no further about the matter seems to be in the nature of victory. Victory puts an end to war, possibilities that the realities that persisted might have been more complicated were recast as dissonances to be avoided.The messiness of the end of war can be brutally problematic. On the final days of World War II, see Walter Kempowski’s Swan Song, the only part of his remarkable Echolot project to be translated into English from German. The anonymous memoir A Woman in Berlin provides a harrowing account of Red Army mass rape as the war was ending and beyond. Keith Lowe’s 2013 book Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II provides a wider-angle view (thanks for Cedric Beidatch for the reference). On television, Important Figures took rhetorical victory laps, then came the next thing, and the next. Soon, people forgot.

A similar loop appears in Kasparov’s explanation for the West’s failure to “appreciate Putin’s isolation.” In the period that followed the end of the Cold War, “the oligarchs” or “kleptocrats” rose to prominence among the (rhetorical) figures used to characterize post-Soviet Russia. Like the private finance networks through which they moved vast sums of money off-shore, the oligarchs had a curious kind of visibility: Unless you were part of the networks of entities that facilitated the movement of that money (and with great variability within those networks), the oligarchs were likely abstractions, exemplars of a type, nouveau-riche possibly-gangsters with penchants for enormous yachts. For Kasparov, this view of the oligarchs comprised another explanation for the Western failure to recognize Putin. As “Russian oligarchs became a fixture of global business” Kasparov explains, “Putin was seen as an extrapolation of this group.” In other words, Putin was taken as an exemplary oligarch, about whom, for Kasparov, the view implicitly took shape: “Putin may be a kleptocrat, but criminals like that obviously understand the profit motive.” (That licit and illicit mirror each other is a staple of detective fiction and private finance). 

And that is why, Kasparov continues, “The idea that [Putin] might be so hell-bent on the destruction of democracy and the expansion of Russia, that he would be willing to accept deep economic pain, was not taken seriously.” 

(The Russian invasion of Ukraine has eliminated the conditions of possibility for repeats of those mistakes, as both Putin and the oligarchs are now partially-visible in different ways.)

In Gillian Tett’s article, Kasparov looks at the west which is, in this essay, a reverse image of the anonymous collective of 1950s French leftists looking at the USSR. The way in which he looks at the West is peculiar, and partially explainable by looking briefly at its venue, The Financial Times. The late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu looked at newspapers in the context of stratification analysis, trying to show how Parisian newspapers attracted audiences that differentiated by socio-economic class. The idea of a “shared habitus” was central to his explanation, habitus being a kind of internalized map of preferences and dispositions shaped by one’s social (class) origin and activated/reinforced by the cultural milieus (fields in Bourdieu’s terminology) with which one interacts. In Bourdieu’s work, the stratification of audiences is rooted in a common habitus that links the writers a newspaper might employ to the audience that newspaper addresses. They come from common backgrounds, share common assumptions and tastes. Because of this shared habitus, a writer expresses, as a matter of course, aspects of the shared worldview of his or her audience.

FT addresses primarily a City of London audience as it is (finance professionals) and as it aspires to be (see, for example, FT’s columns on “How to Spend It”). The paper provides information relevant to both what that audience does professionally (markets and private finance activity for example) and to how that audience might imagine itself (terribly important people in on terribly important decisions). There is, then, a combination of description and flattery that is continuously at play, albeit in different measures depending on the article. Seen from this angle, Gillian Tett’s article encapsulates something of the world according to FT: First, shared (aspirational) class position. Tett begins her piece with a description of a dinner party she hosted in New York to which she invited people from her social milieu, which happened to include Garry Kasparov. Second are shared (ideological) assumptions: Kasparov’s explanation for why Westerners were so blind to the threats that Putin posed, for Ukraine above all, pivots on a notion of homo economicus familiar to anyone in or adjacent to neoclassical economics or finance. It is a “common sense” in the social milieus for which academic training in those areas is the basis for a lingua franca. Then there is a shared aesthetic valuation (taste): Kasparov takes that notion of homo economicus and the primacy of the profit motive seriously as something descriptive, that captures something about “how people really are.” That is why the problem cannot be with either the model of which homo economicus is central in itself. For Kasparov, that ethos is accurate as a map of how human behavior, guided by pecuniary self-interest, establishes boundaries between “rational” and “irrational” activities that are, generally, beneficial. The West’s mistake, then, is its inability to understand V. Putin, originating from mistaken generalizations that can be traced back to the neoliberal triumphalism of the 90s (those heady third-way days of being wrong about everything) and to such a ghostly residuum as persisted until 2022. 

But what is for Kasparov a mistaken generalization can also be seen as an expression of kind of collective narcissism, an inability to imagine that there are ways of seeing the world that differ from your own, as well as an indifference about –or hostility towards– the possibility that they might exist. The avoidance of information (in this case the political reality of V. Putin) was an avoidance of dissonances that threatened narcissistic injury. Consider the “capitalist ethos” Kasparov describes from a perspective not that of the readership of Financial Times. According to “the capitalist ethos,” human beings are motivated primarily by acquisitiveness, by “the profit motive.” That base-line drive “incentivizes” people to act “rationally” in the sense of acting in accordance with a particular rationality (over the past 40 years, business under the sign of shareholder supremacy). To the extent that society exists at all, it is built up as an accumulation of individuals acting in accordance with their individual self-interests which are everywhere the same. Such a society would naturally arrive at shared notions of what was and was not “rational” –maximizing individual returns. Insert this in a finance framework: the central figure is the investor, and ideal-typically investors invest in stock which confers partial ownership of the issuing company in exchange for the share price. Add to that the libertarian equation of ownership with control, and the primacy of shareholder value follows directly.

The above version of “the capitalist ethos” is historically very contingent, not at all coterminous with either the history of capitalism or all types of capitalism (which differ one from the other because of the institutional frameworks within which each is embedded.) This model is entirely about self-interest and, operationalized, it is a social structuration of narcissism. This “ethos” is currently operative in the world, instituted via academic training in economics or finance, an organizing node in the lingua franca of business under the sign of shareholder tyranny. It is a justification for the reduction of business to accounting metrics and accounting temporality, one that erases business as a social activity that involves (and impacts) stakeholders within and without and excludes from consideration non-financial consequences of business activity. This replacement of the social world by accounting metrics is at the center of financialization. Its consequences have been exceedingly destructive –but, as Kasparov pointed out, “western culture is soaked” in it. Yet the problems are coming into focus nonetheless. For example, many recent histories of corporations tell the story of financialization as one of self-blinding.Peter Robison’s recent Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Story and the Fall of Boeing is a good example. Robison traces the process whereby, very schematically, a corporate culture centered on engineers and safety was gradually replaced by one centered on “shareholder value” with tragic consequences not only for Boeing but for hundreds of people killed in preventable crashes of the 737 MAX. There is a 2022 documentary, “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” that tracks the same story: the movie has a problem, for which Maureen Tkacik’s review of Robison’s book provides a quick & effective antidote. One could also look to private finance for parallel stories of the same narcissism. The dysfunctions produced by financialized business models, the bounded rationalities they presuppose and reinforce, and the narcissisms that result –especially when combined with the inability of neoliberal states to use fiscal policies to address them– are big reasons for the existence of an international neofascism today, of which V. Putin is an expression and to which he has long provided material and ideological support.

Problem Solver/Evil Genius British-Lebanese writer, journalist and filmmaker Oz Katerji recently made a Twitter thread about a generational divide over Ukraine that he sees as shaping how such fragments as remain of the “anti-imperialist left” are being rendered irrelevant. While the entire thread is well worth reading. I want to focus on its beginning:

“My generation, which grew up in the shadow of the Iraq war, learned to be instinctively distrusting of US foreign policy, and that alone created an entire worldview in perpetuity for many of my peers, particularly on the left. Those same people are now very angry as they are slowly coming to realise that the generations below them have grown up largely in the shadow of Russian imperialist violence, and that they have lost control of the narrative that comforted them through decades of the war on terror. Now we’ve got 37 year old social media pundits screaming about George Bush to 17-year-olds with Ukrainian flags in their profile pictures…”

Katerji’s history is also that of a generation. For people in the US a generation older than him, “the shadow of the Iraq war” and “war on terror” are too recent, and “instinctively distrusting of US foreign policy” is not strong enough. For that generation, which set the terms the current “anti-imperialist left” still uses, Vietnam was the defining problem not only in itself, but also because of how the US government chose to manage domestic perceptions of, and consent for, the war by lying about it. As Hannah Arendt put it in her essay “Lying in Politics,” US efforts at perception management opened a “credibility gap” that the 1971 publication of The Pentagon Papers “widened into an abyss,” The Pentagon Papers were a secret internal history of the US government and its conduct of the Vietnam War, commissioned in 1967 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. The 40-odd volume report was written and then gathered dust, unseen by outsiders; the story of how attorney Daniel Ellsberg was able to make some of the report public can be found here. The papers are the state looking at itself. What follows takes up aspects of how Hannah Arendt looked at the state looking at itself: her discussions of heuristics and the contingent nature of facts; and her excursus on two “recent innovations in the art of lying”: The PR Man and (especially) the Problem Solver. We’ll then return to Katerji’s thread.

Arendt’s discussion of facts proceeds with the following steps: With the Pentagon Papers, we are looking at a state, a government, a political entity for which truthfulness is not necessarily a virtue as it might be for an individual. States create and traffic in secrets, for example, and secrecy presupposes at least a degree of deception. Secrecy imposes a distance between the state and what is given –but individuals also impose distances between themselves and what is given. A state is active in the creation of secrets, while the correlated ways in which individuals disappear factual material are passive –misremembering, error, and forgetting.(4) As individuals, however, we actively transform the world through which we move as well, and that in order to move at all. Imagine walking through a forest on a sunny afternoon, or down a city street, if you had no way of managing what would be available for your senses to intake. We rely on heuristics to limit information (patterns, gestalt). We separate experience into what is taken in and what is excluded, what is salient because it is recognized as a pattern from what is not. Pattern recognition is a work of the imagination and, for Arendt, it is imagination that separates us from “the givenness” of the world in which we find ourselves. Our separateness is expressed through our ability to vary that world –to edit, transform, embellish or falsify it– and these capacities are indicators of our freedom with respect to it. Our freedom from the world allows us to act in and on the world; politics is about action and so, Arendt continues, (5) lying does not creep into the world as a result of some sinfulness, and:

“Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is unlikely to make it disappear. The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no inherent truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are. Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts within which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to drop into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered, and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this it follows that a factual statement can never be beyond doubt –as secure and shielded from attack as, for instance, the statement that two plus two makes four.”(6)

Arendt sketches a kind of atomist world under a continuous rain of contingent facts. In place of clinamen, the swerving of atomic trajectories that is, for Lucretius, the condition of possibility for creation there are, for Arendt, witnesses, narratives told by reliable people, and the awareness of historians. Read in terms set out in the preceding paragraphs, for Arendt, where clinamen once was, now there are patterns, heuristics, what Cornelius Castoriadis described as “skeins of referrals” and formalized as “social-imaginary significations.” These refer to internalized (socially instituted and instituting) dispositions and the networks of associations that enable repetitions and resonances – habitus in an expanded conceptual field. Castoriadis understood social-imaginary significations, the stuff of a society’s on-going, collective self-creation and the making of a world as meaningful and of ourselves as meaningful in that world. His understanding of “collective self-creation” leaned on direct democracy. During his time with Socialisme ou Barbarie, worker councils were exemplary, hence the group’s enthusiasm over Hungary 56. In the context of their revolutionary theory, autonomy was a possible and desirable outcome of the practice of self-management via direct-democratic councils. It was not coterminous with the fact of councils, but, rather, would be a result of a collective project, a social doing. What autonomy might come to be lay in the future. If we again think of radical politics as primarily a text-based tradition (as instituted) the instituting unfolds in at least two dimensions: one in the reading of that tradition and how activated and another, that of the tradition as a whole, understood as a political project, that lay in a time still to come. 

Castoriadis opposes autonomy to heteronomy. Heteronomy is rooted in taking the world to be entirely an accumulation of (determinate) objects, each given in the way a table or a car is, where meanings are found (as an essence or set of necessary features) and not made. Heteronomy is a subordination of thinking to the given; it is the dominant relation of our time. It need not be explicit or even understood in order to be repeated; The Binary World’s “underlying rule” is a good example. 

Arendt describes the US in the wake of the Pentagon Papers as a heteronomous society in which a segment of the population has realized they’ve been living in an empire of lies. Because of circumstance, then, the problem of lying radiates outward from government, but Arendt’s discussion ranges beyond it, politics and secrecy. Arendt describes a proliferation of worldviews and other products built on a comparable basis sold by “PR Men” who say: “The given is at it is, problems you may encounter with it are technical, amenable to solutions, which we just happen to have available for you to purchase.” On second thought that reflects my immediate media contexts in 2022, Arendt’s descriptions of public relations are very much of her time. She partakes of the then-ambient skepticism of “Madison Avenue’” and details the superficiality of advertising which, she says, “deals only in opinions and “good will,” the readiness to buy, that is intangibles whose concrete reality is at a minimum.”(8) Public relations is about selling, and selling is a form of persuasion that does not confine itself to rehearsing the product’s empirical characteristics. In that way, Arendt says, sales is a variety of lying, but one carried out by people who are not “of action.” It’s reach falls short of the political: 

“The only limitation to what the public-relations man does comes when he discovers that the same person who can be “manipulated” to buy a certain kind of soap cannot be manipulated (though, of course, they can be forced by terror) to buy opinions and political views.”(8)

As I had said, Arendt is very much of her time. One wonders what she would make of a world that includes Makhlouf Inc. or the one that political consultants Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum worked to fashion over many years.

The problem of lying comes back to government. Arendt’s second “contemporary innovation in the art of lying” is “the problem solvers.” The problem solver type is based on the small group of actors who play central roles in the creation of Pentagon Papers. To that extent, they are observers, but they are also political figures in politics and in government, and thus Arendt regards them as active.“The private sector is passive and the public active” is another ideological bug stuck in (textual) amber, product of a different time. The prototypical problem solvers were brought in by MacNamara to “solve the problems of government” and, by extension, that of Vietnam. Their backgrounds were such that they had every confidence they could carry out their charge. They “rarely seemed to doubt their ability to prevail” as they “worked with military men of whom ‘history remarks were accustomed to winning.” They were fully participant in systematic deceit about Vietnam but, Arendt notes:

“We should not forget that we owe it to the problem solvers’ efforts at impartial self-examination, rare among such people, that the actors’ attempts at hiding their role [in the conduct of the Vietnam War] behind a screen of self-protective secrecy (at least until they have completed their memoirs—in our century the most deceitful genre of literature) were frustrated.”(10)

Arendt does not doubt their integrity, good intentions or competences, which are, she says, rooted in a place of education and accomplishment. (11) Nonetheless they lied, perhaps from “misplaced patriotism” or from a sense of duty.Here echoes Zygmunt Bauman’s The Holocaust and Modernity. The point, Arendt argues, is that they lied “not for their country’s survival, which was never at stake, but for its ‘image.’(11) But, she continues, they were different from “ordinary image-makers”—like the PR men, not least because they operated like technocrats:

“They prided themselves on being rational and they were indeed, to a rather frightening degree, above “sentimentality” and in love with “theory,” the world of sheer mental effort. They were eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in pseudo-mathematical language, that would unify with which reality presented them; that is they were eager to discover laws by which to predict and explain political and historical facts as though they were as necessary, and therefore as reliable, as the physicists once believed natural phenomena to be.” (11)

However, Arendt continues, these people are not natural scientists seeking to understand natural phenomena.Heteronomy reflects a view of the world in which there is only one type of (determinate) object. Nothing can be created in such a world. They were seeking to understand man-made realities, and in ways that looked to eliminate their fundamental contingency. As Emanuel Derman would later put it in Models Behaving Badly, a book that explores limits of quantitative understanding where the data concerns human phenomena like the pricing of financial securities, they confused models with theories.Emanuel Derman, Models. Behaving. Badly.: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster on Wall Street and in Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011) pp. 53-62 The problem is not with mathematical modeling per se, but rather with forgetting their nature and limitations –especially that they may be discussed with reference to science. Models are not scientific, nor are they statements, mathematical or otherwise, that are true of phenomena in the natural world. 

Arendt explains the error on different grounds. She says, “men who act, to the extent that they feel themselves to be masters of their own futures, will forever be tempted to be masters of the past as well.”(11-2). There is, she continues, a parallel compulsion among the “problem solvers”: they gesture in the direction of science while “hardly having the patience to wait until theories and hypothetical explanations are verified or falsified by facts.” Instead, she says, 

“They will be tempted to fit their reality –which was, after all, man-made to begin with and thus and could be otherwise– into their theory, thereby mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.” (12)

She situates this hostility to the contingent to Western philosophy and its notion of reason, which she sees as embodied in Hegel, “father of grandiose history schemes,” who held that “philosophical contemplation has no other intention than to eliminate the accidental.” There is little doubt that this tradition generally informed contemporary technocrats’ hostility to the accidental. However, there was also a more proximate explanation. With the conflating of quantitative regularities with laws that make of the future the present with details rearranged, just as the present is the past, we arrive at back at the “capitalist ethos” crystallized in the central roles attributed to the metrics and temporality of accounting under the sign of shareholder sovereignty. Arendt’s descriptions of “the problem solvers” foregrounds the importance of practices and the institutionally bounded rationalities that frame them in the internalization by technocrats of (often deeply problematic) models and the inability to recognize the unexpected consequences of their implementation. The sense of the validity of such models relies less on the gestures, made toward the natural sciences, than the technocrat’s subjective dispositions and the socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds that inform them. These dispositions, in turn, are knit with underlying affective investments, among them a sense of symmetry, or what fits and what does not. If the models (and before them inputs) are bad then, in the context of such bounded rationalities, their usage is self-blinding. Only a socially structured narcissism prevents that from being obvious. 

Oz Katerji’s Twitter thread tells a generationally-specific story to situate the predicament Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created for the so-called anti-imperialist left. I want to expand the story and connect the origin of the “tankies” back to the trauma of Vietnam and, specifically, of the Pentagon Papers. One problem is that I myself am too young to really tell this story. Another is that time has so extensively erased the war in Vietnam, despite the suffering (in 1995, the Vietnamese government estimated that around 2 million civilians on both sides were killed in addition to 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters) and the materials expended on inflicting it: The US and its allies dropped an estimated 7.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1965 and 1975, twice the total amount from World War II.Some sense of what happened on the ground behind those numbers can be gleaned from Emile de Antonio’s 1968 experimental documentary In the Year of the Pig. Chris Marker’s remarkable 1977 documentary “Le fond de l’air est rouge” (Grin Without a Cat) gives a sense of the extent and ferocity of international opposition to Vietnam. Marker’s film reminds that the Pentagon Papers dropped onto a dense and fraught context. On the other side of the US mirror, the time of the war was one of relative prosperity: a proliferation of consumer goods, from refrigerators to stereos to Volkswagens, of the Civil Rights movement’s expansion of (operative) political citizenship foment in popular culture; the sudden discovery of the “environment”; and moments of technologically-enabled wonder like the first photograph of the earth beamed into televisions from Apollo on Christmas Day 1968. All of this was wrapped in the image in which the US kitted out itself for Cold War purposes (freedom, human rights, prosperity, happiness), the image for which, as Arendt argues, the problem solvers were willing to lie. Opposition to Vietnam, and to Fordist consumer society, percolated in the streets and radiated through popular culture. This duality, of abundance on one side and mass death on the other (Levittown and mushroom clouds) generally permeated through the post-1945 world. 

The “anti-imperialist left” seems to be the product of a milieu composed of people who were, at some point, true believers in the positive image of America the legitimacy of which was reflected in material abundance, and saw in that legitimacy something certain, stable, Cartesian. Then, at some point, they saw through all that. The Pentagon Papers is a condensation, but given the duration of the war and extent and ferocity of opposition to it, and that the whole of the post-war period (still) unfolded against the backdrop of a technological dualism, there were any number of paths to disillusion. The nature of their belief, and that it was so deeply held, meant the result of its disappointment was injury, only injury, an injury that is all they see. 

We know the nature of that belief by mode of argumentation through which they have endlessly performed their injury ever since. The positive image of the US was fundamentally royalist in its construction: the inward legitimacy of the sovereign (here the US) is reflected outwardly in the material well-being of the subjects, and that this legitimacy was the ground, or basis, for reliable knowledge about a stable world. (In his search for a parallel ground, Descartes rehearsed the same pattern while shifting the space of ground from the person of the sovereign to subjectivity.) When the “disillusion” of the “anti-imperialists” came, it was like Descartes’ meditations had been run backward. The US became the Evil Genius, the Deception Machine, emanating a violence and misery that reflected its fundamental illegitimacy,This kind of royalism is not at all alien to the Left, historically. Leon Trotsky’s biography of Stalin is entirely an exercise in it. hence the now-familiar mode of argumentation on the anti-imperialist left: the Evil Genius, inverted God-term, is illegitimate at its core, and what it does can only express that illegitimacy. Therefore, any action it takes must be opposed a priori –the details (what is happening) being incidental.

Given the Cold War-period timing of their Injury, the anti-imperialists conformed to the underlying rule of the Binary World and argued their position under the sign of Russia. Yet, as recent events have made clear, for contemporary anti-imperialist leftists, the sign of Russia has had no necessary relation to actually-existing Russia. It is a signified, not a referent. The center of their political universe is an inherited injury. That is all that they respond to; it is all they see. Little wonder that their arguments are static, and that their greatest enemies turned out to be time and change of circumstance.

Field of Shatter For a long time, I’ve been mostly doomscrolling among the internet plankton, floating near the surface of an electronic sea, reacting along with everyone else to the latest thing to which everyone is reacting: Will Smith slaps Chris Rock; the latest sporting results; the city of Mariupol erased without a building left standing; 50,000 civilians hide in the ruins of basements; the Russians treat us as targets when we venture outside; food and water and medicine are running short; battery-powered cars might not really be the answer; another celebrity has died; pension funds getting bled dry by private investment managers; Donald Trump and other imploded stars; Wordle.

Along with everyone else, I’ve been floating on an electronic sea, having opinions and saying them along with everyone else, posturing and scolding along with everyone else.

In this place, among us, there are plankton who imagine themselves close to power or somehow otherwise able to influence events that unfold in the world beyond, as if, for a time, we float in the agora of a New Electronic Athens where everyone is polis but no-one is citizen and there is no freedom or deliberation or decisions or mechanisms for arriving at them –but neither they, nor anyone else, really notices. There is always the next thing, then the next, and the next, and people forget. 

This place, called Twitter or something else, is an image of democracy hollowed and replaced with a libertarian hellscape, a society of the kind they said would arise spontaneously when free individuals are free to all talk at once, within limits stipulated by the terms of service (tldr), the private law of a private space, a society in which no-one believes in society, made up of consumers, atomized and abstracted, continuously reacting to stimuli, over the range of we have no control.

Our nerves are shot, our attentions shattered, and everything is flat and distant and strange.

And we look right at all this on our screens, day in day out —but what it is, seems not to register. 

If recent events have disrupted the hold some social-imaginary configuration has had over us in ways that may open new possibilities for thinking and acting, personally as well as politically, floating among the internet plankton is not where to see it.

We have had enough of this image-society in which nothing matters and everyone is expendable.

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