Some Thoughts on Dad-Rock-Politics and Benjamin’s 12th and 13th Theses

 

[What follows is a mix of my afternoon German translation exercise and actual blog post, and is for that matter also an exercise at the same time in “Denglish.” I will most likely continue this format of translation and blogging throughout the summer in Hamburg as a way to stay engaged in both regular translation exercise and blogging.]

Since the U.S. election of 2016, Ive been increasingly confused by a particular trend of thought that is recurrent in my intellectual and professional world. That trend goes something like this:

“Donald Trump was, said the voices of those during the election, and is, say the voices of those speaking now after the election, the greatest right-wing threat that our country has ever known. We know, however, that the demands of realpolitik mean that the only resistance is a kind of compromise – a “realist” demand for a candidate who will not overly-anger the opposition, will not overreach in her “progressive” proposals. Thus the only option, according to this presumptively “learned” and “realist” position, is to both nominate the middle-road candidate, and to shut-down any appeal to a candidate that stands more directly for what the left, if we are to assume that “left” here means actually “left,” stands for.”

Pushing aside, for the sake of this post, the utterly stupid naivety of thinking that Hilary Clinton could be anything but the most repulsive candidate from the perspective of conservative America, which I should add, the standpoint of an actually sober-looking “realpolitik” would have shown, what I think is most troubling about this line of thinking is how it presumes a notion of sociality and history that has never, and does not currently exist, as its foundation.

The demand of this clearly impaired realpolitik, the demand to be realistic itself even, I want to say only somewhat facetiously, is nameable as the onto-political equivalent of “Dad-Rock,” or “Dad-Rock-Politik.”[1] Dad-Rock in this instance, following the way a friend recently analogized the term in relation to Dad-Rock theology and theory, refers to the aforementioned presumption of the realist demand, the presumption of being ‘learned,’ of somehow “knowing better,” knowing how things “really are,” because of the arbitrary amount of time one has spent alive, which is quantitatively speaking “more” time than the young folks like myself who mistakenly do not want to vote for a compromised position.

The non-existent foundation that Dad-Rock-Politik rests upon is similar, if not equivalent with, what Benjamin targets in thesis 12 and 13 of his Über den Begriff der Geschichte, as the erasure of Blanqui,[2] the forgetting of the imperative to defer to the repressed [unterdrückte] class, the corresponding forgetting of hate and the desire for a non-deferred praxis of fighting in the present-time, and the pretentious acceptance of a notion of being-and-time that levels the always discrepant relation between the victors and the losers of history.  The translated text of the two theses is as follows:[3]

 

XII

The subject of historical knowledge is the struggling [kämpfende], repressed [unterdrückte] class itself. Marx exposed [tritt] them [the struggling class] as the last enslaved, vengeful class, to whom the work of liberation in the name of beaten generations, in the end, leads. This consciousness, that for a short time still in the “Spartacus League” came to importance [Geltung], was to Social-Democracy everything [jeher] objectionable. Over the course of three decades, the name of Blanqui was all but erased, his clamour [Erzklang] that shocked former centuries. They [the Social Democrats] appealed therein, to the working-class to play the role of liberator [Erlöserin] of future generations. They cut the cord of their best strength. The class immediately unlearned in this school hate [sehr Haß], as well as the desire for sacrifice. For both nourish the picture of the enslaved ancestors, not in the ideal of the liberating grandchild.

 

XIII

The Social-Democratic theory, and still more the praxis, would have, from a notion of progress [Fortschrittbegriff], been certain, that it was in reality not sustained [hielt], but rather had a dogmatic pretence. Progress, as it was portrayed in the heads of the Social Democrats, was, once, a progress of humanity itself (not only of their capabilities [Fertigkeiten] and knowledge [Kenntnisse]). It was, secondly, an unlockable (an infinite corresponding [to the?] perfection of humanity). It applied, thirdly, as an essential, un-stoppable (as a self-actuating [selbsttätig], a degree or spiral-shaped train running-through). All of these predicates are controversial, and in every one critique could apply. Critique must, however, if it comes to the worst, decrease behind all of these predicates and focus on what is common to them. The solution for a progress of human suffering in history is not resolvable from the idea of a homogeneous and empty time running-through progress. Critique of the idea of this progress must build the foundational position of critique on the idea of progress generally.

 

Perhaps the most striking part of thesis 12, at least for the present ramblings of this post, is the emphasis Benjamin places upon the discovery by Marx that the repressed and struggling class is the end-point, which is to really say that the struggling class is the beginning and end of liberative struggle, in addition to the identification of an unlearning of hatred and of the will-to-sacrifice oneself in the-now. The loss of the focus upon the repressed class coincides with the unlearning of hatred and sacrifice in the present, both of which are constitutive of liberative struggle and liberation itself. The Social Democrats on these points seem to resemble in striking ways the loss of the demands of the-now, and the forgetting of the need to sacrifice privileged comfort in-deference-to the oppressed.

 

The demand that surfaced early in the election on the Democratic party’s side, that we must elect the great and noble candidate, either in blind adoration and wilful ignorance of her and her husband’s history of racism, elitism, and imperialist violence, or in a full-blown buy-in to the Christian notion that one is capable of erasing the evillest of pasts through acts of repentance, drips with this kind of forgetting and unlearning, and leaves behind anything that we should consider in good-faith to be worth fighting for.

 

Undergirding this forgetting, which characterizes the allegedly “learned” claims of the aforementioned Dad-Rock-Politik, is the onto-historical conception of progress as a kind of levelling of the heterogeneous character of our socio-political world. It is here that the presumption, the literal pretension that Benjamin charges the onto-historical concept of progress to which the Social Democrats are beholden, of those who assume that it is possible to, in good-faith, bargain with a people willing to vote for Trump, comes into the view of Benjamin’s sights.

Thesis 13 describes the ontological-historical conception of progress, not only in terms of a false notion of teleological or eschatological time, but also in terms of a false social ontology that renders what has never been, is not currently, and will never be, equal – namely, that which is unequal and characterized by hegemony – level, in a kind of sentimental appeal to togetherness that is grounded only in the fantastical idea that we have ever been “together despite our differences.” Such is the ignorance of both the past and present that characterizes the political rhetoric of those who are “learned” in the American “left,” who must overlook in reality all of history to make such claims about the categorical imperative of faux solidarity with those who, at a deep level, aim to at best kill, and at worst enslave, so many of us.

One needs to look no further than the responses by the Dad-Rock-Politiker to the shooting at the Congressional baseball practice today in order to diagnose this phenomena, at least according to these two theses. The democratic disavowal of all violence, and more importantly, the intra-party blaming of an “immature” left with the blaming of the shooting on the rhetoric of “Bernie-Bros;” this is undertaken by  wise and learned folks who champion the myth that there has ever been anything like real progress that does not result from a real left willing to pay the sacrificial price of death in a bid to move, even if only slightly, the constitutive balance of the ever-discrepant relation between oppressor and oppressed. We see here in this moderate-on-leftist violence a willful ignorance of the source of the rhetoric for the shooting – namely, with the rhetoric of the right and the centrist Democrats. It is this kind of bad-faith ignorance of the violence that undergirds every artefact of civilisation and progress, which is to say – history itself, that masquerades as political wisdom, the definition of sophistry, with which we are left to contend in the Democratic Party (in which I place little value) and in an old-guard of supposedly “left” thought in the states that claims Benjamin and others as their own.

What Benjamin refers to as the “dogmatic pretence” by which the Social Democrats held their belief in a kind of onto-socio conception of progress now appears again as that conception of being and time that is resurfacing in the form of learned Dads who simply “know better.” Yet, this knowing better is clearly the greatest falsity, for it presumes pure and simply. Moreover, that which these Dads presume is false even at the level of historical particularity, insofar as there has never been the unified moment of togetherness that their sentimental, and thus groundless, appeal for solidarity presumes. What we need, in the end, are the abolitions of these Dads.

[1] In case my own Dad happens to stumble onto this post, I should say I do not have my own Dad, or any specific Dad, in mind, but rather the generalized “dad” of pretence, whom we would all be better off without. Ich liebe dich Papa.

[2] Here I need to do more reading on Blanquism. The notion of a putsch revolution, as opposed to a mass movement of the working-class, is something I am having trouble locating in Benjamin’s own work, though it is not inconceivable that Benjamin’s Marxism would be laden with this particular notion of socialist revolution. I attach here the Wikipedia page on Blanquism because, well, this is a blog post, not an academic essay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blanquism

[3] With the exception of a few words, I produced this translation this afternoon alone, breaking into the Belknap translation only at two or three points. There are some obvious rough points but the main points are clear enough for the blog. I welcome input regarding the translation from those who know or are studying German!