Alexei Yurchak, Claude Lefort, and … Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday! While I have not been following the Republican contest for the presidential nomination as some of my close friends, between the Michigan primary last week that may have been the end for Rick Santorum, and a Super Tuesday today that looks to cement Mitt Romney as the leading candidate to take on President Obama this November, it’s hard to resist some lurid fascination with the whole process.

Combine flashes of reading Politico or watching Meet The Press with the usual esoteric reading list of a graduate student, however, and you’re likely to get some funky results. I’ve been dividing my time in the last few days between two quite different tasks: on the one hand, writing up a conference paper on international development in Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s for a Cold War History conference at LSE this April; and on the other hand, re-reading Alexei Yurchak’s wonderful book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. The former task involves lots of idiosyncratic reading, diving into Soviet-era scholarship on Afghanistan and learning more about fascinating, cosmopolitan figures like Abdul Majid Zabuli, a dynamic Afghan banker who almost took over the country’s entire economy before being diminished in power by Mohammad Daoud Khan in the 1950s.

Alexei Yurchak's fine book

The latter task is a tad more theoretical. Yurchak’s book poses the question of why so many Soviet citizens in what he calls ‘the last Soviet generation’ (people who were born between the mid-1950s and 1970, roughly, and came of age during the years of Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko) felt surprised by the Soviet system’s collapse, yet nonetheless found themselves psychically well-prepared to deal with the overturn of symbols, language, economies, organizations, and governance that that collapse entailed. It’s a tremendously rich book, both erudite in terms of its grasp of Brezhnev-era anecdotes, film, music, and literature (Yurchak was himself born in what was the USSR in 1960, thus making himself part of his ‘generation’) as well as sophisticated in terms of the theoretical concepts it draws on: lots of French theory (Deleuze, Foucault, and others) on semiotics, language, governmentality, etc. to add some spice to the empirically grounded discussion of Soviet history.

It sums up a lot of what I like about American historical scholarship: not so obsessively empirical and provincial as English historiography can be (‘A Discussion of the Cloth Trade in Warwickshire, 1488-1489’) to be boring; but also cosmopolitan enough, and more grounded in actual research and interviews, to feel like less of an autoerotic theory session than some French theory-inspired historiography can be. To maybe stretch it a bit, books like Yurchak’s reflect the odd but beautiful fowl that American historiography can be today: founded on German models at places like Johns Hopkins, with a respect for monkish research; given a social-sciencey, global bent by area studies centers in the 1950s and again after 9/11; and in contact (but not too much – like a healthy long-distance relationship) with European intellectuals like Foucault, or Aleksandr Wat, who could occasionally sojourn to a Berkeley (Yurchak’s employer) to lend theoretical pizazz to those hopeless American provincials.

Home to student radicals, mediocre football, and European intellectuals since ...

One of the concepts, however, which Yurchak deploys in his introduction, made me think – unintentionally, of course – of the current political theater playing out in the United States. In Chapter One of the book (which you can download here for free courtesy of the publisher, Princeton University Press), Yurchak deploys the thought of Claude Lefort, a French philosopher, to try to explain a major shift that took place within the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Specifically, Lefort was interested in the tension between what he called ‘ideological enunciation’ (grand claims about how the Soviet Union, or the French Revolution, or market liberal systems) and ‘ideological rule’ (the practical needs of an authoritarian state, or perhaps any political system, trying to achieve its objectives of shaping human behavior). To put this in plainer language, it was fine to debate endlessly in a coffee shop how Man or the Rights of Man should be, but when time came to implement policy, particularly in authoritarian systems, debate about whether this or that policy actually corresponded to the ideals of the Revolution had to stop, if anything was to get done. There was thus a tension between practicality and revolutionary ideals: how could one-party control or slavish commitment to something called ‘socialism’ be justified if in some sense the ultimate goal was Man’s liberation?

In the USSR, Yurchak argues, Stalin managed to partly solve this dilemma by becoming what he calls a Lefortian “Master.” Stalin, he argues (in addition to causing the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens) played with the rules of how the Soviet state talked about itself and the Revolution in such a way as to resolve this paradox. Stalin presented himself as a judge that could stand outside of the slogans and policies of the Soviet state, compare those policies with a supposedly fixed Marxist-Leninist canon, and then judge whether given policies or slogans of the day ‘actually’ corresponded to Lenin’s real wishes about the direction of the Soviet state.

For example, in the months leading up to the promulgation of a new Soviet Constitution in 1936, Yurchak notes, Soviet newspapers solicited citizens’ thoughts on the new Constitution, actually inviting debate about what should be in a Constitution reflecting a society that had supposedly achieved ‘socialism in one country.’ Readers duly responded, and Stalin (or at least part of his editorial team) responded in the papers of newspapers like Pravda showing readers how they had erred or not erred in interpreting Marxist-Leninist canon in coming up with new ideas about the Constitution.

Soviet propaganda for the 1936 'Stalin Constitution'

In other words, while Stalin presided over a system of totalitarian, authoritarian rule, the role he assumed (at least until 1950 more or less) as a semi-independent arbiter of socialist canon and its relationship to policy gave this cruel system the possibility – however remote – of reinventing itself. It was possible for a Stalin – much like it was later possible for a Deng Xiaoping – to mount a ‘meta-critique’ of ideology within the system, because it was assumed that Party élites actually had the authority to critique, or at least measure up current policies, to the canon of a Lenin or Mao Zedong.

To compress the argument a bit, Yurchak argues that this situation changed considerably after Stalin’s death, particularly so after the ‘Secret Speech’ of 1956 in which new Soviet leader Nikita Khushchëv criticized the ‘cult of personality’ that had grown around Stalin. Yurchak, without dismissing the need to drastically reform the cruel system that Stalinism represented, notes that this was a decisive shift for the way the Soviet state and Soviet élites talked about itself / themselves. In effect, what Khrushchëv was doing was saying that there could be no Master of the rhetorical system. No one was privileged or gifted enough to mount a meta-ideological critique of what socialism was, or whether a given socialist policy was ‘actually’ Marxist-Leninist or not.

This created a huge problem, both on the level of ideology and policymaking for the Brezhnev élite. New policies, like the Kosygin Reforms or an attempt at breaking up the huge economic Ministries, were discussed and often implemented in the USSR after 1956 all the time. But élites had deprived themselves of any privileged rhetorical / epistemological position from which they count mount a fundamental critique of these policies. Instead, Soviet élites and ideological managers like Mikhail Suslov, the Party’s chief ideologist under Brezhnev, retreated into this weird world of speechwriting and sloganeering. Every speech began to sound the same, using the same phrases and even syntactical structures. Some joked that the same speech could sound the same read backwards and forwards. The goal in describing new policies or achievements became to stick to an established rhetoric of phrases and images, so much so that speechwriters whom Yurchak interviewed noted how in the 1970s, a mark of excellence for speeches was not if they mounted some new, interesting take on what ‘socialism’ could be, but rather were identical – or almost identical – to the speeches the, say, Kazakh SSR chairman had given the other day. Socialist rhetoric became frozen, unable without a ‘Master’ to creatively reinvent itself in the way that Stalin had reinvented Lenin’s legacy.

Leonid Brezhnev and Eric Honecker in the kiss of death: a collapse in oil markets, the moral illegitimacy of state socialism, and the conceptual failure of 'late socialism' meant they could kiss power goodbye

So what in the world is the relevance of this all to Super Tuesday, indeed to American politics today? I would start by making a couple of prefatory statements to insure myself against future slander, and to make clear my intentions here.

First off, in no way am I comparing the specific policy content of Soviet élites with that of any American political party today: while the policies of American political parties have often led to negative consequences for American citizens, these pale in comparison to the crimes – physical, financial, ecological – that the Soviet state perpetrated against its own citizens. What interests me, rather is how political parties manage to police, freeze – and hopefully re-invent – their own rhetoric. As historians like Daniel Rodgers have shown for US political history, part of the exciting story in American politics during many of my readers’ lifetimes is how both the GOP as well as Democrats toyed with and re-invented concepts like ‘freedom,’ ‘opportunity,’ ‘market,’ and so on. A sophisticated understanding of American politics demands some level of awareness of this process of rhetorical invention, of which the Soviet case (and Yurchak’s analysis) furnished an interesting example.

Second, I think that the United States and Americans deserve a robust multiparty system. I won’t go into the reasons why third parties don’t work well in America; the point is that the country can best meet the challenges of the 21st century if one, or both, parties, cling tenaciously to concepts and rhetoric that made sense for the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s – but that won’t work today. If it really turns out that most Americans would prefer to finance the lavish pensions of public sector employees over the education of school children, or to make abortion legal throughout a woman’s entire pregnancy, so be it – but on some level let’s hope that we find a way to articulate our broader policy visions honestly and in a way that’s forward-looking rather than seeking to conserve conditions that won’t work in the 21st century.

A little-known Fifth Freedom of FDR's: freedom to blog

For example, while I personally am to the left of someone like Reihan Salam, I find his and Ross Douthat’s policy prescriptions in a book like Grand New Party (intended for Republican readers) far more exciting than Jeffrey Sachs’ recent The Price of Civilization. Like Sachs I share the worry that calls to give Americans more ‘opportunity’ can often really be a call to redistribute wealth to the already wealthiest, who may consume luxury goods rather than invest; however, it becomes increasingly apparent to me that a policy agenda centered around a rhetoric of ‘income inequality,’ while well-meaning, won’t be able to capture the imaginations of American voters in our generation. Democrats like Sachs need a vision of similar boldness to Salam and Douthat – one that goes beyond statements about wealth distribution to questions of what we want families, education, production, and consumption to look like in the United States of 2030 and beyond.

That said: I worry about where the Republican Party finds itself today, not only in terms of candidates but also in terms of ideas and rhetoric. To be clear here, I’m talking about ideas and rhetoric on the level of candidates’ speeches, the concepts and values that candidates and Presidents try to present as fitting within an American tradition, and so on, and not the concrete policy proposals that emanate from centers like the Brookings Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Cato Institute – some of which employ respectable scholars. Specifically, what strikes me as relevant from Yurchak and LaForte is the sense of the GOP having exhausted the possibility of re-inventing its own concepts and vocabulary. Too often, the Party’s candidates seem to rely on a stock imagery of Reaganism without feeling totally comfortable adding their own concepts or ideas to the mix.

To make clearer what I mean, it’s important to recognize that both President Reagan as well as George W. Bush – whatever their other failings, and there were many – succeeded, at least for a period, at reinventing the concepts and rhetoric that American Presidents used to address the nation. As the aforementioned Daniel Rodgers outlines in Age of Fracture, Reagan speechwriters like Peggy Noonan proved adept at reinventing or giving new meaning to well-worn words like ‘freedom,’ ‘economy,’ or ‘liberty.’ Freedom, Rodgers argues, was no longer something that had to be earned in a struggle, or something that the United States would prove that it was worthy of via a global struggle with the Soviet Union. Under Reagan and his speechwriters, ‘freedom’ was invented to be something that United States had ipso facto and that had to be defended generation to generation. Reagan’s First Inaugural Address speaks repeatedly of freedom as something that God wanted the United States to have, and that has to be protected (not earned in this generation’s lifetime) from government intrusion. (Freedom, of course, increasingly meant something closer to negative freedom, freedom from government interference, as opposed to something earned in exchange for sacrifice or service.)

'Ownership society': great concept, so long as it's not paid for with an ARM

Similarly, it’s easy to mock President Bush in retrospect, but at certain moments in his Presidency, Bush, Karl Rove, and their team of speechwriters appear to have had ambitious plans to renovate GOP political rhetoric. Bush is mocked, of course, for his rhetorical and diction mishaps. He’s also (mistakenly) attacked for having exhorted Americans to ‘go shopping’ after 9/11 – that particular quotation never occurred, but a September 27, 2001 speech to airline employees at O’Hare Airport in Chicago comes close: “It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” That’s not quite blood, sweat, and tears.

Yet in retrospect Bush and his speechwriters tried to create a rhetoric that was quite independent of straight-up worship of Ronald Reagan. During the campaign, Bush spoke incessantly of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ After re-election, when Social Security reform was still on the table, Bush spoke often of an ‘ownership society.’ In one speech from 2004: ‘if you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country. The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America, and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country.’ Or another speech from October 2004: ”We’re creating… an ownership society in this country, where more Americans than ever will be able to open up their door where they live and say, welcome to my house, welcome to my piece of property.’

Tragically, the ‘ownership society’ often meant lax regulation of mortgage markets, leading to pseudo-mass ‘home ownership.’ Many Americans’ life savings, their families’ mobility and opportunities were wiped out by the actual policies. But – if this is an achievement – Bush and his speechwriters created an lexicon of concepts and ideas for an America with a ‘permanent Republican majority’ distinct from the Reagan legacy. The specific policies the GOP pursued under Bush, especially from 2002-2006, had deleterious consequences, but the GOP was in some sense still in a place where different Senators, Representatives, the President, and their speechwriters could still mount the ‘metacritique,’ the renovation of the rhetoric the Party used to describe where it wanted to take the country.

Much of what worries me about the GOP today is the fact that since the defeat of McCain and Palin in 2008, the Party seems to have entered a rhetorical space in which all policies are judged as legitimate or illegitimate based on their adherence to an invented ‘Reaganist’ legacy. Political parties messing up American history is a recurring fact of American political history, but since 2008, and especially 2010, GOP Representatives and Presidential candidates severely embraced a canonical narrative of American history in which Reagan was the greatest President ever, and in which Obama became a recapitulation of Jimmy Carter.

The point is not so much that these narratives are incorrect. (If any greatness must be imputed to Reagan, it is precisely because he proved flexible enough with Democrats domestically on tax cuts, and in arms reduction with Gorbachëv, to create lasting achievements even if it meant going against the established Reagan image. It would strike this author as odd that a President who has presided over the assassination of Osama bin Laden and three wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia be described as ‘weak,’ but that aside, even assessing Carter – who presided over deepening of strategic relations with China and Pakistan in an anti-Soviet move – as ‘weak’ seems also misguided.)

Daniel T. Rodgers' excellent 'Age of Fracture' underwrites much of what passes for analysis in this blog post. Read it!

Rather, what I wonder about the GOP today is the ability of Party élites to tolerate any meta-critique of the Party’s obsession with Reagan and a Reaganist past that never existed. Most notably at the GOP debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, candidates were tripping over each other to present themselves as ‘the’ authentic heir to Reagan’s legacy (with Nancy Reagan morbidly trotted out to the front row of the theater) in a way that I don’t believe has precedents in recent American political history. Similarly, when Nancy Stahl, one of the lead interviewers for 60 Minutes interviewed Eric Cantor, she raised the issue of Reagan compromising on tax cuts in the early years of his Presidency. Cantor denied that this had ever happened, and his press aide even interrupted Stahl to insist that she was wrong and Cantor was right.

Somehow, between the lame duck years of the George W. Bush Presidency (2006-2008) and now, many leading GOP figures became fixated with a Reagan myth, to the point of being unable to engage in open and frank discussion among GOP members as to what they wanted the real legacy of Reagan to be. Maintaining consistency and quality control on a particular version of the Reagan myth became, it would seem to this author, more important than encouraging intra-Party debate about what an updated version of Reaganism would mean for a 21st century Republican Party would be. That’s too bad, because the country would thrive the most if it had two intellectually honest (or sort of intellectually honest) parties.

More than that, I have my doubts about whether an emerging generation of GOP leadership can find a way to renovate the rhetoric to offer a compelling vision of America’s future that appeals to many Americans. Many GOP élites and younger Republicans with whom I occasionally speak are excited about Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has risen to prominence as Chair of the House Budget Committee and his ‘Road Map’ to reduce America’s national debt.

But I don’t see a fundamentally different cosmos of concepts in his speeches from the Reagan legacy, nor am I convinced that most Americans – who value Social Security and Medicare highly even if they will bankrupt the country – are too anxious about holding on to their benefits to be moved by a vision that he can offer. During the GOP primaries, I was interested by the Huntsman campaign, in large part because Ambassador Huntsman attempted to deploy a language of national service, bipartisanship, and a sense of sacrificing party principles when the President calls – a kind of Nelson Rockefeller, George H.W. Bush conservatism different from either the W. free-market obsession or the current morbid obsession with Reagan – but few people who vote in GOP primaries found this message compelling.

There is also talk of figures like Chris Christie (whose political style seems built more around bullying than any rhetorical vision) and Marco Rubio (whose qualifications remain ambiguous to me) emerging in the event of a 2012 GOP loss in the Presidential election, but the landscape for any new GOP rhetorical vision remains uncertain. Nor do I have much evidence to believe that the repeated appeal to a fantastic imagined Reagan past is losing appeal with voters. But what does the GOP do if it finds that calling on its Reagan heritage only guarantees it a shrinking group of former ‘Reagan Democrats’ – disaffected white lower-class and middle-class voters?

The man to bring conceptual clarity to the GOP ... ?

As I conclude this post, results are still not in from the Super Tuesday states. But does it matter, I wonder? Sometimes people tell you that elections don’t matter, that there are only superficial differences between the candidates. The emergence of big money into elections after Citizens United would partly support that theory; it’s difficult to imagine anyone but an ultra-well-financed candidate making it, even in a small state or media market, these days. Enacting fundamental reforms like those of the Blue Social Model or campaign finance reform will have to be a generational project, and in that constrained sense maybe individual elections don’t matter.

But when I look back across American presidential elections over the last, say, 40 years, I see a tremendous shift in rhetoric: most notably the death of moderate Republicanism and the emergence of Reaganism-Thatcherism as a force on the right; but also the decline of real liberal Democrats, replaced by ones willing to make deals on free trade, liberalization of financial markets, and welfare reform. Victories and defeats in elections year to year, even if they weren’t devastating for the individual parties at the time (think Dukakis or Dole) helped convince Party élites and a younger generation of speechwriters and intellectuals between the universities, think tanks, and magazines that new concepts, rhetorics, and visions were needed.

What I think we’re seeing in this election is the GOP trying to find that vision again – stil clutching at the outlines of the old Reagan vision – before a new set of concepts for 21st-century Republican ideology emerges. Whether or not Romney (or someone else) wins, the result will be interesting: either a GOP trying to re-orient itself as a technocratic businessman President seeks to govern, or several more (and perhaps in the long term more fruitful) wilderness years trying to find a new voice to capture 2016.

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