Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ernst Bloch On The Dangerous Dreams Of The Endangered Class

Bloch's Principle of Hope is my current reading assignment to myself. I first read it years ago, and it has faded from memory in the press of other things. As I return to it, at this particular moment in our national life, I find it not only invigorating but apt. Consider the following passage, wholly relevant to my own on-going interest with the right's attempt to redress the grievance of a lost election. It is subtitled, appropraitely enough, "The Night Of The Long Knives", and comes from Volume 1, translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight and published MIT Press in 1986, from the 1959 German edition of Das Prinzip Hoffnung:
Not so far from here are the various dreams that are fond of getting their own back. They are particularly delicious, revenge is sweet when merely imagined, but also shabby. Most men are too cowardly to do evil, too weak to do good;; the evil that they cannot, or cannot yet do, they enjoy in advance in the dream of revenge. The petit bourgeoisie in particular has traditionally been fond of the fist clenched in the pocket; this fist characteristically thumps the wrong man, since it prefers to lash out in the direction of least resistance. Hitler rose out of the Night of the Long Knives, he was called by the masters out of the dream of this night when he became useful to them. The Nazi dream of revenge is also subjectively bottled up, not rebellious; it is blind, not revolutionary rage. As for the so-called iron broom, the hatred of the immoral life and the hooknoses and those at the top, middle-class virtue, as always in such cases, was here merely betraying its dearest dream. Just as, with its revenge, it does not hate exploitation but only the fact that it is not itself an exploiter, so virtue does not hate the slothful bed of the rich, but only the fact that it has not become its own and its alone. This is what the headline have always aimed in those papers which love to see red, the gutter-press. 'The truth, latest news: Broilers at Wertheims store - the Harem in the Tiergarten villa, sensational revelations.' But they are only revelations concerning the outrage of the bourgeois conformist himself, both regarding Wertheim raking in the shekels and regarding Jewish lechery. Hence the immediate impulse to set oneself up in place of the eliminated Wertheim, after an act of retribution which, in the supposedly detested fraud, merely replaces the subject which is practising it. The malicious and brutal aspect of this, the repulsiveness of this kind of wish, as pervasive as the smell of urine, has always characterized the mob. This mob can be bought, is absurdly dangerous, and consequently it can be blinded and used by those who have the means who who have a real vested interest in the fascist pogroms. The instigator, the essence of the Nights of the Knives was, of course, big business, but the raving petit bourgeois was the astonishing, the horribly deducible manifestation of this essence. From it emerged the terror, which is the poison in the ;average man on the street', as the petit bourgoeis is now called in American, a poison which has nowhere near been fully excreted. His wishes for revenge are rotten and blind; God help us, when they are stirred up. Forutnately though the mob is equally faithless; it is also quite happy to put its clenched fist back into its pocket when crime is no longer allowed a free night on the town by those at the top.

While rooted in pretty traditional Marxist rhetoric and theory, this passage reflects a certain political trend that political scientists, working in the late-1970's discovered. Those whom Bloch calls "petit bourgeois" are the small shopkeepers, the middle managers of large corporations who feel threatened from below, but hopeful of above, of inhabiting that immoral bed of the rich as its sole occupant, as Bloch writes. A study of support of Joseph McCarthy - perhaps our country's most successful quasi-fascist politician - shows exactly the same persons supporting him, regardless of race, educational background, or other political identifiers. As in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, it was this group, the class that felt itself most threatened by the twins of democracy and economic insecurity, who backed politicians who provided an easy target upon which one could heap coals of frustration and vent all that pent-up fear and rage. For the Nazis, obviously, it was the rapacious Jew (I would caution that the use of "hooknoses" by Bloch here should not be taken for his own anti-Semitism; he was using the rhetoric of German fascists, not reflecting his own support of such vile talk). For McCarthy, it was the Communist, although not actual communists. Rather, he targeted people like Secretaries of State Gen. George Marshall and Dean Acheson. Both were men of learning, integrity, honor, and in Acheson's case probably the most hawkish Democrat of the post-war years (Lyndon Johnson would turn to him even as Acheson was ill and out of favor because Acheson wanted an out-and-out offensive against North Vietnam).

Closer to our own time and context, I think this description by Bloch captures the essence of my own reading of the right in the wake of the election. I do believe, in fact, that the clenched fist is already returning to the pocket, in Bloch's wonderful picture. Except for other true believers, there just isn't an audience for their rage against the coming communist state Barack Obama is going to institute. Also, rage and the dreams of heroism one encounters can only last so long before becoming not only enervating but just plain boring.

Yet, I think we should still remain vigilant against the vengeful dreams of those who find themselves on the losing end of history. While most have usually self-destructed, they can also do much mischief.

Virtual Tin Cup

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