“Every investiture of the ideal feels itself as a false ‘we.’ It is a ‘we’ that does not correspond to reality. ‘We Germans’ is the fiction of a commonality among manual laborers and professors, gangsters and idealists, poets and film directors, a commonality that does not exist. The true ‘we’ is: We are nothing to each other. We are capitalists, proletarians, intellectuals, Catholics…and in truth far more — and beyond all measure — caught up in our own special interests than we are concerned with each other. The German peasant stands closer to the French peasant than to the German city dweller, when it comes down to what really moves their souls. We — each nation for itself alone — understand one another very little, and fight or betray one another when we can. We can, to be sure, all be brought together under one hat when we plan to squash it on the head of another nation; then we are enraptured and have a shared mystical experience, but one may assume that the mystical in this experience resides in its being so rarely a reality for us. Once again: this is just as true for the others as it is for us Germans. But in our crises we Germans have the inestimable advantage that we can recognize the real connections more clearly than they, and we should construct our feeling for the fatherland on this truth, and not on the conceit that we are the people of Goethe and Schiller, or of Voltaire and Napoleon.
There is always and in all ages a feeling of insufficient congruence between public life and real life. But can anything at all in public events be the true expression of real life? Am I then, as an individual, that which I do, or am I a compromise between unarticulated energies in me and transforming external forms ready to be realized? In relationship to the whole, this little difference gains a thousandfold in significance. Aside from passive persistence, an unnatural alliance of interests can be held together only through a common interest in using force against others; it does not necessarily need to be the force of war. But if one says that mass hypnosis is at work in times when wars break out, this is only to be understood as an ordered system exploding because of its inadvertently neglected tensions. This explosive stimulus, with which the human being liberated himself and, flying through the air, found himself together with his own kind, was the renunciation of middle-class life, the will for disorder rather than the old order, the leap into adventure, no matter what moral names it might be given. War is the flight from peace.”
— Robert Musil, “‘Nation’ as Ideal and as Reality” (1921)
If anyone epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of what Marxists (almost always hypocritically) call ‘bourgeois consciousness,’ it’s Robert Musil. Brilliant in every conceivable sense, disrespectful of any special distinction (or lack) attributed to the humanities or the sciences, arrogant, and committed to nothing but observation. His class’s highest ideal, the intellectual synthesis of social contradiction, is well enough torn to shreds in the first volume of Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, but it remained the horizon of his thought. And this impossible holding out is what is so attractive about him, for me anyway: his relentless negativity, his unwillingness to propagandize for anything or anyone, even when contributing some measure of practical support. A sympathetic stance but an intolerable one for any writer who intends for their ‘passion’ to serve worldly ends.
A political writer does battle on the field of propaganda. Perhaps all writers are political; English professors today are fond of saying that all culture is political, suggesting (as no one else but David Horowitz does) that even their own writing is potentially significant. So what is a successful propagandist today? Let’s take Glenn Beck. The apparent contradiction between his visibility and lack of political importance is suppressed by pointing to his ‘cultural influence,’ which democratic ideology implies is more important than political or economic power. Beck’s ‘we’ is the same as ours: it tries to communicate the feeling of political engagement to a mass of spectators who have been steadily dispossessed of any active role in the democratic process, but who have unprecedented access to ‘culture.’
Now Musil seems to argue that while the “special interests” we are concerned with are “beyond all measure,” if one must give an estimate, material interests are where one should start. And this is the basis for community that nationalism denies. To awkwardly import a critique of commodity culture: its atomizing effects take place not solely through creating feelings of loneliness and alienation, but through simulating community. According to Musil, this is the necessary function of all political rhetoric. He assumes the traditional liberal tie between politics and the state, but his simultaneous and sympathetic awareness of socialism creates some interesting ambiguities. That he characterizes nationalism and war as dangerous forms of escapism is not new, nor the idea that heroic ideologies such as these reject as inauthentic some version of “middle-class life”; more perplexing is his suggestion that the “leap into adventure” and the promise of conflict is necessary to motivate any large-scale collective project. Are all so-called common interests experienced by default as “unnatural,” even in the midst of conflicts that — given proper materialist analysis — could have been predicted as the “natural” product of “neglected tensions” in a social system? If this is true, then organization based on imaginary interests is indistinguishable from organization based on material ones. All politics become pseudo-politics.
The phenomenon of the Tea Party, like other episodes of partisan hysteria, highlights a possible practical difference between America’s liberals and its vestigial left. Realizing that Beck is a tool of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch is necessary for any effective response, but informing Tea Baggers of their real material interests doesn’t take place within a vacuum. For the liberal democrats, who are prohibited from acting on any knowledge gleaned from examining things more closely than their opposition, the key strategic controversy is whether to attack the Tea Party or ignore them (at the moment, the progressives do battle while the Democratic establishment concentrates on selling them out). For the left, the ideal thing to do would be to try to hijack their organization — not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base. This would undoubtedly require difficult ideological compromise, but unlike liberals, leftists are not structurally incapable of it, though they may be incapable of actually accomplishing the task (probably impossible if left to underfunded petty bourgeois media workers).
Admitting that Tea Baggers have ‘real grievances’ is an honorable gesture, but without some attempt to establish solidarity the point is academic. What liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating is not so much the content of the ideas (warmed-over libertarianism spiced up with a few paranoid fantasies and tolerance for bigotry), though these are easy for both sides to pontificate about, but the manner in which they are posed: anti-intellectual, contradictory, belligerent, self-pitying, enthusiastic, shameless. As a complete performance, it’s the antithesis of every dubious perk that goes along with liberal or progressive self-identification. What if democracy’s ‘worst excesses,’ and not enlightened reason or a good protestant work ethic, were the true revolutionary values, for ‘them’ as well as ‘us’? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is it a lecture hall, and politics is not limited to designing entrance exams for imaginary utopias.