Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A tragicomedy in one paragraph.

For the notaries of humanist imperialism there is nothing as perplexing, and no outrage as great, as a politically astute and historically literate attack on their whole tradition by a playwright. Of all the bruschetta-munchers in all the world, a playwright. If you thought that David Edgar's essay would pass without some effort to put the little quill driver back in his place, you haven't been paying attention. Among the piqued responses I have seen is this frightful tribute to affronted vanity (entitled 'Six Straw Men and One Pat On My Back'). Another is the riposte by a promoted food critic with a mordacious journalistic manner. The latter's plaidoyer, true to style, opens with an interrogation which I want to interrogate in turn:

Conveniently early in his essay on "defection literature", David Edgar gives the game away:

"Just as past generations sought to reposition the fault-lines of 20th-century politics (notably, by bracketing communism with fascism as totalitarianism) so, now, influential writers seek to redraw the political map of our time."

Do we get the idea that describing the Soviet model, with its vast network of gulags and millions of state murders and total party control, as "totalitarian" was a historical error? Certainly, that's the suggestion left hanging like a two-pig-owning kulak.


As unlettered as this evidently is, as much as it discloses the hasty prosecutorial zeal of the polemical dilettante, there is an education of sorts lurking here. A sentimental education whose syllabus, originating in Fifties America, has been relentlessly globalised. It is apt that those who disposed of marbles, scruples or both in the post-9/11 reflux should so unreflectively reproduce the precepts of anti-communism, and Andrew Anthony does not make an exception of himself.

There are three points to call attention to here. The first is that of course there is a legitimate controversy over whether 'totalitarianism' is a worthwhile concept, and another for those who accept it as to what it's reach should be. The second is that Andrew Anthony would, on this evidence, have no basis for making such discernments. For him, it is a moral failing not to accept the schema of 'totalitarianism' because for him it is just a word one uses to refer to a state that is not merely very bad, but wicked, egregious, evil. The third is that while Edgar speaks of communism, Anthony speaks of a single regime that purported to embody communism. A whole series of distinctions is being lost here: between different kinds of communist ideology; between different kinds of regime; between different kinds of movement; and between ideology, movement and regime. It is a catechism of anti-communist ideology that such distinctions do not matter, of course. The roots of Stalinist repression are in the organicist conceptions of its ideological forebears, (conceptions they shared with their apparent ideological opposites), and that exhausts all wisdom on the subject. I am not saying that this is what Andrew Anthony thinks, because that would imply that some thought had gone into his excursus, and nowhere is this in evidence. But these are the ideological co-ordinates that structure the sentiment before it is inculcated. (This propaganda film offers a concise account of the ideology, despite its now archaic feel). The political map of the twentieth century can thus be arranged in a simple binary:



Obviously, I left out apartheid and other colonial relics, not to mention indigenous genocide and most of the authoritarian states that might in some views qualify as 'totalitarian lite', 'diet totalitarian' or 'I Can't Believe It's Not Totalitarian'. Totalitarianism versus democracy, the simple all-purpose political struggle. Today, the reinvention of 'anti-totalitarianism' relies on the celebrity of the stateless criminal enterprise of 'Al Qaeda', so 'totalitarianism' is no longer posed primarily as a question of the state versus the individual. Rather, it is refurbished with Victorian cant, its dichotomies revolving around the liberal versus the illiberal, the civilized versus the uncivilized, the progressive versus the barbaric. These work, as they always have, as structures of feeling and intuition rather than as analytical frameworks. In the era of the Cold War, liberals acquiesced in crimes sometimes tantamount to genocide while their idealism and wisdom was being extolled in official propaganda and while they were assured that their ideals were defended by the Pentagon and the CIA. In era of the 'war on terror', some liberals are complicit in grave crimes just as they are encouraged to believe that their always nebulous 'values' are at stake. This is a sentimental education whose output is an unattractive and strident assertiveness about 'Western values', which is as defensive as it is obtuse. This is why its sophisters cannot help but see their critics as in some sense treasonous, for the 'other side'. This is why they cannot help but inculpate, and why they are so drawn to the accusatory style even where all they expose is their own ignorance and lack of thought. It is no laughing matter: Anthony is stuck with his Pavlovian reactions, as are his co-partisans. David Edgar just rang the right bells.