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coreyrobin

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French leftist leader who I was hoping would beat Macron in the last election (as Chris knows, I’m really not a fan of Macron), sullies himself with this comment about French collaboration with the Holocaust. Responding to Macron’s speech in which Macron said France needed to take responsibility for its role in the roundup and extermination of the Jews (long a touchy subject in France), Mélenchon succumbs to the worst nationalist impulses to defend the honor of the French people.

Never, at any moment, did the French choose murder and anti-Semitic criminality. Those who were not Jewish were not all, and as French people, guilty of the crime that was carried out at the time! On the contrary, through its resistance, its fight against the [German] invader and through the reestablishment of the republic when the [Germans] were driven out of the territory, the French people, the French people proved which side they were actually on.

There’s an argument to be had (and one could see why in republican France some would want it to be had) about the relationship of the people to a collaborationist government under foreign occupation. Had Mélenchon simply said, look, the French people were divided, it’s hard to generalize, many collaborated, some resisted, Vichy wasn’t the official representative of the French people, let’s have a more textured understanding of history—that would be one thing. But that’s not simply what he says. (I’m not a reader of French, so I’m relying on the translations here. I’m also an outsider to French politics, and by no means an expert on all the local nuances and subtleties of this engagement. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) He goes further. With that last line in particular, he does more than try to remove the stain of collective guilt. He tries to claim collective innocence: what the Resistance did, that was France. What Vichy did, that wasn’t France. That was those evil ministers, forever betraying the French nation and the French people, who proved by the actions of the resisters who they really are.

Not only is what Mélenchon said an offense against the historical record, but it evinces all the worst features of nationalism that I loathe: the special pleading, the knee-jerk impulse to defend one’s own (with the implicit acknowledgment that the Jews aren’t thought of as one’s own), the retrograde identity politics (one might say the original form of identity politics), the offshoring of evil (though in this regard, Mélenchon ties himself in knots, saying, according to that Haaretz report, that Vichy wasn’t really France; France was off in London), the tribalism and groupiness. Even worse, this desire to assert and insist upon the purity of one’s group: deep down, we’re really good, it was those evil politicians, who weren’t really French in their hearts, who did the bad things. That kind of thinking is just the flip side of Bush-style axis of evil talk. The left should defend collectives, yes, but for God’s sake, let them be collectives based on justice rather than purity, and let them be collectives other than the French—or any other—nation.

This whole episode brings me back to a moment more than 25 years ago.

It was after my first year in grad school. I was spending the summer in Freiburg, learning German. At the language school where I was studying, I made a group of friends from Italy, France, Britain, and elsewhere. One guy, Pascal, and I really hit it off. He was from France, the south of France I think, and a hardcore leftist. Super sweet guy, with a German girlfriend named Claudia. I really liked them both.

One night, around the end of the summer, Pascal and Claudia had me over to dinner. They lived pretty far outside of the city, in the country. It was a lovely evening. We all spoke German (our one common language), with Claudia gently helping Pascal and me along when we needed help. There was a lot of wine.

Toward the end of the evening, the topic turned to French politics. Mitterrand in particular. This must have been some time around his second term as President. I don’t remember what prompted this, but at some point in the discussion, through my wine-sodden haze, I heard Pascal hissing that Mitterrand was a Jew. Everything bad that Mitterrand did—and Pascal really hated Mitterrand, from the left—was because Mitterrand was a Jew. It was a tirade: Jew this, Jew that. I think Pascal even began slipping into French: Juif, Juif.

(Mitterrand, incidentally, also liked to pull this line that France wasn’t responsible for the roundup of the Jews, that it was this alien, un-French presence called Vichy that did that.)

After a few minutes of this, I gathered myself, and said, as calm and composed as I could be (why is it so hard to assert one’s dignity in these situations?): Mitterrand is not a Jew, but I am.

It was a terrible moment: a wonderful summer’s friendship, across the barriers of language and nation, poisoned by this sudden extrusion of anti-Semitism. From the left.

I said I wanted to leave. They drove me home (as I said, we were way out of town). Claudia, the German, was scandalized by what her boyfriend, the Frenchman, had said and told him so. She couldn’t stop apologizing to me, up until the minute I got out of the car. He just drove, silently. That was the last I ever saw of them.

I’ve traveled a lot, have lived abroad, and have been friends with people from all across the globe. I’ve been involved in all kinds of anti-Zionist politics here in the US, with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and atheists. But it’s only been among Europeans—I talked about my experiences in Britain here—that I’ve ever felt someone look at me and see: Jew Jew Jew.

The Jewish Question has always been, for me, a European question.

On China Miéville’s October

by Corey Robin on June 21, 2017

I just finished October, China Miéville’s turbo-charged account of the Russian Revolution. Think Ten Days That Shook the World, but in months: from February through October 1917. With each chapter narrating the events of each month. Just some quick thoughts here on what has been one of the most exhilarating reading experiences of my recent past.

1.


I don’t think I’ve ever read such an Arendtian account of revolution as this. I have no idea if Miéville has read Arendt or if he counts her as an influence. But if you want a purely political account of revolution, this is it.

There are workers, there are peasants, there are soldiers, there are parties, there are tsars, there are courtiers. Each of them bears his or her class position, his or her economic and other concerns, but it is the political field itself, how it hurls its protagonists into combat, combat with its own rules and norms, its own criteria for success and failure, that is front and center here. This may be the most textured, most concrete, account of what political contest and political combat, literal and metaphoric, feels like. Or what an event-driven account (Arendt was big on events, as is Miéville; it’s nice to see a writer like Miéville prise narrative and events from the hands of Simon Schama) might look like.

While people on the left, particularly the Marxist left, have a big distrust of Arendt, she did get at something about the revolutionary experience itself, which the best Marxist historians have always understood, but which isn’t always well conveyed in Marxist histories of revolution. This book shows you what those accounts are missing.

2.


There’s a famous public dialogue, I can’t remember when or where, between Arendt and a bunch of her readers, in which Mary McCarthy says something like: Okay, I get it, you think politics shouldn’t be about economics or the social question. But aside from war and diplomacy, what would politics in your world be about? It’s one of the big questions that has always haunted Arendt scholars. What should politics in the Arendtian vision be about? What would it look like? (E. M. Forster has a line about Virginia Woolf: “For it [Woolf’s writing] was not about something. It was something.” That’s not a bad approximation of, on some interpretations, Arendt’s view of politics.) Read Miéville. You’ll find out.

3.


I love Miéville’s portrait of Kerensky. His Kerensky seems like a brilliant knock-off of Tony Blair. Vain, vainglorious, fatuous, infatuated, though lacking Blair’s ability to translate his conviction in himself into world-historical action.

4.


The first chapter, the pre-history of the Revolution, is written in the present tense. From Peter the Great to Nicholas II, it reads like one of those newsreels they used to run in theaters before the main show. Then, as the countdown from February to November is launched, and the subsequent chapters begin, the book shifts to the past tense.

It’s a brilliant and counterintuitive use of syntax: as if the preceding centuries were a powder keg waiting to explode, always pregnant with possibility, forever situated in the grammar of the now, only to shift into the past tense once the revolution begins, as if the revolution is the inexorable working out of history, the thing that had to happen.

While Miéville never loses a sense of contingency—making a mockery of all those historians who go on about contingency (or in the case of Niall Ferguson, counterfactuality) as a way of countering the alleged determinism of Marxism—he manages nonetheless to capture a sense of inexorability, of fate, of possibilities that weren’t ever really possible, except in the imagination of Kerensky and his minions.

5.


One element in the book that resonates with our current moment is the inability or refusal of both liberals and the left to lead, where leadership means destroying the old regime. Power is there, waiting to be exercised, on behalf of a new order: the soldiers demand it, the workers demand it, the peasants demand it, but all the parties of the left, including the Bolsheviks, just hesitate and vacillate, refusing to take responsibility for society itself. It feels like we’re in a similar moment, and it could last much longer than the interregnum between February and October 1917. Not because of the power of the old regime—quite the opposite, in fact—but, as in moments throughout 1917, because of the weakness and incoherence, the willed refusal, of the parties that might bury it.

6.


As Jodi Dean has said, the real hero in October is the revolution itself. Trotsky’s there, but mostly in the wings. There’s the familiar tussle between Zinoviev/Kamenev and Lenin, and between Lenin and everyone else. And while Miéville honors and recognizes Lenin’s tactical genius, his antenna for the mood and the moment, Miéville mostly portrays a Lenin who is struggling to keep up and who often gets it wrong. It’s the revolutionary process that has the last word; it is the protagonist.

7.


That said, Miéville’s chapter on April—that’s the chapter where Lenin arrives in Petrograd, having developed his revolutionary theses in exile, far from the crucible of the revolution itself—is sublime. It has this wondrous feeling of condensation, as if the revolutionary precipitant is taking shape right then and there. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the chapter on June, where all that’s solid, and much else, melts into air.

8.


Buy the book. You can read it in a few days. You won’t be sorry.

Update (11:30 pm)

I should add, another Arendtian note: the keyword of the Russian Revolution, in Miéville’s telling, is freedom. It’s the word that keeps recurring throughout the tale. That’s what the revolution is after: freedom.

Also, just listened to this great interview that Chapo Trap House did with Miéville, and he’s got some things to say that are worth listening to.

On liberals, the left, and free speech

by Corey Robin on April 27, 2017

When I was in college and in graduate school (so the 1980s and 1990s), the dividing line on free speech debates was, for the most part, a pretty conventional liberal/left divide. (I’m excluding the right.) That is, self-defined liberals tended to be absolutists on free speech. Self-defined leftists—from radical feminists to radical democrats to critical race theorists to Marxists—tended to be more critical of the idea of free speech.

What’s interesting about the contemporary moment, which I don’t think anyone’s really remarked upon, is that that clean divide has gotten blurry. There were always exceptions to that divide, I know: back in the 1980s and 1990s, some radical feminists were critical of the anti-free speech position within feminism; some liberals, like Cass Sunstein and Owen Fiss, were more sensitive to how power differentials in society constrained speech, and thus were more open to more regulatory approaches to speech; some Marxists were always leery of the critiques of free speech. Even so, there was a divide. That divide hasn’t now reversed, but it’s no longer the case that it maps so easily onto a simple and clear divide between liberalism and the left.

From what I see online, a lot of mainstream liberals today are far less absolutist in their defense of free speech, particularly on campuses; indeed, that absolutist position increasingly seems like the outlier among liberals. And parts of the left are now taking the more absolutist position. Once upon a time, a Jonathan Chait would denounce leftist campus critics of free speech, and it all made sense. Today, when he does that, he seems completely out to lunch: a lot of the people he’s talking about are conventional liberals just like him.

(On a related note, there was a funny moment on Twitter yesterday, when the ACLU defended Ann Coulter’s right to speak at Berkeley. Twitter liberals freaked out in surprise: the ACLU, defending Ann Coulter’s right to speak! How could that be? None of them seemed to remember or realize that once upon a time, back in the late 1970s, the ACLU defended real Nazis—as in members of the American Nazi Party—marching in Skokie, a Chicago suburb whose residents included many Holocaust survivors.)

Just so we’re clear. Nothing in this post is meant to be normative or prescriptive; I’ve tended to stay out of these debates of late, in part because they mostly don’t speak to my experience of campus free speech. Our challenge at Brooklyn College has never really been how to keep speakers off campus; it has almost always been how to get them on campus.

All I’m doing here is making a simple, and I believe non-normative empirical observation: that something new is happening on the divide between liberalism and the left over the question of free speech. Unlike the recent past, the free speech argument now cuts right across that divide. And to that extent, it takes us back to an earlier moment, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American liberals and the left were also in dialogue, and taking a mixture of cross-cutting positions, on the question of free speech.

As We Near the 100-Day Mark of the Trump Regime

by Corey Robin on March 27, 2017

Despite having taken a long break from social media and blogging after the election—partly due to having gotten the election so wrong and wanting some time to reflect; partly due to exhaustion—I have written a bunch of pieces on the political situation that may be of interest to folks, particularly as we near the proverbial 100-day mark of Trump’s regime.

Back in December, I wrote an essay for Harper’s on how we ought to think of opposing Trump, of not falling into the trap of resting our politics on the intractable evil of his regime. I trace that kind of thinking back to the liberalism that emerged at the end of the Cold War (really, it extends back further), a liberalism that refuses to posit a good and, instead, grounds its claims on a feared evil or ill. One of the consequences of that way of thinking is this: [click to continue…]

Viva Las Vegas!

by Corey Robin on November 6, 2016

As we head into the final days of the election, some thoughts, observations, rants, speculations, and provocations—by turns, cantankerous, narrow, and crabby, and, I hope, generous, capacious, and open to the future.

1.


One of the things we’ve been seeing more and more of this past decade, and now in this election, is that state institutions that many thought (wrongly) were above politics—the Supreme Court, the security establishment, the Senate filibuster—are in fact the crassest instruments of partisan politics, sites of circus antics of the sort the Framers (and their hagiographers) traditionally associated with the lower house of a legislative body.

This, I’ve argued before, has been increasingly the case since the end of the Cold War.

Think of the Clarence Thomas hearings, impeachment over a blow job, Bush v. Gore, the manipulation of the security establishment and intelligence (and the sullying of national icon Colin Powell) going into the Iraq War, the rise of the filibuster-proof majority, the comments of Ginsburg on Trump that she had to retract, and now, today, the revelation of possible FBI interference in the election.

Let’s set aside the question of how new any of this is (I’ve argued that most of it is not). What is new, maybe, is an increasing brazenness and openness about it all, as if it simply doesn’t matter to the fate of the republic if our elites reveal themselves to be the most self-serving tools of whatever cause they proclaim as their own.

And here I think there may be something worth thinking about. [click to continue…]

Below are six causes for optimism. But I should stress, as I have since The Reactionary Mind, that the reason I think the right has not much of a future is that it has won. If you consider its great animating energies since the New Deal—anti-labor, anti-civil rights, and anti-feminism—the right has achieved a considerable amount of success. Either in destroying or beating back these movements. So the hopefulness you read below, it needs to be remembered, is built on the ruins of the left. It reflects a considerable pessimism and arises from a sober realism about where we are right now. [click to continue…]

Trump the Ringmaster and His Unwitting Clowns

by Corey Robin on October 11, 2016

Back in July, I wrote a post about the amnesia of the Vox generation of journalism.

This was about the time when young journalists were claiming that no presidential candidate in modern American history ever posed the kind of threat to American democracy that Donald Trump did. I went through the specific claims, and cited example after example of comparable threats. I concluded thus:

So many of them seem to lack the most basic gut impulse of any historically minded person: if you think something is unprecedented, it’s probably not. Check your amnesia, dude.

I know this is nothing deep or fancy, but it does make me wonder if today’s generation of commentators, raised as so many are on the assumption that the biological sciences and social sciences—with neuroscience as the master mediator—are the source and model of all knowledge, are somehow at a deficit.


By amnesia, I was thinking of these journalists’ failure to remember events from the Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan campaigns.

Little did I expect that only three months later they’d be forgetting events from…the Trump campaign. [click to continue…]

In August, I blogged about a New York Times story on a corruption investigation of City College President Lisa Coico. On Friday, the Times reported that Coico abruptly resigned. Today, the Times has a long piece on the corruption and potential criminality that led to Coico’s resignation (upon threat of firing).

On the one hand, the piece paints a portrait of a college president so fantastically corrupt, it’s almost comical.

Ms. Coico, who had an annual salary of $400,000 at that point [2011], was using the college’s main fund-raising vehicle, the 21st Century Foundation, to pay tens of thousands of dollars for housekeeping, furniture, seasonal fruits and organic maple-glazed nuts, among other items….By August 2011, according to an email between two school officials, the college had begun to itemize more than $155,000 of her spending in three categories — “college,” “personal” and “iffy.”

On the other hand, it’s just one blood-boiling outrage after another, where the criminality flows, like lava, from the mountain of largesse that Coico was legally allowed in the first place.
The Times also questioned whether Ms. Coico had repaid a $20,000 security deposit for a rental home, or kept the money for herself….Ms. Coico had a housing allowance of $5,000 per month when she was hired, which was increased to $7,500 per month in July 2010.

We have adjuncts at CUNY who can’t pay their rent. Mostly because the pay is so low, but sometimes, as occurred at Brooklyn College last month, because CUNY can’t be bothered to get its act together so that people are paid on time. Yet a college president, who’s already earning a $400,000 salary (and remember that was in 2011; God knows what she was raking in upon her resignation) plus a housing allowance of $7500, gets additional help to put down a $20,000 security deposit on a rental home in Westchester? [click to continue…]

Sex, Dice, and the Trump Tapes

by Corey Robin on October 9, 2016

Yesterday, the Washington Post revealed that it had obtained a videotape featuring Donald Trump bragging, in the most graphic and ugly terms, about women he’s groped, harassed, demeaned, and more. Within 24 hours, the tape seems to have transformed the political landscape, with legions of Republican leaders now calling on Trump to step down from the ticket.

1.


Across social media, people are wondering why this particular story has proven so explosive for Trump. Given that everyone already knew the vileness of his views on women and the viciousness of his behavior toward them—not to mention Muslims and Mexicans—what’s so different about this story? [click to continue…]

Harvard in Theory:

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are…to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged….an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, §46)

Harvard in Practice:
When dining hall workers ask a university with $36 billion in savings to pay them $35,000 a year plus health benefits, they’re forced out on strike.

 

Bowling in Bratislava

by Corey Robin on October 5, 2016

In synagogue over the last two days of Rosh Hashanah, I was struck by a passage that I never really noticed in previous years. It’s from Zikhronot, the prayers or verses of remembrance in the Musaf Amidah that we recite on the holiday:

You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time.

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze;

You remember every deed, and nothing in creation can be hidden from You.

Everything is revealed and known to You, Adonai our God; You see to the end of time.

It is You who established a rite of remembrance, to take account of every being, every soul, to recall the multitude of deeds, and call to mind countless creations.


That image a God that remembers every being that has ever lived—and every deed that’s ever been done—since the beginning of time, reminded me of two passages in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which serve as bookends of the text. [click to continue…]

Donald Trump: The Michael Dukakis of the Republican Party

by Corey Robin on September 27, 2016

Two takes on last night’s debate, one from last night, one from this morning.

1.


The single biggest impression I took away from tonight’s debate—beyond the fact that Clinton clearly dominated (with the exception of the opening discussion on jobs and trade)—is how thoroughly conventional a Republican Donald Trump is.

On economics, Trump’s main platform is tax cuts and deregulation. On race and social policy, his main platform is law and order. On foreign policy, his main policy is, well, actually I don’t know. Something about good deals and fee for services.

For all the talk of Trump as somehow a break, both in terms of substance and style, with Republican candidates past, virtually everything he said last night—again, with the exception of his talk on trade and, maybe, NATO—hearkened back to Republican candidates and nominees of the 1970s and 1980s.

With this difference: Trump is a spectacularly ineffective communicator. That Derridean drip of sentences without subjects, references without referents: it’s like a street that goes nowhere. Not even to a dead end.

As for Clinton, [click to continue…]

I’ve got an essay in Raritan about Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and the problem of value.

The essay is part of my long-term book project, on the political theory of capitalism, which I’ll be coming back to once I’m done with my book on Clarence Thomas (though I’ve been periodically teaching on the topic at the Graduate Center as a preparatory to writing the book). You could read the essay as a kind of prequel to this other essay I wrote on Nietzsche and Hayek and the problem of value.

The idea of the book is to look at how theorists and philosophers (and even some economists) conceived of capitalism less as an economic system and more as a political system, at several junctures in time. Part I will look at the idea of capitalism in the so-called Age of Democratic Revolution, from 1776 to 1848, mostly focused on Britain and France, with an extended detour through Haiti. Part II will turn to the US and the Americas, with a special focus on the idea of capitalism during the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, roughly 1830 to 1876. Part III will return to Europe, taking us from 1865 to 1945, with a focus on the idea of capitalism during the rise of fascism and the radical right as a counter to socialism and the left. Part IV will take us across the globe, in the post-1945 era, as we look as the idea of capitalism during the slow ascendancy of neoliberalism as a second counter, or answer, to socialism and the left.

This Raritan essay, on Burke and Smith, reflects some of the ideas I intend to explore in Part I. Among other things, it challenges the widespread notion of Burke the traditionalist as somehow a steadfast critic of the emerging order of the monied man. It is Smith rather than Burke, as we’ll see, who offers the more scathing critique of that emerging order.

Here are some excerpts: [click to continue…]

It’s not much of a mystery to me why tenured faculty oppose graduate employee unions. What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument—reason, evidence, that kind of thing—when they oppose those unions.

Take this recent oped by Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale. In the course of setting out her reasons against the recognition of Local 33 at Yale, Hansen says: [click to continue…]

Phyllis Schlafly, 1924-2016

by Corey Robin on September 6, 2016

News reports are coming in that Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime conservative anti-feminist who helped defeat the ERA and propel the Republican Party to power, has died.

Despite the tremendous damage she did to women, and progressive causes more generally, I had a great deal of respect for Schlafly, not least because she was a woman who managed to navigate—and amass—power in a man’s world, all the while denying that that was what women wanted at all.

That denial, coupled with the rampant sexism of her world, cost her dearly. It was none other than Catharine MacKinnon, her most formidable antagonist, who caught the full measure of Schlafly’s greatness, and tragedy, in two 1982 debates with Schlafly over the ERA: [click to continue…]