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Politics of Dreams and Politics of Tradition?

  • opinion

Watched two presentations by historian Timothy Snyder on YouTube today. He dares. Sees sweeping relations. The strip of land between Russia and Germany as a unity, not in terms of nation state, but as an important political-historical unit. And the contemporary political histories of Russia, Europe and the US, not in terms of Marxism, the rule of law and / or neoliberalism, but in terms of inevitability – and / or eternity thinking. He devotes an entire book to developing and using these concepts as political-historical analytic tools, but that is too difficult for me to be useful in designing operational toy worlds other than as a basis to derive my own interpretations from. I will nevertheless give a few quotes to flesh out that foundation:

Americans and Europeans were guided through the new century by a tale about “the end of history,” by what I will call the politics of inevitability, a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism had its own politics of inevitability: nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia. When this turned out not to be true, the European and American politicians of inevitability were triumphant. Europeans busied themselves completing the creation of the European Union in 1992. Americans reasoned that the failure of the communist story confirmed the truth of the capitalist one. Americans and Europeans kept telling themselves their tales of inevitability for a quarter century after the end of communism, and so raised a millennial generation without history.

In other words, what Snyder calls inevitability thinking coincides with thinking in terms of widely shared political ideas about how to do it. Perhaps “salvation thinking” is closer to what Snyder means than my literal translation (in Dutch). But that in turn does not do justice to the element of factually verifiable certainty that is associated with political inevitability thinking. Inevitability thinkers (in the wake of the political successes of communist-, rule of law- and free market narratives, I prefer dream thinkers) can at least be wrong.

Snyder says the following about eternality thinking:

The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom. In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.

Eternaty thinkers are then (if I understand correctly) conservative in the sense that their political conviction places the safety / autonomy of the citizens in the (their own) nation-state at the center and thus not only as a continuation of an ancient (albeit not existing) history, but also portrays it as both a precious and a potential victim, of external powers. The political elite manipulates the citizens. The elite use statements that evoke the emotions of citizens in rapid succession – from anger to elation and back again. Reality becomes delusion, and vice versa. If political eternity thinkers do have an ideal at all, it is the ideal of preserving tradition and identity. In the wake of the successes of the eternity-thinking elites who employ communist, constitutional and free market narratives, I prefer tradition thinkers). Tradition thinkers cannot be wrong (as that would be fake news) but they can run up against revolutions and / or their deaths.

Analyzing social processes in terms of dream thinkers and traditikon thinkers can offer opportunities also outside of politics. For example, for understanding why and how companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter stand on the shoulders of dream thinkers and are (or have been) in transition towards becoming tradition thinkers. (To be continued.)