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The Nation Strikes Back in “The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic”

The Nation Strikes Back in “The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic”

  • Our review of Paolo Gerbaudo’s "The Great Recoil: Politics"

In 2000, a hefty treatise, tagged with the bold red title Empire and illustrated with a stock image of the planet from satellite’s view, quickly attracted interest from academics and popular audiences alike. The cover, with its primitive Y2K design, gave the book the aura of a revolutionary political pamphlet—one, though, that was almost 500 pages in length. Empire, a diagnosis of Marxism after industrialization and digitalization but also structuralism and deconstructionism, was being discussed with excitement as a “Communist Manifesto for the 21st century.” Its authors, comparative literature professor Michael Hardt and jailed Italian revolutionary Antonio Negri, argued that the emergent nexus of political power was what they called Empire with a capital ‘E’: a supranational entity consisting of the US, international organizations like the UN, IMF, and World Bank, and multinational corporations. While this new order wrought by internationalism and globalization threatened to be more controlling and extractive than ever before, Hardt and Negri found reason to rejoice. They believed the contradictions of Empire were immense, and as such that a global and diverse “multitude” would soon seize the means of production.

Almost two years into a global pandemic, and half a decade after right-wing movements in the US and Europe won electoral victories that took the political establishment by surprise, the descriptions of the political order in Empire read like historical primary source documents more than they do an actionable roadmap for the left today. Hardt and Negri’s conviction that national identity would become obsolete now appears as misguided idealism; their emphasis on the “non-place of Empire” has since been replaced by the resurgence of strong rhetorical claims to homelands and the soil; and their vague allusion to the revolutionary potential of a cross-cutting alliance of heterogeneous identities induces skepticism. In 1848, Marx supported free trade on tactical grounds because he believed it would hasten the social revolution; Hardt and Negri’s Empire reflected a commitment to Marx’s stance, investing hope in unprecedented connectivity, openness, and flexibility as crucial developments for eventual revolution. Yet activists struggled to retool the integration so hailed at the turn of the millennium—of people, economies, and political systems—into a political weapon. In our current moment, a global left, organizing on global terms, is at best a vague evocation with no clear strategy in sight.

Paolo Gerbaudo’s The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic addresses the pragmatic questions opened up by cosmopolitan, utopian left theory of the type espoused by Hardt and Negri head-on—questions whose answers have remained troublingly elusive two decades later. Gerbaudo’s title comes from Hegel’s notion that “history is constantly bouncing back.” The pandemic, Gerbaudo believes, has forced a brute reckoning with the ravages of neoliberalism. More generally, since the late 20th century, an uncritical political consensus across the left and the right has sung the praises of free trade and “vapid cosmopolitanism”—but the tide has turned, and the rise of populist movements in the US, UK, Brazil, France, and more are indicative of the increasing force critiques of neoliberal precepts like free trade, deregulation, open borders, and all-embracing inclusion have gained.

Gerbaudo identifies neoliberalism as an ideology, in Gramsci’s sense; it is, as he paraphrases, “a world-view that informs various political outlooks and is deeply interwoven with the commonsense prevalent at any given time.” Akin to the ebbs and flows of economic cycles, Gerbaudo asserts that each era of 40 to 50 years can be designated with a “master-signifier,” a hegemonic value held for an extended period of time before a disaster or crisis ushers in a contest for new values. For instance, following World War II, social democracy on one side of the Iron Curtain—and socialism on the other— governed thirty years of uninterrupted economic growth under the banner of “justice.” The end of this era was heralded by the Stagflation crisis in the 1970s. It precipitated a political struggle in which neoliberalism, as championed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, prevailed. The chief ideal of this new era was “market freedom,” and it has reigned mostly unchallenged—until now.

Gerbaudo persuasively advances this narrative as a common-sensical interpretation of 20th-century political history in the United States, Britain, and other Western democracies—so persuasively that it’s easy to overlook how ambitious this theory of history is. His historical analysis gives his prescriptions for the left heightened urgency. Building a post-pandemic politics is not merely vital for the sake of saving lives and stabilizing the economy. According to Gerbaudo’s outlook, the ideological compass for the next half-century may be calibrated by rhetoric and policy priorities set today. In his biopsy of center-left politics, Gerbaudo scrutinizes the coalescence of a new, unstable right-wing coalition. He sees the support enjoyed by right-wing parties globally as tenuous, prone to dissolution if faced with a more coherent and formidable challenger that prioritizes the working and middle classes. The left, he believes, must seize the reins during this fleeting window of party realignment and crystallize a long-term strategy that can capture the disaffected voters who have hitched themselves to conservative movements for the time being.

“The Great Recoil”—our political now, marked by a resurgence of desires for belonging and protection—is a precursor to “the emergence of a new world.” Gerbaudo is simultaneously prognostic and prescriptive in his description of this new ideological era. “From the collision between neoliberal thesis and populist antithesis a novel synthesis is now emerging, in the form of a protective neo-statism that aspires to displace neoliberalism in its role of defining our shared ideological horizon,” Gerbaudo writes. Neo-statism is marked by a renewed yearning for political authority, in contrast to the libertarian impulses that drove privatization and deregulation economically, and the pursuit of various kinds of freedom culturally, during the neoliberal era. Gerbaudo sets forth three cornerstones which he believes will undergird a neo-statist regime—sovereignty, protection, and control—each of which Gerbaudo dedicates a chapter to.

Gerbaudo begins by tracing the disempowerment fueling populist movements back to globalization’s deprivation of meaningful national sovereignty. From the stultification of European nations who found themselves unable to set their own course in the face of austerity programs dictated by the EU, to the victimization of communities of color by the environmental dumping of multinational corporations, citizens rightly feel angry that they are unable to exercise their democratic powers to enact change. Restoring sovereignty at the national level—the only level to date imbued with political legitimacy—is necessary for countering the disenchantment experienced by voters everywhere, Gerbaudo argues. 

Sovereignty has a bad rap for its association with monarchical power, but the term, as Gerbaudo demonstrates, has been richly theorized from a democratic standpoint since the Enlightenment. Whereas political theorists like Carl Schmitt, Giambattista Vico, and Immanuel Kant saw sovereignty as domination, grounding sovereignty in land ownership and territorial control, Rousseau interpreted sovereign power as something that emanated from the will of the people. In an elegant and accessible maneuver, Gerbaudo connects these two opposed traditions in the scholarship on sovereignty to demands made by left and right-wing movements today. Nativists on the right call for a return to a mythic past when identity and belonging were determined, supposedly, by a connection to the land (this, of course, ignores the fact that the right rarely has in mind those truly indigenous to the land when it constructs its folk identity). Activists on the left demand a rehabilitation of effective, democratic governance, and that politics be purged of corrupting influences. Of these two, only curtailing market freedom and its incursion into politics can guarantee the return of sovereignty of, by, and for the people. If the left can successfully regulate money in politics, the right’s comparatively shaky ploy to rest sovereignty on xenophobia may be discredited.

If a greater measure of sovereignty is secured, Gerbaudo argues that it should be applied toward instituting protective measures. Borrowing from Karl Polanyi, Gerbaudo points out that inhabitation has superseded improvement; values of opportunity, innovation, and growth are already starting to take a backseat to sustainability and repair. Symptoms of the ascendance of protection in politics include Trump’s iconic campaign promise in 2016 to build a border wall, and broader commitments to protect manufacturing workers from offshoring—but also Democratic legislation introduced to protect the environment, and growing discourse on the left around care. In his section on protection, Gerbaudo discloses a mild disdain for liberals who brush off fear as a base political instinct. Fears—of an increasingly precarious economic future for most people, the spread of disease, climate disaster, and more—are fully justified and “need to be acknowledged and understood, rather than met with the contempt of those who are lucky enough to enjoy protection from danger,” Gerbaudo instructs. This sentence is reflective of the therapeutic attitude Gerbaudo adopts throughout The Great Recoil. He takes stock of the underlying global political id with non-judgmental equanimity, marries it with a Marxist superego, and mediates between the two, correcting the dysmorphias of mainstream political platforms.

Gerbaudo’s last vertex in the triad is control, which he argues is the means for protecting citizens. Control is the antidote to futile activism that places responsibility for social change on lifestyle habits and individual ethical choices: “the anti-authoritarian criticism of power… has ultimately proved to be a moralistic dead end,” Gerbaudo writes. The pandemic has reminded people of the importance of expertise and top-down messaging—Trump’s haphazard hydroxychloroquine counsel, for instance, was enough to remind many Americans of the perils of heterodoxy.

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Gerbaudo’s chapter on control is a defense of technocracy and a rebuke to the notion that expertise and democratic rule are mutually exclusive, but it is weak in comparison to the two that precede it. He advocates a “recovery and democratization of top-down control,” and briefly mentions indicative planning as a viable middle path between central planning and the market economy. But his exploration of how public discussions can invest the people with a basic understanding of complex issues and decision-making power is preliminary at best. What kinds of decisions can the general public be entrusted with? Are most people, frankly, interested or educated enough to participate in technocratic town halls?

These questions do not invalidate Gerbaudo’s ideas, but they underscore the particular orientation that he takes to the problems he tackles—and its respective blind spots. The Great Recoil contains no policy recommendations. It is not, after all, a therapist’s job to tell a patient what to do. Based on a patient’s childhood history, age, thinking patterns, etc., a therapist can only go so far as to propose helpful constructs to guide the patient’s thinking, rehearse and reframe what they have been told, and remedy blatant errors. In outlining no particular program, Gerbaudo can avoid standing by some of its unsavory practical implications. Rather unfortunately, democratic patriotism may very well in practice manifest as Vice President Kamala Harris standing before a Guatemalan flag, shaking her head, telling migrants on national television repeatedly, “do not come.” It would not be surprising if Gerbaudo saw this kind of scenario as a poison pill the left would need to swallow to secure future political victories.

In the last chapter before his conclusion, Gerbaudo surveys the writings of Kant, Hegel, and Arendt to suggest that the current system of nation-states, flawed as it is, is nevertheless superior to any possible world government. Ironically, even as Gerbaudo devotes argumentative resources to refuting the theoretical ideal of world government, he neglects to address the status quo realities of uneven global development and geopolitical imbalances. This is a major problem for the book: it dependably cites political developments across several countries, masquerading its insights as generalizable to the global left, when they in fact are not. As so many commentators have noted, there only exist a handful of nation-states that can selectively opt out of the global system without being decimated in the process. Even a relatively economically-stable country like Korea’s national security hinges on the US’s continued military presence in the country and region. The book fails to present a theory of space and place in the contemporary world, despite stressing the increasing importance of place-based identities. These identities, Gerbaudo fails to grasp, are not garden varieties; they are forged at the confluence of ongoing power relations. As ISIS affiliates explode bombs in Kabul—and as videos of Taliban militants sweeping across Afghanistan explode onto social media timelines globally—it’s necessary to wonder whether a healthy, patriotic pride in one’s own values while respecting others’, as Gerbaudo advocates, is tenable for a country with a long history of foreign involvement. 

What Gerbaudo convincingly pulls off is a postmortem of early 2000s utopianism of the type laid out in Empire. The Great Recoil reads as level-headed in comparison, a comedown from a two-decade bender that by the end required profuse self-delusion and avoidance to keep itself going. Sobering up sucks, though there are worse ways for two-decade-long benders to end.

The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic
by Paolo Gerbaudo
Published August 31st, 2021

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