There Are No Guarantees in History: A Cultural Studies Perspective on the Current Crisis

As Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches, many people are depressed and afraid about the future. We urgently need tactics for protesting, resisting and opposing Donald Trump’s and the Republicans’ agendas, and perhaps even more importantly, for protecting those among us who are the most vulnerable, who are likely to be the targets of their racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic policies. We need to, at least, force the proto-fascist right back into its cages.

We also need to develop strategies that can change the direction of the country. I believe the right has been doing this, thinking about different timelines, for some time; the left, not so much. We should be especially careful assuming that we know the future, especially when it is increasingly offered in apocalyptic terms that undermine rather than empower people.

There are no guarantees in history, and while things may seem to follow inevitable, predefined paths, there is always contingency and uncertainty that result from the complexity of social relations and the constancy of struggle, however ineffective and problematic such struggles may be at times.

For example, the left too easily assumed that demographics would be determining, but history is never that simple, and never guaranteed. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are strategic interventions that alter the effects of demographics.

We need better stories; it is easy to simply keep telling the same stories, especially when you are sure that you are right, even though they haven’t worked yet. And we tell ourselves that we have to have simple stories because that is what the media (and the majority of people) want, or because that is what people are capable of understanding. Bad stories make bad politics. And it gets worse when the left is losing, for then, despite all the telling criticisms of oversimplified stories — narratives that continue to construct history as a struggle between two giant homogeneous camps (Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, the 99 percent and the 1 percent) or that assume that people who are not with us are either dopes or duped — left intellectuals return to their old habits and these bad stories again and again.

Oversimplified Narratives About the 2016 Election

In the immediate aftermath of the election, many public commentators offered instant answers and assigned blame. In most cases, their answers boiled down to one or two simple causes: In the end, it’s all about … [fill in your favorite oversimplification]. Analysts variously blamed Trump’s victory on the Great Recession, neoliberalism, the redistribution of jobs as a result of global trade and automation, white backlash/anger, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, the internet, Facebook, the various proto-fascist and totalitarian rights, conservative financial and political infrastructures, rural (agrarian) conservatism, “identity politics,” voter suppression and gerrymandering, failed governance, “political correctness,” another horribly designed Democratic campaign, Fox News, the news media in general, the polls, etc.

Many blamed the Republicans themselves, seeing Trump’s victory as the inevitable conclusion of a trajectory that began with Richard Nixon — especially his Southern Strategy (which reignited racisms that have, intermittently, become visible and violent), and his invention of a “silent majority” standing against the country’s liberal elites. Many of these accounts magnified the anxiety that has become a significant part of our social psychology, leaping immediately to the worst case scenario (psychologists call this “awfulizing”).

But the truth is that what happened involves all these elements and more, and the relations among them, and the ways that relations work back to change the very elements. The reality is that it is impossible to tell the story of a single and singular event because it is so “overdetermined.” The only way we can understand the election is to see it as a crystallization, expression or allegory of a larger context, but we do not know what that context is yet because we haven’t done the work of (re-)constructing it.

Stepping Outside the Immediacy of the Present

We should not equate trying to understand what’s going on with the immediacy of the present; nor can we assume that we already know the questions that have to be asked. What does it mean to perceive other temporalities of political struggle? The first task is to figure out the context in which and on which we are working — both politically and intellectually.

I do not think the real question is about Trump’s victory, or even the broader Republican electoral victory (although we must account for them if we are to find effective ways to fight them whenever and wherever we can). But for the longer-term struggles, which we will have to fight, we need to locate our current situation (including the racisms, misogynies, etc.) in broader historical (and even geographical) terms.

We might begin by thinking of the context of a half-century of contests between changing definitions of “liberalism” and “conservatism,” and between the various alliances they were able to construct. I think this half-century of struggles was defined by a complex and changing sense of a national crisis over the identity, meaning and direction of US society. That crisis — actually an evolving articulation of multiple crises across the various spheres of social existence — was set in motion by the almost simultaneous celebration and collapse (under the weight of many different attacks) of the mid-20th century “liberal consensus,” imagined, fragile and contradictory though it was.

For the past 50 years, various efforts have produced temporary victories, largely for conservative-capitalist alliances, figured in the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes (we were depressed and scared with each of these victories), but also with the more liberal-capitalist alliances of Carter, Clinton and — in what may be the last breath of this particular historical context — Obama. This was not a linear development, nor a simple battle between good and evil, but a messy set of struggles around shifting economic, political, cultural, technological and social issues, and a discontinuous set of attempted settlements.

This is what the academic discipline of cultural studies describes as the level of the conjuncture: a historical space defined by a particular set of often contradictory forces and problematics (a “problem space”) that create a sense of national crisis and elicit a series of attempts to define settlements by rearranging the balance of forces.

Analyzing This Political Moment From a Cultural Studies Perspective

At the level of this “conjuncture,” the questions change, and the terms of political engagement and possibility change as well. We can perhaps start with an obvious “truth”: “We” have lost. But do we know what we have lost? (I know there is benefit in affirming our victories, but you first have to look defeat in the face: pessimism of the intellect, theorist Antonio Gramsci called it, before you can claim “optimism of the will.”)

And what have “they” won? Now the questions come more quickly. Do we know who the enemy is in anything other than abstractions and generalities? Do we know against whom we are fighting? Do we know what sorts of ideologies, common sense and moral calculus people are using to determine the “right” choices, to determine what matters? Do we understand the broader emotional contexts, what the British cultural theorist Raymond Williams called the “structures of feeling,” that shape people’s sense of the state of the world and of their place in it?

Once we realize that people’s understandings, feelings and politics are not necessarily defined by some predetermined social position or identity, then we can begin to ask how people are won into new political positions or held in place. Once we realize that things have to be made to matter and to matter in specific ways, with specific intensities, then we can begin to look at ideologies, common sense, moral calculi, mattering maps and structures of feelings as things that are both constructed and contested.

We can also hear more questions, questions that perhaps shape the sense of incomprehension and confusion that many of us feel, a shared sense that this election does signal something more significant than the tragic victory of hatred and ignorance. Something more is changing, something more is at stake, perhaps? We have to be willing to explore the continuities and discontinuities, the similarities and differences, with previous settlements and other historical contexts.

Perhaps we should assume neither that everything is new, nor that everything is just the latest repetition of the same old thing. I think perhaps, we are entering a new conjuncture, in which the sense of crisis itself is changing, and as a result, the fundamental problems defining political struggle are being reconfigured and the possibilities of political solutions are shifting.

This has not happened ex nihilo; it has been constructed over the past decades. (Without quite knowing it, I described it in a book on the changing place of kids in US society in 2005.) It would hypothesize that both the terms of engagement and what constitutes a possible settlement or balance are becoming uncertain, as the various settlements of the past 70 years no longer seem capable of addressing the crises.

Facing a World of Contradictory Social Realities

Does this new conjuncture signal the end of both conservatism and liberalism as they have been understood for three-quarters of a century? Does it enact a struggle over the very structures of temporality so that, for example, a different sense of our collective obligation to both the past and the future is expressed as a refusal of the “burden” of history? What are the relations or articulations among the changing crises of capitalism, the emergence of populist anticapitalistic sentiment, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and nationalism, and the crises of knowledge and authority?

What do the current forms of the visibility and apparent legitimacy of statements and actions of hatred signal about the changing realities of everyday life? How does a radically undefined appeal to change “trump” the need for ideological positions and policy? Are the proportional relations amongst affective, ideological and hegemonic struggles shifting in ways we do not understand, accounting on the one hand for the increasing definition of politics through feelings and experiences of victimhood and, on the other hand, for changing valuations of knowledge and authority? Why are many of these changes, including a turn to increasingly authoritarian if not totalitarian regimes, occurring across many developed countries?

The answers to these questions, and our ability to hear other questions, will depend upon our ability to accept that social realities are never all about only one thing, one dimension, one struggle, one contradiction. They are always more complex, more contingent and more contradictory. They are constructed from the multiple existing and constantly changing relations, structures and struggles that bring together and organize discourses, bodies, affects, experiences, institutions, differences and modes of power.

That means, intellectuals like me should start by admitting that while we do know many things, we don’t always know what they mean. We don’t have answers to all the questions that need to be asked; we might not even yet have grasped the questions. How can we begin our investigations assuming that we already possess the theoretical or political certainties that can guarantee answers already neatly wrapped up and packaged for delivery?

While we should accept that every account is provisional, open-ended, uncertain and incomplete, we also need to recognize not all accounts are equally good, equally strategic. So we gather together the many things that we do know (and the many things we don’t know) about what’s going on, and then we figure out how to weigh and fit together all the pieces of the puzzle.

I am not very optimistic about the possibility that such work can happen in the contemporary university, or that the various conversations that need to take place can be staged under its auspices, but it still remains intellectuals’ most obvious sanctuary for now. I am even less optimistic that the stories intellectuals produce will be effectively and critically disseminated and discussed. Still, I believe such carefully researched, crafted and assembled stories are vital in the present situation and that this work is our responsibility as intellectuals.

We need to stop repeating what we think we already know and instead turn toward serious empirical research, theoretical reflection and the critical conversations that force one to always face the possibility of being wrong. This takes time, and its temporality is significantly different from both the tumultuous temporality of media commentaries and the public urgency of political commitment. This does not mean that thought exists or should exist free of popular entanglements or political passions, but it does mean that thought cannot define or measure itself by its necessary relations and affinities with them. We need real intellectual work now more than ever, and we need the time to do the work.

Note: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall, who died in 2014. He was the leading light of cultural studies around the world, and offered a vision of the responsibility and labor of the political intellectual that this essay tries to realize.