Capitalism Can’t Remember Where I Left My Keys

My column in Salon this morning is about left v. right and why time—history, tradition, past, present, and future—is not what divides left from right. With the help of two new books by Steve Fraser and Kristin Ross, I discuss the bloody civil wars of the Gilded Age, the Paris Commune, Marx’s archaism, and how the memory of pre-capitalist society can fire the anticipation of a post-capitalist society.

Ever since Edmund Burke, founder of the conservative tradition, declared, “The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror,” pundits and scholars have divided the political world along the axis of time. The left is the party of the future; the right, the party of the past. Liberals believe in progress and the new; conservatives, in tradition and the old. Hope versus history, morrow versus memory, utopia versus reality: these are the stuff of our great debates.

In “The Reactionary Mind,” I argued that this view of the political divide is incorrect, at least as it pertains to the right. Beginning with Burke, conservatives have been less committed to tradition or the past than to a hierarchical vision of society. In Burke’s case, it was aristocrats over commoners; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be masters over slaves, employers over employees, husbands and men over women and wives. And so it remains: the most consistent feature of contemporary American conservatism is the GOP’s war on reproductive freedom and worker rights.

But if the right’s window does not open onto the past, must the left’s open onto the future? Not necessarily, claim two fascinating new books: Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” and Kristin Ross’s “Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune.” When it comes to past and future, they show, the left can be as ambidextrous as the right. What’s more, it may be the left’s ability to look backward while marching forward that explains its most potent moments of power and possibility.

What Fraser shows, with vivid set pieces drawn from the nation’s most violent battlefields, is that far from presenting itself as the enemy, the past was viewed by workers and farmers as a resource and an ally. In part because the capitalist right so heartily embraced the rhetoric of progress and the future (no one, it seems, was content with the present). But more than that, historical memory enabled workers and farmers to see beyond the horizon of the capitalist present, to know, in their bones, what Marx was constantly struggling to imprint upon the mind of the left: that capitalism was but one mode of economic life, that its existence was contingent and historical rather than natural and eternal, and that because there was a past in which it did not exist there might be a future when it would cease to exist. Like the nation, capitalism rests upon repeated acts of forgetting; a robust anti-capitalism asks us to remember.

In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Burke is supposed to have given voice to the conservative dispensation by describing society as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Yet who in and around the Commune had greater sensitivity to the delicate and mutual dependencies of past and future: The anarchist Kropotkin, who spent an entire week in prison tapping out the history of the Commune to his young neighbor in the next cell, lest it be forgotten? The Communard geographer Élisée Reclus, who called for solidarity “between those who travel through the conscious arena and those who are longer here”? Or the reactionaries in charge of the French regime, who spent the better part of the 1870s forbidding anyone who managed to survive the Commune from carving any mention of it on their gravestones?


  1. jonnybutter August 2, 2015 at 9:33 am | #

    Wonderful essay. I especially like this phrase: ” the vines of nature can overtake the monuments of empire.”

    Obvious I know, but Paine also invoked the pre-capitalist past in his debate with Burke.

    • Benjamin David Steele August 2, 2015 at 7:02 pm | #

      I was thinking the same thing. Americans are always forgetting about Paine. He was the greatest progressive voice of the revolutionary generation of Americans, and yet he understood what had existed before. He had a keen sense of what had been lost and imagined what that could mean looking to the future.

  2. graccibros August 2, 2015 at 11:31 am | #

    Thanks Corey, I really enjoyed this piece. And I second your recommendation on Fraser’s book, although it is not easy reading. I think it is fair to say that he wondered aloud in the closing sections whether or not there had been a radical disjuncture – and where did he place it – I’m trying to remember – between the late 19th century Gilded Age revolt – populist and progressive – and our age’s reaction to the 2nd Gilded Age we are still immersed in. Has post-modernism and the technology it bathes us in buried the past too deeply, as well as fragmenting our culture into so many pieces that no one can assembly a coherent image of “Liberty Leading the People (much less Equality)” – as Harvey suggested in 1990 in his “The Condition of Postmodernity?” Has Reagan done such misty and effective photo-shopping/cropping that the sharp edges in our past have blurred? But then how does the passion live on, as Fraser suggest, in the Tea Party – why have they been able to draw upon reserve of political passion that the left doesn’t seem able to generate..? Is the key, not dwelled upon or perhaps even mentioned by Fraser in “The Age of A…” that the left is more secular than the Right, as least in the Tea Party levels of society, so it can’t draw upon what is left of religious ethical protest…granted, in most of the Right that moral vision has been focused on cultural matters, not matters of political economy…I’ve always thought secularization was a bigger factor on the left…and its a bit jarring to all of us I think to see the social democrat emerge in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical…that’s always been a possibility…but such a minor note over the past 30 years is has seemed but a last dying ember…

    It has also been one of my pet peeves the way the left has buried the New Deal…Harvey J. Kaye calls attention to that funeral in his “The Fight for the Four Freedoms” (2014)…and you can blame Bill Clinton for that…but Gar Alperovitz is charge here is well (not Gus Speth) for saying it is irrelevant…he’s going to invent a grassroots form of worker empowerment which will succeed where even the high water mark of union power during the late 1930’s and the pre-WWII mobilization could not on the actual shop floors…

    And one parting thought, upon Fraser’s Chapter 13: “A genuine idealism, a part Christian, part secular version of frontier mythology, supplies the nuclear fuel for entrepreneurial radicalism.” So where are the fired up leaders of the American left? Not a single one from the ranks of labor as far as I can see; there is a distinctly upper middle class tone to the left in the Us in 2015…It’s taken a long time to get the courage to ask for $15.000 per hour, and even that’s done in specific focuses, fast food in urban areas…I guess at Target, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot things are ok…

    It’s always seemed to me that the upper middle class American left that I grew to know and love so well in places like Montgomery County Maryland were always on guard against just the type of passion the Tea Party displayed…low key, entirely rational, the Beltway Society has brought us so much that how could any fully sane person be angry about the status quo…and yet it always struck me that at the higher reaches of the financial world…and Trump would be the hyper example, “animal spirits” were always good signs, passion welcome…as so many of Michael Lewis’ characters have displayed over the years…in some very ugly ways I must add (the human piranha and “rip their faces off) and please contrast this emotional allowance to the very tight leash placed on Yanis Varoufakis’ brief career as Greek Finance Minister…who in a way that looks like a off-color story told at a Victorian afternoon tea, was just beyond the pale for the Euro establishment, although when you look closely at his conduct its hard to see much if anything outrageous or even mildly discourteous in his behavior…

  3. Glenn August 2, 2015 at 9:40 pm | #

    “[C]apitalism rests upon repeated acts of forgetting; a robust anti-capitalism asks us to remember.”

    Kiekegaard: “To forget is an art that must be practiced in advance. To be able to forget always depends upon how one experiences actuality.”— translation by Hong.

    It’s so much easier to forget what one doesn’t want to know when one avoids learning of it in the first place.

  4. Enon Zey August 20, 2015 at 12:26 am | #

    It’s hard for me to take anybody on the left seriously when almost all leftist bloggers continue to link to Amazon when they could instead link to Powell’s, which is a union shop.

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