The prospects of a melancholic Left in a Democratic administration

The leftist response to Trump’s electoral defeat this month has been broadly melancholic.  Apart from the universal sense of relief, there has been little to proclaim or celebrate.  Instead, we witness the humble acceptance of a Pyrrhic victory that has come at the expense of great costs.

The mood of left melancholy prevails in web posts and publications.  This reaction is different from both the lament of defeat and the mourning of loss.  Leftists cannot mourn and overcome their new predicament since this is a political achievement with which they will have to live and govern.

There are of course many positive things that have been achieved and won in this election.  Voices of strategy and hope are already enumerating and honoring them.  Yet an attitude of disappointment and frustration seems inescapable.   Its most common adage is that Trump may leave but Trumpism is here to stay and be reckoned with.  As substantial local and national power remains in Republican hands, the country may well be ungovernable.  Forty years of neoliberal hubris and betrayal have come back to haunt the Democrats.

The sorrow of success makes us wonder what happens when what we face is not the loss of a beloved object (person, ideal, or value) but its procurement in an impoverished form.  The desired object is present but not fully operative as it is missing parts and functions.  This hurts even more than loss.  Instead of a traumatic memory, there is a lingering wounded body injured by its own spear, like that of Amfortas, Wagner’s ruler of the Grail Kingdom.  What can attachment and affection do with such a damaged object?    This is where the work of melancholy matters.

I have written before about left melancholy over the defeat of the revolution at the end of the 20th century.  I have also written about the cruel optimism of the leftists who continued to support the compromised Greek party of Syriza in the second half of 2015.  But the current situation presents neither ruins of destruction nor the bankruptcy of governance.  Here we are at the threshold of something new, an avowedly melancholic political success afflicted by a sense of dejection if not futility.

For some two centuries, the messianic anticipation of leftist utopia rejected as defeatist the tragic dimension of revolution.  Following the fall of communist regimes, left melancholy responded to the exhaustion of the revolutionary vision.  Now, for the first time, left melancholy responds not to a bitter defeat but to an impotent victory.  A political nihilism akin to accelerationism or Afro-Pessimism might be next, especially if the Republicans attempt to stay in power.

But if we place it in the framework of agonistic politics, left melancholy may be understood as both mood and action.  Under a Democratic administration a melancholic left may launch some important salvage work by refusing to accept the electoral damage as permanent, remaining loyal to the desired object (hegemony), and planning for an alternative integrity (assembly of comrades).  Instead of existential defeatism, aesthetic pessimism, or performative melodrama, it may cultivate a historicist melancholy that is grounded in the tragic antinomies of the revolutionary left and operates in the eristic contestation (stasis) of the civic domain.  It may aspire not to restore or redeem but refunction power.  It may retain and repurpose the traces of its loss.  A melancholic participation in the conflict intrinsic to democracy may focus on the agonistic struggle itself.  More importantly, instead of despairing over its impotent rule, it may pursue a redefinition of victory and its jurisdiction.

These are vague and weak suggestions trying to think through the role of the melancholic left on the stage of the post-modern tragedy of sovereignty.

P.S.  “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment)” is the first movement of Charles Ives’ orchestral set Three Places in New England (1911-14, 1929).  It is a tribute to a memorial in Boston created in honor of the second all-Black regiment that served in the Union Army during the Civil War.  Inspired by the monument, the movement evokes the slow “Black March” to battle in South Carolina where the volunteers fought with valor and many gave their lives in a tactical defeat.

10 November 2020

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