Angels in America, Angelus Novus, anti-fascism, Elon Musk, fascism, Michael Lowy, On the Concept of History, Paul Klee, Perry Anderson, Peter Thiel, Rachel Maddow, Roy Cohn, Tony Kushner, Walter Benjamin
As a ghost sent from the past into your world my presence involves no small amount of incivility. So much clanging about and reckless rage, while confined to dark digital outposts, still demands an audience, someone to haunt. In any case, it has never been your world, or our world, always their world. We were just thrust into it, and told to make our way, however difficult. So if my desperate whispers fall on your ears as so many dark forebodings, they also contain within them the possibility of another future.
Can a ghost dream? If so, what kind of dream would a ghost dream? It would be a dream filled with longing and regret, to be sure, but also, free from the past, a dream of reckless abandon, an imagination allowed to run riot. It is a dream that cries for a future free from an insufferable past and an intolerable present.
In this, the dream I dream is not unlike that cool and sardonic description of heaven as told by the character Belize to a fictionalized Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Twenty-five years after its first production the play is experiencing a welcome revival, no doubt because of scenes like this one:
I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe HBO’s version of Kushner’s play. Please pardon in advance my light editing and any errors.
Belize: “You awake? Can you see who I am?”
Roy Cohn: “Yeah. You came for my momma years ago. Wrap your arms around me now…”
Belize: “Who am I, Roy?”
Roy Cohn: (laughs) “The negro night nurse. My negation. Come to escort me to the underworld…”
Belize: “You want me Roy? You want me to take you away?”
Roy Cohn: “Oh, God I’m ready.”
Belize: “I’ll be coming for you soon. Everything I want is in the end of you.”
Roy Cohn: “What’s it like after…this misery ends?”
Belize: “Hell or Heaven?”
Roy Cohn: He….(Roy trails off)
Belize: “Like San Francisco.”
Roy Cohn: “A City! Good. I was worried it would be a garden. I hate that shit.”
Belize: “Hmm. Big City. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catacorner to that. Windows missing in every edifice, like broken teeth. Gritty wind and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: “Isaiah.”
Belize: “The prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary, like rubies and obsidion, and diamond colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages and big dance palaces full of music, lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto. Brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there. ”
Roy Cohn: “And heaven?”
Belize: “That was heaven, Roy.”
Indeed. Yet as Kushner has acknowledged, many years after publishing Angels, that future is not here, in San Francisco or anywhere else. Besides, even our most beautiful rebels, like Belize, are still, at best, changing the bedpans of the Roy Cohns of the world, rather than topping off that dose of morphine. Heaven must be conquered, brought into being, rather than received as a gift, upon surrender.
In order to dream a future at odds with the only one our present has on offer (the doctrine of TINA) one must identify who and what stand in the way of the realization of that future–one has to theorize an enemy, then a way to defeat that enemy. Kushner’s character Belize does this, and yet seems a bit too secure (smug even) in the notion that his heaven is the future.
Part of the problem, I think, is that smugness exhibited by Belize, so often on display by today’s liberals (think Rachel Maddow) and not a few historical materialists (Perry Anderson), reflects a belief that history is a necessary evolution, a slow but certain unfolding of ‘progress’, an arc always ‘bending’ towards justice. It is not. It just moves, hither and yon, not backwards or forwards. Where it moves and the quality of that movement is at least in part up to us. We may not make it move within conditions of our choosing, but move it we must.
Dreaming is a precondition for liberation; an essential rupture with ‘what is’, a reimagining of what is possible and and a fierce interrogation of ‘progress’. It is also essential for an effective anti-fascism.
In 1940, in the midst of a world-wide fascist explosion, just prior his suicide, Walter Benjamin said as much. From Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, Thesis Nine:
“There is a painting by [Paul] Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”
All of our 21st century gizmos and widgets, all that seamless connectivity and disruptive productivity brought on by our gigantic mega corporations are entirely compatible with a neo-fascism now only in its pre-pubescent stage. Fascism is not the reemergence of some ancient bigotry from prehistory, it is one possible future asserting itself, and in this assertion another form of capitalism is being constituted. Behind the progress of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk is a craven figure who cringes and obeys for a piece of chocolate. That figure is us, unless we discover a way to bring about a rupture with that ‘progress’.
In an article on Benjamin’s eclectic anarcho-communism in Jacobin (“The Young Benjamin”, Jacobin Blog, January 8, 2016) Michael Löwy locates the failure to apprehend fascism within the evolutionary socialist tradition represented by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Löwy writes:
“An evolutionist conception of history, which believes in the necessary progress in the forms of domination, can hardly give an account of fascism — except as an unexplainable parenthesis, an incomprehensible regression ‘in the middle of the 20th Century.’ Now, as Benjamin wrote in his Theses, one cannot understand the meaning of fascism if one considers it just an exception to the historical norm which would be progress.”
Lowy notes that “Benjamin understood the 20th century as one of barbarism and modernity — an interconnection which would take, a few years after his death, the catastrophic figure of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”
War is coming; and with it the soil within which fascism grows is fertilized.