Gray is Beautiful, Part 2


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March 24, 2020

Gray is Beautiful, Part 2

On the Social Condition and Fractured Society in Donald Trump’s America

  • Capitalism
  • Donald Trump
  • Socialism

This is the second part of a three-part post (part 1 and part 3 are linked here). Originally drafted as a lecture, it is drawn from my published and unpublished writings over the past decade and was to have been presented to Democracy Seminar participants in Gdansk, Warsaw, Budapest, and Berlin (to a group of Turkish exiles there). Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the events were postponed and the text of the lecture is presented here for the consideration of the seminar’s “worldwide committee of democratic correspondents,” along with the readers of Public Seminar.

Gray Beauty

I came to appreciate the beauty of the gray listening to a lecture by Adam Michnik at The New School for Social Research in 1996. In his lecture, likewise entitled “Gray is Beautiful,” Michnik declared:

“Radical movements — whether under black or red banners — gladly use democracy in order to obliterate it. In the meantime, democracy is neither black nor red. Democracy is gray, is established only with difficulty, and its quality and flavor can be recognized best when it comes under the pressure of advancing red or black ideas… Democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of passions, emotions, hatreds and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.”

Before I was a colleague and friend of Adam, I was his student. I have found that he often informs, illuminates, clarifies, and describes my own judgment. Through his understanding, I have a gray view of capitalism and a gray view of socialism. I have a gray view of democracy, and a gray view of various geopolitical conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While many of my colleagues, friends, and relatives see things in black and white, I see ambiguity and complexity. I want nuance and expect that which is less than ideal. But I also hope for “the better” — and do what I can to make it possible — knowing that this requires an appreciation of the power of the powerless, the power of the politics of small things, in my terms.

To be clear, I am not calling for moderation, or acceptance of the way things are. I am radically committed to democracy and pragmatically committed to nonviolence. Yet, as I appreciate the beauty of gray, I also appreciate the limits of violence and non-violence, and of democracy as well.

If I had the time, I would explain in great detail. For now, I will try to suggest what is involved, and how it relates to our present political challenges, by sharing with you gray notes on memory, hypocrisy, and socialism and capitalism.

On Memory

Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Years ago, I found in this bold assertion confirmation of the findings in my first major research project on the sociological dynamics of cultural freedom, focused on Polish Student Theater.

Decades later, in 2008, I spoke to a group of my students and colleagues about their studies of collective memory, as they created a series of conferences on the topic and then edited books and journals coming out of the conferences. I expressed my concern about the interdisciplinary study of, and a broadening public focus on, collective memory. I noticed how memory was being considered more or less in the spirit of Kundera and pointed out a darker side — all too apparent today — as people are making America (and Poland, Turkey, Hungary, and so on) great again. Collective memory is an imaginative process focused on the past — with some contrast to the study of history — and this has a seamy side.

Further, I expressed my concern that the focus on collective memory, on an imagined shared past, tends to constrain the imagination of a better future. Along with most of my scholarly and political friends and colleagues, I never thought that history had ended after 1989, but I feared that the focus on memory conceded too much to the lessons of experience and overlooked the possibilities of a more radical imagination. I asserted, half-jokingly, that I was “against memory.”

The joke is a gray one. We should remember cautiously. In 1989, there was a tension in Eastern Europe between full accountability for those responsible for the wrongs of the communist regimes, on the one hand, and dangerous political retribution and revolutionary (in)justice, on the other. Remembering too well and acting upon it has had real perils, while ignoring problems from the past also has dangers, as is revealed today. It’s not a matter of black and white, to be sure.

This is where my idea of remembering with caution, while acting boldly, comes in. There is a stark difference between the new authoritarians, on the one hand, and democrats — conservative, liberal, and radical — on the other. The true belief in a singular memory script is the nemesis. While today the menace mostly comes from the right, the terrors of the twentieth century came from both the right and the left, and even from the center (in the form of radical market fundamentalism, or “neoliberalism,” if that term speaks to you — though it doesn’t to me).

But a certain fuzziness, as Eviatar Zerubavel understands this in The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life, in our memory is the gray alternative. It provides the grounds for people with significant differences to be open to dialogue with each other, and then be capable of acting together. This kind of collective memory provides the grounds for democracy.

On Hypocrisy

From François de La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

I have long been intrigued by this maxim and its political implications. I like its ironic cogency and think that historic and contemporary hypocrites demonstrate the insight of this pithy observation — but also its limitations.

Consider these beautiful, powerful words that transformed the world, written by the hypocritical owner of over one hundred of his fellow human beings:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner with a bad conscience, torn between his public commitment to the enlightened ideals of equality and his very real private interests in his human property, which made his way of life possible.

Consider also these racist words, of “the Great Emancipator”:

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Abraham Lincoln was a white man of his times — a white supremacist we would say — even though he found slavery abhorrent and played a major role in abolishing “the peculiar institution. ”

Jefferson and Lincoln were hypocrites. Their fame is belied by beliefs and practices contrary to their great public actions. Yet, the homage their vice paid to virtue has been more important than the vice itself. The ideal and imperfect practice of human equality was advanced by their hypocritical actions.

But we should recognize the limits of this gray view. I know that sometimes the way vice pays homage to virtue destroys any possibility of principled action. The pretense of commitment is so transparent that commitment itself seems to be completely arbitrary. The principle becomes lost. This I believe to be our present situation.

Donald Trump is the master hypocrite of our times. He claims to be draining the swamp, as he engages in unprecedented levels of corruption. He repeatedly declares he is the least racist person, while he has a long history of overt racism, most spectacularly with his campaign attacking the citizenship and the legitimacy of the first African American president of the United States. He warned of rigged elections before he himself won, even as he and his enablers willfully benefited from Russian support for his presidential campaign. And he has suggested that the midterms of 2018 were rigged, even as the Republican Party has engaged in sustained voter suppression of poor and non-white voters.

I suppose it could be argued that his outrageous hypocritical claims to virtue in the face of his profound vice do involve a kind of homage to virtue. But because his vice is so apparent and blatant, I don’t think it works that way. Rather, he is destroying the possibility of virtue. I think he has long lost a sense of what his commitments are, and that his supporters have likewise lost an understanding of what a real principled commitment is, apart from their devotion to their leader.

Thus, my gray conclusion: two cheers for hypocrisy!

Socialism and Capitalism

Socialism is an appropriate topic for gray consideration in the United States, made pressing by Bernie Sanders’s candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.

People on the right are worried that socialism may in fact be appearing in America, and are trying to understand how this could be, though many are also confident that it is much ado about relatively little, seeing it as a label to defeat the Democrats.

Those on the left are more divided. Many are excited by a socialist prospect while noting the possibilities and the limitations of the present moment. Others are concerned about potential pitfalls, working to figure out ways to reach a broad public without compromising fundamental principles, seeking to avoid the socialist label, as they fear its toxicity with a broad public. This is, broadly speaking, is the Sanders versus Biden divide.

I am struck by how debates would be greatly improved with a gray sensibility that recognizes that socialism is not a clear black and white matter. I embrace critical thoughts concerning actually existing capitalism and previously existing socialism. This has been difficult for many of my friends and colleagues, as well as Bernie Sanders, as demonstrated by the recent controversy surrounding his qualified appreciation of Communist Cuba, and for that matter left-wing dictatorships in Latin America and the previously existing socialists regimes of the Soviet bloc. Criticism of actually existing capitalism has led to too quick tolerance of the dark sides of actually existing socialism.

On the other hand, the injustices associated with capitalism are just too apparent for centrists and leftists to ignore. While John Dewey believed that the answer to the ills of democracy is more democracy, I think it is pretty clear that the notion that the answer to the ills of capitalism is more capitalism is mistaken and deceptive. Unfettered market solutions to the problems of poverty, injustice, education, and the environment have been ineffective at best, and quite often little more than reactionary rationalizations for doing nothing: accepting that the poor and the uneducated will always be with us, that sexism and racism are somehow a consequence of human nature, and that climate change is not real.

Yet, I don’t believe there is an attractive systemic alternative to capitalism, and I am confused when my friends and colleagues assert otherwise. I don’t understand how an intelligent caring person wouldn’t be concerned by the historical fact that every attempt to create socialism as a systemic alternative has ended in economic failure, often accompanied by political repression; their unsteady collective memory bewilders me.

I am perplexed: why can’t people across the political spectrum hold the two critical thoughts together and act accordingly? All too often, they choose to focus criticism on one side, while ignoring or apologizing for profound problems on the other.

Following this flawed logic, I think that the post-communist enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, pure and simple, in this fashion, contributed to the tragic rise of right-wing authoritarianism throughout the former Soviet bloc.

But, I also think that the present sectarianism on the center and left in which my friends and colleagues fight over the radical potential and dangers of socialism is tragically absurd, and may undermine the resistance to the present danger of right-wing post-truth authoritarianism. This sectarianism has been most apparent in America in the contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process.

Moderate establishment Democrats, as a matter of principle and strategy, flee from the socialist label, supporting a reformed version of capitalism. They focus on the fundamental problems both in the theory and the practice of socialism. To their left, there are Democrats who embrace or at least recognize the value of socialism as a critical ideal, and see in its newfound popularity an opportunity to achieve fundamental changes concerning the environmental catastrophe, healthcare, education, economic inequality, racial and gender injustices, and much more. To their left, are socialists who are skeptical about the Democrats and social democracy. Some would tactically work with the Democrats, while holding their noses, combining social movement mobilization with party politics (a gray leftist approach that I find interesting), while others are deeply skeptical about any possibility of working with the Democratic Party.

In my judgment, the controversies create a big fuss about little, given that there is no stark contrast between capitalism and socialism. If you want to call the actually existing economy “capitalism,” then it is clear that it exists in multiple forms very differently shaping people’s lives. There is a modern economy, more or less humane, given political and social actions.

A gray commitment to democracy and socialism would seem to be the answer to the dilemma, where both democracy and socialism are pursued with an understanding that they cannot be fully achieved. Socialism, then, is a sustained project to minimize and overturn the pernicious consequences of the market and the logic of capital. In this sense, all to the left of center should be self-limiting, gray socialists, equally opposed to those who believe that the only way to address the problems of capitalism is a more radical form of capitalism, and those who imagine, and would seek to enact, a radical alternative to capitalism, which experience has revealed as the road to the gulag and serfdom.

I know that my judgment is not generally shared. Socialism will not stop being a red flag for a significant portion of the American population, even as it is becoming a more attractive banner of hope for many others, especially among the young. Both groups are likely uninterested in my gray perspective in the context of our fractured society, with its fractured public sphere. I fear that they are remembering the past century too selectively in the mutually exclusive monochromes of black and white. I fear they hypocritically assert absolute convictions.

Yet, I can understand the collective memory disputes about the meaning of the word “socialism,” as an ideal and as a horror, and I understand the hypocritical pretense of those who proclaim they are capitalists or socialists, and anti-capitalist and anti-socialists, to the core. One hypocritically asserts the virtue of being a true socialist, by being absolutely against capitalism, and a true capitalist, by being absolutely against socialism. Yet to be a democrat, a democratic socialist or capitalist, some humility, about the memory and pretense, a gray sensibility as Michnik understands it, is in order.

And we must have a capacity to talk about this, which raises then the central question when it comes to the future of democracy in America and beyond: What is to be done? How can we defend and extend democracy given the fundamental fractures in our society? I will address this directly in part 3 of this post, informed by an understanding of the social condition.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology The New School for Social Research and Publisher of Public Seminar.


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