[...] can the political impulses that Harris represents, the ones that come out of our generation’s distinctive experience, mature into potent collectivity? Or are they individualist from the root, bound to decay into posture and then a racket—absent the guidance of more seasoned activists, or without connection to struggles more deeply historically or socially grounded?
[...] What is the proper relationship to the past for those of us who want to make a new future?
The more traditional socialist left argues for continuity. We’ve been doing occupations since forever, Maisano said; let’s rebuild social-democratic institutions like CUNY, Henwood said. Socialism may be embraced by the young now, but in this version it still looks and sounds like Bernie Sanders—still a project of recuperation as much as invention, resuming an effort interrupted by the neoliberal caesura. In some guises, such historical continuity is humbling and useful. In others, it’s boomer narcissism run amok, reducing every left-wing proposition from a young person to an opportunity to force the past into the present. “Don’t repeat my mistakes,” cries the old socialist to the new one. The result can be formally radical but quite often conservative in affect and mood, dabbling soberly in the far-fetched notion that you can change the structure of society while everyone stays the same kind of people. This is one way of understanding why whiteness and masculinity continue to bedevil the socialist left, even in its committed antiracist and feminist quarters. A left that maintains a tether to a usable past is bound more tightly to the historical American nightmare. It can’t rush toward utopia, because it’s committed to engaging with people as they are and nudging them along.
The insurrectionary left, on the other hand, wants year zero. The power of the occupation, Lennard pointed out, is that when you step into it, you become someone else. The problem with becoming someone else, though, is that you’re disinherited from your history, so you can’t wield it effectively to understand the present or get ready for the future. It’s life in a permanent now, a condition reflected in anarchism’s traditional weakness when it comes to strategic calculation and engagement with state institutions—those durable, blunt objects. What was predictable about Occupy’s destruction—in fact, what was predicted at Bluestockings that night—was for this reason hard to prepare for until it was already under way.
It is, in its way, a generational question. If you kill your parents, you won’t hear their warnings, and then you’ll eventually just become them without realizing it. If you listen to them, you’ll become them on purpose. The question is how to become new and stay that way, how to be a stable point moving steadily from past into future without a neurotic relation to either—neither clinging nor leaping. This is the existential core of the strategic question on the left. It’s a question about growing up.