Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Memories Are Made of This

Simon Schama's 1989 history of the French Revolution, Citizens, memorably opens with a description of the monumental plaster elephant that stood in the Place de la Bastille between 1814 and 1846. It was a temporary structure erected on the order of Napoleon as a celebration of his victories and intended to be replaced by one cast in bronze from captured cannon. It long-outlived its purpose and was eventually eclipsed by the current monument, a column memorialising the dead of the 1830 July Revolution. Schama uses the increasingly decrepit elephant as a metaphor both for the obliteration of the 1789 revolution's history after the Thermidorian Reaction and the ultimate vanity of the revolutionaries' hopes, though their true monument was surely the dismantling of the Bastille Prison - i.e. the creative absence you still feel in the square as you circle the July Column. If Schama ideologically followed Francois Furet in seeing the Revolution as on-the-whole a bad thing (essentially liberalism perverted by the totalitarian left), then he followed the method of Furet's brother-in-law, Pierre Nora, the author of the monumental Les Lieux de Mémoire, in seeking to tell the story of the Revolution through its rhetorical expressions, from pamphlets to pageants.

Nora's even more comprehensive approach to French historiography (which ironically recuperated techniques pioneered by Debord and Foucault) would inspire the genre of popular world histories seen through the prism of a commodity: salt, pepper, the chronometer etc. It would also provide a background to the post-1989 debates on the removal of statues in Eastern Europe and the memorialising of resistance to Communist rule (the Gdansk shipyard gates, the site of Jan Palach's self-immolation in Prague etc). Unfortunately, this approach encouraged the idea that retiring some configurations of metal and marble and erecting others was sufficient in itself, which would eventually lead to the orgy of statue-toppling that obscured the far more damaging destruction of the institutions of the state in Iraq in 2003. What the focus on the symbolic in Eastern Europe hinted at was the high degree of continuity at the institutional level. This wasn't merely because democracy was adopted as a cover for existing networks by elites, though this clearly played a part, but because those states had institutions that were largely accepted as legitimate by the population. The two exceptions to this were East Germany and Russia: the one "taken over" by another institutional culture (to no little resentment), the other weakened by the fragmentation of the institutions of the USSR, which empowered now-private actors in state industries to entrench an oligarchy.

While many have drawn a parallel between Eastern Europe's monumental hygiene and the recent clashes over the memorials to white supremacy in the US, this equivalence tends to ignore the institutional dimension. Toppling statues is a perfectly reasonable activity, but it looks a lot like displacement unless there is an obvious symbolic value in a specific monument, like the notoriously near-empty Bastille. While some historians have rightly pointed out that most of the monuments to Confederate soldiers in the US were actually erected as symbols of the triumph of post-1890 "Jim Crow" laws, or resistance to civil rights in the 1960s, rather than memorials to the Civil War, this simply encourages the left to claim that these statues represent contemporary racism. That's obviously true in part, but it neglects the institutional basis to the persistence of that racism: the state house, the local sherrif, the conservative judiciary etc. The civil rights movement targeted institutions, not monuments. Donald Trump showed a better understanding of power, not to mention an appreciation of the idea that lieux des mémoire are more than just statues, when he pardoned the notorious former Arizonan sherrif, Joe Arpaio, for his abuse of the Constitution. That he also wants to rescind a lot of the National Monuments decreed by Barack Obama and previous presidents, specifically for the benefit of industry, should come as no surprise.

There appears to be an unconscious admission among centrists in the US that institutions are off limits, though whether this is due to a lack of imagination, or a fear that they are so far gone that the slightest pressure might lead to the complete collapse of the state, is hard to say. Much of the US "resistance" to Trump has been vapid and entitled precisely because it has focused on issues and symbols that are either marginal to popular concerns or seen as part of the establishment, such as quibbles over travel expenditure or insults directed at TV hosts. Though there is no shortage of popular delusion in the US, from the reality of angels to the intangibility of Obama's birth certificate, Democrats cannot attribute Hillary Clinton's failure solely to the lies over "Pizzagate" and her emails. Those tall tales merely reinforced an existing suspicion that she was untrustworthy and lacking in sympathy for ordinary people. Now, at a time when they should be challenging the institutional decay that has given rise to Trump, the Democrats remain wedded to old forms and familiar symbols, meaning that the defence of democracy against its presumed threats looks like the self-interested defence of institutions and norms that are anything but democratic (including the Democratic Party itself).

If the French have a wider symbolic vocabulary than Americans it is not down to any difference in their institutional resilience but to a greater anxiety over cultural cohesion. The French state has consciously sought to "make Frenchmen" since 1789 and many of its contemporary social frictions arise from that legacy, not least because it suffers a surfeit of lieux de mémoire and a constant demand to recognise more, particularly those that acknowledge the state's darker deeds in living memory, such as the Vel' d'Hiv and the Pont Saint-Michel. This debate around memory is ultimately a good thing, being a popular recognition of the state as a shared endeavour, even if it does lend an overly-theatrical air to proceedings. Macron's concern with symbolism, not to mention his expenditure on cosmetics, might strike many as ridiculous, but he is employing a conventional political grammar. In contrast, the US has a tradition of defining its sense of community in opposition: to native Americans, the British, Mexicans, subsequent waves of non-Protestant immigrants and, most obviously, blacks. Much of the current populism (i.e. anti-elitism) and distrust of Washington springs from this "agin-ness". The consequence is that identity is reduced to a handful of possessive symbols that anyone might own, such as the lawn flag, the handgun or the car, which encourages a defensive intransigence ("when you take it from my cold, dead hands") rather than an engagement with the federal public realm.

This explains the paradox of Americans as chauvinists who mistrust the nation state. Attempts to inculcate a more expansive patriotism in the French manner (one nation under a flag) have often struggled to get beyond the superficiality of performative patriotism: the hand on the heart, the stars-and-stripes pin on the lapel. It also suggests why the end of the American superlative after the 1970s (the best this, the best that) has been more disconcerting than the earlier relative decline in Britain. While the US moved from the hope of "It's morning again in America" to the petulance of "Make America great again", Britain settled down to watch It Ain't Alf Hot Mum and Only Fools and Horses, suggesting our admiration for entrepreneurialism was no more profound than our regret over empire. Britain has no shortage of chauvinists, but there would be few takers for a torchlight procession to defend the statue of Edward Colston. The irony of the current wave of American statue-bothering is that many of these monuments lost their resonance years ago, particularly since post-60s racism moved its symbolic focus to the spectre of race-inflected violence: "three strikes", concealed carry, Sheriff Joe etc. The compounding irony is that attempts by the "alt-right" to defend the statues have highlighted their irrelevance and inappropriateness, which is now accelerating their removal.

The turn to the symbolic in American political discourse suggests a renewed engagement by the general population with its history. This isn't peculiar to the one country: a similar tendency is to be seen across developed nations, perhaps because the contingency of the state has become more apparent under globalisation and so settled national narratives have come in for more interrogation. That neoliberalism has stimulated an interest in family history, essentially as a defence against fragmentation and the loss of memory, is self-evident, but it has also encouraged an appreciation of history as the product of many individual decisions and experiences (an ironic echo of Hayek's theory of dispersed knowledge). But if this engagement is limited to statuary, it will be no more fruitful that the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Democratic renewal in the US requires institutional reform, and that is only going to come through party reform. The problem is that the Democrats remain in denial about their own need for renewal, insisting that the plaster elephant of the Republican Party must surely crumble under the weight of its own decay and so leave the field to them. As Parisians could remind them, sometimes it takes a revolution to clear away the rubbish.

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