New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 665-678
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After Identity, Politics:
The Return of Universalism
The category of totality continues haunting us
through the effects that derive from its very absence.
Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) 1
For Ralph Cohen, main man
The Five Days That Shook the World in Seattle not only made mainstream media outlets for once withdraw their obituaries for the left but produced reflections in such places as The New Yorker on the return of anarchism to American politics. I write with the din of the August 2000 Democratic National Convention in my ears, where TV commentators now pin the appellation "anarchist" on protesters who don't fit the crafty profiles they normally reserve for people apparently unhappy with the teeth-gritting harmony of North American life. Obviously the latest way to traduce a left seemingly exhausted by its own identitarian navel-gazing and now (re-)awakening to the possibilities of wrecking shit, "anarchism," though shorn of its noble history in such usage, serves a rather terrific role in the present conjuncture. First, media people have to say the word, let it charge around their mouths; plus, since they use it as pretty much a synonym for anarchy as Matthew Arnold meant it, they and their audiences are thus required to imagine the unimaginable, that is, that the natural, the necessary smooth operations of daily life could conceivably just go all to hell; and finally, for those (even Democrats) who fancy they wouldn't mind seeing a thing or two shaken up a little, "anarchism" is a reminder to all that once the ball gets rolling you can never tell what might happen. 2
If anything, anarchists galvanized rather than derailed the great ensemble of organizations that descended on the World Trade Organization meetings in late 1999, then on the World Bank in Washington in April 2000. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn't? For this ensemble was produced out of a great variety of activist causes, interests, and (lord knows) strategies that in the streets found united-front expression in the campaign against the WTO. And it did so not by [End Page 665] prioritizing or universalizing in advance the fight against the chief institutions of global capitalist control, as though that fight essentially or (as an aged Engels famously wrote) "in the final instance" underlies all left activisms; not by simply and somewhat penitently deciding to "go back to class," as is now often urged by left and liberal fundamentalists of many types; and not, if the street-theatrical dimension of the Seattle protests is any indication, by engaging in "real" politics over against cultural politics. All of which, of course, we've been warned must happen on the left right about now--or else. No, the battles in Seattle were probably a great example of what Ernesto Laclau attempts to explain, or anyway sum up, in his latest text, Emancipation(s). For all the totalizing aura of an elite-body-with-its-fingers-on-the-pulse-of-global-capitalism, the WTO/World Bank is in fact a particularism--US capitalist hegemony, or maybe NATOpolitan capital, as E.P. Thompson often had it--dressed up as a global given. The achievement of the left in this case may just have been not to privilege economic dominance as such and organize an exclusive cohort to intervene on this plane and this one alone, but rather to accommodate a host of mutually indifferent or even typically antagonistic movements momentarily converging around a common objective. Commitments in common among orthodox marxists, lay socialists, AFL-CIO rank-and-file, anti-corporate social democrats, anarcho-syndicalists, a whole spectrum of environmentalists, no-sweatshop activists, various offshoots of the 50 Years Is Enough campaign, pierced post-grunge malcontents, and others, I would argue with Laclau in mind, were not "discovered" at last as some sort of preexisting essence but were "articulated" into a claim of totality or universality that nonetheless cannot be fixed and is not final. If it were, its political grounding would be either a totalitarian...