I. Politics of No Future?
In a recent issue of the New Left Reiew, art historian and leftist essayist T. J. Clark published an essay entitled “For a Left With No Future,” a manifesto of sorts—or, as Susan Watkins contends, a “counter manifesto” (79)—in which he insists that the European left should renounce any sort of utopian orientation in favor of a “politics in a tragic key” (Clark 2012, 59), what he calls, following a kind of nihilist-punk slogan, a politics of “no future.” His critique of the vision of an alternative, utopian future on the part of the revolutionary left (defined here as “root-and-branch opposition to capitalism”) has substantial consequences for the present not only of the European left, but also of the Latin American left, despite the fact that they currently find themselves [End Page 195] in radically disparate situations. “Is this pessimism?” asks Clark, responding:
Well, yes. But what other tonality seems possible in the face of the past ten years? How are we meant to understand the arrival of real ruination in the order of global finance…and the almost complete failure of left responses to it to resonate beyond the ranks of the faithful? Or to put the question another way: if the past decade is not proof that there are no circumstances capable of reviving the left in its nineteenth and twentieth-century form, then what would proof be like?(54–55)
The problem with this argument, in my view, has to do with the establishment of an opposition between a utopian future and a tragic future. If for Clark, it is vital to take a critical distance from the utopian in favor of a somewhat pessimistic “presentism” (Watkins 2012, 79), there remains a crucial blind spot in his logic: the tragic does not present an alternative to the utopian (nor can the utopian offer a way out of the tragic), because both utopian and tragic thought fall under the same sign of the future as calculable or predetermined. In the utopian version of the future, we know what it is that we desire, and it is only a question of whether this future will come about. In the tragic version of the future, or the tragic version without future, we know what we want, and we know that our desires will not come to fruition.
These two alternative futures, then, in reality prove to be no more than two sides of the same coin: a prescriptive politics, on one side, and a politics that would eliminate agency or action, that is, the very possibility of politics. As Gabriela Basterra argues in Seductions of Fate, when we choose to employ the adjective “tragic” to characterize catastrophic events, we “occlude our own involvement in the decision-making process that led to so much suffering, as well as our own responsibility for its outcome” (2004, 1): we abandon, simultaneously, the possibility of ethics and the possibility of politics. Both the utopian and the tragic, then, represent a politics of no future in their exclusion of the possibility of the unforeseen or unforeseeable, the incalculable, the very possibility of an event. In The Politics of Friendship (2005), Jacques Derrida writes of the future as the absolute other, the arrivant that we do not expect, [End Page 196] and for whom we are never prepared, not (or not only) due to the catastrophic nature of the arrival, but also because we lack a vocabulary, a lexicon, to think such a future: it exceeds the limits of representation (and, by extension, of politics).
If we are interested in, and committed to, the possibility of democracy—not the extant capitalist democracy, nor any other version of democracy that we could fathom, but a democracy-to-come, that is, incalculable—it is worth asking the following questions: What are the conditions of possibility for the thinking of democracy (as movement, as change itself, as event), or for reflecting upon that which is unthinkable? How can we trace different genealogies of (Latin Americanist) thought, of possible avenues of thinking, that would at once...