Ernst Bloch, nonsynchronism, and the Tea Party movement

The fever pitch of commentary on the racist and reactionary political phenomenon that goes by the name “Tea Party” since the recent primary elections necessitates at least an attempt at a class analysis of this movement. The often-used term “populist” is an inadequate description, as there have been strong movements in U.S. history with what can be broadly called leftist content, just as there have been right-wing populist movements.

The current reactionary backlash can best be understood as a revolt of the small bourgeoisie against the big bourgeoisie. This class—a large and influential one in U.S. society—is in part made up of small (and failed) business owners, entrepreneurs, retirees, and others fearful of being crushed by the workings of the economic system and thrown down into the proletariat, a fate worse than death in contemporary society. The members of this class have a strong objective tendency to identify with the long-gone laissez faire era of American capitalism, in which the state did not impinge upon what they consider their divinely-granted right to pay low wages. In fact, the economic program of the movement is basically identical to that of Herbert Hoover, the last political leader of U.S. capitalism before the consolidation of era of state-capitalism, which we are far from leaving today. The “socialism” that the Tea Party and its media allies rail against is in reality 100% American state-capitalism.

This economic program is ultimately one of the grave weaknesses of this movement and represents the chief impediment to its long-term viability. The big bourgeoisie (which is secure in the knowledge that it has the state as its helpmate and ultimate guardian) leads capitalist society and cannot and will not permit a return to earlier stage of capitalism, one which has definitively perished and to which humanity will never return. The Bernanke/Paulson/Geithner policy of massive state intervention into the private economy, so-called, is what saved capitalism capitalism from itself in 2008. The big bourgeoisie knows this and is not going to countenance an attempt to return the U.S. economy to the tenets of the 1920s, even if this were possible.

The constitution fetish of the movement is, similarly, a throwback to the era of nullification and states rights, revealing the organic affinity of the Tea Party to the segregationists of the 1960s. Despite his subsequent disclaimers, U.S. senate candidate Rand Paul’s stated antipathy to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 graphically exposed the position of the movement on the issue.

I supply below several excerpts from Heritage of Our Times (1935), a magnificent philosophical and cultural critique of the phenomenon of fascism in German society by Ernst Bloch. Bloch develops here his idea of “nonsynchronism,” that is, the idea that different classes of a society may be co-existing contemporaneously in objective terms, but subjectively dwelling in different periods of cultural development. Although Bloch was a loyal supporter of the Communist Party, and therefore, its line on the Nazis, he criticizes here the limitations that made the Communist line totally inadequate to combat the subjective appeal that Hitler had for large segments of German society.

Much of what Bloch develops here is on the strength of Germany’s pre-capitalist cultural remnants. The U.S., however, was born with capitalism (the year 1776 saw both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations) and has no such equivalent phenomenon. Despite this, I believe the idea of nonsynchronism has great relevance for comprehending the current  backward-looking, right-wing revival.

These excerpts come from a translation of the chapter titled “Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics,” which appeared in the Spring 1977 issue of New German Critique. The translation is by Mark Ritter. Heritage of Our Times was published in its entirety in 1991 in a translation by Neville and Stephen Plaice, who also collaborated on the translation of Bloch’s greatest work, the three-volume The Principle of Hope.

•••

Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics

(excerpt from section)

A. Early State of Affairs

Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, by virtue of the fact that they may all be seen today. But that does not mean that they are living at the same time with others.

Rather, they carry earlier things with them, things which are intricately involved. One has one’s times according to where one stands corporeally, above all in terms of classes. Times older than the present continue to effect older strata; here it is easy to return or dream one’s way back to older times. Certainly, a person who is simply awkward and who for that reason is not up to the demands of his position, is only personally unable to keep up. But what if there are other reasons why he does not fit into a very modern organization, such as the after-effects of peasant descent, what if he is an earlier type? In general, different years resound in the one that has just been recorded and prevails. Moreover, they do not emerge in a hidden way as previously but rather, they contradict the Now in a very peculiar way, awry, from the rear. The strength of this untimely course has become evident; it promised nothing less than new life, despite its looking to the old. Even the masses flock to it since the unbearable Now at least seems different with Hitler, who paints good old things for everyone. There is nothing more unexpected, nothing more dangerous than this power of being at once fiery and puny, contradicting and nonsynchronous. The workers are no longer alone with themselves and the bosses. Many earlier forces, from quite a different Below, are beginning to slip between.

(excerpt from section)

B. Nonsynchronisms, Reported

As we know, the urban type, too, has been learning to lag behind for the past few years. An immiserated middle class wants to return to prewar conditions when it was better off. It is immiserated and hence susceptible to revolution, but its work is wide of the mark and its memories make it completely out of touch with the times. Insecurity, which produces only homesickness for what has been as a revolutionary impulse, sets characters into the middle of the city such as have not been seen for centuries. But here, too, misery does not invent anything or not everything; rather, it only divulges something, namely, nonsynchronism, which was long latent or seemed at most to be from yesterday, but which now refreshes itself beyond the Yesterday in an almost mysterious St. Vitus’ Dance. Older types of being thus occur right in the city, older ways of thinking and objects of hate as well, such as the image of Jewish usury as exploitation itself. The infringement of “interest slavery” (Zinsknechtschaft) is believed in, as if this were the economy of 1500; superstructures that seemed long overturned right themselves again and stand still in today’s world as whole medieval city scenes. Here is the Tavern of the Nordic Blood, there the castle of the Hitler duke, yonder the Church of the German Reich, an earth church, in which even the city people can feel themselves to be fruits of the German earth and honor the earth as something holy, as the confessio of German heroes and German history. This sort of patriotism, this foam at the mouth and dimming eye with which people honor Germany in Germany, is not merely a substitute for the lost sense of station. “The power and honor of the land” is not merely a dream (a very convenient dream for the arms industry), which with its collective feelings compensates the individual petty bourgeois for his factual powerlessness and degradation. This is not just a transfusion of the “chosen people” to a Germanic, completely idolatrous object; rather, the obvious excesses recall a primitive-atavistic “participation mystique,” the ties of primitive man to the soil which contains his ancestral spirits. More than ever, the petty bourgeoisie is the moist, warm humus for ideology. But it is also clear that the ideology spreading today has long roots, longer than the petty bourgeoisie.

Peasants sometimes still believe in witches and exorcists, but not nearly as frequently and as strongly as a large class of urbanites believe in ghostly Jews and the new Baldur. The peasants sometimes still read the so-called Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, a sensational tract about diseases of animals and the forces and secrets of nature; but half the middle class believes in the Elders of Zion, in Jewish snares and the omnipresence of Freemason symbols and in the galvanic powers of German blood and the German land. The white-collar worker lashes out wildly and war-like; he still wants to obey, but only as a soldier, struggling, believing. The desire of the white-collar worker not to be proletarian intensifies to orgiastic pleasure in subordination, in magic civil service under a duke. The ignorance of the white-collar worker as he searches for past levels of consciousness, transcendence in the past, increases to an orgiastic hatred of reason, to a “chthonism,” in which there are berserk people and images of the cross, in which indeed—with a nonsynchronism that verges on extraterritoriality—Negro drums rumble and central Africa rises up. The reason: the middle class (in distinction to the proletariat) does not directly take part in production at all, but enters it only in intermediary activities, at such a distance from social causality that with increasing ease an alogical space can form in which primal drives and romanticisms, wishes and mythicisms come to the fore. Even the directly economic content of middle-class fascism is nonsynchronous or has become so since freedom of trade and industry has benefited only the large entrepreneurs and destroyed the small ones; parliamentary democracy is in this way the hated guarantor of free competition and its corresponding political form form. Instead of free competition, the corporative state wishes to lead the economy back to the level of the early capitalist small enterprise; it recommends itself to big capital as an instrument against the class struggle, to the middle class precisely as its salvation and the up-to-date, romantic expression of its non-synchronism. Likewise, the middle class cannot hold out ideologically within “rationalization” and sacrifices ratio that much sooner, the more it has appeared to the middle class only in hostile form, doubly hostile. That is, it appears as mere late capitalist rationalization and as a subversion of traditional intrinsic values—equally late capitalist, but understood as “Marxist-Jewish.” The superman, the blond beast, the biographical cry for the great man, the scent of a witches’ kitchen, of a time long past-all these signs of flight from relativism and nihilism, which had become the stuff of educated discussions in the salons of the educated upper classes, became genuine political land in the catastrophe of the middle class. It is, to be sure, still occupied only by employees, no matter how savage it seems; its houses are those of the family and “clean” business, be it of the pre-war era, be it of the corporative state; and the benefits go to the monopoly capitalist upper class, which utilizes gothic dreams against proletarian realities.

(excerpt from section)

E. The Logical Constitution of Nonsynchronous Contradictions

In a resolution about fascism formulated by communists it was once said that it contains within itself both the offensive of the ruling class and the elements of its dissolution; in short, that it reflects the contradictions of late capitalist development and thereby its own demise. This is completely correct, but does not exhaust the nonsynchronous contents which express themselves remotely enough in pent-up anger and left-over ties.

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