Since the 2011 uprising in Tunisia, the world has seen the repeated eruption of mass protests and social movements. These include the variety of conflicts that came to be labeled the “Arab Spring,” the anti-austerity protests in Greece and the struggles of the Indignados Movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street and its numerous offshoots, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States (with increasing evidence of reverberations in Europe), among many other examples, globally. Some of these protests initially had very specific objectives, such as protesting the gentrification of Gezi Park in Istanbul or the increase of bus fares in Brazil, while others, such as Occupy, were more generalized expressions of discontent with inequality, precarity, corruption, and democratic deficit. Activists and scholars have observed that these protests were both locally specific and globally oriented, connected by diffuse hopes for a global insurrection against neoliberal capitalism (e.g., Graeber 2013; Juris and Rasza 2012; Lorey 2011). Moreover, practical and political connections among these struggles were not only hoped for but also actively pursued and elaborated. For example, activists from Ljubljana traveled to Tunis and Barcelona to learn from the organizing experiences of their counterparts, while after the overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship, nearly 30,000 Tunisians migrated to Europe, mainly to France by way of Italy, and some squatted in buildings in Paris with bold proclamations that they had come in a spirit of revolutionary generosity to assist the anti-austerity struggles in Europe (Garelli et al. 2013; NKC 2016).
Most of the participants in this global wave of protest were not interested in “politics,” conventionally understood, and did not orient their struggles primarily to electoral politics, if at all. They rebelled against the institutions of existing political regimes without proposing clearly articulated alternatives. As Ivan Krastev (2014) has noted, the protests were often explosions of moral indignation, ends in and of themselves. This, however, does not mean that the movements associated with them did not have any goals at all. Occupy, for example, aimed to prefigure forms of organizing collective togetherness that the movement’s participants wished to see in the future, such as horizontal and consensus-based models of decision making (e.g., Graeber 2013; Juris and Rasza 2012; Mitchell et al. 2013). While celebrated by many, these forms of togetherness have also been subject to significant critique, pointing to the problem of multiplicity and difference at precisely the point of imagined unity and equality (see also Juris and Khasnabish 2013). For example, Emahunn Raheem Ali Campbell (2011) has suggested that the lack of structure that characterized the Occupy movement risked disabling the participation of Black people with distinct histories of struggle and divergent organizational orientations (see also Rasza and Kumik 2012). Thus, it might be the very emphasis on unstructured equality, contingency, improvisation, and radical openness within the Occupy movement that both reflected and constituted cultural homogeneity rather than grappled with difference. Horizontal togetherness risked being complicit with structural racism by way of overlooking the deeply consequential ways in which it has produced real divisions among the people assembled together in the public square as differently racialized subjects.
However fraught, recent protest movements have inspired great enthusiasm among activists and scholars who have been hopeful that these struggles could offer openings for thinking beyond—and potentially overcoming in practice—the oppressive present generated by the hegemony of speculative finance capitalism and security state formations. Notably, similar sentiments—though articulated with profoundly different understandings of the world—seem to be present on the right-wing end of the political spectrum as well. Here, hope attaches to political formations that promise to deliver people from disaffection and dispossession, but also from the domination of so-called liberal, multiculturalist, and cosmopolitan elites (De Genova 2018). These elites are charged with failing to recognize the grievances of “the people” regarding deteriorating living standards, the paucity of life prospects, technocracy, and the alienation wrought by the oblique forces of “globalization.” In this regard, it is instructive to recall Wilhelm Reich’s ( 1970) incisive reflections on the mass psychology of fascism and the affective dynamics of its populist appeal among those who would have conventionally been expected to respond to the appeals of the left. Reich’s poignant critique of the left’s failure in the face of fascism turns on precisely his appreciation of “trivial, banal, primitive, simple everyday life … the desires of the broadest masses,” which the left failed to comprehend or take seriously ( 1966: 291; emphasis in original; cf.  1970: 6–7).
The discontent and deepening misery that can be found to motivate those on both sides of the conventional political spectrum can also be mobilized by political forces that seem to exceed or circumvent customary left-right distinctions. For example, in response to racist oppression and related class-based grievances, some disaffected second- and third-generation “Muslim” Europeans have turned to Islamism. Plainly, a “radicalized” politics of Muslim identity appears to afford one kind of ostensible retort to the hegemonic anti-Muslim racism and generalized suspicion against them that have become increasingly prominent fixtures of European sociopolitical life, and that often can be as vociferous on the traditional left as among far-right populists (see De Genova 2007a, 2010a). At the same time, the mere fact that the term “radicalization” has been so thoroughly repurposed to refer virtually exclusively to the amorphous spectral menace of “Muslim extremism” reminds us that the viability of radical social and political imaginaries for alternative futures presents itself as an urgent contemporary problem.
The precise ways in which forms of neoliberal dispossession and mass discontent get articulated through heterogeneous and divergent political ideologies across the globe is, and should be, of urgent interest to critical scholars. In this theme section, we contribute to furthering understandings of these contradictory processes by reflecting on the proliferation of what we are calling the desire for the political in the extended post–Cold War era. We are interested in the wider social manifestations of this desire, whether in mass protest movements or everyday life, as well as in the ways that critical scholarship invests hope in these efforts to negotiate or struggle with questions of an alternative future. We seek to reflect on affective attachments to actors, actions, and imaginaries that seem to hold the promise of overcoming the oppressive present and the dystopian futures inherent in it. Ours is a situated engagement from the vantage point of, first, scholarship that distinguishes itself as a critique of the hegemonic status quo, and second, Europe, or more specifically, people and places that are in Europe, geopolitically speaking, but “not quite” European if viewed in relation to “Europe” as a normative trope. This theme section should therefore be seen as a contribution toward provincializing both Europe and critical scholarship, from within (Chakrabarty 2000; cf. De Genova 2016; Dzenovska 2013, 2018).
Desire for the political
The “desire for the political,” as we are positing it, is shaped by two sets of tensions: first, the desire to criticize power via forms of action conventionally characterized as “politics,” but without a clear analysis of how power is organized or exercised, and consequently without any definitive sense of how to effectively intervene in the political field; and second, the desire to overcome the present—understood as a condensation of historically specific sociopolitical and economic conditions, experienced in expressly temporal terms—in the name of an alternative (better) future, but without an ideology of future and consequently without a clear vision or imagination of the form that such a future sociopolitical and economic condition might take.
It is useful for the purposes of analysis to recall one version of the distinction between “politics” and “the political” that has become quite commonplace across much of contemporary political theory, and that has been adopted by scholars and activists alike. In one instantiation, Chantal Mouffe, drawing on Carl Schmidt’s elaboration of the concept of the political, writes: “by political I mean the dimension of antagonism which I take to be constitutive of human societies, while by politics I mean a set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human existence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political” (2005: 9). In the current historical moment, if we take the political to be that wider field of contingency and struggle that exceeds established regimes of “politics,” the political seems to be more tangible than ever. With the neoliberal narrowing and flattening of “politics,” there is a proliferation of manifestations of a desire for the political that repudiates “politics” as such. More and more subjects effectively come to be expelled from the dominant political order of states and from normative forms of political, economic, and social life, and are consequently taking action in response to such exclusions. Hence, there is a multiplication of populist revolts—both on the left and right, and often ambiguously straddling the two—against “politics as usual.” Nonetheless, simultaneously, the political seems more elusive than ever, because commonplace understandings of how power works are insufficient, and the future becomes difficult to imagine as anything other than dystopia.
For much of the twentieth century, within the context of a bipolar Cold War geopolitical world order characterized by the juxtaposition of US capitalist “democracy” and Soviet “communism,” the diagram of politics seemed legible, the workings of power seemed clear, and competing futures were easier to imagine. Class-based political struggles in the West entailed a critique of power and imaginaries of the future that were informed by socialist struggles at home while pressed to account for themselves, often agonistically, in relation to “actually existing socialisms” abroad. The collapse of Soviet state socialism not only heralded the end of the bipolar world order but also derailed imaginaries of the future associated with it, and still more importantly, disoriented understandings of how power is organized and exercised. At the same time, while the newfound “unipolarity” of the United States as the world’s sole superpower has plainly multiplied its imperial misadventures in recent years (Harvey 2003; Smith 2005), the disappearance of a globally tenable “communist” rival to American “free world” democracy has nevertheless paradoxically cleared the space for an efflorescence of pro-democracy protest movements that are often explicitly anticapitalist. In Latin America, for example, pro-democracy and ostensibly antineoliberal insurgencies have embraced—rather than moved away from—state-based varieties of socialism (Grandin 2006). Notably, the resurgence of the Latin American left has occurred precisely when there appeared to be “no existing alternative economic system to capitalism” (Lomnitz 2007: 24). However, instead of being globally oriented, post–Cold War Latin American socialism is predominantly grounded in “national traditions and imaginaries of autonomy and self-governance” (Lomnitz 2007: 24; cf. Grandin 2017). In addition, the Latin American left has increasingly come to be articulated horizontally with a proliferation of “new” social movements, prominently distinguished by various indigenous and feminist politics of decolonization and accompanying calls for pluralism (Grandin 2017; cf. Cadena 2010; Escobar 2010; Viveiros de Castro 1998). Thus, on the one hand, the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European socialisms and the associated unsettling of the legitimacy of socialist imaginaries in some parts of the world was disorienting and demoralizing on the global scale by opening up very material prospects for aggressive neoliberal capitalist strategies of accumulation. On the other hand, the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European socialisms opened the possibility for worlds beyond what was imagined or conceivable within the constricted horizon of the global bipolar order of things.
In some parts of the globe, the resulting multiplication of possible worlds is accompanied by a sense of fragmentation and loss. This equivocal sense of loss is evident in contemporary forms of political desire—for example, in well-worn lamentations of the demise of more formulaic varieties of (trade unionist) working-class politics and class-based forms of solidarity in Europe. There is a parallel sense of loss of a “translocal vehicle for local dreams” in the places formerly known as the Third World (Prashad 2007). Notably, this sense of loss is accompanied by a persistent search for incipient political subjects in both politics and scholarship. These include emergent collective subjects mobilized against neoliberal austerity and precarization, such as the Occupy or Indignados movements (Juris and Khashnabish 2013; Mitchell et al. 2013). These also include marginalized subjects whose marginality pushes them to craft strategies of life and struggle in innovative ways, such as irregular migrants (De Genova 2010b, 2017; Tsianos and Papadopoulos 2012) or people effectively abandoned by both neoliberal capitalism and the biopolitical state (e.g., Berlant 2007; Gibson-Graham 2005; Li 2009; Povinelli 2009). The work of connecting forms of dispossession with enabling forms of politics consequently tends to be undertaken by activist intellectuals (often including academics). While constituted through contemporary forms of dispossession, however, such subjects may or may not act in accord with the scholarly or activist hopes invested in them.
Political desire thus proliferates both within social movements and in critical scholarship. There are concrete relations and more diffuse elective affinities through which political desire can be traced in both terrains, whether in the form of participation in movements or in searching for alternative worlds and futures in these movements. But this political desire seems to be confounded by the fact that there is now a multiplication of disparate forms of dispossession—and of potentially incommensurable presents, pasts, and futures—and therefore also of political possibilities, without at the same time a clear set of criteria for distinguishing among them. On the one hand, this is to be celebrated, as much of critical scholarship has focused on multiplicity in lieu of homogeneity. On the other hand, it is disorienting politically, insofar as political action and the formation of collective political subjects requires an object of attachment, whereas uniting around the idea of multiplicity remains difficult, despite, for instance, attempts to think of a collective political subject through the notion of multitude (Hardt and Negri 2005). In the absence of a unifying future and collective political identification, affective attachment seems to be increasingly directed toward the search process itself. Desire attaches to the search for alternative realities and futures, as well as for political subjects that inhabit them, prefigure them, or can bring them about. But it is also haunted by affective attachment to futures past, that is, to critiques of power conceived within the bipolar world order, with its political antagonisms and specific ideologies around which people could craft collective political identities and imagine alternative futures.
Futures past: Critique and politics in a bipolar world
Many scholars socialized in Western social theory, whether the principal intellectual frame of reference be Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, or the various poststructuralist variants thereof, think of themselves as engaged in the work of critique. This project of critique is informed by the imagination of the possibility that things could be otherwise, and indeed that we could be “other than we are” (Foucault 2007). While the precise contours of what counts as a modern project of critique are constantly shifting as it responds to political events and socioeconomic transformations, capitalism and the state, as well as ways of being associated with them, remain its consistent targets. Insofar as this project of critique is conceived as pushing against the limits of the dominant ways of thinking and organizing collective life, the nature and effects of critical intellectual work are also thought and hoped to be meaningfully political (Foucault 2007; cf. Butler 2001; Fassin 2017; Ortner 2016; Scott 1994).
The political antagonism of the Cold War period was a significant if not defining context for the imaginaries of the political, as well as for the particular ways in which concrete political achievements took shape in the West—the welfare state and social democracy are only the most obvious examples. It was also a significant context for a variety of developmentalist projects in the Third World, often with the explicit aim of “containing” the spread of socialism. The reemergence of developmentalist socialist projects in Latin America after the end of the Cold War, furthermore, only attests to the salience of the constraints of the preceding bipolar world order (e.g., Lomnitz 2007). Thus, “actually existing socialisms,” along with various strands of Marxist theory (which included important critiques of “actually existing socialisms”), shaped imaginings of alternative futures that animated the Western project of critique as a project of thinking beyond the present. These visions of future continue to haunt contemporary critical scholarship, even as it claims to keep the future open. For example, in his critical engagement with the anthropological literature on hope—a literature that commonly emphasizes hope’s indeterminacy (e.g., Miyazaki 2004, 2006)—Stef Jansen (2016) reminds us that Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, which has served as an inspiration for much of this literature, retained a very specific idea of the “good society” to which hope attaches, namely, a communist society. Quite a few eminent social theorists—think of Antonio Negri, Felix Guattari, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Jodi Dean, and Slavoj Žižek, to name but a few—who offer insights about what power, politics, and futures can or should look like after the end of the bipolar world order have been shaped by similar political traditions. Consequently, the prevalent conceptions of alternative futures (open, multiple, indeterminate, or otherwise) often retain the residual political imprimaturs of “futures past” that were forged during the defining geopolitical conflicts of the twentieth century.
For anthropologists and some postcolonial scholars, another source of inspiration for the modern project of critique has been “non-Western difference.” From Marcel Mauss’s ( 2011) critique of Western exchange relations to David Graeber’s (2001, 2011) avowedly neo-Maussian theorizations of value and debt, to the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology (Cadena 2010; Escobar 2010; Holbraad and Pedersen 2014; Povinelli 2014; Viveiros de Castro 1998), to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2000) call to “provincialize Europe” through the prism of “historical difference,” the existence and persistence of “difference” in relation to capitalist and state socialist forms of power has been analytically and politically generative. In the current moment of disorientation, many anthropologists have explicitly renewed their efforts to bring insights about other—often non-Western—worlds and futures to bear upon the project of critique and politics. Perhaps the most prominent exemplar, Graeber (2007), has sought to revitalize anarchist politics, specifically encouraging a rethinking of anarchist confrontations with the state by arguing that (“actually existing”) tribal “anarchists” in Madagascar live perfectly egalitarian lives by retreating from the state rather than directly challenging it. Similarly, Ghassan Hage (2015) suggests that the ontological turn in anthropology, inspired by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (1988) work on Amerindian perspectivism, can inspire radical politics by illuminating the simultaneous existence of multiple realities, including in Western contexts, and thereby can recuperate minor traditions and subjugated knowledges. For so many anthropologists, (culturalized) difference seems to offer an escape hatch.
Not only does this approach tend to take at face value the reliability and validity of the ethnographic archive of disciplinary forebears as so many trustworthy (“true”) accounts of cultural others, in disregard for the constitutive contradictions of the colonial heritage of that archive, it also risks lapsing into a dehistoricized essentialism about more or less pure and pristine models of “other cultures.” That is to say, the critical and political traction of “non-Western difference” varies substantially depending on whether difference is conceived as existing “out there” or whether it is conceived as a relation of consequentiality that emerges through a historically specific and often antagonistic (postcolonial) interrelation of concurrence and encounter (e.g., McClure 1995).
Anthropology is particularly well positioned to help. And not only because most actually-existing self-governing communities, and actually-existing non-market economies in the world have been investigated by anthropologists rather than sociologists or historians. It is also because the practice of ethnography provides at least something of a model, if a very rough, incipient model, of how non-vanguardist revolutionary intellectual practice might work.(2004: 11; cf. Sahlins 1996: 405)
A noteworthy feature of anthropological projects that have mobilized difference for radical politics is that they tend to emphasize spatiality over temporality. In an effort to counter the positing of alterity as not only “outside” but also “behind” on the Western temporal and spatial map of modernity, critical scholars have invoked “non-Western difference” as a tool for speaking back to power from various contemporaneous elsewheres. If these contemporaneous elsewheres could provide resources for critiques of Western colonial capitalism and European cultural imperialism, however, they did not seem to generate imaginaries of futures that could inspire collective political action beyond their immediate contexts: they provided examples that were useful to think with, but inasmuch as they were ethnographically parochialized as the peculiar cultural configurations of specific peoples’ “difference,” they largely remained, like those “native”-ized peoples themselves, effectively “incarcerated in space” and time (Appadurai 1988: 37).
In contrast, anticolonial struggles for self-determination meant that there was always another Third World, which as Vijay Prashad clarifies, “was not a place” but rather “a project” through which the formerly colonized majority of humankind “dreamed of a new world” and, indeed, hoped for an alternative future (2007: xv). However, insofar as the hegemonic post–World War II project of decolonization tended to be posited in nationalist terms as one of state building, it too was spatially oriented and parochializing—inherently a politics of location—in a manner that largely failed to account for the precisely global capitalist underpinnings of enduring Eurocentrism and postcolonial misery. The post–World War II project of decolonization criticized the violence of Western/colonial forms of power and knowledge, which subjugated or exterminated other forms of life, but because it tended to embrace the postcolonial modularity of Western/nationalist forms of power and knowledge, it reproduced and even exacerbated colonial inequalities and antagonisms (Sharma and Wright 2009). As a result, elite and statist projects of decolonization could never really articulate viable visions of alternative political futures.
Those that did challenge anticolonial nationalisms via anticolonial internationalism generally turned to Marxist visions of socialist futures and politics. For example, Manu Goswami’s (2012) work illustrates how particular formulations of colonial internationalism “refused to territorialize history in an ethnic register” by upholding an “internationalist conception of historical time.” That is to say, the more robust expressions of a temporal imagination of the future in critiques of Western imperialism specifically enunciated from the context of the colonized world tended to be very much linked with socialist imaginaries of the future (see also Buck-Morss 2000). Yet, at the same time, this colonial internationalism also drew on non-Western pasts; there was, in other words, a double articulation of future corresponding to a redoubled history, entailing the world history that integrally connected each and every colonial context as a necessary and constitutive moment within the global dynamics of capitalism and empire, and the ostensibly “local” history that was subjugated thereby, but which remained a recalcitrant resource for anticolonial struggle in ways that bedeviled empire with historically specific sociopolitical contradictions.
Over the twentieth century, then, critique unfolded in a triangular manner between capitalism, socialism, and difference, with the latter two, taken together (with all their tensions and contradictions notwithstanding), serving as real-world counterpoints to capitalism and colonialism and a resource for imagining worlds before and after capitalist and imperial forms of power. This triangulation was further complicated by several partly overlapping and partly divergent articulations of “the West” and its others. The West of European colonialism and Eurocentrism was constituted in relation to what came to be known as the Third World, whereas the West of the so-called free world was constituted during the Cold War era always in relation to the communist “East.” Simultaneously, this distinctly Cold War West was itself predicated on the avowedly anticolonial imperialism of the United States as an ascendant hegemon as much committed to undermining (indeed, parochializing) the European colonial powers in favor of a new world order premised on post-colonial independence and national sovereignty (De Genova 2007b, 2010a). At the same time, the communist “East” was itself fractured into a Eurocentric or Russophilic Soviet/Eastern European “East” and various orientalizing and racializing visions of “backward” or “semicolonial” places and “Asiatic” peoples within the greater Eurasian Soviet socialist sphere of influence, as well as the People’s Republic of China and the ensuing proliferation of other postcolonial socialist contexts. From the perspective of many postcolonial or Third World projects, the communist alternative associated with the Soviet sphere was itself always already part of the West, as was Marxism generally, thus giving rise to activist and scholarly projects that have persistently sought to problematize this relationship, without the realistic option of repudiating or relinquishing it completely.
The premier academic exemplar of this approach is Chakrabarty’s (2000) aforementioned Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty’s work underscores how critiques of power and imaginaries of pasts (and potentially futures as well) had to repeatedly renegotiate Eurocentrism and navigate its differentiating logics. Notably, Tomasz Zarycki (2014) has recently demonstrated how (postsocialist) Eastern Europeans remain analogously caught in webs of orientalization as simultaneously orientalized and orientalizing subjects—“Europeans” but not quite, with no clearly visible possibility of exiting this contradictory condition.
The temporalities and spatialities of the political
Critique—and politics—as pushing against the limits of the present necessarily implies grappling with particular spatial and temporal imaginations. Similar to political desire, these are inescapably linked to, while also exceeding, the spatiotemporal configuration of the defining political antagonisms of the twentieth century. As Susan Buck-Morss (2000: 22) has argued, the juxtaposition of capitalism and socialism was also one between spatially and temporally oriented worldviews, the former associated with a nationally ordered global space and the latter with global “internationalist” class warfare and world revolution. But the future-oriented temporality of critical scholarship, past or present, does not only derive from socialism. It is part of capitalist imaginaries as well, or as Reinhart Koselleck (1985) has argued, it is a fundamental feature of the age of Enlightenment. According to Koselleck, the Enlightenment replaced the cyclical temporality of Western thought and practice with a “progressive” one, which entailed the idea that the future signals progress, whether socialist or otherwise. In Koselleck’s (1985: 272) interpretation, political action is the kind of action that brings about the future as progress, whether understood as ever-more perfect iterations of the existing order or their radical transformation. The very split whereby iterations of the existing order come to be seen as “politics” and radical transformation as linked with “the political” is a product of this Enlightenment-inflected teleological conception of progress. In the process of struggle internal to the Enlightenment tradition, a capitalist version of progress comes to be articulated through the figure of the nation, albeit within a nationally ordered (global) space, whereas the socialist version of progress posits radically different post-national (“internationalist”) futures configured on a global scale.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a counter-politics articulated vis-à-vis one or another socialist imaginary is intrinsically future-oriented, focusing on overcoming the global present in the name of something better yet to be realized, whereas counter-politics articulated vis-à-vis the imaginary of colonized spaces has been predominantly oriented toward “decolonizing” these spaces and the forms of life associated with them, often in the narrow sense of driving out foreign domination and liberating a would-be “national” territory for “home rule” (Sharma and Wright 2009). There is a variegated nexus of gradations in between, especially in post–Cold War Latin America, where nominal postcolonial independence came much earlier, historically (Lazar 2014; Lomnitz 2007). Nevertheless, this distinction works well as a heuristic device for pointing out that the collapse of “actually existing socialisms” (and the associated discrediting of “socialism” in those parts of the world that experienced it) has stunted temporally oriented critique. Where, then—we must ask—is the imaginary of a better future to come from?
It might be worth considering whether, in the absence of a temporal framework for critique, the political gets reimagined as a repetitive succession of acts or gestures intended to reaffirm the necessity to reclaim space (as in neo-nationalist populisms and anti-immigrant/xenophobic imaginaries, for example). Thus, while the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the fall of state socialism has been customarily linked with the past, it should perhaps be rethought in relation to the loss of the future in political imaginaries after socialism. Taking this further, we might then think of the resurgence across much of the Western world of the political far right, and reactionary populisms generally—from the Brexit campaign’s demand to “take back control of our borders” to US President Donald Trump’s bombastic pledge to “make America great again”— in terms of their distinctly inward-looking spatial preoccupations and their pronouncedly nostalgic and backward-looking sense of time as a peculiarly postsocialist phenomenon. Recognizably “leftist” imaginaries, as represented by the anomalous rise of such figures as US Senator Bernie Sanders and British MP Jeremy Corbyn, are met with a far-reaching united front of derision fueled by the presumptuous confidence that socialism has already been conclusively discredited. Moreover, these moderately “left” alternatives within the dominant institutional framework of electoral politics seem to be distinctly ill-matched for inspiring anything resembling revolutionary passion. Even if we disavow official “politics” in favor of a desire for altogether different ways of living and a hope for a radically alternative future, however, attempts to reimagine the class struggle—as, for example, vis-à-vis such concepts as the multitude (Hardt and Negri 2005) or the precariat (Standing 2011)—have also been unable to put forth an equally powerful and affectively appealing alternative. Meanwhile, critical scholars and activists alike watch in dread and perplexity as alternative futures are offered by forces ranging from right-wing nationalist demagogues to religious fundamentalists, even if those futures often bear a suspicious resemblance to near or distant pasts that are surely impossible to rejuvenate.
In such conditions, it is not surprising to observe among critical scholars and their interlocutors a variety of affective attachments to what Koselleck (1985) instructively calls “futures past,” that is, futures promised by previous hegemonic modes of power, such as the Fordist model of capitalism, which have been thoroughly eroded or gutted in the neoliberal present (Muehlebach and Shoshan 2012; Weston 2012). For example, Lauren Berlant (2007) identifies a desire for capitalism’s promises of the good life as “aspirational normativity” (see also Povinelli 2009). Importantly, “aspirational normativity,” as well as the nostalgia for futures past, tends to be exhibited by marginalized subjects for whom futures past were always futures deferred, that is, the futures that others could access but that were always out of reach for them. For example, Andrea Muehlebach and Nitzan Shoshan argue that the melancholic subjects that figure prominently in their special issue on post-Fordist affect “are often found at the bottom of the social ladder, scavenging for the approximations of Fordist security and stability for which many of their hyper-privileged counterparts tend to have little patience” (2012: 336). From the perspective of such futures past, the actual future often seems to be in decline; it appears only as ruination or death (Dzenovska, this issue; Gordillo 2014; Ringel 2014). Ensuring a future in such contexts means preventing further decline, sustaining rather than overcoming the present, or at least extending it so as to go on living just a little bit longer. The future appears not as something that can deliver people from the present but rather as something from which the present itself needs to be saved.
The simultaneous diminution and multiplication of futures—be they messianic, dystopian, or pragmatic—have generated multiple affective attachments. Alongside the post-Fordist (Muehlebach and Shoshan 2012; Weston 2012) and postsocialist variants of nostalgia, (Berdahl 2010; Boyer 2006; Jansen and Löfving 2007; Shoshan 2012), scholars have also turned their attention to hope (e.g., Mar 2005; Pine 2014; Miyazaki 2004, 2006). Hiroko Miyazaki (2006) has urged anthropologists to “replicate the spark of hope” that they find in the world as a method in anthropology that opens up to indeterminate futures. Jansen (2016), in turn, has pointed to the possible pitfalls of such a project of replication. Jansen contends that articulating hope with indeterminate and open futures risks overlooking the concrete contours of hope as it emerges relationally in particular ethnographic and historical circumstances. The hope of ethnographic interlocutors is not necessarily—or not only—open-ended affective attachment to indeterminate futures. For example, Sarajevans hoping for a win in a football game is a very concrete, focused hope that gains its force precisely in relation to a more general malaise of hopelessness. Quite often, then, hope attaches to specific objects, such as a reasonably functioning state. Jansen argues that these attachments should therefore be understood contextually, rather than folded into indeterminate political openings and utopian imaginings.
Nevertheless, in the absence of the possibility of attachment to concrete futures or collectivities, or under conditions when an attachment by critical scholars to specific futures and concrete collectivities may be viewed with suspicion or derision, political desire attaches to desire itself—namely, to hopeful attachment to the search for futures, politics, and subjects thereof. As Ghassan Hage (2015: loc. 156) argues, “a passion for the political constitutes the very ground on which enthusiasm for the humanities and social science can take place.” Hence, we are invited to contemplate whether the desire for the political in critical scholarship may really serve as a kind of performance or agonistic enunciation of a desire for desire itself—a desire to rekindle or recapture a passion for political struggle and social change that may have become bewildered by the demise of the political grammar of the bipolar geopolitical order now past, or that may have gone cold in the course of conducting academic careers within the constraints of actually existing neoliberalism.
Political desire in “not quite” Europe
The contributions in this theme section engage with people and places that can be variously considered “not quite” European, that is, people and places that are usually included in Europe as a broadly conceived geopolitical space, but that are deemed to fail in various ways in relation to the normative trope of “Europe” as a measurement of “civilization,” or moral, political, or economic conduct. Marginalized places and subjects have a special appeal in critical scholarship insofar as they can become sites through which to criticize forms of dispossession, but also through which to trace practices of resistance and political openings such as hope. In other words, marginalized people and places can be both “not quite” in the sense that they do not live up to expectations of the “center,” but they can also be sites of hope through which the “center” wishes to reinvigorate its own political dreams, whether those of reverifying the status quo or of ushering in radical change. Thus, for example, Krístin Loftsdóttir’s article (this issue) on political subjectivities and the imaginations of Iceland after the economic crash begins with an interesting episode where Loftsdóttir encounters an Austrian woman who looks toward post-crisis political action in Iceland with hopes for reinvigorating democracy not only in Iceland but also in Europe more broadly.
For most of the people who appear in the pages that follow, Europe has been a normative trope against which their practices and forms of organizing economic and political life have been measured by various monitoring institutions abroad and at home, as well as by intellectual and political elites and ordinary people alike. For example, in Latvia, postsocialist transformations in the present, which have included economic and political restructuring, as well as remaking socialist subjects into “European” ones, have been consistently viewed as a way of “catching up” with a more genuine Europe whose present always signaled Latvia’s future yet to be achieved. It is not uncommon to hear in Latvia that something should or should not be done because that is how it is (or is not) done in Europe. For example, despite the dispossession associated with the depopulation of the countryside, public intellectuals have argued that Latvia still has too many people employed in agriculture compared to other European countries. Or that Riga must have a contemporary art museum, because “Latvia is the only country in Europe without a contemporary art museum.” Or that Latvia must ratify the Istanbul Treaty on gender equality, because, once again, it is the only European country that has not done so. Similar processes—analogous in temporal orientation if historically divergent—can be observed in Bosnia, Slovakia, Greece, Iceland, and any number of Europe’s other “peripheries.” As Michael Herzfeld (1989) has famously argued, Greece, allegedly the cradle of European civilization, has emerged in the process of modernization as a backward “not quite” European nation mired in traditionalism. Loftsdóttir (2014), in turn, has shown how the closure of McDonald’s in Iceland after the financial crisis was widely perceived as the sure sign of a loss of civilization.
Some of the inhabitants of “not quite” Europe have sought a spatial solution to the problem of the future, moving in space in search of what they imagine to be the present’s future, but which is likely already the future past (Dzenovska, this issue), rather than wait for its always already deferred arrival. For example, Latvians (Dzenovska, this issue) have migrated as EU citizens to the United Kingdom, where a campaign of populist hostility to “Eastern European” migrants has culminated in the referendum demanding Britain’s departure from the EU. Others have suddenly become immobilized, as in the case of Bosnia, where the political stalemate in an ethnically divided parliament prevented issuance of registration numbers to a newborn child and thus hindered her family’s mobility in an emergency situation, provoking the mass protests known as the Babylution (Kurtović, this issue). In the case of Bosnia, hope attached to the possibility of mass political mobilization, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to being more effectively governed. There are still others who have stayed behind, as in the case of Latvia (Dzenovska, this issue). Their vision of the future is either death or a little bit more of the present— hardly a site for the hopeful imagining of open-ended and indeterminate possibilities. And recent ethnographic insights coming from Greece (Knight, this issue) suggest that middle-aged and young people increasingly desire disinheritance, thus unsettling widely accepted markers of social status. What political subjectivities are formed in the process?
The articles gathered here demonstrate that, alongside sharing a more or less amorphous desire for futures that would be demonstrably better than the grievous present, our ethnographic interlocutors’ desire for the political is not always tantamount to a fundamental overhaul of existing political and economic systems in the name of a different future. Rather, they often wish to make the existing systems work better, and sometimes they may even desire more rather than less neoliberal capitalism. This resonates with Jansen’s (2015, 2016) recent critiques of the anthropology of the state and the anthropological literature on hope, which, he argues, exhibit a distinct preference for particular futures rather than any genuinely open-ended multiplicity. As Jansen notes, “We must acknowledge that people hope for all kinds of things, often in wildly inconsistent ways. And many of these hopes, of course, are unrelated to the political making of a better world, however framed” (2016: 7). Jansen therefore remarks on the empirical selectivity in this literature, that is, the turning of anthropological attention to spaces and subjects that are likely to produce the kinds of hope with which the scholar and his/her assumed reading public (presumably other anthropologists and/or critical scholars) can identify affectively and politically, rather than, for example, ethnographic instances of people’s paradoxical hopes for authoritarianism or finance capitalism.
This is to say not that there is political consensus among anthropologists, but rather that there is a noteworthy tendency toward the selection of epistemological objects and analytics that are thought to be politically progressive or emancipatory in some way or another. This manifestation of political desire in anthropological scholarship is surely related to a residual collective sense of guilty conscience with regard to how a politically “progressive” anthropology can effectively situate itself in relation to the vexations of the colonial legacies of the discipline itself. We are therefore particularly interested in the mutually constitutive relationship between the desire for “the political” as a preferred or privileged object of study, and the analogous but possibly discrepant desire for the political that manifests itself as an affective attachment to “the political” in critical/anthropological scholarship. We urge attention to the ways in which the desire for the political that animates much of critical intellectual analysis may be at odds with the heterogeneous desires for the political that manifest themselves in the large-scale social conflicts that scholars take to be their objects of study.
There has indeed been a widespread sense among scholars, activists, and people on the street or the square that “things are changing.” There is also a sense that what is being born is not necessarily better than the present, and, moreover, that there is no one—neither party leaders nor collective revolutionary subjects—who can both promise to make it better and deliver on this promise. There commonly appear to be no viable alternatives available that would offer something substantially different than a perpetuation of the present. Rather than crisis—as is commonly assumed—perhaps we are seeing an impasse: the future seems inaccessible and, with it, political action confounded. People mobilize politically but have difficulties articulating their demands or imagining a future worth fighting for, left with only the present or its despotic and dystopian futures to resist. The articles in this thematic section invite us to inhabit this impasse and think critically about the relationship between what we find in the world and what we (re)produce in critical scholarship, about where and how we reproduce sparks of hope or discontent, and how we deploy these in our own critical intellectual and political projects.
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