Recently I’ve been books reading about Cromwellian England. For those unfamiliar with that age, Cromwell was a messianic puritan revolutionary who dissolved the English monarchy in the 1650s. That was a century before the American revolution, but many of the same rhetorical tropes already appear there. So it would seem he was a model for all modern politics, or for what we might call liberalism as an imperial religion. There was a rhetoric about liberating the Irish and Scots from their subjugation to “feudal tyrrany”, and that seems to have been the origin of American exceptionalism. People believed Cromwell was divinely destined to sack all the monarchs of Europe, along with the Vatican, and to establish the New Jerusalem as a global Commonwealth of Free Republics.
What especially interests me in the English civil war are those who they called “turncoats”, mercenary pampleteers who switched back and forth from royalism and catholicism to republicanism and puritanism. These writers didn’t maintain permanent political commitments, because they believed everything was up to providence. There was no issue of conscience for them about their switching allegiances, because God himself might have switching sides, so they just supported whoever was ascendant. Among these writers were major figures of English literature including Andrew Marvell. Those guys were writing under psydonyms, supporting Cromwell and then the king, getting thrown in jail, and in danger of getting executed. And they were paid from both sides.
The turncoats seem to have contributed something essential in the stylistic evolution of literary English, which was a humorously equivocal Faustian disposition. This is a baroque reversability of guises and folds, reflecting thought that runs through Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Hobbes. The baroque Elizabethan style led into the baudy polemics of the civil war. There is a manner that is highly ironic, yet still maintains some religious conviction or reverence. So there was a genre of Puritan messianic writing that was satirical… “Blessed Ollie’ Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonweal, Depos’r of Tyrants, and Ever-Righteous Knight of the Armaggeddon… “. Then this style somehow developed into the irony of the romantic nationalists like Burke, Carlyle and Scott, and then eventually the jocular ambivalence of Joyce and Beckett. The point here is how literature internalized a dialectics of imperialism and anti-imperialism that worked through a witzeig senility or drunkenness.
Considering the humorous reversibility of political ideology in litrrature, it becomes necessary to reconsider the seriousness of all political convictions. It seems that one might maintain conviction to principles, without maintaining permanent political convictions. Or it seems that political convictions may imply some inevitable reversability, because the dialectical turning of historical subjectivity reverses principles.
Liberal imperialism is the idea of an empire based on the principle of liberty. That formula implies an original irony that has been forced upon all of us from birth. We are all subjects of an empire that forces us to pursue our nonsubjugation. We are subjected to the ideal of non-subjugation. It seems we need to evolve to a condition where we no longer conceive ourselves as simply for or against imperialism, but are instead attuned to the timing at which we embrace and reject different forms of imperial subjugation. We need to know how to embrace and resist which imperialisms at what times.
Most of leftist politics implodes into irrelevance as it naively clings to anti-imperialism for the sake of liberty. The insistance on the facile opposition between empire and liberty is impracticable. This leftist fundementalism does not appreciate that power is actually powerful, and so they end up insisting on a christ-like comittment to a sentimental ontic sense of justice at all costs. They fetishize sentimental justice in an infantile manner, and thereby forego their own existence as a relavant political factor in the equivocity of the world.
The absolute refusal to recognize American exceptionalism can have catastrophic concequences, because the US army might be the only military force that even claims any concern for liberty. If the war is between liberalism and non-liberalism, and the left opts for not-liberalism, then it self-destructs. Because they take their political committments too seriously, they end up supporting the abolishion of all liberal principles.
This can be reffered to GW Bush’s “with us or with terrorists”. Many of us scoffed at that statement, but perhaps we did not understand what was at stake. If someone is challenging the sovereign right of the empire, then there is a war between them and the empire. If the empire bases its right on principles of liberty, then the anti-empire bases itself on the negation of those principles. I am not sure whether an authentic neutrality was conceivable in that situation, and it would seem that some basic symbolic integrity could depend on the exclusion of that middle. So there is a Lacanian argument for the Bush doctrine.
But of course I am not simply endorsing the Bush doctrine. I think the left needs to support American imperialism, but only to wait for the moment when there is a principled opposition, and then switch to the other side and overturn the imperial hypocrisy. So the left should endorse ironic imperialism, and be ready to betray it when a principled alternative emerges. One should not commit long-term to either a politics of imperialism or anti-imperialism – the question is about when to turn back and forth between them.
“Turncoat” is typically a derogatory term, but I think it can be something principled if we grasp it through Spinozist dualism. Switching sides is liberating, because it obliterates the transcendent power of linguistic ideology. Politics then is a game of masks, and we have to free ourselves from roles in order to play out the dialectic of history.
Being a professional traitor can be dangerous. But I have the sense that this is where language and politics take us. It’s in the dangerous reversability of political commitments that there is work to do, and money to be made. Of course we will get called sellouts, traitors, turncoats etc. That is where we have to bite the bullet.
One writes better if they are not overly invested in any role. This was lacans point, that we should conceive our subjectivity as doubled between statement and enunciation, and not overidentify with the subject of the address. Enunciation would be the virtual principle of liberty, whereas the statement is the shifting symbolic masks of the political theater.
The left can only exist as a political factor if it can distinguish these two levels of subjectivity. The main obstacle to this distinction seems to be sentimentality, particularly the hatred of American imperialism and Zionism. This sentimentality often is the currency of sincerity or integrity in leftist circles. But just because one instinctively detests the injustice of these forces does not mean that there are other just forces in existence which can oppose them. There is a widespread tendency to oppose them from impracticable positions such as Palestinian nationalism. The left is unable to choose practicality at the level of the statement, and so it makes unfortunate associations and languishes in irrelevance, or worse assists in the destruction of civilization.
Continuing this critique farther, I begin to wonder if the left is anything but a sentimental identity, and whether it has any authentic principles at all. In order to have principles, it seems the left would have to be reversable into the right. Insofar as it commits to remaining the left, it seems it is forced to abandon its principles for the sake of its sentimental attachments. There is a choice between a serious ontic politics and a humorous ontological politics, and I propose an experimental course that would choose the latter and forego any permanent commitment to solidarity with the left.