Tense of history

One leftist response to Trump’s installation has been to counsel those engaging in the resistance to him to do so with a “sense of history,” that is, with the knowledge that he didn’t invent the techniques and forms currently being used for such awful ends. Some even go so far as to give permission to the protesters to protest as long as they do so while being conscious that the awfulness has all “already come to pass.”

This, I suppose, is the legacy of historical materialism (though it is strange that a methodology that strives to be alert to historical differences ends up homogenizing history). As an analytical imperative, it does make some sense. Recognizing the genealogies of things can give us insight into how they might be put to use in the near future, how they might mutate, and how they might be interrupted. It might also help cure us of the belief that opposing state actions can be more effective by exploiting fissures in governance or, worse, by aspiring to governance.

But as an immediate question while Trump and Bannon are purposefully creating a state of emergency by overwhelming us with events, I don’t see the strategic necessity of being cognizant of these histories, especially when this demand for awareness is couched in vague, almost mystical terms like “sense of history” or in a blithe dismissal that it’s all happened before. This sort of intellectualistism, whose own genealogy is Leninist, is idealist in its conviction that awareness precedes action and vanguardist in its belief that organization needs theory to become legible. 

But the people crossing borders, harboring migrants, blocking pipelines, protesting police violence, and participating in all the other antistate actions going on today lack nothing, certainly not awareness and certainly not tactical sophistication. Instead of making sense of history, they are doing something way more valuable: making history tense. 

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