Addressing the Present: An Interview with Diane Rubenstein

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Diane Rubenstein is Professor of Government and American Studies at Cornell University, as well as the author of the books What’s Left? The Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Right and This is Not a President: Sense, Nonsense, and the American Political Imaginary. Professor Rubenstein’s research and teaching addresses the critical interaction between continental theory (primarily French, German, and Italian) and contemporary manifestations of ideology in Franco-American political culture. Her research focus is political rhetoric, and her dissertation research, which later formed the basis of What’s Left? involved interviewing fascist collaborators at Ecole Normale Supérieure in the thirties and during the occupation. She is presently at work on two research projects; the first involves a collaboration with Marine Baudrillard, From the Archives: Baudrillard’s Women and Baudrillard Street One: Pseudo Acts. The other is a study of Derridean hospitality in the university, immigration law and the death penalty, (In)hospitalities. She recently sat down with Barricade editors Amy Obermeyer and Lauren Wolfe to discuss the future and rhetoric of the American far right, its relationship to the European fascist movements of the nineteen thirties and forties, and her experience as a Jewish woman interviewing former Nazi collaborators. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

AMY OBERMEYER: First of all, there’s been a lot of debate regarding the comparability of the present political movement to the rise of fascisms in the 1930s. Can we draw comparisons between the Thirties and now? And what are the limits of that?

DIANE RUBENSTEIN: Well, this is something I think we’ve been trying to do in my ideology course for the whole semester, that there will be these moments of seeming analogy. I’ll say broadly that I’m radically agnostic about whether or not one can make a comparison with the Thirties. If you want to talk about fascism, we basically have Italy and Germany—I mean, you have a lot of things in the Thirties that were proto-fascist movements that you’d think should have gone someplace, like in France there were all these different proto-fascist movements that were important in terms of legitimating certain concepts and for innovations, even in Spain, it really isn’t Franco so much as it was Primo de Rivera, right? So when you’re talking about what you’d think of as regimes that come to power as opposed to an intellectual movement or even a social movement—I’m going to bracket Perón and things like that, I’m just talking about Europe in the Thirties—you’ve got Italy and Germany. And the thing that, in going over this material again, really strikes my students as well as myself is how the two examples that we have did not come through a revolution or through a coup d’état; they came through tinkering with the normal electoral process. And so I think that is a cautionary tale.

What’s also kind of interesting in looking back at the readings that I did, say, when I started this stuff in the late Seventies through the early Eighties, is that there were always these readings that were kind of on the margins that had to do with fascism not belonging to a particular place or a particular era. A lot of the analysis of fascism, so much of it, is about how it’s situation-specific and even between Italy and Germany, or these other countries that had experimentation in fascism, it’s very difficult to draw broader generalizations. We have these readings about whether some nation was a kind of latecomer to ideology, whether it dealt with being both humiliated and occupied, after the first World War; they have a whole list of these kinds of features. These are the kinds of things that people focused on—social composition, whether or not it was the lower middle class or what role certain classes played or what was the role of syndicalism in different places. But what always seemed to be on the outside, that now I think seems more important, are these readings by people like Félix Guattari, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist,” and even Wilhelm Reich, who I’m teaching right now, about the mass psychology of fascism—when they get to this racial kernel of it, and how it’s not excessive, that there is a kind of constitutive irrationality to fascism, which is what gets people so excited. And in terms of lessons for now—a lot of people don’t understand, for example, why Trump keeps doing these victory laps, but it really is about the mobilization of a base, and how that for everything he’ll do that may seem like maybe he’s making a compromise or maybe he’s, you know, playing to the kind of Pence part of things, when he keeps going back to that scene in Charlottesville about “both sides,” the thing about DACA—it is really the importance of white supremacy, which is not to say that all of his supporters are white supremacists, but it’s saying that this is a kernel of his support—the racism and the race delirium, the way people act in crowds, the mass psychology of it—everyone wants to try to sound reasonable and say, well, most people aren’t like that, or whatever. There is a very important element that can’t really be discounted, so the whole, whatever you want to call it, the racial kernel, the misogyny, all of those things are really constitutive features. To that extent they do go beyond time and place, beyond Western Europe, and they go beyond the Thirties, those are the things that have been kind of surprising, coming back to teaching political ideology.

LAUREN WOLFE: I wonder what you would think, then, when in light of these apologetic gestures, like the center-left is making right now toward this “non-identity identity” of the white working-class person who’s been left behind—what about this gesture of a sympathetic understanding of their economic hardship, does that occlude this racist kernel that you’re describing?

DR: Well no, what I think that’s interesting in this, and this is I think where Wilhelm Reich’s work has come in, although, you know of course he does kind of go off the deep end, he really does get you back to reading Bachofen— did you read Bachofen in one of the Feminist Reading Groups back then? He wants to bring back the matriarchy. But Reich goes through this thing where he aligns the patriarchy with authoritarianism and matriarchy with the nature of the non-repressed sexuality because mothers know who their child is, and so, in terms of property.

This thing about the white supremacy, the problem is that what someone like Reich does is he looks at what you normally think of as class interest, and that people are voting kind of against class interest, and he’s saying, well why do certain people want to be swindled, or why does—I mean, there’s two parts to your question. One is the sort of question that maybe someone like Thomas Frank used to address about why people would seem to vote against their economic circumstances and why are they taken in by con men. So there’s that. But I think some of it is sort of drawing these lines without realizing that the white working class has a certain investment in a familial structure that goes across class lines. So that’s one of the things that Reich looks at—that you can’t really draw this line between, say, the industrial working class or other kinds of working class or the farmer, but just as society modernizes, as you go from the nineteenth century—farmers might have had a different life—but there’s a similar way in which the family kind of works, and that whole family ideology. The other part of it has to do with why this doctrine is appealing to people whose economic interest it should not be appealing to, we’ve overlooked these people and we’ve overlooked their anger. But the second part of it, and I think that this is really one of the sort of negative lessons—the reason that fascism was the only new ideology of the twentieth century. You needed to have a mass population and you needed the technology of the time for a mass population. Everything else we have in terms of ideologies—liberalism is an eighteenth-century invention—socialism is maybe, I don’t know where you want to date it, but at least the early part of the nineteenth century—and communism is strictly nineteenth century. So fascism is the only thing that kind of gets you into the twentieth century. I really think all the appeals—even the appeals of someone like Bernie Sanders—are going back to earlier moments—there’s nothing new about it that relates to now. And Trump is at least relating to now, on the level of Twitter, or on the level of the temporality of reality entertainment, but the fact is that there aren’t these kind of compelling ideas on the left. And so I don’t think it’s so much that the Democrats failed to address this one particular class. I’m totally convinced that Hillary could have spent more time in swing states but that the nature of the appeal still would not have reached people; it wouldn’t have mobilized that core because it wasn’t speaking to the present. But that gesture, there is something deficient about it, of course, as if there isn’t a raced working class, in the way in which you have to use the term the white working class. I think Joan Williams wrote one of the best things after the election about that.

So, I think the problem is twofold. One is, why does someone like Trump appeal? And it’s not really Trump. I think—and this is the other thing that’s very helpful in looking back at the Thirties—that, and he does appear to be the elephant in the room, but it wasn’t like Hitler and it wasn’t like Mussolini per se, it was just something about their appeal, coming at a particular, specific moment, in a specific place, that was able to address the masses. They were able to see themselves in that appeal. So it really isn’t about the person as such. And so, for people who thought they were being passed by, “Make America Great Again” resonated. But I really am not convinced that—of course, it was so close, and because of course we have the electoral college, it’s quite possible that Clinton could have won if she had actually gone to Wisconsin, you know, or Michigan, but I think the nature of her appeal was so wrong for this particular kind of moment. At least people who voted for Trump felt very addressed by him—this is the other thing that I think the Democrats didn’t get, that Reich is very good at expressing in a condensed way—that it’s not about things that cohere as arguments. I mean, this is where some of the post-truth stuff comes in. It really is about images and myths and this other level that is affective and emotive and is not proceeding by arguments. And the Democrats really believe that if we just got these people in a room and really pointed out how the numbers don’t match, or—their argument just doesn’t work.

At a certain point in time, the socialists—I mean, it is directly parallel to this extent—the people who were workers left the socialists and left liberal democratic regimes, even when they were first getting the vote. It was only after 1917 that Germans were able to popularly elect one of their leaders, and this is one of these strange things, too, like in 1848 in France, it’s only after you get popular suffrage, male suffrage, that you’re able to elect an authoritarian or a fascist leader, and that’s one of the ironies or perversities of it.

AO: So, I think our next question actually goes right to this. Because we were really thinking about the early twentieth century avant-gardes having a strategy of fragmentation and iteration as a means of preserving aesthetic representation from exploitation by political regimes. But in this moment, we have this circulation of this kind of fake news and Facebook disinformation campaigns that I think speak to this idea of myth that you were just talking about. Do you see these old strategies of the avant-garde as having a contemporary relevance, when it comes to preserving the truth-telling function in art, in a context where the news itself is artificial? Or do you see other strategies at work now?

DR: When you’re talking about the avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century, you’re talking about techniques of de-familiarization, or what are you talking about exactly?