Jan 2011

Variations on the Name Obegg

The synchronization of Nick Clegg and Barack Obama suggests that Tony
Blair’s astounding ability to sound like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush,
sequentially, was not merely a weird imitative compulsion on his part.
There must be something transpersonal, something structural and shared
about Anglo-American politics, as though there were only five notes in the
melody of neoliberalism. The combinations would seem to be running out,
but this only intensifies the skill needed to play. They are showing
themselves at their best now, these leaders claim. Their attitude suggests
a late-stage Hegelianism in which the greyness of realist politics appears
as a luscious transcendental hue.
Clegg and Obama have not only done the opposite of what their supporters
hoped, but insist that their having done so agrees with their ‘core
values’ (to use a phrase from Obama’s December 7 press conference). In an
interview with the Independent two days earlier, in the face of
polls showing that he is the most hated man in England Clegg insists that
he ‘never imagined it would be any different’. He makes it sound as though
voting for massive tuition increases after promising not to was the whole
point of running for office and he wouldn’t have missed it for the world:
‘I believe in this policy. I really think we will look back in 10 or 15
years’ time and think, actually that was quite a brave and bold and
socially progressive thing to do’. Obama thinks that he accepted an
agreement that includes an extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the
wealthiest citizens because it was his ‘responsibility as President . . .
to do what’s right for the American people’. ‘What’s right’ in this
sentence is not holding out for the fair tax policy that he says he knows
the people support, but agreeing to an unfair one now lest something even
worse happen. Obama’s harsh words for ‘purists’ imagine that they, unlike
him, are really enjoying life these days, as their ‘satisfaction of having
a purist position’ makes them ‘able to feel good’ about themselves. Clegg
and Obama abjure such easy pleasures. They do something that takes much
more imagination: they manage to feel morally satisfied about actively
participating in their own demise because that marks them as sacred
knights of realism. Seeing adherence to realpolitik amid political
defeat as commitment to World Spirit, they seem to experience the outer
reaches of this adherence as a rarefied euphoria. The instrumentalism of
the least-bad or forced choice is thus converted into a purism in its own
right, a paradoxical purism that hits them, endorphin-like, at the very
vanishing point of compromise. Then it isn’t even necessary, anymore, to
accomplish something in the process in order to feel elevated by the
outcome. People who haven’t taken liberalism to the end like this don’t
understand how beautiful it is: the strange, polar light that emanates
from the infra-thin line between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’.
Hegel’s famous remark that ‘philosophy, at any rate, always comes too
late’ to tell the world how to be – ‘the owl of Minerva begins its flight
only with the onset of dusk’ (Elements of the Philosophy of Right,
trans. H.B. Nisbet, Cambridge: Cambridge UP [1991], p. 23) – is now applied
by these liberal leaders to their statesmanship. In their Minervan
politics, their role is to survey and to comprehend, so that what they
enact is the formalization of what has already happened. And like Hegel’s,
their reconciliation with the cresting present is not a form of
resignation, but a passion; that’s why they’re able to sound so hot as
they turn us cold.
Obegg’s clenched focus on short-term political and economic ‘crises’
produces, rather than contradicts, his sentimentality about a longer-term
future in which he’ll be appreciated as a visionary. He believes he will
be understood as ‘progressive’ for the very reason that he refuses all
temptation to think beyond immediate pressures. He is annoyed that
people fail to see the effort that such concentration takes. Those who get
on the side of ‘reality’ and stay there – which means frequently switching
sides, because reality is dialectical – ‘with a kind of discipline . . .
reap the credit’, Clegg declares. Maintenance of instrumentalism as a
value in itself is logically the only test of principle for true believers
in a history rightfully composed of a succession of coercive choices in
the now. One way of asserting this value is to take massively unpopular
positions that bear huge costs, so long as they identify and honour the
most brutal political or economic forces of the moment. Another way is to
hunt with infinite patience for the ‘middle’ of an ocean that is already a
seamless labyrinth of grey. This second approach becomes most
meaningfully, movingly meaningless, most breathtakingly joyless, where the
remaining stake, like the interest rate on savings, approaches zero.
In a way, the less they get the more noble they feel, the more proud they
are of how willingly and actively they are transforming themselves, unlike
all those radicals excluded from power, who are in cushy positions where
all they have to do is what they believe in despite difficulty and
criticism. What a piece of cake, compared to believing sincerely that the
right thing to do is what you don’t believe in, also despite difficulty
and criticism. Still, after a while, just watching the system operate and
bearing witness to its ‘inevitable’ outcomes is an intoxicating moral
victory in itself, so long as you believe that it is all there is.
As Clegg phrases it: ‘If there’s one thing I’m not going to apologise for
as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in government after 60 or 70 years
of being out of government, it’s that you just cannot avoid but deal with
the world the way it is’. Holding to this core value, this ‘one thing’, is
all the sweeter because no one else has insight enough to do it: the
commitments of others, who don’t have a majority either, instead
constitute the reality to which you bear superior and adult
witness. Thus our liberal leaders believe that they alone are in charge of
all the consciousness of reality there is: a hallowed, if lonely, task.
Obama refers to the intransigence of his enemies as ‘the fact of the
matter’: ‘I’ve got to look at what is the best thing to do, given that
reality’. And then to do it, without being ‘able to feel good’ about
yourself, the opiate favoured by the ideological and the immature: that is
an acquired, dry, but clearly addictive taste.


  1. At 1:08 am on January 23, 2011, Paris Ziv wrote:

    I probably would not have contemplated this was helpful two or 3 months back, yet it’s fascinating how age evolves the way you respond to stuff, thank you for the article it really is great to discover something sensible now instead of the typical rubbish masquerading as blogs and forums over the net. Cheers

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Rei Terada

Who am I?

Rei Terada is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Critical Theory Emphasis at the University of California, Irvine.


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