“The Great Frustration”

Writing in Al-Hayat, Hazem Saghieh urges his mainly Arab readers to prepare themselves for “the Great Frustration.”1 He has the specific post-Arab Spring predicament in mind, of course, but the Great Frustration would be another good name for the neo-imperial condition in general, in relation to alternatives that once upon a time or during all previous history could not, at least from any sublunary perspective, have seemed merely “tragic or comical”- the author’s description of attempts to integrate fractured polities by force, as if he knows some other means – but would have embodied the highest imaginable “resolution” known to our tragicomical species, the founding or downfall of nations and empires.2 The syndrome extends fully to nominally domestic politics, and not just in the countries of the former Third World, but is perhaps easier to discern on the international plane, where the denial of such destinies, of any new destiny at all, is written into the law above laws, and has been ever since the presumed final historical exam that ended in industrialized genocide, the nuclear incineration of cities, and the re-accelerated Americanization of the Earth. Like Saddam and Nasser, an Al-Sisi has nowhere to go, though after the others better knows it, and may simply accept the sense of relative security also enjoyed by fellow tragicomic impotentates from Tehran to Damascus to Washington DC and back round the time zones again: Such leaders are checked by local manifestations of a unitary geopolitics – here Israel, there oil, over there the free transit of container ships, but really the same problem under local conditions. As we know but are wont to forget, conquest in the traditional style, like the kind of full-scale disorientation and collapse that once upon a time might have invited if not demanded it, implicitly threatens transnational order on the same basis that over the longer arc of history the rise of the imperialist nation-state summoned the neo-imperialist world-state into concrete existence. The latter is never quite located. It is as it displaces, and is revealed, like God to the agnostics, apophatically: For ambitious individuals, peoples, and political movements in their frustration, in their diminution to tragic or comical or tragicomical, in the inconsequentialization and sub-ordination of the particular amidst the merciless and all-overwhelming pursuit of an inexpressible and relentlessly unsatisfying, yet indispensable and finally determining, supremely common interest. Fractured nation-states or pseudo-states or failed states or Hell-states beyond the limits in multiple senses of the term stand as typical exceptions, as active “sacrifice zones,” until the broad awakening to danger in viral or ecological or moral or mass murderous human form re-connects world extremes to world centers. Except at such moments, the form of resolution resembles a vast suspension of resolutions: The interposition of frustrations great and small testify to the continued existence of an actual hegemony, everywhere politically effective, nowhere politically visible, in other words negatively effective if otherwise seemingly absent, at least until some new challenge to its inherited shape requires its concrete re-extension or its epochal failure: opposites eventually identical.


  1. h/t Hussein Ibish as @ibishblog. []
  2. Saghieh’s reference to Bonaparte is indicative here: Bonapartism like Caesarism announces the transition from consolidated republic to imperial super-state, and Bonapartism specifically represented Caesarism in a world whose limits had actually been traced, so were conceivably reachable under a corresponding extremity of effort. []

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  1. I think we could reference ‘ Won’t get fooled again’ the reality is the status quo ante, the Bourbon restoration if you like, or the Korshak regime,

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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