Although the phrase “a usable past” was coined by Van Wyck Brooks in the 1910s and has been embraced by scholars of a variety of political stripes in the decades since, for the last half century or so, it’s often been closely associated with radical historians of the United States, who have looked to ideas and social movements from the American past as to guide their contemporaries, in various ways, toward a brighter future.
So I was quite struck when, in the last couple days, I’ve encountered three scholars on the left who, in quite different ways, have recently suggested that the past may not be as usable as we once thought.
The first was Gar Alperovitz, whose latest book What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, published last month, begins with a long discussion of why the great reform periods of the 20th century do not, in fact, provide a meaningful guide to future potential social change. Alperovitz’s basic argument, in his book’s first section, is that the New Deal and the Great Society, as well as the successes of the Black freedom struggle and second-wave feminism, would have been impossible without the essentially irreproducible international catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War II (and its aftermath). What we learn from studying this past, in Alperovitz’s view is that it’s not very usable, at least as a positive guide for the present and future left.
Last Friday, on the New York Times’s philosophy blog “The Stone,” the philosopher Peter Ludlow wrote an interesting post entitled “The Real War on Reality,” which raises a quite different question about the usability of the past. Ludlow describes the ways in which public and private intelligence agencies have sought to manufacture reality. A group of security firms called “Team Thetis,” at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, planned to undermine a watchdog group called Chamber Watch by planting false documents, which, after Chamber Watch publicized them, would be revealed to be fake in order to discredit the group. For the U.S. Air Force, Team Thetis apparently planned to create the impression of grassroots opinion by manipulating social media through sockpuppetry. In Ludlow’s words, these attempts, and others like them, to manipulate public knowledge constitute a kind of “epistemic warfare.” Ludlow’s conclusion is that the “hacktivists” who’ve revealed such schemes (a group in which Ludlow includes Edward Snowden) deserve support…especially from philosophers, who ought see in their efforts to expose these false realities something akin to the role of the philosophers in Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Ludlow doesn’t discuss history at all, but quite obviously the world he describes is one that would create enormous perils for future historians. The key fronts in Ludlow’s epistemic war—(supposed) U.S. Chamber of Commerce documents, (falsified) public opinion, and so forth–are the raw materials of future historians. And history itself would be an obvious place to manipulate reality (as George Orwell famously recognized). A world of total epistemic warfare is a world in which the past will become dramatically less usable.
Finally, this morning, longtime friend-of-this-blog Jim Livingston responded, in a post on his blog, to the public discussion of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. Entitled “Radicalism Reduc: Where’s My Country?,” Livingston’s piece describes how the Snowden affair has led him to reconsider his longstanding rejection of a kind of radicalism that seems to place the left “outside the mainstream of US history:
That’s how radicalism works , by assuming that revolution means a complete break from the useless past—it’s the negation of conservatism, which assumes that civilization can last only if any such a revolutionary break from the past is prevented, only so long as custom and tradition are preserved. Notice that conservatives and radicals concur on the meaning of revolution, in effect validating Edmund Burke’s fear and V. I. Lenin’s admiration of the French blueprint (thus displacing the American Revolution from the canon, as it were).
And that’s why I’ve been arguing against it. Maybe I’ve been professionally deformed by my formal training as an academic historian, but I’ve long believed that if we can’t learn from the past—if we can’t read our ethical principles as legible in our historical circumstances—then we have nothing to say to our contemporaries, who live under those circumstances, who cannot as a rule afford to divest themselves of their prior commitments and join a crusade for social justice.
But the current national surveillance state, seems to Livingston, at least potentially, to remove the possibility of real change that grows organically out of the American present and past:
The new Leviathan moving its slow thighs just now, this rough beast Edward Snowden has stirred, what would it take to tame it, head it off, or kill it? I don’t know. Not anymore. But I do know that radicalism makes a lot more sense at this moment than at any other in my adult life. The choice does begin to feel like it’s either/or.
Obviously Alperovitz, Ludlow, and Livingston are confronting distinct issues (though Ludlow’s and Livingston’s are closely related) and providing rather different responses. Alperovitz and Ludlow remain optimists. Livingston has embraced pessimism. But all seem to suggest that the past may no longer provide us with a useful guide to the future. Is this coincidence mere coincidence, or does it point to something broader about our cultural and intellectual moment?
 Alperovitz goes on to make some interesting suggestions about what new approaches will be necessary to bring about social change in the future. But the longer portion of his book devoted to presenting this positive program, while certainly worth considering, is not my focus today.