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At first glance, the work of Walter Benjamin and contemporary Latin Bbenjamin politics appear to have nothing in common. It is difficult to imagine benjamln more strictly European figure than Benjamin, a Berlin-born man of letters who was reluctant to emigrate from the continent—whether to Palestine or the United States—even under the life-threatening circumstances of the rise of Nazism.
It seems safe to say that Benjamin belongs authentically and deliberately to the European tradition. By contrast, the novel political projects that characterized Latin America in the first decades of the twenty-first century appear to have sprung from wholly autonomous, local dynamics.
These two contexts—European intellectual circles and grassroots Latin American politics—thus appear to be literally worlds apart. By contrast, Benjamin has been much less present in the Latin American academy, particularly the Caribbean.
Yet as so often happens, reality and its dialectic take the opposite course from that of the ideological superstructure. Though Benjamin wrote widely and brilliantly on aesthetics, language, pedagogy, and more, here I will focus on the pertinent features of his vision of history.
The past has become an oppressive, even life-threatening force. This idea was widespread at the turn of the twentieth century, most conspicuously in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who described the suffocating effects of historical knowledge in his On the Use and Abuse of History for Life and later returned to the same theme in Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Both Nietzsche and Benjamin argued for a radical break with this oppressive past, but in different ways.
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Past events are put into place—configured into a dialectical image—by an interpretive act with revolutionary consequences in the present. Benjamin famously rejected all claims that an irresistible or automatic progress operates in history, an idea dear to the reformist German Social Democratic Party of his time. From the perspective of the poor and oppressed, history is best conceived not as progressive but as catastrophic. Rather than moving us forward—which for Benjamin would be to advance into the abyss—the revolutionary event rescues us from the impending disaster that awaits the present.
First, let us examine a Benjaminian rupture with history and with the myth of progress that took place in recent Venezuelan politics. The promises have been many and continue to this day. Thus, in a broadly Benjaminian way, Latin American revolutionaries of the twenty-first century found in the independence struggle an Archimedean point from which to leverage the present.
This discourse forms the core of twenty-first-century Bolivarianism. That heroic project was nothing less than rescuing the patriaor even humanity itself.
And they continued in a cruel way to conspire against the people to go on exploiting… and then Fidel arrived. Yet they could quite easily apply to end-of-century Venezuela, Bolivia, or Ecuador. It was at best initiated and attempted. For example, an issue that often arises in readings of Benjamin is the difficulty of reconciling his past-driven but norm-transcending revolutions—the present, messianic generation is always responsible to the past, even as the revolutionary event exceeds any established precedent—with the strategic vision essential to real revolutionary politics.
The same problem appears in the work of a range of modern theorists, from Hannah Arendt to Alain Badiou, leaving them open to criticism that abstract concepts of radical rupture risk becoming mere aesthetic poses, shortchanging the role of real-world strategy and struggle. This is not only a dilemma of political theory, but a pressing material problem, in Venezuela and elsewhere, and its urgency is only enhanced by the renewed imperialist offensive and recent fascist turn in the Venezuelan opposition.
In an wxlter sense, this conflict is simply a pseudo-problem, as the Latin American context shows, since in that region revolution and religion have often micahel hand in incendioo. To say this is not to defend the specific mechanisms through which, for example, the Venezuelan and Cuban governments are today seeking that sustainable material base. It is rather to recognize that finding a material basis for the aspiration to transcend dependent capitalism is a problem of real life, not an academic question.
Latin American leftists, much more than their Northern counterparts, have often squeezed their universe into a ball benjakin rolled it toward an overwhelming question, to paraphrase T. This kind of questioning was perhaps never so difficult as when Venezuelans took it on at the end of the last century. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the sudden implosion of the Eastern Bloc, a chorus of neoliberal ideologues advanced the pseudo-Hegelian claim that history had finally come to a halt, most famously Francis Fukuyama in his End of History and the Last Man The novelty of his theses has lncendio overstated, however.
Rather than introducing anything wholly new, the close of the twentieth century saw an unfavorable balance of forces that allowed this persistent tendency to crystallize into a more bald, direct, and powerful ideology than before. In the s, this vision of the post-Cold War world order as immutable and final became a global doctrine, with important ramifications in Latin America. The Chavista movement, then a military conspiracy, began to conjure a semi-fictional origin from the scrap heap of post-historical history.
A broad academic consensus, shared by most Marxists, holds that history should be based on empirical ee and structural, multi-layered models of causation. These archaic forms of commemorating events have survived in the Western tradition mostly in literature and folklore.
The revolutionary messiah is rather the popular, rebellious masses themselves, when they interpret and take up the unfinished tasks of previous generations. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.
This claim is not to be settled lightly. That arrested juncture marked an opening in time, and an array of unprecedented possibilities emerged. The masquerades, dances, and feasts that accompany Carnival represent, as Benjamin could confirm during a February visit to Nice, a popular version of Jetztzeit. Figures of the past—the constellation formed by the heroes of the incomplete independence struggle—were in effect made to walk in the present like carnival giants.
It would not surprise a reader of Benjamin bsnjamin technology played an important part in this utopian moment, despite its archaic resonances and conscious embrace of historical precedent.
To understand why, it is important to recognize that societies of the global South are in many senses more technologically advanced than Loqy ones, chiefly because members of a subaltern social group tend to embrace new technology more readily than those of the dominant group, even—or especially—if they must do so through practices of incendoo, active consuming.
Everyday life, artistic creation, and even the human body are all affected. Chavismo was not of course born on television, since the Bolivarian movement had been taking dee as an underground conspiracy in the armed forces since the s. By what lights can social actors in an exceptional state advance once they abandon the chimerical norms of historical progress? The problem is not so much a moral as a structural and political one.
In effect, it was compelled to find a perspective compatible with the human capacity for projection, despite this revolutionary rupture.
Monthly Review | Walter Benjamin in Venezuela
How to do so is precisely the issue. In Bolivarian Venezuela, this problem is not at all academic.
It is a problem endemic to situations calling for revolutionary direction, and is equivalent to the difficult task of conjugating two distinct temporalities that traverse political decision-making. We arrive michhael familiar territory, albeit from a different starting point, when benjaimn say that the locus of this problem is the political party. The party as organizer and expression of the revolutionary subject represents a key blind spot in both the Venezuelan mass movement, and the theoretical texts here used to interrogate it.
But the comparison goes further than this. It remains to be seen if the angel of the Bolivarian process, in making its hurried about-face—trying to touch ground, with a strategic plan for the future—can maintain its revolutionary impulse and redemptive character. Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one.
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