“In the United States at this time,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1949, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” These words are strange to read today. One cannot imagine someone writing them now and, in retrospect, they suggest a dangerous hubris. And yet it is not clear that, applied either to Trilling’s time or to ours, they are wrong.
Since the global political unraveling in 2016, liberalism has lost its voice. From the “basket of deplorables” to the “#resistance” pins to the eat-pray-love liberalism of “a thousand small sanities,” public defenses of the West’s regnant political ideology ring hollow and desperate. Read the Times or the Post, listen to politicians, sit for a second and catch the mood in the airport: the absence is in the air, not just in our language. Max Weber called twentieth-century governance the “slow boring of hard boards”: they have been bored, and so are we.
To literary critics and political theorists—those whose job it is to front-run the zeitgeist—liberalism now seems not so much an opponent to battle as a corpse to put to rest. It is something to be, at most, anatomized, if not simply buried and forgotten. The new right tends toward the former: Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, published in 2018 and blurbed by everyone from David Brooks to Cornel West, blames the very idea of America, with its manic commitment to a radical and spiritually empty freedom. For millennial socialists and fully automated luxury communists, liberalism is, instead, a kind of dad joke, a boomer blooper: faintly embarrassing and best ignored. Maybe we grew up believing in Obama, but that’s all over; now we’ve grown up and moved out.
Wake up! critics seem to say; Get Real. Liberalism is dead. All you have to do is look around: the world we live in is one our old categories can’t explain. Liberalism envisions the tools of reason—science, public debate, law—liberating individuals, tempering passions and leading, however slowly and unevenly, to a world felicitously governed, in harmony with itself. It is very hard to square such a vision with the present world, in which governments have been captured by grifters and demagogues, algorithms move markets and ambient anxiety reigns.
We are more administered than ever. But by what? Two minutes after I wrote “liberalism is dead,” unsure of what to say next and ready for a dopamine hit, I checked my email and found a message from Amazon’s recommendation engine. The subject line read “Capital Is Dead.” I had searched for McKenzie Wark’s book by that name weeks before, but the timing was a bit much. This kind of micro-uncanny occurrence, a glitch where the system works too well, is now a common experience, one of the thousand small insanities of everyday info-capitalism. Low-level paranoia creeps in, lit up by a little thrill. How did they know? Never mind that: What did they know? Sometimes you get ads for things you’ve only thought about. So where does the thought come from?
Like Walt Whitman’s poetry or Hobbes’s Leviathan, liberalism has always projected a giant collective “I”: at once speaker and addressee, governor and governed. But the collective seems to have gotten away from us; the rules are no longer, even hypothetically, our rules. We are governed by ghosts in the machine, beings that, while all around us, we cannot quite see. Call it zombie liberalism: a political framework that you can’t defeat because there is no one to attack. Without partisans, it is non-political; dead, it is unkillable.
There’s an essay by the Marxist sociologist John Holloway called “Stop Making Capitalism.” The title’s humor is arresting; it confronts us with a question we might otherwise want to ignore. Why do we continue to create an economic system that we know is bad for us? We might ask the same of liberalism. How do we explain, not to mention justify, the persistence of an ideology that so few seem willing to defend? The critiques of liberalism that have emerged in recent years, so effective at exposing the empty procedures and hypocrisies of an apparently reasonable ideology, raise this question but have trouble answering it. Holloway’s essay suggests another approach, one that directs our attention away from the rational justifications for or against liberalism, and instead toward the desires that liberalism both enables and reflects.
Holloway invokes the story of Frankenstein’s monster, which is often taken as an allegory for capitalism. Frankenstein, a mad scientist who creates an artificial man, spends most of his story chasing after his invention or being chased by him; like a regulatory agency, the best he can do is damage control. Forever separated from his creation, he is continuously haunted by him—which is why, in the popular imagination, the man’s name has been transferred to the monster. The story ends with Frankenstein dead and his creature floating away on a slab of Arctic ice. The fable collapses into a nightmare, a vision of what Hegel called “bad infinity”: power without direction, terror without end.
Holloway contrasts this with a second literary allegory: Borges’s story “The Circular Ruins,” in which a man creates another man, not in a laboratory but by dreaming. By all accounts, the second man is real—but only so long as the first man continues to dream him. As with Shelley’s Frankenstein, Borges’s story is about bringing something into existence—making the unreal real. But for Borges, creation is a circuit, not a singular act. The fantasmatic man flickers in and out of reality, his power growing by fits and starts as the dreamworld takes its jagged shape. The decisive moment, the crux of the allegory, comes when the dreamer, stepping back, looks with horror and realizes: this thing I have wanted to build—it’s me. Having finally given life to the fantasmatic man, the dreamer realizes that he himself must be the product of other men’s dreams.
Is politics more like science or dreaming? In the first analogy, capitalism is an experiment gone wrong. We have used our technical expertise to create a monster that we can no longer control—something that is, for better or worse, out of our hands. The Borges story, in which the man must keep dreaming to keep the artificial man alive, reveals the inner truth of Frankenstein: the monster’s existence independent of its creator’s desires is just what the creator wanted. Like the mad scientists in Silicon Valley—and like the rest of us, who, consciously or not, spend our days uploading our selves onto the production line, building the “artificial general intelligence” of the tech founders’ dreams—Frankenstein is trying to build something better than, something more than, himself.
Whether criticizing or praising it, we are used to seeing liberalism as a set of tools: checks and balances, legal formulas. Few of us still believe that liberalism works by simply setting reason free. But we tend to hang on to the Frankensteinian inverse of this story, which amounts to the same thing: that liberal reason has somehow gotten away from us. Whether as science or alchemy—whether the tools are within our control or, like in Disney’s Fantasia, have come to life—we imagine our political system as something separate from us.
Holloway’s essay suggests that our relationships to these abstract structures—to liberalism as much as capitalism—are not so simple. It might be comforting to think of them as experiments gone wrong, the outmoded inventions of previous generations that we can safely disown. But liberalism is not a technology, and politics is not a science: it makes not things, but a way of life. We live it. The persistence of our political system is not simply something that is happening, but something we are doing.
Holloway’s analogies capture our complex attachments to the structures we have built, and that we love to hate. It is not an accident that these analogies are literary. Literature is at once close to home and strange: a world of fantasy and desire, of unwanted guests and uncanny returns. To understand liberalism through literature is to stop asking how it works, or trying to show that it doesn’t. It is, rather, to understand how we could organize our lives around an ideology that we renounce. To build a different system—or even to imagine it—we first have to ask: What is it that keeps us building this one?
Liberalism is a slippery word for Americans, who have no experience of anything else. In Europe, which retains, however vaguely, the memory of having invented it, liberalism has a more precise meaning: the political doctrine of laissez-faire and its descendants, derived from the Scottish Enlightenment. Laissez-faire is a vision of “negative freedom,” in which the goal of politics is to limit the sphere of government as strictly as possible, preserving an undefined frontier zone—embodied variously in the free marketplace, the world of ideas and the private sphere—for the individual to pursue their own ends.
When, in 1949, Lionel Trilling called liberalism the only living intellectual tradition, he had in mind something else, something more expansive. For Trilling liberalism was the Enlightenment vision that the world could be shaped in accordance with our desires, the belief that the essence of the human condition was a capacity for rational thought and self-determination, and that liberating this capacity would improve the general lot of humankind.
With the end of World War II fascism had been defeated, and the “American century” had begun. The vision had triumphed, and Trilling counted himself among its champions. But the essays in The Liberal Imagination were addressed to a more diffuse challenge that Trilling saw on the horizon. Though it now dominated the globe, liberalism, Trilling feared, was becoming complacent. Without debate, ideas hardened into ideology; without challenge, laws became mere operating instructions. When a way of thinking matched up too easily with a way of life, both risked hollowing out. In the end it was not the threat of reactionaries that worried Trilling, but the complacency of his fellow liberals.
At the core of liberalism, Trilling emphasized, was a “primal act of imagination.” Behind all the conceptual infrastructure that made up the liberal world was a visionary desire. Our laws and customs might be the forms of our freedom, but they could not account for its content, for the value we attach to it. The purpose of a liberal society was to free individuals to follow their dreams: the pursuit of happiness, unleashed. But what dreams? By definition, a liberal framework cannot say.
This, according to Trilling, was the paradox at the heart of liberalism—a paradox that, while not fatal in itself, posed a mortal danger to the life of liberal societies. As liberalism progresses, it erects political, economic and social structures with a view to rational improvement, affirming the human capacity to build a better world. But the more power it gains—the more effectively it reshapes the world in its image—the more it loses sight of what exactly this power is for. “In the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind,” Trilling wrote, liberalism “inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.” Imagining itself as a human creation, liberalism creates a society of machines.
Unlike bees or ants, humans must first imagine the structures that we build, and it is this capacity, to imagine a different world and then to orient ourselves toward it, that has long defined the aspiration for a specifically human freedom. Trilling saw liberalism, at the height of its political success, veering away from this orienting imaginative freedom, toward a dangerous and alienating inhumanism. This was a world of “agencies, and bureaus, and technicians,” a suffocating net of abstract rules and institutions that choked off the “lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule.”
Combating this, Trilling argued, was liberalism’s most urgent priority. What was needed was not better laws or more careful administration, but a return to that “great primal act of imagination.” This meant the future of liberalism would be decided not in the courts and Congress, but in the spheres of culture—in books and films, the museum and the radio, even the rhythms of daily life—the mix of practices, gestures, feelings that can never be reduced to a set of rules but which, taken together, have the shape of our world. If it could not make a place for the “primal act”—something that could not be specified in advance or legislated into existence—the system would collapse; or even worse, it would become an empty shell, a mere parody of the freedom that it was built to enable.
Trilling was a literary critic, not a political theorist. And yet politics was the end at which all of his criticism aimed. He began his intellectual career as a communist on the anti-Stalinist, Trotskyite left, arguing in journals like the Partisan Review that Soviet bureaucracy and socialist realism were equally a betrayal of the revolution. Both imposed “correct” forms by fiat, preventing the very freedom they aimed to enable. Genuine art was political because, as Leon Trotsky himself had written in the Partisan Review, it contained a “protest against reality.” Trilling’s politics soon shifted, but his belief in the political imagination only grew.
By the time he wrote The Liberal Imagination, Trilling no longer saw himself as an enemy of liberal capitalism. But he understood quite well that such enemies were necessary; and if they didn’t exist, you’d have to invent them. Thirty years later, at the tail end of the counterculture’s ambiguous, anarchic revolt, Beat writer William Burroughs would identify this dynamic as the “impasse of control.” But for Trilling this would have been just another phase in the unfolding paradox of liberal governance. Without the exception, the rule ceases to function; the task of postwar liberalism would be, somehow, to make the exception into a rule. “It is no longer possible,” Trilling wrote, “to think of politics except as the politics of culture.”
Is it possible to think of politics differently now? Critics of liberalism claim that 2016 was the end of an era: that liberalism, as a governing ideology, has failed so spectacularly that hardly anything is left to critique. In this scorched ideological field, a hundred flowers bloom, or weeds.
This view prevails in the academic humanities, and especially in literature departments, where the political anomie of the post-Cold War period has coincided with diminished funding, declining enrollments and theoretical exhaustion. In the past few years, the sense of acute political disaster has catalyzed the slow-burn “crisis of the humanities” into an explosion of competing microradicalisms: academic research races to discover—in a forgotten piece of pop culture, a subcultural ritual, a boutique identity—a resistant power at once utterly unconditional and perfectly particular. The point is to find something that doesn’t compute—and thus to vanquish, in a single, perfect stroke, the false god of liberal consensus.
In this context, it is surprising to come across a work of academic literary criticism that is about the persistence of the liberal order rather than its imminent end. Published in 2016, Amanda Anderson’s Bleak Liberalism argues that liberalism is richer, more responsive and more resilient than its critics have acknowledged. Working to pull liberalism down from the thin air of legal rights and philosophical procedures, Anderson, an English professor at Brown, uses literature to return to the thick emotional world of everyday life. She argues that behind the belief in rights and rational discourse, critical inquiry and free debate, is something more concrete and yet, in a sense, harder to grasp: an array of “attitudinal stances, affective dispositions, and political objectives.” In short, a way of life.
Anderson’s monograph has not received as much attention as many of the other Trump-era reflections on liberalism. Outside academia, it has been ignored; inside, it was pronounced belated on arrival. In a short review of Bleak Liberalism for the humanities journal Critical Inquiry, a fellow English professor wonders: “Has there ever been a timelier title?” So timely, the reviewer thinks, that there is nothing beyond the title worth saying. Bleak liberalism is simply that. “In the ongoing crisis of 2017,” the reviewer writes, we no longer have time to think about the liberal imagination, because its future has already been foreclosed. Such an inquiry is the idlest of fantasies, “an indulgent experiment from the Obama era, now so long gone.”
If liberalism in the present offers only bleakness, why—how—could one stay committed to it, be inspired by it? The proceduralist or technical account of liberalism might reply that such commitment is not needed, that enthusiasm is precisely what politics should avoid. Stay the course: this too shall pass. But a culturalist like Anderson wants to show that liberalism is a politics of desire; for it to work, we have to want it. We are anxious to call 2016 a clean break, to imagine ourselves in a new era. But what does this new world look like? Anderson’s question for the post-Obama era is a bracing one: What would it mean to want a bleak future?
If the outward face of liberalism is idealism, the audacity of hope, its inner essence, Anderson argues, is failure: the experience of dreams deflated. Failure is not, as we might expect, secondary and historical, but primary and essential. The strangeness of Anderson’s argument—and the uniqueness, she argues, of liberalism—is that failure comes first. “Fundamentally,” she writes, “liberalism is prompted by enduring challenges.” Notice the phrasing: it is not that liberal optimism must confront challenges. Rather, it is prompted by them; the challenges are “constitutive.” Liberalism is a belief system that, while promoting a vision of progress to come, grows out of the experience of being “belated and disenchanted.”
Anderson returns often to a description of liberalism as a “lived relation to ideals.” She means that the ideals themselves are formed in the living; that, paradoxically, the life we imagine at once orients us in the world and follows from our experience. It is only in trying to live our ideals that we see what they mean, and in each case that she cites, the lesson is bleak. Her argument weaves through famous Victorian novels by Dickens and Trollope, as well as modernist works by writers like Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison and Doris Lessing. Anderson wants us to notice how each of these books is driven by the experience of political failure: ideals deflated, projects unfinished or abandoned, civic ties corroded. It is in these disappointing experiences, Anderson argues, that something else is born: what she calls the “intractable energies of these moods of doubt, despair, and difficulty,” an energy “at once negative and utopian.”
It’s important to say that these novels do not just depict a character dealing with failure, as if providing examples of how others navigate the disappointments of life. For that, we wouldn’t need literature; journalism would suffice. Anderson is after the essence, the form of the literary imagination, and she pursues it by asking how characters’ own limited desires and beliefs link up with the novel’s omniscient perspective—the godlike capacity to see and know everything in its world, by virtue of having imagined it. Think of how the narrator in Eliot or Dickens will generate sympathy and identification with a character by depicting their moral challenges and their always-partial ability to meet them. For Anderson, the text and its characters are engaged in a complex reciprocity. The characters are trying “to meet the exacting demands of the novel’s informing moral doctrines,” and yet these ideals themselves only acquire moral weight—only come alive—through the characters’ failure to live up to them. The novel succeeds because its characters fail.
One of Anderson’s sharpest examples is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is a book about a person whose attempts at being “seen, heard, and recognized”—at work, in school, through politics—are thwarted, brutally, by a system that runs on his dispossession. What he wants is a place in society, a way to feel—to be—a part of something larger. But what the novel offers is a series of exclusions, misfortune after misfortune piling up into a justified paranoia. It is a sort of bildungsroman in reverse: experience leads to alienation and disintegration, rather than finding one’s place. The narrator is not just exploited, but unpersoned; the system, it seems, really is out to get him, because it doesn’t care who he is.
By the end of the novel the man has retreated underground. He lives in a cellar, where he has become, he says, invisible. It was his desire to be “honest”—to put himself forward and be recognized in and by the world—that caused all the trouble; but now that he’s invisible, he can be perfectly transparent. And so he writes a novel—indeed, becomes the Invisible Man. “My world has become one of infinite possibilities,” he writes from his cellar. From invisible man to Invisible Man: this, Anderson argues, is how the novel alchemizes failure into success, turning social death into literary life. The liberal ideal of expressive self-realization, “so often thwarted within the novel itself,” is realized by the novel. The basement dweller turns into an avatar. Like an underground Whitman, the invisible man becomes a poet of the as-yet-silent masses: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
On the surface, the man’s retreat seems like a withdrawal. There is a tradition of this running through modern life—the private, self-created alternative to the hectic world of men and things: the scholar’s garret, the artist’s studio, the aesthete’s perfumed chamber. But Ellison’s underground antihero reveals a seismic shift in that tradition.
In short, the invisible man transcends his world, but not by his own choosing. The web of alienation and authorship, bodily subjection and literary autonomy, inhabited by the narrator is less an ethos he is privileged to cultivate than a condition he is forced to inhabit. Singled out for his particular identity yet unrecognized, unable to act yet privileged to see, the invisible man’s life is lived in a strange state of stagnant freedom, a no-go zone. Anderson points to him as a type of modern man; and, if we see this, we can see the underground world of the novel in an uncannily familiar light. Far from an aesthetic vacation from the “real” world—a luxury, as Anderson’s critics would have it, “now so long gone”—the liberal imagination has become, for better or worse, something like our condition: the common ground on which politics happens.
We often think of literature as an escape from the world, or at best a picture of it; a way of stepping back to look, or to look away. I think Anderson is right to suggest that it is more like a way in. Not a window, but a door; not a view from above, but a passage from below. The question then becomes: Where does it lead; where can we go?
In her introduction, Anderson cites a Kafka fable, long the subject of critics’ attention. “Before the law sits a gatekeeper,” it begins. A man from the country comes, hoping to “gain access to the law,” but the gatekeeper stands in his way: “It is possible, but not now.” The man waits. Days, years pass. Eventually, on the verge of death, he asks: How is it that no one else has tried to gain entry? The gatekeeper tells him that no one else could gain entry there, since that entrance was assigned only to him. The fable ends with the gatekeeper announcing, “I’m going to go shut it now.”
The fable’s meaning seems straightforward, if highly symbolic. It is about a man being denied access to the secure and decent life the law represents: the door is technically open, promising access, yet he is blocked from entering by the actions of a powerful gatekeeper. One could read this as a critique of liberalism’s hypocrisies—its promise of formal freedom belied by the material obstacles that stand in the way. But since the Seventies, avowedly anti-liberal “postmodern” literary critics like Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben have sought a very different meaning from Kafka’s fable.
Agamben draws our attention to the fact that something does in fact happen at the end of the fable: the door to the law closes. The man’s passivity, the stoic stasis in which he spends his life, shows what the law’s abstract, formal freedom actually looks like in reality. The man has spent his life living this abstraction: in doing so, Agamben argues, he has abolished the gap between law and life, image and reality. Liberalism depends on this gap between private fantasy and public reality, between unregulated individual desire and a formalized social code. But this in-between space is the very life of literature, a world of fantasy given form. On this reading, Kafka’s fable offers not just a critique of liberalism, but, the deconstructionist says, its actual dismantling. To close the door on the promise of some deferred, purely formal freedom is, Agamben argues, to open the door to a different kind of politics.
This is, quite obviously, a non-secular, mystical understanding of literature’s power. The man from the country is the last man, the one who, like the messiah for whom the Abrahamic religions wait, fulfills the law and thus abolishes it. The messiah comes only when the door is closed—only, as Agamben writes, quoting a cryptic passage from Kafka’s journals, “when he is no longer necessary … not on the last day, but the very last day.” Not in the crucial moment for action, but after—when all hope is lost. The suggestion is that the raptures of art, rather than inspiring us to act, compel us to wait.
What makes Anderson’s view unusual among her contemporaries is that she does not fault postmodern critics like Agamben for their political mysticism—that is to say, their aestheticism. She acknowledges that the attention such readings pay to the invisible effects of language and symbol—to that realm of psychic experience and secret meaning that hovers just behind what is said and done—reveals something essential not only to literature but to politics. But for Anderson, this invisible realm is not outside of liberal procedure; it is foundational to it. Rather than being a threat to liberalism, such “literary thinking” is in fact its essence. To connect to a realm of “primal” experience outside of liberalism’s known and conquered world is to connect with what she sees as liberalism’s guiding impulse, its bleak intuition of its own destined failure.
Armed with this insight, Anderson extracts from Kafka a much more straightforward lesson. Why does the man continue to wait? This “bleak” persistence without hope is, Anderson argues, no cipher for the law’s eventual transcendence. The man wants “access” to the law because he wants to be free: to be part of politics, at once shaping his world and being shaped by it. This promise of politics keeps him waiting his whole life; shut out of the law, his life is dedicated to it. The story, Anderson suggests, is about how people remain committed to liberal principles because they go unrealized.
There is something mystical in an account like this too. Anderson argues that Kafka’s fable is about “the effort to hold on to” principles, insisting “on the significance of living a relation to these difficult conditions.” But what is this significance? What kind of politics is it that exists only as a promise that is never fulfilled—that lives through dreams unrealized? Anderson never says. Her book, like Kafka’s story, has no vision of the future, either for literary study or for liberal politics—other than one of simply going on, bleakly, like a Beckett character.
Bleak Liberalism aims to defend a political theory that has fallen out of favor. But it may be more valuable as an account of a sensibility that, a little lower down, we do continue to share, a mode of political consent that operates right in the dead center of our collective imagination. This is what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”—an attachment to failure as a way of life. The cruelty is that it doesn’t help to realize this. In Kafka’s story—and, Anderson means to suggest, in literature more broadly—the mystical element, that thing which does not fit, is not hidden. Which means that to reveal it does precisely nothing to change it.
Perhaps the recent rhetoric of crisis—in the liberal arts or the liberal polis—tells us more about the strange persistence of our present system than its imminent end. Like Twitter or YouTube, such rhetoric is a kind of machine, built to generate an atmosphere of ongoing disaster. It’s a machine that offers no future and yet somehow continues to determine it—a machine generating not only shock and frustration, but also rapture.
Recently I found myself watching Chernobyl, an HBO special about the Soviet nuclear catastrophe at the end of the Cold War. For a few weeks, the ads were everywhere: workers in vintage hazmat suits combing through a misted, ghostly world, retro cyborgs in an alien landscape. Everyone was telling me to watch it, and I wondered why. Didn’t we already know what happened? Wasn’t the nuclear age, the age of the end of history, over?
The show opens where it eventually ends: with the suicide of its hero, an engineer who tries to speak out against a political cover-up. Defeated, in the end, by the Soviet machine, the engineer writes down his last words and smuggles them to a network of underground scientists. He warns of “the cost of lies,” a phrase that, repeated throughout the show, becomes a kind of mantra. It is easy to read this as an apocalyptic warning, not about the Soviet Union but about our own “post-truth,” anti-liberal era. It sounds a bit like an ad for the Washington Post.
But Chernobyl is not journalism. It is a docudrama, a piece of historical fiction that aims to get at a deeper truth by telling a story. And what’s compelling about the show—as I write, the highest-rated TV show on IMDb, beating out Planet Earth and The Walking Dead, among others—is not at bottom the history it records, but the fantasy it enables.
There’s a scene in which residents of the nearby town of Pripyat, awoken by the explosion and captivated by the neon glow emanating from the reactor core, gather on an overpass to watch it burn. They look up at the sky, smiling, enchanted as radioactive graphite embers float down like snowflakes, an instant death sentence. In a literal sense, this is the cost of lies. But aesthetically, this is their bounty: an incalculable one. The scene is beautiful and highly uncanny, the most affecting moment in the series. (It is also, apparently, not quite true to history.) How does it feel to have pleasure coincide with destruction, knowledge with annihilating bliss? We know what is really happening, we see the cost; and yet, in the same moment, we are enchanted, drawn in to a world irradiated with a kind of magic that, as Marx said of history, man has made, but not simply as he pleased.
Throughout the show, the camera lingers on lovingly rendered eighties-era Soviet life, transfiguring the mundane details of a drab world into a lush fantasy of late-stage USSR. The texture of a dress, the wear on plaster, the buttons on a control pad and even the “light itself,” the critic and Russian expatriate Masha Gessen writes, “seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow.” What the show reveals is less a specific truth than a vision of a particular world: a world defined, at bottom, by the fact of its being different from this one. Like Stranger Things, another recent show that generated a diffuse but intense enthusiasm by evoking the texture of daily life in the late Eighties, Chernobyl captures a nostalgia for a time in which there really were “two worlds,” or more. These are worlds that the current generation, perched on the brink of a long-deferred adulthood, can remember only vaguely, if at all: worlds that we are wondering, now, if we ever really left.
In Chernobyl’s lush dystopia, lies have dissolved the boundaries that separate truth from fiction, science from politics. In such a world, the machines run amok. The show tries to reassure us that the problem is Soviet bureaucracy, or, more fundamentally, the vagaries of politics: people want power, and they will destroy others, perhaps the world itself, to get it. In this vision, politics itself is like nature, something that must be brought under rational management. If we could leave things up to the scientists and engineers—those who pursue truth, rather than those who tell lies—we could preserve a world in which we can distinguish truth from lies, the right use of power from a chain reaction.
It is a strange kind of crisis that liberalism is going through when one of the most popular shows on television dramatizes the collapse of its last official alternative. But if liberal triumphalism were all Chernobyl offered—if its meaning could really be exhausted in a “correct” lesson—we would not find it so thrilling. Whatever the cost of lies, or the bounty of truth, what is powerful in the show is the experience it gives us of a world falling apart. Boundaries collapse; disaster stretches into pleasure and oblivion opens into a kind of clarity. It is in these moments, which are the very stuff of art, that we touch the unstable ground of our shared political life.
The fantasy of eliminating the imagination from politics—of achieving a fundamentally technical relation to the world—is a fantasy that haunts liberalism. It is a fantasy of endings. The famous psychological crisis undergone by John Stuart Mill—one of liberalism’s most important theorists, and himself raised by his reformist father to be a kind of liberal automaton—was prompted in part by the thought that art was coming to an end. The musical scale, Mill reasoned, was finite: each octave had only five tones and two semitones; these tones could be combined in a limited number of ways, only some of which were beautiful. Eventually, the combinations would run out. The music would stop, and we would be left in silence, the world as worthless as a preloaded iPod Shuffle.
In our own era, five years before the wall came down and political theorist Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history, philosopher Arthur Danto declared the end of art. There would be no more genuine innovation in art, Danto argued, because art finally knew itself—had mastered itself and become pure reason. As art progresses, it approaches a singularity of self-consciousness. The artist’s vision and the achieved object blur together; the dance between representation and reality tightens, until there is nothing left but “conceptual art,” an object that thinks itself.
In art is made manifest the apocalyptic fantasy at the center of liberal thought: a mortal fear and a secret desire that the agony and beauty of human activity might finally come to an end. In this vision of the end, when liberalism achieves its aims and the world’s problems are completely eliminated, people would be not happy, but bored: they would have nothing to do but, in Danto’s words, “hang out.” Fukuyama agreed that this permanent chill was both inevitable and “very sad.”
In our own moment, it is easy to see liberalism’s congenital bleakness, or call it realism, as a dead end. The technocratic vision of liberalism has lost legitimacy; many seem to realize, as perhaps some did in the Sixties, that politics involves the passions and the interests, and that political desire will once again play a role in history. But at the same time we continue to deny that our desires are shaped by the political imaginary under which we do live—as if, squaring the circle of liberal rationality, simply by knowing something we had freed ourselves from it. And so we wait, in a mood of ambient expectancy. And so we have a politics of conspiracy theory, of fake news and great awakenings, imagining the destruction of the current regime of intelligibility as the revelation of a world of pure truth.
In Lying in Politics, written after the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Hannah Arendt argued that “the deliberate denial of factual truth—the ability to lie—and the capacity to change facts—the ability to act—are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.” But the fact of politics—the mutability of the human world—does not free us from having to enact it, to make it real. To act collectively is to begin something new—to make some fundamental unreality, something that is not the case, suddenly possible. As Arendt reminds us, “this does not mean that it is ever permitted to start ab ovo, to create ex nihilo.” Call it a crisis or just our world, we have been raised on the liberal imagination. To imagine a future is to be in the midst of it.
Art credit: John Jacobsmeyer