The Content and the Phrase: Myth and Hegemony Today

For the generation of radicals that grew up at the end of history, today’s economic crisis comes as a relief. Despite the hardship the collapse of global markets is producing, it remains consoling that we’ll never have to sit through another story about the inevitability of progress. And it’s not just us: capitalists themselves have begun to break with the mantras that marked the neoliberal years. And while they have not yet been forced into contrition, many have at least succumbed to a new humility. This is because the future is all of a sudden (and once again) unwritten.

This change has been disorienting to everyone. It’s worth remembering how, even at the beginning of this decade, it was possible for activists and other critics of capitalist depravity to identify with Fight Club’s Tyler Durden as he lamented being among the “middle children” of history. For a generation that viewed itself as having no Great War and no Great Depression, Durden’s excesses – his sex, mischief, and immunity to commodity fetishism – were seen as a means of redeeming the quotidian by filling it with consolidating meaning: “Our Great War is a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives.”

Less than two years after Fight Club’s release, America was bombing Afghanistan in a war that pundits promised would be without end. Less than ten years later, the global economy was in a precipitous state of decline. If the endless present of ten years ago was favourable to Durden’s narcissism, then the abrupt end of that endless present was nothing less than a rude awakening.

In order to make sense of the wreckage, politicians, economists, and journalists have all trained their eyes on the past. All of a sudden, the Great Depression has become a serious topic of conversation. From The Wall Street Journal to The Ottawa Citizen, reporters are digging through the archives. Photos of bread lines and federal relief program work camps claw their way back into print alongside retrospective reportage on the crash of 1929. News websites scramble to run profiles of people who still remember the tragedy of the 1930s. Like ancient mariners, they tell harrowing stories that nevertheless all end with the same conclusion: the story ends in survival, since I am here to tell you about it. Considered as a general phenomenon, this return to history has been striking, and not least because it’s resolutely at odds with the logic of late capitalism.

If our relationship to history prior to this crisis was one in which archival citations were stripped of their historic context and transposed into the register of style, this is far from true today. Historical citations are no longer marshaled primarily as a means of infusing commodities with affective weight. They now need to serve a much more basic function. This is because the market catastrophe has produced a situation in which unambiguous faith in capitalist progress has become impossible.

Slogans have been outstripped by events. “There is no alternative” has been supplanted by a desperate search for some-thing that might serve as stabilizing ballast. Like the catechistic recitation of the lessons of Pearl Harbor that followed the attack on the World Trade Center, the economic meltdown has called up the ghosts of the Great Depression for one final curtain call.

A common feature of all these citations is that they seem to be pursued in the hope that the archive might be turned into a playbook. It’s as if somewhere, in the details of the past, politicians and journalists expect to uncover a formula for resolving today’s economic problems. Economic calculations are supplemented with religious mysticism. By identifying patterns in what are perceived to be the historic antecedents to the present, commentators have been reduced to reading tea leaves as they seek desperately to devise tactics to address the mess we’re in.

On March 8, The Financial Times affirmed this practice by drawing upon the late American heterodox economist John Kenneth Galbraith. According to the Times, “J.K. Galbraith wrote that 1929 stood alongside 1066, 1776, 1914, 1945 and 1989 in its importance. The world today was shaped by the efforts of governments to overcome the economic meltdown of the 1930s – and the consequences of their failures. Even if this economic crisis is not as bad as the Great Depression, it will have epoch-moulding consequences.” The trick, then, is to revisit the failures of the past so that they are not repeated.

By responding in this way, these commentators highlight a profound but indeterminate connection between the moment of crisis and the revitalization of the ghosts of the past. For many people today, the necessity of learning from history appears to be obvious. From an early age, we are told that “those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.” On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that “learning from the past” is not a self-evident process. Engagement with the archive is always an interpretive act. It is subject to processes of selection and emphasis that inevitably shape the lessons to be learned.

For this reason, the process of “learning from the past” currently being conducted by bourgeois journalists and politicians is precisely the means by which they shall condemn themselves to repeat it. If capitalism is presupposed as the framework through which the remnants of the past are interpreted, then capitalism will be the answer we receive. But these are not the only lessons the archive affords. It contains moments, objects, and recollections that simply don’t fit into this framework. These irreconcilable elements have been inadvertently unsettled by the restless searching of those seeking to resuscitate capitalism; they are of vital importance to those who would like the story to end differently.

On this basis, we can see that there are at least two dominant orientations to history. The first orientation is favoured by those who try to locate the point at which they took a wrong turn. Once they find it, they can return to that point, correct their errors, and continue their predetermined trek on more stable footing. Following in the shadows are those who look for traces of an unrealized promise that continues to haunt them. For these searchers, the goal is not progress but actualization. How can the promise that continues to show its faint traces in the accumulated debris of past efforts be realized through action today?

Despite the uses to which they are being put, forays into the archive like the ones currently being carried out by journalists and politicians are seductive. Once their instrumental function has been served, these citations tend to point toward all that has yet to be realized. They produce contexts for collective identification. The interval between instrumentality and identification is the gate through which the generative myth passes into the world. It is the space of hegemonic action, the site of struggle for both capitalists and the radical left.

To get a sense of this process, it’s useful to consider how, in deposing the feudal aristocracy, the bourgeoisie needed to draw on the strength of the nascent proletariat while simultaneously fighting against its demands from below. In order to achieve this complicated maneuver, the bourgeoisie gathered workers behind the banner of democracy and universal human rights. The promise of the banner coincided with a promise of an earlier pre-capitalist era buried deep in the recesses of their collective consciousness. In 17th century England, it was given vitality by being transposed into the eschatological register of the New Jerusalem. In 18th century France, the citation was different but the effect was the same. Nevertheless, the revolution carried out in the name of the Roman Republic gave way to the restoration of the Roman Empire with Bonaparte playing the part of Caesar.

In hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss those who aligned themselves with a promise that could never be fulfilled in the terms through which it was expressed. For those of us who grew up at the end of history, the idea that an alliance could be formed on the basis of a promise seems downright naïve. Nevertheless, the citation of myth always carries within it the trace of its possible realization. The challenge is to find the form through which it can be fully expressed. Although the context in which it is cited limits the possibility of its realization, this does not mean that we should not orient to the promise it entails.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx proposed that, in bourgeois revolutions, “the phrase goes beyond the content.” By this he meant that the stories the bourgeoisie recounted in 
order to accomplish its goals always exceeded the finite character of the accomplishments themselves. However, these finite goals would have been impossible to realize had it not been for the myths, the “phrases” that compelled people to act in the first place. The situation is not fundamentally different today. Like other bourgeois purveyors of myth, Barack Obama constituted a “we” by allowing those seduced by the promise of his citations of the past to line up behind a project that would never entail more than their superficial actualization. Between what this “we” will accomplish and the reasons they joined up lies a vast gulf. Obama will seek to paper over this divide. It is our task to blow it wide open.

Obama and his handlers have drawn deep from the archive of American myths to constitute a “we” capable of revitalizing capital. Nevertheless, the compulsion to identify with the promise Obama represents should not be dismissed as another expression of the mainstream’s chronic shortsightedness. By actively drawing from the archive of unrealized American dreams, Obama revitalizes a collective longing for redemption. And while this longing will likely be channeled into projects that are antithetical to its realization, it is important to at least consider the possibility that, this time, we might find a way of turning the phrase that exceeds the content into a catalyst that can help produce a content that exceeds the phrase.

Activists have sensed this. Although Presidential inaugurations have often been important occasions for defiance and protest, Obama’s term in office began differently. Instead of planning direct actions, some left intellectuals and activists – ranging from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn to members of this journal’s advisory board – opted instead to issue “an open letter to those seeking to build a world from below, in which many worlds are possible.” Although the call for action highlighted the need to be critical of Obama, it also pointed out that activists needed to “recognize both the historical meaning and power of this particular moment” and to reckon with the hope that Obama inspired. Failure to do so, the letter contended, would “ensure our own irrelevance.”

It is neither the time nor the place to critique hope or excitement on the part of people who have engaged in grassroots struggles in so many ways and won a substantial victory. The inauguration marks a watershed event in the often cruel history of these United States, and the whole world will be watching, hoping that we’ve done just a little to grapple with the legacy of slavery, lynching, segregation, displacement, and racism in general, both of the personal and institutional varieties.

However, while the letter points to the need to simultaneously be critical of Obama and identify with those who take him as a sign of hope, it remains unclear how this is to be practically achieved. It’s obvious that hope is not in and of itself sufficient to transform the world. However, there is a danger that identifying with the hope of others while simultaneously trying to put forward alternative political content will end up appearing cynical and manipulative. Consequently, it’s necessary to consider the connection between hope and revolutionary social change in greater detail.

To begin, it’s useful to highlight the fact that people identify with the promise Obama represents because he has actively marshaled the most resonant myths of American history. The historical relay set in motion by his citations reaches deep into the past. It permeates every aspect of American life. The first and most often cited touchstone in this relay is the US civil rights movement. For many, Obama embodied the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream. But this dream also had antecedents. It drew deeply from the generative myth of liberal rights and freedoms, the myth of human equality as enshrined in the 1776 US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Under capitalism, this myth – so powerful in its potential to mobilize people who desire to fulfill its promise – mainly serves to support the status quo. Almost from its inception, the revolutionary promise of the myth was channeled into the establishment of the bourgeois state. The myth’s promise became decoupled from the revolutionary violence that animated it and became ensnared by the finite content of the ruling class. Nevertheless, the myth continues to resonate for vast numbers of people who are drawn to a promise that was never realized and never can be under capitalism.

By drawing upon the unrealized promise of the American Revolution, the unfinished Civil War, and the civil rights movement, Obama forged a hegemonic bloc within the US electorate. This bloc encompassed “progressives,” Blacks, Latinos, the trade union movement, and students. Obama was also able to form clear cross-class alliances by bringing these groups into alignment with Silicon Valley capitalists and Wall Street financiers.

 As commander-in-chief of the most powerful imperialist nation in the world, Obama is tending to ruling class interests. Nevertheless, under his direction, hope has become a force capable of stabilizing an order that was facing a serious legitimization crisis under George W. Bush. Through the course of his campaign, Obama thoroughly captured the aspirations of large numbers of working class people in the US by citing from the archive of past struggles. His identity as a Black man and his connections (however tenuous) to left-wing activism as a housing organizer in Chicago have only added to his credibility.  

There’s something real about the emotions Obama was able to evoke in the record-setting crowds that attended his campaign events, his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, and at his inauguration. He spoke directly to people about the possibility of thoroughgoing change and seemed – in his very person – to embody the promise of such a transformation. The genius of Obama’s corporate backers is that they found a President who not only redeems America after eight years of George W. Bush but also relegitimates corporate rule using the veneer of progressivism.

Obama makes clear that the question of myth is bound up explicitly with the problem of hegemony. This relationship was a recurring theme for Marxists and other revolutionaries of the early 20th century who had to make sense of the fact that objective conditions did not automatically lead people to revolutionary conclusions. Thinkers like Georges Sorel, Leon Trotsky, and Antonio Gramsci tried to make sense of the disconnect between the objective and subjective factors underlying revolution.

In his Reflections on Violence, Sorel spoke explicitly about the role of myth in the cultivation of revolutionary capacities. According to Sorel, the function of myth was to orient the proletariat to the possibility of an indeterminate future that could be realized after a decisive break with the capitalist present. For the syndicalist movement, the name of this myth was the general strike. Although the myth itself did not have explicit content, it did stimulate identification with a promise that things could look radically different. Moreover, Sorel contended, it arose from and drew upon the lived experiences of the workers themselves. Consequently, Sorel believed that the promise of the general strike would return to mind every time the reality of the present became incommensurable with its promise. At its logical extreme, the myth pushed people to the point where the latent content of desire became identical to the manifest content of politics. In this way, myth paradoxically became the precondition for the production of new truths.

Developed slightly later, Trotsky’s theory of transitional demands can be viewed as a programmatic attempt to address the same problem. Although the working class was objectively revolutionary, this did not mean that its struggles always led it to revolutionary conclusions. For this reason, Trotsky proposed that revolutionaries should articulate demands that would be intelligible to the workers movement (demands that accorded with those that arose spontaneously and without provocation) while simultaneously being unrealizable within the framework of the capitalist present. According to Trotsky, although workers would not gravitate spontaneously toward revolutionary demands, once they began to mobilize behind a demand that could not be attained without radical change, their desire to realize the demand would lead them into revolutionary action.

Both Sorel and Trotsky elaborated their positions to address the dynamics of 20th century capitalist development that made the terrain of revolutionary struggle very different from the one confronted by Marx. Although Marx could anticipate the trajectory of capitalist development, he did not live long enough to see the full extent to which capitalism would draw its own grave digger into the fold by using the trenches of civil society to diffuse and defuse concerted opposition. Because workers struggles in the 19th century were suppressed with strategies that had more to do with war than law, it was not difficult to believe that revolutionary politics could remain a contest between objectively divided enemies facing each other down across an unbridgeable chasm.

During the Russian revolution, revolutionary workers faced off against a crumbling feudal regime and a bourgeoisie that remained enfeebled in the backwaters of the industrial world system. Despite the difficulties the revolutionaries encountered when trying to constitute a “we” in Russia, they did not have to deal with the deep trenches of civil society. Their solution to the fragmentation of Russian life (a fragmentation that arose from the divisions between city and country and between those living in different cells within the prison house of nations) primarily took the form of organizational propositions. The party and its newspaper were the means by which the immediate experiences of everyday life could be transposed into the register of collective political intention.

These strategies continued to be important throughout the early 20th century. However, the objective differences between the situation in Russia and the one found in countries closer to the center of the industrial world system meant that revolutionaries needed to elaborate methods that addressed not only the objective dynamics of exploitation and resistance but the subjective dynamics of collective identification as well. Antonio Gramsci became centrally associated with this problem.

Like Sorel, Gramsci attempted to work out how the myth functioned within the emergent field of civil society. However, like Trotsky, he tried to operationalize those insights by transposing them into the programmatic register of the hegemonic “war of position.” For Gramsci, if the exploitation, oppression, and disenchantment of life under capitalism did not automatically cause masses of people to commit to the struggle for a better world (and if the struggles that did occur often ended badly because they were pursued prematurely), then it was necessary to find a means of developing a tendency toward rupture in the very context and content of the present.

This meant engaging with the myths that animated civil society. Unlike Sorel and Trotsky, the goal was not to point to the promise of the moment of rupture or to cultivate identification with existing content but to push on and exploit the contradictions between the content and the phrase. By starting from the manifest content of the system and working slowly toward its latent promise, Gramsci envisioned the possibility of developing capacities and cultivating desires that would lead toward the decisive conflict, the “war of maneuver.”

For Gramsci, hegemony meant constituting a “we” by aggregating disparate groups of people despite the fact that they may have divergent and even contradictory objective interests. Based on such a definition, it becomes clear that hegemony is an important category of ruling. Since capitalism presupposes contracts between free individuals,  it has been necessary to devise means of preserving the impression of this objectively unrealizable premise. More instrumentally, the process of compelling workers to internalize and assimilate the logic of their own self-management made tremendous sense from the standpoint of good governance.

Because the objective contradictions within the aggregated “we” always threaten to overwhelm the prevailing order, maintaining hegemony is an active process and requires significant innovations on the part of the state and the capitalist class. Over the course of the 20th century these innovations enabled the development of a field of regimented action that now covers the entire planet and reaches deep inside each of us. Under conditions such as these, it has become self-evident to many activists that our objective should be to abolish hegemonic power altogether. This tendency is especially pronounced among those autonomous Marxists who have argued that the goal of revolutionary struggle is to elaborate forms of anti-power to decompose power itself. As compelling as these positions can sometimes seem, it’s important to remember that – as far as Gramsci was concerned – it was not possible to envision a society shaped by struggle in which hegemony was not a decisive factor. The question, then, cannot be how to abolish hegemony. Instead, we must consider how to win it.

For Gramsci, winning hegemony involved engaging within the spaces and institutions of civil society. It meant identifying the generative myths within the hegemonic project of the bourgeoisie that had contradictory elements and that exceeded the content of the bourgeois world. These kinds of wars of position were not substitutes for the war of maneuver. They were its precondition. Their goal was to exhaust the possibilities of the myth’s deferred realization so that those who were committed to it would come to push on the content directly and without illusion.

Accepting the fact that, in a context defined by bourgeois hegemony, the mass of the population would identify with the promise of its generative myths, the strategy of passive revolution called on radicals to start from the standpoint of bourgeois content and locate the latent promise that made people identify with it. For instance, to cite the most rudimentary example, in today’s late capitalist culture, many people believe that they will share in a greater helping of human happiness by consuming commodities.

The customary radical answer to this behavior is to say that these people have succumbed to false consciousness and need to be reeducated or, alternately, to say that people should be able to consume what they think they need since only they can speak for themselves. What gets missed in responses such as these is that people’s identification with the promise of the commodity is based on a real phenomenon. The commodity embodies both use value and exchange value. It denotes both alienation and its opposite. In the moment of its realization as use value, the commodity inevitably points to the promise of a production beyond the exploitative dimensions of labour under capitalism. Even if that promise can never be objectively realized under capitalism itself, it nevertheless calls people back to the commodity. Viewed in this way, the “consumer” becomes a neurotic symptom of the unrealized desire to become an unalienated producer.

If this is the case, then it is of little use to engage in moralizing. Although people can be made to feel guilty, it will not break them from the content that remains most closely tied to the phrase. In the absence of another alternative, even if people could produce an account of why they should live differently, they will be hard pressed to abandon their identification with bourgeois content.

The alternative, however, can be produced through the hegemonic action of movements themselves. If movements encouraged rather than discouraged identification with bourgeois content while simultaneously highlighting the promise it announces, then we could constitute a “we” on the basis of the promise itself. Next, we can demonstrate how the phrase exceeds the content. If we are able to preserve the continuity of the “we” through this phase, then we can move toward realizing the content’s promise by emancipating it from its present condition by changing the conditions themselves.

This does not require that people have an anti-capitalist outlook at the beginning of the process. Nor does it require that the revolutionary add anything to what is already present in order to constitute a “we” capable of engaging in anti-capitalist work.

Following from Gramsci, we can conclude that the process of hegemonic war against constituted power involves three key steps. First, we must identify the myths that animate the present but that fail to generate an adequate content. These myths continue to resonate not because people believe they have been actualized but precisely because they do not. Second, we must recognize that people’s resignation to the compensatory satisfactions of inadequate content does not mean that the promise of the phrase itself has been lost. It is therefore necessary that we learn to speak in the language of that desire so that we can encourage people to push for content that more adequately expresses the phrase itself. Finally, we must provide a concrete means of channeling the disappointment with inadequate content into revolutionary action aimed at emancipating the myth from its partial realization.

Needless to say, this isn’t what the left does most of the time. Our use of myths is indeterminate. Consider, for instance, the predominant attributes of the radical left’s “we.” For most of the left, this “we” is informed by the habits of valorization. Often it entails a commitment to maintaining “who we are,” of defining ourselves against the world even if it means that “we” are reduced to functional irrelevance. It neglects the most pressing problem that radicals might pose: what can we become? If we read this problem through Jean-Paul Sartre’s archetypes of the rebel (who needs the hated world in order to constitute herself) and the revolutionary (who identifies with a promise of what the world can become and so embraces her own self-abolition), we can see that our movements more closely resemble the rebel. Consistent with this rebel orientation are a range of subtle practices that comprise the hegemony of the radical left’s internal universe. At its logical extreme, it has meant that activist communities tend to become insular and exclusive subcultures.

It would be wrong to dismiss subcultures entirely. However, while subcultural spaces and counter-institutions have enabled important pedagogical experiments in self-realization, these experiments inevitably encounter at least two obstacles. The first is that counter-institutions, especially for those not directly involved in them, tend to find intelligibility as refutations of constituted power. This means that they (are thought to) negate what is by advancing an alternate content. For those not yet willing to choose this content, the counter-institution is, at best, a source of charming idiosyncrasy and is relegated to the margins it sometimes fetishizes. The second problem is that, when it does try to break out of that marginality, the counter-institution is put in the position of engaging in a war of position it has denounced. As such, it is unable to proceed on a stable footing. But if counter-institutions are in and of themselves insufficient to the challenges of the war of position, what is required?

The experience of the economic crisis and the Obama presidency should lead radicals to ask how we might constitute a hegemony of our own. However, to date, this question has not been broadly posed. Many of us continue to disavow the importance of hegemony. Others are willing to respond to the situation but not to take initiative. Still others are willing to consider the prospects of a left hegemony but fail to consider what this practically entails. Specifically, we have been silent on the question of how to aggregate social forces that currently don’t orient toward a common interest in order to constitute a “we” capable of producing social effects that expand beyond the limited reach of the radical left.

It’s encouraging to see that this discussion is (gradually) emerging. In early March, The Nation published a symposium anchored by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher’s article “Rising to the Occasion: Reimagining Socialism.” They write, “with both long-term biological and day-to-day economic survival in doubt, the only relevant question is: do we have a plan, people? … Let’s just put it right out on the table: we don’t.”

In order to address this problem, Ehrenreich and Fletcher invoke solidarity, “an antique notion until very recently,” and point out that it “flickered into life again in the symbolism and energy of the Obama campaign.” Organized solidarity, they conclude, is the central project for socialists today. Without disputing this conclusion, it seems crucial to highlight the limitations of the two-fold prescription of devising a plan and calling for solidarity. For starters, we must acknowledge that Obama channeled people’s hope not simply by providing a coherent plan and calling for solidarity; he did it by cultivating a “we.” The slogan “Yes we can!” became infectious.

As of yet, the socialist “we” to which Ehrenreich and Fletcher refer is not a functional grouping. It does not yet exist. Their argument falls short by failing to talk about the dynamic relationship between the need to devise a viable alternative and the need to constitute a subjective force capable of actualizing it. As Tariq Ali argued in his response to Ehrenreich and Fletcher, “until the emergence of a viable sociopolitical and economic alternative, perceived by a majority as such, there will be no final crisis of capitalism” (emphasis ours). Ali’s note about the perception requirement – presented simultaneously as a precondition and an addendum – indicates that the project of constituting a “we” and the project of developing a plan cannot be separated.

In order to devise a plan, Ehrenreich and Fletcher emphasize the need for organization-based participatory democracy. However, they admit that “we don’t even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism.” But “deliberative process” presupposes the existence of a “we.” The objective force required to introduce a new “plan” will have to be much bigger than today’s self-identified radicals. And while material conditions will compel some to arrive at socialist conclusions, radicals will have to seriously consider strategies for bringing people together by subjective means if we are to maximize the potential of the new distrust of capitalism.

One of the most important contemporary examples of an anti-capitalist “we” being forged can be traced to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Whatever can be said of the limits of “Chavismo,” it’s indisputable that the Bolivarian revolution has inspired millions of Venezuelans to organize in revolutionary ways. Community councils, massive grassroots literacy and public health campaigns, and networks of armed “Bolivarian circles” are springing up to advance and defend the revolutionary process. Among the many significant features of this self-proclaimed “socialism of the 21st century” is the extent to which it has mobilized the productive myth of Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of Latin America. By calling for land reform, the abolition of slavery, and independence from Spain, Bolivar’s 19th century campaign against Spanish colonialism was certainly progressive. But the myth (some might say the cult) of Bolivar has been used just as widely by Venezuelan dictators as it has been by the left. Nevertheless, Chavez and his supporters have taken possession of this national myth and created a hegemonic bloc within Venezuela and Latin America as a whole. With this bloc, they have pushed for socialist ideals and anti-imperialist policy. It’s no less instructive to note that Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Mexican revolutionaries have similarly cited the mythical deeds of Marti, Sandino, and Zapata in their own projects of popular mobilization.

Despite these examples, it’s difficult to imagine locating or mobilizing similar myths in the Canadian context. Unlike the mythical context in which Obama is operating, Canada did not have a bourgeois revolution that decisively broke the shackles that tied it to Britain. The closest that Canada ever came to a bourgeois revolution were the uprisings in Upper and Lower Canada. Bringing farmers and workers together with bourgeois leaders like William Lyon Mackenzie and Joseph Papineau, this movement sought “responsible government,” free markets outside of British colonial preference, increased rights for Francophones, and control over the revenues of the colonial province. It was militarily defeated by better-armed and better-organized British troops.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Canada’s very existence stood as a reaction to the successful revolution to the south. More than 40,000 defeated loyalists fled north and joined the sparsely populated British colony of approximately 150,000 inhabitants. The definitive claim that Canada is “not the United States” can thus be traced back to the very formation of the US republic. Despite the fact that contemporary anti-Americanism assumes a critical position toward American empire and global domination, Canadian anti-Americanism arose as a counter-revolutionary defense of the British Empire.

Nevertheless, the foundational myths of “Canadian identity” are closely bound up with our status as the “pacifistic,” better informed, liberal cousins of the US. The power of these myths comes both from the historical experiences of Canada’s domination by US capital and the resistance to that domination by the Canadian national bourgeoisie and popular left-wing forces.

The maturation of the Canadian bourgeoisie clearly played an important role in transforming the political content of Canadian nationalism. By the 1980s, Canadian capitalists sought greater integration into continental markets believing they could compete on a level playing field with US capital. As the national bourgeoisie abandoned the nationalism that enabled its rise, English Canadian social movements embraced the language of nationalism to oppose, among other things, continental free trade. One or another version of this myth also played a role in the Canadian anti-globalization and anti-war movements.

 Despite this appropriation, the liberatory promise of Canadian nationalism is (at the very least) uncertain given the colonial nature of the Canadian state, its policies of genocide towards indigenous people, the historic oppression of the Québecois, and its long history of imperialist activity on the world stage. 

It is therefore not surprising that the contemporary radical left has situated itself in opposition to the left nationalist leanings of groups like the Council of Canadians. Summarized in the slogan “No Borders, No Nations,” this rejection of left nationalism helped clarify the movement’s politics and radical identity. However, it did little to clarify how to relate to non-radicalized working-class people.  Although anti-capitalist movements have generative myths of their own, they cannot be said to resonate with large sections of the population. They are rarely used to constitute a “we” that’s broader than the already-active radical left itself.

Despite the difficulties posed by Canadian nationalism, it is not enough to deem myths inadmissible on the grounds that they arose in part from the preoccupations of oppressors. And while it’s possible for resistance movements to draw from our own archives, this does not mean that we should be restricted to doing so. The mythology of a colonial project based on an equal and respectful partnership negotiated between settler and indigenous nations is central to the hegemonic construction of the Canadian state. As any school history text makes clear, Canada was based on something other than a ruthless and violent expropriation of land and resources. Yet this same myth has proven indispensable to indigenous people in struggle, and not simply in an instrumental way. The regular invocation of, for example, the symbol of the two-row wampum and its framework of peaceful dialogue and coexistence between peoples does not aim to valorize the Canadian conceit of a benign colonialism. Instead, it aims to highlight and leverage the gap between the appeal of the myth and the harsh realities of continuing colonial domination – between what might have been (or might still be) and what is – for liberatory purposes. The power of the myth lies precisely in its ability to mobilize people – indigenous as well as non-indigenous – to demand new content worthy of the phrase. The point is expressed in simple but powerful fashion in the slogan inscribed on the Algonquin blockade banner: “Keep Your Promise.”

To get a broader sense of the uses to which the myths of the oppressors can be put, we can consider Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon’s account of the Algerian revolution. In his Introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre points out how people of colonized countries seized hold of the myth of universality underlying European racist humanism and turned it to their own advantage. The colonized “still spoke of our humanism,” Sartre reports, “but only to reproach us with our inhumanity.” The myth becomes useful precisely because it marks the distance between content and phrase.

For his part, Fanon points out that the youth of the colonized country, shaped by the nervous condition arising from the discrepancy between content and phrase, are quick to heap scorn upon the myths of their elders. Instead, they conjure up the memory of those fighters who resisted the initial occupation. However, even here, they do not seek to revitalize the past. Instead, the resonant myths that animate the anti-colonial project are transposed into a new internationalism. The political necessity of internationalism in the anti-colonial struggle leads resistance fighters to a concrete expression of the “humanism” they earlier reproached. “The barriers of blood and race prejudice are broken down on both sides,” says Fanon. “In the same way, not every Negro or Moslem is issued automatically a hallmark of genuineness; and the gun or the knife is not inevitably reached for when a settler makes his appearance.” Here, in the moment when the European bourgeoisie becomes the enemy of its own ideal, in the moment when the ideal itself begins to be realized through the anti-colonial rebellion, the myth is emancipated from the constraints of its content and becomes a concrete force in the production of something new.

As these examples make clear, the process of selecting resonant myths must necessarily involve experimentation. Luckily, we’re used to experimenting. We do it whenever we introduce a new protest chant, campaign slogan, or banner image. Those that don’t resonate fall by the wayside. In selecting unrealized myths from the bourgeois archive, we must assess our options based on their strategic value and not on what can most easily be absorbed by existing activist subcultures.

At its logical conclusion, cultivating a larger “we” by drawing upon the archive of generative myths demands that we break from the habit of valorizing these subcultures. Although they may be important and useful for our own purposes, activist subcultures will not allow us to build the mass-scale disappointment required to change this world decisively for the better. But while engagement with the problem of hegemony demands that we critique today’s left, critique cannot be the extent of our work. After all, the purpose of critique is to realize the promise of the movement itself and to emancipate the promise of our own phrases from the partial realization of our current content.

In order to do so, we must begin by recognizing that the war of maneuver is doomed to fail if we don’t also engage in a war of position. In this war, we must orient ourselves not toward that which we hope others will come to desire but rather toward the latent desires already in play. By orienting to these desires, it’s possible to find deep wells of repressed energy that can be channeled into revolutionary activity. However, in order to tap into these reserves, we must start from the content in which they are trapped.