Walter Benjamin’s work is said to have much influence over contemporary thought. What has been the quality of that influence? And what could he possibly have to say about current winners and losers? Johnny Rodger looks at Benjamin in the context of some more recent work by Ahmed, Butler, Preciado and others.
‘They got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose’
Deacon Blues, Steely Dan
What do Zeno’s paradoxical tortoise and Walter Benjamin’s squint-eyed angel of history have in common? That teaser ought to be part of a pub quiz. The prize would probably never be lifted off the bar though, and that’s kind of, well, ironic, because both of these tropes attempt to show us how losers can win.
There’s no need to re-run Zeno’s counter-intuitive race where the tortoise beats swift-footed Achilles (though it doesn’t involve taking a nap in the long grass) but probably Benjamin’s angel, which he based on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, needs some explaining. What is it even meant to symbolise, the angel of history, which looks back to the past and has wings spread, forced for flight to the future? And how does it show us how losers can win?
The angel appears in the last essay he completed – ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’ – where Benjamin takes some sniper shots at ‘historicism’ aimed through his super-focussed Marxian sights. It’s significant that Benjamin cites Nietzsche at the head of one of the sections of the essay though, and in fact the style of the essay is more akin to the self-contained epigrammatic format of something like Nietzsche’s ‘Twilight of the Idols’ with its short phrases of provocatively pointed esotericism, viz. ‘The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad.’ For us post-Fukuyama kids that Marxist history -‘historical materialism’ as Benjamin calls it here, is already mired in abstruse dogma (as much a part of history itself as Communist Parties, the Soviet State, and socialist Sunday schools, and hardly seems worth the bother figuring out its methods of an evening, and when we do we’ve forgotten it again before we rise for breakfast). To see Marxist history here then, retailed with the individualist and existentialist tone of Nietzsche, is cause for further perplexity.
Before our own squinty eyes lose sight of the angel in question though, it might be useful to outline a basic resume of Benjamin’s exposition in the ‘Thesis’. Benjamin rejects what might be seen –in his terms – as a hollowed out history, namely historicism, which accounts for only the continuity to the actual present day –and the figure of the future – in the past, and thus is history of merely the winners. The attitude of this type of history as Benjamin sees it is that
All rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.
Benjamin poses the work of the historical materialist –as a revolutionary – against the historicist conception of history as the story of the victorious only. This Marxist historian –the historical materialist – will reinstate all the lost, forgotten and repressed histories of the world. The irony, not lost on any student of the twentieth century Marxist belief, is that Benjamin consistently describes this ‘seize(ing) hold’ so that nothing that ever happened is lost to history, in religious, and even Messianic terms, as a redemption, as ‘only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past…’
That unexpectedly sacred context is nonetheless logical, of course, because the task of recalling and putting to work all that happened in history (including all the losers) must be an infinite task, and ‘infinity’ as such cannot constitute a proper subject for profane knowledge (apart from the weak calculi of its mathematical approximations). Benjamin shows himself aware of this point right from the very outset when in his first paragraph he notes –by way of a circuitous satirical reflex – that historical materialism ‘employs the services of theology’. Just as Christianity’s aim is to redeem all sinners through the spilling of the blood of Christ, so historical materialism aims to give a name to all the losers in the world via the intellectual sweat of Marx.
To the post-Marxist age the concept of ‘historicism’ –against which Benjamin’s historical materialism is posed – might seem clearer if we note that the to-our-age more commonly recognised and cited phenomenon of Whig History, can itself be seen, with its notion of progress and the inevitability of the rise of humanity through history to the light, as a historicist doctrine. Most readers amongst us, however, would probably know historicism as a concept from Karl Popper’s lengthy analysis of it in his books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies as an approach that would claim that the laws, the course and the end of history constitute a framework for the discipline which are known in advance. This is where things get a bit complicated though, in terms of heroes and zeros and virtues and sins. For Popper, who together with Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others, founded the formative neo-liberal institution of the Mont Pelerin Society after WWII, declared in The Open Society that the West’s greatest enemies of freedom –because of their uncompromisingly historicist views – were Plato, Hegel, and none other than Karl Marx.
Yet how could Popper’s Marx be the worst culprit of historicism (barring only Plato) if Benjamin’s Marxism was the very intellectual tool honed to undo historicism’s grip? Both work from a very similar definition of historicism, and it all seems to depend on how seriously Marx’s predictions for the future are taken, and the centrality given to that future prediction with respect to his body of critical work. It’s evident that as a self-avowed Marxist, Benjamin was very much influenced by the critical armoury of Marxist theory, especially those major works of Marx including Capital, German Ideology and the later 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte which analyse capitalist economics, politics and history. He was however, an independent left-wing intellectual and scholar, did not belong to any ‘official’ type of Marxism : he was not a member of the Communist Party and was not politically active as were some contemporary scholars –Gramsci, for example. As a freestyle and experimental thinker he was not so much interested in or influenced by the doctrines which were often developed from Marx’s works and used by the politically active and ideologues to prepare and organise for the communist future. It might be useful in this context to bear in mind an alternative name for Historical Materialism is Dialectical Materialism. It is the dialectical process in history that interests Benjamin as independent Marxist scholar. Where historicism is concerned with that progress of history, in emptying out all the facts and events in history to reveal the skeleton of its ideal progress (ie the victors’ history) then Benjamin’s dialectical method of historical materialism can fill that empty homogenous time with the specific experiences and events, particularly the repressed and the forgotten ‘tradition of the oppressed’, and those who did not benefit from the idealisation of historicism. Basically, in his poetic depiction of Klee’s squint eyed angel of history as watching a catastrophe heap up behind it, Benjamin is describing what happens to the losers in history. A pile of rubbish is mounting, a pile of forgotten and futile events, it is heaping up in the past and the only way these losers can be redeemed and the past saved, is through revolution and the Marxist approach of historical materialism. For Benjamin it is not a purely intellectual approach: the poetic, the tradition of Jewish mysticism and messianic Christianity are all invoked to bring about this resurrection of all humanity in history.
In recent decades the word ‘loser’ has taken on a peculiar currency as a term of abuse in the English language. It seems clear that it has come into common use contemporaneously with the rise of neo-liberalism precisely because it reflects perfectly one aspect of the human comedy as proposed by the world view that underlies that doctrine. As noted above the Mont Pelerin Society –set up by Popper, Hayek, Friedman and others – was constituted immediately post-war to promote liberalism and to fight the communism and Keynesianism which was seen by them as a threat to the open society. In their 1947 Statement of Aims, the Society –mainly consisting of economists – say that it is ‘difficult to imagine a society in which freedom may be effectively preserved’ without the institutions of ‘private property and the competitive market’. Neo-liberalism is founded quite literally then, in the spirit of each person for themselves with their own goods, and in a struggle against everyone else. As opposed to the command or mixed economies of the post-war period, competition is seen as the only means compatible with ‘freedom’ for allocation and distribution of any and all types of resource. Just as Jesus of Nazareth says the poor will always be with us, neo-liberalism seems to insist that we’ll never get rid of losers. (Nicely enough for the neo-liberals though, there’s even a half rhyme, is there not, between ‘Jesus’ and ‘losers’?) History will, according to those same neo liberals, show that only winners were rewarded and are remembered.
Who, after all, could ever forget Donald Trump? He is the embodiment of the principle of the winner takes all, the logical conclusion of the competition for power, where ‘the leader of the free world’ is the only winner in a world otherwise full of losers. Trump famously even called Saddiq Kahn a ‘stone cold loser’ – remarkable that a man elected as a leader by a city of ten million people can be characterised so in this dog-eat-dog world.
Trump helped bring America (and of course the rest of the world) round to his viewpoint via a long campaign. He had started characterising the US as a ‘loser nation’ way back in the 1980s when neo-liberalism really began to move up a gear in its bid for control. What he meant, of course, was that the USA was the biggest victim of the Americanisation of the planet. That seems paradoxical at first, but it targets perceived American weakness in giving the Japanese a hand up to greater economic success than the US after the war, the setting up (and funding!) of the Marshall Plan to save Europe and providing aid generally to failing economies around the world. All this when according to strict neo-liberal doctrine, the US should be pulling its boots on and high-tailing it home with the rich spoils of victory, leaving the losers in the shit after delivering its sucker punch of superiority. Yet can we really say Trump ‘embodied’ the principle of competition, when it is such a hollow victory over all other forms of life? Can we even say there is such a thing as winners when we are all eventually undone in one way or another? In their excellent book on the topic The Light that Failed Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes describe Trump’s as a ‘zero-sum world of winners and losers’ and go on to cite a one-time confidante of Trump, saying
…he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win because the only other option from his perspective was to lose and that was the equivalent of obliteration.
Indeed, it seems entirely conform to the neo-liberal doctrine of endless exhausting competition that Trump has evidently outrun himself, and as would be the apparently natural course of social-darwinist politics, he is now being dubbed a ‘loser’ himself having aligned himself with the losers of Confederate history and their racist monuments.
Ultimately in a winners’ economy predicated on competition over every aspect, everyone becomes a loser –even the leader of the free world – sooner or later. And the later is never that long in coming, for life is, especially in the neo-liberal regime, as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short. For Benjamin then, (-another loser who killed himself before this final essay could be published) the project of ‘historical materialism’, and the Marxian critical approach in general is, to put it in his own type of religious terminology, to redeem humanity from this universal perdition.
Is that a plausible project though? And is there already progress being made –as Benjamin did write his piece over 80 years ago? And if so, where would we see evidence of progress, and how would we know it as such if it is no longer to be recognised by the by now frighteningly abstruse and arguably alienating Marxist terminology as ‘historical materialism’? Perhaps the real evidence of Benjamin’s current legacy is to be taken precisely from his outsider’s willing and unorthodox embrace of diversity in outlook and methodology, in his case, the mixing of the poetic, the mystical and the messianic with his Marxist ideology?
Clearly the reinscribing of history as a manifold and not merely the story of the victors is an enormous project requiring innumerable hands and painstaking efforts across generations. Could such an endless and ongoing scope, (one beyond the capability of any one era, never mind one grouping far less one person) be the reason for the recourse to religious and sacred terminology in conception of the supra-human enormity of the challenge? The writer Paul B Preciado has predicted recently that the struggle against the domination of the patriarchy will take one thousand years. He does indeed seem to see the revolution travelling at a tortoise’s pace. His millennialist prediction for the resurrection of the losers in history –and he names them –the working classes, women, people of colour, black people particularly, the poor, people of non-binary sexuality and gender – is already qualitatively conceived within religious terms. But Preciado performs this consciously and writes
Every word in our language contains, as if rolled up in itself, a ball of time made of historical actions.
Thus our language is, or becomes, in an almost Hegelian sense, the bearer of the spirit of our times and in the struggle to reinstate (or resurrect) losers’ history we are
…undoing the knots of time, wresting words away from the conquerors in order to restore them to public space, where they can be the object of collective re-signification.
Hence the pseudo-religious tone. But something like the removal and replacement of monuments, memorials and statues of the victors from another era is, of course, a part of that change of spirit, through renewing of our language and resurrecting our histories.
This type of renewing of language and resurrecting histories is surely what feminist writer and scholar Sara Ahmed means when she refers to ‘consciousness-raising’. Ahmed shows us how feminism’s exposé of the moral economy of ‘happiness’ can be seen of as a type of sadness at becoming conscious of gender as a restriction, and leads to the labelling of the feminist as a ‘kill-joy’. This labelling as a spoiler, as a kill-joy, those who rock the social boat, who draw attention to false consciousness inherent in the use of ‘happiness’ as a normative tool is related, of course, to the understanding of the ‘loser’ as a ‘sad’ person who cannot but let the side down. Ahmed cites the writer, theorist and activist Audre Lorde describing her political struggles:
Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman slaughter, chemical invasion of our food, pollution of our environment, the abuse and destruction of your young, merely to avoid my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?
In other, more directly cynical, words, was Lorde just a sad loser? Naturally this is not simply about creating a new set of winners whose agenda will dominate our history for the subsequent millennium. It’s rather a different economy of history, it concerns a wider appreciation of human interactions and participation, with new understanding beyond merely ‘competition’ as the means for allocation of human resources and what Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ The writer James Kelman has, for example, stated about his many campaigns for right to the city, for social justice local and international, against racist practices and prejudices and for workers’ rights and so on, that the aim of a campaign is never simply to win. Most campaigns fail, he observes, and continues,
But what does it mean to win? In many instances ‘to win’ a campaign is simply to have acknowledged by those in authority that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. 
What concerns Kelman in this activism is engagement with oppressive structures and hierarchies –of the winners – and the bringing of relationships and workings of power to light and exploring them in public space. Again this ‘public space’ where exposure takes place consists in both the language referred to by Preciado, and the streets and squares upon which our monuments and memorials look down.
There are innumerable writers, thinkers, activists, workers, artists and so on, worldwide, whose work across all fields contributes greatly to the creation of the history of the losers, many of whom would not claim to know, perhaps not even to care to understand the theoretical underpinnings of Benjamin’s ‘historical materialism’. The pragmatic principle –as per Kelman’s campaigning spirit – finds a well-known support in the work of Donna Haraway and Judith Butler and others in the form of ‘Staying with the Trouble’. In her latest book on ‘Non-violence’ Butler shows us that vulnerability to suffering –to violence – and to ‘losing’ we might say – is not an attribute of the passive individual but a feature of human relations. Her prescription then for the practice of non-violence is that a new imaginary is required (which sounds like Preciado’s new language) – an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of all lives. She notes on the quality of endurance in a way reminiscent of Kelman, that ‘Sometimes continuing to exist in the vexation of social relations is the ultimate defeat of violent power.’
Like Zeno’s story of the tortoise, alternative narratives of events, parallel to a seeming common sense of the obvious winners, which are rich with wisdom, full of life and celebrate diversity, are always already on the go if we seek them out. Like Zeno’s tale they also create a different understanding of time, where everything isn’t over once the leading man has finished, and where we can linger with all our particular troubles, in many languages, in our own time and places, for the eternity of each and everyone’s desires.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’ in Benjamin, Illuminations, Shocken Books, New York 1968, pp. 253-64.
 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, London, 1992. In the wake of the collapse of the communist-block governments of central and eastern Europe around 1990 Fukuyama’s thesis or argument that it was the end of history inasmuch as there was no longer an alternative to the western form of capitalist economy and liberal politics had much currency.
 Benjamin, p. 256.
 Ibid. p. 255.
 Ibid. p. 254.
 Karl Popper, Poverty of Historicism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1957. and Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 2 vols., Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1945.
 Ronald Max Hartwell, A History of the Mont Pelerin Society, Liberty Fund, 1995, pp. 41-2.
 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-48495899 last seen 22/07/2020.
 Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The Light That Failed, Penguin, London, 2019, p. 201.
 Paul B. Preciado, ‘Amnesic Feminism’ in An Appartment in Uranus , Semi(o)text, South Pasadena, 2020, p. 78.
 In Sara Ahmed , ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2010, vol. 35, no. 3
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Bloomsbury, London, 2013.
 James Kelman, ‘Introduction’, in And the Judges Said… , Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2012, p11.
 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Duke UP, 2013. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge , London, 1990.
 Judith Butler, The Force of Non-Violence, Verso Books, London, 2020, p. 201.