It is difficult to think historically about the present crisis, even in general terms—comparisons with 1929 seem not to help—and therefore to get the measure of its mixture of chaos and rappel à l’ordre. Tear gas refreshes the army of bondholders; the Greek for General Strike is on everyone’s lips; Goldman Sachs rules the world. Maybe the years since 1989 could be likened to the moment after Waterloo in Europe—the moment of Restoration and Holy Alliance, of apparent world-historical immobility (though vigorous reconstellation of the productive forces) in the interim between 1815 and 1848. In terms of a thinking of the project of Enlightenment—my subject remains the response of political thought to wholesale change in circumstances—this was a moment between paradigms. The long arc of rational and philosophical critique—the arc from Hobbes to Descartes to Diderot to Jefferson to Kant—had ended. Looking with hindsight, we can see that beneath the polished surface of Restoration the elements of a new vision of history were assembling: peculiar mutations of utilitarianism and political economy, the speculations of Saint-Simon, Fourier’s counterfactuals, the intellectual energies of the Young Hegelians. But it was, at the time (in the shadow of Metternich, Ingres, the later Coleridge), extremely difficult to see these elements for what they were, let alone as capable of coalescing into a form of opposition—a fresh conception of what it was that had to be opposed, and an intuition of a new standpoint from which opposition might go forward. This is the way Castlereagh’s Europe resembles our own: in its sense that a previous language and set of presuppositions for emancipation have run into the sand, and its realistic uncertainty as to whether the elements of a different language are to be found at all in the general spectacle of frozen politics, ruthless economy and enthusiasm (as always) for the latest dim gadget.
Nobody does Marxist pessimism quite like T.J. Clark. Eminence grise is such an applicable thing to call him. There’s something implacably grey and monumental about his style, as if every time he turns his gaze, a vast machinery of erudition has to drag hundreds of years of ruins in the corresponding direction.