notes and links from bat020
The politics of What If?
Zizek on counterfactuals
Exhibit A: witless reactionaries desperately trying to justify the summary execution of an innocent man in London last month by armed plain clothes police officers. Their strategy? Constant hysterical invocation of an absurd counterfactual scenario: "What if he actually had been a suicide bomber?"
Exhibit B: witless warmongers desperately trying to justify the embarrassing lack of WMD that were the supposed motivation for the invasion of Iraq. Their strategy? Constant hysterical invocation of an absurd counterfactual scenario: "What if he actually was planning to nuke us in 45 minutes?"
What both these examples (and there are countless others) demonstrate is the preponderance of counterfactual scenarios in the arsenal of reactionary ideologues. This phenomenon is neatly dissected by Slavoj Zizek in his latest essay for the London Review of Books, ostensibly a review of a volume of "what if?" essays by "leading" historians.
Zizek also notes how conservative historians justify their parlour games by negative reference to "historically determinist" caricature of Marxism, and asks "what should the Marxist's answer be?" His initial strategy is to debunk the notion that Marxists are "dumb determinists who can't entertain alternative scenarios".
This all very well and good, but I feel it doesn't address the thorny issue of how to distinguish the "good" Leninist approach to counterfactuality from the "bad" reactionary one. I suspect the critical factor here involves the temporality of the "counterfactual" – Lenin's "what if we don't act now?" is an urgent demand addressed in and to the present, a call for a decision over emergent possibilities. The conservative version, in contrast, involves no such sense of urgency or presence – it is a retrospective justification of a series of events that have already taken place.
This suggests that the Leninist "counterfactual" is not a counterfactual in the strict sense of the term. The notion of a counterfactual only makes sense within the analytic conception of "possible worlds" (cf Kripke), where all the possible worlds are "realistic", but only one of them happens to be actual. The laws of the worlds are all the same, all that differs is the contingent quality of actuality (its "modality"). That is why something that happens in an alternative world is counterfactual, ie both factual and not factual.
The Leninist position owes nothing to this Kripkean picture – instead it involves a much deeper conception of intertwined potentiality and actualisation in this world, with time and subjective decision somehow wrapping the two together. I guess this is what Benjamin was getting at with his "theses on the philosophy of history" (which Zizek namechecks)... something I confess I've never entirely understood.
[crosspost from Lenin's Tomb]