Response to Anderson: Preface & thanks

To be made the object of “one of those” articles by Perry Anderson is a disorientating experience.

Anderson, NLR 119 (1)

It is flattering, painful and disconcerting, all at the same time. I have felt myself both nodding inwardly in agreement and raging in frustration at the moments which feel unfair, obtuse or cruel.

I have never experienced anything quite like it, not in private and certainly not in public.

I have agreed with New Left Review that I will write a piece in response for their Jan/Feb 2020 issue.

After the pages they have already devoted to my life & work, I don’t want to take up any more of their real estate with my efforts to come to terms with Anderson’s reading of particular moments in my existing oeuvre, or to lay out there my personal motivations.

I will use the NLR piece to offer some new points about the history of US hegemony, our current situation and what kind of political and practical opportunities it may or may not offer. I am really grateful for the suggestions that social media friends are making. Keep them coming.

What I will not be able to present is the missing chapter on Japan. On that score, I largely agree with Anderson’s critique. To my mind, the absence of Japan is the biggest thing wrong with Crashed. Along with the missing chapter on Middle East & North Africa it is one of my regrets about the writing process. Fixing it may have to wait for another time. Perhaps for a second edition.

However, if I am not going to take up space in the NLR for a rebuttal, I do feel the need to respond in a more direct way to Anderson’s specific comments about my work and the intellectual trajectory they map. The blog seems the right place to do this.

This will also give me the opportunity to respond to the excellent review by Cédric Durand, which prompted Anderson’s intervention and also to insightful reviews from the left in other places.

My promise to myself is to try to keep it interesting – a minimum of face-saving rebuttals and a maximum of added value.

Least I can do in appreciation for the time folks have put in reading Crashed and the other books. Let me know if you think I am getting lost in the weeds.

I have been reticent in many ways about the intellectual and political backdrop to my work. That reticence has in part prompted Anderson’s effort to make sense of me. I can only be grateful for his efforts, even if the results are not always comfortable.

To be the object of an Andersonian reading is to be read at three levels at once: intellectually, politically and in terms of a cultural sociology of one’s times.

In the piece he offers various hypotheses about my motivation culled from things I have said and written. I have only had the pleasure of meeting Anderson on one occasion, it is surprising that he gets as much right as he does.

It is tempting, of course, to respond with an autohistoire that is more faithful to my own sense of self than the sketch Anderson offers. But I am not yet ready for my Crooked Line.

Suffice to say that Anderson is right in the three fundamental interpretive points he makes.

Anderson is right that Crashed is best understood in connection with my other work. I am grateful to him for highlighting the continuity between the trilogy of Wages, Deluge and Crashed. They do indeed form a unit, but they are framed in addition by my first book, Statistics and the German State.

On top of which there are various half-finished and discarded projects along the way, which at least in my own mind, help to fill out the picture.

This website was part of an effort to gather that material together. Anderson’s intervention gives me further impetus to make sense of how the pieces fit together.

I appreciate also that Anderson takes my histories seriously in political terms. He is right to describe them as an effort to work out the implications of what I dubbed a “left liberalism”. He is right to identify Keynes as a key point of reference.

Even if the reading is unforgiving – we are not after all in the same camp – it is bracing and productive to be taken seriously at this level. It forces me to be even more explicit.

I also very much appreciate Anderson’s effort to highlight the continuity of method between Crashed, Deluge and Wages of Destruction.

Anderson highlights my “‘situational and tactical’ approach to the subject in hand … dispensing with a structural explanation of its origins”. I am going to take issue with his characterization of my method. But once again I appreciate his willingness to credit me with having one and welcome the opportunity to think through its implications.

Beyond these three general insights, Anderson’s long review raises a mass of further points. I am going to structure my response on the blog in a series of postings. Some are easier to do than others and the train of thought that Anderson has unleashed is still unfolding. But as things stand my idea is to write the following pieces:

  1. History without structure?
  2. The misreading of Wages of Destruction.
  3. What is the economy?
  4. Explicating The “right liberal” politics of Deluge
  5. Europe and the problem of German hegemony

I will reserve a discussion of the American themes and the overarching questions of hegemony for the NLR piece. Altogether that makes 6 short pieces.

Quinn Slobodian, who curated a lot of the discussion of the Anderson piece on twitter (thanks Quinn!), suggested that we should talk about Foucault. I will end up there under 3. if not before.

Bruno Latour recently asked me, rather more gently than Anderson, to explain what I was up to. I wish I had notes of the ensuing conversation. But the gist of my reply was that one might start with his own Science in Action.

I’ll end, for now, with thanks to all those who this week helped to keep me on an even keel.

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