Seeing Clearly: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History VIII


The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.  We must attain to a conception of history that is is in keeping with this insight.  Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.  One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.  The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.  This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it is the knowledge that the view of history that gives rise to it is untenable. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 257

How many states of emergency are currently active in the United States?  According to the webpage Sourcewatch (run by Glenn Beck and associates, so consider the source), the United States has been in a declared state of emergency since 1933.  The Senate validated this claim in the 1973 Emergency Powers Statute, the first sentence of which reiterates the long-standing state of emergency.  Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush declared different states of emergency that, for all intents and purposes, are still active.  To my counting, that’s at least four.  I remember Pres. Reagan declaring a state of national emergency concerning the threat of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, but that has probably been mooted by events.  In any event, even if my count is off, it is clear enough that we Americans live under at least one or two states of emergency at any given time.  Once legally declared, these states give broad powers to the Executive, from seizing property to overriding local governments through the Federal Emergency Management Act, to mobilizing American armed forces for domestic population control.  In 1968, during the riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Pres. Johnson ordered the 101st Airborne to the city to maintain control and restore order, the first time American troops had been used on American soil against American citizens since the Civil War.

Benjamin insists these states of emergency, far from being rare and short-lived, are increasingly the norm, meant both to keep the populace on edge and in favor of emergency action as well as pacify the population toward the violent means of control the state has ready at hand.  While I disagree strongly with his insistence that the people rise up to create a real state of emergency – the specific case, perhaps, of which he was thinking in Germany after Hitler was appointed Chancellor and the Emergency decrees after the Reichstag fire – demonstrate the futility of direct action against a state power willing to use any and all means at its disposal to control the population.  That specific case was not helped by the German Communist Party.  Combined with the Socialists, the far left in Germany had at least a plurality of power far greater than the National Socialists, who at least boasted the largest single party presence in the German legislature.  Under orders from Moscow to boycott the Reichstag, however, the Communists were not present to combine with the Socialists to form a block against Hitler and his plurality government.  The Nazis also had affiliated thugs, the SA, to prevent any member of the Reichstag to enter except those who supported Hitler.  Communist and Socialist deputies were beaten bloody on the streets while the police looked the other way.  After the emergency decrees following the Reichstag fire, even Reichstag deputies who were also members of the Communist and Socialist parties were rounded up by the SS and placed in Concentration Camps, where many  lived and died over the next 12 years.  Direct action, while certainly attractive, has proven time and again to be futile when the state apparatus is willing to use all means necessary to suppress opposition.

Yet, at the heart of this thesis is Benjamin’s demand that we see and understand that these “states of emergency” and the physical force with which they are maintained are not an aberration, but the norm for late capitalism.  That so many, including “historians” were “shocked” not only by the violence of the Fascist and Communist regimes of the mid-20th century, but the policies and practices of the totalitarian regimes toward their own people as well as declared enemy minorities, only demonstrates the inadequacy of the vision of historians living and working in and for bourgeois states.  State violence, it was insisted – especially toward one’s own populace – was a thing of the past.  “Progress”, the mantra of the 19th century, carried over to the 20th.  While certainly wounded by the First World War, it survived long enough to provide “shock” for on-lookers who didn’t recognize the violence they were seeing was the norm rather than the exception of extreme states.  This “shock”, whether feigned or real, is a sign of the inadequacy of bourgeois historiography, serving the interests of power that differ only in degree from the Fascists and their violence, rather than a difference in kind.

We Christians are called upon to see the world with new eyes, as well.  Ours is not the vision of class consciousness (although that wouldn’t hurt), but eyes blessed by faith to see the world not as we would wish it to be, nor as we saw it formerly, before faith opened our eyes, like St. Paul in his sickbed on Straight Street in Damascus.  Our actions in the light of the reality we now see more clearly should be rooted in compassion, forgiveness, and the hope that, regardless of what the state might threaten, what thugs might do, and what others of a less charitable nature might insist is folly.  We Christians, seeing the state of emergency as a norm to pacify and put terror in the hearts of the people, should always remember St. Paul in Romans 8: If God is for us, who can be against us?  That doesn’t mean we are free from the very real threat of bodily harm, even death, as we live out our lives of faith.  It only means that these states of emergency are not to be feared; the threats of violence are not to be denounced and whined about; the faux-cynical poo-pooing of Christian mission and ministry in the face of the threat of violence should not keep us from doing what we are called to do: To be the Body of Christ, at work and alive in a world filled with fear, pacified to inaction, and wary of those who insist on unmasking the powers of this world as little more than the Great And Terrible Oz.

In this, we Christians can, perhaps, offer something more than the false hope of direct action against state power prescribed by Benjamin.  We Christians can work with and for the people, not resisting when the state or their thugs intervene, but knowing that others will take our place, because God is with us, and the work of the Church, the transformation of the world, cannot be stopped even by bullets and nooses and the gas chambers of our modern horror stories.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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