The philosopher Walter Benjamin, who knew such times as these, wrote in 1940 of “the Angel of History.” The idea came to him while studying Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), a portrait of an angel who is being propelled away from the viewer and who appears stricken by the prospect. This, Benjamin believed, was the personification of history itself. “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin wrote. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.” That was how history worked, Benjamin recognized. There is no learning from the mistakes of the past, for even as we try we are making the mistakes of the present, while we are propelled forward in time to meet an uncertain and terrifying destiny. That is why the Angel is agape in horror: his eyes are open to the tragedy of the past, but he has no power to prevent it from recurring, over and over.
There is no learning from the mistakes of the past, for even as we try we are making the mistakes of the present, while we are propelled forward in time to meet an uncertain and terrifying destiny.
I thought of Benjamin when I read Ed Miliband’s essay in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, for Miliband, too, seems to have caught a glimpse of Benjamin’s Angel. Miliband has conducted politics as a neoliberal, though one more in the center-left Obama mold than in the center-right Clinton one. In 2015, his British Labour Party hired Obama’s consultants, ran Obama’s campaign playbook, and suffered a defeat so devastating that it paved the way for Brexit. Today, though, Miliband appears as that rare individual who has faced the enormity of his failures and emerged with something more productive than insanity. “The difficult truth,” he writes, “is that…the progressive movement of the 1990s and 2000s was too relaxed about inequality, too bought into neoliberalism, too sanguine about the effects of the winds of economic change, and too slow to react to what we were hearing.” The left must respond, Miliband continues, by making 2016 “a strategic inflexion point. Above all, from here on, we need to understand this lesson more than any other: Either we own the change or we own the problem. That means thinking big about what the progressive solutions look like for the 2020s and beyond, not hidebound by old thinking or defending what we did in the past.” Learn from my mistakes, Miliband implores his readers, like a ghost lamenting his mortal sins: embrace bold action or give way, as I did, before the right-wing onslaught. It is the Angel all over again: the moment Miliband can clearly see the tragedy is the moment he has become powerless to avert it.
Perhaps, indeed, it is too late for our world; that is surely what Benjamin believed when, just after writing his essay, he killed himself to escape the Nazis. But the rest of us must soldier on, and we will soon have an opportunity to see whether our leaders on this side of the pond have learned Miliband’s lesson. The occasion is perhaps the most important election facing the American left right now: the contest for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Although several candidates have already declared and several more are considering, the race essentially comes down to two candidates: U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who has the support of Bernie Sanders, progressive organizations, and labor unions; and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who is being promoted by the Obama administration and by the more centrist wing of the party.
We know that, when Democrats are out of power, the DNC chair wields unique influence. In 2004, after John Kerry’s defeat, Howard Dean was propelled into the position on a wave of “Netroots” organizing; he instituted a fifty-state strategy, rebuilt the party in rural areas, and returned large congressional majorities in 2006 and 2008. The incoming chair has the power to rejuvenate the Democratic Party as an effective political force; he also has the power to sideline Democrats for the foreseeable future. The stakes, therefore, could not be higher.
By conventional metrics, there is not much distance between Ellison and Perez on the issues. Ellison is an economic progressive, but he is also the first Muslim congressman and a champion of Black Lives Matter. Perez ran both the Department of Labor and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and distinguished himself in both posts. Nevertheless, the differences between the candidates could not be clearer. Ellison is by temperament a community organizer and activist used to challenging the establishment; Perez is a career federal appointee used to working within existing systems. Ellison supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, while Perez backed Hillary Clinton. Most important, Ellison wants to build a party that promotes bold new economic change, while Perez seeks to entomb Democrats in the mausoleum of the Obama-era past.
Thus far, Perez has given only one interview since the election: to the New York Observer, an official propaganda organ of the Trump administration (the paper is owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner). In his comments, Perez focused almost entirely on defending the Obama administration, as though no new policy positions were needed to rejuvenate the party. “It’s more important than ever to make sure that the gains of this president which have benefited so many people” remain in place, he said. “The economy was a mess when this president took over, unemployment heading toward 10 percent, now we have unemployment under 5 percent. We’re far better off now than we were eight years ago.” This is the sort of triumphalist thinking that led Matt Yglesias to declare in 2010 that, with the Affordable Care Act on the books, “progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done.” And it is the sort of thinking that led the center-left everywhere in the Western world off a cliff in 2016. Yes, some of us are better off than we were eight years ago; no, nobody is well enough off for that fact to be a source of pride for our leaders.
This is not what one gets from Ellison, who famously predicted nearly a year and a half ago that Trump could win, and whose platform promises to make organized labor “a full partner” in Democratic efforts and to rebuild the party around the interests of working people. And for this reason, the Trump propaganda machine has been waging a shocking smear campaign against Ellison, trying to influence the DNC chair race in the way it manipulated the presidential election. While the Observer fawns over Perez, it savages Ellison as “a left-wing extremist … [who] has more in common with Louis Farrakhan than Harry Truman.” To the extent that Democratic leaders have abetted these attacks, they should be ashamed of themselves. Why do the Observer and Breitbart News prefer Perez to Ellison? One can only surmise that Trump has come to regret not attacking the economic populist left during the presidential campaign, and that he prefers to face a weaker opponent than the Minnesota congressman over the next four years.
Perez is less the Angel of History than its plaything, tossed helplessly amid the seas of time. Under him, the Democratic Party would remain a powerless husk; under Ellison, it has a chance of becoming something more than that.
Let me be clear: I have nothing against Tom Perez. He was a great cabinet official, he would have been a great vice president, and he would make a great governor of Maryland. But he is the wrong man for this job, because this is a job that requires rebuilding the Democratic Party into one that has learned from its mistakes, and it is abundantly clear that Perez has not learned those lessons. He is less the Angel of History than its plaything, tossed helplessly amid the seas of time. Under him, the Democratic Party would remain a powerless husk; under Ellison, it has a chance of becoming something more than that.
Ed Miliband’s defeat, and Hillary Clinton’s, were tragedies, but they were not exactly avoidable ones. No one knew the electorate would turn in a heartbeat against neoliberal policies; I voted for Bernie Sanders believing that his nomination would give Democrats a weaker chance of winning the presidential election than would Clinton’s selection. In 2015 and 2016, it made pragmatic sense to run on neoliberal positions. To run on them again, in the face of Trump and Brexit, would be lunacy. Keith Ellison must win the DNC chair race in February, and Trump and Obama must not be permitted to stop him. Perhaps, as Benjamin’s Angel recognized to his horror, we cannot outrun history, but we should at least try to keep pace with it.