Angelic Progress — Walter Benjamin and Liberal Destruction
“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 which we call progress, is this storm.”
— Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
Walter Benjamin, founder of the Frankfurt School, describes progress as a storm, something which Marxists have trusted will always move forwards, bringing us all to a utopia; but they failed to notice that progress is an evolution of suffering. This storm of progress, and the trust in it as a story of utopia compels us to look at our own future, with an eye to the past. Benjamin contends that the future most likely will not be utopic; it is critically important that we understand the role that the past plays in our contemporary politics. Paleo-liberalism, a center-left populist form of liberalism, is a pre-cursor to neoliberalism. Paleo-liberalism is a form of liberalism that focuses on regulating work, health, education, and the equality of needs before rights. Neoliberalism leans heavily on liberty and individualism, restraining the role of the state to protecting the freedom of the market. The shift in America away from paleo-liberalism to neoliberalism is credited to Ronald Reagan.
Neoliberalism and paleo-liberalism are two contemporary manifestations of the contention between equality and liberty within liberalism. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Liberalism is a highlight of paleo-liberalism within America. Roosevelt in his State of the Union addresses discusses New Deal Liberalism as something that is necessary because the state and the citizens have a symbiotic relationship. They have a duty to care for one another because they need each other. Reagan’s rhetoric of the relationship between the state and the citizen is that the state’s role is away from the citizen; it should only affect the market. Neoliberalism and paleo-liberalism are in conflict with one another as ideologies. The movement from paleo-liberalism into neoliberalism is not necessarily one of political achievement or progress. Roosevelt and Reagan, pinnacles of paleo-liberalism and neoliberalism, stand opposed to each other. Their visions of the future of America are equally different.
This article uses State of the Union addresses to examine the differences in how Roosevelt and Reagan saw the relationship of the state, the citizen, and the future. Benjamin notes that when we talk about the future it is always in terms of progress that is unending and unstoppable. Progress is inevitable; however, temporal progression and political progression are not the same. Presidents model what form of politics will be dominant within America. Their discourse describes what type of liberal system they prefer — paleo-liberal or neoliberal. To examine this, I will use Roosevelt’s 1935 address and Reagan’s 1985 address. These addresses come at the beginning of both presidents’ second terms. Roosevelt is beginning his second term having had a popular first term with the success of New Deal Liberalism. Reagan enters his second term fairly popular after having made significant changes to tax laws in his first term.
Roosevelt’s address openly focuses on the citizens who are still suffering after his first term. Critiquing himself he states: “The Government must and shall quit this business of relief…We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.” The government has a role not just in caring about citizens’ baseline welfare, but also how they have been impacted by the Great Depression mentally and emotionally. Economic problems are human problems, and the state has a responsibility to addresses those problems holistically. The problems that the citizens and the state are grappling with have come from progress — “the machine age, the advent of universal and rapid communication and many other new factors — have brought new problems. Succeeding generations have attempted to keep pace by reforming in piecemeal fashion this or that attendant abuse. As a result, evils over-lap and reform becomes confused and frustrated. We lose sight, from time to time, of our ultimate human objectives.” The state’s role is to oversee the inequalities that are happening as a result of progress, noting that addressing these inequalities cannot just be physical.
Roosevelt’s acknowledgement that the state has failed leans on understanding that the progress of technology does not mean the progress of politics. Not long before his administration was his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Theodore Roosevelt was a Progressive president, beginning a sweeping level of labor reforms to ameliorate the deep inequities brought on by industrialization. Roosevelt’s reference to his president relative’s attempts to address the problems that industrialization raised is a recognition that his family has failed. American politicians have not stopped these problems, and now — in the face of recovery from the Great Depression, America has hope. Roosevelt intends to change American government in such a way that citizens can live full lives.
The full lives of a citizen involve “meaningful work.” The 1935 address thematically focuses on the terms work, public, and emergency. The citizens who have had jobs with the government during his first term are called “cheerful.” The relationship between the citizen and the state is a close one, and it is beneficial to both parties. Roosevelt reminds Americans that “[i]n most nations social justice, no longer a distant ideal, have been a definite goal…the American people do not stand alone in the world in their desire for change.” The “tested liberal traditions” are the pathways to a prosperous future. Not shying away from language of activism, Roosevelt leans into America as needing to participate in a global scale of social justice that is led by the government. The government, above all, must ensure that citizens are employed and are happy with their employment. By doing this, the state will maintain a positive relationship with its citizens.
The politics that Roosevelt presents in this address has an expansive government that sees the future of the state as dependent upon a program of activism that is liberal in nature. The state is responsible for the citizens in their entirety. Paleo-liberalism in practice is a discussion of human needs. The state is not just economic. Human needs cannot be secured through work alone; the state has an obligation to ensure that people are not emotionally and mentally suffering. Roosevelt frames state responsibility as one that is responsible to making sure that citizens can access meaningful options for their future, which can only happen through the nation taking an active role in their life. Roosevelt’s vision is antithetical to neoliberalism. Benjamin’s note that technological progress is not necessarily connected to politics or society echoes Roosevelt’s condemnation of past activist efforts that did not curtail inequity. Roosevelt frames inequity as something that has been made and furthered by technological progress. Progress, in Roosevelt’s framing, like Benjamin’s, is something that needs to be carefully monitored. New Deal Liberalism marks a vision that Reagan refutes.
Reagan’s 1985 address comes during the Cold War — focusing on freedom and taxes, he begins his address by laying out that his visions for America’s future has already successfully started: “Four years ago we said we would invigorate our economy by giving people greater freedom and incentives to take risks and letting them keep more of what they earned. We did what we promised…”
The most central theme in the address is “tax.” Taxes, specifically reductions on corporations and wealthy individuals, are central to freedom. Freedom can only happen if Americans are free from state interference on their lives. The role of the state is minimized. Taxes and freedoms are inseparable, reducing taxes and focusing on “tax simplification” is essential to continuing American freedom: “Every dollar the Federal Government does not take away from us, every decision it does not make for us will make our economy stronger, our lives more abundant, our future more free.” Reagan distances himself from the Federal Government, despite being the president. Instead, Reagan is aligned with the people. He wants to ensure economic growth and limit the government so that all Americans, including him, will have a better future. His interests are the people’s interests, not the interests of the state, which he intends to limit. Limiting the government is not just going to brighten the future; it will also signal a “second American revolution.”
The state and the citizen are separated, and the future is one of economic prosperity through an untethered market. These principles that Reagan lays out are direct refutations of paleo-liberalism. There was nothing structural within America that could prevent the movement towards neoliberalism. Where Roosevelt discussed expanding the state into the people’s lives, Reagan wants to oust it, separating the president from the Federal Government itself. Roosevelt did not discuss taxes, and instead focused on a need to give people work that would enhance their dignity and self-respect. These examinations of human needs are not a part of neoliberal rhetoric. Neoliberal rhetoric places human needs as something that will be sorted out in the marketplace. Reagan frames his childhood as one without economic options, only confined barriers in which the state decided one’s economic future. Individual economic choice is the pathway to a free future. Indeed, economic choice is a mark of civilization success, and it will transform America for the better.
The rubble of progress is something that the angel sees, but ignores. Even as Roosevelt notes his paleo-liberal predecessor’s failures, he sees the future of America as an unstoppable moral and economic progression. We will become better because the state will help us to achieve our ends. Reagan also sees paleo-liberalism. However, he sees the history of paleo-liberalism as confining. Thus, neoliberalism must refute it in every way. Equality is no longer the mark of a bright future, individual choice and rights are.
Benjamin argues that as we ignore the past, we see the future of technological exploitation as technological marvels. Even as technology progresses, people are unable to notice that this furthers societal regression. Thus, in examining the rhetoric of neoliberalism in which there is a direct distancing from paleo-liberalism, we can hear Benjamin calling us to see the death of paleo-liberalism, and to examine our present in light of its failure to stop neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism and paleo-liberalism come from the political tradition of liberalism, a political philosophy emerging from the end of feudalism. Liberalism, developing from the beginnings of democracy, is deeply optimistic. The pathway to neoliberalism as a rejection of the past and a moving towards a better, different future is emblematic of liberalism’s optimism. The endpoint, then, of liberalism is not necessarily neoliberalism. Benjamin argues that Marxism sees the oppressed battling classes as nourishing “themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.” Liberals, in contrast to Marxists, hold a vision of themselves as upholders of democracy and freedom. They are not struggling for freedom. They are free, having come from the ashes of feudalism. They are unable to see any potential flaws in their movement forward, full of hopeful visions, by seeing themselves as emancipators they only move forward in refuting what is perceived as holding them back. Liberalism is destructive. Neoliberalism, refuting social policies and an equitable future, is the culmination of liberalism.