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The New “Specter” Haunting the Social Imagination

Ahmet İnsel*

In his book “Specters of Marx”, Jacques Derrida, inspired by the famous first sentence of the Communist Manifesto, works on the theme of ghost/specter. The French translation of the Manifesto, which starts with “A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of communism”, uses the French verb “hanter”, which means to haunt one’s imagination rather than to wander. Therefore, in his book, Derrida discusses the state of being haunted. “Specters of Marx” is an expanded version of a long conference titled “Where is Marxism going?” that Derrida gave at the University of California in April 1993. It points to the return of Marxism, which was declared dead, during a period when Communist regimes collapsed and a new world disorder was trying to establish its neo-capitalism and neoliberalism. Because “the state of haunting [la hantise] is inherent in every hegemony.”

A specter is a “being” that oscillates between existence and non-existence, disrupting the linear progression of time. From this point, Derrida proposes an analysis that might be more aptly called “specter science” (hauntology) in Turkish, though it is translated as “ghost science.”

The specter in question is not just a return of the past. It is a future that was foreseen by the past but never returned. In many countries today, the rise of the far-right wave, authoritarian/autocratic governments continuing to strengthen their power with the consent or indifference of the electorate, are connected to such a specter haunting the socio-political imagination.

This situation is most clearly observed in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe over the past thirty years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sadeq Rahimi, in his analysis titled “The Hauntology of Everyday Life”, using ethnography and clinical psychoanalysis methods, extends Derrida’s observation by drawing our attention to the fact that what haunts is not the memory of what has vanished, but what is to come, or rather, what was promised to come.

Today, in the former Eastern bloc, the main reason for the increasingly expressed nostalgia for the “communist era” past is this. For instance, in recent public opinion polls in Romania, 48% of respondents stated that the old communist regime was better for Romania and life was more comfortable during that period. This rate has increased over the last decade. A similar situation is observed, especially among the poor, residents of small towns, and retirees, in almost all former Eastern bloc countries.

These public opinion polls need to be interpreted carefully. Sociologists emphasize that such polls reveal not the past, but how the participants perceive the present. Today in Romania, while economic data shows everyone benefits more or less from growth on one hand, social inequalities are growing in parallel on the other. Economic differences between social segments are widening, future hopes are dimming, corruptions occurring on the fringes of power lead to the emergence of new oligarchic classes. Consequently, a nostalgia fed by the non-return of the promised social state that was promised when the Ceaușescu dictatorship or communist single-party regimes were toppled is strengthening. What transforms this into a specter is the fact that the conditions for realizing the promised also got dismantled and destroyed during the transition. The agenda was cleared of the promised future while the past was devastated, hence the possible and desirable future disappeared from the horizon.

In this situation, even if economic growth continues, a significant part of society, sometimes even the majority, is inclined to submit to an authoritarian force that will protect them against the unchecked forces of the market. A sort of paternalist state nostalgia is in question. However, these fathers, who draw attention to “imminent and real dangers” such as the threat of migrant invasion, loss of ancient national identity, international evil forces plotting against the country, internal enemy factions disrupting national unity, etc., do not fall short of being the leading actors of today’s authoritarian plunderer capitalism.

Kai Lindemann, in his book “The Politics of Gangs”, more systematically analyzes the attacks that manifest as destruction among unprotected masses under the creative destruction motto of neoliberal policies. He discusses these organized seizure policies within the context of the ruling classes and a state order increasingly losing its solidarity dimension. This “seizure” politics was most blatantly and intensely experienced in the countries of the “transition period” after communist administrations. It took 20 years for the pumped belief that capitalism distributes benefits to everyone to collapse. This also meant the clear emergence that the very fashionable full market or neoliberal “transition ideology” of the early 1990s was nothing more than a pipe dream.

The nostalgia feeding the aforementioned Ceaușescu era nostalgia in Romania is precisely this collapse. The realization that the real situation has nothing to do with the promised and the future is dark and the promised is impossible feeds a nostalgia that turns people’s faces not to leftist movements, but to politicians who promise to re-establish the lost golden age. These politicians, when they come to power, fail to realize the promised golden age, eventually leading to an increase in the violence of the regime and the dominance of exclusion, enemy creation, oppression, and violence policies.

The great disappointment about the promise of a market society paradise did not lead to the popularity of leftist movements, which were expected to act towards equality, freedom, and solidarity goals. Over the past decade, the masses have turned more to autocratic leaders and far-right movements. One significant reason, though not the only one, is that leftist political proposals, although they prioritize sharing, also share the belief that economic growth is not sufficient but necessary for solving social problems. On the other hand, the emergence of growth reinforcing problems left the left in a quandary. Within the left, from environmentalists to socialists and radical left movements, a discourse based on exposing imminent disasters has overshadowed the imagination of a possible and desirable future.

A leftist political discourse that focuses on, or even suffices with, the heralding of impending disasters, cannot cope with the specter that haunts the socio-political future imagination, which was promised in the past but never transitioned from potential to actuality. Wouldn’t such a left, which adopts the “end of the world” as its main political theme to mobilize the masses, encourage people haunted by the specter of the lost to seek refuge in the protective arms of an autocrat leader? Indeed, this is what is happening in many places.

[1] Translated by Alp Tümertekin, Ayrıntı Yayınları, 2019.

[2] Palgrave, 2021, The Hauntology of Everyday Life.

[3] Translated by Tanıl Bora, İletişim Yayınları, 2023.

Ahmet İnsel (b. 1955) is a Turkish economist, editor, journalist and political scientist. Professor at the University of Paris 1, he regularly appears on the Turkish and foreign media, especially French, to talk about the political situation in his country.

The article was originally published in Birikim Magazine in Turkish and has been translated by Politurco.

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