The World of Yesterday

Waking from the cosmopolitan daydream

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In December 2016, after that now-infamous Western political cataclysm, my then-boyfriend, a German, gave me a book by Austrian author Stefan Zweig. He suggested that it might help me get a grip on my über-American shock at the apparent collapse of Western liberalism. He was right.

Zweig began writing The World of Yesterday, his memoir, in 1934. He recounts his childhood in Vienna as part of a wealthy Jewish industrial family, then his early career and travels, against the backdrop of the implosion of the Habsburg empire and the lead-up to World War II. Before the war, Zweig was one of Europe’s best-selling young authors, having published a plethora of popular novels, histories, biographies, and plays. Throughout the 1920s, Zweig and his pals—he name-drops Rainer Maria Rilke, Maxim Gorky, James Joyce—traveled Europe, meeting each other at exhibitions and events and summer homes. Believing borders would eventually become irrelevant and imagining something like the European Union, he describes in the book an aspirational, cosmopolitan inner circle who practiced a version of international solidarity.

In 1941, Zweig found himself living in exile in Brazil. In a few years, he’d gone from one of the most prolific, hyped (and also reviled) writers of his generation to someone stripped of their citizenship whose books were being burned. Upon submitting the manuscript of his memoir for publication—in Sweden, where his work had not been entirely banned—he killed himself.

In Zweig’s recollection, he and his friends were all woefully oblivious to emerging nationalism and totalitarianism across the continent. Of his life before the war, he writes: “We thought we were doing enough if we thought in European terms and forged fraternal links internationally, stating in our own sphere—which had only indirect influence on current events—that we were in favor of the ideal of peaceful understanding and intellectual brotherhood crossing linguistic and national borders.” And then, continuing the humble brag: “As a man easily able to travel and full of curiosity, I was present at many artistic events now considered historic. But anything unconnected with the problems of today pales in importance when judged by our sterner criteria.”

In one scene, Zweig catches the last train from Belgium to Germany before the border closes between the countries at the outset of the First World War. He has no choice but to hop on if he isn’t going to be indefinitely exiled (which will sadly turn out to have been the better choice). Having spent so little time in his native country for a decade, he has no idea how bad things have gotten until he’s actually on the train. He’s incredulous not only at the reality of war, but at the thought that he has been reduced to a national or religious identity, one which will restrict his flighty lifestyle. There will be no holiday at Émile Verhaeren’s Belgian country house that summer.

In this scene and others, Zweig begins to question the implicit we of liberal intellectuals and artists as a group, while still unable to let go of the mythos—or to really consider that other members of his circle may not have been so “optimistic” (nor so self-serving) as him. He rues his rosy naiveté while waxing sentimental about the world that made his success possible. He seems to realize that his optimistic cosmopolitanism unwittingly fed into rising ethno-nationalism—not only because of the high-culture world’s belief in its own outsized effects on the political landscape, but simply because he, and others, took their ability to travel for granted.

Pan-European mobility a hundred years ago allowed for a filter bubble of sorts: an international community of like-minded, mostly white people, mostly of a certain class. Zweig never lived anywhere long enough to engage with local politics, and if things got tough, he could always leave. But nationalism, it turned out, could not be combatted through Zweig’s brand of internationalism. They had been flip sides of the same historical development.

The easyJet Set

In 2016, Zweig’s epiphany painfully paralleled my own incredulous reactions to Brexit and Trump. Because I did not share his before-the-fall optimism, I was surprised by my own shock—and saw that it was indicative of the problem. At the time of the election, I had been “based” in Berlin for several years; my people were the urban, international, and largely English-speaking art world, the self-aware target demographic for the cringeworthy “easyJet Generation” marketing campaign. Whenever we could afford it, we traveled to other cities, mostly to meet up with the same people we already knew.

We recognized that this kind of travel was wasteful, unsustainable, even counterproductive—we held many panel discussions critiquing globalization and marketization—but we didn’t stop. Our careers and value system were built on mobility, the principles behind it, and the sociopolitical formations that guaranteed it. We knew we were inside something, but we told each other that what we were doing inside would have effects outside. Occasional mainstream news reportage on insider art events, no matter how one-dimensional or misinterpreted, offered sporadic confirmation of our work’s relevance.

Berlin, where I lived for seven years, has long been ground zero for this we. As a prototypical hub for revolving artists (and now techies), the city’s brand exploits the fantasy of freedom and collaboration with minimal commitment or responsibility. As the story goes, nobody is really “from” Berlin; everyone gets by in English; the party never stops; you only need a part-time job. But these are myths, myths that exist to serve people like me—white, entitled, and in possession of a U.S. passport. In reality, plenty of people are from Berlin; plenty are from elsewhere but do not work in the arts or for a start-up; plenty do not come by choice; plenty can’t afford to live remotely close to the city center; and plenty speak no English (and maybe no German, either). Anyone aware of these truths probably noticed the resurgence of intense nationalistic, racist tendencies in Germany and across the hemisphere long before we did.

Our careers and value system were built on mobility, the principles behind it, and the sociopolitical formations that guaranteed it.

That Zweig’s memoir has emerged as one dominant narrative of the prewar era is itself telling: it is both an easy story and a hard one. Easy because it provides a clear moral lesson with a roadmap for self-criticism, and hard because if one takes the moral lesson seriously, then the self-criticism is toothless. Many of his contemporaries lambasted Zweig not only for what they regarded as his awful, sentimental writing and sycophantic tendencies, but also for his consistent recasting of personal and political history to simultaneously flagellate and inflate himself. As Michael Hofmann wrote in a takedown of everything Zweig published upon the 2009 re-translation of The World of Yesterday, Zweig was “not a pacifist much less an activist but a passivist,” a “professional adorer, schmoozer, inheritor, and collector.” He could not see past the bridge of his middlebrow nose to conceive that his “we-ness” was a fantasy based on his own easy access—and that many of his would-be friends disagreed with and/or resented him. In his memoir, Zweig erases these differences and subsumes them in a we united under idealism, a we whose only rift was the temperamental predilection toward either optimism or pessimism in regard to current events.

Universalism never makes for a good story, much less an accurate one. But while it is not possible to generalize experience, it is possible to generalize on the level of aspirational fantasy, and many of us based-in-Berliners bought into the fantasy of the internationalist lifestyle, even if we could not universally access it. The fantasy persists regardless of how disillusioned you think you already are. Thus, many based-in-Berliners were shocked in 2016, and our shock recapitulated Zweig’s in some fundamental ways. For his parable of war-induced disillusionment is a story that can be made to repeat itself for as long as internationalism and nationalism are conceived of as opposites—and as long as the former is used in place of concrete political action.

The 2010s were not the 1920s or 1930s; liberalism has morphed in uncountable ways related to globalization and digitized finance capitalism. Yet the based-in-Berlin fantasy world shared several unpleasant similarities with the prototype Zweig describes. For instance, we likewise considered our labor—and participation—exceptional, in its creative nature and in its service to lofty, often abstract ideals and speculations about the future. We likewise participated in political struggle to the extent that this participation could be recuperated for cultural value. (Just as there’s an app for every political problem in Silicon Valley, there’s an exhibition for everyone in Berlin.) Like Zweig, the entire contemporary art world prefers art that affirms its own political importance. And like Zweig, I could probably get away with claiming that “I was present at many artistic events now considered historic”; like Zweig, I would also sound pathetic.

I remember a recurrent, annual scene at Berlin’s Ausländerbehörde, the foreigner’s immigration office, where I and other Americans, Canadians, and Israelis would sit in unpleasant, fluorescent-lit waiting rooms along with Palestinians, Nigerians, and Sudanese applicants waiting to ask for visas or work permits. It was easy to tell where everyone was from because the waiting rooms were alphabetically sorted by nationality. Invariably, those belonging to the first group would be called first to have their applications processed, and they would be able to leave long before the others. In the waiting room of bureaucratic nationalism, it was impossible to unsee how everyone was part of the same system, yet its violence was unequally applied.

Universalism never makes for a good story, much less an accurate one. But while it is not possible to generalize experience, it is possible to generalize on the level of aspirational fantasy.

Brexit and Trump also made the violence of borders impossible to unsee, and racist nationalism impossible to explain as discrete instances rather than embedded phenomena. We were forced to see ourselves, too, the way that systems of power had always seen us: not as international city-dwellers but as national citizens whose rights were contingent upon borders. Suddenly, nobody’s residence permit seemed like a given. Those without German passports scrambled to adjust. We felt a twinge of vulnerability that had previously been kept at bay. We were forced to consider the racism and classism that made us “expats” instead of “immigrants,” the only difference between which is the legal and financial freedom to come and go. We were forced to acknowledge the discrepancies in access that had always existed even among ourselves. The concept of our we became clear, for a moment, as what it was: a voice of power.

In response, we asked each other what we could do to combat the nationalism we now recognized—unable to deal with the fact that our we itself was the problem. (For how to articulate solidarity without a we?) Like Zweig’s world, mine was populated by people who thought talking to each other about the world we hoped for would create it. Instead of place-based localism, the self-defined creative class of the 2010s had invented our own kind of “localism,” one untethered to place and based on exclusionary politics of mobility, language, wealth, and access to information.

The cohesive localism of the culture world has little to do with the common conception of local politics as place-based, small-scale, bottom-up, or anti-capitalist. The latter kind of local politics differs in that it takes into account so-called immigrants along with so-called expats and includes the interests of those who are not mobile—whether by choice, obligation, lack of access, or due to structural violence that limits their right to move. In organizing, the term local is often used explicitly to refer to existing communities who have been engaged in specific struggles since long before mobile populations—known in many cases as gentrifiers—touched down on the tarmac.

A Shrunken World

In 2016, I assumed that nationalism or environmental catastrophe would eventually halt the culture class in its tracks. I didn’t anticipate that a pandemic would come first. Before Covid-19, the thing holding my community together was not location; it was friendship, social class, professional interests—and mobility. There was nothing holding me in place, or holding me accountable to any one place. I moved to New York three years ago, but until 2020 I was just as “based” in my country of birth as I had been in Berlin. Covid finally forced me to live there.

Quarantine began, flights were cancelled, borders closed, and every day I recalled again the train scene from Zweig’s book. The image of the locomotive about to leave. The announcement that there will be no more trains. Zweig’s last-minute realization that the border is about to become concrete. Once again, the scene reminded me that proximity is the primary determinant of apocalypse: we can refuse to notice a catastrophe until it is upon us. It is only when those who take their security for granted are suddenly made vulnerable, precarious, that they slam up against the violence of the systems they have been benefitting from all along.

Although vulnerability to a virus is dependent on wealth, race, and other forms of privilege, the virus can theoretically infect anyone. Contagion is thus a useful metaphor: if the threat of disease prompts the privileged into reclusion, it also forces them to acknowledge, however subliminally, a level of shared vulnerability; everyone is interconnected on a cellular level. In making the reality of mutual dependency and therefore the imperative of mutual accountability tangible, Covid has also made obvious the powerful mechanism by which elites are able to opt out: they can pick up and leave. Yet now, total isolation has become twinned with mobility as a marker of privilege—those who can no longer move around can pay others in delivery vans to come to them.

“Real New Yorkers stay!” went the typical judgment cry when certain city-dwellers scrammed to their second homes in the countryside or exurban enclaves at the first hint of disaster. Of course, accusations of abandonment, disloyalty, and cowardice are underlined by the deep resentment that leaving is an option for the leavers. This resentment is compounded by the fact that those who can leave are often the same groups who earlier swooped in uninvited, who gentrified existing neighborhoods and made them unlivable for others (calling the cops; driving out local businesses), creating and exacerbating many of the intractable problems of inequality that they can now just as easily escape. The right to leave is built on the right to arrive.

In quarantine, I spent as much time as usual reading about the world outside of New York and the United States. I spent a lot of time Zooming with friends across continents. But my daily life shrunk. I don’t just mean that my apartment became the extent of my domain; I mean that our urgent problems suddenly became obviously hyperlocal in the site-specific sense. I felt none of the post-2016 self-aware shock—I felt immediately accountable. How to make sure nobody in the neighborhood got evicted? How to get food and medicine to the out-of-work and immunocompromised on the block? How to help keep the bar and the restaurant on the corner from going bankrupt? How to dispose of food scraps now that citywide composting had been suspended? How to not get sick?

These problems did not arise overnight, and I had previously been involved in mutual aid. But now I was here for the fallout, week after week. The local shifted ground, and multiple localities began to overlap. Consider: because my friends and I couldn’t fly to a conference/exhibition about the ethics of artificial intelligence in global surveillance, we were present for several weeks of anti-police violence protests in Brooklyn, for which we learned to disable our smartphone software to limit surveillance. Maybe before the pandemic we would have found time for both the conference and the protests. But maybe not.

The dichotomous internationalist/nationalist way of relating to the world that we had been locked into for so long—in which the only way to resist nationalist fervor is to insist on international solidarity, in which disillusionment can only repeat itself each time a new we is noticed, then critiqued, then undermined in order to be re-enshrined along new and “more inclusive” lines—was rewritten by this new paradoxical experience of being together, isolated from each other, rooted in place.

Binary Spar

In a debate published in Dissent magazine’s Summer 2019 issue, Michael Kazin and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian face off over the issue of whether nationalism can be transcended while the nation-state persists. Nationalism, after all, is etymologically inherent in internationalism: the border must exist to be overcome, and attempts to transcend it tend to reify it. The nation-state, although it has morphed and corporatized since Zweig’s time, remains the basic unit upon which most can even conceive of that “peaceful understanding and intellectual brotherhood crossing linguistic and national borders” that Zweig wanted to believe in.

Kazin argues from a statist perspective that “an ethical internationalism has always been a cardinal virtue of the left, one we should never abandon. But we can uphold that ideal without calling for scrapping borders and nations. In fact, there are both principled and practical reasons for American leftists to retain them.” These reasons include the fact that public opinion about borders must be swayed on the national level before said borders can be dismantled, and that only nation-sized solutions can tackle nation-sized problems. For Kazin, disrupting nationalism has to begin at the national level and trickle down.

Yet Abrahamian points out that this kind of internationalism cannot do away with the state as sovereign power, nor does it acknowledge or adequately fight against the “transnational forces” or extranational corporate structures that operate in multiple jurisdictions irrespective of the borders most people are hemmed in by. She suggests that organizing upon the unit of the nation neglects both the much larger and the much smaller solidarity networks needed to combat global ethno-nationalism and fascism—and that exalting the nation as a means of building internationalism can never combat the ideological nationalism that will inevitably rise.

The pandemic has cracked open a fissure in this back-and-forth, one that has long existed, but one that many of us have not felt on the level of daily life. Covid makes evident the fact that vulnerability is a function of existing in relation to others, and that the violence that affects those without privilege is not only systemic but ecosystemic, meaning that it can continue to spread. Vulnerability today, as a hundred years ago, means vulnerability to jurisdiction, to the luck—or unluck—of making the last train across the border. But jurisdictions and borders are now proliferating on totally different scales and axes than geographic ones.

In the waiting room of bureaucratic nationalism, it was impossible to unsee how everyone was part of the same system, yet its violence was unequally applied.

As Abrahamian argues, today’s “enemies aren’t countries”; the overwhelming scale of power structures requires a response that is locally specific yet vastly networked. Resistance to come will rely on models of targeted contextual action, the point of which must not be to “scale up,” but to stay put and link together. And this linking together has to operate on multiple, intersectional axes of the local, place-based and otherwise. For if all local means is “in your backyard and for your own benefit,” then white parents advocating for better public schools in their own neighborhoods is local, or Hamptons residents paying for solar-powered streetlamps is local—localism becomes the premise for isolationism and reaction. Although the prototypical gentrifier expects to find the same coffee shop on every block, there is no locality, urban or rural, that can be considered terra nullius.

There is a clear historical tradition for this kind of activism. Recently, Eleanor Finley revived Murray Bookchin’s notion of libertarian municipalism to call for a “new municipalism,” and the Queens-based Woodbine collective has deployed the term “disaster confederalism” (in opposition to the tendency Richard Seymour calls “disaster nationalism). These are all ways of moving beyond the inter/nationalist binary that plagues the world of liberal electoralism, diplomacy, NGOs, and industrialized philanthropy—and yes, the culture sphere—while also acknowledging that structural violence must be combatted at a very large scale.

Civic participation and mutual aid in a pandemic present many paradoxes, including material problems like how to provide social care while social distancing. But upon closer inspection, these are analogous to longstanding paradoxes that face attempts to conceive of solidarity across borders for simultaneously global and local aims. Can you participate in strengthening the health of a social body and resisting state power if your own body isn’t there? What if your body has never been there? How can you know what the local problems really are if you don’t share them? How long do you have to live somewhere to be a local? How can the elite leverage their power while also ceding it? Do you have to have a personal stake in struggle to wage it? Can you share responsibility if you don’t share risk? Or is participating in struggles that don’t affect you precisely what solidarity means?

Action at a Distance

There are hard limits to mutual aid and activism at a distance. The hazards of clicktivism, a symptom and subset of philanthropic saviorism, are well documented. But if being stuck in place has made these limits clear, it has also created emancipatory possibilities for geographically specific but networked solidarity structures. Organizers across cities and continents are constantly sharing information, such as how to deal with tear gas or how to construct a barricade, while developing and adapting to their own highly specific contexts. Solidarity between different groups can demonstrate how, say, the carceral state in the United States is webbed with that of Israel or Hong Kong—i.e., they buy their weapons from the same people—but the similarities need not elide the important differences. In fact, the similarities are only relevant if the differences are allowed.

Proximity is the primary determinant of apocalypse: we can refuse to notice a catastrophe until it is upon us.

The Minneapolis-led nationwide uprising against police violence prompted by the murder of George Floyd brought the importance of physical proximity to struggle into renewed focus. Perhaps after a few months in safe isolation or forced into dangerous “essential” labor, some of us have newly realized the power of putting our bodies on the line. Physicality remains the most elemental form of resistance; as recent events show, if the agents of the state will readily sacrifice vulnerable human bodies, then less vulnerable bodies must risk themselves, too. “White comrades to the front,” as a common injunction goes. But the question remains of where the front is in a time when the “enemies aren’t countries”—and how it operates at a protest where staying six feet apart is solidarity, much less on a Zoom call, or a Signal chat.

Ecosystemic, local struggle will require a new and very different internationalism, one based on extranational or intranational borders with multiple frontlines. Because vulnerability is unevenly distributed, the white and mobile class must take this moment to stick around in whatever terra non-nullius they are in, and orient toward these shifting fronts, in whatever form they take in a given moment.

There is nothing inherently apolitical about travel; on the contrary. But we can’t defeat nationalism by traveling. If the mobile class continues trying to enact the abolition of borders of all kinds by simply crossing them ourselves, because we can, we will never realize that the last train is leaving until it’s too late. As long as borders exist, they can close. But neither can nationalism be defeated simply by staying put or exalting the romantic notion of the local for its own sake, which quickly spirals into NIMBYism. Curiously, being forced to stay in place for a while has created an opening for some to question the imperative to travel, which for a long time allowed us to ignore or neglect the true fronts of action and resistance.

Shortly before Zweig reluctantly hopped on that last train to Germany, he argued with a “pessimist” friend about the political situation. Zweig insisted that war with Germany was completely “out of the question!” and then wagered a bet: “You can hang me to this lamppost if the Germans march into Belgium!” Of course, he did not hang himself, at least not in 1914 (his eventual suicide was a barbiturate overdose), and soon after the Germans marched, he escaped. He was shocked to find himself at the front of the action, and when he did, he fled to what he thought was the back.

Assuming that nationalistic tendencies will not slow but accelerate post-pandemic, this is the right moment to invent—or simply recognize—the various wes that are embedded in place and ecosystemic in scale. The construction and collapse of cosmopolitan internationalism in Zweig’s era bred globalization and a new form of internationalism premised on the same we. Perhaps now we can stop thinking in mutually exclusive terms of nationalism or internationalism and construct new forms of action that respond to ossified nationalist structures while dispensing of their—and our—terminology altogether.

With enormous thanks to Andreas Petrossiants.

Elvia Wilk is a writer and editor living in New York. Her first novel, Oval, was published in 2019 by Soft Skull press.

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