For radical leftists – those who variously strive toward a world against and beyond the socio-ecological disaster that is modernity within a loosely common tradition of resistance – electoral politics present an enduring and often vexing problematic. As the 2016 U.S. Presidential election edges closer, we find ourselves increasingly caught up in the familiar material and discursive winds of this nominally democratic arena, in all of its exaggerated tempestuousness and familiar torpidity. Less familiar perhaps, are some of the specific features of this quadrennial event – most notably the unexpected success of avowedly “socialist” Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in mobilizing liberal-progressive popular sentiment in the first half of the primaries, alongside the equally unanticipated success of Republican candidate Donald Trump in both stoking and exploiting an already ample reactionary populism and in heightening the contradictions within the GOP.
For the radical left, the Sanders-Trump phenomena has elicited predictable (and predictably polarized) recapitulations of what are by now well-rehearsed analytical positions and affective performances, with little alteration of their respective forms or content. While the passion and conviction with which these left positions are reiterated is indicative, at least in part, of honorable intentions, I want to suggest that these left debates have reached an epistemic impasse and are badly in need of radical renewal. In the preliminary comments that follow, I hope to revisit the issue of electoral politics with the kind of critical curiosity that might enable us to pose novel, even revolutionary, questions. For as afro-pessimist Frank Wilderson III provocatively suggests in an altogether different yet intimately related context, “the power to pose the question is the greatest power of all.”
Broadly speaking, contemporary left debates concerning electoral politics tend to pivot around two political positions, each figured as if in diametric opposition to the other. I will be speaking of these positions in ideal-typical terms, with all the violence of abstraction that implies. While the actually existing landscape of left discourse is undoubtedly more nuanced and complex, for the purposes of this short article, this level of generalization should be sufficient.
The first position is what one might call pragmatist. Whether advocated by socialists, anarchists, or multi-tendency non-sectarian radicals, this position asserts that, although U.S. electoral politics is indeed mostly a contest between fractions of the elite and marked by significant institutional barriers to the practice of anything remotely resembling meaningful democracy, it is also a process with significant material consequences for the bulk of the population and a terrain of struggle that cannot be ignored. If the left is to be anything more than a marginal, self-referential group of ideologues, the argument goes, electoral politics is a site of struggle that must be taken seriously.
The second position is what one might call rejectionist, and it tends to be associated with anarchists or other anti-authoritarians, though it could also be applied to communists and nationalists of various stripes. This position asserts that electoral politics are irredeemable, fundamentally mired in the exercise of state and capitalist power, and that participation in elections is effectively consenting to and perpetuating relations of domination and exploitation. In its most basic form, this position can be summed up by the quip often attributed to Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal.”
Ironically, though each position regards the other with a kind of moralizing disdain, both seem to be caught in a kind of non-generative codependent relationship with the other. The pragmatist position builds its self-understanding and orientation by way of (implicit or explicit) critique of the naiveté, insularity, and dogmatism of the rejectionists, just as the rejectionist position builds its self-understanding and orientation by way of (implicit or explicit) critique of the liberalism, accomodationism, or opportunism of the pragmatists.
To some extent both positions, in their contemporary incarnations, can be understood as inadequate responses to the crisis of revolutionary theory that has been one of the signature features of the neoliberal period. As Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, and Terrence K. Hopkins argued in Antisystemic Movements, from the latter half of the nineteenth century to roughly 1968 left movements across the globe, whether socialist or (anti-colonial) nationalist in character (or both), more or less agreed upon a basic theory of revolutionary strategy: acquire state power, either by electoral means or through armed struggle, and then use state power to revolutionize society. There were of course those who took exception to this strategy (most famously, anarchists), but on balance they did little to fundamentally shift its hegemonic position among the left over this period.
Since 1968, however, for a variety of interrelated reasons – insurgent challenges to the (racist/colonial/heteropatriarchal/ableist) exclusions and limitations of the “old left;” the internal contradictions and failures of socialist and (anti-colonial) nationalist movements that nominally succeeded in attaining state power; the crisis of the U.S led Fordist-Keynesian world-economy and the rise of neoliberal globalization; and, several decades of brutal counterrevolutionary reaction against left and other radical movements – this revolutionary paradigm has fallen into disarray and disrepute. For those of us who reject the old left revolutionary strategy on both theoretical and ethical grounds, its dissolution may not be regarded as any great tragedy. Nevertheless, at least in the Global North, the fact remains that the radical left currently has no coherent theory for linking short-term struggles to long-term visions of collective liberation by way of some medium-term revolutionary strategy.
Thus, the question of electoral politics sits uneasily with the broader left commitment to grassroots movement-building, in the absence of a clear trajectory of change that each are building towards, independently and in conjunction. To the extent that the pragmatists speak to the role of electoral politics in left strategy, they generally confine their propositions to resisting the continued assaults from the right, defending what social democratic protections remain, and expanding social democratic infrastructure – both for its own sake and pursuant with the contention that this expansion inherently builds or increases the space for organized left power (precisely how these types of reforms build or increase the space for organized left power, however, remains significantly under-theorized). There are still some who retain the old left faith in the two stage revolutionary strategy (acquire state power, then change society), but they rarely declare that allegiance openly and uncompromisingly, for fear of being viewed as sectarian or anachronistic. Meanwhile, the rejectionist position remains a consistent and seasonally trumpeted refrain, but, for the most part, similarly lacks a theory of how this tactic or principle of rejection fits into a longer-term trajectory of systemic transformation.
To be clear, I am emphatically not suggesting that recent decades have been devoid of radical rebellion or left movement activity. On the contrary, in the U.S. the 1980s were marked by new forms of international solidarity and environmentalist organizing, the 1990s gave birth to the alter-globalization movement, the early 2000s witnessed a bourgeoning if short-lived anti-war movement, and the post-2008 crisis period saw the emergence of the Occupy movement, reinvigorated campus organizing, and new waves of black and indigenous rebellion, activism, and organizing. Nor am I suggesting that these upsurges have been characterized by a lack of dynamism or innovation – works such as the Team Colors Collective’s Uses of a Whirlwind and Chris Dixon’s Another Politics have tried to synthesize some of the unique strengths and creative interventions of recent movement constellations.
Rather, I am suggesting that, for better or worse, recent left movement history has been characterized by the absence of the kind of hegemonic theory of revolutionary strategy to which the left had hitherto laid claim. Furthermore, I am arguing that the left has yet to fully acknowledge or sufficiently theorize this change, and that this failure has contributed to the ambiguity and inadequacy of its articulation of a praxis in relation to electoral politics.
As my preceding comments suggest, the crisis facing the radical left is as much epistemic as it is material. Insofar as segments of radical movements have identified in this crisis an opportunity to critique the epistemic violence upon which modernity has been built and to embrace, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos puts it, “new critical theory and new emancipatory practices…[which, c]ontrary to their predecessors…start from the premise that the epistemological diversity of the world is immense as its cultural diversity and that the recognition of such diversity must be at the core of the global resistance against capitalism and of the formulation of alternative forms of sociability[,]” the crisis has been productive. However, insofar as the left has been unable to wrest itself from the reigning neoliberal malaise and resist the temptation to look upon its past failures with romantic nostalgia, it is fair to say that the left is equally ensnared in what Max Haiven refers to as a more general “crisis of imagination.” From the alter-globalization movement to the Occupy movement, there has certainly been inspiring experimentation with practices of horizontalism and radical democracy, even if the shortcomings of these experiments have also been substantial. However, it seems that this experimentation has not done very much to advance our debates around electoral politics, and, at present, the leftist pendulum seems to be shifting from imaginative experimentation back to realpolitik.
Left epistemic impasse with regard to electoral politics can be thought about at two levels – that of critique and that of practice. At the level of critique, whether pragmatist or rejectionist, left thought has tended to formulate its criticism in overwhelmingly negative terms: electoral politics as a space of exclusion, as the incomplete or inadequate exercise of democracy, or left participation in electoral politics as evidence of moral concession or strategic failure. Rarely, outside of scholarly works, has left critique focused on electoral politics as an eminently productive space: a site for the (re)production of subjectivity and (im)material relations. Yet it is precisely in its (re)productive capacities that elections reveal their centrality in the broader operations of power. The black insurgent poet-scholar Fred Moten puts it this way:
U.S. democratic politics is a mode of crisis management whose most conspicuous and extravagant rituals – elections and inaugural celebrations and protests that each in its way confirms them – operate at the level of the demonstration. Elections in the United States are meant, finally and above all, to demonstrate that an election took place – a central consideration for structures of authority that depend on the eclipse of democratic content by the ritual animation of supposedly democratic forms…the United States is the land of formal democratic enclosure.
Elections, in other words, are (re)productive of a certain kind of political imagination which forecloses dangerous radical democratic or communistic potentialities. This political imagination, I would argue, is that of the liberal, individuated and self-possessed, (white/settler) citizen–subject, a subjectivity which has as its condition of possibility a specific historical conjunction of foundational violences. As Wilderson and other afro-pessimists have forcefully argued, the most salient dimensions of this foundational violence are black social death and, as Nicholas Juarez puts it, the “genocidal clearing” of indigenous peoples. Slavery, settler-colonialism, and racial capitalism, in other words, are constitutive elements of the political ontology in which liberal democracy, civil society, and the liberal subject which regards these domains as his own, are embedded. One could name other constitutive elements, such as white supremacy, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism.
As Lisa Lowe writes in The Intimacies of Four Continents, “the genealogy of modern liberalism is simultaneously a genealogy of the colonial divisions of humanity…in which race, geography, nation, caste, religion, gender, sexuality, and other social differences become elaborated as normative categories for governance under the rubrics of liberty and sovereignty.” The subjectivity of the self-possessed liberal individual, and the broader political ontology in which it finds coherence, emerges through “[t]he operations that pronounce colonial divisions of humanity – settler seizure and native removal, slavery and racial dispossession, and racialized expropriations of many kinds – [all of which] are imbricated processes, not sequential events; they are ongoing and continuous in our contemporary moment, not temporally distinct nor as yet concluded.”
As one of the quintessential processes of liberalism – rhetorically, spectacularly, and substantially – elections are a necessary site for critical inquiry, but for this inquiry to yield truly revolutionary knowledge, it must explore the relations between electoral politics and social totality. To the extent that the left views elections as simply exclusionary spaces of elite contest, which may or may not be efficaciously submitted to popular pressures via formal participation, we miss the opportunity to interrogate their important productive role in subject-formation, and thereby overlook potential sites for interrupting or escaping the endless repetition of horrors that, to borrow Saidiya Hartman’s turn of phrase, these “scenes of subjection” instantiate.
Turning our attention again to practice, the left epistemic impasse leads to thinking electoral engagement primarily in terms that resemble quantitative reasoning: do we or do we not participate? If we do, how do we strategically mobilize masses of people towards the election of this or that candidate, towards passing this or that piece of legislation? But this zero-sum game reasoning falls into the trap of thinking electoral politics on its own terms. In other words, we are unable to think an infinite number of qualitative modes of engagement or the refusal of engagement.
There are no doubt ample historical examples of more imaginative modes of engagement, which we would do well to revisit with fresh perspective. For instance, when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee engaged in voter registration campaigns in the Deep South in the early-to-mid 1960s, organizing alongside poor black sharecroppers, they were engaged in a campaign that was far more revolutionary than simply mobilizing potential electoral power. SNCC had chosen, as historian Barbara Ransby puts it, “to organize within the belly of the beast of southern racism rather than on its safer margins” not simply because these were untapped reservoirs of potential voters, but because they understood that, in the context of Jim Crow era racial apartheid, organizing in the Deep South offered a qualitatively different opportunity for grassroots movement-building. In the course of these voter registration campaigns, and the violent reactions from the white power establishment they predictably provoked, SNCC and those they organized alongside were engaged in dynamic transformations of consciousness and the renewal of radical imagination. Ultimately these qualitative dimensions of their engagement with the electoral arena represented a much more fundamental challenge to white supremacy than the quantitative votes that were mobilized.
The same principle holds true for the refusal of formal participation in electoral politics. More than a decade following their spectacular emergence onto the stage of world politics on January 1st 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) launched La Otra Campaña (The Other Campaign). The Other Campaign was a means of putting into practice the Zapatistas’ call in their 2005 Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle “to develop a different way of doing politics, a national program of struggle from the left, and a new Constitution.” Refusing the narrow political horizons of the electoral arena, including those of the nominally left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), The Other Campaign included widespread engagement with actors from across Mexico’s social geography, including, as noted by Hermann Bellingham and Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, “leftist political organizations, landless peasants, the families of murdered women, repressed teachers, forsaken fisherman, exploited sex workers, jobless or underpaid workers, youths at risk, ostracized gays, lesbians and transgender persons, and a long list that covers the entire spectrum of Mexico from below.” Rather than simply abstaining from the electoral process, the Zapatistas enacted a creative refusal of “politics from above” that was at once a discursive intervention and a material prefiguration of a more imaginative revolutionary praxis.
If the radical left is to overcome our internal gridlock with regard to electoral politics and chart a truly revolutionary path forward, we must learn from critical theories and insurgent practices such as these in order to move beyond our present impasse and embrace more radically imaginative political possibilities.
Old Wine, New Bottles
Let us return once more to the present conjuncture and the questions raised by the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Left discourse has primarily focused on three concerns: 1) the unanticipated dynamism of the Donald Trump campaign, its impact on the GOP, its relationship to the specter of reactionary populism, and the implications of its possible success; 2) critique of Hillary Clinton’s faux-progressive politics; and, 3) the surprising levels of support that self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders has mobilized in the Democratic primaries, and whether the left should rally around him in the interest of a “united front.” I have little to add to the second of these concerns, and here will focus on the first and third.
The Trump campaign has indeed garnered remarkable levels of support and stoked popular reactionary passions. Trump has used his celebrity status and vitriolic rhetoric to create an overtly racist, heteropatriarchal, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic spectacle catered to masses of working class and petty bourgeois white settlers who have historically formed the base for reactionary populism in the U.S. These white settlers have felt their psychic and material privileges, security, and status being squeezed under the dual pressures of, on the one hand, anti-racist, anti-colonial and other liberatory movements and the societal changes they have effected over the last half century, and, on the other, an enduring economic crisis which is continuously eroding the material basis of their implicit class/racial compact with elites. Trump has successfully tapped into this reactionary anger and resentment and has been putting fuel to the fire. This much most of the left can agree upon.
Differences arise, however, when it comes to determining what kind of response the rise of Trump does or doesn’t demand. For a significant portion of the left, the possibility of Trump’s electoral success must be resisted at all costs, principally by electoral means. Most of this discourse has been limited in at least two interrelated respects. Firstly, there has been a general failure to theorize Trump’s rise as a specific instantiation of a more general swelling of fascistic movements and tendencies across the globe over the past couple of decades. This failure is compounded by a tendency to imagine that fascism must necessarily take the forms of Interwar European fascism with which the term is classically associated. However, as critical globalization scholar William I. Robinson points out,
a twenty-first century fascism would not be a repetition of its twentieth-century predecessor. The role of political and ideological domination, through control over media and the flow of images and symbols, would make any such project more sophisticated and, together with new panoptical surveillance and social control technologies, probably allow it to rely more on selective than generalised repression. These and other new forms of social control and modalities of ideological domination blur boundaries, so that there may be a constitutional and normalised neo-fascism (with formal representative institutions, a constitution, political parties and elections), all while the political system is tightly controlled by transnational capital and its representatives.
Robinson does not go so far as to declare the U.S. has become a full-fledged fascist state, but it is important to note that the above description already corresponds to the present U.S. regime. Noting this should give us pause, and ideally some intellectual and emotional distance from the panicked urgency from which many on the left seem to be assessing strategic options.
This “crisis mode” response to Trump’s rise is the second limitation of the electorally focused left discourse. As Chris Dixon writes in his important survey of “anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist” movements in North America, “crisis mode organizing is a good recipe for lots of frenzied activity linked, at times, to broader struggles. However, it’s a poor recipe for achieving long-term transformative goals. While acknowledging the crises around us, then, we have to allow ourselves to pause, reflect, and become more intentional and visionary. We need strategy.” In the context of Trump’s rise, this tendency towards crisis mode organizing, compounded by the absence of deeper theorizing which is often its counterpart, has contributed to many on the left declaring electoral participation as a strategic and moral imperative, in the absence of any clear trajectory of transformation of which this would form a part.
The other side of the electoral coin, of course, has been the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders in garnering liberal-progressive popular support and the sudden possibility that he could actually triumph in the Democratic primaries. Setting aside, for the moment, the question of the likelihood of his victory in the primaries, I want to take up the left pragmatist position that we ought to rally behind his campaign. Joe Allen’s comments from In These Times are as good as any: “We should be thinking big. Bernie made socialism attractive and relevant in a way that the long-established broad Left in the United States hasn’t accomplished in many decades of hard work. Something has changed in U.S. politics, and the [rejectionist] Left seems woefully behind the times.”
Notwithstanding liberal-progressive celebrations of Bernie and pragmatist left nods of approval (whether enthusiastic or begrudging), there have been a number of left commentators who have enumerated the significant limitations of Sanders’ actual politics: his choice to embrace a progressive economic populism predicated upon a misguided nostalgia for the “Golden Era” of (racist, colonial, heteropatriarchal) social-democratic class compromise rather than to advance truly radical critiques of capitalism; his record of support for the expansion of the carceral state (e.g. voting for Clinton’s three strikes legislation); his failure to meaningfully challenge the basic premises of imperialism; his commitment (whether pragmatic or ideological) to liberal Zionism; and so on. Others have drawn attention to the ways in which the Sanders campaign can be understood as an attempt to capture and recuperate the popular spirit of anti-capitalism and radical democracy that animated the Occupy movement.
Most concerning, in my view, is left pragmatist support for a candidate who has not only failed to garner much support among black voters, but who has generally refused to challenge racism, anti-blackness, and settler-colonialism in any substantive respects, in spite of the fact that his campaign comes in the wake of some of the most powerful and important black and indigenous rebellions and upsurges in North America in decades. In this regard, his initial irritated and dismissive response to being challenged by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, AZ in mid 2015 was telling, and consistent with his generally post-racial approach to economic inequality.
While the pragmatist left has tended to downplay these shortcomings, others have been advancing more forceful critiques. Though eventually he ended up endorsing Sanders, black journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, asked why Bernie Sanders refuses to support reparations for racial slavery, a criticism that earned him an avalanche of denunciations from both liberals (who denounced him for his radicalism) and the pragmatist left (who denounced him for his liberalism). The virulent response of the latter is, in many respects, more concerning than Sanders’ actual position, which was predictable.
Against the reigning left pragmatism, BLM’s refusal to endorse any presidential candidate during the 2016 election cycle has been heartening. BLM co-founder Alicia Garza explained this refusal thusly:
What we’ve seen is an attempt by mainstream politics and politicians to co-opt movements that galvanize people in order for them to move closer to their own goals and objectives…We don’t think that playing a corrupt game is going to bring change and make black lives matter.
BLM activist Melina Abdullah later elaborated:
[W]e are pushing the real revolution. We know that the revolution won’t come at the ballot box and the revolution won’t be televised. The revolution will be on the ground, when the people rise up and demand something better, something more imaginative and something more visionary.
Another powerful refusal of the pragmatist position has come from Samaria Rice, whose twelve-year-old son was murdered by Cleveland police in 2014. Her fierce indictment of the entire system of racist policing, and the politicians who help reproduce it, is worth quoting at length:
While I’ve continued to push my state’s officials towards real changes, several Presidential candidates have said my son’s name in their mouth, using his death as an example of what shouldn’t happen in America. Twelve year old children should never be murdered for playing in a park. But not a single politician: local, state or federal, has taken action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Instead of plans for justice and accountability, I have been shown several plans for criminal justice reform, none that address my experience of the entire system being guilty…
My experience has let me know that the system is working just the way the people in power want it to. That is why I refuse to accept plans or support politicians that offer what they propose as solutions, not informed by us, the community. It’s why I won’t accept plans for more “community police” as positive solutions when it was the police that killed my son. I cannot settle for partial solutions and lip service. I know we need real action, and I refuse to endorse any candidate that offers less.
Indigenous critics of Sanders include the writer, filmmaker, lawyer, activist and member of the Blackfoot Nation, Gyasi Ross, who wrote an article entitled “A Few Notes For Native People About The Presidential Elections: Neither Democrat Deserves Our Vote (Yet),” in which he tempers his individual support for Sanders with the recognition that he hardly represents a departure from the normal operations of U.S. settler-colonialism:
Make no mistake about it, in presidential elections Native people are an afterthought. Meaning: as much as you (or I) may be invested in Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, they’re simply not thinking about your Native ass… Despite my support for Sanders the truth is that neither candidate has really said anything or done anything for Native people or for our communities… We have to require more.
In recapitulating these critiques, my objective is not to build a case against the Sanders campaign per se, but rather to challenge the pragmatist position which effectively asserts “there is no alternative” to participating in the electoral arena on its own terms. Indeed, if Sanders fails to win the Democratic nomination, as many have predicted he will, there is a substantial portion of the pragmatist left who will propose cynical left support for Clinton, notwithstanding their own visceral critiques of her devotion to elite power. David Broder has called this “lesser-evilism” politic “the anti-fascism of fools.” I would call it symptomatic of left epistemic impasse, a tragic recourse that sounds the death knell of the radical imagination.
Renewing the Radical Imagination
Nearly a century ago, in his remarkable “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the cultural critic Walter Benjamin offered an admonition that we on the radical left would do well to heed in our present historical moment: “In every era the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” For I fear that we may drastically underestimate both our own susceptibility to power’s relentless efforts toward the foreclosure of radical imagination and our own capacity to creatively resist such foreclosures in ways that can open up and sometimes prefigure other, possible worlds. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney so beautifully put it:
We have to love and revere our survival, which is (in) our resistance. We have to love our refusal of what has been refused. But insofar as this refusal has begun to stand, insofar as it has begun to seek standing, it stands in need of renewal, now, even as the sources and conditions of that renewal become more and more obscure, more and more entangled with the regulatory apparatuses that are deployed in order to suppress them. At moments like this we have to tell the truth with a kind of viciousness and, even, a kind of cruelty.
To the extent that our engagement is structured by the imperatives of narrow pragmatism, left participation in electoral politics comes more and more to resemble what critical/queer theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” a relation in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing… when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” Left pragmatism is a politics of entrapment. Yet moralistic rejectionisms that are more concerned with the performance of ethical purity than with kindling the radical imagination are equally bereft. Our tradition stands in need of renewal.
While there are no blueprints to the forms this renewal might take, there are, at least as far as electoral politics is concerned, contemporary forms of experimentation from which we might learn. At the level of active engagement with the electoral arena, the work of black organizers and communities in Jackson, Mississippi appears to be a powerful example. Supported by the leadership of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the New Afrikan People’s Organization, and rooted firmly in the black radical tradition and the fight against racial capitalism, the Jackson-Kush Plan combines targeted electoral strategy with dynamic grassroots movement-building, experiments in radical democracy (“People’s Assemblies, which will serve as instruments of ‘dual power’ to counter the abusive powers of the state and the economic and social domination of the forces of capital”), and collective economic self-management (“[a] Solidarity Economy, which will be anchored by a network of cooperatives and supporting institutions to strengthen worker power, worker democracy, and wealth equity in the state”).
It was in the context of this larger radical program that the successful mayoral campaign of Chokwe Lumumba was undertaken. Although Lumumba sadly died after only seven months of holding office, because his election was always a part of a broader, deeper, and more imaginative strategy, the work towards radical social transformation in Jackson and Mississippi continues.
There are also powerful contemporary examples of the creative rejection of the legitimacy of the electoral arena and the violence its spectacular contests legitimize. For instance, on March 11th 2016 in Chicago, nearly 3,000 protestors effectively shut down what was to be one of Trump’s major campaign events. This successful mobilization must in turn be situated in relation to Chicago’s local instantiation of the broader black-led movement against racist policing in this country, which in Chicago has centered especially on the murder of Laquan McDonald by police in 2014 and its subsequent cover up by city authorities. Many protestors were targeting more than just Trump as an individual, they were targeting the broader structures and forces of racism, reaction, and elite power that he represents. As one activist put it, “[m]y goal is to rid this world of the system that allows Donald Trump to be a front-running candidate with any party in an actual presidential election[.]”
Less than two weeks later in Arizona, activists used a human blockade to shut down a highway leading to a Trump rally in Phoenix, again disrupting one of the key sites on his campaign trail. If the Chicago shut down needs to be understood in relation to the movement against racist policing, this blockade must be understood in relation to the longstanding migrant-led struggle against what No One Is Illegal organizer Harsha Walia calls “border imperialism,” a fight in which Arizona has been a key battleground. As Jacinta Gonzáles, one of the organizers arrested during the direct action, put it:
We did this because we understand that Trump is more than just a candidate. We understand that the political space that he’s opening up is bringing up threats against our community. We’re seeing it in the state Legislature here in Arizona. For example, there’s many anti-immigrant bills that are going to be possibly signed by Governor Ducey later this week, which is why we’re urging him to say no to Trump and veto those bills. But we also saw that the operation, the machinery, that is in place right now for racial profiling, is alive and well. So, many of the words that Donald Trump is promoting and saying that he’s going to do are already in existence. And we know that, as a community, we have to be able to resist and push back.
My point here is not to idealize or advocate for particular tactics or strategies, but simply to note that we have ample contemporary examples of creative engagements with, or refusals of, the electoral arena that go beyond the strictures of narrow pragmatism or moralistic rejectionism. Moreover, these instances of insurgent creativity should serve as a reminder that, notwithstanding several decades of counterrevolutionary assault, our collective power is greater than we often imagine. To borrow again from Moten and Harney,
[w]e have to recognize that a state—the racial capitalist/settler colonial state—of war has long existed. Its brutalities and militarizations, its regulative mundanities, are continually updated and revised, but they are not new. If anything, we need to think more strategically about our own innovations, recognizing that the state of war is a reactive state, a machine for regulating and capitalizing upon our innovations in/for survival.
The state recognizes our capacity to move collectively beneath, against, and beyond the logics of capital and the violences of (de)humanization, and it works tirelessly to stem this movement, to co-opt its energies, to erode even our ability to recognize it for the powerful force that it is and can be. We must refuse any politics that takes an impoverished imagination as its point of departure. We must remember that we are fighting for so much more than tepid reforms or moral high ground – we are fighting for a world for which modernity has no name, but which we witness everyday in the countless modes of being, acts of resistance, and spaces of relation that prefigure it. To close with the prophetic words of the black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde, who never shied away from freedom dreams,
we live on the edge
tomorrow or the unthinkable
made common as plaintain-weed