Watching the Republican Party go into contusions over its Trump problem is a lot of fun, why are the Democrats not enjoying it more? Within the establishment, not only of the Democratic Party, but largely within the U.S. ruling class as a whole, perhaps there is a little enjoyment, in that they probably feel they have a lock on the presidency for their clear choice, Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, Hillary has to be built up as “the responsible alternative” through promoting fear of Donald Trump. The usual “ordinary people” who are Democrats are falling right in line. They’ve had eight years and more of training as Obama-bots, and part of the “new normal” for Democrats is to cast the Republican candidate as vastly horrible. Obviously, the Republicans do this, too, and one might say that they are both right. However, the alternatives represented by either party, no matter who the candidates are, cannot truly be described in Manichean terms–at least not if one imagines a world that is beyond the existing political spectrum.
On either side of the establishment political spectrum, Manichean characterizations of an epic battle between good and evil are little more than hype to rally the side. This is at least a large part of the promotion of “fear of Trump” coming from the Democratic side. Why do people fall so readily for this jive, and are things different this time?
On the first point, people fall for it because they are either comfortable with the system, or desperate to believe in the system, or somewhere in-between, but above all not ready to face the overwhelming need for real change in the world.
On the second point, we might consider why ordinary people are expressing such a great fear of Trump (“Trumpophobia”?), and why Democrats, especially, are not having a better time with this whole scene. I think of the song by X from the punk/new wave period, “We’re having much more fun,” and I wonder why we aren’t. Is this only posturing by the Democrats, either in the case of the honchos of the party or ordinary Democrats?
Certainly there is real fear in the case of the party bosses and the U.S. ruling class, even if the “Trump problem” is not yet a system-wide problem. The reason for the fear is that the “two-party system” is a system of two branches of steering media, by which the system as a whole and the ruling class works out the overall direction of things for the complex totality of capital. (“Steering media” is a term from Jurgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, and it fits the situation very well.) At least when it comes to “electoral politics,” the “only ‘choice’ we have,” supposedly–where “rock the vote”-types tell us how easy it is to take part in “running the country”–nobody, and I really mean nobody, really believes in this lie. But the amount of self-denial on the part of millions of ordinary citizens, including too many intellectuals and others who really do have to know better, is dazzling. We’ll come back to this, but for now the point is that this dazzling spell requires some sophisticated–and sophistical–machinery to pull off, and integral to the workings is the symbiotic relationship between the two “parties.” Manichean and apocalyptic rhetoric functions within this relationship.
It’s good for one party, and sometimes for certain sections of the ruling class more than others, if the other party is going through a rough patch. But it is bad for both parties if one party is truly tearing itself apart and on the verge of collapse. And what is bad for both parties is bad for the ruling class, though whether things are really so far gone as all that, it is hard to know. In any case, anyone who dreams of and/or works toward a new society should be having a good time with the present situation.
Surely, though, there are at least “progressives” (as hard as that term is to define, especially in an election year) and even some radicals, who are terrified of Trump. Is there no reason for this other than clinging to the old system and the sort of fear of the unknown that keeps people in bad relationships? Is Trump truly representative of a significant change for the worse in the U.S.? Andrew Levine asks if 2016 will be a “pivotal election year in the United States,” though he reaches the conclusion that the worst thing that has any chance of actually happening is that Hillary Clinton will be president (Counterpunch, March 25, 2016). As far as the shake-ups that will be felt along the way to this denouement, Levine says, “Bring it on.”
For my part, though, I think things need to go much further than just a shake-up that helps the Republican Party see that it needs to reinvent itself (as the updated “party of Reagan,” apparently) and that leads to everything going the way the ruling class wants in the first place–with perhaps a few bumps along the way, but these bumps also serve the useful purpose of giving people the impression that they have some real voice in momentous social matters.
In terms of the whole world, it is also not at all clear that Hillary Clinton is the better option, between her and Trump. One premise, though, of considering things within the framework of the American two-party system is that internationalism never enters into the discussion.
Indeed, the whole anti-Sixties compact of the two-party system has been to make it seem almost insane to talk about some larger perspective on humanity, something beyond the narrow confines of the nation-state. The exception to this is so-called “humanitarian intervention,” which the Clintons have made “respectable” to Democrats who like to think they care about what happens to people in other countries, but who could never imagine the best solution being that the United States get the hell out of their business. These people are ever-ready to believe in whatever “new Hitler” is invented (usually created in the first place) by the foreign-policy apparatus and its media mouthpieces. Really, it is a kind of pathology that should be studied more deeply, the kind of “liberal sensibility” that always needs a “new Hitler” in order to make sense of the world. In fact, what makes sense in this way is the idea that, at all costs, the United States must remain the globally-hegemonic power.
Meanwhile, John McMurtry and others have given ample reasons why the whole establishment, and not just the Republican or Democratic establishments, fear and despise Donald Trump. (John McMurtry, “Why the Establishment Hates Trump,” Counterpunch, April 5, 2016). McMurtry has also done an exemplary job of analyzing the pathologies at work in what he calls, in a great book of the same title, the cancer stage of capitalism–this work is very important for understanding why we hang on to a social system that we know is beyond deeply flawed.
As with the Occupy movement and the idea of the “one percent” (and, of course, the 99%), I think it’s tres cool that the term, “the Establishment,” has come back into play. But let’s also continue to try to understand how the ruling class rules in our time. In particular, in the case of Trump and Sanders, we need to understand how some political candidates can be not entirely owned by the ruling class. With Sanders, there is a popular movement. There was a popular movement for Obama, too, though this was dismantled as soon as the election was over. Hillary Clinton is not making the mistake of putting together such a movement, though perhaps she would not be able to inspire such a movement, as reflected in her deployment of “feminist icon” Madeleine Albright and her “special place in hell” for women who don’t vote for Hillary. This is the kind of “feminist Democrat” who believes there’s not a special place in hell for superpower imperialists. But enough about that!
You know what’s also not cool? The idea of “Occupy Democrats,” which is some sort of meme on Facebook and I don’t know where else. Please!
As for Trump, it’s a really weird question, but is he really a member of the ruling class? How could he not be? –he’s a billionaire. But does he own the means of production? What does this mean, exactly, in the age of imperialism, when the leading edge of capital is finance capital? What does this mean in the age of postmodern capitalism, in which the entertainment-distraction complex is absolutely integral to the functioning of the system (I call it “virtual bread and cyber circuses”), Trump likes to fashion himself a “builder” (too bad Obama had already stolen the theme song from “Bob the Builder”), someone who “builds buildings.” However, Trump is no Howard Roark. He is a real-estate financier, a wheeler-dealer, and a reality-show figure. His qualifications to be president are not in dispute here; he is eminently qualified, by standards already set by previous presidents and candidates. Indeed, as both a media figure and a part of the world of finance capital, he is even more qualified to be the postmodern imperialist president than Ronald Reagan. All joking aside, I think we need to understand better the configurations of capital in our time, and how it calls forth such “living representatives.”
There is another level on which we need to talk about Trump’s qualifications to be president. This concerns a silly idea on the part of the Democrats and Clinton supporters such as Daily Kos. Absolutely there are reasons to not like Donald Trump, to not support his candidacy–but these are reasons to not even support his continued existence as a free, rich, powerful, bloviating individual on planet Earth. The obnoxious things he says about Mexicans, Muslims, women, etc., no more disqualify Trump to be president than Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and Laos, or Bill Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia, or Hillary Clinton’s dismantling of Libya (over Pentagon objections, it can be added). What Trump has said is wretched and horrible, but these sorts of things, when they come from someone with great wealth and power, should be dealt with in, shall we say, martial ways. After all, Trump hasn’t killed people in any great numbers yet–leaving aside what the machinations of landlords and real-estate wheeler-dealers do to people’s lives.
Liberals will defend Donald Trump’s “right to freedom of speech,” even while claiming that the things he says “disqualifies him from being president.” The irony is that Trump has unleashed (even if in ways that are warped by the mechanisms of this unleashing) a large segment of the population that for some time now has not had a voice, people who are dismissed as “stupid,” as “rednecks” and “yahoos.” People who the Democratic Party cannot embrace, because then it would come up against the problems of labor-power in a global economy. So of course the liberals have to defend “freedom of speech.” As so often, their approach is ass-backwards, though they also have an interest in having Trump say “outrageous” things.
In mid-December, 2015, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz claimed in a Rolling Stone essay that the 2016 election represents a “turning point,” “one of the most pivotal moments of our time.” Citing Lincoln from the period before his presidency, Wilentz argues that the courses represented by the two establishment parties are “stark alternatives,” with “no middle ground”; “In 2106, the country will become either one thing or the other.”
One thing or the other what, exactly? Wilentz does a fine job of plotting the paths taken by the Republican and Democratic establishments in the last five decades. He begins with a year that still has great significance for many of us, 1968. There are many fascinating details in this story as told by Wilentz, but there are basic problems with the framework in which these elements are situated–and these problems have everything to do with grasping the nature of “the Establishment.”
Just by way of orientation here, consider a small thought experiment. Here in Xiamen, PRC, in mid-April, 2016, I recently saw on one of the English-language television channels the film with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn about Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. It was hard not to get in a bit of a fit just thinking about the gang of reactionary and fascistic scumbags surrounding the G. W. Bush administration, from Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld, on down. Readers are welcome to join me in momentary conniption; I’ve been having these at least since I was in high school, hearing Nixon on the radio saying “I am not a crook.” But then we have to calm down. It’s not like Valerie Plame is some really cool person who was taken down by the Cheney regime while otherwise being engaged in the pursuit of social justice. True, she and Joe Wilson may have become cooler since their run-in with how imperialist power really works–though it strains credulity to think that either one was naive or uniformed on this point in their capacities as CIA agent and former diplomat. In the film, Fair Game, there is a scene in which Naomi Watts, as Valerie Plame, is asked how she can navigate the world on the basis of lies. Her response is to the effect that one has to remember for what purpose one is lying and never forget the truth. Now, this scene seems a bit “idealized,” to say the least–and it fits nicely with the generally self-righteous demeanor that Sean Penn brings to the Joe Wilson role.
There’s no real point to this trip down bad memory lane other than to remind ourselves that we are dealing with a system here, and that there is no place for the people in conflicts within the CIA or other “power institutions” of the State, and so we should be highly suspicious of any attempt to bring people into thinking they are really making decisions about how these institutions function, to say nothing of for what purpose they function. In the France of May 1968 this used to be called “recuperation,” and “co-optation” is another useful term here.
If it is indeed the case that in 2016, as Wilentz argues, “the country will become one thing or another,” that is not a decision that the people will make within the electoral arena, and neither is it a decision that the people will be allowed to make. Clearly, and such a thing is not in any way on Wilentz’s radar, if the people make any kind of real decision, it will be through a real political act, an opening to a real political event.
From time to time, the system has to shake itself out, in one way or another. The occurrence and cadence of such shake-outs is quickening in our time, an aspect of what has lately been called “accelerationism.” In large part, postmodern capitalism works on the basis of disaffection and cynicism rather than active, jingoistic engagement, but national elections could be called barometers for showing that some segment of the population is minimally “on board” for the charade of “running the country” (as the “Rock the Vote”-types say).
Even within the system, however, Wilentz is wrong. This is not to say that his own travels on bad memory lane, in his recounting of the rightward course of the Republican Party since 1968, are not valuable. At the same time, his view from December has proven to be not exactly right. Wilentz’s thesis is that the Republican Party has not only gone evermore to the right, but also more and more to an “extreme.” Trump perhaps represents some kind of extreme, but the traditional categories don’t seem to capture this extreme. Meanwhile, the “alternative” is not something that will make the United States anything “other,” it’s more of the same with Hillary Clinton, except with her own special twist on the rightward course.
I’m not faulting Wilentz for not seeing in December what would be happening a couple months later, nobody expected Trump to go so far. Toward the end of his essay, Wilentz talks about the power of the Koch Brothers. Of course that is an important subject, but it turns out that the Kochs and Trump don’t like each other too much, and Trump doesn’t have to care about that so much because he’s the rogue billionaire. We don’t know what that means, really, or what it will or could mean. But I have a feeling that just labeling it “right-wing extremism” doesn’t really tell us much.
The final lines of Wilentz’s essay are pure hyperbole, and amount to just shilling for the Democrats–at least that’s what I think:
[T]he more radical the Republicans have become the more apparent it is how profound a gulf separates the two political parties. “A Choice, Not an Echo” went the title of a pro-Goldwater tract in the polarizing election of 1964. The 2016 election presents the starkest choice since then, indeed, in living memory, but now with literally everything at stake. The country will, as Lincoln said, become either one thing or all the other. (“The Turning Point,” Rolling Stone, issue 1250/51, Dec. 17-31, 2016, p.59.)
With all due respect, this is just typical apocalyptic Democratic Party bullshit.
One of the latest bits of news is that “ordinary citizens” who will be delegates to the Republican convention in Cleveland are up in arms–literally!–because they want to take their guns to the convention and the Secret Service is saying this cannot be allowed. The gun-crazy convention-goers are demanding that Trump and Cruz tell the Secret Service that guns have to be allowed at the convention, as a sign of support for the only amendment to the Constitution that really matters to these gentle souls. Meanwhile, Trump has said that there could be riots if he does not receive the nomination. In all seriousness, I ask you, what is not to like in this scenario?
For sure, I do worry for the service workers at the convention.
And, of course, we do have to be careful here. I do not mean to suggest that we should be having fun with the real effects that Trump’s attacks on African-Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, women, etc., are having. The people who are targets of these attacks of course cannot be having fun with this, and it is the obligation of all people of good will to fight off these attacks. People who act out race-hatred and misogyny should be dealt with, militantly. This is not much in the way of consolation to those who feel fundamentally unsafe in this cauldron of racism and misogyny (and why wouldn’t people feel this way?–but how safe do the same people feel with Obama as president?), but the other side of this coin is that at least the right-wing of the establishment is tearing itself apart.
On this last point, we really should be having much more fun.
If I may, I would like to respond to two threads in the discussion of “Bring on the crackup” from the CounterPunch Facebook site. My responses will take us somewhat beyond the questions actually raised, as there are a number of issues that deserve more extended investigation.
First, something not really worth responding to in itself, some comments from someone who first asked about the color of the author of the piece, and some discussion that ensued with some saying that they had not read the piece. As per usual on the interwebs, this is not a disqualification for commenting on the piece in question, or even condemning it. One person even said they hadn’t read the piece, but the “tone is awful.” Apparently they were just commenting on one line that was excerpted from the article. It is not clear that the person who started this thread read the piece, either, since none of his complaints, other than those concerning my color, had anything to do with the actual content of the article. Numerous others rose to the occasion and pointed this out, and someone wrote, perceptively, “Isn’t needing to know someone’s ethnicity before deciding if their opinions are valid a formal definition of racism?”
Really, the question for those who want to take up this approach, of asking first of all about the color of the author, and having no compunction about commenting on a piece of writing one has not read, is, How is this helping? What possible good could come out of this approach?
It seems fairly obvious that all there is behind these comments, at least on the part of the one who initiated them, is support for Hillary Clinton. The person who started this thread of commentary labeled me a Bernie supporter, when there is nothing in my article about supporting Bernie Sanders. (This was also pointed out by other commentators.) What is perhaps more worth thinking about is how a certain kind of identity politics, of a kind with no principles, has coalesced around the Democratic Party. I did address this briefly in my article, the way that African-Americans, women, other people of color, and LGBT people are treated as “constituencies” by the Democrats, as “interest groups” who can be part of a coalition, under the umbrella of liberal imperialism.
Of course, not everyone who belongs to the populations I mentioned see themselves this way, and neither do they take the Democratic Party to be their “natural home.” My argument in my piece was that the successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can be seen as indicative of a fraying at the edges of the system, a fraying that sometimes causes unraveling closer to the mainstream. What this mainstream fears is that too many people will see the charade of “politics” of the imperialist, postmodern capitalist system for what it is. Thus the sort of reaction that is completely unprincipled–but, significantly, and just as with the system that it supports, especially in its current machinations, transparently ham-fisted.
Otherwise, I don’t understand how someone would think it would be a constructive thing to attack me for, e.g., calling out the system on its murderous treatment of black people, or Hillary Clinton’s role in the rise of mass incarceration, on the basis of my not being the color of some of the people I’m talking about. I don’t think all identity politics is this bad, not by a long way, even though I do think the basic premises of identity politics are wrong. What is evidenced here is a highly-opportunistic deployment of an identity-politics idea, that the first question to ask of any statement or position concerns the race, sex, gender, sexuality, etc., of the speaker/writer. (Let’s not forget that the Clintons are masters of opportunism, and also emotional manipulation.) This is a noxious idea that cuts both ways, reinforces oppressive essentialisms, and that ultimately leads to–what we are in fact seeing happen–to a “one person, one identity” society. This is no more than a supposedly more “plularized,” good-old American individualism, with added essentialism and reification. And it is not so far from “biology is destiny,” either.
Not that the people who deploy this strategy to attempt to discredit articles they (proudly) have not even read care about the consequences of what they say. In this they represent the anti-intellectual (and, specifically, anti-philosophy) attitude that in many respects is more prevalent on the so-called “left,” than on the right. (If nothing else, we also see how right-wing Hillary is, although in this she also reflects the fact that everything that is in the acceptable political spectrum of the U.S. has shifted to the right) Buried in the middle of my–yes, long–article was a parenthetical comment, regarding the interpretations of Plato’s Republic from Leo Strauss and Alain Badiou. I doubt that the opportunistic identity-politics commentators made it to this point in the article. One could imagine, however, that someone who comes from this perspective would think that my question, “Could the future depend on how we understand Plato?” is the craziest thing anyone could ask.
The sad thing is that many who think of themselves as being “on the left” or “progressive” would probably agree with this. There’s no room for thought in the existing political spectrum. I was hoping to provoke radicals on this point; the work of Alain Badiou is an indispensable reference here. Interested readers can start with some of the essays in Metapolitics, and the conversations with Fabian Tarby in Philosophy and the Event provide a very helpful overview of Badiou’s thought.
Again, just to return to the main point, this opportunistic, quasi-identity politics approach does not help anyone in any way. People who are caught up in this sort of thing, and who are not merely or consciously acting as hacks for Hillary really need to ask themselves who they think they are helping with this kind of “politics.”
On the other hand, perhaps the origin of this whole thread was just some bullshit trolling, but then it says something that it’s impossible to tell the difference between trolling and a certain kind of opportunistic “identity-politics.” Even the people doing this stuff can’t tell the difference!
Second, and on a more pleasant note, there was some very helpful commentary from Prof. David Anshen, a cultural theorist from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Prof. Anshen writes that he finds it puzzling that I could claim that “it would be better for working people if these two bourgeois candidates” are “chosen by the two major bourgeois parties.” David worries that this position follows the logic of “electoralism” and anarchism, rather than the way that Bolsheviks approached elections, building their policy on the efforts of Marx and Engels. “To me, the only good thing that can come out of bourgeois elections, at all, is the exposure of the masses to conscious class politics and the expanded unity of political movements along lines of what Lenin termed ‘political consciousness’.”
Prof. Anshen goes on to say that he can see my point about how a Trump/Sanders election could “be taken as the massive possible fracturing of these parties, which theoretically would be good, from a working class perspective, but even that is so unpredictable that it could lead to serious defeats if the working class is not ready (which they are not I reckon).” David recognizes that I am mainly talking in my article about the difficulties the ruling class and its “political parties” (my scare-quotes) are facing, but argues that “we need to discuss what we should be doing to prepare for future class battles.” He concludes by saying, “In this sense, I reject that we are in a postmodern state of capitalism or if we are, we have been for quite some time.”
David also mentioned, in connection with now-defunct Swedish social democracy, the “fine Detective novels” by Swedish authors. My brilliant life-partner, Kathleen League, responded on this point, as she has read many of these novels. In particular she really likes the “Martin Beck” novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and she turned me on to them as well. They’re good!
Of course, right, I don’t mean that it would be good for working people if bourgeois parties go ahead with nominating whichever bourgeois candidates. Instead, I think it would be good if Trump and Sanders make problems for their respective parties, the more severe the problems the better, and that such a thing would be indicative of some deep problems at least for the Republican establishment, but quite possibly for the ruling class more generally. Here, however, we come to the place where Prof. Anshen and I have a bundle of disagreements, basically having to do with a difference of perspective concerning Marxism. To put things simply, my guess is that Prof. Anshen comes from a perspective in which the sorts of “necessities” and “historical laws” described by Marx (and mostly embraced by Lenin, though with important modifications) are still in play, whereas I reject necessitarian frameworks and instead seek to embrace contingency. What this means, of course, is not a simple question, especially if one still hopes to learn from Marx and to address the way that society is presently configured.
These questions are all connected; I hope to demonstrate briefly some of these connections.
I am sure that Prof. Anshen is right that the working class in the United States is not ready to respond to a deep crisis of the system in a revolutionary way.
Now, it is not at all clear that the system is heading for a deep crisis; I tend to think not. Donald Trump is a big problem for the Republican Party, and therefore to some extent to the ruling class. Just how big a problem, it is very hard to say, but it seems unlikely that the rogue billionaire by himself could provoke a crisis of the whole system.
As we know, and this makes things even more interesting, part of the working class is probably the backbone of Trump’s support at the present time.
Clearly, we need to have a new conversation about class and its meaning at the present time. This to me is one of the reasons why it is useful to talk about postmodern capitalism, because the categories that may have served well in the “classical” period of imperialism (as Lenin understood it–though one of my arguments in Ethical Marxism is that hardly anyone really wanted to plumb the depths, least of all philosophically, of Lenin’s arguments), need at least some significant modification. There is one habit, for instance common to the various forms of Trotskyism, of thinking we are in the same period as that of Lenin, which then assimilates this period to that of Marx. In turn, this habit never moves to the idea that another period is opened with Mao. And yet, in any case, and this is why discussion of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky (or Raya Dunayevskaya, Tony Cliff, etc.), Stalin, or Mao, is of only limited use to us now, and in some way we need to just bracket these names and periods.
If we bracket these names and periods and ideas in the right way, then we can also refer to them and use them in the right way, too. Then other figures might come into the discussion in the right way, too, for example Plato, Buddha, Spinoza, Kant, etc. The difference in frameworks can be seen in this question of bracketing and the “right way” to do it.
The ruling class is hard enough to understand in this time of, strictly-speaking, capital that has only a distant relationship with actual material production. Of course, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out repeatedly, all forms of capital are equal to the capitalist as commodities and quantities. However, as Lenin demonstrated, finance capital opens global possibilities that can lead to levels of destruction hitherto unseen. At the same time, it will serve us well to simply focus on the fact that there is a class in the United States that owns and controls (which could be called de facto ownership) the necessities of life and that extracts surplus value on the basis of this ownership–and this class needs to be expropriated for the sake of humanity having a future. Obviously, that is “classical Marx,” but the complexities are now far beyond anything Marx could have even imagined.
Trump actually does us a favor, really a big favor, by the way that he has set himself apart from the rest of the ruling class, such that the rest of the ruling class is exposed to varying degrees in its opposition to him. It is a remarkable fact that this is the case to a far greater degree than it is in the case of an ostensible “socialist.” Truly this is remarkable.
The classes that are not the ruling classes present far more difficulties. Obviously that cannot be sorted out here, but there are a few things that need to be said. Sorry if this sounds dogmatic, there are arguments and demonstrations for everything here–but, on the other hand, there are decisions at the basis of these claims that are not, shall we say, one-hundred percent decidable. Or, as Hegel said, “Where to begin?” is the hardest question.
That said, here we go. For sure, the ruling classes of different nation-states, first among them the world powers, have created a set of institutions, some more public and some more secret, to attempt to work out their differences on the global stage without tipping the chessboard for all of them. Furthermore, capital flows around the world at the speed of light, and there are new systems of production (cybernetic, robotized, “just-in-time”) and transport (containerization) that really do make qualitative differences in the way that the world works. Even so, the capitalist ruling classes remain rooted in different nation-states, and what I said in “Bring on the crackup” about the U.S. Navy and its control of the world’s sea lanes goes as directly to this point as anything does.
(Writing from Xiamen, PRC, which is a coastal–mostly island–city on the Straits of Taiwan, this last point is front and center on a daily basis.)
Marx, of course, argued that the working class is an international class. Apart from whatever Eurocentrism was at work in Marx’s thought, there was also the fact that he understood in his time that the industrial working class was primarily a European thing. Indeed, part of the importance of Lenin is that he showed that, to understand the global dimensions of the emerging global economic framework (capitalism as a world-system), certain parts of Marx’s theorizing had to be not only “extended,” but even broken with, ruptured with.
Almost 150 years since Capital, vol. 1 (a figure I think important in light of Marx’s having said that the proletariat would need 75 years and more of struggles and civil wars to make itself ready to run the world), the class system of the world has been remade many times over. We would need at least a book-length discussion to get into what the cybernetic world means in terms of the exploitation of labor-power; even apart from this, however, understanding the idea of a “single international class” that could, under certain conditions, progressively transform the world into a place where exploitative and oppressive social relations no longer hold sway is exceedingly difficult. Indeed, I would say that such understanding–in any very complete sense–is impossible from the perspective of our present circumstances, because how these things shape up is a matter of practice and possibly the sort of event that really cracks things open.
This is even apart from the need to distinguish the sociological/political-economic register of understanding from the philosophical register.
Still, having said all of this, we can at least talk about the proletariat as that part of the working class that is most in line with Marx’s conception of the working class that is so marginalized (as so “not counting” for anything, in Badiou’s language) that “it has nothing to lose but its chains, but a world to win,” and, in the line from the Internationale that Badiou often quotes, to be the “nothing” that can become the “all.” The frame for this discussion has to be international. In that same frame, we can also talk about the working class more generally, as stratified in the ways that Lenin especially emphasized. And we can talk about an even more-broad category that might be called the “working people,” that might include all but the one-percent (and even excluding from the one-percent those, such as some artists or athletes, from Bruce Springsteen to Michael Jordan, who are very wealthy, but who are not capitalists). The point is that there are those who are much closer to being “nothing” in this system, and those who are not as close. Radical social transformation depends on the moment when there is an opening and when–to give a hippie-twist to Heidegger’s phrase–“the nothing does its thing.”
For what purpose, however, do we make this assessment? My point is that there is no strict calculus to be had here. Of course we should plan and organize, and indeed we have to. We must consider the points where the system has cracks and where the people are in motion. However, and this goes to the larger point concerning different frameworks, crises and when the true “crisis point,” the point of a true opening, occurs; there is and never has been a calculus that will somehow fully prepare either leaders/organizers or the people/working class (or however we think of this) for thuds moment.
There are two reasons for this, one going to the question of crisis and the other going to the question of a popular upsurge.
Even apart from the question of “crisis theory,” a pursuit somewhat in disarray in our postmodern capitalist times (for example, the difficulty of any conception of a crisis of “legitimacy” in the time of Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Donald Trump), there is the simple fact that the people, or the working class or the proletariat (or the ruling class, for that matter) don’t get to choose the crisis–its form or timing. This is not a “random” thing, but it is contingent.
And the same for popular uprising: as for the hour (or place) of its occurrence, no one can say; it comes like a thief in the night. Again, there are too many contingencies to make “concrete plans.” There are not only many contingencies, the whole scene is characterized by contingency rather than necessity. Yes, there are ways that capitalism works, but not only are there no “iron laws of necessity,” there is also no determinable “limit to capital” upon which to predicate a plan.
My sense is that the kind of “necessary” workings of economic or historical “laws” that can be planned around have to do with the approach to working-class struggle that is generally known as economism, the idea that struggle has to be organized around immediate economic struggles. Even if this did work, in the necessitarian way that economistic Marxists imagine, I would disagree with it, but I don’t think it will work any more even to accomplish minor reforms, much less to really change the form of society.
Then, when it comes to something really new, planning in this register is worse than worthless. I’m trying to find a good way to say, “take Occupy, for example,” when the point is that there are not “examples” for things that are really new. Consider the alphabet soup of leftist/Marxist groups who went out to Occupy to “teach the kids something” based on their supposedly radical experience–or “revolutionary science.” This approach accomplished nothing other than to demonstrate the irrelevance of this outdated orthodoxy.
Organizational work needs to become something else entirely; at the moment, “the important thing is to be good at learning” (as Mao put it).
When the Bolsheviks participated in the Duma, it was during a time when there was a momentous struggle, within the context of a feudal social structure, to have some sort of parliament in the first place. I remember seeing, back in the day, a small book called “Lenin as election campaign manager.” Looking it up now, I see that it first came out in 1971, and that it’s actually just a 23-page pamphlet. I’m sure there is at least a little bit of Lenin’s brilliance and creativity in these writings, though I can’t imagine that the actual content has anything to do with the political scene in the United States today. More to the present point, however: What a weird time for this pamphlet to have been published in the U.S., 1971, When Nixon and Kissinger were dramatically expanding the war in Southeast Asia, especially into Cambodia and Laos, perpetrating one of the most massive bombing campaigns in world history. Everything that is continually bleated about the “horrors of the Khmer Rouge” (who did in fact take things down a terrible road, of a kind of “race war” and “pure class war”) was subsequent upon this creation of an intensely and massively desperate situation. The reaction to this in the United States was also intense, from “four dead in Ohio” to an extraordinary strike of four million high-school students, and on and on–and what is on offer from supposed Marxists is putting Lenin’s thought to the purpose of getting someone elected? Never mind that this was never going anywhere anyway.
This sort of organizing is of a piece with hope placed in the Democratic Party, that some sort of “real alternative” will emerge within the parameters of the existing system. Any so-called “third party” that works primarily within these parameters will at most achieve an adjunct status to the Democrats–though, in reality, even this has almost no chance of happening. The Zizekian theme of “use your illusion” had, I think, some validity during the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama, though, as usual, all that too many people seemed to draw as a lesson from this thematics is “disillusion,” “disappointment” with Obama, etc. The kind of hope that has been disappointed was the wrong kind to begin with, and building up some organizing strategy around some supposed “alternative” within the electoral arena will go the same way.
We need such a radical change of orientation on this organizational question that I suggest we adopt the slogan, and even more the principle, “Everything we know stands against us.” To be provocative, I would like to suggest that, when Mao said, “Cast off illusion, prepare for struggle” (in August 1949), he was deploying a Buddhist discourse and perspective. To put things very simply, it is not continuity that we need, but instead rupture. The rupture that may become possible in the crackup of the system is one of the coordinates for casting off illusion, but not the most important one. A “true rupture” has to go much further and deeper, to the point where something new can truly appear. The forms of organization proper to such a possibility–which appears as impossible, irrational, and “illegal” (in at least two senses) from the standpoint of the system–will only emerge in a process of wild experimentation, as open as open can be. But again, the precondition for such experimentation, whether in practice or theory, is “casting off illusions,” or to use another Buddhist (especially Zen) expression, “letting go.” To perhaps be even more provocative, in Plato’s version of a story of awakening (the “Allegory of the Cave,” in book 7 of Republic), there is not only a moment of rupture, but also a moment of complete blindness and disorientation. Critical readers differ as to how we understand this moment in Plato–this moment of blindness receives half a sentence in the text–so, what I am saying is something of a leap. However, I will make that leap and say that, without that moment, nothing else is possible.
A perhaps less dramatic way of putting this is that there is no ready-made model for what is needed now. While this absence of a model does not abrogate the need for readiness, preparedness, and organization, it does recast all of these things–but none of this recasting can take place without a radical moment of letting go.
To return to the “readiness” of the working class or the people generally for crisis, then, there are really three points. The first is the one we’ve said already, that we don’t get to choose the crisis. Second, however, crisis is part of what makes people ready–though here is where organization becomes very important. What is perhaps more worth thinking about than has hitherto been done is that the crises of the the present period are under no obligation to follow the models of the past, either.
In lieu of, and perhaps in partial preparation for, “new, effective forms of organization” (as Jacques Derrida put it in Specters of Marx), Badiou argues that “sometimes it is necessary to make demands upon the state.” This, however, is not a prescription for reformism, in the sense of thinking one can enter into negotiations with ruling class power. It is in the latter domain where the illusions of electoral politics find their–also illusionary–home. In academia we know this type well, it’s the undergraduate political science major, quite often a white guy who belongs to one of the usual fraternities, who talks large, as if giving advice to the powerful. Meanwhile, the real sons of power are generally busy with snorting coke and carousing with the prostitutes their parents provide as part of a good Yale/Skulls education.
What Badiou is referring to is not a negotiation, it is precisely a demand: “Get out of Vietnam,” “Recognize that the existence of the sans papiers cannot be denied,” and so on. The ultimate demand, to be sure, requires much more: “U.S. out of North America,” imperialism out of this planet. What does not help in the midst of these just demands is the sort of “organization” and “planning” that is predicated not upon these demands, but instead upon the requirements of the existing system. The exception might be something that really does press the logic of the existing system to the breaking point, and that points very clearly to the fundamental injustice of this logic–an outstanding example is reparations for the labor and lives stolen from enslaved Africans. But this kind of demand and thematics–something more broad than what is captured by the term, “strategy”–is not any kind of “transitional program” or attempt to acquire a place at the table. And, again, these latter sorts of things never go anywhere anyway. Another version of the slogan, then: “Nothing we know helps us.”
This goes too even for the Leninist model; we need not “abandon Lenin,” especially at his most rigorous and creative, and we need not turn traitor to the socialist experience of the twentieth century, in order to recognize that the party-state model has had its day–and that day is over. However humanity deals with the “ultimate demand” in future, the path of relegating the “withering of the state” to the realm of a pure discourse applicable only to an unimaginable future, while, in practice, overturning a quasi-feudal state only to create a quasi-modern, fantastical super-state, is an exhausted path, to say the very least.
To discuss “Lenin as campaign manager” in this context only serves to show how silly it is to accept establishment definitions of “politics.” The actual Lenin was never so puny, in that the engagement of the Bolsheviks with the Duma occurred at the point in Russian history when, as with the Voting Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, something on the order of a revolutionary struggle had to be waged for what are essentially bourgeois institutions and bourgeois rights. It is not hard to see the basis for thinking that struggles of this sort are still to be completed, or that history has been rolled back to an earlier point and things previously accomplished have to be accomplished again (the Voting Rights Act being a case in point). Certainly, more discussion and investigation is needed on this point, and I don’t mean simply to be dismissive; even so, to embrace such a perspective is, I think, a trap–by now (which is in fact not then), a well-laid trap at that.
However, this is where a third element of the question of crisis comes into play. The first two elements are: 1) the people (and the ruling class) do not get to choose when or how crisis occurs; 2) crisis is part of what makes people ready for real change. (There is something else that needs discussion here, namely how the ruling class can maneuver such that different sections and strata of the people are manipulated to perceive crisis differently; there is much to think about here regarding Trump and the working class.) The third element is that every real weakening of the U.S. ruling class, every real crisis for this class, can open up possibilities for people in other countries where the United States exercises power or is “the power behind the power.”
Here again organization and leadership is crucial, and the unfortunate thing is that we are in a period in which far too much popular leadership has a reactionary-nationalist and “feudal restorative” character–this latter referring especially to the “ideal” of restoring some supposed Islamic utopia from centuries past.
And yet there is cause here for more than regret and gnashing of teeth, for in the great majority of countries in the world, and not only in the countries that are dominated by imperialism. (Of imperialist countries, Japan is especially ripe for and needful of the changes I’m trying to indicate here.) There is an immense revolution under the surface, but, recalling the title of an essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from more than thirty years ago, we are in the land of “revolutions that as yet have no model.” This is actually a good land to be in!
Perhaps this immense revolution can be well understood in terms of a negative example. There is much to learn, both good and bad, from the wave of revolts generally called the “Arab Spring.” Just focusing on Egypt and the scene around Tahrir Square in Cairo, it is well-documented that things there were in general very bad for women, and this is to put it lightly. The way that women were treated there, by men who supposedly were trying to make a revolution, was wrong, very wrong, this is just to state the obvious–but beyond this, what we see is that, if women are not fully a part of a revolution, and if overturning patriarchy is not a full and significant part of the revolution, then there is no revolution. This is true everywhere, but perhaps it is even more true in some places than others.
This does have to do with class, but in a way that has not yet seized the popular imagination–despite many years, by now, of tremendous research and theory in this field, in the political economy of women and feminist theory. (This can be hard to see at the moment, when too much of the latter field has gotten caught up in a narrow, identity politics. One recent indication of this narrowing is the almost bizarre obsession with “cis-males” in academic circles, as if bro-dudes are the real problem and the real enemy.) That this work has not become the “material force” (as Marx put it) in any way approaching the magnitude of energy that is under the surface is something that needs further thought.
(As another provocation, somewhat tangential to the above, but perhaps worth considering in the present context, one could say that the excellent distinction coined by Benjamin Barber twenty years ago, “Jihad vs McWorld,” has sprouted a branch that can be called “ISIS vs Trump.”)
There is a great deal more to say about what unleashes energy for real, emancipatory politics, much more than can be said here, but whatever is required for this kind of political preparation and organization, it has nothing to do with electoral politics, Lenin as campaign manager, or the fantasies of Hillary-Democrats, Bernie-Democrats, or even many other socialist groups that are working for some “candidate” whose impact will be less than zero. Electoral politics just looks puny and silly when set against the immensity of what is uncounted in the present situation, the “nothing” that could become everything. The best we can hope for from the electoral arena are indications of crackup, indications that the ruling class, or at least sections of it, are on some kind of precipice. In the context of this circumstance, job number one for any truly emancipatory politics is to help the ruling class find that precipice and to make their way over it. If there is anything, anything at all, going on in the electoral arena that helps with that, then of course we should engage with it; however, helping the ruling class with its charade of “democracy” is not at all one of these things.
Assuming that I understand what Prof. Anshen means by “electoralism” correctly, I think he is right to indicate that it is the other side of the coin from at least many versions of anarchism. Lenin made this point in What Is to Be Done and elsewhere, that reformism and anarchism share the characteristic of bypassing the masses. In either case, these are expressions of frustration, and such expressions are especially tempting when one is in a “non-revolutionary situation.” Some of my analysis here may seem to have flipped over into anarchist positions. Of course I am open to further discussion on this point. However, while I’m not averse to learning from anarchist theory and practice, I think there is something else going on–and the name I give to it is “postmodern capitalism.” As for how long we have been in this “half-stage of imperialism,” as I called it in “Bring on the crackup,” I would say since the early 1970s. I don’t know if Prof. Anshen would accept this as being “quite some time.”
Among the many things that are remarkable about this time is that it coincides with a militantly reactionary anti-Sixties thrust, one that continues until today. This is no mere coincidence. At the same time, postmodern capitalism is not merely “reactionary,” it is moving on to other developments. The problem is, too many of us who were formed by or take inspiration from the Sixties have not moved on. The same could be said about knowing something about Marx or Marxism–or Lenin, or Mao, or even Trotsky, for that matter. In conclusion, I would like to make a brief comment about this in terms of Badiou’s philosophy.
A useful text from Badiou, in terms of discussing the idea of postmodern capitalism, is The Meaning of Sarkozy. In general, Badiou seems ambivalent about the term “postmodern capitalism,” but in Sarkozy, he uses it in connection with what he calls an “interval.” In my own work, I have used the term “impasse”; in a couple of books I wrote more than twenty years ago (Humanism and its Aftermath, 1995, and Politics in the impasse, 1996), and I used lines from two great poets as epigraphs:
Society waits unformed and is for a while between things ended and things begun.
Nothing can save us that is possible.
–W. H. Auden
The question might be whether the structure of this “in-between” moment is generally the same. In some ways, though he uses the term”communism” rather than a “Marxism,” Badiou has a view not unlike more orthodox Marxists; as the song goes, “the fundamental things apply.” The idea is that the basic underlying workings of the system remain the same, whatever veneer the system wears (fascist, democratic, postmodern, etc.), and that none of this matters anyway. The continual bad/horrible stuff that happens during “non-revolutionary times” is perhaps a matter of exposure (more orthodox Marxism) or a general schema concerning how there is always that which is uncounted in the existing situation (Badiou), but as for specifics in the “veneer,” particularities that might guide the theory and practice of the alternative, there really isn’t anything to worry about.
So, Badiou argues that we are at present in an interval, and though he recognizes the anti-Sixties (specifically, the Paris Sixties) elements of the Sarkozy administration (which is now over, of course), he does not devote much attention to the particularities of this interval, other than that capitalism digs an ever-deeper hole.
(Incidentally, despite having studied French philosophy for a long time, it was only with the public discussions of the romantic involvements of François Hollande that I learned that an affair in France is sometimes called an “interval.” At the moment I have no brilliant analogies or comparisons to make.)
The idea that there is no point in understanding the shape of the hole that capitalism keeps digging humanity into reminds me of ideas in both Heidegger and Buddhism. In the former, what is essential about the modern world is the mechanization of the world picture (in the Heideggerian view, Marx contributes too much to this mechanization, though he is also right to see the quantification of everything in commodity-production), and “political” stages in this mechanization are not a question worth getting into. In Buddhism, the question is one of the illusions and delusions that people are caught up in, all of them being somewhat like addictive habits and having something of equality in being such. Here, though, there is a basis for critique (as there is in Heidegger, and I don’t think this necessarily has to be a “conservative” critique); the core of delusion is the delusion of a permanent self in the midst of a world that we desperately wish to be permanent as well.
In all cases, though, there are reasons to go further with investigation into what is systemic about the uncounted, the mechanization/quantification of everything, and illusions of permanence and the attendant “manic grasping” approach to life and the world. There are reasons to go beyond “the fundamental things apply.” Some of my work in the last while has been dedicated to showing that there are some commonalities in Buddhism, Badiou, and Maoism, about the moment of “letting go.” Of course there are many Marxists, communists, socialists, or what-have-you for whom this won’t mean anything, at least in terms of the names I’ve mentioned; even so, perhaps we can all understand that there has to be that moment when the masses in very significant numbers simple let go of any sense that the world as it presently exists can solve the fundamental problems that face humanity. But how does such a “letting go” develop on a mass scale? The point is that it does not exactly “develop,” it happens–or it doesn’t happen.
(Marxists of whatever type, or “socialists” or “progressives,” for whom this sort of thing doesn’t mean anything–I would suggest that they are, at best, stuck in a bygone era.)
uite apart from how this letting go happens (and there is no “one way” that it is determined to happen), there are the many ways in which contemporary social configurations are set against this letting go, through myriad strands of attachment. Again, I would point to the “accelerated” and “manic” character of attachment and grasping as characteristic of much of our world today, and as definitive of postmodern capitalism. In a 1985 essay, Gayatri Spivak argued that the full electronification of the New York Stock Exchange (and other exchanges, American and otherwise) in 1972 is the beginning of postmodernism. This is an oversimplification, but Spivak demonstrates effectively, citing Georg Simmel, that time itself is sped up and spatialized when the transfer of money is sped up. Frederic Jameson makes similar arguments in Postmodernism and The Seeds of Time, arguing that one of the main aspects of a postmodern society is the “loss of affect.” This itself is a qualitative transformation of what Simmel called the “blase attitude.” In my own work, I have characterized this phenomena as a kind of “alienation even from one’s own alienation,” and a state of society in which cynicism is the dominant ideology.
As crazy-complicated as the world is today–and much of this complication seems only for its own sake, though in reality it is so you will have to pay again to be able to do something you were already able to do–there are some very simple questions that can cut to the heart of the problem. Most directly: In this acceleration and pointless complexity, is there something like a transformation of quantity to quality, such that it can be said that we are in a new stage of things? The test of this is, Do those of us who dream of and work for a world fundamentally different from the one we have now need to take account of these things in our work, in our theory and practice? So, here are some other ways to put this question simply. Marx said that, “When the inner connections are grasped, theory becomes a material force.” If this was true when Marx said it, is it really true now? If it is in some very broad sense true now, is it true in a quite different way? Or, to put things in a Buddhist register again, the same register that Mao invoked when he said (just before the “final push” in August-September 1949), “Cast off illusions, prepare for struggle!”, what is the meaning of “letting go,” or of “impermanence,” when most people are now used to things changing so fast they can’t possibly keep track of most of the changes? What is the meaning of illusion and delusion when we are not only living in Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, but when the spectacle has taken quantum leaps since Debord first published his important little book in 1967?
Where Badiou comes back into this discussion, in a way that is profound but that requires much more study, is that the ground is shifted from consciousness (in its development in Marx, Lenin, Lukacs, Adorno, and Sartre, especially) to thought–and, in the shift from epistemology to ontology, and, indeed, to mathematics, thought opens to the axioms of the void and the infinite. All of this is very technical and difficult, of course, and I mainly mention this work here to indicate once again the enormity of the qualitative changes that are needed.
However, again, I also mention these things to indicate that there are many reasons to understand the shape and depth of the hole we’re in.
To return to where the first part of this essay left off, Badiou says that we need a “new discipline of politics.” Badiou has tended to be very critical of anarchist or quasi-anarchist currents, some of which he terms the “anarcho-desirers.” I mentioned Guy Debord, who most readers will know was one of the principal figures among the Situationists. In the U.S. we had Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies (the Youth International Party), who were quite a bit less “theoretical,” but in both cases there were some really great moments of hilarity. In this respect I also recall Alexander Cockburn’s citation some years ago of Hannah Arendt’s term, “political happiness.” Of course we need discipline, we need to be serious, but we also need to find forms of organization that give free play to the fun that we should be having.
Meanwhile, Trump is already there. In his initial response to the Trump candidacy, CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair wrote the following:
I doubt Trump has read a paragraph by Guy Debord, even by accident, but his presidential campaign would thrill the Situationists. Trump for President is the Greatest Spectacle on Earth—or at least on Fox News. Who else has shredded Roger Ailes on his own network? What other Republican has defended single-payer health care? Derided Citizens’ United? Inveighed against global trade pacts? Denounced the Iraq War as an act of unparalleled stupidity? Aggressively pushed a progressive taxation model? It’s as if Trump has stepped right off the pages of Ralph Nader’s Dickensian romp of a novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!
Or, there is a season, detourne, detourne.
Okay, perhaps that’s a little too cute and flip; on the other hand, Trump’s own experiments with detournement demonstrate well enough that we are indeed in the postmodern quasi-phase of capitalism, and that we need new forms of organization and activism.