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The Left Has Better Things to Do Than Watch Liberals Scratch Their Heads

I’m painting my house. First, I had to strip it.  I started months ago, hit some snags -not really part of this story, except now they have me scurrying to beat the rain. And I’ve been reading David Harvey essays in my down-time.  So, excavating layers of siding, caulk, and worn shingles (held aloft by five shades of lead paint) has been a field-study in creative-destruction.

The house is a product of WWII.  War grew Portland, mostly drawing workers to the Kaiser Shipyards.  The house came right after, as America briefly pulled its focus off war-industries.  It passed to us six years ago from a Realtor.  I suspect it passed to him the same way my prior home in Philadelphia passed to the Realtor in 2008: as the product of another war.  Fascists won that round.  (I digress.)

Initially it was covered in cedar from Oregon’s booming timber industry, then routinely coated with lead paint.  Until the 70s, when they stopped adding it (there are no non-lead layers).  It was then sided-over.  Before now, it’s toxic under-layers were hid below an also-toxic vinyl shell -aptly- since the Reagan Administration.

True to their capitalist roots, each layer was progress going on, and poison coming off.  I wish this was an account of how I neutralized the (house’, if not capitalism’s) toxic cycle.  But the opposite is true.  There’s a lot of debris, and I don’t trust Waste Managementwith anything, but that’s likely where its destined.  (Portland ranks as one of America’s most-progressive cities, yet we have corporate -rather than municipal- waste out of Las Vegas.)

Sherman-Williams has this remarkably-poignant sign over it.  The invisible hand is water-boarding planet Earth with a pale of what looks like blood, next to the caption: ‘Cover Your World™’. The picture tells me we’re drowning already, and pouring more means certain death.  But scratching my head for options and pressed for time, I bought some, aware that, even if I don’t kill us outright, I’m just covering Reagan up with Trump.

The Ways of the World assembles clips of Harvey’s broader works to illustrate how the relative aims of production, distribution, and consumption butt heads (highway through the yard, etc.) to produce their own grave-diggers, plus a lot of confusion on the grave-diggers’ parts.  That’s still far too broad in scope to summarize here.  So, against the book’s overall thrust, I’ll isolate one point.

Much of the book glosses his early findings on (what we now call) neoliberalism.  Harvey underscores how mid-70s shifts in how capital operated were (then) considered emancipatory by many on the Left(!), even though the shifts were deployed against the working-class.  And these were gathering -loosely- as Post-modernism.  Chapter 5 (Time-Space Compression and the Postmodern Conditiondeals with Jean Baudrilliard’s highly-influential claim that since the nucleus of capitalism had shifted from the production of goods to the production of ‘signs’, Marxism can’t sufficiently explain it.  Harvey counters, noting that, even if signs don’t require the same man-hours as fixed objects, how they circulate, where they accumulate, and who they serve, at least conforms to the patterns of capital, itself.  -Hence, they’re still clearest through a Marxist lens.

Harvey does admit the shift has addled the Left.  But due to its speed, not intangency.  More than anything, signs belie capitalism’s need for expansion.  New modes arise as former ones hit limits of production, distribution, and consumption.  For instance, selling more-and-more cans of paint requires building more-and-more detached homes, and both demand more-and-more traffic lanes.  Hence, inevitably, shortening the distance also makes it longer.  Eventually further increments don’t pay out, and the whole base shifts.  This affects what capitalism produces as much as how it does it.  This can turn whole cities into ghettos, like Detroit when Fordist, vertical-integration surrendered to the vertical-disintegration driving neoliberalism. And sometimes it makes ghettos of whole ideas.

Question is, is that what’s happening now?  Is neoliberalism capitulating to neo-fascism?  Is, as a matter of creative-destruction, democracy going by the way side?  Or are we just pouring a new color over the old one?  Leaving aside that Trump adds something far worse than lead to his red, white, and blue concoction.

Like with Detroit, liberal-democracy’s not gone.  Just, instead of a regenerative community, it’s been parted-out to slum-lords.  Feels like that’s what’s happening. The democrats have sailed on, and the slum-lords are mining the wreckage.  Literally a slum-lord in Trump’s case.

But as I paint, the news is (still) all about him.  And Bolsonaro, and Brexit, and half the leaders of Europe.  Modi, in India, just built the world’s tallest homage to self-rule by way of forced relocation. Here, somehow praying for a ‘blue wave’ didn’t exactly fix things.  In all, Liberals are scratching their heads over why democracy has turned against itself.

They shouldn’t be. After all, liberal-democracy -according to their own matrix, rests on capitalism, and capitalism is a particularly-modular system.  Over which democracy is the thinnest of veneers.  And of which, like my house, time paints in so many different colors that you probably can’t say which it really is, nor trust its variations. (I mean, from slavery on through the current fire sale we’ve been a ‘democracy’.) In other words, it’s not simply vulnerable to the creative/destructive process, but–like all capitalist production–relies on it, if it’s to remain at all part of capitalism.  Of course, it has a life-force outside of capitalism. But that’s not what they’re mourning.

The ‘democracy’ liberals pine for is a Baudrillardian strain; a near-seamless image, but with an exchange-value quite void of the labor-value of democracy.  No wonder, panicking about it hasn’t exactly rattled Trump’s walls. On the contrary, it’s made room for Trump and his like to call their own equally-vacuous signage, ‘democracy’.  Of course, both are in a race to funnel power to the very top, the liberals to get a corporate pat on the head, and Trump, I assume, just to be a dick.

That part, Trump seems to be winning.  But it’s important to remind ourselves, killing a simulation of democracy isn’t really killing democracy.  Recognizing that isn’t much.  But it’s the first step.  Ergo, I sense in Ways…an important attempt to refocus us, now, as capitalism may again be changing clothes.

Both Harvey and Baudrillard saw how break-neck speed would make resistance increasingly difficult.  (Openly-paradoxical calls to protect democracy from ‘fake news’ by policing the web, for example, attest to our confusion.)  And both predicted capitalism’s virtually-instant domination of time and space would engender a retreat (then, on the Left) toward local identity, as a matter of resistance.  No surprise, this helped capitalism instead, since differentiation meant more it could feed on.  (Capitalism is not particular about its diet.)  If there’s an upside, as it did an exemplary job consuming everything from punk rock to backyard chickens, likely it will gnaw through MAGA the same way.

There’s a community hard at work re-purposing discarded parts of Detroit, sans capitalism.  It won’t be great again, but with enough effort, it could be for the first time.  Democracy is a little farther off, but we can learn from them and expand.

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