Archive for September, 2020

The Death of the Old Republic

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2020 by Magadh

Communique #1 from the Kommando Rudi Dutschke:


The Death of the Republic

The old republic is dead. It was always problematic and ever the subject of brutal criticism from the left (most of it justified) as well as from the right (most of it psychotic). It is a sign of exactly how tenuous its condition has been that the expiration of one elderly Supreme Court justice has cleared a path for a coup detat that can be accomplished within the bounds of strict bourgeois legality.

The republic has been moribund for years. The election of Bill Clinton, a man utterly devoid of any discernable political principle (other than the satisfaction of his own thanotropic desires) was the moment at which the political public sphere in the United States was transformed from an arena of ideological competition among political elites to an encounter between political spectacles generated by factions of the same class.

Arguably, the current circumstances are the result of a thoroughgoing lack of imagination. Among Republicans, a large proportion have long been prepared to countenance a shift in the state along the lines of the effected by Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851. Better that than to continue to have to bear the blunt upbradings and bitter scoffs of non-whites and LGBTQ+ people demanding their rights, or the milquetoast liberals acting as their proxies.

The novelty term that Mr. Trump has brought to the equation is not the substance of these views but the recognition that the path to realizing them lay open for any with the will and imagination to behave as if the tradition and nostrums of American politics did not matter. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Mr. Trump, abetted by Senator McConnell and his merry band of neoliberal revolutionaries, merely managed to accomplish via shameless arrogance what any Republic president since Eisenhower would have done with sufficient cheek. Even George W. Bush, a human nullity amounting to a ventriloquist’s prop for oil and gas interests lacked (pace the imaginings of the tin foil hat brigade) the raw capacity for fantasy to make 9/11 the basis for an actual Staatsstreich.

The left has lacked imagination as well, if in rather a different key. Those in the spectrum running from dead center to center-left of the political spectrum shared with their opponents on the right the failure to conceive of the prospect of airliners transformed into weapons and the deaths of thousands as political theater (although it had been prefigured in literature and elsewhere). But their true failure was in their inability to recognize that their opponents viewed the institutions of the republic as simply a matter of convenience (or inconvenience).

As an institution, the modern Democratic Party exists as an institution for soliciting money from the wealthy and exchanging is for political representation. The advent of the internet changed the equation somewhat, in the sense that it facilitated soaking donors further down the income distribution, but that didn’t change the party’s self-conception as an institution that solicits money from the rich and looks after their influence.

With the exception of a few cockeyed idealists, the modern Democratic Party has been populated by people comfortable with this way of doing things. The fragments of social liberalism leftover from the New Deal receive the occasional nod, generally at times when keeping the more marginalized segments of the party’s voter base onside. But, as with parties of the center-left in the Atlantic world generally, this is invariably performative rather than actual.

The paradigmatic case is that of Blair’s New Labour which made clear its move away from its base in the labor movement by telling the British trade unions that they would do nothing for them, but that, on balance, New Labour would be less pernicious to their interests than the Tories. In the case of the Democrats, blacks, Latinos, women, and LGBTQ+ people can be seamlessly substituted, with a few pious hymns to the dignity of the oppressed added on for decoration.

The great mistake of the Democratic Party was their belief that they and the Republicans were playing the same game. But the colonization of the party by elements of the revolutionary right in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 changed the nature of the game being played. The Democrats remained blissfully unaware that this was the case until the election of Donald Trump in 2016, at which point at least some in the upper echelons of the party began to realize that Trump extreme right-wing populism was a feature, not a bug.

Through all of this, the left has vegetation, losing the impetus generated by the radicalism of the 1960s. The fragmentation of the 1970s, a result of the failure of the anti-capitalist left the integrate the critique of race and gender oppression into the existing analysis of class domination, generated new avenues for agitation and should have resulted in an enrichment of the organizational and theoretical tools of anticapitalist struggle. In the event, the history of left in the last forty years has been a garbage fire, fueled by the hypertrophy of self-indulgent narcissism.

This too has involved failures of imagination. The utopian thrust of the movements of the 1960s has dissipated, leaving behind a residue combining renunciation of utopian thought and self-defeating maximalism. In part, this was the result of a failure to overcome the hangover of the Bolshevik revolution. As Paul Mason wrote in Postcapitalism:

“In the old socialist project, the state takes over the market, runs it in favor of the poor instead of the rich, then moves key areas of production out of the market and into a planned economy. The one time it was tried, in Russia after 1917, it didn’t work. Whether it could have worked is a good question, but a dead one.”

The story of the left in the last four decades has been shaped by two catastrophic failures. The first, alluded to above, is the failure to articulate a utopian vision with mass appeal. This project was made more difficult by the existence of manifold images of the drab, dreary everyday of actually existing socialism. But there has also been a blindness to the fact that the target audience for left utopias simply isn’t interested in the role of self-denying saints. There has, in recent times, been some movement toward presenting ideal worlds that someone outside an Occupy camp or a monastery might want to live in (Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism being an apposite example), but this arrived relatively late in the story, and the prospects for it (or any other leftist utopia) are grim indeed.

The second failure of the left was one of tactics. The coin of the realm (so to speak) of anti-capitalist agitation has been the formation of mass movements comprising those subjected to exploitation for the extraction of surplus-value. As time went on, new groups were added to the pool of those systemically marginalized, including non-whites, LGBTQ+ people, women, students, etc. But even as this pool has grown, and even as wealth has increasingly been concentrated at the upper end of the income distribution, the achievement of solidary mass movements of the left has proved elusive.

Those focused on the traditional class-based politics of the left have tended to see the fault as lying with others whose pursuit of identity-based political solidarities of have detracted from the struggle against capitalism, which they view as preeminent. But the fault lies as much or more with the traditional class-oriented left itself, which has persistently minimized the relative importance of oppression on the basis of race and gender, rather than striving proactively integrate these critical perspectives into the struggle against capitalism.

Perhaps other bases for the lack of leftist solidarity might be adduced, but the fact of the matter is that mass-based organization against capitalism remains an aspiration rather than a fact. In the absence of such a movement (or in the course of its construction), alternative tactics become necessary. The left is not in a position to fight a war of movement. What are the characteristics of the war of position that need has chosen?

In 1967, Rudi Dutschke wrote of the need for the left to undertake a “long march through the institutions.” This is a lesson that the right has learned far better. One of the most crucial foundations of the hegemonic position of the rightwing imaginary in the political public sphere in North America has been the colonization of institutions of the locality, the county, and the state by forces of the far right. This was undertaken on the basis of an explicit strategy to obtain molecular control of institutions at the national level. Dominance at the level of ideas has followed as a not unintended consequence.

Rather than a long march through the institutions, the left has undertaken a long march through the bedroom, the coffee shop, and the protest camp. These are not without value as sites of struggle, but they contribute little to the formation of counter-hegemonic forces. Divorced from power embodied in institutions, critiques of social norms and economic injustice appear as marginal eddies in the flow of spectacular projection.

In recent months, African Americans and others have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. That is as it should be. Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured man has to scream. But protest in the streets has limited potential for transforming systems of oppression without extensive and systematic organizing.

The idea that street protest can create change is a liberal holdover from that brief moment in the post-New Deal era when the Democratic Party was working to amalgamate the support of the African Americans and lower- and middle-class whites. But the effectiveness of the street protests was, in fact, a function of the residuum of the progressivism of the 1930s, synergizing with the fear that actually existing socialism might gain some kind of traction among those subjected to the surplus repression of the American racial state.

Those conditions no longer obtain. In the current circumstances, the solidarity building aspect of street protests is offset to a great extent by the inscription of veneration for the forces of order in the white racial imaginary. Building support, especially by using demonstrations as a means to illustrate the brutality of the police at the same time tends to convince suburban whites and those who idolize them that a wave of black racist anarchy is washing over the country, aiming to seize their property and violate white womanhood. That fact that this is a paranoid fantasy does not make its effects any less profound.