The Contemporary Condition

Friday, January 23, 2015

Sea of Blue

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Rafael Ramos’s December 27 funeral in Queens drew an estimated twenty to thirty thousand police officers—not only from the United States but also from abroad. Commissioner William J. Bratton referred to it as a sea of blue, and print and broadcast media across America followed suit. The image was no doubt meant to be awe-inspiring to the public at large, calming and reassuring to Ramos’s family. The image also signaled something else: a police show of force, an excessive, narcissistic show of force. Mourning rituals have a politics all their own. The police gathered in huge numbers to display solidarity—for Ramos and his family, for each other, for the very idea of police. They gathered to let the world know that the police own New York City and that they are different, that blue lives matter most because what they do is different from what anybody else does. That’s why Ramos was not just murdered but assassinated. He was assassinated because he was blue. This, according to Bratton, makes him a hero.
 
Bratton’s eulogy not only paid tribute to Ramos, then, it was also an exercise in institutional self-assertion. Bratton does not conceive of the police as a subordinate element of society, as an instrument of democracy that executes necessary assignments related to the coordination and cooperation of society, while the mainsprings of democratic life unfold elsewhere. He thinks of the police as the “foundation” of society. The police are “the blue thread” that holds things together in the face of anarchical forces that might otherwise tear them apart. The police are the condition of possibility of everything. That’s why there were twenty to thirty thousand cops in Queens. They wanted the rest of us, mere civilians, to know their place in the order of things.

Bratton, not surprisingly, holds politics in contempt. Early on in his eulogy, he told a short story about his first police funeral. It took place in Boston in 1970. Patrolman Walter Schroeder had been killed responding to a bank robbery. Bratton reminded his audience that America suffered from a great deal of tumult in 1970. He cited civil rights protests, anti-war activism, and anti-government and anti-police demonstrations. He cited “divisive politics” and a “polarized …city…and country.” “Maybe that sounds familiar,” Bratton remarked, as if to suggest that the conduct of democratic politics, especially an oppositional politics, leads invariably to violence. Bratton didn’t come right out and say it, of course, but he didn’t need to say it. He let his list of happenings cited do the work for him. Schroeder was “ambushed by a violent group of anti-war extremists.” Besides, he’d been more explicit a few days earlier—and received criticism for it. At the funeral he needed to be more circumspect. But make no mistake: politics killed Rafael Ramos and those who were—and remain—on the streets protesting the police are responsible. While Bratton ostensibly laments that people in America can’t see each other, he’s one of the reasons. His fear and loathing of democratic politics (and the citizens who enact it) as something illicit, something dangerous, something to be monitored, contained, cordoned off, administered, and sanitized contributes to the blindness.

Politics by the police themselves fall into a different category. At Ramos’s funeral, a sizeable number of attendees turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio when he spoke. It was a blatant display of contempt for the democratic figure who is also their boss. Civilian control of those who wear government uniforms and carry guns is a fundamental principle of democracy. It applies not just to the military but also to the police, who apparently like to think that they don’t have to answer to anyone. Ironically, in the aftermath of this protest, when its propriety was questioned, the grievance surfaced that police suffer from a lack of respect. This may or may not be true, but it misses a larger and more important point. What the police don’t seem to appreciate is that while they are a significant aspect of a democratic society, they are not an inherently valuable part of that society. They are a necessary evil, to borrow a well-known American expression about government. In other words, if we could do without the police we would gladly dispense with them. This is not true of other major institutions in American life, however, including one that police traditionally disparage: colleges and universities. Colleges and universities embody and enact (many of) the fundamental values of a democratic society. They are an end in and of themselves. The contributions they make are priceless and irreplaceable and we cannot—and would not want to—do without them.
What’s more, the police often present themselves as antagonistic to and destructive of the basic norms of democracy. This includes New York’s finest, who in recent years have racked up credit for herding, surveilling, and assaulting democratic citizens exercising their rights at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and attacking, dispersing, and destroying Occupy Wall Street encampments in 2011 (the latter formed part of a national campaign). In addition, they routinely erupt at even the slightest criticism, to say nothing of serious critique. Think of the venom top police officials unleashed at Bruce Springsteen in the wake of “American Skin (41 Shots).” If the police feel disrespected, perhaps that’s what they have earned, given how they represent and do the dirty work of society’s powerful interests or how they (mis)treat American citizens of color.
Last summer, Eric Garner was murdered by New York City police on Staten Island. He was black. These facts are connected. No charges were filed against those responsible, including the principal assailant, Daniel Pantaleo. In America, we have learned it’s nearly impossible to indict police for murdering American citizens, even when they do it repeatedly. In the last few years New York police have had several opportunities to prove to a skeptical public that they are not an institution with an intrinsically problematic relationship to democracy, that they take seriously the claim that their job is to serve and protect, that they understand that the foundation of America’s democracy is freedom—and thus politics. They could have refused to move against their fellow citizens in Zuccotti Park. Instead, they might have engaged in democratic civil disobedience to defend the rights of the people themselves, supposedly the ultimate objects of their concern. They might also have attended Eric Garner’s funeral. Where was the sea of blue for Mr. Garner? His execution represents a criminal failure of policing—not just in New York City but America (which holds true for Michael Brown and so many others). Why were the police not there en masse to take responsibility for their failure and to mourn his loss, because he, too, was one of their own?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Social Equality and the Afterlife of White Supremacy

Melvin L. Rogers
Associate Professor, Departments of Political Science and African American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

“A society once expressly organized around white supremacist principles does not cease to be a white supremacist society simply by formally rejecting those principles.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw

The United States has witnessed an eruption of youth-led protests and demonstrations to police brutality against Black Americans. A simple formulation expresses their commitment: “Black Lives Matter.” But how precisely should we understand this utterance? What does it mean to convey? And what, if anything, does it tell us about the country in which it is uttered?


At a basic level, the formulation means precisely what it says, Black lives matter as much as all other lives. And yet the need to say these words tells us something important. The United States is structured so as to make clear that Black lives do not matter in the same way that other lives do. These three simple words highlight a fundamental distinction at the core of American life: the lives of Black Americans are devalued in relation to their white counterparts. White supremacy continues to distort America’s professed commitment to social equality. The racially fueled contexts in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others have been killed throws into sharp relief, yet again, the way in which the past continues to haunt the present. We are not merely dealing with police officers that can kill with impunity, but with law enforcement agencies whose practices are framed by habits that treat whites as worthy of being served and protected, while Blacks are exempt from that same treatment.

I must immediately beg forgiveness.  I hear the critics say: “White supremacy, you say, but surely this is a misdescription?  Slavery has long since ended. Laws and statutes banished Jim Crow. Rights have been formally extended. We now have Black Americans in prominent positions of authority and power. The language of white supremacy appears to be inappropriate. The United States has changed.”

The problem with the criticism above is that it treats those practices—slavery, Jim Crow, and formal exclusion—as equal to white supremacy. With slavery ended, Jim Crow abolished, and rights extended, we can safely say white supremacy is no longer. But this confuses the matter. It treats specific instances of white supremacy as tantamount to its meaning.


And yet we have seen, since the founding of this country, that white supremacy refuses to be confined to any specific practice. It mutates, adapts, and evolves to frustrate efforts to see Black Americans as equals, finding a new life after the death of each of its recognizable forms. Consider the history. In the wake of Black Americans’ participation in the American Revolution, this nation witnessed a slow denial of their standing and contribution to the polity. As Alexander Keyssar documents in his magisterial book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Northern states such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania slowly began to rescind rights previously extended to Blacks, effectively joining their Southern counterparts in constructing a subclass of persons. Although the Civil War amendments sought to recognize the equal status of Blacks, that recognition was effectively denied by the ascendancy of debt peonage, economic exploitation, lynching, and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement killed Jim Crow, but the policing and subordination of Blacks was reconstituted through the rise of the carceral state [PDF], the underdeveloped welfare state, and unfunded public education system


To be sure, throughout each of these periods we have witnessed a positive, even if uneven, rearrangement of our political institutions, but those advances have been contained and constrained by a persistent and stable social inequality in which care and concern for Black Americans has been insufficiently extended. In paying exclusive attention to political equality as an indicator of racial advancements, we have ignored the social differential status of Blacks and the way in which that differential status highlights the afterlife of white supremacy. The recent police shootings of unarmed Black men that go unpunished are merely the visible display of a culture in which Back life is devalued and overexposed to violence. 



Although social equality is related to political equality, they are distinct. The latter is related to constitutional and legal rights and procedures that structure the basic institutions of society. Political equality thus gives all equal access to participate in the affairs of the state by granting specific rights, such as, the right to vote, contest elections, and speak out against the government. Political equality is essentially a defense against the abuses of others. Each historical extension of rights to Black Americans resulted because they were defenseless against their white counterparts. In this context, political equality assumes that there are persons from whom Black Americans need to be protected. Notice it leaves in place the danger; it takes that danger as a settled fact of being Black in America.

Despite their significance, political rights pale in comparison to the deeper acknowledgement that social equality represents— the sense that one is deserving of respect and concern. Respect is a way of paying proper attention to someone and is fundamentally relational. It acknowledges that one is worthy of recognition. Concern expresses one’s own anxieties about something, as in, “the appearance of the roof on the house concerns me.” But it also denotes something of significance for which one is responsible, as in, “homelessness is the concern of the city.”  

Herein lies the important difference between political equality and social equality. Whereas political equality protects us from being harmed by others, social equality is always about paying attention to, feeling for, and directing care toward persons. This is precisely what the “Black Lives Matter” mantra seeks to capture. And yet it is the extension of social equality that white supremacy prevents precisely because its logic refuses to equalize the fundamental worth of Black and white life. As we have seen in the recent death of Michael Brown, to take one example, the consequence of this differential worth can be fatal.  White supremacy has remained steady throughout all of the presumed advances, it explains not only the differential functioning of law enforcement in the United States, but the inequalities in education, health care, and economic opportunities that place Black Americans beyond the reach of respect and concern.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Zombie Syndrome

William E. Connolly 
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, Democratic Activism. 
So, you go to college. Or send your kid to college. You get married and pledge to support each other in sickness and in health. You have a baby. You buy a house by the shore with a thirty year mortgage. You plan for retirement, sacrificing a portion of current income to do so. You invest in a well-rounded portfolio. You take a job, to climb the career ladder it makes available. You replace the roof on your house. You play basketball in college, hoping to become an NBA player or a coach. You write a new book with an eye-catching cover. 

  As you proceed lobbyists pursue legislation to make inattentive taxpayers support and subsidize financial speculation. A new consulting firm is launched. A neighborhood association allows only roof replacements designed to last a hundred years or more. A church or temple is built out of marble by parishioners. A military base is established in a foreign country. A highway system is upgraded. Fracking becomes widespread to increase the world’s oil supply. A pipeline is built to carry shale oil across a continent over an aquifer that provides water for a dry expanse of territory.

  These intertwined decisions, activities and projects are future oriented. Some are oriented to a future twenty years away; others are set on longer time lines. Planning for a future taken to be similar in structure to today. The dilemma of today, however, is that we build for a future widely sensed to be a chimera. How does such a dilemma hold? Oil and coal companies, the right edge of evangelicalism, high end investors, and Fox News help to secure it, all pushing projects that many know are unsustainable. Those are powerful sources. But the dilemma runs deeper.
  In the contemporary condition things combine to make many people into zombies taking revenge on a future they can neither avoid nor accept. Yes, zombies. The zombie, originating as a phenomenon during the horrors of Haitian slavery, is a dead being revived sufficiently to be relentless but not enough to be alive. Today, in popular guise, it is a being who was oppressed, who died and is now partially revived, who adheres to a single course of revenge, who acts as if it is drugged, and who can easily infect others with its malaise. Zombies move relentlessly in a haze.
  The zombies of today sense that we must change the pivots of a massive civilization of productivity but cannot find modes of action to do so. Sure, many geologists, climatologists, oceanographers and a few politicians issue warnings. A growing number of academics, churchgoers and everyday citizens also sound alarms and call for radical change, as demonstrated by the recent, huge climate marches in several cities around the world. But these voices are beaten down. Too many workers, parents, entrepreneurs, university presidents, churchgoers, voters, and economists stay on the same course. They are drugged, though not with the neurotoxin from pufferfish rumored to have been the drug distributed to Haitian zombies.
  The neurotoxin of today is a double bind. To step away from the crowd to act resolutely on several fronts about climate change is to risk careers, reputations and friendships; to refuse to do so is to make things worse for those who follow. That is the first bind. But we speak here of a Double Bind. The second bind is tough too: if you talk about the first bind much, or act to break it, you risk friendships, reputation, an upsurging career and comfort in the world. You become troublesome. This, then, is the Double Bind that forges a zombie syndrome during the age of the Anthropocene.
  At an adult dinner out a week ago, we talked briefly about the Obama agreement with China on climate change. I then dared to ask the relatives assembled whether the idea of the Anthropocene made sense to them. "Did you say Anthropussy"?, a husband and father of two school children asked. He elicited laughter. The conversation moved on. To have entertained the question would have been to receive a call to act resolutely as a parent entangled with the future of his children. Caught in a double bind the pressure is on to brush away the issue.
   Zombies of today are oppressed by the future they are constrained to build. 


   The zombie syndrome renders it difficult to pursue a new course, to say the least. It is simultaneously a serious syndrome, one that must be grasped sympathetically, and one we must struggle to break. To be sympathetic to it is to acknowledge how difficult and paradoxical it is to both push for a massive change of course and to participate in manifold aspects of daily life that advance the old course. To break the hypnosis of the zombie you must, for instance, face the charge of hypocrisy. So enervation and deferral set in. The old ideals of capitalism and communism--those contending promises for a future of abundance and mastery designed to secure the loyalties of stratified populations--have lost their credibility. But there is little else on the horizon to move, inspire, or inform us.


  We know, if we allow ourselves to think about it, that many low-lying areas will be flooded within a couple of decades and that the interior of most continents will become unbearably hot during the summer. We sense--if we can force ourselves to think--that these cataclysmic changes are apt to be accompanied by massive attempts at population migration trumped by the virulent drives of highly militarized states to secure their borders by any means possible. We imagine--if we extrapolate one step further--that the combination of rapid climate change, forced population migrations, and widely distributed nuclear arsenals could issue in a cataclysm.


  But the double bind squeezes such proto-thoughts as they struggle to gain a foothold. How could you pursue the future course we are on if you entertain such thoughts? So we plod along. Zombies walk into wildfires, driven by a trajectory in which they cannot invest. But is the very fact that many have become zombies also, perhaps, a sign of hope? It at least signifies a lived precarity now attached to old images of the future. Indeed, Pascal’s wager over whether God exists has now morphed into one over how long humanity will survive. So precarity and possibility jostle around together.

  Sure, there are also vampires, those among the corporate and financial aristocrats who suck blood from others while there is still time to do so. Vampires arise from dying aristocracies; zombies from those oppressed by the future the vampires help to promote. Zombies struggle so hard to make ends meet in the current regime that they lack the energy to interrogate its priorities, even if they have lost faith in them. An inertia of thought joined to a meltdown of action. It is never that timely to challenge a twisted imaginary of the future if you are caught in a double bind. Indeed, while Anthropocenic activists grow by the day, many of us also detect a zombie strain in ourselves. It is infectious. 
  How do you cure a civilizational double bind? I have not encountered anything in my brief review of zombie literature to answer that question. I continue to think that perhaps the key is to search for residual sources of liveliness and earthly attachments circulating below the threshold of zombiness. Since the double bind is replete with fissures and obscure openings, perhaps a series of electric shocks will bring zombies to life.
  If a revival occurs, another task will arise: to maintain the swarming strategies that both make a difference in themselves and insulate us from lapsing into the default state of the zombie. To fend off zombiness it is necessary to take a few hesitant steps at first, to adjust a few role practices, to make some pronouncements in public, to take a stand here and there. Pushing upon fissures and cracks in the double bind that manufactures the syndrome. Once a new liveliness is fomented, we can think what to do from there.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Terrorists and War Criminals among Us

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

In July 2010 the Department of Homeland Security launched its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, a public awareness initiative designed to make American communities—from small towns to remote counties to big cities—alert to the problems of terrorism and terrorism-related crime. Citizens were to be educated regarding the importance of reporting suspicious conduct (rather than ideas or beliefs) to local law enforcement authorities, the new front line of American national security. The program started in New York City and its public transit network, but soon spread across America to include sporting leagues, venues, and events, colleges and universities, virtually any public site or happening. “If You See Something, Say Something” seems to be a cause for civic pride, a national surveillance and reporting system that brings Rousseau’s republican dream to life: we become natural born spies of one another in the name of the common good, especially freedom.


Source: http://www.dhs.gov/if-you-see-something-say-something™

Insofar as the Department of Homeland Security insists that civil rights and liberties are respected and protected and that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign empowers people to participate meaningfully in their own defense, rather than subject these claims to much-deserved skepticism, let’s take the Department at its word and put it to the test. After all, there are terrorists, including war criminals, walking freely among us. We know who they are and where they live. They make intermittent public appearances. At least one of them has confessed his crimes proudly and openly, as if taunting the government for not taking action against him. They are responsible for the deaths of many tens of thousands of people, including thousands of American citizens.  They employed the traditional weapons of terrorists the world over: bombs and bullets. They ordered their enemies tortured. What’s more, they feel no shame or remorse and would, if given the opportunity, do it all over again.

Not surprisingly, the list of America’s Most Wanted Terrorists and War Criminals reads like a who’s who of the George W. Bush regime. Beginning with former president Bush himself, it should include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Paul Wolfowitz, and Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. The list is bipartisan. Barack Obama, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Eric Holder, among others, should be named for their unique drone-related contributions since 2009. And since this is not a recent phenomenon in American politics, the list should cite Henry Kissinger for his exemplary conduct of the American War in Vietnam.

Since Dick Cheney made and continues to make himself the public face of imperialism and torture in America, perhaps the first trial rightly belongs to him. This is not to deny that George W. Bush, then president, bears ultimate responsibility for the crusades that produced a gratuitous war of conquest in Iraq and a gulag archipelago of torture across the globe. It is to give Cheney credit for converting the Vice Presidency of the United States, historically an institution of irrelevancy, into an effective political office—for evil.





Following the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of the executive summary of its torture report, Cheney has consistently defended the indefensible: “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogations.”

Cheney’s combination of American exceptionalism and impotent rage mean that he can’t help saying more than he intends. It’s not just that American citizens weren’t the only ones killed on September 11, 2001 (people from more than 90 other countries were murdered as well). It’s not just that because America was a victim on September 11 it cannot be a victimizer but only a hero, as Libby Anker argues in her brilliant new book, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom. It’s that in denying the commission of a crime, he actually confesses to it. He’s right that there’s no comparison between the September 11 attacks and America’s so-called enhanced interrogations: one constitutes mass murder; the other constitutes mass torture. No doubt Cheney, at least in part, offers his “denials” in public because of his legal vulnerability. The Bush Administration (the CIA in particular) was desperate to find some legal rationale for the torture it wanted to inflict on al Qaeda prisoners and it finally found willing participants in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. People like Cheney were worried that one day they might be held to account for their crimes and need some kind of legal cover, however thin, to protect them.



That day remains a distant prospect, but it should be kept in sight. As John McCain has argued, the Bush Administration’s torture crimes pertain to American identity. They must be brought to light in order to make sure they never happen again. Torture is not something that we do. McCain, however, failed to demand the prosecution of the perps from the Bush regime. Simply put, transparency is not enough. In this regard, it’s worth remembering the recent announcement that Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s lieutenant, likely died in Syria several years ago. Though convicted in absentia in France, he was never brought fully to justice for his crimes against humanity, spending a lifetime evading his death sentence. America routinely insists that other countries and peoples confront their problematic, even criminal histories, and willingly lends its considerable resources in this global endeavor. It’s time for the United States to follow its own advice and turn inward. It’s also clear that democratic citizens, here and abroad, will have to force it to do so.

Now that Cheney has not only confessed his crimes, but vowed that he would commit them again without hesitation (this is called recidivism), it’s time to implement Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program. We know where Dick Cheney and his fellow criminals live (Cheney lives in Jackson, Wyoming, whose citizens should consider themselves on notice). Their schedule of public appearances is published well in advance. After all, much money can be made playing the patriot game in the United States articulating and defending an unrepentant will to power in domestic and international politics. If you live near one of these terrorists or war criminals and see them at the local Starbucks; if they are slated to appear at a local bookstore to promote their sorry apologias; if they are traveling abroad and you see them in an airport or at a popular tourist spot; identify them and make a citizen’s arrest. Ask, even demand, that your friends, that is, your fellow citizens, join and assist you. Hold them until local law enforcement officials arrive. You don’t need to lay hands on them. Prevent them from leaving by forming a chain around them. Or, in the United States anyway, put the Second Amendment to good use; render the right to bear arms something other than a consumer fetish. These criminals have violated national and international statutes; the idea of a citizen’s arrest is for people to play their part in making sure that no one is above the law and that it is respected and enforced, perhaps especially when those charged with this sacred duty fail—and fail repeatedly—to meet their obligations, including the President and his Attorney General. American citizens long ago took back their streets (and skies) from al Qaeda. It’s time to take back not only our streets but also our Constitution from the terrorists and war criminals among us.

This project can be considered a corollary not only to the Patriot Act-free zone movement embraced by hundreds of towns, cities, and states across the country but also to the new civil rights movement of democratic citizens to take control of their streets and cities, and thus their way of life, from the police following the slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among countless others, and subordinate it to the people themselves. This nationwide campaign has been met with massive state opposition, especially in the aftermath of the murder of two New York City police officers on December 20. Bill de Blasio’s craven, manipulative effort to exploit a heinous crime and disrupt, perhaps cripple a legitimate politics of resistance serves as an untimely reminder that rights and liberties, including the right not to be tortured, subjected to assassination by the president, or targeted by police because of the color of your skin, are not given but taken.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Six Years a Slave

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

America’s 2014 election results proved disastrous for democracy. Republican gains at the national and state levels do not bode well for an underperforming economy, commitments to equality and social justice, a decaying, even dying infrastructure, investment in education, urgent environmental aspirations, and the very idea of representation. The GOP has had one overriding goal for six years: oppose President Barack Obama, defeat his policy initiatives (unless it relates to presidential war or national security powers), and destroy him politically. The GOP’s plan was to render Obama a one-term president, but in 2012, as in 2008, it pursued an agenda and selected a candidate incapable of making it happen. 




In the aftermath of the midterm elections, expert opinion tried to decipher the results—with limited success. If a generalized anger at Washington rooted in economic concerns tended to govern the outcome, it’s not immediately clear how the Republicans did so well. They remain the party of the 1% who desire to slash budgets, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, reduce, privatize, and jeopardize what remains of the social safety net, and gut the regulatory state, thereby rendering citizens even more vulnerable to economic contingency and environmental degradation. It’s a know-nothing party that would be comical in its ideology and ignorance if it weren’t in power and thus so dangerous.




The usual explanations (Obama’s approval ratings hit historic lows; the party in power is the inevitable target of wrath; Republicans had gerrymandered the results in the House following the 2010 census; Democrats had an unusual number of Senate seats up for reelection, especially in parts of the country where they do not perform well, etc.) seem insufficient. With the exception of The New York Times’ Charles M. Blow, major media outlets generally refused to discuss a critical factor since 2008: race. Race is not just the obsession at the heart of the contemporary Republican Party. It can swing independent and undecided voters who profess anger at both parties but somehow take it out on Democrats. How dare Obama, a black man, possess the White House, winning not only election but reelection? From the beginning Republicans have deemed it necessary to put Obama in his place. For them it remains an urgent task.

Not surprisingly, Karl Rove disclosed more than he intended when pontificating on the midterm results: “The American people voted to rein in President Obama…” Rove’s image of choice, featuring a device associated with animals and employed by slave owners, is ugly, offensive, violent, and racist. Reining in Obama has informed Republican conduct for years, even though Obama is a much better Republican than any major figure in the party. He understands the limits of the market system and the support mechanisms, the checks and balances that need to be in place for it to work on its own terms rather than destroy itself. Even the reviled Affordable Care Act is a market-based solution to a social problem that benefits corporate interests, rendering the insurance industry and government partners in billion dollar revenue streams. Still, the GOP’s rallying cry to would-be voters, apparently straightforward, was coded: “If you’re not a voter, you can’t stop Obama.”




At one level the campaign message seems to refer to Administration policies despised by the GOP: financial regulations, government subsidized health care, pollution controls, consumer protection, unemployment support, social investment, and the like. At another level, however, it treats Obama as the official manifestation of a reborn country Republicans cannot abide, that is, a world in transition, a world where they no longer enjoy (or not for much longer) place of white privilege, a world of color, of plurality, of difference. Republicans would deport undocumented immigrants. They oppose same-sex marriage. They don’t think climate change is a serious problem. They believe race relations have gotten worse. Who’s responsible? Barack Obama. Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chair, states the problem and delineates the appropriate (fantasy) response in a juridical-penal language Karl Rove could endorse: “Barack Obama has our country in a ditch…The punishment is going to be broad, and it’s going to be pretty serious.”

Democrats were so fearful of any association with Obama that they not only refused to have him campaign with them. They refused to defend those of his policies that were successful. Under no circumstances would most of them be seen with the president. Thus, when Obama had the audacity to state the obvious, that while he wasn’t on the ballot all of his policies were, the GOP exploded with delight. The advertisements that followed paired Obama with Democratic candidates for maximum visual effect. The states where control of the Senate would be decided were southern and rural, most with a brutal history and legacy of institutional racism. Make Obama the issue, the (black) figure whose unpopularity exceeds any rational or self-interested explanation of it.



Democratic defeat, ironically, has emboldened a president not known for love of contestation. Republicans have been predictably furious. Obama’s executive action on immigration puts the Republicans right where they belong: having to defend a xenophobia that violates American political ideals and threatens their political future. Do they have the political courage of their regressive convictions? No. The alternative: unleash and cultivate rhetorical rage at Obama. John Boehner, presuming a political potency he does not possess, complained bitterly that Obama had destroyed any chance of a bipartisan agreement. Boehner, who had previously demanded that Obama change his attitude when dealing with the Republican-led House of Representatives, also professed concern for the integrity of the Constitution, a laughably selective concern given the Administration’s extralegal assassination of American citizens, its relentless efforts to surveil global communications, its persecution of whistle-blowers and reporters, its criminalization of investigative journalism, its torturous force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners resisting American captivity, and its unauthorized war making in Libya and Syria (among other places).



Representative Mo Rogers of Alabama gave voice to the Republican id by proclaiming that Obama warrants not only impeachment but courts prison time if he proceeds with immigration reform through executive action. Despite initial GOP calls for restraint (do not threaten to shut down the government, e.g., a position quickly abandoned anyway), Rogers could not refuse the beautiful image of Obama behind bars, no doubt influenced by the wildly disproportionate number of blacks in America’s racial gulag.

The more Obama asserts himself—especially after an election in which he was supposedly humbled—the more impotent Republicans noticeably feel. They have no constructive initiatives to offer and Obama taunts them for it: “Pass a bill,” he tells them, if you can pass a bill I won’t veto (his not-so-subtle subtext). Senator Rob Portman of Ohio insisted the election sent a message to Washington: end the dysfunction. Well, the dysfunction, the inability to perform, plagues the Republican Party. They made it a point of pride and principle to derail Obama’s presidency, which has led to self-inflicted social and political castration. They have done nothing for years—except reduce their status and standing in American public opinion, worsening the sense of humiliation they nurture. The country has paid the price, but as Obama continued to press for bipartisanship he showed remarkable patience and resilience. He had the strength to wait for them despite their persistent irrational rejections. He’s been precisely the kind of collaborationist leader for which David Brooks absurdly calls—absurdly because Brooks can’t see what’s been in front of him all along (assuming his good faith), perhaps because he can’t see past Obama’s skin color either. Obama’s patriotic convictions enabled him to endure a politics that has centered on him for six years—and will for two more years thanks to a racially-obsessed GOP. But he knows it shouldn’t. It’s not about him. And so Obama now acts without Congress, whether on immigration reform or global climate change or domestic ozone levels or…




The Republicans think they have retaken Washington. Unfortunately for them, no one told Obama.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Anthropocene, Obama, and the Politics of Swarming

William E. Connolly
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Process, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism

We are bound to the era of the Anthropocene, the roughly two hundred year period during which human extractive, productive and consumption practices have exerted so much impact upon climate that it deserves to be distinguished from the Holocene, a much longer, partially self-amplifying system of climate warming. “The Great Acceleration” started in 1950 and continues today, with exponential increases in CO2 emissions accompanied by dramatic changes in ocean and terrestrial ecosystems, the amount of land for farming, drought, increased storm intensity, great use of pesticides and fertilizers, reductions in biodiversity, and global temperature increases. 

The new announcement of a Climate Deal between China and the United States is promising. It at least takes away the argument of climate deniers that the U.S cannot act because China won’t. It can be seen, in the U.S., as an Executive response to rising domestic pressure, particularly from younger and minority constituencies a future Democratic coalition will need. 
In China, it may reflect a response to the pervasive air pollution that threatens the health of the populace. Nonetheless, this notable agreement still falls far short, especially when you realize how Anthropocene concentrations of C02 and methane gases are both accumulating rapidly and deplete at slow rates. The most promising aspect of the agreement, perhaps, is that it places debates about climate on the front burner again.
The Anthropocene shows how natural changes can occur fast periodically and then persist for millennia. Until the 1980’s most biologists, geologists and paleontologists accepted the story of natural gradualism advanced by Charles Lyell and Darwin. But then the huge asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs and many other species sixty five million years ago was identified. This meant that the study of species evolution could no longer be seen as an internal enterprise. Shortly after that other mass extinction events were tracked, including one 250 million years ago that wiped out 90% of life on earth-- perhaps triggered by a series of huge methane bursts, another 450 million years ago and another yet 200 million years ago. Each time the recovery of life, following very different tracks than before, took millions of years. Not only that, there have also been rapid shifts in climate prior to the Anthropocene, several during the last 35000 years.






These periodic punctuations may encourage us to challenge alike variants of theo-providentialism, secular notions of human mastery of nature, and gradualism in geology, paleontology and geology. They may press us to confront the fragility of things for the human estate in its multiple entanglements with other species and climate processes, calling upon us to overcome drives to cultural internalism in the humanities, sociocentrism in the human sciences, and anxious tendencies to studied indifference in the populace at large. All three express an ethos of climate evasion that lends unconscious support to climate skeptics.
The Anthropocene, then, is that period during which a radical increase in industrial pollution and CO2 emissions enters into conjunction with numerous other nonhuman, self-organizing processes already in play which, even now, we do not understand that well. We are triggering a new era of climate warming with self-amplifying powers of its own that will continue to flood numerous low lying populated areas, increase drought and other weather extremes, weaken the capacity to produce food for 7 billion people, encourage migration attempts from low lying zones, spawn reactive pressures in extractive, military states to repress those who try to immigrate, and punish third world countries that press for radical changes in our modes of production and consumption to mitigate the effects of the Anthropocene.
It is wise to remember how Obama’s executive orders can be challenged in the courts or overturned by a Republican victory in 2016. So, how to energize climate politics under these conditions? The most promising way, out of a bad lot, is to multiply sites and scales of political action through swarming movements, moving back and forth between climate centered actions in churches, work, household consumption, locality, teaching and the like, organization of new worker collectives, participation in larger climate movements, and consolidation of cross-state citizen movements. Role adjustments in the domains of church life, vehicle purchase, farm to table practices, solar panels, readjustment of retirement funds, and blog activity make a cumulative difference on their own. Even more important, though, they also prime us existentially to participate in larger collective activities. 
What else, then? If and as relays between different scales of action accumulate a new event will surely erupt, such as a devastating hurricane, a severe drought, a crisis in water supply, a series of wild fires, radical protests in third world countries against the entitlements of rich countries that produce the most carbon emissions, a radical acceleration of glacier flows, vigilante violence from the right against peaceful protesters, a dangerous deceleration of the ocean conveyor system, or a marvelous new invention that enables the rapid advance of sustainable energy to dismantle an extractionist culture. Now, to the extent movements back and forth between actions at different scales have already been in play, the stage may be set to mobilize a Cross-Country Citizen Strike. However, if swarming critical movements have not crystallized, such an event could generate proto-fascist responses in several countries. The United States is particularly susceptible. So the stakes of a swarming approach are high. 
The task is to forge a militant pluralist assemblage across countries and regions in which a future disturbing event activates large minorities in a variety of subject positions (e.g., class, age, gender, ethnicity, religious faith) to organize a Cross-Country General Strike. A bracing event is probably needed to bump the abstract belief that climate change is real into such a live intensity of action. 
Such a strike will involve withdrawal from work and travel, joined to reductions of consumption above levels needed for subsistence. The action could be enacted for, say, a four day period on the first occasion, combined with a promise to renew it if states, churches, localities, corporations, universities, banks, international agencies and other institutions do not initiate a specified series of interim actions. The responses demanded could include rapid shifts in the eco-priorities of numerous non-state institutions, the introduction of massive state and local projects to redefine the power grid, a radical reorientation of state subsidies in the infrastructure of consumption, public support for worker collectives, and media publicity to help reorient the public ethos of investment and consumption. A Cross-Country General Strike thus draws upon the momentum of swarming movements to press states, corporations and numerous other institutions to redefine their priorities more rapidly and radically. It can draw selective inspiration from creative movements in the past such as that for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan that helped to consolidate the American labor movement, Tiannamen Square, several instantiations of the civil rights movement, multi-role experiments and institutional pressures emanating from the LGBT movement, the cross-country divestment movement against apartheid, the Gandhian drive to free India, the widespread student and faculty strikes after the Kent State shootings in May, 1970, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. 
Multi-modal preparations, a dramatic event, a Cross-Country Citizen Strike, stringent interim demands. In the spring of 1972, 1300 students and faculty in western Massachusetts enacted an illegal sit down strike at Westover Air force base to protest a new escalation of the Vietnam War by Richard Nixon. Most participants had actively protested the war earlier, but the escalation inflamed us as it did numerous other constituencies inside and outside the United States. The question now was not whether to escalate our action but whether we were wise enough to do so in ways that would not backfire. The militant actions taken there and elsewhere rattled authorities and helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the war. 
With respect to the Anthropocene, such a strike will involve a host of loosely coordinated constituencies acting in several countries at the same time. If the combination of massive publicity about climate volatility, an escalation of social movements already underway, and a new event coalesce to set the stage, such loosely coordinated actions could hold considerable promise. If major states face critical action both inside and outside their borders that will help to weaken their punitive drives. The idea is to mobilize millions of people so that employers and states will have to think twice or three times before firing or imprisoning strikers. Work in advance to publicize how our side will avoid violence, remembering how many on the other side are eager to accuse you of violence to demoralize, isolate, arrest, beat or kill you. They have the guns, media, military, judges, and many university presidents to draw upon to defeat and demoralize you if your numbers are small and your strategy is unwise. Macho tactics are thus not the thing here, but concerted, inspired action to dramatize the issue, to press multiple institutions, and to move the undecided.
Let us agree in advance that a Cross-Country Strike is, well, improbable. The odds are low that a sufficient number of strategically located constituencies, institutions and individuals will heed the call in time. Nonetheless, it is wise to bypass crackpot realism on such a critical issue. The most pertinent question is whether a strike can become a live possibility that speaks to an urgent need of the time. The fact is that the need is sharp, time is short, and powerful drives to delay and deny are built into regular political processes. The task is thus to help people heed the danger, hear the call, and intensify ties to the future. If a swarming approach promotes the needed actions without a strike so much the better. But don’t bet too much on that.
 One problem with a multi-state, pluralizing, swarming approach is that it may take too long to issue in a General Strike. That is a severe danger in a world of tragic possibility in which nature is not providential and there is no guarantee that the need for action will be met in time. Moreover, if or when a Strike does become timely uncertainty will still remain high. Such uncertainty is essentially embedded in the nature of democratic tipping points, as the examples listed earlier indicate. Nonetheless, even those dangers and uncertainties are not as severe as the slow burn of unattended climate change, with its differential acceleration of suffering, forced migrations, border panic, and escalations of military violence. To paraphrase a great thinker, the task of life is to become worthy of the events we encounter. Ours is the Anthropocene.