The Contemporary Condition

Monday, November 23, 2015

Who Gets to Demand Safety?

Lida E. Maxwell is Associate Professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and is the author of Public Trials: Burke, Zola, Arendt, and the Politics of Lost Causes.

As protests against racism on campus have rocked the University of Missouri and Yale Universityand spread to places like Claremont McKenna and Amherststudent protesters have come under fire for their call for “safe space.” In particular, writers like Connor Friedersdorf have argued that their demand for safe spaces has created a new kind of intolerance, where all dissenting views are excluded and condemned. This critique of the demand for safety finds allies in leftists who see student activists’ demands for safe spaces as an attempt to avoid rather than address the complexities and realities of the world. In contrast, writers like Roxane Gay have drawn attention to the fact that critics of students demanding safe spaces at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere tend to be those who have never feared for their safety, who experience safety as an “inalienable” right. For Gay, the call for safety is not a call to be “coddled” or not to hear opposing perspectives, but rather for the freedom for all students to voice experiences and views in a setting where they do not feel in danger of being mocked, derided, or physically threatened. While some (white, male, cisgender) students might take the privilege of safety for grantedand, in turn, their ability to speak their views however and whenever they likeothers (notably, black, female, and queer students) may have to demand it.

I agree with Gay that critics of the student protesters fail to acknowledge the privilege of safety that most of them inhabit. However, I think that Gay’s claim that some people “have” safety while others have to ask for it may keep us from seeing a different and perhaps more insidious problem: namely, that some people’s demands for safety are taken more seriously than others. That is, the issue is not that some people simply feel safe while others do not, but rather that some people’s demands for safety are backed up by state violence and law, while others are left at the mercy of that violence. Put differently, the “feeling” of safety that Gay rightly says is a privilege is one that is created through social, political, and legal institutions that frame some people’s demands for safety as legitimate and urgentand in need of violent enforcementwhile framing others’ demands for safety as a desire for “coddling.” 

For example, while black students and their supporters at Mizzou and Yale are often mocked when they ask for a safe space, Donald Trump is taken seriously by Republican voters when he argues that we must erect a United States’ southern border to keep Americans safe from Mexican rapists and criminals. In fact, Trump’s demand that we keep (white) Americans safe from Mexicans has him atop the Republic primary poll in New Hampshire. Similarly, when Darren Wilson says that he felt so threatened by Michael Brown that he had to shoot him, or when George Zimmerman claimed that he felt threatened by Travyon Martin (and thus had to shoot him), or when the Cleveland police officer who killed 12 year old Tamir Rice claimed that he felt so threatened by this little boy that he had to shoot him, these men are taken seriously and their demands for safety are affirmed legally and sometimes politically.

Some people might say that the kind of safety that police officers and Donald Trump and George Zimmerman demand is an entirely different kind of safety than the kind called for by the college students at Yale and Mizzouthat they are talking about physical rather than psychological safety. But can we separate out these two kinds of safety? The safety from racist comments, threats, and (yes) even costumes that these students demand is not just a demand to be kept safe from the violence of speech, but also from the always present risk that hateful speech will turn into hateful violencea risk that many of us have felt when having homophobic or racist comments shouted at us, or when we have been sexually harassed or intimidated. On the other hand, Trump’s, Wilson’s, and Zimmerman’s claims that they felt or feel physically threatened are not at all self-evident; their demands for safety are demands that we see certain kinds of individuals (Mexicans, African-Americans who possess no weapons but who look, in Wilson’s words, “like a demon”) as greater threats than others (i.e. the armed white men who kill or threaten to kill black and Latino individuals).

Surely what the students at Yale and Mizzou are protesting is not simply racism, but precisely this kind of racist view of safety: that is, a view of safety that allows certain lives to count more than others, and that allows some people’s demands for safety to come at the expense of the lives of others

The logic of safety expressed in the violent acts of Wilson and Zimmerman (among others)that in order for some to be safe, others need to be disciplined, threatened, or killedis entirely familiar. It is evident not only in the police violence against (and racial profiling of) black men and women, and in violence against queers and trans people. It is also evident in the cycle of violence that we see re-perpetuated in response to the Paris attacks, where some French and American leaders claim that in order to be safe, Syrian refugees must be kept out, and cities in Syria must be bombed.

In the context of these racist and Islamophobic demands for safetybacked up by state violence and lawit seems more important than ever to support and stand in solidarity with college students’ demand for safe spaces. While their demand for safety could certainly re-enact (on a limited scale) the exclusivity of the violent logic of safety I sketched above, their demand for an ideal of safety as a space of inclusion and equality stands as an important counterpoint to the racist idea that safety depends on the violent exclusion of difference. In this ideal, safety is not contingent upon the exclusion and disciplining of (minority) others, but rather upon the shared commitment to affirm, acknowledge, and find space for the diverse experiences of everyone. Here, safety is not a feeling of knowing that threats to you have been killed or quarantined, but rather in a feeling of knowing that the risk of being who you areexpressing your views, presenting yourself freely to otherswill be borne not only by you, but also by others, who will create a space of safety around you.  
Student protest at the University of Missouri
One thingamong othersthat these student protestors have done is reminded us of an insight of the feminist and gay rights movements: that safety is not a purely physical condition, having to do with whether you are physically threatened, but also a political and social condition. In other words, political and social structuressuch as racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobiaturn certain people (usually marginalized groups) into supposed “threats,” and in turn license violent behavior toward them. The move to create “safe spaces” for women and gays and lesbians was a way to try to create spaces where individuals could feel the freedom and equality that they wanted to create on a broader social scale. In our current political momentwhere demands for safety have been used to license increasingly violent actsstanding with students’ demands for an ideal of safety premised on equality, freedom, and shared risk holds out one of the few hopes of challenging this violent logic for safety on behalf of creating (even if only in microcosm, as an ideal) the conditions of a safe world for everyone.

Student protests at the University of Missouri

Friday, November 13, 2015

A United States to come?

Steven Johnston
is the author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

The Republican presidential nomination contest should be putting enormous pressure on American democracy, which is in crisis. Candidates routinely advocate with conviction positions that should not be taken seriously by any democratic society with minimal standards of reason-driven public discourse. GOP candidates claim they will deport millions of immigrants, build a segregation wall along the Mexican border, and make Mexico pay the bill; they insist that the Affordable Care Act is the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and must be repealed; they will deny women reproductive rights and outlaw abortion under any and all circumstances; they believe that private gun ownership could have prevented the Holocaust; they believe the proliferation of guns into every nook and cranny of American life will make the country safer; they believe that protesting police violence and holding law enforcement accountable for its crimes is tantamount to a declaration of war against cops; they will slash taxes on corporations and the rich and thereby cut deficits because of the economic growth sure to follow; in reality, this will wreck the government’s finances and put them in position to dismantle what remains of the social welfare state; they will do nothing about climate change since it either doesn’t exist or humans have nothing to do with it; either way, the American way of life as they understand it must continue unfettered; they will roll back the minimal regulations that were implemented after the great recession indifferent to the risks involved for ordinary citizens who pay the costs of their reckless speculation; they believe the United States can solve global political conflicts by exercising its prodigious military firepower, that is, through more interventions and more wars; they believe they have a greater chance of enacting this agenda if they wave the red flag of voter fraud and disenfranchise as many traditional democratic constituencies as possible through various legislative schemes designed to deny citizens access to the polls. The list could be extended.

Based on the violence and death these GOP policies and programs would unleash on tens of millions of people (or more) in the United States and around the world, it is apparent that the Republican Party harbors hatreds and resentments that have not been seen in this country since, perhaps, the Civil War when the South was determined to forge through war a second polity on the North American continent rooted in its fantasies of racial superiority. The South attacked the North in a stunning suicidal act that could only bring ruin on its political ambitions, but the rage southerners cultivated could not be contained and it ended up nearly destroying what they loved most: themselves. It is not unfair to say that the contemporary GOP is in many affective respects the heir to the Confederacy. The notorious Southern strategy launched by Richard Nixon “succeeded” beyond even his wildest dreams. The GOP of 2016 can match the ferocity, hatred, and destructive impulses characteristic of the Southern slavocracy. It is a party that seeks, among other things, the (effective) destruction of the national government, the domination and control of what it considers the lower orders, the imposition of its moral and religious values on the law of the land, and the elimination of public criticism through falsehood and intimidation.

What happens, then, if the Republicans seize control of the White House next fall? This would give them control of all three branches of the federal government through which they could unleash their pent up frustration and resentment at having had to settle for eight years of mere obstructionism under Obama. Tom Dumm’s recent posts on the rise of a degraded fascism in America touch on this issue, and I would like to approach it from a complementary angle.

Imagine it is November 8, 2016, and the Republicans have won, fairly or not, the presidential election, putting them in position to make good on their campaign rhetoric. This ascendancy follows years in which their racially-inflected pathological opposition to Barack Obama generated gratuitous untold suffering as they stifled every executive initiative they possibly could. Given the targeted violence and destruction constitutive of the Republican economic, social, political, moral, and environmental agendas, what should democratic citizens faced with the prospect of legislative and judicial onslaught do?

They could work patiently through several election cycles in anticipation of regaining control of the federal government and reversing Republican incursions. They could take to the streets to make known their displeasure and disgust at Republican depredations and hope to exert enough pressure on lawmakers to undo their self-serving designs. These are the standard moves in American politics. How long, though, can a democracy legitimately expect its citizens to pursue institutional remedies when dominant political forces use those very same institutions to enact ambitions that will deliberately inflict serious bodily and mental harm on countless people?

Republicans have become a party of radical extremists and the GOP has converted itself into an entity that defines itself by the damage it can do to other citizens, to other ways of life, to the very idea of government itself, to the possibility of a shared polity. Accomplishments are to be measured by what can be demolished, with the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unions, public education, reproductive rights, and due process in courts some of the favorite quarry. The Republican Party has no interest in democracy except as a tool to legitimize its endeavors. It has no interest in sharing a polity characterized by deep pluralism because it abhors pluralism, which makes it impossible for the party to consider the very idea of common or public things as inherently meaningful and valuable. For the GOP America names a place where like-minded individuals of wealth and influence can pursue unfettered their personal aspirations. They possess a purely instrumental mentality when it comes to politics. This is why using government to wreak havoc and destruction on commonly achieved goods, including government itself, poses no moral or political problems for them. They would, if they could, privatize everything and privatization presupposes and engenders the destruction of what is public or common.

What are democratic citizens to do when faced with an ideological-affective force like the GOP that treats politics as a life-and-death, zero-sum endeavor and fellow-citizens who resist it not as opponents, adversaries, or even the loyal opposition, but archenemies of some kind deemed unworthy of any decent regard? A politics of nonviolence, however noble and admirable, comes at great cost to those who practice it, for they are not only subjected to the violence of others, they are subjected to the violence that accompanies retrenchment, erasure, exclusion, and marginalization. This is one way in which the violence inherent in democracy manifests itself. What might the political equation look like, though, once democracy’s inherent violence can no longer be denied? What kind of signal might newly engaged democratic citizens send a newly empowered GOP on November 8, 2016? Do you have to wait for the violence to come to you to try to preempt it by whatever means democratically necessary? If the state represents not the culmination of the social contract but its principled negation, if the state represents not the people themselves but the rich and well-placed who game the political system to help their friends (themselves) and harm their enemies, what kind of response is necessary to counter a politics that is conceived of as the waging of war by other means? The state’s monopoly on violence, of course, gives it an overwhelming advantage when it comes to firepower, which means that planning any direct confrontation with its agents makes little or no sense. Yet a long-simmering anticipation of a Republican victory and its brutal consequences might lead to a spontaneous outpouring on the streets on November 8, 2016, which might prove to be the occasion for democratic citizens to remind us, as insurgent democratic citizens did on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore in the last year, where the real power, literal and figurative, resides in democracy. If so, now seems like the time to imagine the creative possibilities of such an event.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

Some Catholic economists, perhaps under the sway of recent Popes, embrace a neoliberal image of the economy, supporting extensive inequality, treating job training of the poor for the market as the way to reduce poverty, and emphasizing carbon trading as the legitimate way to respond to climate change. Pope Francis disrupts such a combination, at least for those who wish to maintain congruence between their economic pronouncements and his presentation of Catholic faith. He says unregulated markets foster greed among the super rich and harsh suffering of the poor inside and outside the centers of capitalism. 

Here are a few welcome things he says, in Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home:
“There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means an increase of progress itself.., as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.”
“We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions..,leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.”
“Finance overwhelms the real economy…Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems and argue...that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle...can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world."

With these statements—and more besides—Francis throws the weight of the Catholic Church--with its impressive presence in Europe, North America and Latin America among other places--behind rapid action to respond to the numerous entanglements between poverty and the Anthropocene. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are important points of faith, economic creed, and political priority at which I diverge radically from Pope Francis. I do not confess his omnipotent, personal God. I am not a devotee of the Trinity, though I have come to see how it can provide one way to embrace the complexity of culture. I embrace a woman’s choice with respect to abortion. His commitment to heterosexual hegemony, while softened a bit from that of his predecessors, remains way too strong. I find appalling the patriarchy of the Church and the doctrine that rules women out of candidacy for priesthood. He has begun to relax the creed of papal infallibility, though it would be salutary if he took it on more radically. Maybe he will. He embraces faith in an organic world presided over by God, a world disrupted mostly by ruthless market processes and inordinate consumption demands; I contend that nonhuman processes possess considerable vitality and volatility on their own, so that organic alternative does not provide the strongest reply to the pursuit of mastery. He talks mostly about markets, technology, and wasteful consumption, while I say, with others, that those forces must be understood within the institutions of neoliberal capitalism. He looks to the strengthening of international institutions to cope with climate change; I think it is even more important to ignite cross-regional citizen movements to press dominant states, corporations, banks, universities, consumers, international organizations, and churches into action at the same time.

Quite a list. And yet I do admire this pope on the critical issues of poverty, imprisonment, immigration and climate change, across these differences. While Pope John Paul II labelled people who do not confess a personal God, “nihilists”, Francis resists such formulations. He wishes us well and asks us to wish him well. He acknowledges that several strains of Christianity have treated scriptural discussions of human “dominion” as if they meant human domination and mastery over the earth rather than a deep respect for the diversity of living beings. Most significantly, he addresses his text to “all people of good will”, whether they embrace a Catholic creed, or, it seems, any confession of a personal God. It is up to reformers within and outside the church to show him how this new capaciousness, compared to previous popes, must really encompass women, gays and others.

Francis understands the dangers of regimes eager to go to war to protect historic entitlements: they kill millions of innocent people, wreak devastation on world ecologies, create huge numbers of suffering refugees with no place to go, and delay urgently needed efforts to respond to the Anthropocene. Living in the United States we can supplement the pope’s point by showing how the oil, coal, evangelical, Republican machine here deploys war talk—and often enough wars--to protect their historic entitlements and to set back a host of progressive political movements. We can also encourage recent moves within evangelism to break this ugly historical alliance. 

With respect to the climate Pope Francis speaks to Catholics as he also addresses Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Indigenous peoples, and nontheists about the Anthropocene. He invites what I call relations of agonistic respect across creeds, one in which you articulate publicly the contestable creed that in-forms you as you pursue modes of communication and selective coordination with others with respect to some urgent issues of the day. Of course, you know that some will refuse the invitation. But you make the invitational move, as you keep the critiques alive. Pope Francis both acknowledges the reasonable contestability of his faith in the eyes of others and pursues spiritual relations of agonistic respect with constituencies who join him in concern about world poverty, prisons overflowing with racialized minorities, and the acceleration of climate change. 

Hunger Strike at the Don Hutto Immigration Detention Center in Texas
One way to underline the point is to say that Francis confesses devoutly the creed of his church, that he understands public life to be regularly embroiled in creedal issues that transcend the quaint secular division between public and private life, that he may become open to future shifts in the priorities of his own creed in the light of debate and new situations, and that he pursues lines of spiritual affinity with others who care about the world and confess other creeds. He himself believes “that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more.” But he pursues connections to others with respect to climate, poverty and immigration whose positive spiritualities--in ways that may sometimes surprise him--are anchored in creeds he contests. 
Climate March in Instanbul
Francis is calling for a cross-regional assemblage of constituencies of many sorts to respond to the Anthropocene. He might encourage some of the actions taken, tolerate others, and find yet others to be too dangerous or destructive. That is what participation in a critical pluralist assemblage in the making means. You seek to energize it and you promote proposals for action within it, rather than demanding to preside over it as a Pope, authoritarian Party, Ruler, or unquestionable Prophet.
The power of such a critical assemblage is, first, that it is less likely to replicate the dogmatism and authoritarianism of some of the movements it opposes, second, that disparate constituencies in it may inspire each other to action, and, third, that creative action by one constituency in a fraught situation may also incite creativity by others as they riff off that innovation. 

Idle No More Protest in London
To me, a creed refers to the fundamental beliefs you confess about the most profound conditions and terms of human existence; a spirituality expresses the existential investments you pour into it. Thus we may share a formal creed while some of us secretly resent the world for being that way and others are grateful for that condition. The differences can be manifest in a desire to identify heretics vs. a desire to extend internal diversity, or in punitive desires against those outside the faith vs. propensities to presumptive generosity. Creed and spirituality are inter-involved and yet neither identical nor equivalent.
Suppose cross-regional general strikes erupt in a couple of years to press states, corporations, churches, universities, consumers and so on to make radical changes in the priorities of production and consumption as they reconstitute the energy grid. It seems unlikely to me that Francis will participate directly. But as arrests, fines, jail time, and vigilante beatings are taken against strikers, we can anticipate that he will used his standing to publicize what is happening, demand state and vigilante restraint, and apply moral pressure upon these institutions to initiate radical change. I would count on him in these respects far more than on many neoliberal university presidents I have encountered. In a critical pluralist assemblage not all constituencies take the same action; nonetheless, acting from different subject positions, they can support and sustain one another. 

Copenhagen Climate Protest
I do expect to argue against Francis about key ethical and political questions in the future, including the place and diversity of sexuality, abortion, equality of women, the sources of human creativity, the nature of capitalism, the role of militancy in politics, and the nature of nature. But rather than press such creedal differences now, let me close with a few additional quotes that suggest how Francis both works upon devotees of his faith and inspires others to respond to climate change:
"This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of freedom and responsibility of human beings, who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect and develop its potential.
If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation.” 

*Quotes from the Pope are from Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The End of Boehner

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College
“Some in Congress and the White House hold out hope that Mr. Boehner’s departure and the election of a new speaker will break the fever among conservatives, who have been plotting his downfall for over a year, and grant his replacement a grace period . . . But more prevalent is a sense of dread that an already bitter and divisive political atmosphere is about to get even worse.” New York Times, Sunday, September 28, 2015. 
A recent poll of American voters asked respondents if they could imagine circumstances under which they could support a military coup in the United States. 43% of Republican respondents said yes, while only 32% said no. Overall, 29% of Americans could support a coup, while 41% could not. As frightening as this poll result is, it is embedded in a survey of attitudes toward major American institutions. In response to a question asking if the military wants what is best for the country, 70% said yes, while 12% said no. Asked if Congress wants what is best for the country, the numbers were practically the reverse: 12%, yes, 71%, no.
If the rise of Donald Trump is evidence of degraded fascism coming into the mainstream of American politics, then this poll is but another sign of how at least one major American political party is coming to be synonymous with the authoritarian impulse underlying this fascism. Let us think about what the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives means in this context.
John Boehner wanted the same policies enacted that his opponents within the “Freedom Caucus” – those far right members of Congress who mainly came into the House in the 2010 election – wanted. The difference is that these members believe that by failing to prevent bills on budget allocations and extension of debt from being passed without the amendments they insist upon, Boehner was betraying the cause of true conservatism. It appears that he quietly hoped that his resignation would at least protect those members of the GOP caucus who would still have supported him in a leadership vote, but also who, by publicly voting to retain him, would have risked a primary challenge from the far right in the next electoral cycle. 
What this means at the level of legislative tactics is that the faction that wants to shut down the government in the name of budgetary responsibility and the protection of fetuses, is doing so knowing that this move is but a barely disguised means for further marginalizing the increasingly non-white population of the United States, a minority which threatens to become a majority within the next decade. Destroying the remnants of the social safety net is by design a way to make those people suffer. For some of the members of the coalition imposing such suffering is an end in itself, what they perceive to be an appropriate punishment imposed on those who they believe are parasites. In that sense Planned Parenthood is but an example of the outsourcing of health services to a private entity: the real meat cleaver is to be major budget cuts that are to be taken exclusively from social welfare programs, which were demonized by Mitt Romney in 2012 as the government giving things to people, a sentiment echoed this past weekend by Jeb Bush. 
Posted by the Oklahoma Federation for Republican Women
In this way, because of its timeliness a tactic of political positioning morphs into the substance of policy. The austerity politics that have been a part and parcel of an explicit effort at neoliberal governance over the past thirty years now has a more brutal and blunt political effect. Here is where it is also necessary to ask whether and when conditions could develop which would contribute to a new reliance on “our most trusted institution,” because shutting down the government is a path toward creating the conditions of unrest that would serve as an excuse for the further repression of the poor, the marginalized and those who would dissent, both within and without the institutions of the media and academia. Black Lives Matter is currently being demonized as responsible for shootings of police throughout the country, even though there is no evidence that police shootings have been occurring at a rate any higher than before the rise of this new civil rights movement. A new group called Blue Lives Matter is growing rapidly, and Donald Trump himself has weighed in, not with the insipid response “All lives matter!” but by denouncing Black Lives Matter, and the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, as being a bunch of gang members, many of them, of course, illegal immigrants from Mexico and central America.
The price any new speaker of the House must pay in order to assume office will be to follow the script of the Freedom Caucus. Already threats of a similar fate to Boehner are being made in regard Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader who has behaved in a similar manner, looking in the end for a way to pass the legislation that would keep government running without the trauma of shutdown. 
    This leveraging of power by a minority has its historical precedents in the fracturing of the Second International shortly before the Russian Revolution, when the minority Bolsheviks outmaneuvered the majority Mensheviks at the Party Congress. 
Border Vigilantes, Arizona
   Perhaps a closer parallel would be the historical situation of the early 1930s in Germany, when the Nazi Party, damning the austerity policies of the Centre Party, which ruled through the emergency decrees of President von Hindenburg, succeeded in winning over the industrialists who held the balance of political power at the time. Hitler lost the 1932 election to Hindenburg. But by the end of 1933 his party became the only legal party after his ascent to the Chancellorship, at a moment when the German military, in its wisdom, decided that it needed to throw in its hand with the fascists, believing it could control them, because they, the military, were the most trusted and beloved institution in the country, you know, above politics. The Potsdam meeting of von Hindenburg and Hitler, a sign of the unity of military and political power, led to the establishment of the Reich by the end of that year, with Hitler, of course, as the Fuhrer. 
Fox News Analyst, Monica Crowley
 But the most relevant historical parallel may be the overthrow of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. After the austerity economics introduced into the Chilean economy by Chicago school economics in the late 1960s, Allende was the head of the socialist government elected to end this experiment in neo-liberal economics. In a US backed coup, Allende committed suicide and Pinochet established a dictatorship, presuming to rule in the name of the people, completely ignoring the electoral results, with the help of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in order to impose this non-electoral will.
To invoke these historical examples is always to risk hyperbole, and so to risk dismissal. But at this point, that is a risk that must be run by those who want to resist the direction the politics of the United States is headed in. That every new iteration of fascism looks and sounds differently than prior iterations doesn’t mean that there is no reason to compare the past to present, and the present to the future.
Of course no one can predict the specific way in which democracy in the United States, already hollowed out and degraded by neoliberal governmentality – see Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos for the detailed indictment – might fall. But the way the current political cycle is being run, especially the race for the presidential nomination among the Republican candidates, gives rise to deep concerns. Whether engaging in bald-faced lies that while continually refuted are nonetheless repeatedly told without being called what they are, lies, by the press (see Carli Fiorina’s fictionalized version of beating hearts and brain harvesting by Planned Parenthood ghouls, an accusation cynically made simply to enlist extremists as supporters), or the continued argument for more austerity in the face of all evidence indicating its failure as a means of economic growth, or the continued demonization of undocumented immigrants as criminals when they are among the most law-abiding of residents in the country, the Republicans continue to be a mainstream presence in political discourse. These examples can be multiplied, and they all point toward a level of willful ignorance based in fear that lies at the heart of all fascist movements. The margin moves to the center, and only in retrospect do people wonder why such radically bad political actors were able to take power. It can happen here, and to a large extent it has already begun.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Democracy's Dark Side

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

When liberals, progressives, or leftists of any stripe criticize our contemporary economic order, they are accused of class war. They are rebuked with the claim that gaps in income and wealth reflect the operations of the market and are therefore fair. Both of these contentions are false. Unfortunately American democracy has failed to address these falsehoods and in fact contributes mightily to inequities it is committed to address.  Our democracy’s failings and the classic and modern theoretical perspectives that might mitigate these are the subject of a provocative new book by Steven Johnston, American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

If there is a class war, it is one being waged on behalf of the wealthy. Its vehicles are law, federal and state courts, administrative agencies, state and federal legislatures, and the corporate media. The ideology governing this class war is called neoliberalism. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this neoliberal agenda is the Trans Pacific Partnership. Though purportedly a “market friendly” instrument, one of its central goals is to achieve protected status for patents and trademarks. Nations that strive to make medication more affordable by providing generic drugs would be subject to countervailing suits and huge damage judgments. Similarly, banking regulations, more strict in many of our foreign competitors, would be reduced to the lowest common denominator. As for labor unions, even though the agreement purportedly contains some language about the right to organize, there is no enforcement means parallel to those regarding patents and copyrights. So much for the argument that these agreements should not interfere with domestic politics. Such interference is acceptable, even to be encouraged, when “intellectual property” is involved.

These legal and political structures lie at the heart of income and wealth inequality. Yet even these phrases sugar coat the state’s real impact. Johnston avoids the cool euphemisms. Neolliberalism maims and kills. It takes citizens in both the developed and especially the developing world. When financial markets collapse, houses are foreclosed on and families risk homelessness, especially as rental costs escalate. Healthcare denied leaves citizens to die.

Though a variety of liberals, socialists, social democrats may with good reason blame corporate capitalists, their think tanks, and their massive and self-reinforcing political contributions for neoliberalism’s casualties, democratic majorities both today and from our very founding should not be exempted from responsibility.

For starters, the market in land that bolstered a middle class society was founded in violence against Native Americans, takings that have never been adequately compensated. Even the Constitution stood as no barrier to exploitation of Native peoples. As Andrew Jackson replied to a Supreme Court decision supporting Native American land claims: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” These takings represented more than a redistribution of property. The settlers eradicated native systems of land use and tenure. These were not recognized as legitimate because they did not conform to emerging bourgeois notions of land as a commodity that could be exploited, bought and sold. Then, as Johnston puts it, “the nation to be secured its freedom thanks, at least in part, to weapons purchased by the wealth slavery generated.”

To Johnston’s analysis I would add that further economic reforms, including general laws of incorporation, and limited liability helped turn a society that used markets into a market society, one in which land, labor, and money itself were treated as speculative commodities.

Johnston suggests US citizens need not only reforms that would challenge these market consolidations but more broadly a new counter-class war. History provides some potent examples—such as the Roman Tribunate, an institution giving Rome’s poorer citizens the ability to block legislation that would harm them. Finally we need a new democratic ethos, one informed by a tragic vision that recognizes democracy’s limits.

Democracy is caught in several related paradoxes. It promises much but given its exacting standards it cannot deliver. It thus produces periodically inordinate resentments.

Given its commitments to mutual self-rule, equality, it suggests a brand new day in politics. Democracy seems content to allow patriotism free reign insofar as patriotism obscures the tragic dynamics that bedevil it. Democracies see themselves as uniquely vulnerable and resort to tactics worthy of their enemies. Abuses are considered incidental, regrettable, and correctible, thanks in part to democracy’s reigning principles, especially procedural norms. Can theorists and activists fashion an ethos and practice that will address these systematic injustices?

Recasting Democracy

With its overarching confidence in itself, democracies often produce dubious outcomes in emergency situations. Often these emergencies are consequences of policies pursued by elites and then subsequently inflated in the mainstream corporate media. Or they are manufactured by elites in support of the reigning ideology. Think: the Gulf of Tonkin.

Steven Johnston, author of American Dionysia, provides a powerful reminder of democracy’s systematic faults, but he is no anti-democrat. His goal is to articulate and defend a tragic sensibility that might enable a more sustainable and mature democracy, one that would inflict less harm on its own citizens as well as the world. Democratic life involves taking on the burdens of success. Success mandates the continuation of politics because victory is made possible by those who suffer defeat, loss, injury and death. Injury is inevitable and unavoidable. It does not necessarily result from evil intentions. It “flows from the incompatibility of equally worthy goals… from the injustice that justice often entails, the unpredictable character of action in concert, and the stubborn nature of things.”

Such a sensibility engenders and is engendered by a view of the nature of the cosmos. The world is a “difficult, forbidding, uncertain, volatile, resistant, dangerous, and lethal” place. He adds: “A world so composed must be navigated with care and concern.”

Tragedy properly understood does not foster resignation but rather new bursts of creative energy. We act knowing that success and failure await us, but failure itself creates new options and possibilities.

Democracy must be forced to reflect on itself, which can be done though both through new memorials and rituals. Several imaginative examples, inspired by both classical tragedy and contemporary culture are presented. Thus, following from some of Rousseau’s institutional suggestions, Johnston advocates an annual reparations assembly mandated by law. This assembly would be duty-bound to hear the grievances of citizens who have been harmed by politics. Though such as assembly might well become an occasion for wealthy landowners, real estate developers, and financial tycoons to trumpet the harms of redistribution, even the most thoughtful reforms can be carried out with needless cruelty and have unintended consequences. In any case such an assembly today is hardly likely to strengthen resistance to egalitarian redistribution, and since many income disparities today are the result of state action rather than pure free markets it will give the voices of egalitarianism more opportunities.

Desmond Tutu
Reparations assemblies might have changed some of our troubled history. I am led to ponder the fate of those who once engaged in what are now almost universally recognized as evil pursuits.  Reparations assemblies might have serve as a kind of truth and reconciliation commission. Following the Civil War, union soldiers received pensions. Those who fought for the Confederacy received no such benefits, and their taxes helped fund these pensions. This benefit of course was denied to slaveholders, but most of the Confederate soldiers were not slave owners and often suffered in competition with slave labor. What might our history have been like if at some point such an assembly had awarded generous pension to former slaves and at least modest amounts, to poor and working class veterans of the Confederacy. Would these citizens been so easily recruited for Kevin Phillips' southern strategy?

Democracies need to curb their foreign abuses as well. Democracies must make the effort to see themselves though the eyes of the enemy. He suggests placing a commemorative plaque including the names of the perpetrators at the site of 9/11. When Americans look up at the site of the rubble they may have more of a sense of what others see when they think of us.

In what is likely to be at least as controversial, Johnston argues for a reassessment of the relation between violence and democracy. Violence and democracy are usually seen as antithetical. Yet contemporary democracy practices violence on a daily basis. Equally our democracy, which purports to be the world’s example, was founded in violence against both property and people. What were the original Tea Partyers but precursors of today’s much- reviled “looters” and “takers?” Though nonviolence is often portrayed as the key to the success of the Civil Rights movement, the threat of violence helped create an incentive to deal with these protests, just as the threat of violence encouraged Roman patricians to accept the institution of the Tribunate. Johnston is not advocating any shoot out with highly militarized police, but there may be situations in which strategic violence, violence that would not spiral out of control, could avert even far greater death.

I would add two points. Even nonviolence is not as pure as it purports. Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out in Moral Man and Immoral Society that even such nonviolent actions as blocking a train could deny needed food to those at the end of the line. He also added that the success of nonviolence depended on the moral ideals of those on the receiving end.

In today's continuing rush to foreclosure on delinquent mortgages the Occupy movement in cities as diverse as Atlanta and Detroit has engaged in actions designed to prevent foreclosures. In escalating rental markets, these actions might evolve into citizen patrols that would forcefully resist evictions.  Violence might flow from such encounters, but the public attitude would not necessarily treat these patrols as disreputable lawbreakers. And how would local governments react? One who has imbibed a tragic view of politics realizes there is no certain answer. We can thank Steven Johnston for making these questions clearer and more pressing.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Degraded Fascism, Nihilism, and Donald Trump

 Thomas Dumm
 Amherst College
“Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.”
The Coen brothers, in lines for Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998)
So declaims Walter Sobchak, when told by Jeff Lebowski, AKA, the Dude, that he is being harassed by some ex-members of a German band called Autobahn, who claim to be nihilists. Regardless of whether these fictional miscreants actually meet the definition of nihilist, I think Walter may have been on to something, if not about the nihilists, then about the Nazis in comparison. 

What makes me think of this passage from that film these days? Nothing else than the remarkable candidacy of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Mr. Trump has been subject to enormous scrutiny since he announced his candidacy in a hate-filled rambling speech given after descending the lobby escalator of his eponymously named tower in Manhattan a couple of months ago now. This is the speech in which he made his now infamous remarks about Mexicans being rapists and murderers, and some of them being good people, he guessed. Since then, there have been repeated prophecies concerning when Trump would “jump the shark,” as the show business phrase has it. As of yet, he has not suffered any decline in ratings (oops, I mean public opinion), even after his repeated insults of other candidates, his denigration of the Vietnam era hero and former presidential candidate John McCain, after his vitriolic attacks on Megan Kelly of Fox News following her critical questioning of him during the first Republican presidential debate, after issuing his first “policy paper,” which called for building a wall at the Mexican border using slave labor, after having proposed an end to  the 14th Amendment guarantee of citizenship to those born in the United States, after having Jorge Ramos, the most prominent Latino journalist in the United States, thrown out of one of his press conferences, telling him “Go back to Univision!”, after  hurling insult upon insult at his competitors for the nomination, the slurring of various minorities and their representatives (Black Lives Matter is a hate group, according to him, and Ferguson, Missouri is filled with gangs who had their origins in Mexico), Trump continues to gain.

 As has now been noted by everybody, every time he does something conventionally called outrageous, Trump moves further up in the polls among Republican candidates for president. He berates Jeb! Bush for speaking in Spanish in his public appearances, and his poll numbers among Republicans increase. (I am reminded of the woman in Texas long ago who, insisting that everyone ought to speak only English, remarked, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for everyone.”)
Many of the explanations given for Trump’s enduring appeal as a candidate are convincing: he is expressing the frustrations of the right-wing white male nationalists and racists that now compose the core constituency of the Republican Party, doing so without any subtlety, subtlety being yet another sign of weakness for that subsection of the electorate; he is skilled at self-presentation, a natural on television as only someone long practiced in the free-form art of “reality” television can be, and hence is not thrown off message by challenges to the truth of what he says; his enormous wealth and decades of building the Trump brand have made him both familiar and widely admired among the Ayn Randians who compose so much of the core constituency of the GOP; his cheerful hatred, on display in every public appearance, mocking his competitors, denigrating anyone who disagrees with him, demonizing those he knows are hated by racists who seek someone to represent them in their hatred—all this provides psychic pleasure to those who love him and those who do not, stimulating a Lacanian jouissance as a core response to his persona by both those who hate the capital O Other and those who hate him. 

Trump appeals to those who believe that the decline of the US is a consequence of foreign power and betrayal (sound familiar?) Consider for just a moment the opinions of those who currently support him. 66% of them believe Obama is Muslin, 12% that he is Christian.  61% believe Obama was not born in the US, 21% that he was. 63% want a Constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship, 20% do not. But also consider this: these views are not unreflective of the overall GOP primary electorate. 51% of Republican voters say eliminate birthright citizenship, 54% say Obama is a Muslim, and only 29% affirm that he was born in the US (while 40% inaccurately believe that Ted Cruz was born in the US.) (Figures taken from Digby Parsons’ blog post on Salon, September 3). In other words, Trumpism resonates because the GOP has become a far right racist nationalist political party.
 Any and all of these factors contribute to a sense of the power of Trump. But even as I list these factors, I feel a sense of unease. This is all too easy, in a sense. There are too many explanations here, and all of them make sense. Trump, we might say, is the over-determined presidential candidate.      
But that isn’t quite it. In thinking about how to understand Trump, I returned first to a book that has, perhaps, not received the attention it may deserve, Diane Rubinstein’s This Is not a President. Deeply devoted to both Jacques Lacan and Jean Baudrillard, Rubinstein presents the American presidency as a sort of psychic sinkhole into which we collectively-- by way of popular culture, press, television, and increasingly social media--whisper our deepest and least respectable desires. The presidency thus is a screen onto which we project our affective responses to what we perceive to be our culture at large. In this sense, Trump is a figment of the collective imagination; he makes our secret desires acceptable; he has a way, like many other fascists, of making obscenity respectable. That is the first point concerning his art.

But I want to focus my comments elsewhere. For me, a deeper answer to the appeal of Trump can be found in how he operationalizes fascism in an American context composed of universal and highly fragmented media of mass communication and social media composed of increasing isolated affinity groups. My ur-text here is “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” In that classic essay Walter Benjamin described the pre-conditions for the rise of fascism in Europe in 1939, namely, the proletarianization of modern man and the concomitant development of mass society. For Benjamin, fascism attempts to give the masses a way of expression while leaving property relations intact. He writes, “It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses – but on no account granting them rights . . . The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.” 

 Benjamin goes on to cite Italian futurists, whose manifesto for the colonial war on Ethiopia celebrates the aesthetics of war. “War is beautiful because – thanks to its gas masks, its terrifying megaphones, its flame throwers, and light tanks – it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machine. War is beautiful because it inaugurates the dream of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it combines gunfire, barrages, cease-fires, scents, and the fragrance of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architectures, like those of armored tanks, geometric squadrons of aircraft, spirals of smoke from burning villages, and much more.” 
Benjamin adds an interesting footnote to this observation, in which he notes that the newsreel is incredibly significant as a propaganda tool in the context of war, and that it works especially well in presenting the masses to themselves, in “recording” images, especially of mass movements that cannot really be comprehended by the naked eye. “This is to say that mass movements, including war, are a form of human behavior especially suited to the camera.” Hence, for Benjamin, war itself becomes the quintessential fascist event in the 20th century.
I would suggest that the European fascism of the first part of the twentieth century has its degraded counterpart in the form of an American fascism suited to the twenty-first. Trumpism is the current incarnation of this degraded fascism, in which the newsreel in the movie theatre is replaced by the resonating power of Fox News – William Connolly’s seminal essay on right-wing resonance machines is apropos here -- and the impotent admiration of the MSNBC resonance machine, especially as embodied by Chris Matthews, he who felt a thrill up his leg when he heard Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National convention. In the month of August MSNBC devoted as much if not more time to coverage of Trump than did Fox News, in part to chase ratings, but also, I would suggest, in a new quest to find that leg thrill. If it is not the thrill of the beauty of war in the Futurists’ vision, it is nonetheless a thrill provoked by a thought of violence and vengeance. 
It is here, on screens tuned in to the remaining shards of televised news, not in the rallies and demonstrations that accompanied 20th century fascism, that we find reflected the demonizing hatred that is widely celebrated by those who think of themselves as white (to borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), as patriotism, the ferocious protectionism of the nation by the building of walls (paid for by the blood and money of the once again newly conquered), and the eternal Manichean choice between us and them is brought into vivid focus by the shifting demographics of an imperial power in decline.
The apotheosis of this powerful movement here in the United States has been the staging of what are being called, with no irony, presidential nominating debates. These strange gatherings, in which real debate in the form of exchanges between candidates holding differing views is practically prohibited, now constitute the number one prime time special events programming for the United States. Twenty-three million viewers tuned into the first Republican debates. So now the medium for a fascist political spectacle is not the Nuremburg rally but a collective gathering before digital screens.

This is fascism; it is a new means for giving expression to the masses, while ensuring that the underlying economic arrangements remain intact. But I want to suggest something more -- that this is nihilism as well. Why? Fascism, as a totalitarian political force, insists upon an intense organization of its masses. That is a part of its aesthetic. Trumpism -- for lack of a better term – is not nearly so organized. In his presidential campaign Trump is closer to the character of the Joker in the second of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, the man who, as Alfred the butler puts it, simply likes to watch the world burn. Like the Joker, for Trump there are no guarded moments, no forethought in his improvisations. His policy pronouncements are closer to being automatic writing than coherent attempts to demonstrate solutions to problems, sketches on the back of envelopes that are then farmed out to hack consultants to puff up in to white papers.  I think that this is because at the heart of Trumpism is the branding of Trump.  I suspect that a President Trump would be a new Peron without the military uniform. In short, as an ideology it would lack the courage of its lack of conviction. 
But the core danger of Trumpism can be found if we continue with the Joker analogy, because what the Joker’s nihilism does in that film is provoke a vigilante response by both the District Attorney of Gotham and, eventually, in The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman himself. (See Steve Johnston’s 2012 post on that film.) In other words, even should Trump’s own campaign implode, he is already inspiring others to take up the racist cudgel and swing it. Hence Scott Walker’s call for a fence on the Canadian border; hence Jeb! Bush’s use of the term “anchor baby”; hence Mike Huckabee’s paranoid insistence that there is now a war against Christians being waged by the Supreme Court; hence . . . well, every day seems to provide yet another example.  
The technological advances that have destroyed the middle class, the war against the commons that has precipitated educational decline, and the enormous demographic shift that has been taking place in the United States over the past thirty years, all of which can be traced back to the rise of neo-liberalism, from Reagan to Obama, provide fertile soil in which this degraded form of fascism can grow. It is actually possible that Trump’s campaign might succeed, especially if he doesn’t either get distracted by some other shiny object, or discovers that he might lose significant amounts of money if he actually assumes the presidency. Trumpism is a cartoon vision of fascism. 
 It is a black comedic expression of a nihilism that is very much like the nihilism Cornel West decried over a decade ago in reference to young African American men, a what the hell attitude that is really a product of despair. This time, though, it is the despair of the old, the people who call themselves white, the racist, the men who were once in charge but are no longer, and the young white men who see no future for themselves, still dreamers of the dream of an America in which they won’t have to be confronted by the Other in all of its terrifying Otherness.
  Trump pours gasoline on this fire, but does so in such a way as to defy others to challenge him for doing so. He pokes fun at his competitors for the presidency, especially the men who pretend to be in charge, especially poor Jeb! Bush, because they are, in fact, more pretend than he is, hiding their hatred under dog whistle code words. They fail to admit that they hate, and even worse, fail to enjoy their pretense of not hating. Trump isn’t like that. He embodies those resentments of the privileged and powerful, he hates those who get in his way, but he hates cheerfully, and in the end he doesn’t care. He is actually having fun, again, very much like the Joker. His shrug, his facial grimace as he dismisses those who attack him as losers, his entire shtick, is devoted to fun, and to not caring. To have him as the American president would be to have someone who, not so much wouldn’t know what he was doing, as much as someone who didn’t care what he did, just so long as he continued to gather attention to himself. That is nihilism, American style, a new name for an old narcissism of those who still think of themselves as white. 

(The initial incentive for writing this essay was an invitation to participate on a panel on the Art of Elections at the APSA Annual Meeting in September, 2015. Thanks to Nancy S. Love for the invitation.)