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.

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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.)
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