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These Days

Right around Halloween, a decade ago, a friend involved in the Legal Form blog asked if I’d write some thoughts on what I expected from the US election. I didn’t want to do it at first but I figured generally one should think and at worst I’d say wrong things that people pointed out - a stomach-turning scenario to consider, for sure - and that I’d learn from it. This week I thought I’d write something further for the sake of the thinking, partly because thinking is it’s own good, partly because trying to craft little lines and phrases has a zoomed-in quality like sketching or collage that shuts out the background noise, and partly because the world has a nightmare monster-under-the-bed quality a lot of the time these days and writing it down pins into a shape and so makes it a little less menacing. (Come to think of it, Halloween was a good time to write that first set of thoughts, since the holiday’s focus on ghouls and fear matched the world situation, made it tangible and manageable. For me every day is Halloween, it’s so absurd, obscene.) As ever, I hesitate but figure that’s not an impulse to steer by and maybe I’ll end up - painfully - learning something. Anyhow.

I certainly did not see the events of January 6th coming, when a convention of suburban middle class white people’s racist uncles and conspiracist cousins exploited a major failure of Capitol policing to force their way inside the physical symbols of US parliamentary power. The events were genuinely shocking. Since then, the Biden administration has pushed for further expansion of the powers of the repressive arm of the state, and liberals have asserted the event was a coup, insurrection, treason, etc. Many friends and colleagues on the left have been understandably preoccupied with analyzing the social base of those events and the conditions that generated them. That is important work. My impression is that this analysis suffers from occurring in an environment full of noise, and that discussion about these events tends to be wrong footed from the beginning. That wrong footing seems to result from people having differing unstated analytical/theoretical assumptions about what is happening in the world, about the stakes of different outcomes, and about who is and is not a good faith or legitimate interlocutor. I don’t know if the questions in these discussions (such as ’is this fascism?’ and ‘if this is fascism, then what?’) involve what are necessarily essentially contested concepts or if that status as essential contested is merely historical. Either way, it seems unlikely that the speech situation will get any less non-ideal on those matters.

Another factor in the background, I think, is that this all feels very urgent. My own view is that the urgency derives from the morally outrageous character of the politics on display and from the tremendous shock of this break from the symbolic normal. That said, my opinion is that many people of good conscience and sober senses are overestimating the significance of these events and of the social groups involved. I am all too aware that this opinion will likely not move anyone already not convinced, as part of the essentially contested nature of the present moment as object of analysis. One unfortunate reality, I think, is that sound leftist analyses of these events and the conditions that generated them co-exist with far less sound liberal views of these events.

Liberal antifascism helps legitimize the Biden administration in strengthening the repressive wing of the state. Framing that action as a sensible response to Trumpist fascists helps mask that these policies are an exact one hundred and eighty degrees from the demands and political visions of the black freedom movements that made their presence felt after the police murdered George Floyd.

My sense is that during the Trump years there was a selective porousness on the part of liberal politics and analysis when it came to left ideas about the far right, as well as some genuine and often incomplete processes of radicalization of some liberals. (To put too fine a point on it, I also think some on the left are really more like a flavor of liberal.) I doubt that this porousness represented a political opening for the left. I think it was instead a kind of siphoning of ideas from the left to serve liberal agendas. (I am reminded that when challenged that his hiring of Communists and fellow travelers was dangerous, John L. Lewis’s replied “who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” That seems broadly applicable as well to any of us who write left-wing ideas part of out employment in universities.)

As I said a few days before the election, fifty years ago, during the Trump presidency I found myself often thinking by analogy with the Cold War and the War on Terror. In both, powerful antagonists pursued their antagonism in a way that kept their subordinates in place and made it harder for challenges to stay in place. Hence the value of the old slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow.”

That the two kings wage war is part of what keeps all pawns in line. (To be clear I do not at all mean the left should attempt to organize the base of the January events, who seem to be largely reactionary dentists and lawyers and snowmobile and jet ski dealership owners - what Bertell Ollman’s Class Struggle board game called a minor class.) That is to say, the intense dislike that the two parties and their bases have for each other serves to prop up the whole edifice: that our rulers so demonstratively hate each other and fight among themselves is not a sign of the weakness of their rule but a factor strengthening that rule. I suspect this is generally true of electoral politics - elections are a form of class disorganization that sustains systemic power. With appropriately hangdog expression I will still admit - systemically loyal subject and product of circumstance that I am - I still voted Biden.

Since I’ve said I think they are overreacting, I doubt colleagues and fellow travelers focused on antifascism will care what I think. If any do, my view is that worthy tasks would be sharpening the differences between their analysis and liberal antifascism, fighting to oppose liberal antifascist analysis, and developing a political practice with a left-wing content (which, I assume, would put them at odds - and not only rhetorically - with Biden’s politics of law and order but with more dignified tweets).

Simultaneous with the January political spectacle, far more calmly but with significantly higher body count, elected officials have continued to pursue so-called re-opening policies, an important Biden-Trump continuity. I admit I expected Biden’s win to slow that push, an expectation that now seems naive.

Some of my misplaced hope in Biden on the pandemic may be that I live in Iowa, where both houses of the legislature and the governorship are held by Republicans who I think can be reasonably called Trumpian, in their monstrous politics and cartoonish behavior. Their policies have been appallingly inhumane for years, including attacks on public sector unions, worsening of workers’ compensation payments for injury workers, monstrous efforts to limits abortion access, and, during the pandemic, sabotaging municipal efforts to foster mask wearing. Most recently, the state has required schools to offer one hundred percent face to face schooling. This last is a especially atrocious idea right now. And it is one which shows significant common ground between Iowa Republicans and Chicago Democrat’s. Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot - as a woman, a lesbian, an African American - is demographically the type of person for whom Iowa Republicans’ policies express nothing but contempt. Yet Lightfoot shares the sociopathic insistence on in-person school. (Perhaps someone will someday write a lighthearted buddy movie where Lightfoot and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds take a road trip and bond over their common hatred of teachers and their unions. The film could close with the two hugging in front of a cemetery, or a freezer truck full of covid dead.)

Part of what I find so monstrous about the insistence on face to face schooling, like Republicans’ restrictions on abortions, is the suffering and the deaths that will result from those policies. They’re specifically maddening in their monstrosity, though, in that the people who write and enact these policies seem to not know or care about the injuries and death. I call it the Paul Ryan problem.

Paul Ryan always seemed like he slept well, something he never deserved. I have a hunch that conscience and empathy grow and shrink with use. I’m told that examinations of the brains of London cab drivers and of musicians, examination made during their careers, finds enlargements in the brain regions that deal with spatial memory and music, respectively. Examinations made several years after retirement shows those brain regions less enlarged. I assume moral reasoning and humaneness work similarly. Ryan have not used his for ages finds them atrophied: with a toe insensate to stubbing, he can kick whatever - whomever - he likes. I think if you had magic sunglasses like that old movie - They Live, I think? I only know it from memes… - you’d see that every person in a position of official political and organizational power has Paul Ryan’s face, even if a few have not yet finished that transformation. That Reynolds and Lightfoot (and Cuomo, and Newsom, and…) and their cronies and enablers enact policies that will kill is appalling. That they, Ryan-like, don’t seem to lose sleep over it - that they benefit from their apparent nihilism - places them within the uncanny valley. They should at least have to know what they did. The Emperor’s New Clothes was too hopeful. The condition sycophants ignore is not the emperor’s nudity but their being soaked in and dripping with blood. The emperor really doesn’t notice (and, in what they think is genuine beneficence and care, has the vocal child committed, to a facility where the staff lack PPE and paid time off).

In my Legal Form election commentary a century ago I predicted identitarian defenses of conservative Democrats (or, as I prefer to call them, Democrats) like Lightfoot and Harris. So far, I have seen little of that. Perhaps I was simply wrong. We’ll see. I also said that Biden promised that procedural normality would return, and that this promise would pair with technocratic politics to help polish away the scuffs political institutions’ legitimacy endured under Trump. There seems to be more of an aura of procedural normality. I suspect commitment to proper procedure will serve to slow down important changes to reduce the appalling treatment of migrants, though Biden did break with precedent by firing Trump’s National Labor Relations Board head lawyer on his first day, richly deserved and beneficial.

A technocratic approach to politics seems to be flourishing, and in ways I for one did not expect. Like I said, thought Biden would pump the bakes on covid, particularly the push for teachers to die in classrooms. (That’s an unfair overstatement on my part of course. The deaths will be in hospitals, out of sight and mind for everyone but their families and healthcare workers, none of whom, apparently, matter.) Instead, there seems to be a drumbeat of “trust science!” that is simply inaccurate. Repeatedly I’ve tracked back into the studies gestured at and compared them with other information and the assertions are false or misleading. Students get covid in schools and colleges, so do teachers.

Early on in the pandemic some prominent Republican voices said things amounting to ‘your elderly loved ones might have to die for prosperity, get used to it.’ This was a continuation of Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’, which has not stopped echoing since she said it, but with a startling honesty about the costs of that which has no alternative. Democrats seem to be opting for gaslighting, leaning on emphasizing the supposed harms of delayed education and isolation and on pretending children don’t catch or transmit covid. That pretending is facilitated by a game of telephone of misleadingly citing studies that misleading cite studies that are at best subject to interpretation and at worst contain findings antithetical to the push for so-called re-opening. The nihilism of it all is staggering. Part what it accomplishes is a kind of story-writing, using the old cliche of showing rather than telling: Thatcher declared there was no alternative, Biden said similar - "there’s nothing we can do to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months" - but even more so the Democrats manage to inculcate a felt, lived absence of alternatives. In that sense, they’re more effective character-masks for rule than the Republicans. The Republicans say there’s nothing being the curtain, making you want to look. The Democrats use sleight of hand and gaslighting - ’what curtain?’ and so begin to doubt our own eyes.

My sense is that in the Trump years the air of chaos and catastrophe, and the fear and exhaustion that resulted, helped govern and so reproduce the present. Goran Therborn talks about resignation and fear as bound up with domination-sustaining ideologies in his excellent book on ideology, which could be productively restated as a theory of affect and power. The Democrats reduce the immediate, conscious invocation of fear, leaving an isolating and thus disempowering anxiety (is the driver drunk? the car is weaving, well, nothing I can do…), and attempt to produce deference through their pseudo science. As in the Trump years the exhaustion and the crazy-making-ness (several friends have said to me versions of ‘whenever I read the news I feel like I must be losing my mind’) likely do power-sustaining political work. I predicted some of this in my Legal Form piece a thousand years ago, but said it would result from contestation of the election. I underestimated how much it would continue to be generated by the relatively normal operations of state power under regardless of which party’s hands are steering.

In some respects, the end of the panic after Trump feels worse, and more isolating. During Trump those of us on the left could share with a fraction of the dominant culture in loathing him (though the loathing of his supporters has been a little more complicated, being a mix of correct moral outrage over racism and sexism and deserved suspicion for the petty bourgeoisie but also stirred with a significant level of pseudo-left “meritocratic” middle class contempt for the uncredentialed). Now the return to normal has already begun to place left analyses of power and capital more out of step with the prevailing consensus. In the relentless day in, day out it’s easy to feel the walls closing in, mutter “new dawn fades.” I hang on to the light of the memories (not actually as it feels - a million years past - but barely five minutes ago really) of the freedom movements of last summer, taking the police as a concrete universal of political opposition - both immediate object of contestation and symbol for the whole terrible order - and announcing, in a demand for full negation, “fuck twelve.”

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