The Necessity of History, the Tragedy of Aesthetics

When we tear down statues, it is an attempt to alter the trajectory of history. Not history as just “what has happened,” which we can never change as much as reinterpret. No, this is history as a great unfolding, as something that is taking place and will take place on one route or another depending on what is done in this moment. You can hear it in the reactions of the right. In their barely contained apoplexy, their cries of “you can’t erase history,” they are, however unwittingly, announcing that there is consequence to how that history is experienced in the here and now.

Aesthetics, particularly those that exist as part of public space, are never merely about how something is rendered. Symbols and tributes that are hegemonic enough cannot simply have the channel changed on them. The more all-encompassing an aesthetic is, the easier it can hide in plain sight, the more urgent it becomes to reveal their machinations and expose the possibility of ripping it up and starting again.

A book everyone should read (daunting though it may be given its density) is Tom Bunyard’s Debord, Time, and Spectacle. Summing up the book here in any detail that does it justice would take more space than I currently have available to me, but, briefly…

Bunyard examines the thought of Guy Debord, the primary mover and theorist of situationism. Probably the most referenced aspect of situationist thought is that of “the spectacle.” Primarily, this is understood through a media studies or anti-consumerist lens, and this version of it is best captured by slick advertising, the kind that is designed to paper over the inequities of a product or service by making us feel we have an emotional investment in it. The product is fun, it will fulfill you, so best ignore that it was made in a sweatshop on occupied West Bank land and that its CEO has his name in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book.

It’s a useful understanding on its own terms, but as Bunyard argues, it’s also exceedingly narrow. It siphons off art/culture/media from economics/politics/sociology, as if each general realm responds to wholly different laws. Bunyard excavates, through Debord’s study of Hegel, how the concept of the spectacle was a critique of all aspects of life under capitalism. In essence, the spectacle is full-spectrum, the ways in which culture, economy, politics, and aesthetics all conspire under the sway of capital to divorce the individual from history and therefore control over their own lives. It is not so much that media comes to replace politics as it is that politics becomes highly mediated, aestheticized, the illusion of being under our control so that our own subjugation is more easily consented.

In this respect, the toppling of statues is of profound importance. We might understand such acts as de/re-aestheticization from below. Or, bringing in Walter Benjamin, the way in which fascism’s penchant for aestheticizing politics is inverted by communism’s ability to politicize aesthetics.

In this framework, no artistic work or gesture is politically neutral. Any signifier that comes from a moment of uprising can be co-opted and rehabilitated by the establishment. But unlike some who see this as a reason to surrender the realm of aesthetic struggle, who insist such engagement is a fool’s errand, Bunyard’s argument necessitates we do aesthetics better, more collectively, attempting to get in front of detournement whenever we can, just as we always have to do with our understandings of economics and politics. Aesthetics are not divorced from these realms. Ceding them to convention can have serious implications.

The kerfuffle over the “Black Panthers Revolutionaries Atlanta Chapter” reveals in a painfully trenchant way how the spectacle, the aesthetic uncoupling of people from their subjectivity, plays out. It’s surely one of the most bizarre episodes of this current resurgence in Black Lives Matter. Pictures and reports of young mostly black women and men dressed in all black, wearing berets, and carrying semi-automatics at a BLM march in Decatur, Georgia two weeks ago went instantly viral. To some it was a sign that the spirit of black militancy had revived the most iconic black revolutionary groups in American history.

To others it was confusing. They seemed to dress and carry themselves quite differently from the anti-semitic poseurs of the “New Black Panther Party” that have been around for the past twenty-five years. But they had no web presence, nobody seemed to have heard of them. Some observers pointed out that their patches were not those of the original Panthers but of the 66th Infantry Division. That there were also photos of these Atlanta Panthers posing arm-in-arm with police (!!!) was just doubly confusing.

Then came the truth: the small group of armed Panthers were, in fact, actors. They had purchased the clothes and guns, and had shown up at the demo to, essentially, cosplay. All seem sincere in their apology, and going out of one’s way to denounce them seems a waste of energy. But the fact that remains that the whole sequence is utterly baffling. What could possess this group of young men and women, presumably in sympathy with the aims of Black Lives Matter, to do something like this? It would be one thing to attempt a refoundation of the Black Panther Party, however confused such an attempt might be, but this wasn’t that. These were people pretending to be Panthers, consciously choosing to do so. What’s more, they were doing it badly. Nobody who knows anything of substance about the Black Panthers would ever think any of its members would pose for a smiling photo op with a police officer. The cops, after all, were their most well-known and visible enemy.

There is at least a partial explanation in the fact that they are actors. I don’t say this as any kind slight or dig against actors themselves. The entertainment world applies immense pressure to conform to an ahistorical view of the world. I was told by acting teachers that the best actors know nothing about history, politics, or current events.

This is not unique to acting though. In fact it’s inevitable in the commodification of any craft, which is to say literally everything. The breakdown of skill into measurable and hyper-rationalized components removes each gesture and action from their context. Everything becomes an empty signifier. Flowing inevitably from this, events and history become performance, the blurring of the lines between actually making history and just, well, acting like you are. As a friend and comrade said, “I hate when Baudrillard is right, but Baudrillard is right.”

The flurry in Atlanta confirms this as a phenomenon that goes well beyond the ranks of the left, but it also presents a specific challenge for us given that it is our job more than anyone else’s to change history. There is nothing wrong with cosplaying or LARPing in general, but when the shape of this same practice comes to shape how you do politics, it becomes at best laughably ineffectual, at worst dangerous. The “best” are those who have read enough books about this or that revolution and think that all that is needed now is rote replication, a practice recognizable in any innumerable toy-Bolshevik group today. As for the worst examples, it is best captured by the practices of the Red Guards. They think they are recreating Shining Path; all they’re actually doing is the cops’ job for them.

There is, to be sure, a liberal version of this confusion, and it is one that most corporations are becoming very good at lately. Spotify and Netflix release Black Lives Matter selections and playlists, though they obviously won’t call for the abolition of police. Chase gives its employees half a day off for Juneteenth, but won’t pay reparations despite having demonstrably profited from slavery. That these companies are saying anything at all publicly has everything to do with the arrival of sustained mass protest, but they are also done out of cynicism, in the hope that appearances can be mistaken for substantive concessions.

If events are ultimately the real content of history, we can take heart in the fact that it didn’t take long for the Fake Panther story to fall off people’s timelines. They are replaced by far more consequential, significant, history-making stories. Not just the bringing down of statues (and the profound transformation it brings to public space), but the move by teachers unions to ban cops from schools, or by labor councils to kick out police unions. Or the Supreme Court rulings which bans the firing of queer and trans folks, or blocking Trump from ending the DACA program. In the grand scheme, they are small victories, trivial compared to the wholesale abolition of police or the closure of the ICE detention centers. But they will also make material difference in people’s lives, how they view and experience the world, their notion of what it is to fight and win. And they also came courtesy of a moment of mass protest.

Which brings us back to the toppling of statues. What exactly is it that makes this wave so different from cosplaying or the corporate push to co-opt? For one thing, bringing down a statue has less to do with how we change ourselves and more to do with how we change ourselves by changing our surroundings. It is a radically ontological act first and foremost, effectively acting upon the unique and specific role that aesthetics plays in politics.

When our public lives are lorded over by celebratory likenesses of slave owners, genocidal colonists, and murderous eugenicists, it enforces a kind of floating spatial apartheid. Even outside of redlining and other forms of physical segregation, in spaces that are supposedly neutral, their presence affirms the dominance of one version of history over another. The “great men” of a society killed, tortured, raped. And when enough people grasp this, particularly people descended from those who were abused by these men, then they become less welcome in this space.

To reject and reverse this ethereal domination, to tear down these specific symbols, is not merely symbolic. It leaves a hole in the perceived order of a space, a hole left by the people who did the toppling. Ponder that hole long enough, and you start to wonder what other parts of everyday life are informed by exploitation, by vicious repression. If you brought down this part, what’s to stop you from doing so with the others? What might you replace them with?

From Plague to Rebellion

“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.” – CLR James

Already the air is febrile, anxious, begging to move. It is easy to find the demonstration, with so many walking in the direction of the park. Everyone wears masks. Most wear black, many carry signs: “George Floyd did not deserve to die,” “ACAB,” “Fuck12,” “Defund police,” and, of course, “Black Lives Matter.” A police helicopter hums overhead, the first of at least five we will see over the next few hours.

It’s Saturday. Six days since George Floyd died, the wind squeezed out of him by a vicious, petty cop. Six days since Floyd gasped those haunting words, “I can’t breathe.” A week ago, the defining factor of American politics was the pandemic that still has most of the world – including the US – in its grip. Now it’s different, strange, new. What started as protests in Minneapolis became mass protests, then showdowns with cops, then looting of a big box store, then finally the burning of a police station. Young people – mostly black, but also Latino, white, and others – jump, cheer, dance, their fists in the air, as the flames consumed the precinct of the officer who killed Floyd.

It moves. Other cities are now ignited. New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, Phoenix, Louisville, Los Angeles, so many others. The return of urban rebellion to LA is auspicious. There are inevitable comparisons with the uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Also Ferguson and Baltimore. This is on a far more massive scale, far more widespread, not isolated to just one city. It is the largest nation-wide urban uprising since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. LA is one of many today.

In each city, George Floyd is naturally at the front of people’s minds, but so are other victims of police violence and racism from the past several years. Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home in Louisville, two weeks before Floyd’s death, while police served a “no-knock warrant.” Laquan McDonald, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, countless others.

In each city, police attempt to drive protesters back indoors, inflaming outrage and provoking pushback from protesters. Many times, the cops are driven back. Urban space is, at least temporarily, reclaimed.

The march today is touching off from Pan Pacific Park. Perched on the southern edge of the Fairfax District, it directly abuts the famed Grove shopping center. Other high-end shops and boutiques are peppered throughout the district, and the average price of a home around the area is $2 million. Beverly Hills is not far. Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles and founding member of the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter will later tell LAist that the choice of venue is “very deliberate.”

“Going to Pan-Pacific Park was absolutely about letting white folks who are from more affluent backgrounds understand or get a little glimpse of what we experience as black people every day,” says Abdullah. “White folks who are from affluent backgrounds aren’t going to experience that, but at least they can experience the frustration of not being able to make it through traffic. And so those are the kinds of things that we try to do when we go to affluent spaces that way.”

There is a remarkable sense of fearlessness among demonstrators. Entering the park, several tables are set up by high school students and community groups. Some handout free food and water. Others are handing out masks, while still others are giving away bottles of water and baking soda, for use in case of tear gas. Very few of us are shaking hands or otherwise touching, but we are talking and introducing ourselves to each other. Given that we have spent the past two months socially isolated – either shuttered indoors or only traveling outside for our “essential” work – there’s a certain thrill to being around other people.

At the baseball field where the starting rally is held, people climb the cage at home plate to listen to the speeches and hold up their signs. There are now two police choppers overhead, as well as a small drone buzzing around, ten or twenty feet above our heads, adding to that hackneyed and tiresome feeling of cyberpunk police state.

On Friday Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, was arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers who stood by and watched are still free. It is an attempt to placate, to convince protesters that they have won and therefore consent to the “bad apples” thesis of police brutality. It does not work.

“We have a right to our rage,” Abdullah tells the crowd at the park. “We have a right to our rage and them arresting one officer and then saying that’s justice, that shit doesn’t settle well with me. And it’s about those four officers who killed George but it’s about all these officers including the ones who are standing in our midst.”

By the count of Black Lives Matter LA, police have killed 601 people during the Democratic administrations of mayor Eric Garcetti and district attorney Jackie Lacey. Lacey, the first black district attorney in the history of Los Angeles, has yet to prosecute a single cop. She has repeatedly promised to meet with BLM and the families of victims, but has yet to make good on that promise. Over the past few years, BLM has escalated its visible tactics against Lacey. They have held weekly vigils outside the city’s Hall of Justice and crashed fundraisers for Lacey. They have even showed up at her house, the day before elections in March, only to be greeted by Lacey’s husband pointing a gun in their faces.

That was three months ago. Since then, forty million have lost their job. The real unemployment rate is predicted to surpass twenty percent in June. Aided by Donald Trump’s blustering incompetence, Covid-19 has killed over a hundred thousand people in the US. This is more Americans than died during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the entire “War on Terror” combined. Hospitals have been pushed to the breaking point. With no meaningful investment in healthcare or the social safety net, the White House has pumped trillions into the stock market, into banks and airlines and the luxury cruise industry. Aid for ordinary people has thus far been limited to a single $1200 check (unavailable to the families of immigrants) and $600 supplemental unemployment insurance through the CARES Act, expected to expire in July.

With no expectation of a vaccine anytime soon, and with very few safeguards in place, most states are reopening their economies. For the past two months we’ve listened to unhinged public officials and elected representatives tell us we should be grateful and eager to die for the economy. Herds of braying far-right psychopaths have egged them on, strutting around state capitols with fascist signs and AR-15s.

Trump has called the high number of Covid cases a “badge of honor” for the US, said that we should expect as many as 3,000 deaths a day. The reopening of states and businesses will effectively kick millions of workers off unemployment and force them to work in conditions that are literally contagious and deadly. The danger is amplified for black and brown workers, disproportionately represented in low wage work, the public sector, and the service sector, all of which have either been working through this pandemic already or are now being pushed back to work. If you want to know what it looks like when poor and working people have nothing left to lose, this is it.

It would be a mistake to view the fallout from the pandemic as altogether separate from police racism and brutality. There has always been a highly racialized necropolitical calculus in American capitalism, formulae by which it can be determined who is expendable and who is not. See, for example, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s frequently referenced definition: “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” All Covid has done is bring this out into the open.

Speeches wrap at 1pm, and the march starts. By now the crowd is probably 20,000 strong. We flood 3rd street, just south of the park, and head west. We are all angry, fed up, but also looking out for each other, knowing that it very likely is going to go down and that when it does we will need to have each other’s back.

Very few are outwardly fearful. Protesters break out spray-paint cans and start tagging street signs, shopping centers, luxury condos. Even buses and postal vans are tagged as their drivers lean out the window to show support, willfully looking the other direction as their vehicles are scrawled with slogans. “RIP George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe,” “ACAB,” “Fuck the police.” Considering how often youths of color are targeted, even killed by police for being caught drawing graffiti – from Michael Stewart to Israel Hernandez – this is significant. It is being done in broad daylight, and can only be interpreted as an act of extreme defiance.

When we have marched about a mile and a half to the corner of 3rd and La Cienega, we stop. We are in front of the Beverly Center, an upscale shopping mall with stores for Fendi, Prada, Gucci, and other expensive brands. Through megaphones, organizers ask us to take a knee. We yell, in unison, “I can’t breathe!”

We stand up and turn north onto La Cienega. Chanting continues. So does the tagging. When we turn back east onto Beverly Boulevard, there is a noted shift in the crowd’s mood. After a few blocks we see the first line of police. They tell us to go back the way we came, and we comply.

A comrade calls a member of the small group I’m with. He’s in another section of the march, back at 3rd and Fairfax. There, police officers are firing rubber bullets at a crowd of demonstrators with their hands in the air. A few minutes later, an unmarked police car drives through a crowd of people taking a knee. The cops have officially gone on the offensive.

The march splits. As our group heads back going east on Beverly, we start to see billows of smoke. Windows are busted along the high-end shopping district. Same at the Beverly Center and the Grove. Tear gas is launched at crowds of demonstrators, with some hurling the canisters back at the police lines. As we keep going up Beverly, we find lines of police cars, still burning.

Then, a convoy of police cars, sirens blaring, heads toward us. We think they are headed for our contingent, but when we look closer, we see a huge crowd running behind them. This is another fragment of the march, possibly the one fired on just twenty minutes earlier, that has circled back around. After the cop cars pass, we run to join them.

“Did you chase them off?” we ask. Several reply: “Hell yes.”

We later learn this is half true. Some reports have the cops fleeing because they were unable to stop the wave of people, others that they were needed at Beverly Hills. The largest remaining contingent of the march – still several thousand strong – is marching on Rodeo Drive, chanting “eat the rich.”

Later that evening, the mayor imposes an 8pm curfew. He announces the closure of all public Covid testing facilities through the weekend. On Monday, Los Angeles County does the same. Official excuses are concerns for public safety and the like, but it is hard to see it as anything other than punishment, particularly given the disparity in cases among black and brown communities. Similarly, curfew notices are sent out with little warning, with public transport shutting down almost immediately, leaving many people – again, disproportionately people of color – stranded.

And yet, the stories from around LA and the country are the same. The marches are peaceful before the cops intervene. The only way to make this untrue, the only way to paint protesters as responsible for violence, is if one conflates violence with the destruction of property, a durable trick of bourgeois morality.

There has already been so much said regarding property destruction during this uprising. Most of it, at least coming from the media, has been simpering moralistic dreck. Protesters can read between the lines. The shrill denunciations of smashed windows and stolen merchandise are an extension of the arguments used to put people back to work during a pandemic: “If you don’t do as we say then you are worth less to us than what you should be producing.” This by itself is enough to justify the looting, regardless of who struck first.

At midnight, the National Guard arrives in Los Angeles. Same in several other cities. The same National Guard that somehow can’t be mobilized to distribute testing, water or medical supplies during a pandemic.

On Monday, news breaks that Louisville police have shot and killed David McAtee, a black man who had been providing protesters with food. The police chief is immediately sacked. In Omaha, Nebraska, the owner of a bar shoots and kills a 22-year-old black demonstrator. The county announces that the bar owner will not face charges. In Philadelphia and Chicago, there is news of armed white vigilantes looking for looters, with the blessing of the cops.

In Washington, DC, battles between protesters and cops in front of the White House become so pitched that Trump retreats to an underground bunker designed for shelter during terrorist attacks. The next day, cops tear gas protesters so that he can cross the street and hold up a bible in front of the church that hates him. He plans to invoke the Insurrection Act, deploying military to disrupted cities. This would be the first time that act has been used since the ’92 uprisings in LA. He tweets that Antifa is to be designated a terrorist organization, criminalizing any dissent that smacks of anti-racism, anti-fascism, or anti-capitalism.

Neither, it turns out, is actionable. In the case of Antifa because Trump lacks the legal authority and in the case of the Insurrection Act because the military brass has publicly lined up against the idea. Rank-and-file troops are already exploring legal recourse if they refuse to go point weapons at their own communities.

Whole swathes of government, state, local and national, are caught on the back foot. In the following days, the other three cops who stood by and watched while Chauvin killed Floyd are also arrested and charged. Minneapolis city council considers disbanding the police. Riots, it seems, work.

This is a volatile situation. It is also one that has produced an unanticipated level of solidarity and support with the movement for black lives. It is obvious to sectors of society well beyond the radical left that the police in America are out of control, far too militarized, clearly racist and quick to use deadly force. Owners of ransacked small businesses and restaurants are supporting the protesters. “We can rebuild,” they say, “but George Floyd cannot be brought back.” Reality TV stars – people whose job it is to be politically inoffensive – are posting Angela Davis memes. Even major corporations – including Target, one of the first major stores to be looted in Minneapolis – are releasing expressing support for BLM; a cynical and opportunistic move for sure, but one that reflects how dramatically the ground has shifted.

This means that there is clear room for the movement to spread, evolve, capture other spaces physical and political. Bus drivers in Minneapolis, New York and Cincinnati have refused to transport arrested protesters on their buses. What other cities can replicate this? What role can teachers and their unions play in demanding that their school districts follow Minneapolis terminate their contracts with cops? What links can be fostered to the ongoing workplace and rent strikes across the US?

The idea of this movement deepening, spreading, throwing open new doors of possibility, contrasts with recent history. The neoliberal era – which we may or may not be exiting now – has shown a talent for isolating, co-opting, and fizzling out movements, with those who build them left wondering how to ignite wider layers in conditions of demoralization.

Compared to this, we are very much in uncharted waters. This current moment has presented people with a distinct and unfamiliar feeling: the freedom of being ungovernable. Whatever happens in the coming days, weeks, months, it is not a feeling easily forgotten.

Remain Indoors

For the past month we’ve come to grips with this strange yet somehow familiar feeling: history happening without our permission. Of course that’s always been how it is. How many of us have ever truly felt we’ve had definitive control over events? Damn few of us, that’s who. But still, in our schedules, our social engagements, our celebrations and obligations and deadlines, we we’ve always been able to cobble together some sense that things move along. That something called a future is, despite everything, still in store. And with that, something called hope.

Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses On the Concept of History,” insists on the superiority of calendar-time to clock-time for this reason. He writes that “the calendars do not measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness…” The punctures and ruptures of unique events, the times when one day something unexpected and earth-shaking happens; these are the building blocks of history. Not a history of one fucking thing after another, still less history as “what has already happened and cannot be changed,” but history as a process of unfolding. One which we may, should we so choose, push one way or the other.

Now the slightest vestiges of this have evaporated. Whether we are forced to expose ourselves to a potentially lethal virus by going to work or are bunkered in our homes, we are, in essence, reduced to doing nothing more than waiting. There are no events in our lives. Just cosmic random variables, perhaps in the form of a layoff notice or news that a loved one is sick or dead. And yet, on our newsfeeds, things somehow continue to happen, increasingly more estranged from us, reduced to unreality on our screens, but still managing to move us around even as we stay put.

If you want to understand why people are upset that Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the presidential race, then this is it. The point of entry and level of involvement vary, but for millions of predominantly young and working-class people in the United States, the reason for support and involvement was clear: something is very wrong, crisis-level wrong, in myriad ways (the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, a looming third world war, the obstacles to a decent living, ten years to salvage the climate, etc.). Here was an opportunity to take control and put events on a different track. To find, in Benjamin’s words, an emergency brake for history.

Sanders’ “Not me. Us.” rhetoric and ethos on the campaign trail made these people feel welcome and drew an important connection in participants’ minds: that collective solutions require collective engagement. Yes, there are severe limits to just how much one can be collectively engaged through the prism of modern electoral politics. Particularly with all of the ways in which late capitalism has narrowed and attenuated the organs of mass democracy over the past forty years. But this only makes what the Sanders campaign has been able to achieve more impressive rather than less. The mass canvasses, the huge rallies, the use of a platform to urge support for strikes, protests, and struggles – these were, for many young people, a first foray into meaningful political engagement. It was turning people toward socialist ideas the way none of us had seen or been capable of.

And for a short moment it looked like it might work. Against all odds, it looked like it might actually fucking work. A string of early primary wins, high-profile endorsements, and a center that at the time appeared to be letting its own ineptitude win; these were all enough to think that victory might be in the cards. If it were, then a meaningful shift was too. For sure, a Sanders presidency would have had the entire weight of American capital thrown at it, every possible subterfuge to undermine it from all sides. In this case, was it really all that difficult to imagine the kind of popular upsurge this systemic sabotage might have provoked? That the struggles ahead might be actual, two-sided, struggles? That millions of people, upon feeling something better was within reach, might want to fight, tooth and nail to make it a reality? In any case, our horizon of “the possible” was being widened, history exposed as pliable to popular forces.

Then came a global pandemic. And with it the sudden stoppage of everything. No more rallies, no more canvasses. No more seizing the time, just time putting us back in its place. Work continued, as it must, including on the campaign, but its vitality was cut off from it. There was the option of phone banking, but with a larger and larger number of primaries being pushed back, the feeling of historical traction was up in the air.

Watching Sanders address us through online fireside chats and virtual town halls was a pale substitute for campaigning. It was also a lifeline at times. A reminder that something lay beyond the overwhelmed hospitals and death cult politicians that now chide our helplessness us from a nearby screen. With Biden either missing in action or whipping up incomprehensible word salads, there was even a glimmer of hope that the delayed primaries might present us with something of a mulligan, a chance to restart things more on our terms. That’s gone now. The cord to one possible, very exciting future has been cut. Now what are we waiting for, other than for our worst fears to be confirmed when we finally go outside and take it all in? What is there other than the urge to run back inside?

And so, here we are. If the quiet seems more foreboding now, more menacingly empty, that’s because it is. We face a choice between, as some have put it, a senile sexual assailant with palpable disdain for working people and fondness for segregationists, and Donald Trump. When we say this isn’t much of a choice, what we’re pointing to is this false historicity, the idea that Joe Biden will do anything substantive to set in motion a different sequence.

Many will hold their nose (through their masks of course) and vote for Biden in the hope that it will be enough to get Trump out. It will most likely not be. Trump has been able to puff up his approval rating during what should have been a death knell for his presidency because Biden has refused to offer any meaningful alternative. Biden could not even muster a solitary word of opposition to the Supreme Court’s criminal decision to let the Wisconsin primaries go forward on Tuesday. Trump’s second term will come not because he is offering anything better than Biden, but because he is offering something, horrifying though it may be, against Biden’s complete nothingness.

The coming weeks are going to be traumatic. We are heading into what is, in the United States, expected to be the peak of coronavirus cases and deaths, when what passes for a healthcare system in this country is pummeled between a wave of the gravely ill and the rock of not enough beds. While some of us wait in our homes under the hopeless warnings of remain indoors, friends working on the front-lines will be telling us stories of one disaster on top of another, until events seem to be nothing more than a grand wreckage of catastrophe. And indeed, they will be. They always have been.

Which is not to say that that there is no “what next?” to ask. There always is. There must be. One of the supreme ironies of using Benjamin’s theses to understand the Sanders campaign is that Benjamin wrote them as a polemic against the kind of social democrat Sanders has always been. In Benjamin’s view, social democracy (and, for that matter, Stalinism) saw socialism as inevitable, social progress as linear, an excuse for the incremental reforms that allowed party and union leaders to become careerists. What made Sanders’ campaign feel so very radical, like an historical rupture, was partially the decline of this old reformist tradition and the workers movement as a whole since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Between the end of the Sanders campaign, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the impasse most left electoral fronts across Europe now find themselves facing, it would appear that the model of left populism has run its course. Maybe the writing was on the wall when Syriza capitulated to European austerity five years ago, but something more had to be accomplished. And something has. Not as much as we deserve but something nonetheless. The networks of self-identified socialists that didn’t exist before do now. Many of them, including in the Sanders campaign, have become involved in mutual aid networks, or organized their buildings into tenant organizations, helped initiate rent strikes. And, of course, there is a new flurry of strikes among the “essential workers” who are either quite obviously non-essential or are outraged at their company’s refusal to ensure their safety.

These actions are not being taken to win more, let alone for some high ideal. They are being taken for simple survival, so that those taking them can stop themselves from getting sick, keep a roof over their head, so that they aren’t saddled with even more crippling debt or the threat of eviction when the pandemic passes. Will they simply fade into the background when that day comes? Maybe, but we should seriously ask ourselves if this likelihood is predicated on things “going back to normal” when the pandemic fades.

This is a highly suspect assumption, given the havoc this virus is wreaking economically. Some businesses are already beginning to permanently shutter, unable to find a way to weather the next several weeks. By the end of this, a third of all Americans could be out of a job. Some states are panicking that they will not be able to pay all of the unemployment claims that have poured in over the past few weeks, and that number is very likely going to balloon. Governments that already are being forced to break with neoliberal orthodoxy and provide some kind of state intervention may have to rely on even more in the coming years. Not to make things better, but simply to keep them stable.

In short, the empty time we are already experiencing, this specific kind of boredom run through with an almost paralytic anxiety, may still be waiting for us on the other side. We can look in the faces of Great Depression photography to see what this looks like: that twitchy kind of desperation. People unable to relax even though there is never anything to do. The knowledge that tomorrow will be filled with the same shiftlessness as yesterday, the day before, and the day before. The calendar becomes meaningless and the clock takes over. Each day bleeds into the other, nothing to really look forward to because it’s all integrated into the same futureless trajectory.

And yet… Can we dare to say there is an “and yet”? Is there such a moment when the weight of emptiness becomes too much? Is it possible that the clusters of radicals that have coalesced over the past several years are being steeled right now, aside from whatever set of initials they go under? What if the memes of Berniecrats being shaped into communists overnight aren’t just a wry joke?

Word is that within five hours of Sanders’ announcement, five hundred people joined the Democratic Socialists of America. What does this mean for radical organization after shelter-in-place begins to lift? What does the small wave of strikes for basic survival mean for labor movement, or the rent strikes for the possibility of a stronger tenant rights movement? Is there the potential for mutual aid – even in its more depoliticized form – to serve as the scaffolding for something more akin to solidarity networks?

Our history, after all, is filled with people who at one time or another decided that they were tired of events only happening to them and not the other way round. The family crippled by anxiety of eviction is suddenly able to pull neighbors around them form a barricade when the cops show up. A human being beaten down by unemployment one day can find the strength to occupy a relief office the next. Something turns, something changes, something about survival one minute becomes more existential, more infused with visions you wouldn’t let yourself have just days before. If they are to be effective in any kind of long term, they are the impulses that need to be corralled, nurtured, maintained. In other words, organized. And in such a way that it can contend with the juggernaut of state power.

It would be an act of suicidal optimism to be triumphalist about any of this, to act like it’s a sure bet. Or to act like the answers are already self-evident, without any work to make them so. Right now, the best we can do is find the right questions to ask. Maybe in sitting with the ambiguity we can accept that a great many things are still unwritten. And that maybe we can write them.

Dumb and Dangerous

At best theory, like art, turns in on itself, living on through commentary, investing in its own death on credit. At worst it rattles the chains of old ghosts, as if a conference on “the idea of communism” could still shock the bourgeois. As if there were still a bourgeois literate enough to shock. As if it were ever the idea that shocked them, rather than the practice. – McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street 

There are no doubt plenty who thought that if there was salvation in this moment of time, it will come from the Musks of the world. Elon himself had offered to send thousands of life-saving ventilators off to hospitals in need. This was of course after he had downplayed the threat of coronavirus, calling the panic “dumb” and then saying children are immune. But with the productive capacity of the government hamstrung by Trump, his offer seemed a lifesaver. Then the ventilators arrived. And as it turns out, they aren’t the right kind of ventilator. In fact, according to some medical experts, they may actually speed up the transmission of the virus. 

Wark is right. Today’s ruling class is quite possibly the stupidest ruling class in the history of capitalism. And that stupidity will get us all killed. American liberal commentators love to waffle on and on about how obviously idiotic Donald Trump is, but it isn’t just limited to him. All anyone needs to do is look at Joe Biden for proof. Doddering old fool he may be, but the real question is why would the clique controlling the Democratic Party actually thinks he stands a chance? 

Coronavirus is going to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions across the planet. It is going to be a protracted crisis and likely crater the global economy into a depression worse than the 1930s. It is not mere stupidity that prevents Trump or other rulers from acting decisively, providing the necessary healthcare and social safety net that will allow people and nations to weather it all. It is, primarily, class interest working through worldview. After all, capitalist realism isn’t just for us plebes. 

Nonetheless, it cannot really be denied that the very, very rich are very fucking dumb. One might say that their class position necessitates it. Wark’s description of them as barely “literate enough to shock” is apt. It’s not that the rich can’t read. It’s that they don’t read. They are a remarkably un-curious lot, insouciant and insensitive to questions and quandaries which, to the rest of us, are both urgent and existential.  

Pick any world leader, any CEO of a Fortune 500 company, any emissary of the ruling class. How many of them, do you think, upon realizing that this pandemic was imminent, reached for something like Love In the Time of Cholera? Hell, how many of them do you think bothered to go look up the flu pandemic of 1918? How many do you think grasped how drastically the world was about to change, not just economically but in terms of the contours and febrility of daily life? How many do you think have even the slightest inkling of curiosity for the fragility of the human condition? There are no doubt some, but they aren’t the ones most visibly calling the shots. 

In some ways, it shows – in the negative – why the decades-long neglect of the humanities has real consequence for the world. Any society in which these are deemed unimportant is bound to be more brutish in nature. And here’s the rub. The left has, it is true, to grapple with the denuding of its theory, the process by which we can convince ourselves that we are more worthy of running the world simply by dint of our being smarter than them. Rulers have never been undone merely by their own boorish stupidity. At least not without taking down whole societies with them.  

Ideas have never struck fear into the ruling class quite as much as the practical application of those ideas. Which is why the question of practice – real, substantive – is now being forced on us. It’s been proven that nobody is coming to save us. We have to do it ourselves. And the practice of finding ways to sustain each other – particularly those most vulnerable among us – feeds ideas and theory. More than that, it renews them, puts them at the center of new narratives through which we can live our lives. That’s the form in which communism has always been most of a threat.  

This Is What’s At Stake

In some ways, it’s surprising that something like this has taken quite so long to happen in this election cycle. Almost a year after Poway, eighteen months after Pittsburgh, two-and-a-half years after Charlottesville. No, a flag can never do as much literal damage as a loaded rifle or a speeding muscle car plowing through a crowd, but to deny that they now exist on a continuum is the kind of vulgar materialism reserved for those who want to wish away just how bad things have gotten. 

Geographically, it makes sense. Phoenix, after all, is border territory, home of Joe Arpaio and his outdoor detention centers, but at the same time more than a third Latino, with an undocumented population estimated in the tens of thousands. No wonder that Bernie Sanders’ promise to abolish ICE and CBP, polls so well among these communities. Sanders’ candidacy is quite literally a line of defense against concentration camps that litter the US border and the gestapo-like raids that come with them. 

It is not hyperbole then to say Phoenix is a frontier of empire, a place where the tectonic plates of reaction and opposition are constantly breaking against each other. Those who piggishly continue to insist “it can’t happen here” forget that empires are where spectral fascism becomes solid and corpulent. And yes, this American iteration will – must in fact – include an anti-semitism that sees Jews as a key component in a world conspiracy of inundating economies with socialism and populations with non-whites.   

This contingent of American politics is not so much fading away as it is evolving and morphing. In a recent article for Commune, Shane Burley insists that the recent relative quiescence of the alt-right is due to the assimilation of its platform into post-Trump national conservatism, along with the disarray that actual alt-right organizations now find themselves in. There is undoubtedly something to this. But it is also true that this runs alongside an uptick in attacks by far-rightists, isolated individuals “red-pilled” into acts of indiscriminate violence in the name of a pure world threatened by impurity, what Richard Seymour identifies as the “lone wolf phase of fascism.” Think of the shootings in El Paso, Christchurch, and again of Pittsburgh and Poway. 

We should make no mistake: a Joe Biden presidency will do nothing to stop this. For one thing, it is painfully obvious that Donald Trump will be able to run circles around him in the general election. For another, and connected to this, he is imbricated in the same imperial project that inevitably bends in the direction of state repression, of a militarized border, of racialized violence. Many of the liberal, centrist and even conservative organizations denouncing the display of a Nazi flag at the Phoenix rally have already undermined themselves by remaining silent as Sanders has been dragged through the mud for his support of Palestinian rights, with the accompanying implication that he is “not a good Jew.”  

Moving forward, we can reasonably bet that the likes of MSNBC and CNN will condemn this in that non-committal way we are now used to. Doing so will allow them to continue with their cynical “two white men dominating the primaries” narrative. It will also, perhaps more dangerously, ignore the very imperial process of splitting and redefining whiteness that his happening before our eyes. 

To look at all this and say that Sanders’ candidacy does not in fact represent a potential break with this timeline is woefully myopic. Clearly, the most virulent and nasty elements in American politics think otherwise. No, a Sanders presidency will not be able to put a halt to it, at least not decisively. But it will raise the possibility of dealing a very real blow to these same forces, creating what I have in the past referred to as “breathing room” for the networks of struggle and solidarity needed to drown them in the rivers of history. This, and nothing less, is what is at stake.  

Pessimism, Not Despair

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.” – Buenaventura Durruti  

It was never going to be this easy. They were never, ever, going to let us have it, just throw their hands up and admit defeat. That is not in the emotional or intellectual wheelhouse of those who unjustly have more than the rest of us. For sure the smug sharing of memes of Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman reminding us that the rich will never let us vote their wealth away are irritating, but they speak to a truth about class warfare in the United States. Namely that it is, indeed, warfare.  

Days before Joe Biden and his sister-wife-confusing-brain took the lion’s share of Super Tuesday delegates, when we were so much more confident that Bernie Sanders would take them, we were still discussing the possibility of a brokered convention, along with how to fight it. Why? Because we knew that even when an insurgent campaign within a bourgeois party is was successful, it was still a bourgeois party. Because what we are doing is experimental and contradictory and laden with countless pitfalls. Going into enemy territory is all of these things.  

And that’s what we’re doing. We are venturing into enemy territory. Not just in terms of the Democratic Party, but in terms of the wholesale transformation of society. It’s not just their party, it’s their state, their economy, their system. They own it. They run it. We exist within it and now we are starting to move in a direction they dread and despise us for. We were always going to face massive and disorienting obstacles; ones far more violent and despicable than mere rat-fucking. Even with the best of outcomes on our horizons. 

Should it become reality, a Sanders presidency would face obstacles that make what we have seen in the primary thus far look like a mild scolding. He will face the wrath of all of American capital: the industries of healthcare, oil, real estate, retail, arms manufacturers, agribusiness and many more will stack every deck they possibly can against him. And with the fealty of most centrist and liberal senators and congresspeople (along, of course, with conservatives) they will do so with very little “official” political resistance. Which is to say nothing of the police, the military brass, or the roving gangs of the alt-right who will still be skulking around the political and social landscapes.  

A Sanders presidency has always, in practice, been primarily about winning some much-needed breathing room. But even with that breathing room, the tasks for the young US socialist left will still be the same: building up infrastructure to defend ourselves, to win what we’ve been promised and what we deserve, to teach ourselves the language of general strikes and mass civil disobedience that have lain dormant in the collective psyche of working and poor people. We would do well to remember that neoliberalism, the form of capital that has been dominant the past fifty years, came about through brute crushing of insurrectionary movements of women, of black and brown and queer people. It thoroughly defanged a labor movement that had already weakened itself through its compliance with anti-communism. It made footholds through military coups and invasions around the world.  

So, once again, it was never going to be this easy. We are left now, in the scope of things, the relatively easy task of assessing how things have changed since Super Tuesday, now that the Democratic establishment is at long last falling in line behind Biden and giving his campaign a much needed boost. Sanders has gone from clear favorite to an underdog once again. There is no shame in admitting Tuesday to be a defeat. We do ourselves a disservice to think it a crushing one, as if there is no hope left, or that all momentum has been dashed, that a socialist vision has once again been pushed into the wilderness of American politics.  

Sanders won California, along with Colorado and Utah, two mountain states with large Latino immigrant populations. His loss of Texas is a shock, but note that he carried a majority of counties along the border, where the outrage of ICE raids and kids in cages has been the sharpest. What does this mean in terms of his coalition as the primaries now shift back to the rust belt, including states Sanders won handily in 2016 and discontent among a dispossessed former industrial working class remains unresolved. What does this mean in a broader view in terms of “coalition”?  

When we ask this question, we should make sure we are framing it correctly: coalitions, after all, do not just apply to elections. They apply to the kinds of alliances needed to disrupt. To really disrupt, with the possibility of fundamentally reshaping what is at hand. Which is where the other end of our project comes in: the infrastructure of dissent. 

With the obstacles of the establishment now clearly and obviously lain in front of us, the question of what shifts we have to make is pressing. And we would do ourselves equal disservice to think that these are just a matter of canvassing, phone-banking, and other sheerly electoral forms of organizing. The explosion of Democratic Socialists of America since 2016 is a fruitful starting point. Tens of thousands of young people had to introduce themselves to the very difficult and painstaking tasks of building in communities and workplaces. Now we have the chance, the responsibility, to deepen this knowledge. What does a similar shift toward more grassroots forms of organizing mean now, in this context, without abandoning the still-viable possibility that Sanders can win the primary? How can the two approaches compliment and strengthen each other?  

How can a redoubled resolve on the road to the Democratic Convention parlay into the question of mass demonstrations outside of it in Milwaukee in June? How can the promise and actuality of such a demonstration shape what takes place inside, if it can at all? What could be done with the strengthened and expanded networks that come out of the entire experience moving forward in resistance to Trump, Biden, or whomever? Dare we speak of a third party? Given the dominance of the DNC and the pronounced red-phobia within large and influential sections of its voting bloc, we hinder ourselves by refusing to at least soberly discuss the notion. 

To look at the current situation with pessimism is not to look at it with despair. It is to acknowledge that thoroughgoing transformation of society is neither a cakewalk nor a zero-sum game. It is to refuse shortcuts, and acknowledge gaps in our approach. Most of all, it is to follow through when unexhausted options are still in front of us. We deserve as much. We deserve a lot more too, but right now this may have to do.  

Red Lung

Lyrics adapted from Hazel Dickens’ song “Black Lung” by “Irene,” believed to be among the first terraform workers sent to Mars during its initial colonization in the late 21st century. 

He’s had more bad breaks than most settlers could stand 
This planet’s his first love but never his friend 
He’s worked a hard life and hard he’ll expire 
Red lung’s got him, set his breathing on fire 
 
Red lung, red lung, you’ve stolen my time 
Soon all of this suffering I’ll leave behind 
I can’t help but ask what the Angel had in mind 
To let the dust devils claim this breath of mine 
 
HMO TerraCare won’t return his calls 
Your medicine’s radiation or it’s nothing at all 
Your dignity is nothing when it’s air that you lack 
The silence of deep space is calling you back 
 
Down here in Cowtown, on Elysium’s rim 
The broken are accepted, but futures are dim 
His veins and his bronchioles both stopped up with iron 
All that awaits him is the industrial pyre 
 
Red lung, Red lung, your hand’s like a flame 
You fill me with fever and boil my brain 
Red hot like the scorched sky while the atmosphere grew 
Where I sweat my blood out, made this planet new 

The CEO’s letter is hollow and staunch 
Tells us he died nobly, as his ashes are launched 
Take back your bluster, take back your false hope  
He’s no more than dust now, like what choked his throat 

(The verse below was added by an unknown author during the rebellion that is now referred to as the “Martian Commune.”) 

Within the Commune, no bosses endure 
Their winter’s the sickness, our Spring is the cure 
No more will our lungs burn, no more will our veins 
Only our hearts now; a new future’s made  

Painting by Adam Turl

Time to Die

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. 

Rutger Hauer likely had no idea he was presenting humanity with its own perfect eulogy when he said those words. According to Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Peoples, Hauer made several last-minute changes to the soliloquy he was about to deliver on the set of Blade Runner.  

The original text of the monologue, though about the same length, included a few more oblique references to the film’s universe. Roy Batty was to have watched “C-beams glitter” from “on the back decks of a blinker.” He burning attack ships were to be described as “bright as magnesium.” 

Hauer removed much of this, describing it as “opera talk,” adding nothing to the film. And then he added “All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”  

His delivery similarly struck the balance between the marvel of being human and the vast destructiveness of a world that has grown so violently beyond the limits of a single planet. Though the other replicants simply and understandably are afraid of dying, of having their short consciousness snuffed, Batty stands apart as a lifeform in deep and unrequited love with his ability to live.  

Even the manner in which he says “tears in rain” is that of someone who has just discovered that he is able to come up with such a simple yet sublime metaphor. And though we’ve seen Batty do brutal and gruesome things to others throughout the film, we have also rooted for him as he spends his last moments thrashing against the inevitability of his own death. We have to regard the unfairness of seeing his consciousness slip away while the world that teased him with it gets to continue. 

Of course, that world isn’t continuing. It’s ending. At the time of Blade Runner’s release the idea that a society would so willfully and cruelly design itself into its own doom was a controversial one. Words like “cyberpunk,” “global warming” and “neoliberalism” were still only edging into wide consciousness.  

The film flopped at the box office. Years and decades were spent re-cutting it. Scott rightfully knew he was on to something with Blade Runner, but finding the right way to end and tell the story, the perfect way to articulate the something, was a challenge. 

We know very well what he was onto now. In 1982, viewers still had to imagine such a bleak world. Today we are seeing it converge into reality. David Harvey and others have spent years saying that this future is more or less in the DNA of the contemporary city. To walk around Los Angeles, a city of obscene wealth and inequality exposed to increasingly hostile elements, that rapidly shifts between development and neglect and decay, still grasping in vain to convince anyone who will listen that it contains the seeds of an unlikely future, is to see this premonition borne out. 

And so we have caught on. Blade Runner is a classic. One of the greatest films ever made. And in no small part due to the performance of the now late Rutger Hauer. Our own short memories have had Batty’s dying soliloquy etched into them because, past all the pollutants we have shoved into them, we know when we are seeing something purely and magnificently human. 

We too have seen things we wouldn’t believe. Whole cities flooded and burned simultaneously. Gargantuan glaciers come apart like a child’s sand castle in the wind. We know that we’ve created what we’re seeing and can’t help but marvel at the raw obliteration we are capable of unleashing. Even by accident. 

We have, in that recognition, attempted to replicate it. To convince ourselves that we can push our collective human awareness past extinction. In so many other films and books and TV shows that populate the glut of 21st century sci-fi. We have even made a sequel which, unlike its predecessor, was a notable success at the box office. 

But Blade Runner: 2049 was not the accurate sequel. It never could be. The only sequel worthy of the original would by its nature have to be far simpler. And by dying the same year as Batty, Hauer managed to achieve it in a haunting, terrifying, heartbreaking way.  

He reminded us that mortality isn’t a fantasy, or a plot device rendered by a unique and versatile actor. That sapient beings will die. Are dying. Are being killed by forces we created but are now well beyond our control.  

Fair? It’s never a question of fairness. Only of how we ultimately fit in with the same cosmic logic that leaves all of us in awe.  

The Spectacle of Independence Day

This July 4th let’s ponder the way in which our lives are dominated. Our existence slyly orchestrated. Our experiences siphoned down highways dotted with endless signs that ask in that prodding way “why aren’t you happy yet?”  

“Kids are in cages” we answer. “They are ripped from their families trying to escape violence and poverty that this country created in their own. They’ve been herded into pens. They sleep on concrete floors.  

“They are deprived toothbrushes, clean water, ample food. They are watched over by vicious and unfeeling people who have been trained every step of the way to dehumanize and humiliate. We cannot be happy in the midst of this.” 

Armed guards step out from behind each of the signs. They ready their rifles. And they ask, once again, “why aren’t you happy yet?” 

* * * 

Fifty years ago Guy Debord and the situationists looked at the way in which the logic of commodity had insinuated itself into every aspect of daily life. Building on Marx and Lukács he zoned in on the concept of reification, the way in which a commodity makes the manufactured seem natural, and the social relations of any given time appear eternal. Starting in the 1920s, mass media and consumerism had aided in the spread of this logic and its further transformation into a “common sense” worldview. 

This is the spectacle. Under the spectacle everything becomes a simulation of sorts. Materials and items are no longer viewed primarily in terms of what they can be used for but what their value is on the market. And since literally every item in our lives is a commodity, since even our time and consciousness are subject to that same process, every human interaction becomes transactional.  

With this transactional nature comes all kinds of other behavioral assumptions. We punish those who don’t live up to the transaction, praise those who do, conspire behind backs of both. Human bonds are based not on camaraderie, sympathy, solidarity, mutual recognition of talent, but on whether we can get back a return on what we invest in them. Every human interaction is mediated through this prism, and ideas that subvert them are easily sucked back into the system and sanitized. If commodity and bureaucracy present themselves as eternal and above history, what they achieve is placing us outside of the historical process, outside of our ability to experience and change the conditions of our lives. 

It is not quite correct to say that aesthetics play a role in this. More to the point, what the rise of consumerism, public relations, the streamlining of state and private media all managed to accomplish was a version of what Walter Benjamin called “the aestheticization of politics.” Aesthetics, the practice and study of how the environment can be changed to interact with our sensuous lives and subjective selves, becomes woven into political economy.  

For Debord the phenomenon of the spectacle could be accomplished through the implication of force (the maintenance of order through constant threat of violence that characterizes authoritarian states, which Debord called “concentrated spectacle”) or the illusion of choice in a society overwhelmed by commodities (“diffuse spectacle,” which we associate with consumerism).  

In most modern capitalist societies, however, Debord saw a fusion of the two prevailing. This he called the “integrated spectacle,” achieved through the close cooperation of state and private enterprise. Underneath the apparent abundance, very real and crude machinations of secrecy move. We are both convinced and coerced into the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, systems, nations.

* * * 

In 2013 McKenzie Wark, radical author and one of the best living experts on the subject of Debord and the situationists, postulated that we had transcended the previous forms of spectacle. She wrote: 

These days one might speak of a disintegrating spectacle, in which the centralized forms of mediating the spectacle break down into fragments but retain their commodified form. Thus these days we all have to participate in making display ads and writing advertising slogans – selfies posed in newly purchased outfits – assuming the burden of doubling the consumption of things with the consumption of images. All against the background of what Debord called a sick planet, groaning under the weight of waste. 

Wark was correct. The brilliance of capitalism’s use of technological innovation has always been in its ability to parse and rearrange the process of production. It eliminates whatever it needs to eliminate and outsources whatever it can outsource. To make us not just complicit but active and enthusiastic actors in the market, even when we are not consciously working or buying something; this is truly genius. 

And yet one wonders whether the disintegrated spectacle even captures it anymore. As so many of the threats and specters we thought were long gone return and collide and mix with new existential threats. The new always brings with it markers of the old. Even as the disintegration continues, new ways are (re)discovered to integrate and infuse. 

Today, on July 4th, there is a military parade in Washington, DC. Awesome destructive power is rhythmically rolled through city streets, simultaneously encouraging wonder and threatening its use. Spectators cheer and clap and listen to music. We become even more emotionally invested in a system that when push comes to shove will gladly use that same force against us. 

Meanwhile, so much of online chatter seems to be boosting and reifying the idea that we should not call them “concentration camps” (we fucking should). But of course, given what we know of the medium, this narrative doesn’t just come from the “top down.” It’s not melodramatic to say that we are supervisors to our own virtual petty bureaucracies in which others read as disposable. This is the shape of participation in a process in which we are monitored and manipulated, in which commodification and securitization are quickly becoming synonymous. 

Is this a new phase? Are capital and the spectacle showing themselves capable of centralizing through decentralization? Hasn’t this always been how it operates to one degree or another?

Is the Trumpian moment, with its reality show redeployment of “America First” rhetoric, simultaneously searching for new ways to isolate and atomize, the moment of, for lack of a better term, “re/dis/integrated spectacle”?  

And what, exactly, does this mean for resistance? Actual resistance. Not the kind that comes with a hashtag in front of it. 

She Has Come For Your Uncool Niece

I had no idea who Marianne Williamson is before Thursday night’s Democratic debate. But I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have.  

We’ve been seeing her for nearly thirty years, occupying that liminal space that is marginal but still mainstream, crank but still credible in the post-kombucha world.  

She is the voice lecturing an exhausted Whole Foods worker from the pages of a yoga magazine.  

She is the kind of person who sees crisis and opportunity as the same thing because she still thinks that they actually are the same word in Mandarin.  

She is Gwyneth Paltrow’s sentient second head; the one that we have all secretly dreaded in our nightmares.  

I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have. She is a certified organic outgrowth of American culture and politics.  

* * * 

“Heal the soul of America” is the motto on her website. And though it and her untethered tweets won’t likely deliver her a presidential nomination, her motivational poster tone is at home with the vagaries of American politics pulling against their own rudderlessness and a liberalism very bad at covering up its elitism. They also tell us something about the darkness that can come out of such directionless drifts. 

She is obviously and commendably right about plenty of things. She has showed up at demonstrations against the concentration camps. Her website contains rhetoric against union-busting and more. She is anti-war. And there is a worldview in which these can sit comfortably next to a history of neo-Victorian “self-help.” In such a worldview there are certain actions that don’t count as union-busting, things that can be “healed” rather than repaired, gaps in the societal infrastructure that are filled by nothing but sentiment and aura. 

Let’s be clear: on an individual basis there is no problem with meditative or spiritual practices. I meditate twice a day and shudder to think of how my anxiety would overwhelm me if I didn’t. You go to an acupuncturist? Do yoga? Put crystals by your bed? Whatever you have to do to hold on to your sense of subjective self in an objectively bleak and devastatingly cruel world.  

In a system that overwhelms us and inserts itself into our thoughts every chance it can get, we do whatever we have to in order to get a sense of quietude, reflection. There is a gap between the work we are coerced into and our actual desire to labor with interest, to use our creativity, that can only be called inhuman. And it is why so many artists who rely on a seemingly odd spiritual practices are able to so deftly find unexplored angles of daily existence in a world that we are told should be a certain way.  

There is, after all, a whole history of left-wing and Marxist sympathy with the deep exploration of the self, of attempts to “disalienate” it. Not to mention serious left-wing engagement with theology that have boosted and supplemented our understanding of history. It’s why the declarations of “just focus on your activism” from so much of the boorish left regarding mental health not only fall insultingly flat but ignores significant portions of Marxist cultural thought. 

What “wellness” philosophies offer is something altogether different. In fact they far more often achieve the opposite of the exploration of self and subject. These ideas and practices, paid for and exchanged, take on the character of anything instilled with the logic of commodity. They are one-size-fits all and disregard psychological and physiological nuance. They promise more than they deliver, and invite us to rearrange our identities around them, leaving us feeling less fulfilled and whole than we did before. 

And then there are the outwardly harmful ideas. “Functional medicine,” anti-vaxx, even HIV denialism (all ideas that Williamson has skated dangerously close to). There is of course a wide gap between downing a shot of wheatgrass every morning and refusing to vaccinate your child. But the overarching conversation of what is “natural,” completely unmoored as it is from any notion of accountability or rigor, is underlying every transphobic troll asking about “who is a real woman.” It is in every proto-eugenic discussion about which developing country deserves to drown in a flood.  

* * * 

All politics at some point has to confront the process of how the subjective becomes the objective. And when meditation is promoted in lieu of universal healthcare, when “mindfulness” becomes an excuse for companies to abuse and overwork, there is likely all manner of manipulative pseudo-philosophies afoot. 

Hell, capitalism itself is based on the phantasmic notion that wealth simply creates itself. So really we cannot be all that surprised that this type of ideological filler is rising up into the cracks. Labor does not create wealth for Marianne Williamson, it comes from “self-actualization.” Never you mind that her and any version of self-actualization requires some amount or another of resources. Resources that cost money. Money that evidently comes from the ether of good vibes.

Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital is good on this. Particularly in relation to Williamson’s media patron Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey of course has peddled a litany of snake oil salesmen into American culture. Is Williamson a pilot fish for an eventual Winfrey/Williamson ticket in 2024? 

It’s far-fetched but then so was a charlatan reality star as president who denies every piece of climate science that is put in front of him.  

I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have.