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.

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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.