Class Struggle and the Limits of the Liberal Imagination

Shutting Down the Shutdown

It looks like Trump is ending the government shutdown without getting his precious wall. Good. There are immigrant families and government workers breathing a sigh of relief right now. Which says a lot regarding a real and material common interest.

It’s a temporary victory, for sure, but a victory. That being said, there is a central factor that is being ignored in the narrative of what ended the shutdown. Some are already spinning it as Trump caving to Nancy Pelosi. It would be a very neat narrative if Pelosi had actually done anything that would have twisted Trump’s arm or put him in a difficult spot. But she didn’t. And Trump was able to do what he does best: turn the shutdown into high populist theater, flooding the White House dining room with fast food and provoking haughty disgust at the prestige of the presidency once again being besmirched. Playing right into his hands.

Power doesn’t concede anything to scolds or upturned noses. It concedes, as someone once said, to demands. And that is what ended the shutdown. One of the reasons that the lesson from this episode is so easily obscured is that it has been some time since anyone of even moderate profile in the American labor movement has uttered the term “general strike.” Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, afforded a fairly modest platform, nonetheless took the opportunity to say that just such an action may be the only thing that ends the government shutdown.

This didn’t emerge from nothing. It came after a growing wave of discontent among government workers that had started to make itself felt already. TSA workers sicked out, IRS employees refused to be sent back to work without pay. Even when TSA workers would go to work, they would exercise their power other ways, for example blasting loud and profane music over the speakers, or just waving people through with minimal checks.

One has to stitch these stories together and view them in their own context to see that there was very concrete workers power being exerted here. It is even harder to stitch them together in our minds today given forty years of attacks on our infrastructure of dissent. Workers, when pushed, can readily understand their interests and how to leverage them. It is notable if not stunning how organically this can happen, even without the intervention of a self-appointed leadership.

This is not to say that organization — specifically socialist organization — is not important. Far from it. It is necessary. Particularly because of the way in which the media can fracture a sequence of events, discombobulate their interactions, and confuse causes and outcomes.

What I am saying is that the assumptions we have so often relied upon regarding what that organization looks like and how it will come about must be reassessed. And on the basis of what we have always insisted is the capacity for workers to wield power.

Now that power is being actively wielded. Let’s not forget that the actions of flight attendants, IRS and TSA workers are coming in the midst of a growing strike movement among teachers to protect education. These are strikes around economic demands for sure, but also, and in a big part, strikes around social and community provision; not just wages, benefits, pensions, but class sizes, student programs, etc. Conclusions about the social implication of one’s job, along with what what can be expected and/or forced to do on that job, are being generalized right now. They are being generalized unevenly, and with various mixed or backward ideas still being pulled along, but they are being generalized.

When these types of generalizations are made, they also clear the way for conclusions about the organization of key components of capitalism. What is salient in this case is the way in which air travel aids in capitalism’s geographic regulation of itself, both in terms of commerce and in controlling the movement of people. Nobody who has been pulled aside by TSA for “flying while brown” can forget this. Like the wall itself, airport security is a form of enforcement, bringing with it all sorts of racialized implications.

TSA workers, air traffic controllers, and even flight attendants are implicated in that enforcement. This is not a moral judgment but a concrete assessment of how the job is shaped and what is expected of anyone taking it. However, when TSA workers simply wave people through, or even wield some sort of control in changing the conditions of their presence on the job, the potential for them becoming less complicit — even refusing — is thrown up.

Are there still going to be, going forward after these actions, all sorts of backward and racist ideas rattling around the heads of TSA employees? Absolutely, and we cannot be dismissive of this. We are talking about potentials rather than reality at the moment. But in the process of exerting power from the bottom up, as socialists have always been fond of saying, those exerting it begin to confront that potential. And that confrontation, again, has wider social implications.

The class interests represented by Nancy Pelosi are diametrically opposed to these implications or lessons being generalized. This is obvious with Trump, but when it comes to the liberalism’s current socially mediated iteration, class interests can always be magically waved away, buried under shrill accusations and bad faith. At the nasty end of it all, there is always someone like Pelosi to jump out and take credit, robbing us not just of a moment in history but of the potential to shape other future moments like it.

Necessary Rudeness

Aaron Sorkin. Here is a man who never met a moral tautology he didn’t love. To him, integrity and virtue are both self-defining and part of liberalism’s DNA. It is fitting that he is now and will forever best be known as the creator of The West Wing, where he and the cast were able through the Bush years to act out their fantasy of the ideal administration. If few pined for Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett during the Obama years, he has predictably once again become an object of longing in the age of Trump.

But during his recent appearance on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, Sorkin seemed confused, perplexed as to why it isn’t some version of his beloved Bartlett rousing support in the Democratic Party.

I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people, OK? It’s time to do that… I think that there’s a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party, to point out the difference… That it’s not just about transgender bathrooms. That’s a Republican talking point they’re trying to distract you with. That we haven’t forgotten the economic anxiety of the middle class, but we’re going to be smart about this; we’re not going to be mean about it.

I won’t call it a rationale. Rationales are at least ostensibly internally cohesive. Sorkin’s words read more as a declaration of “I don’t want to play this game anymore.” Let’s call it, generously, a line of argument. Sloppy and petulant as it may be, we are going to be seeing kicked around more and more. Particularly as we head into what looks to be the most insufferable primary season in decades. (Let’s place a bet: how overwhelming will the refrain of “the most important election of our lifetime” become this time around?)

The day after my article on the wonderfully bad behavior of Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib was published at Red Wedge, I received a bit of unsolicited feedback from an older editor. He called the article “molotov cocktailish,” and insisted that nobody will listen to those who aren’t ready to exhibit “responsible leadership.”

I do not bring this up out of ego, and will not be quoting the entirety of the feedback here as that does not seem appropriate. I do, however, find the term “responsible leadership” quite interesting, and worth unpacking. 

What is “responsible leadership”? Responsible to whom? On what basis? Against what metric is it responsible to not yell and pound and disrupt until people without rights finally have them? 

If we are talking of the kind of responsibility synonymous with respectability (and we almost always are when it comes to contemporary liberalism) then to what degree does respectability also become synonymous with compromise? 

Again, compromise with whom? And on what basis? How elastic are such seemingly practical words? And can they be twisted in such a way to oppose the very virtues they apparently embody? If so, then how useful are they in an increasingly cutthroat context?

We can and should easily pose the same questions regarding Sorkin’s even more relative (not to mention condescending) notion of “adulthood.” Particularly because it is placed in a very specific context of “how politics work.” “Young people” have passion and anger (for which we are routinely patted on the head in between our second and third jobs). The “adults” actually understand how the world works because they are adults and they get the rules and if you want to understand the rules then you have to simply become an adult because the rules are something only adults can understand. Because obviously.

Building a line of argument (again, not a rationale) on this starting point exposes some rather uncomfortable truths. The ability for transgender people to use bathrooms is no more “a Republican talking point” than the right of Black people to use water fountains. Economic anxiety is surely real, but centering a nostalgia for a middle class that in fact never existed (at least to the extent Sorkin seems to think it did) leaves very little room for a cogent vision that can capture the imagination of most people as they actually exist and where they actually are.

Much of this argument is easily encapsulated in Ocasio-Cortez’s response: “When people complain about low turnout in some demos, it’s not because communities are apathetic, it’s because they don’t see you fighting for them. If we don’t show up for people, why should you feel entitled to their vote?” Note that showing up for people is directly opposed to finger-wagging and telling them to grow up. 

For sure, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib have both already experimented with exhibiting more “responsible” behavior (see, for example, AOC’s backtracking on Israel). Bernie Sanders is well used to it. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has been more consistent, but his attempt to maintain a precarious balance between a young and left-wing membership on one hand and a moderate parliamentary party apoplectic at his leadership has forced some compromises out of him. This is the gravity of political power as it actually exists in the United States. And it is nothing we should make excuses for. 

If anything, highlighting the difference between playing the power game and actually mobilizing people’s minds is going to become far more important in the coming months. It is not an accident that all of the announced candidates for the Democratic nominees have been women with liberal-progressive reputations. Or that two of them have been women of color. A large part of the Democratic establishment is clearly shaken by the possibility of a socialist alternative, and the cynical neoliberal iteration of identity politics that was so quickly (albeit clumsily) brandished by Clinton supporters may yet prove to be the only cudgel left in the DNC’s arsenal of lesser evilism. Which means that anyone raising criticisms of Elizabeth Warren’s love of the free market, Kamala Harris’s “top cop” brags, or Tulsi Gabbard’s admiration fo an anti-Muslim pogromist Prime Minister will be accused, in such an accusation’s mildest form, of having a double standard. The perceived integrity of a single candidate will always, in this worldview, top the needs of actual thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions. 

Which brings us back to the imagination of Aaron Sorkin. Watch The West Wing, or The American President, and you get a clear idea of how “responsible” power is wielded. In the climax of the latter, Michael Douglas’s President Andrew Shepherd exerts force not by bombing Libya (which he does with all due “tough decision” internal conflict an hour earlier) but by speaking an eloquent and fiery speech at a press briefing. He takes his announced Republican challenger to task. “My name is Andrew Shepherd,” he declares, “and I am the president.” He exhibits forcefulness and gravitas, behaving in a “presidential manner.” This, somehow, is different from when a freshman congressperson calls a lack of single-payer healthcare shameful. Ocasio-Cortez rightly pointed out the difference in the same clapback to Sorkin. 

The idea that such gravitas, such appeal to responsibility, can be of any real use with Trump in the White House would be comical if it weren’t so utterly feeble and depressing, and if these feeble and depressing visions weren’t clung to so fiercely by what is ostensibly the #Resistance. Bumbling buffoon he may appear, but Trump has managed to put in motion popular forces terrified of their own decline and willing to do everything from harass indigenous people to assault if not murder queer and trans folks. Forceful words and presidential behavior will not put this genie back in the bottle. 

Politics – actually existing politics that take into account the state of the material world – cannot be reduced to matters of style or rhetoric. Which means that when rhetoric is all that remains, rude and shocking behavior is the least we can do to shake loose an unacceptable state of affairs, to create some cracks in the windowless walls that have been built around our conceptions of the possible. 

So let’s be clear: we are bound to respect no line of argument that ignores our right to a life with dignity. The mere existence of such arguments is offensive at best and at worst complicit in crimes that have an impact well past the limits of discussion. And when the parameters of acceptable discourse are narrowed hazy, wishy-washy daydreams of respectability and prestige, then it is our duty to be as disrespectful and un-prestigious as we can manage, to take “by any means necessary” seriously. It’s not polite, but then neither is the reality that exists outside of Sorkin’s dinner parties. 

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

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