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.