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.

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

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.