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.  

Havana Notes

It is early afternoon in Havana, and someone hands us a small flier. It reads: 

We are a collective of artists that come together every night at a small, dark and decadent underground hideaway. It also happens to be the best dance floor in the city. Looking for something with a little more edge than La Bodeguita or El Floridita? Come find us. 

In a few hours our large group – mostly white and indigenous United Statesians – are headed to the address provided. We walk down narrow, partially lit cobbled streets nestled between tall, ornate Old World buildings, past families playing dominos on card tables, countless stray dogs and cats, and the municipal headquarters for the Cuban Communist Party in Old Havana.  

There is, every few blocks or so, a building that is a shell of itself. Whether it is being renovated or torn down is difficult to tell. Investment for development and construction is painfully slow to come in. What’s more the city’s administration is determined to maintain as much of the aesthetic integrity of its architecture as possible. This means not just construction workers but artisans trained in crafts that haven’t been needed for most buildings in decades. Recently the government has set up colleges and arts schools dedicated to training young students in these crafts. But again, there are few resources with which to keep these institutions running.   

Occasionally, there are buildings that simply cannot be revamped or rebuilt, and these are to be demolished in order to put in a park or garden. In Old Havana – an area where structures are as much as five hundred years old – there is a notable lack of green space.  

The underground club is, as promised, small and dark. We each pay five dollars or convertible Cuban pesos to enter. We are given a free drink. After that each one is four dollars. Compared to what I am used to paying for alcohol in Los Angeles, this is a steal.  

There are two cozy rooms, one for the bar and one for the makeshift dance floor. In the middle of the latter is a small vinyl covered sofa. By the end of the night there will be perhaps a hundred people crammed in there, dancing to a mix between hip-hop, reggaeton and roots reggae. Our small group is likely the only American presence and, other than a couple of English rugby players, probably the only non-Cubans in the place. 

The artists’ collective hosting us is, for tonight at least, showing off its creative talents primarily through the medium of dance. The ceiling is criss-crossed with strong metal bars, not too unlike a lighting truss over a stage. Throughout the night, several young dancers will jump up on the sofa, grab the bars and perform moves that are physically remarkable whether you know dance or not. Dances that don’t merely employ the legs or hips or torso, but rely on the strength and flexibility of arms, necks, the ability to tangle and un-tangle one’s self from their partner in mid-air. 

There is a rather straightforward gender dynamic. Plenty of same sex couples dance with each other, and there are several non-binary dancers in the room. They are far from a marginal presence. In fact it is they who are often seizing the spotlight in the center of the room throughout the night. We sweat, we gyrate, we lose track of time for the sake of a place whose distinct air we have never breathed before. 

Catching my breath by the bar, I notice that as my friends and I come up, we happily pay the requested four dollars for a beer, a glass of wine, a shot of tequila, a mojito or Cuba libre. However, when someone from the neighborhood comes up, speaking Cuban Spanish, they aren’t charged a thing. Has this night been put on “for us”? Not exactly. We’ve been invited here to pay what are, by American standards, very cheap prices in order to pay for their night out, their revelry.  

And we have no complaints. We have been shown something of Havana that is quite separate from the official narrative. Something of the social rituals and leisure of people whose desires and stories have been shown to American eyes only through the most manipulated lenses. 

* * * 

I won’t romanticize Cuba, no matter how enchanted I found myself during our short visit. But neither should anyone concerned with the imaginary of human liberation dismiss it. Suffice it to say that in twenty years as a Marxist I’ve never encountered a theory that seems to satisfactorily explain the Cuban socialist experiment. The leftist realm of “critical support” seems to be entirely occupied by those either entirely uncritical or woefully unsupportive.  

The closest to an exception I’ve come across is that of CLR James and his co-thinkers. He understood that revolutions are less events than they are processes, and that processes can be shaped one way or the other by any number or combination of social forces.  

As such, his “critical support” of the Cuban Revolution was both genuinely critical and actively supportive. He was clear that the 1959 revolution had made massive gains in kicking out western imperialism and American interests, in redistributing resources to the poorest Cubans, but also that it had failed to put decisive democratic power in the collective hands of working people. He also gladly participated in the January 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, which was one of many such gatherings held in the city during the era of anti-colonial rebellion.  

This process – a process countless radicals found worthy of their participation – grabbed the imagination of people across the world during this era for a very good reason. For many Caribbean revolutionaries – not just James but Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Claudia Jones and countless others – the significance of the Cuban experience was found in the possibility it presented for the forging of a new, independent Caribbean identity. Specifically one that radically departed from the path of colonialism, subjugation, and genocide that western capitalism had imposed on the region.  

This vision is a powerful one, and it has endured through countless events and actions that could undermine it. Even as the Cultural Congress was underway, black Cuban writers and intellectuals critical of the government’s lack of action around racism were prevented from participating. In the later summer of that same year, hopes that Cuba might present a model of development independent from Moscow were dashed when Fidel supported the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. And yet, the idea of Cuba as a locus of Caribbean liberation continued. Not because of what it had become, but because of what it might have the potential to be. 

Now, of course, that process is both isolated and stalled. Its horizons have been narrowed greatly. Not just by the fall of the Soviet Union, but the sclerotic imaginations of those who have inherited leadership from Fidel and the slowly dying original generation of revolutionaries. Miguel Díaz-Canel, president and likely successor to Raul Castro as First Secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1960. He has little actual memory of the revolution or the dynamic processes it unleashed.  

The Pink Tide that briefly gave Cuba much-needed oxygen in terms of ideas and resources has receded. Chavez is dead and Venezuela is in crisis, thanks largely to US meddling virtually identical to what Cuba has been subjected to. Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, now has a far-rightist in at its helm; he routinely threatens to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

All of which needs to be kept in mind when considering the new travel restrictions imposed by the US this past Tuesday. Sixty years of these types of restrictions have done very little to destabilize – let alone dislodge – the Cuban government. It is worth asking whether they are in actuality even designed to. Cruise ships, private and corporate flights have been banned, but commercial flights are as of now unaffected, and people are still allowed to go to the island for business trips.  

The types of traveler affected most by these restrictions appear to be the tourist and the student. Steve Mnuchin, he who helped design Donald Trump’s slow-motion economic catastrophe in the US, claims the rules are designed to “help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.” Except that these are visitors who are most likely to spend their money in ways that go most directly to ordinary working Cubans. For example, our ability to support a small artist collective. Pointing once again to the gap between the actual impact of sanctions and embargoes and their stated targets. 

These restrictions are, along with the above, an easy propaganda boost for Trump. Not just in terms of the saber-rattling against Venezuela, but in his renewed push to prove that “America will never be a socialist country.” Imperialism is talented at turning the economic into the ideological, and it has a readymade reserve of support in the most hardcore segments of Trump’s base. For these people the mere presence of a welfare state in Cuba is enough for them to denounce free education and healthcare as “communism” anywhere in the world. That such social programs are now popular demands among large swathes of young people in the US is all the more reason to punish its presence anywhere. The free movement of people and ideas be damned.  

Photos by Kelsey Goldberg