The State Won’t Save Us: Dis-eased Imaginations and Traumatized Hope

Here in the throes of Fogust, but it’s been quite foggy all summer (thank goodness!) The pink triangle on Twin Peaks for Gay Freedom was lit up by LED lights for the first time this year.

It seems like a year has gone by since I last blogged in May. (I spent a lot of time in the past month putting together a dozen and a half short videos based on “stops” in Hidden San Francisco.) The Black Lives Matter protests erupted and swept the country, larger and with more participants than any previous social movement in U.S history! The palpable, visceral disgust at living under an openly racist president finally boiled over and changed the whole tone of social discourse. The tacit or explicit approval of white supremacist culture is under profound challenge from all sides. It turns out a rather substantial majority of people living in the U.S. do NOT want to perpetuate a racist society, even if the ability to understand racism in its deep historical and structural foundations is not as strong as it should be. A poor and distorted system of teaching history (see John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight of August 2 for a good overview), combined with a long-term cultural preference for amnesia and denial, makes it hard(er) to impart a proper understanding of just how foundational racism is to both the United States and to capitalism. (Two books I read recently are great on this: The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson, and Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition by Cedric Robinson… more on these in a later post.)

Incredible art has burst out all over the many boarded up stores and restaurants all over the Bay Area, and presumably the world!
From the June 3 Black Lives Matter protest organized by Mission High School students and attended by about 15,000!
Dolores Park filled with protesters, nearly everyone with their homemade signs.
The most basic question
All the names on the wall behind this guy’s sign were killed by police too… in Clarion Alley

Meanwhile the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened—and right along with it, the social dysfunction and madness that denies the pandemic, that refuses common sense public health measures, and believes in the most outlandish, contradictory, paranoid conspiracies to explain what is going on, have all gone viral too. It turns out that outlandish, superstitious nonsense that purports to explain epidemics is nothing new. In Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M. Snowden details the many panics and hysterias that accompanied the plague, cholera, typhus, and typhoid fever, before science developed new ways to understand them. The oddity of our current pandemic is how much scientific knowledge is present—and dismissed—in the midst of this crisis. In part this is a result of the triumph of the Cult of the Market, which leaves all explanations and solutions to market mechanisms regardless of the plain necessity of a massive, publicly funded and centrally coordinated public health campaign. The corrosive individualism that dominates U.S. life is a direct cause of the broad failure to adequately confront Covid-19. Ideological obsessions have literally ‘trumped’ common sense and well developed public health practices, putting us in the twin holes of increasing disease and death and economic collapse.

The government is teetering between a full-blown militaristic assault on its own cities and a blithe “nothing to see here” ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach to the unfolding events. From one day to the next, we are bombarded by the narcissist blowhard’s stunning ignorance, endless disinformation and self-serving promotional blather, to the dire warnings of local and state health officials, to soaring statistics of illness and death (even the basic numbers are denied by the crazies of the right and ultra-left). The trauma being inflicted on everyone in this society is going to be with us for a long time, regardless of when this pandemic is finally halted, or if Biden beats Trump—the new wave of PTSD will take its own toll for years to come.

Democracy Wall on Valencia still going strong.

Beneath all this is the underlying reality that what once passed for public discourse—primarily visible in the daily newspapers dominated by the Associated Press and its anodyne center-right-to-right presentation of the daily news—has been destroyed by the new Internet monopolists, Facebook, Google, Amazon. The silo-ing of opinion and news has proceeded so far that we now have a hard time imagining how to undo it. In reality, there has never been a true “public discourse” that included everyone. Most people just watched, whether the myriad minorities of our culture, anyone to the left of the center-right, or even the 40 million or so who believe the Bible is the literal truth. What has happened with the tweetification of news and information is that everyone is getting in on it, and so far, no one has established a hegemonic version of their “truth” as one that everyone shares. Instead, the multiple versions of truth and facts are ever more certain of themselves while denying the veracity of any contrary or inconvenient facts or ideas.

This is not to glorify the “good old days” of three networks with three white male anchors defining the parameters of acceptable discourse like it was when I was young. A good deal of the skepticism now prevalent towards experts and expertise is rooted in the revolt against authority that reached a brief zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a revolt that was entirely justified and only failed to go far enough. Moreover, the hand-wringing of liberal lament over the lost civility of decades past elides the blatant exclusion of a majority of the population from that space of “civility,” whether African Americans, women, LGBTQ folk, etc., all left out until the militance of the mid-century upheavals thrust them briefly onto center stage. Criticisms of “shrillness” still dog women as they run for office, while various glass ceilings enforce gender and racial hierarchies more or less as they always have, the occasional black or female executive notwithstanding. The severe widening of the wealth gap, a decades-long process only becoming more exaggerated with every passing month, has opened an abyss into which millionaires and their “betters” seem committed to plunging society.

And that leads rather inexorably to another deep problem on our plates. For many activists the obvious solution to so many of the problems we can easily identify is to win elections and put the government on a new path—or at least help re-establish a basic commitment to facts and science! Even for the more radical, seizing the state one way or another still seems the path towards changing the direction of society. But the state has always been a creature of capital, serving to construct and then manage “free markets” to ensure the subordination of workers to the imperative of wealth accumulation and concentration. The brief interregnum of social democracy (in the U.S., the New Deal) in which redistribution and social safety nets were put in place by the state using a progressive tax system (upwards of 90% income tax on the richest during the “golden era” of 1950s Eisenhower Republicanism) has been unraveling ever since the 1970s. A half century later, it is a ghost that haunts political imaginations, but offers little by way of meaningful solutions for the transformative changes we simply must enact.

In mid-July Dolores Park was back to being crowded every day, but most folks tried to stay in their ‘germ pod’ circles…
Here at the end of June, everyone was kind of letting go of precautions… and the July surge bit hard, though less hard in San Francisco than most places.

A recent book published by my friends at PM Press on the puzzling (and generally ignored) story of the left-wing government that came to power in Greece (Syriza is the name of the coalition party) in 2015 (Beyond Crisis: After the Collapse of Institutional Hope in Greece, What?) helps demystify a lot of the assumptions being promoted by the likes of DSA and progressive electionistas in general. This is not to say that I’m against voting… Just that I don’t think one can defend it as anything more than a harm reduction strategy. The real political movements that actually address our predicament will not emerge in or around elections, of that I’m quite sure. From the Movement for Black Lives to the Walls of Moms to Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, none of these efforts are focused on electoralism, or even state power per se. We’d like to believe that a friendly left-leaning government would open space for some of these movements to consolidate some gains and regroup for the next surge. But the reality over the past century looks quite different. So-called socialist governments, if elected as social-democrat formations, usually govern to the right. Socialist one-party states do not brook any popular social movements not under the firm control of the party itself.

In the case of Syriza in Greece, after engineering a popular vote that refused the terms being imposed by European political leaders representing the financial interests of Germany, the Netherlands, and other capitalist powers, the Syriza government turned around and completely caved in to the very austerity demands they were elected to block. Granted, they opened up a path to citizenship for immigrants, and legalized civil partnerships for LGBTQ people, but as the Uruguayan radical theorist Raúl Zibechi has argued “left-wing governments [can be] the worst enemies of social movements, since they leave them without a reference point, achieving peacefully (or semi-peacefully) what the neoliberal Right was not able to achieve through repression.” In the same volume, pondering the tension between social movements seeking democracy and political parties or coalitions seeking to get elected to ostensibly representative democratic governments, Giorgos Sotiropoulos argues:

They [Syriza and Podemos in Spain] constitute material mediators between the two forms of democracy and are driven and legitimized by the claim that they can articulate democracy-as-state with democracy-as-movement in terms other than those of antagonism, following the example of Latin America.

But the pink tide that brought leftish governments to power in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and to a lesser extent Chile, has fully ebbed (the Venezuelan example escapes easy categorization—is it left? Is it democratic? Depends on who you ask and what you read, but from my point of view, the Maduro regime, battered by U.S. sanctions and economic collapse, is far from exemplary). The ebb tide left a continent in the grips of extractavist economics, harsh wealth disparities, and fractured and defeated social movements that put too many eggs in the basket of reformist governments. And now, with the pandemic, Chileans, Ecuadorians, and others have seen vibrant insurgencies stymied by the shutdowns and economic collapse. The deeper predicament for rebels in the global south, as it is for those of us in withering centers of declining empires, is how to define and confront power that will finally break the logic that contains us. And that logic is and has long been the logic of capital accumulation, a process organized through finance and money and debt, rather than through any kind of genuine democratic self-governance.

Sotiropoulos again:

The issue here is that, in order to question the authority of the banks, one must question the power that money has on human lives. This does not necessarily amount to the immediate abolition of money, as sometimes naive ultraleftism proposes, but to the need of being able to question its rule in practice; that is, its role in the reproduction of social existence. And while democracy-as-movement brings this issue to the fore by attacking privileges, the inequality of wealth, and corruption, the production of flows that challenge the money form is not only an issue of democracy; it spreads across questions such as what we produce and why, what is it that defines the value of things, and what does and does not matter in life.

Panagiotis Doulos, writing in a separate essay, makes a further point, arguing that the common lefty fantasies of a “restored” or “reinvented” democratic state are chimeras rooted in ideological myths:

The failure of the “progressive” government reveals to us that the myth of a more humane capitalism passes through the ideology of the autonomy of the bourgeois state and the strength of representative democracy. In fact, the “New Left,” such as Syriza and Podemos, is no more than a neo-Keynesian logic with a Marxist cliché.

The state has always depended on capital and on ensuring its further growth and accumulation. Where is there a state that has not put economic growth at the forefront of its policies, subordinating human and ecological concerns to the dictates of balance sheets and wealth concentration (in private or “public” hands)? What does that mean for politics in the U.S. now?

Nearly everyone wants to make sure that Trump and his GOP enablers lose the coming election in a massive landslide. That seems worthwhile, and will give us all a bit of delight and schadenfreude. But by putting in a Biden administration and what will surely be a regrouping of the Obama/Clinton insiders in the executive branch, what kind of conservative neoliberal politics will they impose? It’s impossible to imagine that a Biden presidency would allow for a meaningful turn to a post-carbon demilitarized economy, or even just the basics to save capitalism at this point: a universal basic income and universal health care. It’s even a bit questionable if they could institute a robust public health system that gets the pandemic under control! The tired old septugenarians of the neoliberal Democratic Party—during their last hurrah—are not going to suddenly lurch to the left, regardless of how many new House members are elected to clamor for such a shift.

Meanwhile, few seem to have taken seriously the real possibility of an armed right-wing uprising against the government if the Repugnants are swept from power. Civil War is hard to wrap one’s head around, but to me, it seems terribly close. The huge surge in gun sales during the past few months only underscores how fragile this polarized society is, and how easily it could devolve into a brutal bloodbath. The Trump Rump has complete contempt for the norms of democratic society. The only thing we can be sure of is that most of them are remarkably stupid. It’s hard to imagine them organizing any kind of successful military campaign beyond a spasm of violence, but the spasm is easy to imagine. The role of the military, national guard, and local police forces will be tested, as they will be invited—and expected—to join a right-wing uprising. But a civil war within the ranks of the military and police is just as likely as a general refusal to commit to an extralegal campaign of organized violence. It’s doubtful that career military and police will undermine democratic norms on behalf of the fascist Trumpists (though not impossible!). Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to imagine a serious period of violent chaos in the aftermath of this fall’s elections, depending on the outcome.

And that’s all just the contest over the state. It says nothing about the imperative to create new forms of self-governance—and social reproduction—outside the logic of the state and capital. Pandemic solidarity and mutual aid networks have impressively sprung up all over to help people deal with the collapse in social services, hunger, access to health care, etc. But many people seem to still yearn for a kind of fatherly authority to resume, some benevolent entity that knows better, and will start to fix things. That no such authority has ever behaved that way doesn’t seem to influence the yearning, the reified belief that we need good government to put things right. On the other hand, so many people have written off the political class as hopelessly self-serving and willfully inept that there is a churning and urgent desire to invent a new way to organize our lives. It is still inchoate, still lacking a political expression or public voice. But it is all around us and inside most of us.

Mike Davis wrote Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory in 2018, and ended with a rousing call for a return to utopian thinking:

… only a return to explicitly utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in the face of convergent planetary crises… …a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth… Utopianism is not necessarily millenarianism, nor is it confined just to the soapbox or pulpit. One of the most encouraging developments in that emergent intellectual space where researchers and activists discuss the impacts of global warming on development has been a new willingness to advocate the Necessary rather than the merely Practical. A growing chorus of expert voices warn that either we fight for “impossible” solutions to the increasingly entangled crises of urban poverty and climate change, or become ourselves complicit in a de facto triage of humanity.

We re-started the bay cruises on June 19, and it’s pretty wonderful to be out on the bay in the fresh air with plenty of room to keep your distance as needed!

Public affluence is only possible if we deliberately and systematically attack and seize private wealth. Private property is the bedrock institution of U.S. life going back to its founding. Pursuing it and defending it has led to an oligarchic, plutocratic republic of kleptocrats, where the system is gamed to make the rich richer and the rest of us ever more subordinated to their well-being, at our own ever-rising expense. How long will we allow this madness to continue? Voting out the Thief and his family is a tiny start to a much larger process of finally reversing a long history of plunder and exploitation of humans and nature.

I’m heartened by the surprising appearance of blue whales and blue-fin tuna off our coast, feeding on the giant schools of anchovies and krill that have formed out there. Did this bit of natural abundance occur thanks to the brief period of humans staying home? Can we see how magnificently nature will come roaring back if we just back off and give it a chance? Our utopian thinking must also include restoring natural systems or we are just whistling past the (ever hotter) grave.

Pretty pictures to end on…
The sun still sets over the Pacific, fog or not!

1 comment to The State Won’t Save Us: Dis-eased Imaginations and Traumatized Hope

  • Helmut Stange

    The main problem of capitalism is that it is an expression of an archaic and brutal culture. And capitalism is always combined with consumerism which is also archaic and brutal. The U.S. is the worst country in the world as for this consumerism related to climate change and the destruction of nature. And it´s mainly the rich people but it starts already with a SUV or an insanely big pick-up-truck and all that careless consumption of people who do have much less. It is the inner attitudes that are decisive. Archaic attitudes out of limited knowledge and information because of lack of good education and out of fear begotten by the experience of real competition, toughness and injustice in everyday life and out of constantly impressed values of competition, capitalism and consumerism and growth. A lot of poor people just wanna be rich, too. So they are also engaged in competition, capitalism and consumerism and growth-thinking. Just like the rich and powerful people at the top. That´s why they vote for Mr. Trump. Capitalism and all this stuff can only be abolished by enlightened new thinking on the part of everybody. That is by decent education and information in all schools, colleges, universities and especially by the mass media. Enlightenment only can bring solutions to the bigger problems of today. Wise common thought. If people are stupid, you can try to change the state, the economy, the society, it will all be in vain. Even democracy will just be futile then. Enlightenment helps to understand us human beings and our society we live in and their proper development. Without that understanding you will not have any meaningful change as for the bigger problems of capitalism, consumerism, unlimited growth, climate change and the destruction of our natural life support system. What is most important in all human development, in all development of mankind in history is the inner development of the human being. And that is not just “rationality” in the conventional sense. It is love also, love in combination with wise thought. And it is not only individuality, but building community. It is the developmant of human values in thought and action. And the problem with “leftist” governments is that there are still too many people around in the country who are not on this path of enlightenment and human development or these “leftist” people in government themselves are not on this path sufficiently. And till this day “leftist” people often are still in this old mistake to think only in terms of economy. It just does not work that way. That is the bad materialistic legacy of Karl Marx. We do live in a material world, rather complex today, but how we do live and act in it is a matter of our inner attitudes, our inner being, our state of human development, our way of thinking, our world view, our way of relating to other people.

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