The Bigger Story: Don’t Pontificate, Organize!

Amidst Defeat, An Opening

Trump’s selection of Steve Bannon to be part of his transition team confirms everyone’s worst fears about the role race played in the campaign, and portends the worst about the role it might play in his administration.  The so called “white nationalist”  movement to which Breitbart news gives voice is– like the “men’s rights movement”– a transparent attempt to cloak a history of being the oppressor in the cloak of being oppressed.  Still, the implications of an election are not determined mechanically by the team that the President elect chooses to bring about the transition of power.  On going political action matters:  no one is powerful enough to resist mass action for ever (witness the overthrow of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through concerted workers’ struggles.

In that light, perhaps the biggest story of the American election is not that Donald Trump won, or that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, but that 45% of eligible American voters did not cast a ballot.  As of November 12th, Clinton had won the votes of 26.5% of eligible voters, Trump, 26.3%, about 3% to third party candidates, and the remaining 44 % did not vote.  One can interpret these numbers as signs of political apathy, or as signs of a tremendous opening for new political argument, mobilization, and party building.

Apathy comes in two forms, let us call them negative apathy and positive apathy.  In either case one cannot be moved to perform some task, but in the case of negative apathy it is because one really does not care at all about the task one does not perform, while in the positive case one might in principle care, but for whatever reason does not like what they are being asked to do on a particular occasion, and uses apathy as a form of protest.  I do not know what the distribution of negative and positive apathy is in the case of the 2016 election, and it does not really matter:  both positive and negative apathetic voters represent an opportunity on the Left for the construction of a new political movement and party.

Think the matter through.  Whether one could not be bothered to vote because one thinks the task a waste of time, or whether one was actively protesting the choice between Trump and Clinton, (as many Sanders supporters seem to have done), one is rejecting American politics as it is currently organized:  an either or choice between two massive  political machines, both of which are deeply in the pockets of corporate donors and lobbyists, both of which have presided over the expansion of a totalitarian surveillance state, increasing inequality, economic crises, and military adventures abroad.  Any dispassionate analysis of American politics would lead to the conclusion that with rare exceptions, for the past forty years, the range of policy options pursued has not changed the conditions of life in any positive way in any fundamental respect  for working class Americans of whatever race or gender.  Inequality has continued to grow, precarious labour has continued to replace secure full time work, and working class Americans form the bulk of the foot soldiers sent off to foreign wars in a failed effort to subordinate the world to American interests.  Race and gender make these economic and political problems more intense, but this difference is one of kind, not degree.  I will return to this important point below.

If we treat apathy as a political position and not a political failing (as too many Clinton supporters are doing, railing against those who did not vote as the reason why she lost rather than reflecting with the appropriate degree of self-criticism on the problem of why she did not move those people to vote for her), then the task for the American Left over the next four years is clear.  Nearly half of eligible voters rejected the choices on offer:  figure out how to build a movement and party that they will vote for and back in movements beyond the White House and Capitol Hill.

No doubt my math is overly crude:  45 % of eligible voters is about 80 million people and in a set of 80 million people political positions are bound to vary widely.  Nevertheless, as heterogeneous as the positions might be, they have one important feature in common:  they rejected both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Assuming that it is almost impossible to not care at all, in any conceivable way whatsoever, about political problems (which are, after all, just problems about how we organize the public and collective aspects of life in which we are enmeshed as individuals), this silent 45% is not a lost cause but an opportunity to take American politics in a new direction.

Don’t Pontificate, Organize.

The old Wobbly slogan  “Don’t mourn, organize!” is a propos of the given moment.  The phrase comes form a telegram sent by Joe Hill to Big Bill Haywood while Hill was awaiting execution.  His point was that what matters in life is what we do for the future:  we do not honour the dead by memorializing them, but by carrying on the valuable tasks to which they devoted their lives.

Clinton is no Joe Hill.  She certainly did not devote her life to mobilizing the working class to improve its conditions of life and free itself from domination by capital.  Nevertheless, her loss is being portrayed as a loss for progressive social forces.  It is certainly a loss for polite liberals, and, in so far as the polite liberals lost to a campaign that consciously stirred up racial anxieties, deliberately targeted immigrants and Muslims (and the establishment politicians who have purportedly abetted them) as the primary cause of America’s decline, and portrayed African Americans as ghettoized objects of failed Washington politics, the loss is significant.  At the same time, the question should be posed:  if Clinton was the progressive alternative, why did she not motivate more young progressive people to vote for her?

The question can only be meaningfully addressed by getting out into local communities everywhere and asking it.  But not only asking it.  Political mobilization presupposes political argument.  Of the many troubling features of this campaign, the seeming impossibility of conducting a political argument, i.e., a more or less structured attempt to prove the truth of a conclusion through reason and evidence, which the opponent must either accept or reject by appeal to superior reason and evidence, is perhaps the most worrisome.  The only alternatives to political argument are ideological sloganeering and overt violence.  We have seen much ideological sloganeering and some overt violence in the wake of Trump’s victory.

The empty sloganeering has affected the anti-Trump side as well.  It is fantastic to see young people demonstrating across America and people criticizing his tactics on social media.  But demonstrations peter out and Facebook chatter changes nothing at the level of fundamental social structures.  Ultimately, new political movements require people to commit time and energy to finding ways to institutionalize a set of values not adequately served by the established political parties rather than just re-assuring those they already agree with that they are free from the most odious traits of their opponents.

It is certainly the case that Trump’s campaign was odious.  It is also certain that Trump was able to effectively tap into a section of white working class America that has not been well-served by the changes to the capitalist economy over the last forty years.   They too must be listened to if effective political arguments in support of a new political movement and party are to be marshaled.

The most difficult thing about political argument is that it requires us to engage with people with whom we disagree.  The more meaningful a political argument gets, the more heated it becomes.  There is nothing wrong with the heat, in fact, it a proof that the argument concerns problems of vital importance.  Nevertheless, because they get heated, these arguments are uncomfortable.  It is easier to talk to people with whom you agree, and confirm for each other the superiority of one’s own beliefs and values.  However, where there are real divides and conflicts in society, where lines are drawn, those who worry that those on the other side of the line are motivated by racist or other forms of demonizing thinking have an obligation to cross over the line and engage with their opponents.  How else will people come to see that low wages and insecure work are not caused by illegal immigrants but changes to the way in which capitalism was organized and governed since the 1970’s.  How else to make the case that immigrants from Latin America are the victims, not the beneficiaries of those same policies, if people do not go into the truck stops and bars and neighbourhoods where Trump voters live and make the case?

Every effective argument starts with listening to your opponent, proceeds by finding common ground, and concludes with the opponent seeing that what they initially took to be the solution to their problem and in their interests really is not a solution and not in their interests.  But the first step must always be to listen.  It is impossible to work out effective  counter-arguments if you do not listen carefully to what the opponent has to say.  In the case of Trump supporters, one will undoubtedly hear hard core and probably unshakeable racists beliefs.  But those positions will be in a very small minority.  More likely one is to find people who are frustrated, scared, angry, and feeling isolated from social forces that seem, from that position of isolation, uncontrollable.  Over and over again in political history (Plato was the first to theorize the phenomenon in the 5th century BCE) powerless and voiceless people throw their lot in with demagogues who promise to solve their problems for them.  They have always been disappointed.

Workers and the oppressed have improved their lives when they rely upon their own collective agency.  The labour movement was the primary political and economic vehicle for the improvement of working conditions and standards of living, the civil rights movement overthrew Jim Crow laws in the US South, the women’s movement in its multiple manifestations has enfranchised women and given them control over their own bodies.  But these movements were not the mechanical result of social forces but were built through political organizing.  Political organizing requires political argument: with conservative members of the constituency one is trying to mobilize, and the enemy one is trying to defeat.

Ultimately, stable solutions require convincing enemies as well as friends.  So, unless one thinks that human society is better when it is in a permanent state of disorder and conflict, (and the people who do believe this tend to be able to live outside of the conflict they endorse as good) argument in support of values which really would ensure access to the goods and institutions people require in order to become social self-conscious, self-determining agents, are necessary.  Success in political argument is never guaranteed, and cannot be expedited.  It takes time.  How much time, no one can say.  But more than a bare start should be achievable in the next four years if progressive Americans take up the task.

50 000 000 Trump Fans Can Be Wrong

In the end, Van Jones and not Slavoj Zizek is right.  The Trump tide, Jones argued, was a “whitelash,” not just against eight years of Obama, but more deeply against the idea of what 59 million mostly rural and small city whites regard as America.  Given the intensity of the race and immigrant baiting in Trump’s campaign and given his total lack of appeal to Latino and Black voters, racism has to emerge as the dominant explanation of his victory.

What that means for the future is not-  as the lamentable and politically stupid Zizek thinks- a final provocation which will push Americans towards communist revolution– but the emboldening of the most politically backward and vicious elements of American society.  When Trump fails to deliver on his promises towards them they are not going to become Communists, they will double down on their hatred and xenophobia.

On what basis do I make this assertion?  The media relentlessly tracked Trump’s lies, they obsessively repeated his violent sexist comments about women, they interviewed the women whom he allegedly assaulted, they made fun of his gaffs and mannerisms, they mocked his qualifications, they catalogued his business failures, and it made no difference.  He deflected every criticism in the same way:  “The establishment”  is thwarting me.  Stand by me.  I am with you.”  Who can say now that this strategy was not stunningly successful?  When the steel mills of Pennsylvania and the auto factories of Michigan fail to re-open, he will deflect blame again, and, absent any coherent and credible response form the left (and there might be a coherent response but it will not be credible, at least not in the short term) he will survive, cocooned in the racial anger underlying his success.

If there is going to be a coherent and credible response, where will it come from?  The radical left?  They (we) will have the  appropriate (and defensible)  arguments, but insignificant numbers of people will read them.  The respectable left-liberals of academia, the quality press, and the intelligentsia of Democratic Party?  Last night’s results answer this question.  They will make arguments that appeal to the 58 million people who voted for Clinton, but there is no evidence they can move the 59 million who voted for Trump to their camp.

In the early nineteenth century Hegel wrote that a historical period in which the contradictions of social life had become polarized needs philosophy to help resolve those contradictions.  Philosophy would resolve the contradictions by revealing the point of overlap of the opposed positions on which a synthesis can be constructed.  Marx, eschewing synthesis for revolution, nevertheless still stood in Hegel’s shadow when he argued that radical social transformation occurs only when the conditions are right, only when classes cannot cooperate in any way any longer, and the subordinate rise up to reconstruct society on the basis a more comprehensive set of values that ensure the satisfaction of their life-interests.  He also noted another possibility:  the mutual ruin of the contending classes.  The depth of opposition in the United States right now feels more like a situation that threatens mutual ruin than one which will lead to resolution on the basis of a more comprehensively inclusive value system.

The analogy with Marx here is imprecise, because the class struggle going on right now in the United States is not between the working class and the ruling class, but between at least three segments of the working class.  On the one hand, the traditional white working class, the working class of industry and industrial unionism, is, through the desperate rear-guard action of electing Trump,  trying to re-establish a secure place in the contemporary capitalist economy.  Their lives and life-conditions have been ravaged by the last forty years of capitalist globalization, of freeing capital and keeping people (except the rich)  pinned in place.  Their jobs have disappeared, their pensions have been stolen, the future of their children jeopardized.  They are angry, and they should be angry, and their needs must be satisfied.

However, in the absence of a trade union movement and radical left with:  a) a coherent policy response to these changes, and b)  the numbers and credibility to put theory into practice, the rage of the white industrial working class is being directed to two other segments with whom they ultimately need to build alliances.  On the one hand is the Black and Latino working class, working in the same or worse precarious service jobs, under the table employment, or unemployed.   On the other hand is the newly emergent working class of educated urban professionals and their support staffs (workers, in Marx’s sense, because they do not own the means of production, but ‘middle class’ in the popular imagination).  This section has acquired the education and skills to find or build niches in new techno-culture industries.  They live in large cities,  typically on the east or west coast, far from the “fly over states” where some of their parents and families might still live.   Just as young Britons were shocked and angered by the Brexit vote, so too will these young professionals be appalled by Trump.  They should be, but they need to spend a weekend at home and listening to and arguing with their families.  Dismissive epithets are understandable, but the problems that America is facing right now are going to require understanding the anger of the abandoned America.  And once that understanding has been achieved, then everyone can sit down and figure out politically a new way forward.

One condition of ultimate success in this project is that all hope for short-term recovery must be abandoned.  A few days before the election left-liberal pundits were speculating that the Republican party’s future was in question.  Really?  They have the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.  It is the Democrats who are in crisis.  They have alienated completely their most politically energetic and progressive constituency:  the young voters who mobilized in their millions for Sanders, (who taught, at the very least, that the word socialism can be a mobilising tool in the United States).  This whole new layer of activists were taught two nasty lessons.  The first, in party real politk, that entrenched leaderships will conspire against heterodox candidates.  The second, in political dynamics, that in times of crisis (or perceived crisis)  the safe option does not win.

Now is the time for those young people to have the courage of their convictions and get out of the Democratic Party once for all.

There needs to be some new national political force built, one that does not see the old as sacrificial victims of the new but prioritizes transitional programs for people displaced by new technological developments, so that they can move from manufacturing to other forms of meaningful work rather than brutalized and degrading precarious employment.  This new movement needs to continue to push for living wages and revitalized, democratic, multi-racial unions, but it also needs to draw conservative white workers into a conversation about why gay and lesbian and trans culture is not a threat to them, why the traditional is the way things were done but not the way they have to be done, that new horizons of possibility open up with technological and cultural change, and that diversity can be an exciting cultural strength, not a threat.

It needs to draw on the history of American Freedom that Eric Foner traced, a history in which individual freedom was understood socially and not as a gift from God, as the result of collective struggles (against the British colonialists, against white slave owners, as in the brief period of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War, of the sit down strikes and struggles to legitimize trade unions, the civil rights struggle, and the myriad of radical struggles through the 1960’s.

But history does not work according to a logic of abstract demands.  People do not do what theories predict they will do. (As a case in point, consider that the polls were, once again, off, as they were in Brexit.  This fact should give pause to everyone who thinks human life and struggle can be mapped and comprehended by machine algorithms).  I expect that the broad left in the United States (liberals, in their idiosyncratic use of that term)  will be in for many dark nights.  But they will not emerge from this crisis unless they turn to the spirit of American inventiveness to start to build some new political vehicle for their values and goals.  And they will not be able to build that vehicle unless they listen to what “the other America” of the twenty-first century said last night.  The important lessons in politics are taught by voices progressives would rather not hear.

Poem for Autumn

Who knew dying could be so beautiful?  A still life in the golden light of autumn.  I can see the bridge through the bare trees now.  In the garden, crimson grass is justification enough for the day.

An atmosphere of humid muskiness.  The temperature:  an absence, a clarity.  The soil:  yielding.  A branch has fallen.  It snaps easily for the fire.

A wind, more heard than felt, stirs itself.  Clouds scudder across the sky; brittle leaves swerve in the vortex.  Here below, the chill I have been waiting for has arrived.  I can wrap my imperfections in scarves and sweaters.

It is a time for walking along rivers.

At the lip of the impact crater, the High Falls happily slide down billion year old rocks. We nervously clambered down, stopping to stare into star-shaped shattercones.  A black bear left its claw marks on a poplar tree.

The Detroit is a working river.  A small tug fights against the whitecaps, dropping beneath the horizon of the undulating grey cold.  The blue has gone out of the water.

The Avon is more decoration than work.  I followed the trail until it stopped at a sloping graveyard. A single oak bow, incandescent orange in the mist, made me feel sorry for the dead.  The thoughts etched in granite born of despair and sorrow:  “Asleep in Jesus.”  “Til he comes.”

I thought:  “We have no roots into which our life can withdraw until spring.”

Chilly mornings when you can first see your breath are a blue darker than black. Above the peak of the garage implacable Orion, there.  I feel intensely alone, even frightened.  The stars bear witness but cannot intervene.

Later, the fax-crackle and squelch of birds happy for their wild grapes will begin.  A squirrel will  drop a quince, having found it too bitter.  Traffic.  Talk.  But here and now: A moment for hesitation, a stopping.

I am the eye that knows that it sees and the ear that knows that it hears.

Here.  Now.