Notes on the Present Conflict

At the time of Trump’s election, it felt as if something terrible had ushered itself into our lives. The situation has only deteriorated since then, plunging us into the uncertainty of the present. Daily life is saturated by the feeling that nothing is guaranteed by the old political certainties anymore. Fixtures of the liberal order have evaporated with nothing but indignation in their place. The rapid hollowing out of democracy is felt in the dull ache of anxiety proportionate to the amount of time one spends following the news. It’s tempting to be scandalized by the brute idiocy of power, today less and less able to justify itself.

Given pervasive anti-Trump sentiment, the current political stalemate is not quite a matter of resignation. The intensity and pace of popular protest and collective organizing has only quickened. It’s more that these energies have been captured by antiquated desires for nothing but a change of political scenery. One could join the Resistance and bide time until blessed Mueller reveals the extent of the Trump scam. One could likewise look to new progressive forces in Congress and their champions in the DSA, promising to impeach the motherfucker at the same time as consolidating their newfound fame.

This may be an era of mass revolt, but the revolts are wanting. The strangeness of the times and the inadequacy of existing formulations know no bounds. These days, one hatches a strike to reopen the government. One marches to return to one’s hated place of work. The weakness of the revolutionary movement can be measured by the misery that the recent shutdown plunged thousands into, precisely because it remains impossible to live outside the economy.

Although the rich ritually sequester themselves in Davos, they are at least conciliatory enough towards the populist bent of contemporary politics that they allow themselves to be publicly scolded for their rapaciousness. One can imagine a billionaire being told their greed is fueling societal decline and the planet’s toxic fever, only to later come to the conclusion aboard their private jet that they aren’t personally at fault. Isn’t that, after all, what the protesters always say — that the crisis is systemic?

That the shamelessness of the rich is responsible for the catastrophic conditions of earthly life is a fact taken to heart by the new climate movements. In Europe, tens of thousands of students strike every Friday. Why go to school when there doesn’t appear to be a future anyway? In the UK, activists march under disquieting imagery of coffins, skulls, and an hourglass symbolizing the threat of human extinction. Within the US these movements have their counterpart in the Green New Deal, upon which progressives have staked their political prospects as well as the fate of the planet.

In each case there is an appeal to the earth as the new universal, an assertion that in the name of the planet humanity itself must become the final subject to be governed. So it happens that the most sober assessment of the severity of the climate crisis is accompanied by the insistence that only the government can save us. By virtue of their current dominion over the planet, only states can act on the scale and at the speed required to avert further catastrophe — nevermind it’s their mess to begin with! The “climate emergency” demanded by these movements is certain to make itself known as life is governed more and more intimately in order to ensure its continuation.

Equating the survival of the species with the survival of the polity is popular with activists and bureaucrats alike. Last year, Macron offered to France the first outlines of the coming climate regime with his proposed fuel tax hike. Famously, his technocratic tweaking of the budget kicked off the largest social movement the country has seen since 1968. Although Macron has since dug in his heels, no doubt many elites have gone back to the drawing boards due to their fear of popular reprisal against their designs on the future. Appeals to sacrifice while the rich bathe themselves in luxury is a tactic the ongoing rebellion has put to rest for now.

The contradictions — but also the perseverance — of the defiant Yellow Vests are exemplary of our conflicted times. The mythic vest seems to attract endless significations imposed on it from outside, belying a frantic desire for communication, for legitimacy. Yet each reduction of the fiery protests to specific political demands pulls away from what is common to them, away from the experience of revolt as it manifests in the streets, the roundabouts, in the joy of living where the truth of the movement makes itself felt. If victory for the Yellow Vests is no longer determined by the status of Macron’s proposed legislation, this is because the situation has ripened to become a matter of the validity of the government itself.

The unforeseen success of the Yellow Vests — and for that matter, the arrival of the new climate movements — bears upon the real question of our epoch: whether the earth will be governed or not. With each sequence of revolt it becomes more evident this is the conflict within which we are forced to choose sides.


Many thanks to friends inhabiting New England for writing to us!