Red Sky in Mourning, Red Sky At Night
If we are ever to actualize an emancipatory future, it will require avoiding some of the dangers that the present poses to the Left
Much of the dismay with how 2016 turned out was in foreseeing that 2017 would likely be much worse. But all the bracing for the worst has done little to prepare for the jarring reality of life in America in the first weeks of Donald Trump’s administration.
Consider that the punching of Richard Spencer was so widely memed and debated only because there are now famous out-and-proud Nazis in America. Meanwhile, it has emerged that semi-closeted Nazi Steve Bannon, the man acknowledged to have a larger influence over the President than any other individual, holds far-right pseudo-philosophers Julius Evola and Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug in high esteem. Elsewhere, the size and remarkable loyalty of the following he has built through making the most mundane hate and xenophobia seem scandalously hip to the dullest people on earth means that the Milo Yiannopoulos saga is drawing to a likely false ending. Somehow, Donald Trump, a man everyone knows is deliberately banning muslims from entry to the United States, managed to surprise the Left when he used his state of the union address to announce the creation of VOICE — an agency to track and publish the crimes of migrants that predictably did little to raise alarm amongst staid movement conservatives.
Certainly, there may exist some temptation for the possibility of a reprieve from Trumpian spectacle — or at least the hope for a day that does not supply new horrors.
Sympathetic as this desire may be, leftists are not afforded the opportunity to pine for a return to what The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan — in a recent piece bemoaning the necessity of having to pay attention to politics in the age of Trump — termed “the blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene,” an era that apparently ended just a few weeks ago, and only had the appearance of existence to the mystified select who are afforded comfortable, anesthetizing bubbles to live in. Sullivan’s piece was widely feted because it gave voice to the many who wish for nothing more than a return to the cocoon. Leftists, however, are not cocoon people. What may very well separate a leftist from a liberal most is the enduring awareness that politics generates and sustains all social life, that politics unavoidably always intervenes.
But as liberal or leftist could well foresee at this same point last year, a Trump presidency means having to suffer a four-year circus of mendacity and corruption, steered by unqualified hucksters in over their heads, plotting demagogues and compliant Republican apparatchiks willing to make peace with former foes insofar as they can make common cause in laying to waste what remains of America’s thin social safety net. Leftists can have some confidence that liberals, through their well-funded and circulated media channels, will devote considerable resources to inexhaustibly cataloguing emerging narratives, personality clashes, and buffoonish gaffes. Given that we can trust liberals to keep close tabs of the personalities of the Trump administration, the Left may want to consider where else it should engage its comparatively smaller resources and attention.
In these deceptively heady days for American reactionaries, when ‘racial realist’ 4chan incels feel emboldened and white supremacists are convinced the moment is ripe to rebrand for their public close-up, it may be difficult to bear in mind that the United States, for better and for worse, is not a radically different country than it was just a few months ago. Even in this era of right-wing revanchism, structures and legacies of oppression exist alongside prospects for emancipatory change that nonetheless persist — which would have however remained true regardless of who sits in the White House. This is not to trivialize the very real consequences and need for mobilization that a Trump administration requires. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the Left would only have slightly less work ahead of it in actualizing a significantly more just society if Bernie Sanders were now occupying the Oval Office.
Nonetheless, for all the understandable disappointment with how the year ended, 2016 still remains a postwar watershed for the American Left. Even the most hopeful of early Sanders supporters would have been likely surprised to the extent that the campaign made inroads into the broader American electorate.
Beyond the excitement the campaign created — in the unexpectedly large rallies, well-oiled and received social media campaign, efficient mobilization of energized, newly-awakened socialists, and surprising primary upsets over the establishment candidate of preordained inevitability — perhaps its greatest contribution was in disseminating a structure and form that gave expression to widely held grievances that had hitherto twisted in the wind.
It was this endowment of form that has proven most responsible for the schism that has opened up, not just within the Democratic Party, but also inside the broader tent of American liberalism: millions who previously assumed themselves to be liberals, under the spectrum of permissible ideological space provided by the media and larger culture, came to realize they weren’t liberals at all, that their concerns and values more accurately aligned with an ascendant socialism.
Cocksure liberals celebrated the rise of Trump under the presumption that, apart from guaranteeing an easy Democratic victory, the apparent chaos his surging campaign created would come to divide and significantly undermine the Republican Party. The irony, of course, is that quite the opposite has proven true: that it is the losing Democrats, and American liberalism, which finds itself in the midst of a reformation. Despite assurances from neoliberal Democrats that the differences between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez were negligible, that each equaled the other in progressive bonafides, it was apparent that the campaign for DNC chair was a proxy war in this ongoing reformation. The fallout from the defeat of Ellison to Perez, a candidate pushed into the race by Obama and the Democratic establishment to prevent a candidate lightly critical of the Obama administration’s legacy, demonstrates that this schism is only gaining further entrenchment, despite the victor’s calls for unity to calm the waters in a bid to reestablish neoliberal domination.
In these conditions, the present generates dangers for the Left on two fronts.
First, in the absence of an election season — where the momentum of an explicitly democratic socialist campaign provides focus and rallies excitement and optimism — it is easy for the Left to retreat to a customary despair, contenting itself with pointing out all that is insufficient and pernicious in the current order of things without adequately envisioning what a socialist society would look like and articulating a path to realize it.
The Sanders campaign made headway by going on the offensive, both in providing a narrative that implicates an enemy in a haute bourgeois 1% found responsible for our ever-diminishing present, while also giving strong attention to pointing towards a way forward. Aside from the obvious conspiracies against him, the experience of the UK Labour party under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn demonstrates in part how Chris Hedges-style quiver-voiced Left moralism may swell and embolden the ranks of a stalwart audience of the already converted, yet appears to have difficulties greatly expanding the broader appeal of Left politics. History, and the conditions of the present, shows that the Left is anemic when it is placed on the defensive, left to act in response to an agenda driven by the Right, when it is reduced to acting only as the reaction to the reactionaries.
Second, in a Left that is perpetually distracted by the byproducts of the current reformation, setting aside the task of defining an emancipatory future to engage in persistent squabbles and clashes with the most noxious partisans of soggy loaf of bread liberalism. Considerable left twitter attention is spent in continuous gawking at the legitimately contemptible opinions of former Clinton campaign surrogates — few of whom have any real power or platform outside of the followers that some have been known to purchase. Twitter is designed to provide streaming and readily searchable access to any array of egregious perspectives that one may wish to retweet for easy affirmation. As fun as it may be to dunk on known hacks and milquetoast liberals, it is arguable that doing so may not just occupy inordinate time and attention but also overshadow the public visibility of some of the Left’s most promising and noteworthy writers and figures. It is unlikely a viable Left will be built and greatly expanded through eviscerating figures who may seem prominent in media or political nerd circles but are otherwise unknown to the broader public.
Liberals, mystified from a lifetime immersed in mass media culture and capitalist ideology without necessary self-reflexivity, are well conditioned to finding psychological explanations for structural problems. It is little wonder why liberal political agendas are so often limited to the psychological cataloguing and critique of their rivals when the world around them is so frequently portrayed as being composed in the aggregate of personal narratives.
This psychologism operates in both directions. Instead of considering the structural factors that gave rise to a Donald Trump, it is not just convenient but automatic to place responsibility squarely at the feet of a figure so obviously worthy of loathing. At the same time, it requires no keen observation to notice #theresistance is mostly comprised of people who felt generally contented while a genial Barack Obama was deporting 2.5 million Mexican migrants, expanding both a shortsighted drone program and persecution of whistleblowers, while further entrenching the powers of a security apparatus that Trump now wields. Suddenly, in the wake of a Trump presidency, these same liberals are appalled by ICE Agents, drone strikes and an administration’s coziness with corporate plutocrats.
Liberals, however, are advantaged in that they are already quite familiar and convinced of the world to which they seek to return. Socialists are granted no such privilege.
The Sanders campaign — helmed by a sometimes ornery, disheveled, typically slightly shouting 74-year-old avowed socialist — did not make inroads through personal charisma, manufactured spectacle or appealing to established presumptions in American politics. Sanders largely eschewed attacking individuals — even sometimes to the detriment of framing truthful narratives in his favor — less in a bid to seem ‘above the fray,’ as commonly presumed by liberal pundits, but more because it was understood to be poor tactics. A campaign that relied on personal appeal, or a clash of personalities between the universally known Hillary Clinton and an obscure Vermont senator, would never have made Sanders the household name he became.
To the extent that the Sanders campaign succeeded, it did so though articulating truths that are not so much imagined or projected as individually and collectively felt. Much of the US personally know precarious or non-existent employment, health insurance, retirement security or have firsthand experience with institutionalized racism, sexism and social exclusion. The American dream may never have really existed, but all too many have intimate experience with its death. Addressing this reality, while providing a path forward, was the only means of pulling a significant mass of the American electorate towards a social-democratic agenda. Indeed, it has historically been the only way socialist politics, of any stripe, has ever made headway in the United States, or anywhere else for that matter. If the Left is going to continue to grow it will only do so by speaking directly to these structural and institutional concerns.
A century and a half ago, in an era where ambitious socialists were painstakingly designing their ideal utopian societies down to the number of screws would be required, it is quite understandable that Karl Marx would roll his eyes at these “cookshops of the future” and insist that there would have to be some pause to consider how material forces will play out, that it is impossible to build an obtainable socialist future outside of history. At the same time, far too many past leftists have pointed to Marx’s warnings about fully imagining a socialist society a priori as an excuse for a ‘wait and see’ or ‘we’ll figure it out when we get there’ approach that has too often led to insufficiently reasoned implementations that have done damage to the Left’s reputation to realize a future more just and improved upon than the present. Declaring Another World Is Possible may swell leftist hearts but few outside the converted will begin to believe it unless there is some articulation of just how this other world is made possible.
The electoral campaigns of Sanders and Corbyn have understandably occupied significant Left attention and resources over the past eighteen months, while a Trump presidency will continue to offer no lack of continuous distraction. But a truly emancipatory future — not just an end to Trump and his style of politics — will not be won simply through litigating the consequences of the Trump administration’s actions or relitigating the 2016 Democratic primary. If an emancipatory future is to be obtained then much more effort will be needed to understand the direction we should be heading, under the knowledge that such a future will not be gained through voluntaristic political will alone.
Laudable attempts to envision a socialist future — while grappling with the difficulties we can well imagine that the future may bring — have been made recently in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future and Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. This recent vogue for speculative future-embracing Left political writing is one that requires further support and cultivation.
The present may seem like it is no country for young socialists, but it would be an ahistorical mistake to underestimate how quickly and dramatically fortunes can shift for the Left. Privileging our focus towards structural and institutional critique while avoiding being too distracted by the present that we forget or neglect to do the work necessary to create the possibility for a socialist future may be difficult, but it is perhaps the most necessary and important task before us.