April 24, 2017
Socialist Survivalism: A Democracy Beyond Democracy (Part I)
by Curtis White
A Democracy Beyond Democracy
I. Three Fateful Ironies of Democracy
We often hear it reported that in some benighted countries the people believe that “Democracy is a nice idea, but it’s not for us. We need a strong guiding hand.” So convinced of this are these people that they will in fact vote for this strong hand (as the people of Turkey have so recently done) and all that comes with it, making democracy an oxymoron.
We tend to think that these foreign skeptics just don’t get it, and so some of us think that we ought to help them to understand what real democracy is all about. As representative Darin LaHood (R-Illinois) said during a recent visit to a high school in his district, “The goal of our foreign policies is to try to make the world more like us.” A default neocon, LaHood wants to bring democracy to the heathens, an even worse idea than trying to convert them to Christianity. The appeal to democracy, coming from the lips of politicians like LaHood, is a paternalistic fraud — at the best! At the worst, it is no more than what it was in the colonial Middle East after World War I: the preparation for a “great looting.”
As President Trump likes to say, “Take the oil!”
The recent presidential election has shown that the US may itself be one of these benighted countries, especially since we have decided that we need a president who will “stand up” to foreign hostiles. As David Gergen said of Donald Trump, “There is this extra dimension working in Trump’s favor: Americans are looking beyond particular policy for the personality that looks like somebody strong enough, tough enough, big enough to provide security.” The recent uptick in Trump’s approval rating because he dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on ISIS fighters seems to confirm Gergen’s depressing observation.
What politicians like LaHood are incapable of contemplating is the idea that democracy is fractured by fateful ironies that tend toward its own failure. The first of these ironies is the idea that democracy is the expression of a “we” — the demos, “the American people,” as politicians like to say. If the American people that Barack Obama refers to are the same American people that Ted Cruz refers to, then the American people have a personality disorder. Among the conspicuous realities of social life in the United States, this reality should be the most conspicuous: we are not one and never have been. There is no We. There are no Americans.
Not only are we divided by those things that divide most regions of the world—tribe, sect, class/caste, race, gender—we are also divided by something that feels unique to us, almost genetic. It is our founding psychopathology, first animated by the mutual dislike of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Historians refer to it as our first national crisis, the conflict between Republican and Federalist, and it more than once led Jefferson to contemplate secession for Virginia and like-minded states.
The Republicans accused the Federalists of being elitists and monarchists. The Federalists called the Republicans “busy and restless sons of anarchy,” the anarchy consisting essentially of contempt for centralized lawmaking. Our version of this conflict expresses itself as urban liberalism versus the evangelism, guns, and hatred for all things federal that presently enlivens those gathered inside the Tea Party’s sanctimonious Tiny Tent. If there is a word for a country permanently divided against itself, we should use it, because the truth is that for the last 150 years we have lived in a Cold War continuation of the Civil War.
Not so long ago, Texas was a national laughing stock because of its secession movement, but in the age of Trump liberals also see the appeal of secession and sigh, “I’d volunteer for a civil war to take the South out of the Union.” And in a sense many blue states have already seceded through the process called “voting with your feet,” an unprecedented migration of intelligence and ambition to the West Coast. Because of this, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in California over Donald Trump by 4.5 million votes, 150% of her margin of victory in the national popular vote.
So, which fact is the more significant? The fact that California is one state among many? Or the fact that it is the world’s sixth-largest economy, with twelve percent of the total US population? It’s not a matter lost upon California itself: in 2019 the people of California will have the opportunity to vote “Yes, California,” and Cal-exit stage left.
With every passing legislative session, the state governments of the West Coast come closer to living in an economic and social reality that is separate, if not seceded, from the rest of the country. As Jerry Brown recently responded to Donald Trump’s environmental policies, “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.” He might have said its own damn economy, culture, customs, and inclusive social order as well.
In spite of these promiscuous facts, we hear from all parts of the political spectrum the passionate appeal to “we.” This appeal is especially loud when it comes from social conservatives, although it is perplexing to consider who it is outside of their own tawdry numbers that they can be thinking of. As Alt-right figure Richard Spencer said at the 2017 CPAC meeting, “We have an organic nation, there is an American people that has a history, they have a particular experience.” Even Cliven Bundy and his fifteen or twenty patriot soldiers claimed that they leveled rifles at federal agents in the name of “the American people.”
But we also hear this rallying of “we” coming from democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Socialists say, “Inequality, climate change, and racism can be corrected if ‘we’ have the will. It’s ‘up to us!’” The bumper-sticker-ready slogan “US means all of us” is politically naive. Or perhaps the right word is “disingenuous.” For that half of the population that still associates “STEM” with something that grows on a tree, telling them that they’re “one of us” is something like fightin’ words. What the rural and working poor feel is not solidarity, not community, and not inclusion. What they feel is that they have been “left behind,” like the sinners in one of Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels.
Whether expressed from the left or right, the idea that we are one is a delusion at best, and a perilous dishonesty at worst. To say “we Americans” is to indulge in what Nietzsche called “civic narcissism.” This narcissism says, “Everyone should live through our ideals because our ideals are self-evidently the best. We’re bewildered that others don’t share our ideals, and we’re indignant that these others are not persuaded when we loudly explain them. As a consequence, we would impose our ideals by main force if the opportunity presented itself. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest.”
The second of democracy’s fateful ironies is the “fooled again” syndrome (as The Who expressed it some time back). Let’s say that some faction struggles at great cost through an antagonistic election, or a revolution, or a civil war to put “our man,” the people’s champion, in a place of power, but then the friend of the little guy betrays his people and becomes “just like the old boss.” This is no great revelation for us: the single outstanding fact of American political life in the present moment is the fact that America’s working class and rural poor have just made the difference in the election of Donald Trump, and he has repaid their trust by creating a Billionaire’s Court for the White House cabinet. The working class and rural poor have once again elected a Republican House of Representatives, and it has repaid their trust by offering to gut health care.
In short, American democracy is at present an exercise in self-destruction. We can’t dismiss that fact with the idea that the election of Donald Trump or of Paul Ryan, for that matter, was somehow a mistake that we won’t repeat. If it is a mistake, it is one that the people living on two-thirds of the landmass of the United States are committed to. This self-defeating commitment is the dark, dark side of Jerry Brown’s indifference to what the rest of the country does. As far as the people of Youngstown, Pennsylvania, are concerned, California has already seceded. For the dispossessed, voting for candidates like Donald Trump offers the illusion of “blowing up” the establishment (or “deconstructing the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon likes to say, trying very hard to sound as addled as some assistant professors of English), but in truth their vote is more like protest through self-immolation.
And it is likely to get worse. As the most ambitious, well-educated, and affluent people flee any Red State vibe and concentrate themselves in metro-Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, the rest of the country will get poorer, more ignorant, and ever more resentful. While the technological wonders of the modern world are displayed all around them, it feels to them as if they are suffering internal exile in some Third World country of the soul. This is not a new experience for the dispossessed of the earth. Nathanael West described their condition lucidly in Day of the Locust (1939):
Scattered among these [wealthy] masqueraders were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred.
Our outsiders, like West’s, have few means of responding to their dispossession. As a consequence, they will continue to be an easy mark for political con-men, and they will continue to send their own private Attilas to the White House and congress. They will continue to support candidates who in any other context would be considered sociopaths. Unhappily, this socio-pathology will be first and foremost visited upon their own disconsolate heads.
Many on the liberal side of the political spectrum continue to think that these disconsolate heads are disconsolate because they are also stupid. They think that all that is required to end the present “idiocracy” is to exert their own intelligence. Nathanael West was aware of the same things we see in Trump supporters, the same “drained-out, feeble bodies” and “wild, disordered minds,” but, unlike present day liberals, West was not smug and dismissive. Instead, he “[depicted] their fury with respect, appreciating its awful, anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.”
Democracy’s third fateful irony is that it promises that if change is needed, it will come through a plebiscite. But the reality is that any reordering of national values accomplished by either the Left (supporters of Bernie Sanders, socialists to one degree or another) or the Right (the Tea Party, evangelicals, white supremacists) will be bloody, or, less theatrically, an expression of force. The Right gets that, eagerly gets that, and is locked and loaded. When the Bundy clan seized a federal building in Eastern Oregon, there were few other human beings for hundreds of miles around, but the watchtower was manned, and the windows bloomed with rifles.
More ominously, Texas is as close as a state can come to living in permanent preparedness for war with its own government, both in principle and in fact, as we saw in 2015 when Governor Greg Abbott activated the Texas State Guard to monitor the US Army’s Jade Helm 15 exercises in southwest Texas. Of course, Abbott’s actions were redundant. Virtually the whole of rural Texas is one vast citizen’s militia, one great posse comitatus. (Was Abbott perhaps trying to protect the Army from the Texans?)
The Left, on the other hand — God knows what it’s thinking. If it is to have anything remotely like what it says it wants, it will have to fight, something it seems very much disinclined to do. You can hardly blame them (and by them I mean me). We think that in a democracy issues should be decided in the favor of whoever offers the best reasons. Good luck with that. When the New York Times ran a front-page editorial articulating the reasons why it supports gun control, right-wing commentator Erick Erickson forsook rebuttal and shot the page full of holes. Whether “our” fight means yet more mass demonstrations, more chaotic town hall meetings, more civil disobedience, more encounters with the police, more use of federal force in the South and West, or more encounters with federal force protecting business/private property, the Left cannot have a national reordering of values without blood.
Still, you can’t fault the sense of urgency that rouses Bernie Sanders and his admirers. They see all too clearly that the Progressive dream of ever-larger egalitarianism is dead. The United States has returned to its oligarchic roots, and with a vengeance. Sure, gays can get married and pot is more or less legal, but the oligarchs don’t care about that stuff. Smoke pot and fuck yourself silly, they say. Meanwhile, well over half the population lives on an annual income of $30,000 or less, and, meanwhile, wealth concentrates at the top, ever denser, as if the sad mass of the rest of the country were being used to make a diamond.
The oligarchs are hated by both Left and Right, as is right and proper, but democracy’s fateful ironies make it unlikely that this hatred will have any positive consequences. The oligarchs know exactly who they are, the “right people.” We even know who they are: the 1% (or 1/10th of 1%). They are not worried about being fooled again by democracy because for them democracy is simply another thing they have to buy, another cost of doing business. And they are certainly not much concerned about blood, because along with everything else they own, they own force. This was on national display during the recent military actions in Ferguson, Missouri, and against Native Americans and their supporters at the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests. Mass incarceration makes the use of police force against the poor something like a national custom. Tours should be organized for foreign visitors: “In America our youthful minorities experience a season in jail. It’s all part of growing up unneeded.”
It is in this context that Trump’s “Blue Lives Matter” executive order should be understood. (“Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers.”) He is providing the legal and ideological basis for the use of force not only against liberals, but against the people who elected him. Any protestor, whether from Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, or a labor union, who “resists arrest,” however that may be construed, may end up in jail accused of a “hate crime” against police. Putin should be so clever.
Where does all of this leave us? It leaves us more like Russia than we know. It leaves us with the deluded and bloody democracy of the oligarchs, and it leaves us with an affected populace whose objections and resistance to the oligarchs mostly takes the form of self-destruction.
As Cicero wrote of Julius Caesar, “He surrounds himself with an armed guard, and emerges as a tyrant over the very people who elected him to office.”
A pretty pass.
Stay tuned for Part II next week…
Curtis White is the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, both from Melville House. His newest book, Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed, comes out 11/5/2019.