May 1, 2017

Socialist Survivalism: A Democracy Beyond Democracy (Part II)


Socialist Survivalism:
A Democracy Beyond Democracy

Part II in a four-part series; don’t miss Part I: Three Fateful Ironies of Democracy.

II. Beneath the Volcano

Michael Moore, knight of the resistance

So, assuming that this is something like the present state of affairs, what should we think? That’s an important question, because the situation is so complex, so pressing, and it seems to require so much immediate action, that it feels as if we don’t have time to think. So great is our collective anxiety about action that Michael Moore has created a sort of “honey-do” list of chores for activists, thus greatly simplifying the problem posed by Lenin’s question “What’s To Be Done?”

Our first task is to “Call Congress.” Moore exhorts us:

1. Wake up.
2. Brush teeth.
3. Walk dog (or stare at cat).
4. Make coffee.
5. Call Congress.

After we “call,” we are to:

Take over.
And join again.

It’s a political movement with the schedule of a soccer mom. But as a Kantian soccer mom might complain, “I still don’t have a moment to think for myself!”

Well, maybe Moore—along with other designated leaders from CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times—will take care of the thinking for us. The revolt against conservatives, evangelicals, white supremacists, and all things Trump-like is very real, but it is a revolt that is, as with all things in our hyper-mediated world, also a performance, and it is in danger of becoming a mere performance. Already resistance is shading into entertainment; it is being performed for us by actors who are partisan, I’ll give them that, but not serious. Appalled by a reality show president, our own reality show celebrities will show us to the barricades. Meryl Streep? Okay. We’ll give her a pass. Everyone likes Meryl Streep. But Alec Baldwin? As we say these days… seriously?!

This is the “next time” and the revolution is not only being televised, it’s being blogged, and posted, and archived on YouTube. The problem is that our role, as defined by people like Moore, is to “call your congressman” so that “Trump will be toast.” That’s the sort of advice given in high school civics classes, or, worse, in the hallway after class. And it is something less than illuminating for those of us who have been through the call-your-congressman drill more than a few times in the past. Moore either doesn’t get democracy’s “second irony,” or he’s in on the con.

Similar to Moore’s form of leadership, there is what columnist Mark Oppenheimer calls “a latte with a side of partisan politics.” We are led to think that our resistance will be successful because it will be watched over by corporations of loving grace. Apple is on our side. Starbucks will hire refugees. Mars, Incorporated—who make the candy bars—will take on climate. Lyft will give a million dollars to the ACLU. Subaru will court lesbian customers. Melinda Gates will take care of birth control. And as for right-wing businesses like Hobby Lobby, Cracker Barrel, and Chick-fil-A, walk on by and sneer in passing!

The danger in a putative “resistance” led in these ways is that—through entirely conventional forms of political activism administered by yet more millionaires, like Trump’s ex-pal Jeffrey Zucker at CNN—we will end up, whether we mean to or not, restoring a neoliberal political establishment whose interest in economic justice is tepid at best. There is something disturbing about the ease with which liberals line up behind MSNBC and Starbucks while voicing contempt for Fox and Cracker Barrel. It is disturbing because there is an unacknowledged element of class bigotry at work. We’re led to think, “Our enemy is white trash America, the poor and the stupid, and they eat at Cracker Barrel and they watch Sean Hannity!”

As James Baldwin could have said of the Democratic Party of the last thirty years, “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” They still do not want to know it, even after Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented rejection by the working class of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

The Democratic Party is the party of a domestic “first world.” Theirs is a project of political restoration, as if the throne had been dishonored by another Cromwell, but it is not likely to be a project that is much interested in our internal “third world,” a world in which a peasant revolt has just given the country a neo-fascist president. But the restoration of establishment liberalism will not benefit those vast areas of the country where residents have had their intelligence impugned, their values derided, and their livelihoods cavalierly shipped off to foreign climes or taken over by robots.

At the least, before we start calling congress, or even as we call congress, shouldn’t we begin a ruthless critique of everything existing (as Marx not-so-mildly put it)?

Right now, everybody feels as if they have been thrown into a situation that no one asked for, no one understands, and no one knows how to respond to, including conservatives. For their part, the oligarchs are trying to stay calm. They are thinking, “Let Trump blow and crack his cheeks,” as King Lear advised a thunderstorm, “but don’t do anything rash.” For them, the moment is opportune, if unstable. The opportunity for yet greater “creative destruction” may be at hand: greater wealth for them, greater destruction for everybody else (bye-bye, food stamps!). If they keep their wits about them, they can (and likely will) further entrench an already monstrous economic, political, and social advantage. So, let Trump be Trump, they say, but keep your eyes on the prize… and the tax code. Meanwhile, the soaring stock market is behaving with undisguised delight, or, more probably, with Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance.”

As for those forces unleashed by the Steve Bannons of the world, the “scaries,” any thinking at all would be overthinking. They’ve been dreaming about this moment for a really long time and are barely able to control their glee at their extraordinary luck. Websites like Stormfront and A World at War are alive with the voices of the violent and crazy, neo-Nazi “hungry ghosts,” as Buddhism calls humanity’s insatiable demons. For them it’s 1933 and “springtime for Hitler,” as Mel Brooks sang. This brown-shirt crowd still looks juvenile and cartoonish rallying around its Insane Clown President, but it is a cartoon with the ear of the current “leader of the Western world.” And that, as writers like Matt Taibbi have amply noted, is horrifying.

For Donald Trump himself, thinking is a non-issue. Whether wittingly or not, he has created a political alliance of billionaires, the working poor, and fascists, and he has done it by refusing to make any sense at all, ever. He has done it with Orphic enigmas delivered through loutish haikus while every sane person in the country is asleep. Trying to understand what this marvel means is like wondering what a volcano god is trying to say to us.

And like those who live beneath a volcano, we’d be doing more to protect ourselves if we could stop staring at it in awe.



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.