May 15, 2017

Socialist Survivalism: A Democracy Beyond Democracy (Part IV)


Socialist Survivalism:
A Democracy Beyond Democracy

This is Part IV in a four-part series; don’t miss:
Part I: Three Fateful Ironies of Democracy
Part II: Beneath the Volcano
Part III: Cult and the Culture of Impertinence

IV. Toward a Culture of Democratic Improvisation

James Baldwin. Photo by Allan Warren.

Ironically, the efforts of our varied political camps to create a national “We” have had the opposite effect: they have created a war of all against all in which life is—thanks to our three fateful ironies—deluded, deceitful, and bloody.  What we should be acknowledging is this: “My countrymen are my enemy.” (Again, James Baldwin, his honest voice returned to us by the recent film I am Not Your Negro, and just when we needed it most.) That sentence brings us about as close to national reality as a sentence can.

How can culture help with this disaster? Culture provides an exit from what the cult says is necessary and natural, especially the naturalness of the nation-state. A culture of impertinence leads toward a democracy beyond democracy, one in which the fateful ironies of democracy no longer function because we’re no longer going to try to live through one presiding nation-state fiction, especially a nation-state whose primary function seems to be the efficient enrichment of the few.

 Of course, all social organizations are fictions, but, ideally, they are fictions that we have made an existential commitment to because we have good reason to commit to them, because we believe them to be forces for “common wealth.” I don’t believe any dry-eyed observer of our current condition could say that there is anything common about our wealth or our wellbeing.

So, let Bernie Sanders and his growing organization of democratic socialists pursue their goals, I’ll happily join them, but let socialism also be mindful of the fateful ironies of democracy. Many socialists still imagine that their primary work is to create a “mass movement” in which some badly understood “We” emerges triumphant. Unfortunately, that is a vain and potentially bloody fantasy. Every mass knows that it is not alone and triumphant. There are always others, other masses. So, it concludes that if it is to survive at all, it must become the last mass — in short, a Requiem. There is no mass force that is not shadowed by history’s mass graves. The recent riot in Berkeley between anti-fascists and alt-Right “Oath Keepers,” senseless in itself, should teach us at least that much. There is no violent path forward.

In contrast, the culture of impertinence resists not by throwing up monoliths, but by cultivating indifference. It doesn’t say, “J’accuse,” it says, “Je refuse.”


No one speaks of the politics of refusal as a legitimate political strategy these days, and yet our history contains many powerful examples of it. We know it through Thoreau’s “disobedience,” through Wordsworth and Coleridge’s utopian plans for communities led by poetry, through the hippie invention of the commune, through resistance to the military draft (“Don’t step forward!”), and we even know it through punk’s exclamatory reinvention of rock and its squatter communities on New York’s Lower East Side. The “not in my name” response to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq had the flavor of non-participation, and so does the current hashtag #NotMyPresident.

A better example yet, Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park encampment was a tangible refusal of what the rest of us thought was simply reality. Occupy’s work is best understood not just as a set of demands to be satisfied through legislative reform, but as a performance, a presentation of itself as an alternative way of living now. In a less theatrical example, we could even look to the refusal of industrial agriculture through farmer’s markets, farm-to-table programs, locavore consciousness, humane meat and egg production, etc. — none of this waits until factory farming has been regulated out of existence by an enlightened central government. Community agriculture implements the world it wants right now, complete with a Saturday market, tables full of pottery and handmade jewelry, and a local bluegrass band (or, at the Saturday market where I live in Port Townsend, Washington, a musician playing a cello over his knee like a Stratocaster, toggling between Bach and Keith Richards). This is the work of culture, of consciousness, and of creativity.

And it is such good news. This culture, or counterculture, if you prefer, is the work of “democratic improvisation.” It does not share socialism’s delusions about the eventual creation of a mass movement that the rest of this dimwitted, gun-toting country will eventually be obliged to embrace, by whatever means necessary. And it doesn’t merely wait for the arrival of the next neo-liberal wonk president. It is not concerned with the safe return of its “first world” privileges: the better jobs, the elite educations, the better access to consumer goods. To be reductive, it is not interested in maintaining bourgeois privilege at the expense of those living in America’s rural or urban hinterlands, which was more or less what Hillary Clinton offered, what MoveOn lobbies for, and what Jerry Brown seems so pleased about. It has better things to do than to call a congressman every morning while the coffeemaker warms up and the dog pouts. Instead of that, it gets its hands dirty.

The culture of impertinence and improvisation is busy trying to remember important things, like what it means to live a human life. Through an improvisatory democracy, at least we have the pleasure of seeing our work immediately before us. This work may be, in the end, what saves us, or saves something worth saving.

Call it socialist survivalism.


In a 2015 essay in the New York TimesKevin Baker argued that American democracy is not supposed to work, that it works best when it is not driven by representatives faithfully mirroring the will of constituents (an impossibility in any case). It works best when parties are fragmented and politicians have no choice but to stitch together majorities from inter-party coalitions. For Baker, this “practical democracy” has an enviable record for progressive reform,  including labor law, social security, minority rights, etc. For example, the Voting Rights Act was enacted by a Democratic president over the objections of southern Democrats and with the support of moderate Republicans.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, Baker’s ideal has appeal, even though it ignores the outsize influence of concentrated wealth on all factions. (His “practical democracy” is merely collusion if the two parties are just arms of the one great Party of Wealth… as they are.) But perhaps what he is suggesting is a fourth fateful irony: democracy works best when it is not working democratically. Which is to suggest that the very idea of democracy is an empty talisman, a sort of gilded idol, behind which there are only myths and legends, piety, and the fear that if the fiction of democracy no longer stabilizes social discourse, some worse barbarity will take its place. (A not unreasonable fear, as that enfant terrible of fascist haute couture, Milo Yiannopoulos, has flamboyantly dramatized for us.)

What’s missing in Baker’s pragmatic rendering of political life in Washington is any suggestion that a similarly non-ideological pragmatism might succeed back home as well. Why should communities, cities, and states wait for centralized deal-making to get things done, especially when that deal-making always seems to benefit the wealthy first? While Congress dithers over whether or not people should be allowed to own AK-47s, let gun control be a local issue. If the people of Texas want to enjoy their assault weapons at the local shooting range, let ’em. And let them figure out what to do about the gun violence that comes along with the target shooting. Suicide, domestic violence, and massacres at the shopping mall are not subtle considerations, even for the bewildered people of the American Southwest.

Personally, I have no plans for visiting Texas again in this lifetime, unless I’m airlifted into and out of Austin. The idea of the great state of Texas—pickup paradise—fills me with the same sort of dread that I feel at the thought of hiking among grizzly bears in Alaska: I don’t belong there. And yet I am content to let Texans be Texans, God help them!

And if the people of the Pacific Northwest want to forbid AK-47s in order to better enjoy a world of bike trails, nature preserves, and local craft beverages, that should be fine too. That I know of, the Second Amendment has nothing to say on the right to own massacre machines, since the good old founding fathers were thinking about muzzle-loading rifles and pistols that couldn’t shoot straight at thirty feet.

To a degree, I jest. But a good part of what I’m suggesting is already the case: people are voting with their feet, and the consequences of this nomad democracy, this political economy for the wandering, are already familiar. The path these feet are following was pioneered in the 1960s when gay men from all over the country began moving to the Castro District in San Francisco. What the gay community was creating was not just a safe place for gays to be who they were, but a new form of democratic action, an improvisatory democracy beyond democracy.

More recently, that path has been deepened through the legalization of marijuana in states like Washington and Colorado, where it’s okay now for state laws to be federal scofflaws. Add to that the “Fight for 15” minimum wage laws in states like California and cities like Seattle. Add to that the sanctuary city movement. Add to the sanctuary movement transgender rights legislation. Add to all of that state and local protection of the environment (as with California’s aggressive CAFE standards) and progressive funding of recreation. Health care, too, is becoming an odd sort of state’s rights issue: in San Francisco, the Healthy SF program mandates employer contributions to health care for restaurant workers. (Of course, the billionaire owners of the restaurants are pushing back some. As Tilman Fertitta, owner of Rainforest Café, has commented, “All these states now are doing their own mandates. Why should the city of San Francisco be able to do absolutely whatever they want to do?”)

This trend is obvious, if not much commented on, and it will become increasingly normalized: go to a gun show in Texas; go to a coffee shop in Portland — they’re different countries. Soon, we’ll be talking not about states rights, but about autonomous regions. A regime of supportive tolerance for such territorial differences should create, in time, ever-finer fragmentations of culture within progressive regions, assuming that people feel free to self-invent and assuming a prevailing atmosphere of benevolence. That is a big assumption, I grant you. But, hey, even NRA types might feel more benevolent if they did not also feel they were being coerced through federal regulation. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to their misery.


But there are problems with this separatist logic.

The dark side of thinking of states and cities as autonomous regions is what it means for the economies and social conditions of southern and rural states, our so-called red states, by my count more than twenty-five of the fifty and 2/3 of the landmass. As Richard Florida argues in The Rise of the Creative Class, national wealth is going to be in those places where employers think they can attract and keep skilled employees. That means places where there is art, cuisine, education, recreation, and some semblance of social justice. It is to such places that the best and the brightest from rural and rustbelt states are being drawn. If the obvious material benefits aren’t sufficient reason to move, there is the unsubtle influence of teen television programs like “The OC” and “Riverdale,” where indie bands like Death Cab for Cutie advise, “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair!”

Hidden persuaders, indeed!

That’s all fine “if you’re going to San Francisco,” as Scott McKenzie sang, but the rest of the country will increasingly be about resource extraction, industrial agriculture, and “right to work” conditions where union-free factories offer low wages and high risks. For example, Alabama has sold itself to foreign automakers as the New Detroit, although the work is more like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. OSHA has documented cases of burning flesh, crushed limbs, and dismembered body parts at auto parts plants like Ajin in Cusseta, Alabama. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory were double the amputation risk nationally for the industry. To add insult to literal injury, much of this mayhem comes as a consequence of having to work alongside malfunctioning robots, which threaten fellow employees, “If you object to being maimed, we’ll simply take your job.”

As for those Southern workers not blessed with the brutal benevolence of a Hyundai or Kia plant full of dangerous robots, their lot will be poverty, discrimination, incarceration, decreased life expectancy, obesity-related epidemics, and drug addiction. It’s social inequality Russian style: if these people were living in Siberia, they’d be drinking facial toner. That’s despair darker than I know how to do justice to.


To make matters excruciating, those states with regressive cultures will be under pressure not only from the flight of their best and brightest to the coasts, but from boycotts and divestments as well. In other words, there is no guarantee that governments and corporations working within an informal coalition of progressive states are going to do business with states that make racism, sexism, and homophobia defining attributes of their home culture. If they do work with these regressive states, they may face boycotts from their more affluent consumer base — as Uber learned the hard way following the first Trump immigration ban.

The examples of such boycotting are many and increasing. Basketball-obsessed North Carolina lost both the NBA All Star Game and the NCAA basketball tournament because of the anti-transgender bathroom law enacted by the Christian mullahs of the state legislature. Seattle dumped its investments in Wells Fargo because it financed oil pipelines. Mammoth pension funds like CalPERS are under increasing pressure to structure investment to accomplish political ends, especially divestment in oil and gas. Democrats in Sacramento are currently pushing legislation that would require CalPERS to divest from companies that work on Trump’s Mexican wall. And most painfully for the right, its media heroes—like Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and erstwhile TV star Donald Trump—face what are called “ad boycotts” (directed by social media groups like #GrabYourWallet) because of their juvenile sexual predations.

Such market politics will be driven largely by the most affluent—and progressive—regions of the country for a simple reason: when they decide not to buy your products, it hurts and it hurts quickly. Many things are changing in these hypothetically united states, but cash flow still matters. When activists in California draw a Hitler mustache on your brand, it can quickly become a crisis requiring an immediate PR patch.

Finally, under the dismal heading “That’s Totally Fucked Up,” consider this ultimate verse in the Red State Blues: in many red states, Republican-controlled legislatures are passing laws inhibiting municipal “Home Rule,” the right of cities to pass laws and ordinances on issues like wage protection, fracking, and gun regulation. These “state preemption” laws are being pushed by rightwing organizations like the Koch brothers’ American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC). In Florida, Senate Bill 1158, introduced in March of 2017, would preempt the “regulation of matters relating to commerce, trade, and labor.” A similar law prohibits the city of Durham, North Carolina, from enacting living wage laws. In other words, in the South, wages will be determined in the state capitol and dictated by corporate, not local, interests.

Obviously, such legislation is not going to be a problem for progressive states and cities. The state of California is not going to tell San Francisco how to manage its affairs. Rainforest Café will get no support for its whining from Sacramento. Charlotte, on the other hand, is quite likely to receive instructions from Raleigh. Republican-dominated state legislatures will offer freedom not to their citizens, but to corporations, intensifying the hopelessness of workers.


An even larger problem, affecting red and blue states alike, is the fact that democratic improvisation is restrained by what is most obvious: at both the macro and micro level, what is possible has nothing to do with any sort of democracy. What is possible is determined by the abstraction of every human interest in money. While we wonder about what democracy should mean, the abstraction of money grinds on dictating constraints, chief among which is that abstraction of an abstraction, debt. The meaning of debt is not that you owe money; debt’s meaning is that money owns you.

With money, of course, comes the truly disheartening world of work. For a majority of Americans, employment is either nonexistent, or insufficient to provide lasting stability. Worse, the work that is available, especially in the vast service sector, is more often than not punishingly unrewarding. This work feels not like “economic opportunity,” but like an expression of contempt. Even at the upper end of the pay scale, the possibilities for work are ever more narrow, as college students come to understand when they wonder how they’ll pay back their tuition loans. If they don’t go into STEM disciplines, or the legal or medical professions, they rightly worry that they’ll never get out from under debt. And, of course, going to med or law school doubles down on debt. Surely, some young people must feel now as if they’ve been condemned to higher education.

To invoke Freud again, but not for the last time, think of democratic improvisation as creative energy, and think of money as a hostile and punishing reality principle that restricts our freedom to improvise. The reality created through money requires the “renunciation,” to use Freud’s word, of any dreams we might have of how it is we’d like to live. What Freud called “sexual renunciation” now extends to “cultural privation,” as he put it in Civilization and Its Discontents. We might live differently if we weren’t being constantly threatened by this all-consuming abstraction—this Freudian “shit”—money.

Whether the name of the regime is Obama, Clinton, Trump, or Resistance, this is the future: two worlds, separate and unequal. But that does not say enough. We have become sadly insensitive to the ironies of this separation, and so a news story about income inequality can run beside an article about driverless freight trucks, and it will be as if there was no relation between the two. But make no mistake, those trucks are coming and their first cargo will be further immiseration for unemployed truck drivers. Marijuana will be legal on the enlightened west coast, but hundreds of forlorn people will die of opioid overdoses in Ohio. In San Francisco even the kitchen staff will have access to a wellness program, complete with free Zumba sessions and gala half-marathons, but the poor in Texas will be denied Medicaid in the name of freedom. But we should not be fooled: whether rich state or poor, blue or red, the game is the same: We find our fated places one way or another in the money system, the enemy of every dream, the dictatorship of every present.


Siggy played guitar.

This essay—on fateful ironies, cults and cultures, and democratic improvisation—is an exercise in “thinking.” As Freud understood it, thinking is “an experimental action carried out with small amounts of energy, in the same way as a general shifts small figures about on a map before setting his large bodies of troops in motion.” I’m under no illusion that we will soon be able to move beyond national politics, beyond partisan ranting, beyond the implied or quite concrete threat of police violence, and certainly not beyond money. People of all political stripes will have no choice except to continue to work with the situation as it is.

Nonetheless, there is great undeveloped potential for democratic improvisation, for a strategic independence from national reality and from capitalist reality, but first we must recognize this improvisatory independence as what we want. As I’ve argued, we are not unfamiliar with this independence, but there can and should be more of it. We need a culture of ever-larger tolerance for the impertinent and for those of independent will.

If Freud had one hope, it was the rueful, plaintive, yet simple wish for a civilization that is less unhappy, less “discontented.” It came to this for him: “Human beings should be allowed to enjoy more pleasure without guilt and without punishment.” Similarly, we as individuals and communities should be allowed more freedom for self-creation and self-development, without guilt and without punishment.

For Freud, it was a good thing that human instinctual drives are accomplished in culture and not in the woods. We don’t merely want to survive, we want to thrive, we want to flourish, and we want to feel free to improvise socially, just as a jazz musician feels free to improvise musically. The freedom to improvise does not mean dead-ending in one cult or another, all organized through the fake democracy of the nation-state. It means, as every artist knows, thriving through our works, our curiosity, our inventions, and our benevolence.

That has been taken from us, and we ought to take back as much as we can.



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.