March 12, 2018
Socialist Survivalism: A Democracy Beyond Democracy
by Curtis White
Tomorrow, North America will ring out with the music of cannons and popping champagne corks, as modern master Curtis White returns to fiction with his new novel, Lacking Character.
In a state of extreme psychedness, we’re preparing for the event by re-reading Socialist Survivalism, Curt’s explosive essay on America’s troubled political soul that we first published last year.
Buckle up, and enjoy.
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.
II. Beneath the Volcano
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:
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.
III. Cult and the Culture of Impertinence
And yet, we are assured, the “resistance” is rising. This resistance is without question necessary, even if it is in need of more self-reflection and self-criticism. It is being delivered substantially through social media “sharing” (as if we were fragile democratic aspirants of the Arab Spring), mass marches, and MoveOn takeovers of congressional town hall meetings. (Oh, and phone calls. Peace, Michael Moore!) These actions are informed by left-leaning criticism from suddenly vital alternative news sources like Truthout, Truthdig, Democracy Now!, Reader Supported News, and the US edition of the Guardian. It’s heartening to see so many different forms of resentment asserting themselves so publicly. There is still a tendency toward the fragmentation of identity politics, but there also seems to be a growing sense of common purpose. Our “resistance” is anarchic, self-aware, and, for once, in search of comrades.
But it seems to me that there is something substantially missing from this resistance: culture. Culture, properly understood.
Contrary to what the mass media would have us believe, culture is not merely the customs of a place, its language, religion, and cuisine. Nor is culture merely the movies, the music, the Internet of Things, and the rest of capitalist life’s fabulously stippled frou-frous. These are very static ways of thinking about culture. Properly understood, culture is a process of becoming. As Sigmund Freud wrote, culture is the act of “replacing what is unconscious with what is conscious.” A cult is unconscious. It simply does what it has always done. It follows instructions. Culture, on the other hand, is the bringing to awareness of the damage—the repression, irrationality, violence, ugliness, injustice, and tragedy—imposed by the cult. In this sense, culture is enlightenment.
And in this sense… the United States is a cult.
A cult is not capable of Freud’s enlightenment. It has only its crude and cruel version of eternity: “This is how we do this, we have always done it this way, we will always do it this way, this is not negotiable, it is not worth thinking about let alone talking about, it just is, and, by the way, shut up or else.” And so, if you are in Saudi Arabia, do not drive a car if you are a woman and do not write blogs seeking to open a frank discussion of Islam or you will go to jail. A very unpleasant jail, and jailers with whips for lashing. And if you’re in Thailand, do not insult the king or even his mongrel pet dog or you will go to jail. A very unpleasant jail, and “Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth,” as a fictional king of Siam once put it. The cult enforces what is to be done through constant reference to what has already been done. And, as we know, it is deadly serious about its enforcement responsibilities. Disgracefully, these foreign outrages are not foreign at all on our shores, especially if you are an immigrant and are confronted by the cult of “America First.”
Your friendly, local agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says, “Haven’t been in Buenos Aires since you were seven? Get on the plane!”
But cults also take more sophisticated forms. In the United States at present, most of what passes for culture is, by Freud’s understanding, not culture at all. This is especially true for our art — it’s not art at all. It’s not that it is “bad” art, it is that it is merely an expression of a cult, New York’s cult of capitalist realism, say, when it comes to novel-writing. Our novels, our television dramas, our movies, and, to a lesser degree, even our music are mostly cult-like determinations not to think, not to be self-reflective, and certainly not to change. Cult art wants only to continue to be what it has been. It doesn’t want you to tell it how conformist and dull it is; it only wants you to celebrate its “blockbusters.” And celebrate it does, as Hollywood’s auto-fellation over La La Land and Kong have demonstrated yet again.
It’s not as if a critical language for describing a conscious, or enlightened, culture of art is completely lacking. It appears at times, but usually only if the art is sufficiently out of sight. Culture can do whatever it wants so long as it acts out its enlightened intentions in a closet. Consider this from a review by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini of composer Andrew Norman’s “Split,” performed in New York in December 2015:
The radical element… is the way Mr. Norman handles time and structure. His feel for storytelling is permeated by “nonlinear, narrative-scrambling techniques from cinema, television and video games,” as he explains on his website. So his music can seem like nonstop quick cuts from one idea to another…. Sometimes the piano broke into spiraling flourishes, like Ravel gone vehement, or arpeggio madness, like spliced-together outtakes from a recording of a Tchaikovsky concerto.
Of course, the experience of the radical potential of this music—which is to say the potential of the music to change the terms of American life—is limited to the moneyed connoisseurs who finance both it and the extravagant gathering places—David Geffen Hall, the David Koch Theater—where the music is performed. This state of affairs became a national news story when the Broadway producers of Hamilton raised the price of a ticket to $849 in an effort to frustrate “ticket bot” scalpers who were selling seats for an average of $1,000. The ticket bots seem to understand something about the nature of American culture that the producers do not.
These wealthy sophisticates operate not only in bad faith, but in the worst possible faith, because they turn an experience that ought to be liberating into a mere demonstration of their superiority — their superiority for being able to afford the ticket, first, but also their superiority for being able to “appreciate” what is difficult. It is in such cases that the complaint of “elitism” coming from red state populists makes perfect sense. These populists should say, “You use art to confirm your own right to wealth and power.” The virtue of understanding what is difficult is the second half of the brutal equation that goes, “I deserve to be rich because I’ve earned it,” as John Houseman used to scold, “and I’m smarter than you.” The concert that Tommasini described was a ritual display of culture in the service of a cult.
Such displays legitimize the continued domination of those whom the oligarchs think of as, essentially, their servants — the salary men, data drones, and “working people,” exactly those for whom the liberating effect of the music should have been intended and, I hope, would have been intended had Mr. Norman had any say in the matter. On the other hand, if the art in question were more popular, if it were something that tried to thrive outside of the oligarchy’s art temples, it would know better than to exhibit “narrative scrambling” and “arpeggio madness.”
There are all sorts of filters for that sort of thing. As aspiring novelists discover early on, instruction in university writing workshops is mostly oriented toward domestic realism (we called the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop the “Field and Stream School of Writing” back in my student days). A university workshop apprenticeship is followed closely by agents, editors, and, at the end of the line, a publisher and their executive staff (Rupert Murdoch, after all, owns HarperCollins), all of whom have internalized a certain commercial aesthetic: “Nothing too weird!”
In other words, nothing that might tend to suggest that there are other ways of ordering reality, exactly what art is supposed to do, and did in fact do beginning with the Romantic revolutionaries and continuing through the druggy bliss of a century and a half of art’s various –isms, from Symbolism and Surrealism to the Beats and psychedelia. These were not merely elite exercises in difficult art; they were first and foremost social movements whose purpose was to reinvent religion (Blake), confound the bourgeois (Baudelaire and Flaubert), or “freak out” (the Dada-inspired Mothers of Invention). As Frank Zappa wrote in the liner notes to the album Freak Out:
What is “Freaking Out”? … On a collective level, when any number of “Freaks” gather and express themselves creatively through music or dance, for example, it is generally referred to as a Freak Out. The participants, already emancipated from our national social slavery, dressed in their most inspired apparel, realize as a group whatever potential they possess for free expression.
But in the present, unfortunately, most of the art that does freak out a bit, that does foreground “arpeggio madness,” is no threat to “social slavery” because it is mostly social sophisticates—who have no intention of changing anything—who are exposed to its challenges. But, of course, they misrecognize these challenges and call them pleasure or sophistication or profit or “this season’s triumph.” What the rest of us get, outside the charmed circle of Alice Tully Hall, is carefully managed to make sure it affirms again and again capitalism’s unrelenting mysterium, home to the cult of the Market God and his Invisible Hand, which keeps itself busy counting out the stars in Amazon reader reviews, ad infinitum.
Without question, these observations will be met with resistance by many within our nascent resistance. They will offer their own observation that, no, I’m quite wrong, culture is still a leading aspect of the fight against the oligarchs, the dupes, and the neo-fascist flunkies. They will point to films like Moonlight, and books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. They will point to a vast literature of social trauma (as provided by the New York Times “Best Books of 2016”) concerning post-colonialism (The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan), racism (The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead), poverty (Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond), and gender (In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi). They will rightly point to Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly (but ignore the mind-fuck of his Grammy Awards performance before the music industry elite). And they will suggest that all of this is a sign that American culture is vital and is throwing itself powerfully against the reign of rightwing billionaires.
For sure, better this resistance than no resistance at all. But I would suggest that there is something self-limiting about this work, something that is, in comparison with what Frank Zappa had in mind, constrained. As I see it, the books and art that currently give direction to the resistance do not do enough to challenge, for lack of a better term, American consciousness — capitalist, consumerist, scientistic, and journalistic. Taken together, these qualities make up our sense of what is “real” and “normal.” Unfortunately, while the politics of the books I’ve cited above may be resistant, and may be partisan, their prose is normative and their sense of the real is all too customary. Formally, they are both tactful—careful not to offend—and tactical: “I am allowed to say this so long as I say it in this way.” In other words, The Underground Railroad addresses important subject matter, but it is written in New York Times bestseller prose. (It is conspicuously not Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada.) It is alert and unconscious at once, caught in a twilight between cult and culture.
The problem here is that part of the sickness of this historical moment is precisely its normality, its conformity to what is thought to be possible or permissible. If the filmmakers, novelists, and critics of our resistance have defected to some degree from mainstream political culture, that culture has in turn taken its revenge by pressing home its demands in the very place that the defectors have sought refuge: in the work itself — in its language and in the realist form of its storytelling. In its formal propriety, the work offers the following assurance to its professed enemies: we won’t go too far. The world that awaits us at the end of our resistance as presently constituted is finally a familiar world, and will remain a familiar world, so long as our arbiters of taste are Hollywood, the Grammies, SNL, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times Best Seller List.
Freud’s understanding of culture wants something more than a return to what is customary, the social version of repetition compulsion. It wants something more than to be admired by wealth or vindicated by inclusion in a museum, canon, or repertoire, what Dave Hickey calls the “therapeutic institutions” where art is immobilized in amber and hung on the wall. What Freud’s culture asks for is to be understood for what it is — impertinent. Art is impertinent because it “meddles in what is beyond its proper sphere.” It is not content to remain within the narrow scope of commodity and entertainment, even if it is allowed to carry the bone of social commentary in its mouth. The culture of impertinence intends to seduce its audiences to join in its impertinence, and so into the Paris night after the first performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913, or into the mosh pit for the Pixies’ “Debaser” in 1989.
The culture of impertinence scorns the awards offered by the oligarchs, for which scorn it is properly scorned in return. But that is expected. What is more discouraging is the scorn that comes from those who have something to gain from art’s impertinences, those whom Zappa called “social slaves.” The servant class—a “passively rotting mass,” as Marx called it—says, “It’s admirable and virtuous to survive by the rules that our masters set. It’s not easy to follow instructions. Don’t you elitists—you liberals, you Jews, you professors, you artists—tell us that you’re going to change all the instructions now, or redeem us, or enlighten us. We will hate you for the effort.”
The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel captured the artist’s quandary in relation to the elite in its strange alliance with its slaves, so familiar to us now since the CEO of Exxon has joined forces with the demagogues of Breitbart News.
The Axiom of the Average: as we and our surroundings are, so must it have been always and everywhere, because that, after all, is so very natural. (So Schlegel writes in his “Critical Fragments.”)
For the cult, this Axiom is a morality, a morality whose primary virtue is its indiscussability. But this is a morality that, as Nietzsche remarked, “makes stupid.” We think that we are better people if we conform to the expectations of religion, capitalism, two-party politics, and commercial art. But we do not make ourselves better, we make ourselves stupid.
Of course, it is impertinent to say so.
IV. Toward a Culture of Democratic Improvisation
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 Times, Kevin 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.
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.