2.28.2017 Leave a comment
2.5.2017 Leave a comment
A few decades ago an elderly Jewish friend and I walked down a spacious avenue located in a multi-ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood. We passed a Hasidic Synagogue as we neared out destination. I never learned the name of the sect that used an inconspicuous Brooklyn home for their house of devotion, but I knew I did not care much for them because they prominently placed a sign in the yard that commanded: “Women must enter in the rear.” I often wondered for whom the sign was meant. After all, sect members would know which door they were to use to enter the building. But why would Sheila, a hypothetical mail lady, or Joyce, a hypothetical EMT, care a damn for their belligerent demands? I remembered the paradoxes of tolerance the sign always brought to my attention.
It was around the moment we passed the Synagogue that my friend said something to this effect:
Friend: “You just do not understand. Because you are not Jewish. They [the Goyim] will always hate us. It can happen here.”
“It,” of course, was a Holocaust. My friend’s fear of another catastrophe originated in his having been a young Jewish refugee who fled pre-war Poland and his knowing that his extended family had perished during the Holocaust. Encountering anti-Semites over his long life not only magnified his fears, these experiences turned them into something that could be called an unshakable belief in the fearful risks that went along with being a Jew. These risks reflected his belief in a recurring anti-Semitism. It may be surprising that these elements combined to redoubled his commitment to revolutionary socialism, a family preoccupation that lasted generations. But Zionism was not his thing. Besting anti-Semitism, on the other hand, was part of his being.
Friend: “Only a classless society will save the Jews from mass murder.”
My reply was measured and calmly stated:
Me: “While it is true that Anti-Semites can be found across the world, that some live in the United States and that a Holocaust occurred in and around Germany, I am nearly certain that ‘The Jewish Question’ is not an issue here. The ‘Black Question,’ on the other hand, drives and has long driven American reactionary politics. If we were to see anything like the Holocaust in the United States, it would likely feature a Black final solution as an animating goal.”
My friend replied: “You just do not understand.”
As we neared the falafel shop that was our destination, a mentally deranged black man carrying a large portable toy phone approached us and began spewing anti-Semitic rants about the shop (it was owned and operated by Sephardic Jews) and its mostly Jewish patrons. My friend, who considered himself a tough guy even though he was then old and partly disabled, looked a bit stunned by and scared of the crazy man with his phone and sadistic tirade. I, on the other hand, found the him annoying if only because he had undermined the point I had made a few moments before.
So, when his phone rang, I blurted out: “That’s for you. It’s Hell calling.” My friend looked relieved by my response or, perhaps, because a Goy had defended him against this kind of nonsense. We then walked towards the shop, a place where, as a Goy, I sometimes had personally experienced bias. Our lunch was uneventful.
If we can thank Donald Trump for anything, it might be this: The Trump campaign and election spurred the bigoted elements in the United States to emerge en masse and to assert themselves boldly with pride. Shameless anti-Semites, Islamophobes, Homophobes, White Nationalists, religious fundamentalists, etc. appear to believe it is their time to be seen and heard. Trump, briefly put, cleared a public space in which they can be who they are, where their aspirations appear legitimate, in which their presence can be known. Trump’s victory even inspired some to act without restraint. Crime and murder, hatred and war circulate in the air we breathe. Self and other, us and them, friend and foe, purity and filth — these are terms in which the bigots express themselves. Within such an environment the violence of the few clarify and expose the aspirations of the many. (What might be the goal of exclusionary violence but genocidal cleansing or purification of the land?) Although America’s hate-addled monsters are a minority and the energetic popular response to Trump’s prejudices should encourage everyone with more than a bit of good will in their souls, the United States still contains the social resources needed to mount collective expressions of hate. We need only to recall the potential violence on display during the Tea Party’s moment to glean the truth of this claim. Likewise, the many death threats directed towards Barack Obama and the First Family. So too the use Trump made of his followers to harass and intimidate his opponents. These individuals and groups intended to draw boundaries, and would use the blood of their opponents to do so. They wished to exclude others from White America. Moreover, we have also seen that American’s institutions can use these popular mentalities as a basis for attacks on the presence of human diversity within the country, to justify its imperial politics abroad and to suppress dissent at home. This situation is both disturbing and unsurprising. For what is Trump’s America but an enraged Uncle Sam with a loaded pistol and a nearly empty bottle. We Americans have been in this situation before. We know Uncle Sam has never been mentally fit or morally respectable. He has long had innocent blood on his hands.
My friend firmly believed that a (Marxian) revolution was the only feasible solution to the anti-Semite problem that once vexed Europe, that a classless society provided the only durable haven for the Jews. He believed no one would molest the Jews once the world had neither Yids nor Goyim, that is, once it had only human beings, liberated, free and happy. An inclusive solidarity would make these hatreds all but impossible, their condition of possibility being the assertion of those differences which efface our common humanity, differences that, in his mind, reflected the conflict of the contending classes.
He might have been right about this. (I, on the other hand, do not believe antagonistic class relations are the first cause of every form of oppression and misery.) Of course, our world remains polluted by hate and fury as well as class cleavages. It does not feature an inclusive solidarity. Nor institutions that promote such. Oppression and exploitation, conflict and war are our overbearing realities. A common humanity that affirms difference is thus a socio-political project, not an undeniable presence in the world. My friend’s implicit belief in an inevitable and pervasive anti-Semitism, one so stubborn that it survives every attempt to shame it into oblivion, may be more ‘realistic’ than not. Who is to say otherwise when we know Trump’s ascent includes many anti-Semitic episodes as obvious by-products? Nevertheless, even if we are fated to confront anti-Semites along with the race-haters, Islamophobes, etc., we know that many will oppose bigotry because bigots of every stripe are barely tolerable impediments to realizing the good life. The project, to be sure, makes our common humanity a living presence in an inhospitable world. Solidarity is always an antidote to hate.
2.2.2017 Leave a comment
Some assert that Donald Trump is a fascist. Although his personal inclinations as revealed to the public show a person with the personality a fascist leader would have, and his identity and class biases affirm this description, it is an obvious fact that Donald Trump was too lazy to have built the movement, party and related institutional forms needed to be considered an actual fascist leader. What, then, is Donald Trump? I believe he is a vile opportunist who found himself the executive of the world’s Superpower while tenuously leading the mostly disorganized far right public in the United States. For them, Trump is their latest celebrity-hero, an accidental Robespierre of the counter-revolution they desire. As such, he provides a frame through which they can locate their aspirations and interpret their political opportunities. He is a Reagan who no long speaks in code, a Buchanan to whom they can relate. That said, it is also a fact that the Trump administration lacks democratic legitimacy. He lacks democratic legitimacy because the demos did not vote him into office. The demos chose Hillary Clinton. The Constitution gave us Trump. Donald Trump, despite his democratic legitimacy deficit, possesses the powers specific to his office. He will hold these powers until he leaves office. But it is because Trump lacks democratic legitimacy that he also lacks the authority (power amplified because it is recognized as legitimate) always found in a leader who enjoys the broad and deep consent of those he would govern.
Briefly put, Trump is dangerously powerful because he is the President of the United States, holder of an office that controls an immense arsenal of violent tools. But he is politically weak because he lacks the authority a democratic consensus provides to an office holder and because he cannot let a day pass without creating new and powerful enemies at home and abroad. At best, he can impose his will on the society and state he leads with his executive orders (decrees). But even his rule by decree founders on his incapacities. The events of his first week in office made this point obvious.
If, then, Trump is a fascist, he is largely hated and politically weak. This combination does not auger well for his political future.
Others assert that Trump oftensometimes furthers the policies, programs and goals of his recent predecessors. This claim is frequently true. It is made because the claim and its truth are meant to diminish Trump’s predecessors while normalizing Trump’s barbarism. There is irony in this gambit, for the normal and barbaric can merge into one disturbing image.
First, for instance, we know Trump wants to ban prospective immigrants and deport actual immigrants, even legally protected immigrants. Yet, we also know that Barack Obama did restrict immigration and deport some of those who made it into the United States. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also advanced border control policies. Their support for these policies are not too surprising given the fact that setting and consolidating borders is an elemental competency of any modern state. It is also unsurprising because globalization (American-led imperial expansion) produces migration problems as a matter of course. We should expect migration problems because successful imperial aggression results in accumulation by dispossession, as David Harvey (2003, 145-182) notes. Of course, placeless people need somewhere to go. Nevertheless, a freely flowing movement of migrants from one state to another reveals the presence of an incapacitated or failed state. Accordingly, no state or political leader promotes or long-tolerates an un- or under-restricted movement of groups or individuals across its borders. This claim does not absolve Trump, though. What distinguishes Trump’s immigration rhetoric from that of his recent predecessors and what makes it objectionable per se is the overt hatred he consistently expresses through his proclamations and policies. His recent immigration ban only exposes his barbarism for what it is. Trump seemingly feels justified in making his decrees and imposing his bans because he considers some actual and potential immigrants to be monsters or sub-human criminals. He uses these outliers to define whole population categories, massive groups that must be dealt with as collective entities, as others. This is inhumane and unrealistic. It is because of Trump’s hatreds that I believe his policies are not akin to border control policies as practiced by states not enthralled to atavistic impulses. It reflects another, related project: Identity construction. Trump seeks to promote a cramped and corrupt unity among his followers in the United States and even abroad. It is a reactionary identity politics. It is cramped and corrupt because the United States is already a multi-ethnic and -religious society. (Muslim, Hispanics, Gays, Oh My!) Its many and diverse peoples cannot be forced into a system of categorical domination led by one distinct identity category without the use of an appalling degree of violence. It cannot because the United States is slowly moving towards instituting an ethos of tolerance and mutual recognition that will make White America obsolete. Seen in this light, Trump’s hatreds reveal the existential anxiety of a social category that is watching its moment pass before its eyes, namely, the augmented WASPish America that appeared as an ideological sign after the Second World War. These anxieties, along with Trump’s immigration politics, have nothing to do with a credible and morally defensible immigration program. They reflect instead the death of the White American dream.
Second, Trump wants to prosecute what remains of the Great War on Terror by destroying ISIS and, perhaps, Iran. In this he follows the repetitive and reckless program set by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the Clintons and much of the Washington establishment since 9.11. This path extends back further to the Gulf War of 1990-1 as well as to the genocidal sanctions regime promoted by Third-Way ‘leftists’ like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair once Operation Desert Shield turned modern Iraq into a non-modern wasteland. Although the details of this compulsive war-making may differ between the various administrations, the Islamophobia and disrespect for human life, the imperial arrogance and militarism which marked the original invasion remain intact. These vices also reflected in the relations the United States has with Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as the lesser members of the world economy. From these relations, we know that the United States does not provide humanitarian goods to the world as expressions of its essential goodness. It takes wealth when it can, promotes its clients and extends its sphere of influence. It fights wars and spreads its war-making capacity around the world in order to achieve its imperial goals. In this regard, Trump now occupies a place and furthers a project that already existed, one created by the costly and fruitless imperial programs of the past, by a political culture that believes America is exceptional, an Empire of Liberty. Trump’s America First and Make America Great Again slogans reflect his imperial mindset. They are not novel interventions into American public discourse. Likewise, destroying or attempting to destroy ISIS or Iran provide just two additional data points in the American Presidents are fools slot. The slogans and war-making are all-to-typical of the country.
Third, Trump also looks well on his way to implementing an austere pro-corporate economic agenda. Once again, Trump’s inclinations in this matter do not mark him as different from the Bushes and Clintons, from Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and even Jimmy Carter. Despite his populist campaign rhetoric, which promised job creation, living wages and cost controls, goals that an economically beleaguered population would gladly support, Trump and his cabinet picks seem prepared to promote a capital- and oligarchy-friendly agenda. This is unsurprising given the role played by the Heritage Foundation in the formation of that agenda. (“Free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense — these are the values that we fight for every single day.“) It is also unsurprising given that the Empire of Liberty exists to further the ends of capital, not the demos. The business of America is business, as the pithy slogan puts it. Neoliberal dogma, the current expression of this economic impulse, provides the air Washington, New York, Chicago, London, Brussels, etc. breath. It is the American ideology writ large, to which alternatives are neither conceivable nor tolerable.
If Newton saw more than others because he stood on the shoulder of giants, we may expect Trump to make the colossal messes he will make because he will merely disturb or extend the social and political wasteland created by his mediocre and compromised predecessors. This amounts to saying that the disorder of the moment is not specific to Trump, his program and administration. The risk and uncertainty many Americans experience every day expresses the creeping institutional decay of the current American system, the system disintegration specific to post-Golden Age democratic capitalism. The 2008 crisis merely exacerbated these problems. In the United States, this decay takes the form of a permanently stagnating economy; the prevalence of debt bondage within the lower classes; the use of finance capital by America’s oligarchy to confiscate the wealth of the many; the consolidation of the predatory state; the intractable insignificance of the democratic mechanism in the effort to generate solutions to common and pressing problems; the present and future dangers of a bloated security-surveillance apparatus only able to consume scarce resources, commit crimes and produce chaos with notable effectiveness; and the slow decay of those institutions meant to realize a common good, an inclusive form of solidarity, replacing them with militarized police forces, prisons and internment camps. Trump has nothing relevant to say about these matters, and Americans will wait in vain if they expect him to correct them just like they waited for Obama to deliver change they can believe in.
I believe that very little a reasonable person would consider desirable can come from these oppressive and exploitative conditions. Altering them to make them significantly better would require a reform program the likes of which the world has yet to see. A program of this sort would necessarily be a radical reform program. If it were successful in achieving its ends, one might consider it another instance of a velvet revolution. The Green New Deal would be one good place to look for the makings of this radical reform program. Or, it would be if it were not for the fact that implementing a radical reform program with this character would require achieving contestable secondary goals. It would require dismantling America’s really existing Empire of Liberty and replacing the Federal Reserve and Wall Street. In their place, we would see a Department of State devoted to achieving world peace and a financial system dedicated to promoting human flourishing. A rational political economy would devote trillions of dollars to clean energy, to green transportation and commodity production. A radical reform program would promote the rehabilitation of democracy in America. It would rescue it from the severe constraints imposed by money, class and history. This is a utopia, and we would expect America’s oligarchy, its capitalist class in general, its political elite, members of the security-surveillance apparatus and even many of its citizens to oppose any effort to implement this program. Radical change is inconvenient as it is risky. The benefits it produces might not appear for years or even generations in the future. They may even appear impossible at any given moment. Both the powerful and weak can find reasons to opt out. Nevertheless, a program this radical stands as the historic demand of the moment. We know this because the world will not always endure the scourges of neoliberalism, American militarism and remorseless carbon consumption. Climate chaos changes everything, as Naomi Kline put it. It demands of humanity that it put its house in order. This demand is most compelling in the United States.
Donald Trump, crypto- or accidental-fascist as he may be, stands as an impediment to any radical reform program. He is an impediment because he is a bundle of dirt, lies and crime, but also because he has many violent institutions in his back pocket. He may lack democratic legitimacy, but he does not lack popular support. He is, as it were, a Son of America. On the other hand, the Trump regime provides us with an opportunity, namely, the chance to gain clarity about and insight into the predicaments of the day and to struggle to rectify the damage that has already be done. From chaos we can create form.
1.22.2017 Leave a comment
We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
As we can see from the passage quoted above, the Constitution tells us that a political entity that is logically prior and ontologically superior to the written text of the Constitution exists. That entity: The People of the United States. The Preamble informs us that Americans have the authority to make and unmake the Constitution, and thus the laws derived from it. The People can thus wash away centuries of constitutional, common and statutory law; of institutional development and forms of life that make up traditions hardened by time. The People as defined is the ultimate source of every legality known to Americans. They are this source because they are empowered to give themselves constitutions, laws and institutions that endure — or not. The People can perfect its country. It embodies a natal power. Thus considered, The People is a revolutionary and even a counter-revolutionary entity. It can be both because it has the authority to create or destroy, affirm or deny whatever it wants. Vox populi, vox Dei.
Yet, like God, The People never actually appears as such. It is neither here nor there. It is everywhere but nowhere (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, pp. 126-158). It is real and unreal, active and dormant. It appears in time but is timeless. At best, The People, like God, appears in and can be identified only through the acts of mortal men and women, persons much like members of the ‘natural aristocracy’ that produced the Constitution of 1787. As we know, these men produced a Constitution that reflected the personal and social defects of those who wrote it. We know this because the Constitution defends the prerogatives of the capital owner and of men in general. It placed artificial restrictions on those who would become citizens. A human being living in the United States at the time of the founding was not destined to become a citizen. The Constitution was not meant to constitute an all-inclusive polity. It produced instead a republic that secured the moral idiocy of individuals who would radically exploit and dominate others without regret or much legal consequence. We know this because it defended slave owners while containing the elements needed to defend imperial expansion, industrial development and the financial supremacy of the capitalist class. The Constitution was consistent with genocide. The Founders intended America to become the Empire of Liberty as they conceived it. The United States was meant to be exceptional.
As consecrated, it contained within itself everything needed to produce the crisis currently found in the United States.
My point stated in different terms amounts to this: The Constitution of 1787 made a fool and bigot like President Donald Trump both possible and thus actual.
Fortunately, the Constitution also gave posterity some of the resources needed to put down a Donald Trump. And the Preamble gave us the moral authority to abolish the institutional legacy produced by the Founders and their product, the Constitution. We can always begin anew.
That said, the potential power encapsulated in the abstraction we call The People is infinitely greater than any political power a fraction of the people could ever generate to topple a Trump and the capitalist democracy he now leads. Revolutions are rare, after all. They are members of an empty set when we restrict set membership to post-war capitalist democracies. The set is empty because revolutionary movements do not directly issue from conditions of general suffering among the lesser people. If misery alone were sufficient to cause an insurrection to erupt, then insurrections and revolutionary situations would be far more common than peace, even in prosperous countries like the United States. But misery offers many lessons to those who suffer. For instance, it can teach obedience to whomever has the ears to receive this message. If one doubts this, one needs to consider only the fact that voluntary servitude is the fate of nearly everyone under capitalist conditions. We moderns know all too well that it is not wholly irrational to prefer one kind or degree of misery (wage labor) to another (destitution). Daily we affirm the belief through our actions that it is better to live on our knees than to die on our stomach. Apart from the involuntary servitude problem, history teaches us that insurrectionary political projects can come to nothing or worse. Wanting or needing to radically change the world not make a revolution inevitable or even inevitably successful during those rare instances when revolutionary movements emerge. Only a God combines a pure potential with actuality, thought with being. Human beings, relatively powerless as they are, often lack the resources or opportunities required to realize their collective projects. They may find collective action problems to be unsolvable, their opponents too powerful, the circumstances unfavorable. Making a revolution is risky, and human beings tend to be risk adverse.
We can see from the above that any appeal to the people— or The People — contains within it the use of an empty or floating signifier. These, by definition, refer to words, terms or other signifiers that lack referents. They refer to imaginary beings, products of consciousness and culture encapsulated in and expressed through language or another system of signs. The People is an empty signifier. It may refer to every actual American existing at a given time. But, its extension is much greater than that. In the best case, living human beings may invoke it because they have a political project that promotes radical reformist or revolutionary politics as a goal, projects that can be affirmed by any reasonable person. They can lay claim to the natal power of The People. Such a project intends to make the abstract concrete, to make a world better by combining the moral resources provided by The People with the practical activities, plans and experiences of existing persons, members of the people. Such a project would include creating unity from diversity under specific circumstances. In its best sense, The People reflects what an actual collection of reasonable persons, well-informed and humanely disposed could do given the situation they encounter. But an appeal to The People also contains its baser uses. These uses may occlude real differences among the people (asserting a false unity) or use such differences that may or do exist to exclude some individuals or groups from the domain specified by the term, The People (Juden Raus, Whites Only). Thus, real Americans are never… and do not include… and cannot tolerate… and will never become….
When Donald Trump claimed that “…today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People” he spoke nonsense, as he is prone to. Why is it nonsense? For one thing, Trump’s presidency lacks democratic legitimacy. It is true that he won an election, but his victory was the product of a very defective democratic mechanism. He thus cannot rationally claim a mandate democratically derived from the votes cast last November. He cannot because he enjoyed neither a majority nor a plurality of those votes. Most Americans still do not care much for him, as his inauguration and the post-inauguration protests made plain. The Electoral College gave us Trump. The College does not perfect democracy in America, it defeats it, and intentionally so.
Secondly, Trump might want to claim that he is the symbolic representative not just of the people as we know them today but also of The People properly conceived. This too is nonsense. I will say more about this claim below.
Third, despite Trump’s victory, America retains its political system, divided by constitutional law and long practice, one devised to defend capital and slavery from popular influence, one intended to prevent the formation of ‘tyrannical majorities’ that threaten the empire of liberty. Today this system is characterized by national and international institutions that few citizens can influence in any tangible way at all. The elephant mostly goes wherever it wants even though mosquitos would want it otherwise. Put differently, the power realized by these institutions endures whether the people support them or not. The elite circulate, money purchases influence, generals and intelligence operative make plans. Politicians respond not to the discourse of their constituents, but to the cues and dollars of the lobbies and political investors who they relate to. This means, sadly enough, popular sentiment in the United States has never tamed the federal government, the nation’s political economy or its nearly autonomous security-surveillance apparatus. Political and social alienation have been the norm and will remain so despite Trump’s vacuous proclamations to the contrary. He is merely the president; his presidency will not transfer power to the people or The People. He will govern per his prerogatives, shaped, of course, by his interactions with others in the government and the economy.
So, given these three problems, how might Trump’s assertion make sense? It has whatever sense it has when it is construed as Trump claiming he embodies the will of The People as elected by individuals who are authentically American, who, presumably, are white, male, employed, etc. Trump inconspicuously claimed to be the symbolic representative of The People, itself a symbol of sovereign power. It is this move that makes a Trump presidency disturbing. Given his personal habits of mind and body, which is to say, given his megalomania, and given the impossibility of his transferring tangible or institutional power to the people, it is easy to see that Trump proudly stands in the shadow of a specific form of political power and can refer to the power when he makes presidential decisions: The lawless power of The People. As a putative realization of that power in the United States today and as the holder of an office vested with astonishing institutional powers, Donald Trump vested his actions with the authority specific to he who makes every law, whose actions are beyond reproach, whose deeds cannot be nullified except by himself. Lest we slip into complacency here and treat Trump as raving fool who does not know what he is doing or saying, let us recall the writings of Carl Schmitt: “Dictatorship [of this sort] is omnipotence without law: lawless power” (Schmitt, 2014, p. 110). Donald Trump — a God among men…. Such a man does not need to know what he is doing. He merely needs to know that he is always authorized to do as he pleases.
Trump is not a fascist. He does not claim to be a fascist and does not promote fascist doctrine. He does not lead a massively popular movement that identifies itself as fascist. Nor does he lead a fascist party. America’s streets lack violent squads, a party-army, a fascistic aesthetic. They mostly lack grand marches save for those originating on the left. Trump does have actual fascists sitting in his shadow, persons who identify themselves as such. And he certainly embodies the Führerprinzip in speech if not in deed. But Trump and his supporters lack too many of the defining elements of the fascist political kind.
If Trump is not a fascist, calling him one degrades political discourse with useless hyperbole. But we do not need to call him one to make a point about his dictatorial inclinations. Fascism is just one horrible political system among many belonging to the authoritarian kind. Trump is dangerous. He is an authoritarian nationalist, racist and conservative, probably of the neoliberal type. He shares features with the fascists. But his nationalism is not an integral nationalism, his racism dependent on a multiethnic society, essentially divided society. Despite his claims to the country, the Trump administration will not serve the interests of the American people or even The People. The state he wants to lead, as suggested by his cabinet picks, will likely prey on many if not most Americans. His political economy looks poised to confiscate wealth from his base to transfer it to select capital owners. It might generate another economic disaster.
Befitting a predator, Trump flouts the law while worrying his opponents with his reckless acts and proclamations. When he took hold of the presidency, he claimed the authority of a sovereign dictator by invoking The People. In this sought invest his presidency with a surplus power, power that he may realize if he wishes (or can). Because of his pretentions, personal foibles and the circumstances in which he made his claim, Trump stands as a threat to the rule of law (assuming it remains a feature of the American system), liberal democratic institutions (such as they are) along with the health and well-being of most Americans.
Americans possessing good sense and good will need to oppose him in nearly every instance.