We have so far cautioned against the ideological trap of a “return to normalcy.” Since what is unprecedented in the pandemic indexes only the functioning of the inner logic of capitalism under specific historical conditions rather than any radical rupture, the return to normalcy is a concession to the very crisis-ridden system that we should rather be aiming to overcome.
On the other hand, we are everywhere enjoined to embrace a “new normal.” It’s worth reflecting further on this because here again the theme of novelty, the unprecedented, is perniciously mobilized while the old logic of capitalism churns on. Irrationalities in vaccine rollouts and the proliferation of coronavirus variants are certainly emerging faces of crisis (not to mention parallel and compounding crises like the deadly climate-driven cold shock in Texas at the time of writing). But we must never forget that capitalism runs on crisis. Because it does, the contradiction between the “return to normalcy” and the “new normal” is only apparent.
What we are witnessing is capital seizing the moment not simply to keep its grip on us, but also to tighten it. In a very basic way, pandemic-related unemployment swells the reserve army of labour and therefore puts pressure on those who are still working. But there are more specific ways the grip tightens as well. To take one example, many of us work in the education sector, and have had to shift to telework and online learning. The writing is on the wall that the current investment in this shift––in large part by workers themselves, to be sure––is here to stay. Doubtless, we can point to emerging coronavirus variants or even to the “next pandemic” as reasons why a robust online infrastructure and workforce capacity are vital. But such work also offloads infrastructure costs onto workers, and potentially increases the pace and volume of their labour through the modification of spatial and temporal limits to teaching, grading, research, administrative tasks, and meetings. Let’s not miss the implication: the more capitalism manifests openly as necrocapitalism––that is the more it mows people down by exposing frontline workers to infection for economic reasons––the better it can sell fixes that help it to extract even more surplus value from workers. More simply still: the more it kills us, the more capitalism can steal from us. This sounds perverse, but that’s precisely the point: talk of “the new normal” masks capital’s core perversion. It does this by conflating “normal” in the sense of usual or typical, with “normal” in the sense of normative. For this reason, we reserve the use of the term “normal” to simply mean the functioning of capitalism according to its core logic––which of course can manifest in various ways according to capital’s needs of the moment.
Two of David Harvey’s concepts are helpful here. (Harvey, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason) First, he often refers to “accumulation by dispossession,” basically Marx’s “primitive accumulation” but more forthright in name and further differentiated beyond the baseline examples of colonialism and plunder. In a word, accumulation by dispossession is the phase of capitalism in which “startup capital” is acquired through theft, force, or coercion. Harvey’s terminology is preferable to Marx’s because “primitive” has the ring to it of “historically prior” whereas this is not at all what Marx meant. “Primitive” accumulation––basically stealing, therefore “accumulation by dispossession”––can occur in any historical period and is likely to happen during crises of capital, when the market as such can no longer iron out capitalist contradictions.
Second, Harvey often references the “free gifts of nature” that human beings give capitalism. Take reproduction and childrearing, which we’ve discussed at some length in previous chapters. It is costly to raise children, which is odd when you realize that by doing so you are equipping new workers for entry into the market. Basically, parents subsidize capital when they care for their children. And in other ways, such as through our creativity and our capacity for mutual aid, we likewise furnish capital with much it can put to its own uses and sell back to us at an inflated cost.
Let’s put these concepts together. What we are suggesting is that we are living through a new round of accumulation by dispossession. But to speak solely of teleworkers, what is being demanded and taken also falls increasingly in the category of erstwhile free gifts of nature: unless we are deemed essential and put in harm’s way as a matter of course, our working lives are shifted increasingly into our home or intimate lives, where care relations have to keep the whole damned thing going. The reduction of “junk time” through telework is double-edged because in the very instant it opens up free time, it also recasts us as beings who are available for work. This is, of course, what the poorest workers have always been to capital; but there is a palpable sense in the pandemic of digital proletarianization, and this is precisely one facet of what is peddled as a “new normal”.
This finally bears on what we previously termed the “indeterminate miasmatic temporality” of the pandemic’s opening. Arguably, almost a year into the pandemic, this temporality continues into the calls for normalcy, but it now does so with a twist. We are told to wait; specifically, that we must wait for capital and its neoliberal political bunglers to outrun the rapidly mutating coronavirus through vaccination rollouts and therapeutics. But, simultaneously, we are also told that we can no longer wait; however grudgingly, we must accept the new normal, which is after all a return to the old normal but now with more of an employment blackmail hanging over us and more of our free “gifts” demanded as tribute to capital. Our call here is therefore simple: we must fight the imposed miasmatic temporality of waiting while working, of being made more and more available for work, with an active temporality of resistance and organizing. At a minimum, if telework imposes a broader span of time where we are available for work, then our watchword must be to practice time theft whenever and as often as we can. But beyond this minimum, we must also form links in an organized chain of workers capable of constituting a genuine rupture, a break beyond the wildest dreams of capital’s impoverished, stagnant, and utterly “normal” imagination.
We began this project in April of 2020. Our plan was to present a running commentary that followed events related to necrocapitalism, COVID-19, and political struggle as they unfolded. As various governing bodies rollout and implement vaccination plans, we have decided that we would follow the policy pivot with an analytic pivot looking at the relationship between vaccinations and necrocapitalism. If the project began in the midst of an indeterminate miasmatic temporality, the beginning of vaccinations—regardless of their success—draws us back into periodization and demarcations. From the dichotomy of “before times” and the pandemic, back to past, present, and future. Political leaders tout not the end, but the “beginning of the end” of the pandemic, though, given that vaccination will follow distribution patterns and logistics shaped by necrocapitalism, we can anticipate a long interregnum of an uneven geography of (potentially) post-pandemic life. The return to “normalcy” will constitute a regression toward the capitalist system that enabled the pandemic to reach the scope that it has—and which continues to enable successive environmental crises.
The guiding hypothesis of this project has been that, to quote Lenin, all crises “make manifest what has been hidden; they cast aside all that is relative, superficial, and trivial; they sweep away the political litter.” Our explicit goal has been to relate what is unprecedented to constitutive features of capitalism. Thus we began very early on by challenging the hyperbolic assertions of several prominent philosophers. Giorgio Agamben’s position veered very quickly toward close proximity to COVID-denialism—the coronavirus was merely a ploy to extend the state of exception into everyday existence, stifling the meaningful bonds of public life. Ironically, it is the United States, which once stood as the contemporary paradigm of the state of exception, that then underwent an inversion into spontaneous Agambenian resistance. And for that, it has recorded a disproportionate amount of preventable harm and death (though again, it is marginalized and oppressed groups which have disproportionately suffered this already disproportionate harm). Slavoj Žižek, by contrast, grasped that the COVID-19 pandemic would occasion a capitalist crisis, but hoped that capitalist states and non-governmental institutions would suddenly impose the communist social relations they’ve so brutally suppressed over the last century.
Again, the concept of necrocapitalism does not constitute a radical rupture with the supposedly normal, smooth functioning of capital. In our view, what the pandemic casts in relief is the fact that capital accumulation is premised on exposing and subjecting the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, and the wretched of the earth to environmental harm and premature death. Crisis focuses the intensity of this exposure and subjection.
If public health officials are correct, and vaccination heralds the beginning of the end of the pandemic, then revolutionary and leftist theorists and organizers must move forward while avoiding two mistakes.
First, we must refuse the widespread appeals to a return to normalcy. In what follows we will draw examples from North America. The implementation of neoliberal policy in the United States and Canada resulted in drastic cuts and/or privatization in public healthcare and disease-control infrastructure. However, this criticism of government policy should be understood in the broad sense that includes policy changes over decades. Yet even if these policies were different, this would not modify the fact that, as Angela Mitropoulos points out, shortages or supply-chain breakdowns in supplies of personal protective equipment are due to the fact that PPE is a commodity. (Mitropoulos, Pandemonium, 96ff)
Furthermore, the normalcy to which public officials appeal rests on a system of transnational capitalism which is powered by fossil fuel. There’s already an attempt on the part of wealthier nations to pin responsibility for carbon emissions on countries which produce commodities—for export to these wealthier nations—without acknowledging how the drive to extract surplus-value by following cheap labor costs drives increased carbon emissions. As Andreas Malm shows in Fossil Capital, “globally mobile capital will speed up the consumption of fossil energy through its perpetual drive to maximise surplus-value.” (Malm, Fossil Capital, 339) More recently, Malm has expanded the scope of his analysis to examine how, beyond the concern of carbon emissions, ecologically unequal exchange between the Global North and Global South, enabled by fossil capital, is a “deep driver of deforestation, hence of biodiversity loss, hence of zoonotic spillover”—meaning that the present system of producing products such as coffee, beef, tea, sugar, and palm oil exercises more and more pressure on biodiverse ecosystems. (Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, 54) As Malm notes, according to a 2012 study:
the top seven importers of biodiversity threats were…the United States, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Italy, and Spain….Measured per capita, the variations in consumptive claims on biodiversity are even more skewed, with rich but sparsely populated countries like Canada and Finland shooting up to the top…The forces reaching out to forests and pulling out pathogens are nowhere as strong as in the central nodes of capital.
Malm, Corono, Climate, Chronic Emergency, 53-55.
Once we consider—to take a local example for some of us—that the Canadian economy remains tied to bitumen extraction, normalcy portends more environmental degradation, the continued expansion of fossil capital, the intensified threat to biodiversity, and pathogenic zoonotic spillover. In short, normalcy involves returning back to the material conditions which have enabled climate emergency and the present pandemic despite however many so-called moral lessons we exchange in our edifying post-pandemic discourses.
Second, we must not confuse the deployment of equitable, or perhaps more accurately, aspirationally-equitable, patterns of vaccination with underlying transformations of social, political, or economic relations. The electoral left tends to organize for forms of economic and political reform and mitigation rather than revolution, and thus social democratic parties and organizations will push for half-measures of so-called new deals despite the fact that reformism lacks the scope to confront global, systemic capitalist crises. They will focus on instituting equitable patterns of distribution, but these leave inequalities in relations of production untouched.
In other words, evenif a given government institutes equitable patterns of vaccination, these equitable patterns do not constitute a rupture with underlying exploitative relations of economic production and social reproduction. And the deployment of these patterns of distribution must be examined from the totality of social relations. For example, the federal government and at least some provincial governments in Canada have prioritized vaccination for Indigenous peoples. For some analysts, this signals a shift toward fulfilling the Canadian government’s self-proclaimed mandate of nation-to-nation reconciliation between First Nations, Métis, and Inuit nations and the Crown. However, much of the government’s policy remains the same. In October of 2020, the Trudeau government announced that the pandemic will interfere with a prior pledge to end long-term boil-water advisories—which must mean that COVID-19 has been in Canada for years, since the promise was made in 2015. Nor should we exclude the fact that Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to the pandemic due to various ongoing structural manifestations of racism: the lack of services available to remote communities, biases affecting how healthcare is administered (or denied), and the stigmatization of Indigenous communities as supposed carriers of COVID-19—and that none of these factors have been mitigated. In fact, if we consider that Indigenous struggles, from the Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades of February 2020 to the Mi’kmaq assertion of fishing rights, were met with escalating reactionary settler vigilante violence, and what amounts to tacit consent of the RCMP in these situations for vigilantism, it is plausible that Indigenous political struggle faces more antagonism than it did at the beginning of the pandemic. And if we consider that the government policies have enriched the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working classes, increased social inequalities, left many unemployed (with women—especially racialized women and women with disabilities—significantly impacted by job losses in the US), and exposed marginalized and oppressed communities to the deepening environmental injustices of adverse healthcare outcomes through the pandemic, only a sliver of society has the means to return to “normal.” In short, when public officials herald the beginning of the end of the pandemic, we must organize so that the return to so-called normalcy is merely a condition of the beginning of a renewed struggle against the conditions that make necrocapitalism possible.
Having subjected us to the spectacle of its electoral circus for most of the pandemic, it was too much to hope that the US would stop clogging the global news cycle with the performances and rituals of its bourgeoisie’s political competition. The world is more than the US––even the imperialist camp is larger than the US––and the global deployment of the vaccine, according to the vicissitudes of world capitalism, is now happening while other events, also over-determined by the pandemic, unfold in every corner of the globe. But it is the prerogative of the most powerful imperialist country to centre its narratives, particularly the stories of its dominant class, and demand that its voice and its concerns drown out everything else. Such was the case with the British Empire when it was the preeminent imperialist nation; such will be the case if and when the US is replaced by another leading imperialist power. In the past, in the early days of capitalism, the world was predominantly the world of the British Empire, despite other European nations competing for the same perceived right of “civilizational” domination, because that imperialist power possessed the economic and political power to declare itself the owner of the world––a world it saw as its destiny, along with less powerful European nation-states, to master and plunder. Most news that was newsworthy then (although the speed of news was much slower than it is today) centred the pre-eminence of the British Empire until one of its genocidal slave-state colonies seceded and, upon secession, worked tirelessly to become the next preeminent imperialist power. Rule Britannia was eventually replaced by Manifest Destiny and the time of American Exceptionalism––for every imperialist power, especially the most powerful, accords itself an exceptionalism––was born.
Hence, the reason we keep coming back to events unfolding in the US in our discussion of the necrotic characteristics of contemporary capitalism, is because these characteristics are best represented by the leading capitalist nation-state and the imposition of its will upon the world. Every other imperialist power, along with the compradori in the global peripheries, are still dragged along by events within the US along with events the US is involved with globally. So it was that, right when the vaccines appeared and started to be distributed globally according to the dictates of imperialism, the world found itself again focused on the fallout of US “democratic” ritual, the paroxysms resulting from Donald Trump’s refusal to admit defeat that led to his loyalists storming Capitol Hill because of a supposed stolen election.
To be clear, this narrative of a “stolen election” and the democratic sanctity of Biden’s election should not matter to any militant who cares about breaking from and transcending this capitalist order. In the previous chapter we discussed how so-called “Trumpism” (a possibly American Exceptionalist term that assumes its version of right populism is unique) could not be sharply demarcated from the neoliberalism of the Biden/Harris regime. The point, here, is all the mea culpas about the potential death of US democracy due to MAGA loyalists storming a site of US power tell us more about the degeneration of the myth of US democracy than an actual existential threat on democracy in general. What we actually observed was committed settlers, the backbone of US settler-capitalist society just doing what the US has always done in every space in the world it has involved itself. There was nothing truly outside of the pale in their so-called “insurrection”––and the fact that the police collaborated with them is evidence of this––because it was merely the white settler garrison manifesting as it has always manifested, since the settler-colonial beginnings of the US monstrosity. The fact that the class composition of this supposed “insurrection” was by-and-large “upper middle class” should demonstrate that this is less of a heinous act and more of the US settler-colonial nature haunting itself. That is, it was a point of social cannibalism. The US is eating itself and its own claims to democracy. Its pro-Confederate past is showing up in its hallowed sites but it cannot condemn this past because, in the interest of “unity”, it preserved this past against black reconstruction, through Jim Crow, and right up to its current anti-black and pro-colonial carceral logic. Thus, when US Democrats complain about an attack on democracy we should not care since we are merely observing the racist basis of this so-called “democracy” working itself out in real time as a war between settler siblings.
But American Exceptionalism is such that other imperialist nation-states are forced to play along. Condemnations of Trump’s claims about the US elections have been delivered by the other imperialist nations, and all of these condemnations have also been determined by the pandemic and the worry that so-called “Trumpism” will get in the way of the roll out of vaccines. A roll out, let us be honest, that will function according to the rules of imperialism no matter what happens on that exceptionalist realm of US blood and soil. None of these nations really cared about the content of Trump’s politics when he was in power; liberal democracy is such that it can tolerate reactionaries as long as it plays by the rules of electoral ritual. What it cannot tolerate are these rules being broken––which is why it could not tolerate the violence of the rebellions in the spring and summer while also tolerating the necrotic aspects of capitalism that were laid bare over the course of the pandemic. Hence, despite Trump’s baseless claims about a stolen election in November and December, fascists such as Modi congratulated Biden for his victory. And following the January 6 events in the Capitol, a reactionary like Boris Johnson could join the chorus of other imperialist states condemning Trump for allowing the transgression of the hallowed conventions of bourgeois democracy.
For us, there is nothing truly heinous in the storming of the Capitol building by itself. Liberals will hand-wring about the violence, about the violation of “democratic” conventions, and blather on about sedition and treason. But they did the same with the rebellions in the spring and summer and, in point of fact, subjected the populations involved in these rebellions to more state violence than the fascists who stormed the Capitol who were in fact enabled by the repressive state apparatus of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie––the pigs participated, letting the Trump supporters inside––and will face far less retribution. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie can tolerate fascism to a certain extent because it is part of its political continuum, especially in a settler-capitalist formation. As long as fascists follow the rules of liberal decorum other factions of the bourgeoisie are happy to enable them by giving their ideologues many of the platforms they desire. Biden can thus speak about “unity” amongst white supremacists and other USAmericans once the embarrassment of the Capitol storming is overcome. Republicans who were once fine with Trump can thus vote for impeachment because he broke the decorum generated by the myth of US democratic exceptionalism. Multiple adages about the singular greatness of US democracy and how it was violated by the events of January 6 should make us laugh. The white supremacy that is foundational to this “great democracy” simply manifested; it was not in contradiction with the content of US politics only with its form. “The racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal,” writes Fanon: “He has achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology.” (Fanon, Toward the African Revolution, 40.) And Devin Zane Shaw has charted the ways in which system loyalty and system opposition function within white supremacist factions of settler-capitalist formations.
In any case when we say there is nothing truly heinous in the storming of the Capitol building we don’t mean that the political perspective of those who stormed it was not heinous––it was––but that if the Capitol was stormed by revolutionaries in the interest of overthrowing settler-capitalism there would be nothing to condemn. The problem is the political content, not insurgency, whereas for liberals the problem is insurgency and they could give two shits about the politics involved––actually, they would be more likely to condemn communists, anarchists, and “Antifa” before condemning actual fascists. So for our side, and against the return to neoliberal “normalcy”, we want to remind ourselves and those we organize with that insurgency is good, that the conventions of bourgeois democracy should be torn down, but that is the political line that matters. We are now being exhorted to return to a neoliberal normalcy, and act as if the recent delirium of the most powerful imperialist nation was an aberration, when in fact we should be rejecting this violent and necrotic system altogether. As the war between siblings of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie intensifies, and thus exposes more of the intrinsic violence of the system, we should be rejecting both the fascist and liberal wings of this bourgeois dictatorship. Capitalist normalcy must die if humanity is to live.
The Biden transition team recently announced a who’s who of architects and ideologues of imperialist war, policy, and institutions that will make up part of Biden’s presidential cabinet. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan are respectively filling the positions of Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. These are classic American warmongers instrumental in promoting Biden’s vote for the invasion of Iraq and Hilary Clinton’s support for war in Syria and Libya. Avril Hanes, ex-Deputy CIA Director under Obama will now fill the role of National Intelligence director, bringing to bear against the world’s people her experience in designing Obama’s drone program for illegal political killings and her support for Trump’s CIA Director pick, Gina Haspel—famous for implementing American black site torture sites and destroying videotape evidence of CIA torture. Alejandro Mayorkas is Biden’s pick to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security. The imperialist media has made much ado about him being the “first Latino” to hold this dystopian office, but we must remember that he served as deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Obama and helped him earn the title “Deporter-in-Chief” by expanding deportations and family detentions. Mayorkas is so reactionary that the former head of the Florida GOP and of the American Conservative Union was prompted to tweet “hallelujah” upon learning of his selection. Biden has also selected Neera Tanden for the position of Office of Management & Budget Director, a selection that reaffirms Biden’s promise to wealthy campaign donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” with his election to the presidency. Tanden is famous for comments she made via a leaked email echoing the Trump administration’s suggestion that the United States consider further military intervention in Libya solely to exploit Libya’s oil resources. Tanden said “We have a giant deficit. They have a lot of oil…having oil rich countries partially pay us back doesn’t seem crazy to me.” Continued war for oil is the name of the game with this Biden pick, but also rabid anti-communism: in a now deleted tweet, Neera Tanden praised merely “controversial” Adolf Hitler for “fighting to the death against communism”.
Far from drawing a sharp line between the supposed oddity of far-right “Trumpism” and neoliberal administrations of empire, the Biden cabinet picks go to the core of what America is today, oddities and all, and that is a decaying settler-colonial empire overstuffed with contradictions displayed in high necrocapitalist relief.
Now, Pelosi’s comment about science is bizarre as a defense for failing to provide even the mildest relief for neo-liberal austerity during the pandemic. Science has been opportunistically dragged about during this US election cycle by American imperialists, and Pelosi’s comment is part of that. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump claimed that Biden would put an end to the practice of fracking to instill fear in the heart of oil profiteers and turn them against Biden. Biden denied this but had to reconcile this denial with a supposed progressive stance on the crisis of climate change. Since American presidential elections don’t challenge class power, the situation for people like Biden and the people he represents is opportunistically political: appear progressive to appease the non-revolutionary “left”—Biden called for a limited ban on fracking on Federal land— but say nothing about fracking generally on private land and let the capitalists destroying the planet continue with business as usual to garner their support. Position it as a job creation/retention issue and march on to Washington. This is exactly what Biden has done. Science is important for the world’s people and when it informs the decisions of leaders who rise above the threshold of opportunism, it may be the only thing that has a chance at averting species extinction on the planet. But science is not what Pelosi or Biden care about.
For the imperialists, science is a ploy used to either advance imperialism or to maintain it and it is no different with the politics of COVID-19 relief packages. In their introduction to the recently republished A New Outlook on Health, the Redspark Collective notes that “fighting and containing pandemics requires both a conceptual understanding of the ‘public’ by the masses and a public infrastructure driven by public welfare rather than profit motive.” (Redspark Collective, 29) In the United States there is no public infrastructure for surviving a pandemic and the recognition of the need for such a thing among imperialist politicians is opportunistic—can a COVID-19 relief package be used to outmaneuver political opponents in a way that maintains the status quo of necrocapitalist planned inequity, depravation, and injustice? If it can, you can bet the imperialists will find a way. And they did. Pelosi’s let them wait-it-out until we go back to “normal” attitude while resisting Covid-19 relief for the people enduring hardship reveals the basic condition of capitalism regarding public welfare: the wealthy are mildly inconvenienced and get by with their hoarded wealth in a system designed for them to continue to consume, everyone else fights for base survival and figures like Pelosi and other administrators of imperialism position it as tough work to get back to “normal”. The Redspark Collective accurately writes of the United States’ “failure” during the pandemic that “it is not a mistake or malfunction of the system; it is the consequence of the steady march of imperialism, largely impervious to the public good (unless it intersects with its expansion).” (Ibid., 35). Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats did not make a “mistake” in failing to secure a more robust COVID-19 relief package, as some critics have claimed, they merely acted in accordance to the predictable workings of necrocapitalism and sided once again with death and depravation. It is important at this time for those looking to imagine and implement meaningful alternatives to science and social welfare opportunism from the imperialist camp to look to leadership that is oriented toward solving the practical problems faced by the most oppressed people and those people who don’t benefit from returning to the “normal” of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic party. We need solutions to homelessness, unemployment, poverty, environmental destruction, disease, patriarchy, racialized national oppression, ableism, and war and there is none of that forthcoming from Joe Biden and his team of imperialist running dogs. Returning to Biden’s partial cabinet selection—leadership leaves no room for careerism. Under necrocapitalism today, the drive of the oppressed to use science and wield power to transform the world for the better and for all is whittled away to nothing within the legal channels for the expression of political will. The ruling classes set the rules for leadership and are packing their administrations with cronies and death merchants whose main skill is longevity in carrying out imperialism. We need to change this. When oppressed people set the height of the bar for leadership we arrive at Stalin and Mao levels of leadership and we move away from meaningless parliamentary elections between sectors of the ruling class posturing about science and the social good in order to keep necrocapitalism going.
Though the votes are still being counted and contested at the time of writing, it is widely recognized that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. He has received sufficient electoral college votes, and a wide margin in the popular vote. Trump and his enablers have taken a hard antidemocratic line in response. They have yet to concede, and have launched a preposterous barrage of legal challenges intended to change the outcome of the election. Trump has also made some characteristically lurching, inept moves that could be interpreted as preludes to a coup. It is unlikely that Trump will succeed in any of this, though much is being made of his attack on American democracy itself, and the lasting damage he can do by further (!) debasing the Republic Party and poisoning public trust in the electoral system.
Many people, particularly among the most vulnerable, may feel a sense of relief that the open authoritarian drift of the presidency seems to have been halted by a Biden win. But the spectacle of thousands of people worldwide dancing in the streets over Biden’s victory is sobering. Does Joe Biden – Joe Biden! – herald the poetry of the future? A key lesson of the election is how, structurally speaking, neoliberal centrism currently plays the erstwhile role of fascism in the management of capitalist crisis.
Crisis indexes the normal functioning of capitalism rather than being an aberration. Historically, fascism steps in as a contender when the crisis becomes acute. In this sense, fascism is birthed by capitalism. Though much is made of its “populist” roots (more on that in a minute) the backbone of fascism is arguably a mass of small and middle business owners who demand a version of capitalism without capitalism. This is to say that while ostensibly supporting free competition and bootstrapping, they default to authoritarianism to avoid being crushed between organized labour and monopoly capital. To be clear, fascism “manages” the crisis in a way that must be loudly repudiated and fought to the death. But in its way, it is embraced by segments of the population as a stabilizer.
Are we to conclude that Trump and his administration, displaying obvious fascist tendencies, have played this historical role? Not at all, in fact. Trump, rather, wields right-wing chaos in a way that permits neoliberal centrism to play the stabilizing role. To hit once more upon our usual refrain––that none of this is new––consider how in 2002, the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the French presidential election, thus provoking panic and an overwhelming 82% vote in favour of the widely mistrusted neoliberal Jacques Chirac. Similarly, a vote for Biden is ostensibly a vote against violence, hatred, and plague––but framed in these terms, how could you lose to violence, hatred, and plague? This is hardly more than a political blackmail.
The question many have posed is whether there can be any credible alternative to neoliberalism within the Democratic Party. Here the mainstream media has muddied the waters, having steadily drubbed us with lazy and dishonest analyses of “populism,” full of false equivalencies, for several years. As per Laclau (See On Populist Reason), populism is the name of a political strategy wherein “the people” is defined and played off against an enemy. Whether populism is “left” or “right” all depends on how the enemy is defined. To hear liberals tell it, it is the naming of an enemy, and the struggle against that enemy, that is dangerous. But despite the media and the DNC’s massive efforts to block him and paint him as such, Bernie Sanders is simply not some left-wing version of Trump. True, the strategy is formally similar, but it is in laughable bad faith to pretend that Bernie’s demonizing of “the one percent” is morally equivalent to Trump’s racism, ableism, misogyny, and contempt for the very lives of the masses. The liberal discourse around populism reveals itself for what it is: an invitation to abandon the very notion of the enemy. But this amounts to abandoning politics itself, in favour of submission to neoliberal management.
While figures like Bernie, the Squad, and Cornel West therefore offer a semblance of opposition via the populist strategy, there is also a credible discourse around their role in “sheepdogging”––i.e., bringing disaffected voters back into the fold of electoral politics. But we have seen with Bernie in the Democratic primaries how in the end the system enforces neoliberal consensus within that fold. The wolf of “Trumpism,” slavering in the outer dark, helps to ensure this.
The moment requires much more than this. It requires us to push against neoliberalism itself – against necrocapitalism. This means having the courage to be the communist,the genuinely antifascist wolf.
Writing about the American presidential election, from a militant perspective, has many pitfalls. One, that Marx long ago pilloried, would be to present all social ills as the product of the opposing party, for this is the deliberate myopia of all bourgeois electoral campaigns. The other is to reverse cause and effect (or, more generally, to think them non-dialectically), by treating candidates as if they command and manage their electoral bases. Instead, we should consider elections as a snapshot that captures the momentum or motion of social tendencies and forces.
As the likelihood of a Biden victory grows, pundits and commentators have begun to assess the prospects of the American empire. There is a trend, perhaps growing, to frame the last four years around the vague and misleading term “Trumpism.” The term certainly precedes this week (it has already found its way into academic discussions), but it will serve a particular purpose if Trump is deposed from power by electoral means (of course, his administration has months to implement policy between a Biden election and inauguration, if that’s how things do in fact play out).
At present, Trumpism is said to designate a particular type of political style—demagogical nationalism, divisiveness, perhaps an explicit taste for cruelty—that, even if it is deposed from power, could potentially affect American politics for decades to come. The upshot of this analysis is that liberal and social democratic antifascists cannot merely declare that something they decried during the fall as authoritarianism, totalitarianism, or fascism was defeated by voting alone. This was a common error among Canadian critics and some activists after the electoral defeat of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada in 2019; far-right groups quietly regrouped elsewhere.
But what looks like the mainstream recognition of the ongoing threat of far-right tendencies in the United States turns out to be the opposite. The use of Trumpism, though it might not demarcate the last four years as an aberration in American politics, severs these far-right tendencies from their roots in American history, indeed recent history. First, Democrats become able to treat the far-right as the fault of the Republicans, rather than as predicated on the conditions of American power that Democratic politicians have for decades tolerated, abetted, or supported. Second, the usage of Trumpism reverses cause and effect: Trump’s political rise (and fall?) is faulted for the rise of the far-right, rather than being seen as part of a broader set of social tendencies and forces. Though he attempted to court some factions of the far-right, as recent entries on the Three-Way Fight blog (by Matthew N. Lyons, Devin Zane Shaw, and Kristian Williams) show, we cannot consider the relationship between Trump and these factions to be one of simple top-down command of leader and base. Nor can we consider them to be merely reliably system-loyal.
At the same time, this courtship should not be given undue weight at the expense of considering his popular appeal. It must be noted that in the midst of the pandemic (which his administration failed to manage) and the antipolice uprising (which Trump opposed but never managed, in his own terms, to “dominate”), that he received at least six million more votes than 2016. Indeed, that Trump received more votes as the incumbent than as the supposed anti-establishment outsider (a rich characterization for a billionaire, whether on paper or in reality), should indicate that we must look not at perceived outliers—Trump against other politicians who observe the unwritten rules of decorum, or the far-right as opposed to other political currents in society—but at the underpinnings of American empire itself.
The basic premise of our project on Necrocapitalism is not that necrocapitalism is a departure from capitalism but that we are in a moment that brings capitalism’s contradictions in to sharper focus, if not intensifying the contradictions.
One would think that as the United States reported over nine million cases of COVID-19 and 200,000 deaths therefrom, that Trump’s candidacy would be imperiled. The raw numbers simplify a complex story. Of course, Trump drove misinformation about the pandemic, and after his own recovery, extolled a kind of voluntarist will to dominate the virus. But again, these are features of a broader right-wing response to the pandemic, with appeals to herd immunity, and the cultivation of a sense that the petty bourgeoisie are entitled to services and goods from the before times despite the pandemic.
One possibility is that Trump’s support has some basis in a reaction to the antipolice uprising. Without minimizing that aspect, we should also examine how Trump’s base understood his administration’s efforts to handle the coronavirus and how they self-reported their financial status in relation to the pandemic. The following are exit polls published by the New York Times:
Before we rush to judgment (there’s no need to act like liberal critics of the far right who treat it as merely a manifestation of atavism or ignorance), let us consider two passages from Angela Mitropoulos’ recent Pandemic: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve:
What prevailing understandings of neoliberalism have obscured is the importance to capitalist extraction and accumulation of a political-economic boundary between the demos (the ostensibly proper subject of political representation and law-making) and the practices of managing (properly) productive populations. (Mitropoulos, 13)
During the pandemic, while much of the risk of the disease was displaced onto private households—and therefore the patterning of (heritable) assets and liquid wages—those households were linked through an assumed racial genealogy to larger (national and geopolitical) taxonomies of populations and the management of their health and welfare. However the viability of locked-down households was physically contingent upon and linked by the unpaid and low-paid work in which women, migrants, and Black and Brown people predominate. (Mitropoulos, 11)
Rather than dismiss those who incorrectly consider the US efforts at containing COVID-19 as going well (to some degree) as ignorant Trump voters (given their overwhelming support for him), we ought to attempt to understand their significance in light of Mitropoulos’ work. If neoliberalism is premised upon a political-economic boundary between the demos and a broader class of productive populations, and if pandemic management has functioned through buttressing those differences under Trump’s administration, then for this group the system is indeed working well. To reflect on these exit polls from another angle: 44% of the electorate reported no financial hardship due to the pandemic, and a majority voted for Trump (56%); the other 55% trended more strongly in the other direction. Associating social division or divisiveness with Trumpism is making him take the weight for vast social inequalities produced by neoliberal policy. Pin it on Trumpism and alibi the conditions that enable it.
We don’t want to make too much of exit polling. It does not include the disenfranchised parts of the working classes and those who refuse to participate in electoral politics. It presumes to discern political trends from the unsound premise that political decisions are made from the perspective of the potential legislator-voter. We merely wanted to provide a different look at data that doesn’t indulge in diving auguries of mythological white working-class everyman’s demands or demonize some particular minority group for its perceived atavistic tendencies (while, of course, the fact that white voters as a group play some serious white identity politics is normalized as playing at being a universal legislator).
As critics of Trump have noted, his administration has consistently worked to curb or remove the rights of large parts of the workforce. It might be, though, that some critics were more irked by the spectacular forms of disenfranchisement of voters and the willfully malicious use of detention and deportation. For, if Mitropoulos is correct, the Trump administration’s policy is a particular (though relatively more explicitly white nationalist) implementation of neoliberal ideological and institutional infrastructure. Biden didn’t run as an alternative to the underlying neoliberal policies, but rather as the candidate who would maintain neoliberal policy—to adopt his comments about police violence—in forms more likely to maim rather than kill. California, which overwhelmingly favoured Biden, also passed Proposition 22, which classifies app-based drivers as independent contractors rather than employees—a huge setback for workers’ rights.
We must not allow liberal critics to cordon off, in a kind of ideological cordon sanitaire, only some uses and abuses of neoliberal policy as “Trumpism,” when Biden will presumably work to shore up neoliberal hegemony through the prolonged crisis, supposedly, of COVID-19. The crisis, though, is part of capitalism itself.
If the political power necessary for changing the world is not found “in lifeless virus particles which are utterly indifferent towards the world around them” as we asserted at the end of the last chapter, nor is it found in the US electoral machine or useless political figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg that are also utterly indifferent to the world, then where is it found and how is it built? Although we have a lot of thoughts on the answer to that question––many of which have been revealed or implicit throughout this project––to even ask it is to also recognize a kind of thinking that needs to break from the capitalist imaginary.
In some ways, we have come to think like an indifferent virus. Or, rather, the kind of thinking that is most prevalent in the imperialist metropoles––even amongst progressives––is one of denial or nihilistic indifference. This is not the result of the pandemic, nor is it the result of the fascist movements pushing reactionary leaders into power, but was already emerging as a necrocapitalist characteristic before the global pandemic and along with emergent fascism. Again, the pandemic merely revealed the already existing depredations of a decaying system that has been morbidly violent from the beginning; emergent fascism is evidence of this decay. As these depredations came more and more to resemble the death throes of the system itself, and as coherent and sustainable revolutionary organizing vanished from the imperialist metropoles, the proclamation of the “end of history” became a proclamation of “no alternative” and even “no hope” for those who could not see beyond the boundaries of the imperialist strongholds in which they resided.
Within this cancerous and necrotic capitalist reality denial or nihilism manifest as the only possible attitudes, as long as we think within its confines. Denial might take multiple forms but these forms are over-determined by fascist and liberal perspectives, both of which are invested (in their own ways) in saving capitalism from collapse. Inordinate focus on the US elections is a form of denialism, specifically a denial of our ability to organize and create another world. But such focus also demonstrates a nihilist attitude, an indifference to organizing political power because it has been drained of meaning.
Nihilism also takes multiple forms: i) its own fascist variant as the nadir where collapse is embraced as judgment against those deemed weak (who let the virus, to cite one example, “dominate” them rather than “dominating” it); ii) a liberal individualism of giving up and accepting, with a pseudo-zen magnanimity, that armageddon is fait accompli; and most importantly iii) an anti-capitalist variant of loss, mourning, raging in the face of inevitable environmental and social collapse. It is this last species of nihilism that should concern us the most since it represents the power of contemporary crisis capitalism to infect the imagination of the left.
Indeed, nihilism is an attitude that is harder and harder for anti-capitalists to avoid. We have witnessed multiple failures and have been socialized to forget or dismiss any success. We lived through the trauma of the collapse of the great revolutionary projects. We were fed the false hopes of movementism and were incapable of recognizing that these fragmented projects were doomed from the outset. We witness a world crawling towards the edge of destruction, maniacally pursuing mechanics of species suicide. We understand that everything about capitalism is a lie, we know that it cannot save itself from itself because of its logic, but our imagination is such that the possibility of rupturing from this necrotic sequence is unthinkable. Within the reality demarcated and described by the capitalist imaginary another world is impossible and it is very difficult to pursue the revolutionary slogan, famously proclaimed in May 1968, that the revolutionary imaginary is about demanding the impossible.
Faced with the vast graveyard that the world has become nihilism, when judged within the constraints imposed by capitalism’s vision of reality, certainly feels like a viable option. According to the capitalist imaginary, resistance is impossible or (as the Orwellian discourse coupled with Cold War ideology has promoted) will result in a more horrific state of affairs. Hopelessness becomes normative amongst would-be militants who are separated from the world-building projects of revolutionary communist parties. Even militants who join such party projects might drop out and give up when events do not proceed as quickly and smoothly as they would like. While there is indeed a petty-bourgeois variant of this hopeless nihilism (“nothing matters so I might as well enjoy what little time I have while complaining that capitalism has pushed the world into a death drive”) it is common amongst the exploited and oppressed masses as well. The working class is taught that there is no future but drudgery and meaningless labour, that workers’ failure to rise above their circumstances is their fault alone––because they are not creative enough, because they lack the incentive, because they are not thinking enough positive thoughts.
But it is the pseudo-progressive strain of “left” nihilism that attempts to push this sentiment enforced by capitalist ideology as a viable anti-capitalist option. Lee Edelman’s No Future is a perfect example of the petty-bourgeois wallowing in capitalism’s death drive, presented as radical. So-called “queer nihilism” (along with “nihilist communism” and “anarchist nihilism”) emerges from Edelman’s morbid acceptance of the capitalist imaginary. Nihilism is the “common sense” of necrocapitalism, even when it presents itself as critique.
The apotheosis of contemporary nihilism is that strange sub-region of speculative philosophy known as anti-natalism, a philosophy that claims to prove, as the name of an anti-natalist article puts it, why it is better to never come into existence.1 Represented by philosophers such as Théophile de Giraud Peter Zapffe, David Benatar, Julio Cabrera, and horror author Thomas Ligotti, anti-natalism asserts that non-sentient existence is preferable to sentient existence, sentient existence is in essence pain and harm, consciousness is a monstrous evolutionary aberration, and thus it would be better if humans simply ceased to exist. As Ligotti summarizes this philosophy:
For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death––and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying––and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering––slowly or quickly––as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we ‘enjoy’ as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are––hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. (Ligotti, 11)
On the speculative level, this philosophy is influenced by the very materialist understanding that the history of conscious human existence, as well as the history of any form of sentient life, is both a tiny blip in the long ancestral history of matter and takes up minuscule space in a massive unthinking universe. The upshot of this very large materialist insight is that we should not think that humans possess an especial destiny, that they are better than other forms of life, or that we are the center of existence. Anti-natalism, however, adds a warped ethical injunction to the insight that non-sentient existence is older and larger than sentient existence. The former, it asserts, is preferable to the latter. Such an assertion, though, confirms the anthropocentric conceit since its reversal merely reaffirms what the initial insight attempted to undermine: the centrality of human consciousness. Human consciousness again becomes a central focus, though one that is problematized rather than being exhorted to be de-emphasized.
Hence, to assert that we come from nothing and exist for nothing is not enough for anti-natalism. These assertions again become puzzles. Ligotti complains that “[n]o philosopher has ever satisfactorily answered the following question: ‘Why should there be something rather than nothing?’” and then asserts that such a question “suggests our uneasiness with Something.” (Ligotti, 71) And yet, if we reject the privileging of anthropocentrism we should recognize that “from nothing and for nothing” (Meillassoux, 110) are answers to this question, and answers that allow us to think an existence broader than human consciousness. The only reason that this age-old question is a puzzle is because it emerges from an anthropocentric framework. Such a framework is precisely what allows anti-natalists to focus on the monstrousness of human consciousness, the claim that existence is pain, and to move on to privileging the non-existence of humanity over its existence. By focusing on a utilitarian calculus of pain and pleasure, and claiming that pain (and harm) is normative to human existence, David Benatar asserts that “there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, but there is something bad about coming into existence, all things considered non-existence is preferable.” (Benatar, 348-349)
On the speculative level it is an exercise in futility to argue against those dedicated to the axiom that the non-existence of humanity (and indeed all sentient life) is preferable to its existence. Charges that anti-natalists should simply suicide if they truly believed in what they argued are usually met with scorn: due to the programming of human consciousness, and in the words of the character Rustin Cole from True Detective (which was based on anti-natalist philosophy), they “lack the constitution” for suicide. Besides, what do the suicides of a handful of misanthropic philosophers matter when the problem they feel like they are diagnosing concerns all of sentient existence? Hence, following Zapffe’s so-called “last messiah”, anti-natalists can simply argue that they work to “bear witness” (again, as Rustin Cole puts it), to argue this truth to the rest of ignorant, conscious humanity, and to struggle for the solution of mass sterilization where all of humanity will agree to eradicate itself. Nihilist utopianism.
It cannot be denied, after all, that reality is horrendous and that, even if we side-step David Benatar’s argument about “asymmetry” and argue that some pains and harms are simply part of life and not an insurmountable category of being (psychological and emotional pain, the fact that we will become ill and experience various level of distress simply because we are mortal and fragile), there is still the fact that the vast majority of the world experiences extreme harm and pain. Natural disasters, famines, wars, genocide, vicious labour conditions, immiseration, and multiple forms of pain and harm characterize the living conditions for the majority of humanity. Moreover, the unfolding facts of environmental devastation and now a global pandemic attenuate all of the above problems, resulting in a very bleak looking future that is becoming nearer every day.
But these terrible facts of material existence are facts that multiple radical social theorists have grappled with, have agonized over, and have concluded that the solution is to struggle against them and change society so that such predations and their affects can no longer exist. Many of these social theorists were and are not starry-eyed utopians unaware of pain and thus deceived (as anti-natalists would have it) into thinking such pain and harm was not a big deal; many of them either originated from, or embedded themselves in, those marginalized populations that experienced the worst aspects of social-historical violence. For example, Christina Sharpe writes about “the ways our individual lives [meaning individual black lives] are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”( Sharpe, 8) According to Sharpe, this “wake” inheritance continues to globally affect black lives into the present, where the pain and immiseration of the past persists as a material memory upon the body of the present. “Racialization and colonization have worked simultaneously to other and abject entire peoples so they can be enslaved, excluded, removed, and killed in the name of capitalism,” writes Indigenous scholar Jodi Byrd: “These historical and political processes have secured white property, citizenship, and privilege, creating a ‘racial contract,’ as Charles W. Mills argues.” (Byrd, xxiii) Sharpe and Byrd are just two contemporary scholars, each occupying a position of social marginalization, amongst a litany of radical social theorists who have experienced and explored the multiple predations of capitalism and its colonial roots, whose response to a visceral experience of marginalization is to demand an end to the mechanics of oppression, exploitation, and predation. Indeed, the vast majority of social theorists and organizers who originate from populations that have experienced the most abject pain and harm do not argue for the obliteration of sentient life even though they understand, intimately and viscerally, what this pain and harm actually means.
Therefore, what is truly monstrous about anti-natalism is not the supposedly profound “truths” it reveals; it is that it is an ontological confirmation of the imaginary of necrocapitalism. None of the anti-natalist philosophers are individuals who have experienced the abjection of contemporary global capitalism––who have lived in what Mbembe calls the “death worlds” of the current conjuncture––and in fact most of them belong to quite privileged and largely comfortable demographics. To demand that humanity embrace extinction when those who have been historically threatened with extinction have always struggled against it, is worse than cynical. In the context of the global pandemic an anti-natalist might argue that we are merely dealing with non-sentient planet wiping out sentience, and that this is a “good” thing. Or perhaps they would take it as evidence of the pain and harm that is a normative part of existence, confirmation that we should cease to exist rather than struggle against it.
Past nihilisms were confirmations of the dominant orders of meaning by assuming that all meaning was lost with the loss of these orders; they rarely attempted, outside of polemical and aesthetic statements, to be conscious and theoretical celebrations of nihilism. Nietzsche described these past nihilisms as ressentiment or self-hatred. Of course, being the “nineteenth century dirtbag philosopher” (Mitropolous, 32) that he was, Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism was an occulted bourgeois triumphalism. But he was correct insofar that all forms of nihilism are produced by melancholia, ressentiment, and cynicism. Contemporary iterations of nihilism, however, are the most melancholic, resentful, and cynical nihilisms yet despite––or perhaps because of––their attempt to present themselves as theoretical assemblages. Anti-natalism takes this necrotic wallowing to the speculative level, reifying the current order’s hatred of existence.
To be clear, anti-natalism is a minor philosophical position. In fact, its proponents enjoy this minor status because they feel it confirms that they possess the kind of profound insight that only a few enlightened intellectuals could ever hope to gain. In this sense, it is also an elitist position and thus anti-mass as its own dismissal of the insights from the oppressed masses demonstrates: such insights, for the anti-natalist, are delusions of the herd. They are, in a weird sense, inverted Nietzscheans who have somehow managed to copper-fasten the elitism of his philosophy with the ressentiment he despised. So why should we take their claims seriously? Largely because, as noted above, anti-natalism is the apotheosis of contemporary necrocapitalist nihilism. It represents a kind of trope in contemporary thinking, a trajectory of the thought of the necrocapitalist subject. It is where the thinking encouraged by this conjuncture leads: an indifference that is so far gone it celebrates its indifference by imagining it is profound.
Although proponents of the bourgeois electoral circus argue that refusing to participate in the spectacle of elections is callous indifference, and thus evidence of a nihilist attitude, might it in fact be the opposite? After all, once we examine these electoral systems with even the smallest amount of critical thought we are presented with an avalanche of absurdity. Aside from the limited options, aside from Lenin’s joke that they are conventions where the bourgeoisie competes amongst itself to best misrepresent the people, aside from the fact that any and every elected regime has done nothing to make the world better but has in fact continued exploiting, oppressing, and straight out murdering the majority of humanity… Aside from all of this, they are always compromised within the bounds of bourgeois democracy––they cannot even guarantee the limited grounds of bourgeois reason! Legitimized political parties court the most powerful members of society and demand that the marginalized just get on board, refusing to listen to any of their demands. People wait in line for hours to vote only to discover their vote won’t be counted. Entire populations have their democratic rights suppressed; rumours are spread of illegitimate non-citizen voting while nobody cares about those citizens who are barred from voting. And all of this happens while imperialist states disparage and destabilize the conventions of voting in other nations. To find meaning in such a concatenation is impossible, and everyone who even thinks about it for more than a few minutes is forced to realize how meaningless it is. We would have to be nihilists regarding everything else about social existence to care about the electoral system: nothing really matters, and nothing will change, but we might as well vote since there is nothing better to do.
There is a strange tendency among certain radicals to highly overemphasize the competence of the ruling class generally, and the competence of the state apparatus that serves their interests in particular. The power of the state is vast, and it clearly functions to consolidate class rule through its organs of violence and oppression. Daily we are reminded of this violence through extrajudicial executions at the hands of police and through the life-destroying effects of the criminal “justice” system. And yet, despite all this power, we also know that capitalism is prone to crisis. This is an inherent feature of capitalism. This is the reason that we insist that necrocapitalism is not some new form of capitalism but rather is an analytic for understanding the decay that is built into the very nature of capitalism and all class societies. While we are daily reminded of the power of the ruling class and the tools at their disposal, moments of crisis can reveal the dysfunction within the ruling class itself, while also allowing us to see how those class forces unify together in defense of the status quo during moments when the present state of things is most pressing.
As of 48 hours ago at the time of writing this chapter, US President Donald Trump announced that he had tested positive for SARS-COV-2. 24 hours ago, it was announced that he was being airlifted to Walter Reed Hospital. Today we are seeing reports of his vitals being in serious condition, and discovering that more and more GOP politicians who had been in contact with him have tested positive. It is moments like this when we realize that the ruling class and their state representatives are not all powerful, and when we understand the truth behind Mao’s insistence that the reactionaries are paper tigers.
To note that all people, including the leaders of global empires, are in fact mortal is utterly banal. This is a realization that anyone could come to. What is interesting in this context is the extent to which the incompetence of Trump, the US American state, and the unhinged coalition of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois elements which support him are responsible for Trump’s current predicament. The state response to the crisis of COVID-19 has varied from at best acknowledging its existence while failing to take systemic action to stop it and at worst denying the reality of the pandemic and intentionally endangering the populace. Among Trump’s base there is widespread conspiratorial thinking regarding the virus, with some insisting that the virus does not exist at all, while others insist that it is harmless and the economy must open up. The US American right has rallied around reopening, insisting that the costs of an expanded pandemic are justified in order to save the economy. The lens of necrocapitalism analysis enables us to see the extent to which the reactionary political forces have reverted back to the most base forms of Moloch worship in this time of crisis. Furthermore, we now see how this frenzied drive towards irrationality and human sacrifice as a response to capitalism’s own inevitable crisis has failed entirely as a strategy. The leader of this crazy cult now lays in a hospital bed, as daily more and more of his close confidants and political allies test positive for this deadly virus. Paper tigers indeed.
Liberal claims that Trump represents a uniquely fascist and uniquely dangerous aberration within the realm of bourgeois politics have been central to the vote-shaming strategy employed to pull more radical forces in line with the Democratic Party. As happens every four years, we hear constant demands that we fall in line and cast a vote for yet another moderate neoliberal democrat because the alternative poses an existential threat to the norms of democracy. While it is true that Trump has eroded liberal norms at a particularly rapid pace, it does not follow from this that a bourgeois electoral strategy would be sufficient to repair the erosion of these norms. As communists we understand that the erosion of liberal norms is a result of reactionary defense mechanisms which occur within capitalism during moments of particularly distinct crises. Regardless of whether Trump is an instance of this fascist reaction to crisis, we must insist that the conditions that allow the emergence of such a fascist reaction are themselves found within the very conditions that produce the norms and political order of liberal republicanism that the democrats claim to hold in such high regard. Liberals, of course, remain blind to this reality and to the extent to which their own politics are inseparably intertwined with the conditions which allow for the emergence of fascsm. Thus we find ourselves endlessly shamed for being “unwilling” to compromise in the name of “practicality” or national unity in the face of a supposedly unique threat.
And yet, it is in this moment where this threat is endangered by our current pandemic that we see the liberal rhetoric fall apart. We might suppose that if these liberals were in fact genuine in their belief that Trump represents an existential threat then we would see the liberals themselves expressing some excitement at the fact that he is currently endangered by this virus. We do not, of course, see this response from those who chastise us for failing to oppose Trump “by any means necessary.” Instead we see the total opposite reaction, as these same liberals wish Trump a speedy recovery and insist that those who oppose Trump must take the moral high ground and wish the best for the president. In this moment of crisis wherein nature itself threatens the well-being of a man they have spent years decrying as uniquely dangerous, the liberal political class rallies around the president’s well-being.
It is not merely that the pathetic liberal commentariat who endlessly chatter and moan for a living are calling for unity in support of Trump now; we in fact see the actual politicians who hold and contend for state power back off their opposition. Biden himself has chosen to pull attack ads from his campaign while Trump is incapacitated from the virus. During this moment when the “opposition” candidate could consolidate his campaign and take advantage of the current situation he chooses to back off for the sake of liberal ethics regarding “civility.” There are two immediate lessons that we can learn from the reaction of liberals. One acts as a sort of corollary to our previous observations regarding the incompetence of the ruling class, and the other expands our understanding of the weakness of electoral strategies in the face of reaction.
First, we might note that while the reactionaries are in fact paper tigers, undermined by their own incompetence and their own drive towards irrationality in the face of crisis, it is also true that the ruling class on the whole is willing to unify when the consequences of this incompetence become too significant. That liberals have suddenly gone from seeing Trump as an existential threat to seeing him as a vulnerable person whose health we must rally around reveals the hollowness of their political outlook. Trump does not, in fact, represent the greatest threat to their politics and they know this. They recognize that at the end of the day their own politics and his politics serve the interests of capital and they recognize that the legitimacy of the head of the capitalist state is crucial for the maintenance of capitalist social relations more broadly. What is more dangerous than Trump to the liberals? The possibility that the masses might come to celebrate the downfall of the leader of the American empire, regardless of who that leader is. In their calls for unity and civility they undermine their own rhetoric and endless ideological banter in order to defend a man who would happily have seen them die from the very same virus. It is tempting to misdiagnose this as a weakness of liberals as a sort of pathetic overcommitment to principles of civility, but this would be a mistake. It is not that liberals are weak or cowardly in the face of reaction, it is rather that they are on the same side as the reactionaries themselves. Our present moment brings this into clear focus.
The second lesson to learn from this moment relates again to the question of voting. If the liberals are correct that voting remains the only way to oppose the fascism of the Trump administration, surely we would hope that the candidate we are told we must vote for would actually take every step within his power (which far exceeds our own) to overcome Trump. And yet, here we are with Biden refusing to take the actions necessary to secure the election. We see, once again for the millionth fucking time, that bourgeois politicians are not and cannot be held accountable to the masses and cannot be used as a tool for fighting off the most violent aspects of capitalist decay. Biden himself cannot be seen as a tool for fighting off the necrocapitalist decay that marks our time.
In a sense, this present moment is profoundly useful because it demystifies so much of the liberal political ideology. It lays bare a hypocrisy that many radicals have failed to see beyond, and it draws our attention to a certain dual nature of the ruling class; a simultaneous weakness as a result of sheer incompetence, and a horrifying willingness for consolidation of political forces which are supposedly at odds with each other.
At the same time, we also see a certain pathetic reaction from the radical left in response to this. The chorus of social media voices unable to contain their excitement at the current situation speaks ultimately to the weakness of the organized left. A movement so weak that it has to cheer on the role a virus plays in the political struggle is a movement that must seriously self-reflect on the meaning of power and the means of attaining it.
Should Trump succumb to the virus, this would not be victory for the left. It would surely spur on violent reaction as a host of assassination conspiracies cropped up among the reactionary right movement to explain the situation. These people already believe the virus is a manufactured bioweapon; they are poised to engage in political violence should things turn badly. Furthermore, the elation of the radical left at Trump’s current predicament plays into the liberal hyperfocus on the uniqueness of Trump as a threat to progressive politics. True radicals ought to understand that Trump as an individual is in many ways insignificant. He is a chosen figure who represents forces and interests that will continue on long after he is gone. What is at play is much more systemic than the life of a single person.
So let us look at our moment, a moment in which the most morbid and stunning aspects of capitalist decay have now threatened the official representatives of the capitalist class, and let us recognize both that our enemies are often utter fools but also that they are willing and ready to set aside differences in defense of the status quo. Let us also realize that we gain nothing from cheering on the fall of our enemies to a virus other than momentary catharsis. When that catharsis subsides, however, we are left recognizing the weakness that led us to seek out such a release of frustration in the first place. Power is found in organization and in the masses, not in lifeless virus particles which are utterly indifferent towards the world around them. Power is built. There is much work to be done.
“To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather”
In a recent piece, J. Moufawad-Paul comments on the connection between capitalist electoral dogma and the performative mourning of US liberals over the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The mourning is performative because it entreats us into accepting a liberating role for Ginsburg that, from the standpoint of the oppressed, she simply does not have. The piece refers to two cases motivating this view: Ginsburg’s opposition to indigenous sovereignty in the case of Sherrill vs. Oneida Indian Nation in 2005 as well as Ginsburg’s coming down on the side of white supremacy (and ableism) referring to Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes taking a knee during the American national anthem as “dumb and disrespectful”. But there are other cases, like Daimler AG v. Bauman where Ginsburg prohibited relatives of victims and the survivors from bringing legal charges against Daimler AG when they conspired with the government of Argentina to torture workers at local Mercedes Benz factories during Operation Condor, the US-sponsored campaign of political repression and state terror in Argentina. And there’s also Homeland Security vs. Thuraissigiam which––in addition to condemning unknown numbers of asylum seekers to death––allows the fast-track deportations that enables Trump’s administration to separate families at the border by denying all immigrants, including children’s access to asylum law under the pretext of protecting Americans from COVID-19. Restating the point made in Moufawad-Paul’s piece, Ginsburg was not a friend of oppressed people; she was their enemy.
The connection of performative mourning to electoral dogma in Moufawad-Paul’s piece is the idea that without Ginsburg, Biden’s election to the presidency is at risk bolstering the dead-end liberal narrative that voting under necrocapitalism can fend-off fascism. We’ve been treating these and related ideas in the last couple of chapters focusing on the role of voting in necrocapitalism and its disarming, serializing effect on revolutionary groups and movements that are fighting for systemic change, and even its failure as progressive expressive politics when compared to not voting. In this chapter we continue to think about the pitfalls of putting stock in the political systems of necrocapitalism and turn to a particular intervention on the death of Ruth Ginsburg coming from the liberal petite-bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries claiming the banner of feminism. This is the intervention of bourgeois philosopher Kate Manne in a series of tweets anticipating a misogynist response to Ginsburg’s death and absolving her of blame for the current situation in US politics.
The situation in question is a vacant seat in the United States Supreme Court and Donald Trump poised to fill that seat with an imperialist politician of his choosing, resulting in a 6-3 Republican majority. From the standpoint of the non-revolutionary, parliamentary left represented by the liberal bourgeoisie in the United States, this situation threatens existing and future laws serving the interests of a certain class of euro-american women in this country. The reason some people might think that Ginsburg is to blame for this situation is that she refused to retire under the Obama administration when Obama was in a position to appoint an imperialist politician to the chair occupied by Ginsburg with more appeal to liberals than one selected by Trump. To the liberal bourgeoisie in the United States these are multidimensional and weighty issues that involve interpreting Ginsburg’s choice to stay on rather than retire during the Obama presidency as a heroic and hard choice limited by Senate Leader and right wing imperialist stooge Mitch McConnell’s blocking of Obama’s nominations to the Supreme Court. This is in contrast to the view opposed by Manne that interprets Ginsburg’s choice to not retire as a bad calculation on Ginsburg’s part based on optimism that Hillary Clinton would be elected president in 2016, enabling her to retire in 2017 and her chair filled by another imperialist politician, viewed favorably of course, because of selection by Hillary Clinton.
Manne’s focus, however, is misogyny in the evaluation of Ginsburg’s death and the political situation described above. Manne is the author of a bourgeois philosophy book on misogyny, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, influential among euro-american liberals, white feminists, bourgeois philosophers, and those who aspire to and share the social identity of the imperialist country non-revolutionary left.[i] In it she defines misogyny as the law enforcement branch of a patriarchal social order, (Manne, 63) and claims to propose an account of misogyny that situates patriarchy in the intersection of other systems of social control that outstrips the naïve notion that misogyny is a type of subjective hatred of women and girls in the minds of misogynists. Manne is correct to conceptually connect misogyny to patriarchy and to recognize that patriarchy intersects with other forms of oppression. However, in the same way that the American Declaration of Independence claims that “all men (sic) are created equal”––while American liberalism in practice is white supremacy borne out of the political and economic ambitions of euro-american settlers against the colonial powers of Europe through the genocide and dispossession of the native peoples of the Americas––Manne’s philosophical work mentions the intersection of different strands of oppression but is borne out of the political and economic ambitions of petite-bourgeois, settler women whose material life sets them against the interests of women and persons generally oppressed by imperialism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Manne’s consistent and plentiful defense of US imperialist politician Hillary Clinton in the pages of Down Girl as she draws on the narrow space of debate between american politicians, Democrats and Republicans, to produce examples of misogyny as petite bourgeois settler women conceive it. Manne builds the case that Hillary Clinton was the target of hostilities by men involved in imperialist politics during her presidential campaign because she is a woman and because she violated the social norms of this group. In doing so she cites examples of gender bias, expressions of disgust directed at Clinton, demands that Clinton be more warm and caring than male imperialist politicians, attributions of insincerity to her, and suspicion directed at her regarding behaviors that go unnoticed by the class of people involved when a male imperialist carries them out. In Manne’s view, misogyny was a major contributing factor for Clinton losing the American election to Trump, upholding the view that Clinton was a “better presidential Candidate than Trump”, and that misogyny kept the voting public in the United States from recognizing it. (Manne, p. 278)
Manne’s general claim is that powerful women, and women generally seeking the autonomy to exist according non-patriarchal rules, are troublemakers and that patriarchy leverages misogyny point blank to prohibit that. What is missing in this formulation is the intersection, or the recognition that women, and powerful women, exist only in gender (power) relations mediated by class, nation, and ability. To go beyond toothless, academic, declarations of commitment to intersectional analyses we ought to ask: what is the political and economic content of Clinton’s power and how does it relate to the powerless?
Spoiler Alert: The power in question is the political and economic power of settler capitalism in its imperialist, necrotic form. Hillary Clinton has effectively wielded this power––so admired by Manne as disruptive of patriarchy––to implement measures that have spread “a particularly virulent strand of Carceral feminism” (Nair, 104) expanding state repression of both men, women, and people who don’t fit patriarchal notions of abuse victims through the Violence Against Women act––a piece of legislation that ignores the roots of patriarchy as a system in connection to capitalism and instead builds upon it by increasing policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women. Taking this thinking internationally, in her capacity as Secretary of State for American imperialism, Hillary Clinton in 2011 threatened to cut off humanitarian aid to African countries who did not adopt American prescriptions on gay rights. (Nair, 109) This action was prompted by Uganda’s 2009 bill criminalizing homosexuality (a bill revealed to have been created by Ugandan lawmakers in connection with evangelical Christians from the United States). The threat was lauded by LGBT activists in the United States and Britain, but LGBT activists in African countries responded differently “with more than 50 African organizations working on LGBT issues in countries on that continent [signing] a statement indicating that premising foreign aid on a country’s treatment of LGBT people was a dangerous move for LGBT people living in those countries as it would likely lead to more hostile treatment of LGBT people.” (Chávez, 89) Moving from Africa to Central America, Hillary Clinton wielded imperialist power to continue the legacy of US terror in Latin America and aid in the military overthrow of the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, a move to install a right wing dictatorship responsible for femicide on an unprecedented scale in that country. Among the dead is Berta Cáceres, an environmental and Indigenous rights activist who in a 2014 video interview named Hilary Clinton among those responsible for legitimizing the military coup: Clinton, in her position as secretary of state, pressured (as her emails show) other countries to agree to sideline the demands of Cáceres and others that Zelaya be returned to power. Instead, Clinton pushed for the election of what she calls in Hard Choices a “unity government.” But Cáceres says: “We warned that this would be very dangerous…The elections took place under intense militarism, and enormous fraud.”
Closer to home: “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in,” Clinton said while campaigning in 2015. Specifically, she called for the user of satellites and drones in addition to low-intensity warfare checkpoints at the border. This is the power, the class power of the bourgeoisie and the national power of euro-american settlers, including the privileged women that belong to those groups, that enables talk of Hillary Clinton being a powerful woman. The reality is that to be better qualified than Donald Trump at directing American imperialism is not a feminist goal, and neither is filling the office of the president. As we discussed in the previous chapter, there is no meaningful way to conceive of voting as “harm reduction” at this stage in the necrotic development of American capitalism. And if the history of American leadership teaches us anything, it is that imperialism is a total harm (à la total war) and the relative incompetence and or preparation of its leadership is more a compass for political maneuvering for classes of people with a stake in perpetuating that harm than it does in reducing it. The United States has had a Black president. If the Democrats and people like Manne have their way, it can have a woman president. It can have a gay president. It can fill this office in every which way but those that affect most of the people oppressed by the necrocapitalist system where that office exists. In other words, there will never be an anti-patriarchy, anti-capitalist, and ant-imperialist president of the United States.
And now we ask, regarding the enforcement role of misogyny under patriarchy, is there a way to make this important point in a way that takes into account the people who are violently subjected to the type of power that enables talk of Hillary Clinton as a powerful woman? Yes: one way to do it is to struggle in practice to uphold the standpoint in analyses of those whose practical demands for freedom and democracy are not served by the liberalism of the imperialist countries. If we wanted to do philosophy in a strictly bourgeois way, we could say that Manne’s focus on Clinton is just the rhetorical avenue for a serious argument about patriarchy and misogyny. But we reiterate what we said in Chapter Four: what philosophers emphasize in their philosophizing reveals their pre-theoretical class, national, and gender commitments. And to this we add: to do philosophy after Marx’s 11th Thesis as Marxists means doing philosophy with an awareness to those commitments as they intersect to produce philosophy, conditioned by our relation to both theory and to social practice. The commitment in Manne’s philosophical work on misogyny is to what proletarian feminist Anuradha Ghandy characterizes as liberal feminism:
“It tends to be mechanical in its support for formal equality without a concrete understanding of the condition of different sections/classes of women and their specific problems. Hence it was able to express the demands of the middle classes (white women from middle classes in the US and upper class, upper caste women in India) but not those of women from various oppressed ethnic groups, castes and the working, labouring classes.”
Consistent with liberal discourse, Manne cautiously refers to the experience of Black women in the United States, granting the privileged status of white women and their complicity in misogynoir, but stops short of the concrete understanding that Ghandy writes about because the specific problems facing Black women are co-extensive with the content of the power that enables talk of Hillary Clinton as a powerful woman. So, we are treated to a bare mention of problems and cases instead of a critique of the material reasons for those problems and cases. Many of the features of Ghandy’s account of liberal feminism are unfortunately exhibited in Manne’s Down Girl: “it does not question the economic and political structures of the society which give rise to patriarchal discrimination. Hence it is reformist in its orientation, both in theory and in practice,” (Ibid.) and ultimately aligning with the most conspicuous representatives of American imperialism. “It believes the state is neutral and can be made to intervene in favour of women when in fact the bourgeois state in the capitalist countries and the semi-colonial and semi-feudal Indian state are patriarchal and will not support women’s struggle for emancipation.” (Ibid., 39-40). These commitments to the capitalist state and to the social identity of the petite bourgeois classes of the imperialist countries turn what could have been an important investigation into the role of misogyny under patriarchy into a defense of agents of those sectors of capitalist society––the government, it’s judicial arms, and the mass base for liberalism––most responsible for upholding patriarchy and legitimizing misogyny for persons who don’t fit into the liberal mold, persons who serve a different subordinate social role necessitated by the capitalism that produces the material life of liberal feminists.
So, who is served by this philosophy, and by this imperialist feminism? Its not the women of Honduras. It is not the LGBT people of Uganda and other African Nations. It is not women at the illegitimate border with Mexico who are pursued by Hillary’s drones to be separated from their families by Ginsburg’s laws, enforced by Trump’s goons. It is not even women in the United States whose social reality is not expressed by capitalist liberalism and who are ignored by powerful women because their gender identity is non-conforming to liberal feminism or it intersects in “inappropriate” ways with their class and national standing and who are subjected to greater criminalization and police violence by the carceral feminism of women like Hillary Clinton, Ruth Ginsburg, and Kamala Harris. But, hey, on the bright side, it does positively serve bourgeois liberal women who seek validation of their experiences in their attempts to occupy positions of capitalist power in a global system of oppression.
Returning to Manne’s tweets on the death of Ruth Ginsburg: Manne is concerned with the apparent punishment of a woman, Ginsburg, who failed to behave according to the strictures of patriarchy interpreted in terms of her imperialist country liberalism. Ginsburg’s power is like Hillary’s power––it is the power of the United States government, and everything that goes with it including capitalism and patriarchy. Ginsburg had the audacity to die and is criticized for it while male politicians die all the time, and no one calls them out for it—or so the reasoning goes. It is misogyny because it happens because they are women. In the case of a proletarian feminist critique of liberal feminism this reasoning fails to apply because proletarian feminists are seeking political and economic power for women and people whose gender intersects with strands of oppression not recognized by liberal feminism. The reason women like Hillary Clinton and Ruth Ginsburg are criticized by the oppressed is that liberal feminists attempt to pass them off as liberators when, in reality, they are our oppressors and relate to us in the same way that any male imperialist, Democrat or Republican, does by wielding the power of capitalist patriarchy. From the proletarian standpoint, we want women wielding proletarian power to liberate us from the tyranny of necrocapitalism. Misogyny, if it is the law enforcement arm of a system of patriarchy cannot, in the idealist sense of bourgeois philosophy, be disconnected from people in a material context. Patriarchy is intertwined with the material production and reproduction of social life complicated by racialized national oppression and ability-based oppression, and its enforcement wing, misogyny, is connected to this complex. It means that a supposed liberating feminist ideology can serve to enforce misogyny on women whose womanhood is racialized, intersects with their national being and their ability as subaltern in a social system. When oppressed women are ignored, silenced, put down, told their criticisms of women in imperialist positions of power are “counterproductive” by liberal feminists, we have that type of misogyny in practice.
During this project we have examined the way that necrocapitalism and the capitalist imaginary limits critical thought and erodes the capacity to think through new political and social possibilities. It fragments social movements against white supremacy and police violence, channeling their energy into bankrupt ballot-box activism, and during a global pandemic it cries for a return to the dystopian “normal” of capitalism. Thinkers too enfeebled by the capitalist imaginary and those who have a material stake in it continue to repackage and re-brand the same failed strategies concealing the workings of necrotic capitalism as they perpetuate them. The death of Ruth Ginsburg is being positioned as an added tragedy during a global pandemic and the rise of fascist forces worldwide to gather support for voting to maintain the status quo of necrocapitalism during the 2020 American presidential election. Many of the same arguments peddled by liberals during the 2016 election about the possibility of casting an “antifascist vote” are being dredged up again to put down mass anti-racist uprisings in favour of passive acceptance of the order imposed by the ruling classes. In this context, we must be aware of liberal efforts to weaponize the opposition to misogyny in a way that harms proletarian feminists––whether it is by putting them down, or pretending they don’t exist, or by making it seem that there is no principled, feminist opposition to the necrotic system represented by Ruth Ginsburg or that a critique of women’s role in upholding capitalist patriarchy is unequivocally misogyny.
[i] We will refer to this book in a limited capacity here, but a type of trigger warning is warranted for those who might want to pursue the source material. The book is packed with imperialist country chauvinism, settler chauvinism, racism, neo-nazi anticommunist tropes, and apologetics for violence against women and people from the imperialist periphery which may trigger survivors of the violence wrought by Hillary Clinton and euro-american liberal women generally.
Last week we took advantage of Cornel West’s recent intervention to give a hard look at voting, interpreting it through the lens of Sartre’s notion of seriality. The basic insight was to warn against the amorcelating or “serialization” of political energies through the ballot and electoralism, amounting to the de-fusion of the insurrectionary political group or movement.
Since the 2020 US election is less than two months away at the time of writing, the above discussion is worth pursuing a bit further. No doubt some comrades will detect a note of “infantilism” in the insurgent notes we’ve sounded these past months. But make no mistake, our line is not that there is anything inherently problematic or impure about the political tactic of casting a vote. Many of us vote in small-scale, autonomous political groupings as a matter of course, and this can be both efficient and empowering. It is simply that we reject any fetishism of the ballot box. When in Left-Wing Communism Lenin famously castigated as “infantile” the principled abstention of the left Social Revolutionaries from parliamentary politics, this was in no sense a blanket endorsement of parliamentarianism. His defense was a qualified one; tactical and strategic considerations rather than abstract principles of the political good were what was at issue. The question, then, is whether those who defend voting do so on principle, or for politically realist reasons. The follow-up question, if the latter is true, is whether voting in a particular situation actually holds up to the tactical and strategic criteria of a realist criticism.
A constant theme in our project has been the necessity to return to the actual conditions on the ground. In the present constellation of necrocapitalism, the serialization of political energies into the ballot amounts to “choosing” between hard right and center-right masters. This is a choice between an openly racist regime that will crush us under police occupation, and a regime that sees us, hears us, and will likewise not hesitate to crush us under police occupation (perhaps it will also hire more transgender drone operators, but we prefer our intersectionality without the imperialism). As such, with less than two months to go before the 2020 US election and fascism on the march, we repeat that there is no “antifascist vote.” Even the often-repeated claim that voting can be “harm reduction”, minimally satisfying the tactical and strategic exigencies of Lenin’s model, falls flat here. Bailing out a boat that is sinking so that it can stay afloat a little while longer, or so that a small number of privileged passengers can scramble for lifeboats, is hardly “harm reduction” in any meaningful sense of the term.
Nonetheless, there remains the possibility that if things are really all that bad my vote still expresses something and that when we are stripped of our political efficacy we may nonetheless, good Kantians, register our negation of the status quo on the properly moral plane. In 2020 such expressive politics, through voting at least, amounts to expressing that we very much would like the awful man to be replaced by a less boorish, less openly predatory awful man. This is very little – arguably nothing – but such “expressive politics”, pursued for example by Avishai Margalit in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, is not meaningless. Personally powerless to oppose injustice, violence, apartheid, there is arguably a moral power in making even what we know to be a merely symbolic gesture. The wager is even that this moral power could some day lend itself to political power, or at least keep the moral embers of political investment burning in situations where hope is on the wane.
The obvious rejoinder is that the real work is in organizing our communities politically, precisely against such a moralistic posture of impotence. Here, however, we need also to contend with the expressive power of silence, of non-participation, of “inaction.” It’s possible that not voting, as an expression of expressive silence, actually carries greater symbolic power than actively choosing a more palatable version of evil in a system that is widely recognized to be rigged. Jean-François Lyotard reminds us in The Differend that silence is “a phrase,” i.e. an event of language that has a range of possible meanings. It’s not like the message sent by not voting will always be heard, or heard unambiguously, or have any kind of power, moral or otherwise. But it takes very little effort not to vote, and unlike voting for the perceived lesser of two evils, it does not entail an expressive endorsement of the very system that is killing us.
Voting, then, amounts, in the current conjuncture, to bad expressive politics and bad strategy and tactics as well as serialization. It is worth saying a final word on serialization. The pandemic has sharpened certain contradictions and helped bring them to light. But it has also drawn attention to serialization both as ambient reality and as a broadly levelled recuperation strategy by those in power. What are schools, long-term care homes, workplaces, all privileged zones of tension in the pandemic, if not also serialization mechanisms? Seeming to bring us together, don’t they end by disciplining us as atomized, neoliberal subjects? These they do by intention, by design. But the classic Marxist insight that capitalism produces its own gravediggers is apposite: any system that brings us together by way of breaking us apart has a built-in contradiction that can be exploited. If we are capable, in spite of everything, of coming together and working for a better future, then why would we waste that precious chance on electoralism?