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?
In 2017, in the midst of the Unite the Right mobilization in Charlottesville, Virginia, Cornel West gave an unequivocal defense of militant antifascism. Today he tweeted:
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an “antifascist vote.” Antifascism is a form of group praxis that embraces a diversity of tactics, which gain their force through organizing and demonstrating. The electoral process functions, by contrast, to fragment social movements and isolate their participants. Antifascism doesn’t defeat fascism at the ballot box; the fight against fascism demands that we organize better than them.
In 1973, Jean-Paul Sartre published a short but controversial essay, “Elections: A Trap for Fools” (which is a polite rendering of the French “Élections, piège à cons”). More conceptually, though not linguistically, accurately, Sartre argues that elections are a form of serial organization that prevents transformational or revolutionary praxis. Seriality is a form of reified social mediation that treats individuals in abstraction. We would argue, in terms momentarily borrowed from Harney and Moten, that fugitive forms of social life are serialized when “large social forces—work conditions under the capitalist regime, private property, institutions, and so forth—bring pressure to bear upon groups they belong to, breaking them up and reducing them to the units which supposedly compose them.” (Sartre, Elections, 200) These autonomous groups are recomposed in serial forms of social organization within a practico-inert field; that is, social relationships are mediated by inert collectives.
Throughout this series, we have discussed the many ways that necrocapitalism whittles down our imaginary to accept its narrow political possibilities. In this way, the general antagonism of necrocapitalism is reduced to the particular antagonism between liberals and conservatives. In this way, the systemic features of class domination appear as accidents of the rule a particular party. The young Marx observed that “where there are political parties, each finds the cause of every evil in the fact that its opponent instead of itself, is at the helm of state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the cause of the evil not in the nature of the state but in a specific form of it which they want to replace by another form.” (Marx, “Critical Notes,” 348) When I enter into this serial structure my choices are already set by the terms of the institution. In the electoral process, the party might change, but the state as a form of class domination remains the same—in fact, its explicitly socio-political character is occluded. At the present conjuncture, as both US parties rally around “law and order,” voters are presented with a choice between two different forms of implementing police and state power.
Voting is for Sartre a form of serialization. The liberal dogma holds that voting grants legitimacy to political rule; voting uses indirect democracy to delegate popular legitimacy and power to the representatives in power (and their parties). By contrast, Sartre argues that the voting system reifies the power of parties and the party system, which voters confront as individuals rather than groups. Furthermore, Sartre maintains that serial social forms mediate between individuals as Others. So, were I to vote, as an individual abstracted from group praxis, I don’t vote as a practical subject, but rather as an Other whose interests are already mediated by oppressive institutional parameters.
In a typical American election year, immense amounts of political energy are funnelled toward strategies of influencing the Democratic party, despite the fact that repeated attempts to move the party to the left have failed and party leadership has continued to tack to the center-right. Although the pandemic interrupted this process, it was quickly set back into motion during the Democratic Party’s convention. Unlike recent election cycles, however, the convention began amidst a widespread anti-police uprising and a growing white supremacist reaction that Trump has sought to both foment and commandeer. Trump has both celebrated right-wing vigilantism and attacked the Democratic party as, in terms borrowed from conspiracy theories, the electoral representative of radical Marxists and “ANTIFA” (the caps warrant scare quotes). Trump is making a play to pull the Far Right into a system-loyal coalition with the Republican party.
In typical election cycles, the Democrats present themselves as representatives of leftist social movements; as the story goes, an electoral victory offers an opportunity for the demands of these movements to be implemented in policy. The movement to defund or abolish the police demonstrates the actual antagonism between Democrats and social movements. Once the convention wrapped up, Biden, Harris, and their acolytes went on the offensive, attacking militant groups and delegitimizing militant tactics. As we argued in Chapter 8, at the conceptual level (setting aside moral and pragmatic concerns), for antipolice protest to be internally consistent, it must demonstrate the antagonism between police and community. The parliamentary left has largely fallen in line, attributing violence either to pathology or outside infiltrators; the possibility that property damage and the diversity of tactics has a significant meaning is flatly denied.
The present conjuncture lends support to Sartre’s thesis that electoral politics is a process of serialization. By drawing a false dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate protest, the Democratic party is attempting to splinter the group praxis of these anti-systemic, anti-police mobilizations. With demobilization, the anti-police uprising is sapped of its political force, and its members will end up serialized and isolated. Far from representing the movement, the parliamentarian left will be its undoing—to what end? To elect key cogs in solidifying and maintaining neoliberal carceral policy in the United States?
It is clear that Trump is staking his political fortune on far-right social forces. But we must keep in mind that in city after city, defund/abolition protests have broken out and have been sustained—some now for over three months—in cities with Democratic mayors, in states with Democratic governors. These are places where, on the typical picture of grassroots political pressure, those in power are supposedly responsible to leftist social movements, and yet in broad outline, these politicians have done little beyond symbolic gestures that aren’t even close to the demands articulated by protestors and organizers. At best, a Biden victory stabilizes neoliberal policy without explicit far-right social characteristics. But there’s very little chance that any faction of the ruling class curbs the present extension of an increasingly locally militarized police power and the infiltration of federal police powers throughout the United States—unless the continued strength of the uprising makes them curb this power.
Therefore, we must reject the thesis, maintained by the parliamentarian left, that there is a continuity between leftist social (and in particular anti-systemic abolitionist) movements and electoral politics. The electoral process is antagonistic to maintaining the power of the movement. The anti-police movement, therefore, doesn’t owe anything to electoral parties.
And so the protracted civil war that characterizes class society, particularly the general antagonism of capitalism, continues unabated even in times of pandemic. This moment of emergency, as we have seen, simply changes the intensity of this general antagonism. In some regions––in some countries, in some levels within countries––policy functions to mute the antagonism through an appeal to nationalism and health. In other spaces the civil war becomes more acute, as the rebellions demonstrate. The situation of migrant labour, discussed in the last chapter, is evidence of how this type of labour––essential to imperial capitalism––continues to demonstrate that class struggle is ongoing. The depredations migrant workers already face are only exacerbated by the pandemic, just as the conditions faced by illegal immigrants and refugees have been exacerbated. As we have noted, it was not as if the condition of migrant labour was particularly humane before the pandemic; rather, the fact of the pandemic revealed the already-existing predatory and necrocapitalist characteristics of migrant labour. As we asserted in the prologue, “every capitalist state’s necrotic underbelly is being exposed.”
Despite this exposure, however, what makes capitalism thoroughly necrotic is its ability to continue to profit even when its violence is exposed and to weather the crisis by reshuffling the economy so as to push its necrocapitalist aspects upon its most vulnerable subjects. The fact that, as discussed, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois families can comfortably weather this crisis through migrant labour regimes indicates that the upper strata of class society are able to treat the pandemic like a holiday while their domestic, landscape, and agricultural workers are even more exposed to death. They can even comfortably afford personal educators, when necessary, like Roman patricians employing slave tutors.
Moreover, the economy is being reshuffled. Large corporations that can afford to persist throughout the crisis are instituting new austerity measures while preparing to take over the spaces lost by the small capitalists crushed by pandemic measures. Agribusiness continues unabated as migrants are still shipped in, safety concerns waived since these workers––not white and/or not citizens––have never been worthy of rights to health and equal pay. New security measures for the police are being rushed in, and neoliberal plans for job discipline are becoming normalized. At the beginning of July the stock market was higher than it had been for twenty years.
The adage that COVID-19 has been a “social equalizer”––oft-repeated by liberals based on the abstraction that anyone can potentially contract the virus––is about as meaningful as claiming everyone has a fair chance to “make it” under capitalism. It is another platitude generated from a bourgeois vision of society as a contract between equal individuals that the three-ring circus of the recent Democratic National Convention wants us to embrace as an alternative to the Trump regime’s open embrace of inequality. It’s largely another version of “make America great again” but based on the liberal mythology of the US where greatness is in everyone getting a fair chance, a veritable Rawlsian utopia. Joe Biden’s senile neoliberalism and Kamala Harris’ carceral capitalism are openly celebrated as alternatives to “Trumpism”. Elizabeth Warren was lauded by the podcast “Pod Save America” for having “BLM” spelled out in children’s toy blocks in the background of her video: “We see you Liz,” they tweeted, authoritatively recognizing her as a champion of Black Lives Matter despite being a podcast comprised of white cis men. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, once seen as a great hope for social democratic renewal, tried to bring the corpse of the Sanders regime back to life with appeals to social justice the Democratic mainstream cared nothing about. And Colin Powell, former member of the Bush Jr. regime, was given more time than Ocasio-Cortez to demonstrate that the Democratic party of 2020 was angling to look like the Republicans of 2001. All of this in the wake of mass rebellions. All of this despite the imperialism that generates, along with ruined countries and lives, refugees and migrant labour regimes. All of this to provide an alternative to so-called “Trumpism” which is wagered as the prime evil rather than the violent necrocapitalist context in which the politically useless (but not useless in the policy and policing sense of politics) electoral spectacle plays out.
While it is the case that the pandemic has shed light on the predatory aspects of capitalism––that it has revealed the sham “think of the children” and “family values” discourses for what they are, that it has demonstrated the outright cruelty of labour exploitation by openly exposing the most vulnerable workers to disease, and that it has continued to profit greatly––official ideologues continue to generate the same garbage they blathered before the pandemic, though one senses an almost desperate tone in their proclamations. The likes of Charlie Kirk state without irony that centre-right liberals are akin to Marxists. Liberals imagine that their regimes are rational calls to order, and that to refuse to endorse even their most carceral representatives is to support a fascist alternative. Charlatans such as James Lindsay write books about a social justice conspiracy that has taken over liberal society and yet have these books, that cannot even represent their subject material accurately, published by massive mainstream presses. Although we can look at these examples (and others) as proof that mainstream public intellectuals are, as a whole, unworthy of the name “intellectual” (they are willfully ignorant and/or opportunistic hucksters) the more salient point is that this entire faction of acceptable intellectual producers are struggling to convince their audiences that the only meaningful struggle is between the liberal and conservative wings of the bourgeoisie, or even between liberals and fascists, and that the third pole of struggle (anti-fascism, anti-capitalism, abolition, communism, etc.) is politically inadmissible, if not aberrant or “insane”. The particular antagonism between capitalist siblings thus obscures the general antagonism between social classes.
Whereas some members of the liberal reptile press note the ills the pandemic has delivered upon, say, migrant workers, their analysis (following the class they represent) is that this is merely an exception to normal labour practices. The solution is an appeal to liberal rights, an appeal to humane labour practices, and blame is placed upon human error; management, which can be “good”, was simply unprepared, and did not have the resources, to deal with the coronavirus. Hence, what the pandemic has in fact revealed as a deep problem with the system is blithely interpreted as a problem with the pandemic rather than the system itself.[i] What the pandemic merely demonstrates is that, in the words of Jasbir Puar and yet again, “labor is an inverted form of warfare against a disposable population ensnared as laborers-consigned-to-having-an accident.” (Puar, The Right to Maim, 64) There were always other “accidents” that these “disposable” populations faced before COVID-19.
Hence, the general antagonism of class society is ignored in favour of a particular antagonism that conservatives ignore but that liberals claim they can fix: just get some more individual rights in there! But what anyone who has grasped the necrocapitalist aspects revealed by the pandemic must realize is that these depredations are not exceptions but in fact novel normative developments of the bourgeois order. The violence inherent in migrant labour regimes (and other labour regimes) did not only manifest after the pandemic; the pandemic simply revealed the already existing violence of this facet of the protracted civil war. The COVID-related violence visited upon migrant workers is like the mustard gas released upon the trenches of World War One. While the ruling classes of the imperialist nations involved in the so-called “Great War” would eventually condemn the use of mustard gas but not that war itself (they still hold it up as sacrosanct and pretend it was identical to the Second World War’s Allied fight against fascism when they cannot even agree on its meaning), revolutionaries understood that war was essentially about bourgeois nations fighting over colonial territories that was also a war upon the international proletariat. (Lenin, Luxemburg, Connolly, and others walked out of the Second International when it endorsed this inter-imperialist monstrosity.) The horrendous use of mustard gas, then, was merely a violent epiphenomenal development of a war against the proletariat and colonized peoples. Violent COVID measures (meaning lack of protective measures) in these days of pandemic are thus the mustard gas factions of the bourgeoisie roll out upon the hard core of the proletariat.
Liberal ideology thus approaches the pandemic as a problem that can be solved with individual responsibility, liberty and formal equality, and the rational agency of the bourgeois subject. Those economically privileged enough to work from home are seen as more responsible than those who must continue to work or starve, or whose work outside of home is necessary for the economy to continue functioning––who work long hours in a factory, whose children have to go back to a school system ill-prepared to meet the pandemic, and who often take crowded public transit to their sites of work. While liberal professions of “care” and “responsibility” (some of which find their way into supposedly radical philosophy) are wagered as a panacea against a blithe reactionary attitude towards the pandemic, the same and similar platitudes have always been used to reify the protracted civil war. These platitudes are extended to the rebellions––both to the police and the protesters. The police are chastised for being irresponsible or corrupt; their structural function as the repressive manifestation of the bourgeois state, what Lenin called “special armed bodies” of men and women, is ignored or mockingly dismissed. (Lenin, State and Revolution, 11) The protesters are exhorted to be “responsible” in their protesting as if this protesting is akin to a debate amongst friends.
But this is precisely how liberalism and those largely beholden to this kind of “common sense” way of seeing society react when faced with crisis. Before austerity, and alongside repressive measures, appeals to individual responsibility and rational citizenship abound. Class struggle is denied; even worse liberal ideologues proclaim that any talk of this general antagonism is aberrant because it is divisive in light of the social contract. Reactionaries, on the other hand, openly engage with the protracted civil war, though from a position that is complicit with the capitalist state.[ii] Hence, reactionary demands regarding “bearing arms” are not treated as being in contradiction with the state’s monopoly of violence, but only against an imagined state of affairs that would take away this right; the right is conceived, and in line with the settler logic of the US, as being part of a standing white militia that is a legitimate addition to the police and army––which is why the pigs are not threatened by armed NRA goons. (Indeed, a seventeen year old fascist who murdered activists in Kenosha was a “police admirer” who was in fact not stopped by the police and allowed to depart the scene after having gunned down several people.) But since a hallmark of liberalism is, as aforementioned, to deny the general antagonism by making it about a particular antagonism between different ruling class factions, the discourse of reactionaries is treated as vulgar and irresponsible, but just as much irresponsible as any faction from the oppressed masses who would dare to pursue class struggle. Whereas reactionaries want both the state and armed white militias to have a shared monopoly on violence (a vision going back to the early days of settler-colonialism where every settler was part of a standing militia, and where scalp-hunters and filibusters engendered state expansion into the frontiers), liberals want only the official state to possess this monopoly.
Despite this distinction between liberal and reactionary articulations of the capitalist state of affairs, it is worth noting that even reactionaries truly want to believe––even in the midst of openly proclaiming fidelity to the state’s side of the protracted civil war––that Marxists, anarchists, communists, and “ANTIFA” are ruining an imaginary national unity. Even for reactionaries the recognition of the general antagonism only goes so far; classical liberal discourse also affects their judgment when it comes to the state. A strong state, what they want to impose, will reconcile once it does away with the rabble who are responsible for conspiring to foment national disunity. The Nazi regime, we should recall, worked to deny the general antagonism of class struggle by propagating the myth of national unity supposedly undermined by Jewish conspirators, Roma, and other non-Aryan and communist rabble. The notion that the state reconciles individuals into a common [manifest] destiny, and that class antagonism is just a myth perpetuated by extremists and conspiratorial bad actors (by even a Russian conspiracy!), is point upon which reactionaries and liberals agree. Here it is worth recalling Lenin’s insights regarding the state:
The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises when, where and to the extent that class antagonisms cannot be objectively reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that class antagonisms are irreconcilable.
Lenin, State and Revolution, 8-9.
Reactionary approaches to capitalist hegemony might unconsciously recognize this irreconcilable fact of this state––which is why the persistence of an armed white nationalist settler garrison manifests in settler-capitalist formations––but they consciously proclaim that the state is reconciliation, even if it is fascist. Liberalism openly denies this irreconcilability and imagines the state as a social contract where liberals and reactionaries can live together in familial harmony, denying the irreconcilable and general antagonism.
So our job remains, as we have maintained since the outset of this project, to remind our comrades, friends, and fellow travellers of the necessity to foreground the fact of the protracted civil war and the meaning of the general antagonism. To treat liberals and reactionaries as our enemies; they are both invested in this pitiless state of affairs. The revelations brought by the pandemic must be understood as revelations of capitalism’s already existing necrotic nature and not something that can be dismissed by the policy apparatus of capture, diverted into reformist liberal avenues.
The problem, however, is that the necrocapitalist reality has also generated a particular kind of subjectivity that, while accepting the truth of the system, leads to a practical dead-end. That is, necrocapitalism tends to generate nihilist subjects. With the general antagonism transformed into a particular antagonism between liberals and conservatives, without an organized mass movement to combat this diversionary transformation, people who see precisely the meaninglessness of the necrocapitalist reality accept that meaninglessness is a fact of nature. To recognize that the protracted civil war is a real general antagonism, to see that there is nothing to make this general antagonism into a meaningful movement, and to also witness the diversion of this antagonism into the spectacle of a fight between liberal and conservative wings of the ruling class results in a hopelessness. Especially when the ideologues of this diversion have hammered into our heads that there is no alternative, no future, and no history beyond capitalist foreclosure.
[i] Here it is also worth noting that the term “necrocapitalism” has started to appear with more frequency since we began this project but that its appearance has largely been according to the way we warned against: as a new phase of capitalism, as something more than just a novel conjunctural revelation of what capitalism always was. For example, over a month ago Mark LeVine wrote an article entitled “From Neoliberalism to Necrocapitalism in 20 Years” that asserted “necrocapitalism” represented a new phase of capitalism rather than a characteristic of what capitalism has always been and that is merely being foregrounded in this conjuncture. Such analyses risk endorsing precisely what liberals have been saying since the pandemic: that we are in an unprecedented economic reality and that every current problem of capitalist depredation is “new” rather than part of an ongoing necrotic capitalist project that is simply being revealed for what it has always been. Perhaps LeVine could have learned a thing or two if he had paid attention to this project, or even the original useage(s) of the term “necrocapitalism” (Banerjee in 2008, Holmes in 2017), but it was clear he largely wanted to make a very bland intervention that was wagered as unique in the face of pandemic.
[ii] In Austerity Apparatus J. Moufawad-Paul writes: “Indeed, both Mao Zedong and Carl Schmitt argued that a coherent political order begins by drawing a distinction between friends and enemies. To argue that this demonstrates a unity of thought between the radical communist and the nazi, however, is rather simplistic; all it demonstrates is that coherent political movements are able to grow in power by recognizing antagonistic and non-antagonistic relations—who to recruit, who not to recruit, who to oppose and isolate, who to support and reinforce. The similarity is only formal: a militant political order that wishes to come into being must understand who and what would oppose its emergence, the class basis of its ethics. The substantial differences beneath this formal similarity are more telling: the friend/enemy distinction of the fascist is precisely the distinction opposed by the communist and vice versa.” (Moufawad-Paul, Austerity Apparatus, 104)