January 23: Trump Question

Washington, January 23, 2017 | #Capitalism #Impeachment #Trump

So let me play the inverse of devil's advocate for a moment: Lets assume this is all on track. Market capitalism is coming apart, just like state capitalism around 1990. Ruthless financialization has finally broken the century-old bond between deterritorialization and reterritorialization, and what we're witnessing — in Brexit, in Trump — are simply the death throes of the reterritorializing forces, the moment when there is no more territory left, and not enough fuel. "Late capitalism" wasn't jargon, it was a correct attempt at periodization, all the time, and this is the end, a desperate final assault, of male white corporate oppression. Even the inverse devil's advocate will have to concede that death throes can last forever and cause immense collateral damage, and that the most likely successor to market capitalism is a mix of feudalism and fascism, but at the same time, there may be unforeseen openings, and a sharp increase in willingness to take actual political risks. So lets assume that 2016 was just a ruse, a sick joke of history: once as tragedy, ten times as farce, and then this. As will become obvious in hindsight, Donald Trump (and the same applies to Boris Johnson) was a once-in-a-century occurence of blind luck, an absurdly fortunate constellation of dominoes. To have him take down two of the most insurmountable impediments to political change in the United States, the Bush and Clinton dynasties (plus destroy much of the establishment of both political parties, and maybe even paralyze a large enough faction of the Christian Right) with a single lucky punch, and then having to figure out how to impeach the guy, is going to reveal itself as a way more plausible path out of this mess than trying to achieve the same result the other way around. He's not going to last for long, his schtick will get boring now that he's got nothing more to win, other than a war, which he is probably too incoherent to incite and promote, at least momentarily, the hearts and minds stuff, so that if there's a swift process towards impeachment, for which there is already sufficient ammunition, then at some point soon, the Republican Party will be forced to make a choice: between civil war, constitutional crisis, and Mike Pence. And we all know that Mike Pence is going to be horrible enough. He may even be able to temporarily unite what remains of his party, but once he faces actual opposition in an election — no longer the Democratic Party, but a democratic movement: a popular platform determined to abolish the current rules of campaign financing, redistricing, vote suppression and corporate lobbying — he is going to come across as just a tad bit too creepy and conservative. (Similar future for Theresa May: harder to attack, but easier to derail, given the economic suicide mission she presides over.) And then it turns out that what we've seen on January 21 is really the first rearticulation of what is going to evolve into a broad, radical, international movement, one whose scope, diversity and determination will surpass even the revolts of the 1960s, committed to end the ongoing racial and sexual oppression, the death grip of religion, the grotesquely uneven distribution of wealth, the exclusion of the poor from public life, the collapse of democratic institutions under capitalism, and the unprecedented rise of global temperatures. Even Erdogan, Putin, Modi and Duterte will be forced to make some concessions. We're going to end the fossile era by 2025, begin to dismantle and evacuate coastal cities calmly and orderly, make AirBnB and Uber a criminal offense, Facebook the graveyard of fascism, and stick it to the singularity. I'm probably forgetting several intermediate stages and a couple of additional challenges (note to self: the Italian banks!), but I had zero intention to take the argument that far anyway. This is all just backdrop to a more technical, procedural question I had regarding step one, impeachment: How exactly is this going to take off? Can anyone tell me who is expected to defect first, the Democrats from their task to impeach, or the Republicans from Trump, and who are these Republicans precisely, given that most of the liberal or conservative ones have been gerrymandered out of office, and who can guarantee that disuniting them from Trump isn't going to help resurrect a zombie, a Wiedergänger of the Grand Old Party? Or is it that accounting for any of these technicalities is simply besides the point, that impeachment must be imagined as a process driven by civil society and its organizations, with Democrats as mere followers, and that once it becomes a force that aligns with Trump's own narcissistic death drive, the details don't matter, and as long as one keeps fanning the flames, the shit is going to fall in place naturally? Because — and this is all just step one! — I'm not so completely certain about that, and I'm surprised that there is so little discussion about the concrete procedures, no drawing boards, roadmaps, contingency plans, and while I admit it's only been sixty or so hours, we don't have time forever, there is a certain urgency to all of this. And at the same time, am I also going hear from the faction, which I am certain must exist, that will argue against impeachment, as it only reinforces the blind faith in the power of failed institutions, argue that things still have to get a tiny bit worse, the joke just by one more twist sicker, that Trump's historic mission to destroy all hope for a return to the status quo of neoliberal tyranny is still not fully completed, and that we have to wait just a little longer before we can start make binding agreements and a couple of practical provisions to end capitalism, which includes the end of capitalism as a spectator sport, in our lifetimes? None of these are rhetorical questions, and — TL;DR: — I really hope I didn't just accidentally reinvent some dead latter branch of accelerationism, because honestly, I never paid much attention to any of it.

 

January 26, Update

But what really struck me in your email was—again—the obsession on this list and elsewhere with the idea that all of this signals the death of capitalism.

This is hogwash. It's magical thinking.

Just based on the march I attended in New York for four hours on Saturday: 99% of those people were not protesting capitalism. Sure, there were a few people carrying signs about the "corporate oppressor." (I counted three of them.) But most of those people seem to like the choices that capitalism offers them. They just want it better. Kinder and gentler if you will.

And the march was four hours of one day. None of the people I know, anywhere in the world—and I have friends around the world—are looking to move to a system that offers a certainty of basic comforts with none of the benefits that also come with taking risks.

Maybe you'll say "Well, that's all they've ever known." True. But I don't see any evidence at all that our society, or any other, is looking to put an end to the system of independent market-based decision-making that capitalism offers. Do they want fewer oligarchs? Yes. Do they want more basics provided based on the wealth that the capitalism provides (like healthcare)? Hell yes. But actually getting rid of capitalism—and Uber, and AirBnB, etc.—nope, don't see it.

But, hey, maybe this group wants to start a Kickstarter campaign to fund Ending Capitalism. :)

[Apologies: you're not my target here. Heck, I don't even know you! You just triggered the outpouring.]

But isn't that a good thing? (Not that we don't know each other — that we can trigger outpourings, I mean!)

When I framed my line of thought as "playing" an argument, that wasn't without reason. These are good times for testing ideas: most of us were so wrong about Brexit and Trump that we should revisit some more of our most firmly held assumptions. And it doesn't matter if these ideas are mine, yours, nettime's, Zizek-Varoufakis-Assange's, a tangent of some pre-existing -ism, or just a thinly veiled attempt at bitter irony.

I fully agree with what you're telling me about the marches. From what I've seen, people were protesting the fantasies of rape and lynchings that carried Trump into the Oval Office, and at the same time celebrating their difference. For day one, that was more, and more powerful, than anybody could have hoped for, and it was necessary. I'm 100% certain that 99% of those who marched couldn't even define capitalism. (And for the record: capitalism is all that I have ever known.)

But the catch is that you would have made the same baffling observation in the streets of Eastern Europe in 1989: Practically no-one was protesting socialism. And not only can you extend that argument to more recent uprisings — the Paris or London Riots, the Arab Spring, Gezi Park —, it also holds for most of the revolutions that Western democracies are founded on. Regimes don't end because the people call them by their name and ask them to collapse. In terms of collective consciousness, a shared feeling that the present situation has become untenable is totally sufficient. And that feeling doesn't even have to articulate itself, or become proactive: the fact that the overall conditions have become unsustainable is enough.

My premise was that the end of market capitalism — the former antagonist of state capitalism: the Soviet bloc — is primarily the result of market capitalism itself, that its capacity to contain the most fundamental contradictions it produces, or maintain the core ideologies that would justify them, is rapidily deteriorating. In the era of financialization, profit is no longer primarily extracted from human labor, by transforming natural resources, but from debt, by trading derivatives of future profits. These financial "instruments" no longer reflect, but effect capitalist production, which in return outputs an increasing arsenal of goods that no longer have any use value whatsoever, beyond their exchange value. This is the crisis of education, of housing, of the pension system, and as it leads to an obscenely uneven distribution of wealth, it becomes the terminal crisis of democracy, of participation. Fittingly, the 45th President of the United States is a bankrupt billionaire who has never built anything of use, just condos and casinos, and has never made any profit on a "free market", but exclusively through corruption, corporate welfare and bailouts. He even ran a university with a single-item curriculum — fraud, taught by fraudsters — and only one way to pass: to be defrauded. And again: it doesn't matter if people say this is scandalous or not. The fact that none of this is sustainable is enough.

At the same time, financialization is no longer accompanied by any strategies of containment or reintegration (unlike in the times when market capitalism still had to compete with state capitalism: the only form of competition it has ever known); one can already recognize it as a symptom, or mirror image, of the other — glaringly obvious — material runaway process that capitalism cannot control, which is the depletion of natural resources. Not just "peak oil", but "peak pollution", the exhaustion of the planet's capacity to absorb the output of industrial production in a way that could still be contained in the commodity form. We're still trading rights to future pollution, but in the most macabre sense, there is no use to further pollute. "The slogan 'Revolution or Death!' is no longer the lyrical expression of consciousness in revolt: rather, it is the last word of the scientific thought of our century." (Guy Debord, 1973)

Of course, I am aware that the lament about capitalism's overproduction of contradictions, and the prophecies of its imminient failure to further contain them, is as old as capitalism itself. But you don't have to be an economic theorist or climate scientist (I'm neither, which is why I'm sorry for lecturing you) to get an accurate sense of capitalism's current trajectory, to see that this is not just yet another "critical" moment. You don't even have to be a computer programmer or mathematician, you only have to be able to identify an exponential when you see one, and to know what happens when a computational, social, economic, natural or second-natural process becomes exponential. Which is, for a long enough time: nothing special.

But from some point on, and I'd argue that's around now, 2008-16 (or since around 1970, if you zoom out a bit further), it's getting late on the curve of perpetual growth, and the antagonism you're talking about — the "certainty of certain comforts" (state capitalism) versus the "benefits that come with taking risks" (market capitalism) — becomes meaningless. If post-state market capitalism's magical ability to provide you with an illusion of both is evaporating, then that's because it can no longer provide you with an illusion of either. Your comforts are unsustainable, with certainty, and your benefits have already been traded to cope with future risk.

And these are real challenges, practical questions, which is why I had tried to come up with a best-case scenario for the near future, one that provokes more than just cynical answers. The US government denies the most basic banalities about ecological and economic processes. (To be fair: So does the overwhelming majority of the electorate, because, hey, how can something so big be so broken if it still works so well, for me? As you said: They just want it better.) But to accept climate change — or capitalism — as fact buys you nothing, you're going to have to deal with the consequences. For New Orleans, it's already too late. Of course, you can decide to give up Miami as well, and I won't shed a tear for Mar-a-Lago, but when it comes to New York, you'll better come up with a plan, and you're going to face a number of very major engineering challenges. There are a couple of Dutch people on this list, I'm pretty sure they can tell you a thing or two about sea levels. And these are the first-world problems. There's a country named Syria. From 2007 to 2010, it experienced an unprecedented drought — directly attributable to human-induced rise of global temperatures — leading to a massive migration of the rural population. Did you follow that story? Want to guess how it played out? And that's just one random example. Do you know what the Indian government has proposed to combat climate change, specifically the extreme droughts — not new, just more severe, and impossible to manage with the instruments of market capitalism — that are already killing and displacing millions? Google it. Genocide by means of geoengineering. It's going to be a Giant Leap Forward. Meanwhile, the planet won't stop throwing its own forces at you. Nuclear reactor on a geological fault? Good luck!

And you're going to face similar, if not greater challenges with regards to the redistribution of wealth, unless you want to withdraw to a cynical position: that capitalism is going to last, that it's going to even things out, redeal the chips and reset some accounts, just the same way it always does when the problem becomes acute. The obvious answer is war. What would be some of the less obvious answers? How can we make the amazing increases in human productivity productive, instead of capturing them in the form of labor? How can what we produce become shared and renewable resources, rather than commodities that lie to us, and then break? How can we use human intelligence for intelligent purposes, not just to game a broken system? How can we make the accumulation of useless property as unattractive as it should be, reverse the privatization of public resources, and invent forms of public life that allow for other means of participation than just consumption?

One thing is certain: Brexit and Trump are going to significantly escalate the many processes of disintegration outlined above. The likelihood of catastrophic outcomes has risen sharply, but at the same time, new antagonisms are going to emerge, and they can escalate just as rapidly. When large structures fail, they fall quickly, and not always in the direction they appear to be leaning. Even the dumbest populace is composed of extremely smart individuals, who under duress often show the most phenomenal forms of collective intelligence, the exact opposite of what free market ideology assumes to be the natural instinct of the fittest to survive. And given that capitalism, at its very core, is a specific type of relation between people, a chain reaction in the realm of the personal — all that is unpolitical, unarticulated, unprepared, unconstructive — can make it unravel rather quickly. This has been demonstrated again and again, in practice, even if only on relatively small scales, and for relatively short periods.

Is this "magical thinking"? Along with the tradition of demonstrating that "capitalism cannot last", there is a another long thread in Western thought, from "It is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope" (Marx to Ruge) to "Where there is danger, there grows also what saves" (Hölderlin via Adorno), that claims that the crisis itself sets free the potiential that can surmount it. This can be ridiculed just as easily, as the situation keeps getting more and more desperate. You can argue that the very movement of dialectics is the residue of religion in Marxist thought, Christianity's triangulation turned downside-up, or that "what saves" is reterritorialization at work, that "hope" is fully contained within capitalism. But what if you're right? Once the permanent growth of "what saves" becomes unsustainable itself, once the spectacle of hope (its "audacity") comes to an end, once capitalism fails to even produce its own opposition, once there is — objectively, subjectively, collectively, individually, ecologically, economically — no future, we might see a real opening.