There is a quote, which Capitalist Realism author Mark Fisher attributes to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I will say that this is likely not a recent insight among leftist thinkers. Acute crises like the First World War, which involved countries with high numbers of left-wing intellectuals and political parties, very well saw the imperialist carnage of European nation-states in apocalyptic terms. Though these crises can create a revolutionary situations (the February and October Revolutions in Russia came amidst a long period of defeats on the frontlines), they may also make it seem more likely that the world will end than a definitive end to the capitalist era. The subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic, coming at the tail end of the war, killed more people than the war.
Most people, outside of infectious disease experts, who worry about the end of human society as we know it, probably thought until a few months ago that the existential crisis was climate change. And indeed, it still is in the long-ish term. But COVID-19, which is ravaging countries with the most developed healthcare systems in the world, and is beginning to affect the Global South with very limited resources, has taken end-times thinking from about a decade out to week-by-week. Under one projection, even U.S states that have enacted shelter-in-place are looking at aggregate casualties in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, depending on how strictly these advisories are imposed and the amount of assistance supplied by a generally oblivious federal government.
Climate change and COVID-19 have several important similarities. They both expose a general lack of intra-national and international cooperation in issues that ignore borders. Likely, by the end of this, poor countries will be the most vulnerable and the least likely to gain access to treatments discovered in the next year or two. Both reveal a critical lack of attention paid to infrastructure and creating excess capacity. And both have shown in the U.S the power of special interests to siphon of needed money for bailouts that are in large-scale firms largely crises of their own design (i.e spending most of their profits on stock buybacks rather than keeping cash on hand). I think some countries will learn valuable lessons that they will apply to combating climate change, but also that some countries are so deeply dysfunctional that they have both a lack of short-term and long-term planning when it comes to existential threats.
Lenin once wrote “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” COVID-19 has compressed decades of climate change damage into a couple of months. The end of feudalism occurred over several centuries, where the ancien regime of France fell in a couple of years. The question is whether the obstacles faced in confronting a pandemic will be used later on, or will we learn nothing from the tragedy.
Years ago, I wrote a post entitled “The bullshit economy“, reflecting on David Graeber’s superb essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” that ended up being a runaway success. By the time his full-length book Bullshit Jobs (2018) came out, a poll had already been conducted that a substantial portion of people in developed countries believed their work had no societal value at all. And though bullshit jobs have in media discourse focused on the bureaucracy and public sector, many people from the private sector reported useless levels of middle management, creation of reports nobody actually reads, and people who exist to duct-tape together something that doesn’t work but could probably be fixed if that was the actual goal, rather than maintaining the status quo.
The spread of COVID-19, which has now enveloped many developed countries, who, with huge amounts of international air travel and centralized urban societies and health systems, were always going to be the first to be slammed by a pandemic. Italy is the post child of how bad things are now, with Spain currently outpacing them in terms of the rate of increase in death rate. The United States is in waves reaching and going beyond the saturation point of its gutted hospitals. According to World Bank data, the US has, per 1,000 people, about a third the hospital beds it had in the 1960s:
The de-development of the US, wherein infrastructure is either destroyed deliberately (see, the auto industry buying and dismantling extensive and cheap electric streetcar systems in many cities) or through general neglect in the neoliberal era. The decrease in hospital beds, however, is astonishing not only for how much it digs into American Exceptionalism narratives, but also how it falls consistently even prior to the usual starting point of American neoliberalism in the Reagan era.
It is abundantly clear that the US will have the highest total deaths of any country, by an order of magnitude or more. The President wants to already roll back very inconsistent containment methods by Easter, in order to “restart the economy”. My state has still not adopted shelter-in-place, despite Boston being a major city with a large amount of imported cases and community transmission. It seems clear they will never receive federal assistance in going beyond current containment measures, let alone the medical supplies they need through the use of the Defense Production Act. The government, as most neoliberal governments in American and Western history, is basing their crisis response on handshake deals with large companies and promises of no-strings-attached bailout money.
I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned polling, a few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.
Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.
Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.
It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).
What does the future hold? The idea that the economy can be “restarted” while every hospital is flooded with sick and dying people, and people on the frontlines in healthcare and essential goods production get sick, is insane. There will be a recession, as long as the current range of workable proposals in Congress are where the imagination stops. The stock indexes, which were swollen from deregulation that made once-illegal stock buybacks driving share prices far beyond what assets and earnings a company actually has in meatspace. Bailout money without regulation will go to buybacks, which is just another version of bonuses given out by AIG and Goldman Sachs after the 2008 bailouts. But real-world growth, unemployment, etc. will spiral upwards. A contraction of over 20% of GDP is now being predicted this coming quarter, with Great Depression-levels of unemployment.
A select few elites will benefit, although largely being old men, they will be vulnerable to COVID-19 just like everyone else. A New England Journal of Medicine article on the inevitability of rationing PPE and medical care notes that wealth should not be a factor in testing and treatment, though it inevitably will be to some point. But nothing prevents the wealthy from having severe cases and dying, even if medical care was available. This is not Ebola, it is not confined to the developing (or “developing” but really gutted) countries. And the frontline employees who prepare your food and serve you don’t have paid sick leave and will transmit COVID-19 to others no matter what your bank account balance is.
So, how do we learn to address white fragility, white supremacy, and otherwise offensive and disruptive behavior within congregations? The congregational structure of Unitarian Universalism tends to wall off larger discussions- something upsetting happens in a congregation, it doesn’t travel far. It may end up elsewhere in the form of rumors, but those are not constructive. If a church has to deal with problematic behavior within its own community, an honest, instructive account of what happened is unlikely to appear. This limits the ability of communities to learn from one another, to develop best practices, and to effectively counter instances of white fragility and racially insensitive behavior.
There are many problems with simply publicizing events and providing a timeline of a disciplinary process, or the interactions between disruptive people and marginalized groups. It singles people out. It can re-traumatize and open up not-yet-healed wounds. It stands against principles of privacy and that things said in the confidence of a congregation is kept confidential.
So, is there a way through? I have something to propose.
The Ethnographic Approach
Ethnography is a research method used in multiple academic areas, primarily anthropology and sociology, alongside disciplines that emerged during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like ethnic studies.
Here’s a definition of ethnography that’s pretty good:
Ethnography, emerging from anthropology, and adopted by sociologists, is a qualitative methodology that lends itself to the study of the beliefs, social interactions, and behaviours of small societies, involving participation and observation over a period of time, and the interpretation of the data collected. (source)
Besides a general definition, ethnography as it is performed in developed nations has some best practices:
Information about places, persons, and unique features are anonymized to avoid negative impact and conduct research in an ethical way.
Notes, observations, and interviews are kept stored in standardized ways that limit access and make sure that anonymity is preserved.
An example of a highly-regarded modern ethnographic study is Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a MacArthur grant fellow, about how poor Milwaukee individuals and their families struggled to make rent, dealt with eviction and its consequences, and remained trapped in a cycle of poverty.
While there was great insight, and vivid observations within Evicted, names and places were changed to avoid retaliation from the people followed, in order to have them speak freely.
So, could ethnography be a way for congregations to learn from one another on how to deal with disruptive behavior, and become authentically anti-racist? Good ethnography is a skill to be learned, but it does hold the promise of helping describe how congregations addressed problems- whether formal or informal conflict-resolution measures were used, whether the problem was addressed at lower stages or had to be escalated, and the lasting impact upon the congregation.
Here’s an example of how a Unitarian Universalist ethnography could start:
During a recent winter, Green Hills UU Fellowship, a congregation in the suburbs of mid-sized Midwestern city, had a middle-aged couple (Jane and Joseph) who would use language found to be offensive during the “joys and sorrows” portion of Sunday service. They described conflicts they had with their neighbors, who were families of color, and invoked harmful stereotypes, while raising their voices in a way some felt alarming.
After an informal group of congregants attempted to resolve the issue with Jane and Joseph directly, it was decided that a meeting be held to discuss the Fellowship’s Covenant, and how Jane and Joseph’s actions did not constitute right relations . . .
Would this be helpful to other congregations? I’m not sure, I’ve only recently started going to my current congregation, and have lived in four different areas in five years. But by taking an ethnographic approach, stories of disruptive behavior could be shared with:
Congregations who have found their current policies lacking in some manner, and hope to draft new ones that are more effective.
Congregations currently experiencing a disruptive behavior situation, and wonder how other congregations have addressed it.
Ethnographic accounts could be drafted by lay leaders, perhaps trained at General Assembly or through virtual chat by those with experience. They could be housed at the UUA in a central location where they could be accessed by congregational request.
Would that help? I’m not sure. But I don’t want each congregation to start from scratch in their attempts to be authentically anti-racist and to counter white fragility, congregants using alt-right language, or other actions that target marginalized peoples.
We stand today a month removed from the 2019 UUA General Assembly, under the theme “The Power of We.” The tagline, and the Assembly content itself, has helped promote a discussion on what “we” within Unitarian Universalism means. From that, the logical next step is to discuss the not-we, the “they”. And in a dialectical fashion, with “we” the thesis and “they” the antithesis, “us” is the inevitable synthesis.
Or is it?
I attended a summer gathering in New England last Sunday, in which the topic was on the we-they-us trifecta. From the description, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction the sermon was going to take. Additionally, because the summer gatherings often had discussion segments, I didn’t know how the random mix of people who showed up that Sunday would interpret the title and topic.
Ultimately I was disheartened by what I heard from the individual leading the service. While in a recent post I dismissed the “generation gap” hypothesis explaining the tension within the current UU church, the content of the sermon clashed strongly with my political socialization, and the realities of America as it exists in 2019.
The address focused in part of the term “political tribalism.” This is an old concept, but it was revived by author Amy Chua in a new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua has a fairly lengthy, fairly controversial history- she authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,which ignited a national debate on high-expectation parenting and whether that had a negative effect on child development. More recently she was a leading voice arguing Brett Kavanaugh was a great leader of young women and carried water for him during the rape allegations that threatened his nomination to the US Supreme Court (her daughter was later rewarded with a Kavanaugh clerkship in a blatant and cynical quid pro quo). She authored a giant Atlantic feature to uncritically lay out her entire thesis of political partisanship tearing apart the constitutional system of American government.
I’m not going to devote this entire post to Chua, who I think is decent at historical analysis but pretty consistently wrong in her contemporary social commentary (for the record, I read her comparative historical book Day of Empirewhen I was a teenager and thought it was pretty good). The idea of “political tribalism” in the sermon was, from my perspective, a fundamentally misleading concept for a number of reasons. It’s also been taken pretty much at face value in the media. Let’s list three big problems:
The term has an imperialist mindset. “Tribalism” is used as a way to say our politics are more primitive, brutish, and violent than they were previously. Whether that is true or not isn’t the point in this case. Many communities exist as tribes today, they are not a historical stage of development. To suggest that tribes and “tribalism” (whatever that means) are primitive and inferior is both cultural erasure and pretty racist.
It’s a false equivalence. Dividing America into “left” and “right” tribes, or “red” and “blue”, or saying tribes fall under racial, ethnic, national, and gender lines is painting with a broad brush and saying all these “tribes” are short-sighted and destructive. Conflating the alt-right, who have murdered people in cold blood in places like Charlottesville and Christchurch, with the left, who in this period haven’t killed anyone, is misleading and indicates a politically useless centrism. It also treats ideological difference as little more than bickering, rather than a life-and-death struggle for universal health care, an end to the climate collapse, and justice for communities of color targeted by police violence.
Its logic is entirely backwards. The idea is that political partisanship is undermining the Constitution and the government that stems from it. This is both really obvious, but also misidentifies the problem. Partisanship is not what’s hurting society. It’s the Constitution. As I wrote in 2016, in “The pre-democratic American Constitution“, the Founder were fundamentally opposed to democracy and willfully ignorant that partisanship and political parties would arise around issues such as taxation, the extent of federal power, and most importantly, slavery. The Constitution has never been rewritten to establish America as a contemporary democracy, unlike every other modern country, developed or developing. Reducing partisanship is not only not going to happen, it’s not even going to solve the core problem.
The sermon then transitioned from political tribalism to reaching out to the “they”, creating dialogue with the other side. This means talking with “reasonable” Trump supporters, finding common ground, and using moral suasion to stop the racist Trump regime. The individual giving the sermon talked about regular discussions with a Trump-voting gym acquaintance, and how productive all their discussions have been.
Here’s a reality check: of all the potential options for 2020, this person is most likely voting for Trump again. 2020 will be a very high-mobilization election, this is very clear. Basically everyone who voted in 2016 is going to vote in 2020 as well- with the exception of those being disenfranchised by Republican state governments, the Trump-packed court system, and the Department of Justice. So, it’s not likely that this person abstains from voting for president. There’s a slight chance they vote third party instead of voting for Trump, but people who say they’re going to vote third party often end up voting for a major party candidate. So is this proud Trump voter really going to vote for a Democrat, even a centrist like Joe Biden? Let alone a progressive like Warren, or Sanders? To do that, they would have to like the Democrat more than they like Trump, and Trump has 90% approval among Republicans, which is as high if not higher than approval ratings by Republicans for previous GOP presidents.
Is it worth the time and effort to try to persuade one Trump voter to vote for the Democrat? Probably not.
Gene Sharp, in his influential pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, talks about four ways for a nonviolent resistance campaign to win- conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration. Here is the section where he discusses the probability that opposing forces will convert to the resistance’s side:
But it can be fairly applied to the one-on-one conversations we have with political opponents. Can Trump voters be converted? Maybe, a few? I was politically socialized starting around the beginning of the Iraq War, with the first phase ending with the election of Obama. The “bipartisan” period in American politics is dead, and has been for a long time. The parties are now, for the first time in a long while, if ever, ideologically coherent. There are no longer sectional differences, meaning liberal Northern Republicans and reactionary Southern Democrats. Trump has control of the Republican Party, and its voting base agrees with what he’s doing. They don’t want someone “moderate.” The party will not be taken back by Trump opponents, who are a tiny fraction of the party and politically irrelevant. People who think individual moral suasion is a viable political tactic want to go to a mythical past that, if it ever existed, hasn’t in my 29 years on this planet. The desperate need for “normalcy” is wanted, but there never was normalcy. Unless you were an upper-middle class professional white person, for whom the profound injustice and violence of the US political and legal systems do not reach you, except in documentaries and charity outreach.
Alternatives to Converting “Moderate” Trump Voters
Register a street to vote. Or a neighborhood. You have a lot of time to do it. Every hour you argue with an uncle or a tennis friend or whomever in your social lives voted for Trump, you could do something that a) affects more than one person, and b) uses energy to uplift marginalized communities
Fundraise and organize rides to the polls.
Phonebank for candidates and ballot issues.
Collect signature for popular ballot issues (like the minimum wage or legalized cannabis) which boost turnout.
All of these things are better uses of your time. It is not about reaching across and compromising with “they” to create “us.” Not everyone should be compromised with. The leader of the service suggested “not leading” with UU values like trans inclusion and marriage equality. To hide these issues in discussions is to treat them as, ultimately, political expendable. This election is about mobilizing and empowering the “we”, more than reconciling with “they.”
“They” need to be defeated politically. Their policies need to be repealed. The courts they packed need to be countered. The concentration camps need to be destroyed and their inhabitants freed. I don’t really care whether my uncle votes for Trump in 2020. Because I’m going to find people to cancel his vote out and then some. That’s the way forward.
It’s not clear what the legacy of Donald Trump’s presidency will be. A lot is contingent on whether he leaves in 2021 or 2025 (or maybe stays beyond that, who really knows). It could be his links with the fossil fuel industry during the key period to avoid climate catastrophe. It could be his disgusting personality and history of sexual harassment and violence. I don’t think it’ll be his potential links to Russia, but I may be wrong.
Right now, July 15, 2019, it’s clearly the concentration camps.
The debate of what to call these horrid human misery camps is tired. They are concentration camps, much like Japanese internment camps were, and the early Nazi-era camps that existed as eventual pipelines shuttling people to death camps. The term is over a century old, and historians nearly-universally see the term as being used fairly like people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
So with that being established, what are we obligated to do about them? The liberal response, which is focused on symbolic protest and use of electoral politics is, to me, fundamentally flawed. Mass symbolic protests like the Women’s March have had no long-term effect on Trump administration policy. Electoral victories in Congress did not yield a solution, as Nancy Pelosi gave a blank check to the administration to create more camps (or, more likely, keep the camps as-is and increase enforcement and apprehension, creating further crowding and misery). The Democratic Party is hopelessly divided on what to do about the border, with many having bought into the idea that there is a non-manufactured ‘border crisis’ with record unlawful crossings. The truth is more about clogged immigration courts, performative cruelty by the administration as a deterrent to crossing the border, and wasting taxpayer money sending soldiers to the border to do nothing in the heat.
Not to say that there are not urgent crises in countries that produce a large number of migrants. The Obama administration’s support for a coup in Honduras that entrenched military rule, corruption, and gang power, which he nor Hillary Clinton were ever held meaningfully accountable for, has had a domino effect on the region. Mass migration, including unaccompanied minors, rose sharply during the latter half of Obama’s administration. The crisis is a mixture of interventionist, illegal foreign policy and purposefully cruel domestic priorities. The end result is a humanitarian nightmare.
So what do we do? While Donald Trump certainly flirts with fascist ideas, there is certainly more space to plan resistance than existed in 1930s and 1940s Germany and Italy. ICE is used to targeting individuals and small groups with the element of surprise- they rely on heavily-armed police to deal with actions like the Portland ICE occupation. There are certainly mainstream actions that can be taken to deal with these injustices. Winning district attorney and mayoral races with progressive candidates that firmly (actually) refuse to cooperate with federal immigration is important. ICE depends strongly on the consent and active assistance of state and local law enforcement- if such support is removed, the house of cards is revealed. Further occupations of ICE buildings, the homes of senior officials, and contractors that do business with the agency could be effective- assuming activists have a clear strategy for victory and do not fall into lifestyle activism like occupation camps have often been criticized for becoming going back to Occupy Wall Street and before.
But will history be satisfied with that? Are future generations going to be okay with “I voted” and “I went to a vigil”? Would we be satisfied with that in any prior period with concentration camps? Are we willing to live with hypocrisy?
With that said, let’s talk about de-arresting.
De-arresting has two distinct meanings. One is when one is released from arrest without certain information being filed. The other, which I’ll be referring to, is a form of direct action where a person or persons who have been detained or arrested are freed by protestors using various methods, including force. Given the high amount of illegal arrests at events like the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, it can be said that de-arresting can be justified, assuming we do not start from a position that the only legitimate power is state power, and that law enforcement officers (and prison guards, ICE officials, federal agents, Border Patrol, etc.) are always justified in the actions they take. This is uncomfortable territory for the political center and mainstream, even if they strongly disagree with mass arrests, deportations, child separations, and concentration camps. This is the electoral-direct action divide. Plenty of people have one foot in each camp, but many refuse to cross it. The reasons are complicated- they include personal sympathy with law enforcement (“my brother is a police officer!”), class interest, internalized bigotry, and simple lack of initiative.
Let’s also say that de-arresting is not strictly about the use of force. In Gene Sharp’s 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, which has been used in the color revolutions across Europe and the Caucuses, the Arab Spring, and in the Hong Kong democracy movement, among many others, we see ostensibly nonviolent means that still support actions like de-arresting, given certain circumstances. I’ll bold some I think are particularly relevant:
66. Total personal noncooperation 67. “Flight” of workers 68. Sanctuary 69. Collective disappearance
139. Noncooperation with conscription and deportation 140. Hiding, escape, and false identities 141. Civil disobedience of “illegitimate” laws
143. Blocking of lines of command and information
144. Stalling and obstruction
145. General administrative noncooperation
175. Overloading of facilities
196. Civil disobedience of “neutral” laws 197. Work-on without collaboration 198. Dual sovereignty and parallel government
183. Nonviolent land seizure
Now, in the streets, when a migrant is being detained by ICE, or held in a concentration camp, or separated from their children, the lines between “nonviolence” and “force” blur a lot. What if a police officer charges you with a baton? Do you resist or not? If an officer is dragging someone towards a car, is it violent or nonviolent to distract or intimidate them into letting them go, or pursuing you instead? It’s why principled pacifism has problematic aspects. I still believe nonviolence has clear advantages- there are clear problems with the actions of anarchist Willem Van Spronsen and his “propaganda of the deed”. These things are best done in massive groups, in which soldiers or police are outnumbered heavily. The more people there are, the less likely authority figures will risk using force, lest they lose control of the situation entirely. There is a long history of mass occupations and civil disobedience, including the mutiny of soldiers- such as the 1986 Peoples’ Power Revolution in the Philippines, and the retreat of riot police from the federal building in the 2000 Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia, leading to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević. These were mass movements, broad coalitions ranging from the mainstream to hardened activists, to the authorities themselves. Their united actions and planning exposed rifts within the ruling class, which were then isolated and dismantled piece by piece, like the storming of the Bastille 230 years ago yesterday.
The situation is fairly straightforward. Thousands of people are in concentration camps where they don’t belong. Their conditions are horrific. Children are separated from parents, sometimes to be adopted by American families without parental consent. We have to get them out. They have been arrested and detained, but their ‘crimes’ are unjust for any level of imprisonment. They are held and dehumanized as an act of pure cruelty, just like the Boers in South Africa, the Roma, Communists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals across Europe by Germany, and the Japanese in the United States and Canada.
They need to be de-arrested. The camps must be dismantled. Their leaders need to be tried and convicted of their crimes. How does one do that? You can gather a dedicated coalition and use raw numbers to do the job. You can try to fight the soldiers, police, and agents- though that is the terrain they are most comfortable with, and regular people are least comfortable. You can wait until 2020 and hope Donald Trump loses a partially-rigged election and relinquishes authority. And hope a Democratic president doesn’t maintain such terrible detention facilities.
There are multiple paths, with one goal. Which way will it be?
A bit over three years ago, I published “Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements” on this site, the day of the Iowa caucuses. It represented my evolving view of the Democratic Party, as I went from a 2008 Obama campaign volunteer to a 2011 Occupy activist, to a 2014 member of a Marxist organization most known for electing a socialist as a socialist, outside the two party hegemony. I decided to revisit the post and see how my analysis panned out, given what we know about the 2016 primaries, and the development of a social democratic/democratic socialist presence within the Democratic Party that has never been as loud and disruptive to entrenched party power.
To begin with, here’s a quote I pulled for the article by Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History:
The 2016 primaries came in a markedly different economic and social period than the 2008 election. Democrats benefitted greatly from the Bush administration’s quagmire in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and the swift economic collapse that began in earnest about three years before Election Day, and rapidly intensified during the party primaries and the general election campaign.
By 2015, when candidates were announcing for the election the following year, there had been eight years of President Barack Obama. His ultimate legacy is difficult to pin down- it’s too early, and he benefits from being sandwiched between two historically terrible presidents. But while there was at some level an economic recovery- unemployment dropped steadily through his entire presidency- there were still severe and systemic problems.
Job recovery was largely part-time, contract, and freelance work with lower pay and benefits than the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession. Deindustrialization and the loss of blue-collar (and often unionized) jobs continued. Urban areas continued to feel the effects of Clinton-era welfare reform that made people ‘time-out’ of benefits, or never be able to get them in the first place. And while the ACA did improve coverage for some and reduce the overall uninsured rate, it failed to achieve price stability or affordable, usable insurance for those that could only afford the low-level plans. Deportations skyrocketed, despite Bush still being seen as the anti-immigrant president. Obama never withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the same violent stalemate that defined his predecessor, and indeed the post-9/11 era as a whole. Drone warfare was escalated in several countries, particularly Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The response to the crisis by the Democrats was neoliberalism with a human face- progressive rhetoric masking a policy package marked by cuts and anti-labor practices. Into this void stepped Donald Trump, who made promises that this would all go away- the legacy of Obama would be swept away, the jobs would come back, and everything would return to some vague past encapsulated in “Make America Great Again.”
Returning to the article:
This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.
Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.
This still holds true. The Party leadership remains firmly against the social democratic programs Sanders advocated for, even as more Democratic politicians (and even more so, the party base at large) embraces them, at least in form if not in substance. Sanders in the 2020 race will still have to contend with low levels of prominent party endorsements, and a leadership that aims to stymie his political programs. We can see this in Nancy Pelosi’s attitude to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. No matter what polling says, Sanders will never be a frontrunner in the classical sense. The party leadership will not rally around him now, and there is a non-zero chance they will never do so. The spectre of a moderate Michael Bloomberg or Howard Schultz torpedoing Sanders in the general election remains real. Finance capital has made it clear what the acceptable spectrum of candidates. Sanders (and possibly Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard) are not in that range, and they will face an uphill climb the whole way unless they capitulate.
Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.
The 2016 primaries definitely did see that many people were willing to vote for an independent in the Democratic primary. But the establishment in the media and among party loyalists still do not trust him- and they will use this as a cudgel when possible. That the question of party affiliation came up in the CNN town hall (which, given how it was stacked with party officials and lobbyists, represented what will become standard among attacks on Sanders’ program and character) indicates it remains unresolved.
If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.
This is the meat of the thing. Anecdotally, the Sanders supports I know have made strides in becoming party delegates and influencing (or outright taking over) local and state party committees. However, there are still hard limits that have not been overcome. The DNC core is still much like it was in 2016. There was no Bernie-esque left challenge to Nancy Pelosi, despite her great power and opposition to most social democratic programs. And while more modest ballot referendums on the minimum wage and marijuana legalization have fared well, the ones that Sanders and his supporters invested the most time into, like Proposition 61 in California (2016) and Issue 2 in Ohio (2017) that aimed to control prescription drug prices, and Proposition 10 in California (2018) on rent control, failed. In the latter two, quite badly. If the progressive left of the Democratic Party wants things that can be reconciled with capital (like marijuana legalization), they will find a relatively easy path. If their policy goals directly cut into profits, look only at the $100,000,000+ spent by industry on the two California propositions.
Inertia should always be considered:
The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals.
The Sanders insurrection, and the new figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that continue the spirit, are not trying to take the party back to some sort of mythic progressive past. They lionize the New Deal, but the New Deal was an attempt to stymie further radicalism. It was a compromise with capital that has since been mostly reversed. A true social democratic (or, gasp, democratic socialist) Democratic Party would be a heretofore-unseen force in American politics. It would be by far the biggest shift in American politics since the Civil Right Movement.
It would. But will it?
Can Bernie Sanders end up President, and not in the graveyard of social movements?
With the decline of organized religion in western societies, beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but continuing into the twenty-first century, many practices and ideologies emerged to take its place as the guiding institution- both entwined with and autonomous of the state. The nineteenth century saw the rise of romantic nationalism, which motivated social action and conflict much like the religious wars of previous eras.
Encompassing nationalism, but more varied, is civic (or civil) religion. The concept, originating with Rousseau, is that a new, unifying and exalted force takes the place of the church, with its own myths and sacred figures and texts that function in a similar fashion.
Civic religion is highly developed in the United States, and instantly recognizable, even to those who were not born here and did not experience American socialization. From the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion:
Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.
In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place.
Civic religion saturates the political and social mainstream of American society. Both political parties invoke the Founding Fathers, treat texts like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence much as prior societies did the Bible. The difference is in interpretation and emphasis- whether the American myths and legacy are compatible with a diverse and multicultural population. Though President Trump’s refrain of ‘America First’ is rightly seen as historically tied to intolerance and fascist ideology, exalting America as above all else, either the material nation or the abstract idea of America, is not particularly controversial. Even those that support multilateralism and international cooperation are often fiercely patriotic, and appeal to the civic canon to justify their decisions.
What is civic atheism?
As far as I can tell, nobody has ever discussed the idea of civic atheism, and given it a definition. Similar ideas exist- it is implicit in socialist internationalism, for instance- but I feel it is best to use the term as a contrast to civic religion. If there is religion, if there is a sacred and holy, there is its opposite, a negation.
Civic atheism is defined as: a worldview that rejects the mythology of the state, the primacy of its core figures and texts, and exceptional narratives as irrational or otherwise indefensible.
Why civic atheism?
Civic religion is ahistorical. It creates myths and rearranges history to glorify the nation and the state. Acceptance of, and participation in, civic religion is predicated on overlooking social problems and injustice when it doesn’t ‘fit the narrative’.
Principles of American civic religion have problematic ethical and moral implications. The ‘American dream’ (‘a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful’ [Merriam Webster]) can interfere with empathy, as it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and failure is a shortcoming explained by individual factors. Belief in meritocracy is not fair to the less advantaged. Civic religion has a lack of understanding of both power structures and intersectionality.
Civic religion is the foundation of xenophobic nationalism and is used to marshal support for unjust wars. How often was the flag used to rally support for the invasion of Iraq, despite a complete lack of evidence that the country was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or could be occupied without massive consequences?
Civic religion is the true inheritor of the established churches- it also inherits the same fundamental issues from dogmatic religion.
Groups that try to tell a different story of America- the indigenous tribes that lived here long before, and live here today; the black community with its history of slavery and discrimination that predates the founding of the country; the immigrant communities from all over the world who are told to accept civic religion in order to be accepted, no matter its wisdom. It is fine to be a civic atheist, and have a cultural system that does not exist to bolster the state. It may be the healthiest way forward, in the light of profound and systemic social problems.