Could anyone have predicted this would happen? Is anyone using this event for their own advantage?
It’s odd how in times of genuine crisis people begin to ask the most speculative questions when those same questions are derided as paranoia during periods of relative calm. Millions of people worldwide have been isolated for months, told that halting income generated work and trade to its barest “essentials” (don’t even get me started) was the only way to prevent mass death. Then a horrendous murder is shown on video and out comes all of the anger, the guilt, the rejection of hopelessness onto the streets of cities all across the US. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best, narrowing down all of the scenarios for “how this will play out” along the common party lines of who will win and lose election capital or taking sides with ‘non-violence’ or violence or saying “pro” or “con”. Sticking to the tried and true can create a certain sort of clarity that calms the nerves and straightens thinking. Other times wild speculations offer extreme scenarios that serve as giant blaring signs in bold red letters: DANGER do not let this happen! or ONWARD to liberation!
There is a great deal at stake in the year 2020. It’s an election year and some primary states have cancelled there elections due to the Covid-19 virus. A candidate who was promising a fresh start looked like a winner, offering a path out of global climate catastrophe with a large base of young excited newcomers to the American political machine. What’s left is yet another old choice between two career’s worth of evil and and spooky action at a distance coming to grips with its own diminished power. 2020 was always going to be a true year of decision, a crisis in the original sense, and those collective decisions and accidents leading up to it have suddenly pierced themselves onto a a grand stage – with a powder keg sitting underneath.
Police murder, its persistence and immorality, has been made visible and widely discussed for years now. The slogan Black Lives Matter struck a cord that never stopped being played but perhaps reduced a few octaves and became part of the background. The need for criminal justice reform accountability for the selective use of force across black and minority neighborhoods was never resolved. It’s both unjustifiable and craven that a society could be governed this way and flashpoints of anger and resistance are not only predictable but easily justified in themselves. Moments of outburst don’t just relieve pent up pressure but create pressure on the outside that could could change the state of affairs for the better, it creates leverage that otherwise was missing to reach those within the halls of power to change these conditions. Across the spectrum of society people have come to remember this. There is major support for not just the airing of these grievances but the forceful enacting of vengeance that could place extra weight on the levers of power.
All of this being said, the hazy cloud asserts itself and speculation wanders in like the sound of two footsteps without even a silhouette to make out. One need not have a pre-set plan in order to take advantage of a chaotic situation for ulterior motives. All that is required is for likeminded individuals to come together, assess the situation, and make a decision on a plan of action. Due to the stimulation offered by speculation, conspiracy theories tend to expand into grand designs that imbue awesome powers to shady individuals. Much less exciting yet also much more illuminating is coming to an understanding of the methods and abilities that those with real authority possess, how those methods and abilities developed historically in response to previous dilemmas, and what forces are currently at play during the real time of the event. I can’t possibly do all of that here.
Surveying the political landscape in America in the first half of the year 2020 one thing stands out the most to me: there is an overriding feeling that the populations attention-span is sharply reduced. The consensus of various groups denominated by common names (liberals, conservatives, socialists, millennials, boomers, progressives, elites, the working class, blacks, whites, and much more) can flip at a moment’s notice. Just two weeks prior to the massive Black Lives Matter uproar the consensus countrywide was that simply going outside your house was dangerous and gathering in large crowds worse. Now over 1,200 number of health officials [link] and pundits on tv are registering their support for mass protests of resistance as a kind of moral imperative to change society for the better. We were told that black people in particular are more susceptible to the Covid-19 virus and should take extra care in preventing the spread amongst them – a sad commentary on the relative health conditions across racial demographics in this country. While seeing such passionate expression and radical action take place in the name of righting something so clearly wrong, another side of me fears a resurgent outbreak amongst black people especially due to the large scale of the protests.
Was the health risk of the Covid-19 virus never all that serious to begin with? Or is it still just as dangerous as before but the compulsion to protest and riot more beneficial than the risk of death? Perhaps one form of death is superseded by fears of an authoritarian state in the future, or those slow death of lives considered by the state expendable. Was this virus unleashed on all of us in some geopolitical fear-inducing machination to produce a desired outcome? These speculations will be brought up whether I write them down or not.
In spite of a common understanding of what’s so clearly wrong, we cannot forget that months of anxiety and anticipation preceded this moment. Now we’re in a situation in flux that brings with it an increased potential in both individual and collective action. A chaotic situation allows for an increase in our powers of acting. The influence of these marches and confrontations is palpable. The expanded time of waiting for an end became condensed into a fierce Now. Time begins to resemble Kairos rather than Cronos.
The impulse towards speculation is not a phenomenon that has escaped those with power, even if it can challenge them and even create new narratives with which to challenge the old. Just take the example of corporate media and politicians that “outside agitators” are responsible for the destruction – debunked almost immediately, a lazy response really. Or Susan Rice claiming without any evidence that Russia is stoking the flames of the protests by ‘sowing discord’ within The Great and Unified States of America again. A ludicrous speculation on the face of it, this narrative has been repeated for nearly 4 years now to great success. [link] Whether any substantial number of people actually believe this true, even if they believe Russia somehow invalidated the 2016 election by their interference, I don’t know. What it demonstrates is that those in powerful positions within the Democratic Part believe they can control the imaginations of large chunks of the population by tirelessly covering stories about it, like Fox news does all the time. The big shock of Donald Trump’s upset victory provided the opportunity to let the speculation spaceship hit light speed. The fact that major media outlets can present these stories for so long and face no accountability when the narrative comes crashing and burning back down to earth attests to their power above all.
Another related observation is the avoidance of reasoned debate across the media landscape and the reliance on passionate appeals. I am hardly the first person to notice this but there is little in the form of moderated debate between opposing viewpoints that does not dissolve into aspiring egos talking over each other to gain the center stage. Contending political or philosophical affiliations mostly talk past each other so as to score points within their respective insular teams. News media begins to resemble regional sports channels and ESPN starts to look like political broadcasting, as Matt Taibbi has pointed out. It’s remarkable that it took a press conference by an NBA player to wake up America to the threat of the virus. When Slavic Zizek debates Jordan Peterson some years ago it provided a great boon to the large parts of the world that hadn’t already settled somewhere in the political center of the so-called ideological spectrum. Both participants had the opportunity to elaborate on their beliefs and counter each other’s with an adequate time frame to fully flesh them out. Zizek out-classed Peterson (ahem) and Peterson’s influence has waned since. Point scoring has returned here revealing my own left bias but the real point of the matter is that arguments were given the space they demand, the audience was allowed to think. From that point on (so many points, I’m running up the score) they will have a better chance to think beyond their respective bubbles and speculate more deliberatively. This goes for both the left and the right.
On another positive note, The Hill’s Rising hosted by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti has taken the news broadcasting formula and infused a populist spin on contemporary events. It heartens me to see two news reporters openly deride corporate media’s conformity to scripted talking points and even debate against themselves occasionally. They found a niche in news coverage of US politics that openly embraced the popularity of Bernie Sanders, filling in the void created by corporate neglect. In the rioting after George Floyd’s murder they disagree about how to respond to the social unrest but respect each other enough to allow one another to elaborate on their opinions. [link]
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. For all of the fear and uncertainty typically brought along with widespread rioting and police crackdowns, a large majority of Americans seem to approve of the aggressive response to the disrespect some police show for black lives. [need link] no polls are perfect and as I’ve already mentioned people’s attention spans have been narrowed down considerably, meaning opinions can change drastically with the latest images and reports of the day. But it is unquestionable that despite the conditions of a pandemic a broad nationwide consensus has suddenly and explosively formed that major reform to the way this country is policed is needed. Not only that, rioting is more tolerated as an appropriate method for if not achieving it alone then spurring it on. Violence and generalized civil unrest are often signals for a new consensus or even a new order of government itself coming to the fore. They are the birth pangs of the emergence of a new world, to assume lofty rhetoric for a moment. The thrust of the war machine is to continue onwards indefinitely. The sheer joy of acting and forging bonds in collective struggle has a centrifugal force to it. It gives the feeling that everything performed in society can be done by ‘us’ and without ‘them’. By coming together and sustaining the needs of the actors engaged in the struggle a visceral feeling that ‘we can do this all by ourselves’ begins to spread and the people ‘self-organize’. [link] This is not a mere recent phenomenon but can be seen wherever revolutionary moments spring up from the French Revolution onwards. The act of continued gathering promotes an intensification of relationships and the undeniable presence of the mass as a common affect. One’s beliefs suddenly carry a heavier weight than before. I know the feeling.
Though everything feels new again this is hardly a novel phenomenon. I sped through this last section because the more crucial topic involves ends and solutions – where is this all going? The war machine is hard to turn off once the engine gets fired up, there’s no ‘off switch’. But does not a generalized revolt require a great deal of energy to sustain it? Another speculation that can’t be ignored: this all might just fizzle out. It’s every bit as possible that reform is confronted by intransigence and the police reassert their legitimacy in the eyes of enough of the public. In any case one must consider the ends for which they act eventually. It would be much easier than trying to keep adding fuel to the fire if individuals rose to prominence to crystallize the movement/moment into a set of demands to be swiftly passed by congress into law. This is already happening I’m sure so the task of individual voices engaged in the struggle, those which the most at stake, to deliberate sincerely on what goals would satisfy them. Progress must be shown to be advancing and mass incarceration regressing, police murder regressing, the racial disparity in poverty decreasing. If this fails to be shown then the link between meaningful action by citizens in a democratic society will continue to be stretched thin and violence even worse than we have seen thus far will become normalized. Due to the speedily shifting nature of contemporary public opinion the support for such actions might not hold. This could lead us down the dark hole of impotent mass actions and authoritarian response, the link severed. On the other hand, one could take this for an urgency to strike while the iron is hot get some tangible wins.
In the days following the night-looting and surprisingly large property destruction president Trump has openly mused on deploying the military to restore “law and order” on the streets of American cities, meaning the military turning its vast array of deadly weapons on its own people. This has been done before and the republic was not lost but a majority of black Americans would continue to feel the pain of a cycle of repression, poverty diminished health, the drug war, and over-policing. [link] Following the general course of the war machine and spending all efforts to increase its power, its longevity, risks an escalation by a counter war machine that not only can’t be sustained but might even be asked for by a majority seeking to regain a sense of normalcy to their lives. Mass rioting and confrontation with the police not only has the moral high ground at the moment but it seems to be the only effective way to bring attention to the problem. It’s hard to argue with a tactic that has shown such great returns. But once more, public opinion manipulation is a hell of a drug. This is the fragile balance that comes along with a revolutionary moment.
The resort to revolutionary rhetoric has been very much on the table in recent years too. Bernie Sanders named his inter-election years organization ‘Our Revolution’ and promised his youth base the world. With his loss (and I’m not sure it really was a loss [link]) came a sudden pandemic that forced everyone inside, bottling up all of that frustration and dejection. Adding salt to the wounds the bailouts that came as a result of the economic lockdown have been described as the 2008 bailouts on steroids. The federal reserve has taken not just banks but the entire corporate sector under its very large wing, aiming its monetary “cannon” at the richest corporations and their bondholders. Daily news from Dave Dayen at The American Prospect in his series ‘Unsanitized’ has shed much light on the scope and details of the monumental corruption involved between Washington and Wall St. [link] At the beginning of 2020 it looked as though we might get socialism for everybody but a few weeks of panic and it’s back to socialism for the rich.
It might be too intrusive to attempt piggy-backing in Black Lives Matter protests with financial and monetary reform and I don’t think Bernie Sanders has the heart for it (or the spine) but I haven’t forgotten how forcefully Cornel West latched onto the Occupy Wall St movement. Instead of going on CNN and proclaiming America to be a failed social experiment [link], a striking thing to hear from a man who champions American Pragmatism and John Dewey, he could be the bridge to profound reform. To deploy religious rhetoric and provide nothing but fire and brimstone well… them be fightin words.
One fact I’ve always kept in my pocket after I read it is that as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, bailouts, and foreclosure spike is that half of all wealth in black america was lost. For wealth among latin americans it was worse. Most american household wealth is, well, held in their house. If large corporations never have to worry about going bankrupt and can issue as many bonds as they like with the fed always there to pick up the tab then the real economy will continue to slide further and further away from the centers of wealth creation. When banking giants giants can swoop up houses and foreclose for profit [link], with full backing from the Fed, there is a direct relationship between impoverishment and violence upon black neighborhoods. The squeeze being put on the majority of Americans, if not fundamentally addressed, will only lead to an escalation of the cycle of pain, exhaustion, pauperism, anxiety, and revolt. That’s not even good policy from a statesman’s point of view.
I’ve grown fond of listening to old-hat type Marxists rueing the loss of a disciplined party-building spirit. Though I disagree with the theoretical elements of Marx’s communism and it’s Hegelian logic, one cannot deny their keen understanding of the realistic forces pressing and pulling people’s and nations. Douglass Lain has done a fine job on his podcast for Zero Books at uncovering the history of such movements and the ideas they spawned. One can hear other calls for the practical/realist work of building a new coalition for a new party in other podcasts like Chapo Trap House and True Anon. The problem with this approach (besides probably being too late) is communism or socialism of Hegel’s children is built on a faulty edifice and from a bygone era. These are the people (or at least a sizable portion of them) who would jump at the chance to seize power in moments like these and attempt to overthrow the government by force of arms. Such an outcome would probably mean civil war within the most powerful nation in earth’s history, resulting in supply chain breakdown, a worldwide conflagration, and the general loss of civil society – possibly for years. It’s true that a desire for a good, less cruel society must tether itself to a quest for power. The apparently speculative question of what you will do when you achieve that power and remove all constraints is the reason why one must take seriously the ends and not just the means, a telos and not just a strategy. I for one am not convinced that a classless society would function, even if I admire the wedding of realism and idealism coming from the left.
That civil war scenario is just fearful speculation too I admit. I’m happy to give expression to the impulse of speculation both good and bad. In the worst case scenario of persistent civil unrest, we get military occupation of major US cities and an indefinite suspension of elections. On the flip side this could be just the opportunity that intelligence agencies have been looking for to remove Trump from office in a coup of disgrace. Make no mistake, they have been trying. Just look at where these Russiagate story sources come from. Letting CIA officials pick and choose who is allowed to hold office is not a desirable state of affairs. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the US government is losing control of the military, an affront to the crucial pillar of civilian rule. A democratic republic must have the people and their representatives ruling the military and not the other way around. This isn’t to scare people into getting off the streets. What’s needed is some form of coalescing around some realistic proposals in the short term because no war machine can sustain itself long enough to be a match for the counter war machine of the US military. Not unless a much greater chunk of the population is brought together to risk their lives than the coalition Bernie Sanders brought together.
But to turn the perspective around, to prevent such large scale revolts from bringing us to this point the true burden falls on our elected officials having the courage to make great reforms to law enforcement, foreign policy, and financial institutions. It’s time our government take that “money cannon” and point it at the 99% before they get anymore ideas about pointing other types of cannons at us.