Saturday, October 30, 2010

An essay on Organizing, Hope, and Fear after the 2004 election

This was written after the 2004 elections, in response to an article about Hope written by the anarchist philosopher Todd May.  It never got beyond this draft stage.  I thought I would put it up as a kind of historical document of a point in my political thinking.  There are a number of points that I still hold to, but I wouldn't sign on to the entire document at this point.  I'm open to discussing the problems if anyone is interested in the conversation.  I would also like to note that the interpretation of Levinas is Mbembe's and there are some fairly good critiques of Levinas, most notably in Judith Butler's work, particularly her Giving an Account of Oneself.

For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars
--Billy Bragg

      The initial discussion about the Bush victory in the recent elections focused initially on the ‘values voter.’ The mythology surrounding this figure posits a victory obtained through Karl Rove’s Machiavellian recognition of the voting bloc, and exploitation of it through certain well thought out ballot initiatives. This discussion also produced a brief flurry of articles by a number of authors on the left, only to be dropped for a discussion of vote counting, and conflicting accounts of vote suppression. Without denigrating the importance of the latter discussion, I am interested in returning to the conversation around the “faith based voter.” I am interested in entering this discussion as a way of looking critically at its structures, and as a way of pushing that stillborn conversation towards a critique of progressive activism, and a call for a new direction in some of that activism.
      To look at some of the initial discussion of the ‘faith based voter’, three terms were most prevalent. They were “fear”, “ignorance”, and “superstition.” All of these terms tend to link back to a certain secularist project and present the danger present in these terms in a more state based religious fundamentalism. After all, as hinted at above, one of the most successful methods of getting out the vote for the right was associated with the anti-gay marriage initiatives that were peppered across the states, and the President’s frequent and oblique references to religious text. Also the administration has increasingly filled its functionary positions with individuals who are involved in what might be termed a sort of ‘political Christianity.’
      This fact is recognized in some of the more rigorous formulations of these thoughts on the “faith based voter.” The best example is perhaps Todd May’s short article “Religion, the Election and the Politics of Fear.” In it he argues, “the religious character of these people is characterized by constant fear of the 'Other' that is perpetually seeking to infiltrate, seduce, and ultimately destroy the minds and lives of good Christians.” May pushes this formulation farther linking it with the foreign ‘other.’ The term in fact circulates with the others, reinforcing them and exchanging itself with them.
      Ultimately May is caught within the same fetishization of a certain type of Christianity, but the question brings to bear within that admittedly limited perspective, the question of the other seems to be the crucial one. The terms that are chosen by the commentators of this phenomenon, namely fear and superstition, seem to be good terms for understanding what is going on. However, we need to disconnect them from an exclusively religious context. Although more than a few examples of fear and superstition can be connected to religion, there are just as many that don’t work within this context. Xenophobia is in many ways a significant engine of U.S. society, and one that cannot be reduced to religion.
      This trace of xenophobia gestures to a particular way of relating to a perceived outside, and transfers that structure on to the 'Other' as well. We can see this in the perception of both the foreign other as well the internal counterpart. The 'Other' becomes an ideological potent term, circulating not only in the discourse of the threat to the Family, but in racial profiling of Arabs and terror level alerts as well. This figure of the 'Other' gains its power through its ambiguity as the welfare mother morphs into the mullah who manages to transform himself into the homosexual seducer of our youth. All in defense of the structures of dominance in the society at large.
      In presenting this fear in the context of an exoticized religious subject misses an essential element, an element that cuts across the boundaries of the secular and the religious, a certain superstitious fear of the ‘other.’ The most obvious trope that can be brought into play is of course the disastrous events of September 11, 2001. This event brought the United States out of its sheltered position and put it into the modes of insecurity that the rest of the world had been experiencing for some time. This is not a minor occurrence. It points to the declining hegemony, and perhaps even dominance, of U.S. power on a global stage. This throws its citizens into the quandary of rethinking their relationship with the rest of the world in new terms.
      In truth, it must be said that this fear has been on the world stage for some time. Slavoj Zizek may have not been diplomatic when he said that September 11th could have allowed the United States to join the rest of the world, but he was by in larger correct. The United States has been increasingly important in the defense of global capital since the World War I, and has been the dominant power since World War II. Under its gaze, capital has managed to perfect its domination in ways that were previously unimaginable. This domination has been enabled by the military of the United States in the last instance. This system of domination is enabled by a circulation, an economy if you will, of fear. This fear becomes even more magnified as the logic of the system begins to collapse. In these cases, those who have benefited from domination fear that the newly liberated will treat them in the same manner of brutality that was inflicted upon them. It is something that cannot be simply solved through a judicious return to an old-fashioned secularism.
      We need to understand that this structure is not one that has benefited the United States citizenry uniformly. Quite to the contrary, the same system has had a dramatic impact on large sections of the U.S. population, particularly after Fordism begins to collapse in 1968. But U.S. ideology has encouraged a strong sense of identification with those who benefit from the logic of exploitation. Instead the strong resentment that is felt by a large portion of the population has been strongly displaced on any number of figures of the 'Other', the class struggle has transformed into a fear and hatred of the stranger.
       The counterweight that Todd May and many others give is that of hope. I have two basic critiques of this notion. The first is contained in the word ‘hope.’ Hope is not the opposite of fear as these commentators suggest in either structure or intensity instead, hope is as Spinoza points out, a fluctuation between fear and joy. It is in fact a somewhat amorphous affect, one that already has one foot in fear. One has to ask the question if what these commentators are proposing is something that flits away all too quickly in the time of threat, whether real or imagined.
       If we return to Spinoza, the proper opposition to fear is joy. Joy is defined in Spinoza’s terms as the strengthening of one’s capacities, within a communal setting it would be related to the strengthening of the capacities of the community. The difference between hope and joy is not a merely semantic one, but is the difference between the possibility of a different way of engaging with others and its concrete manifestation. A more concrete way of saying this is contained in a comment by the British organization Class War when they noted the need for redistribution of wealth in the here and now, and not in some visionary, socialist future. Similarly, we need to produce a community founded in joy, which I think is best defined by the term mutual aid, in the here and now.
      But even more significantly, it ignores the fact that the reactionary community is not merely organized on the principle of fear, instead it organizes a community on homogenous principle as a fortress against the feared outside. To think through this we need to return to the question of the church, albeit with different inflections than the commentators above, and it should be noted a very specific church. In a very excellent article briefly after the elections, Barbara Ehrenreich noted that one of her informants made the comment that when entering a town in need the first place one should go is the church. The steady destruction of redistributive programs on the part of the society as a whole in the form of welfare, education, etc. has made a vacuum for these functions. The Bush administration has pushed this even farther with his “faith based initiatives” placing these functions not only in the hands of religion, but a mode of religion that accepts the basic suppositions that are essential to the survival of the Bush administration.
       In this context, the hope offered by a progressive community seems like a very vague and ephemeral thing. “What is the alternative?” the taunt that haunts so very many demonstrations comes to mind. The progressive community has come up with very many reasons why George W. Bush is a very bad man, a stupid man, a superstitious man, a hypocrite etc. What I fail to see coming out these very same mouths is an alternative form of community because to do so would be to reveal the very need for a radical substantive transformation of our society, a statement which is simply impermissible within our society. For all of its obvious contradictions, the current administration offers something tangible in its ‘faith base initiatives’ in the face of a monolithic structure of fear.
       In a real sense, I feel that the well meaning, mainstream leftist critiques of George W. Bush contribute to this sense of connection. The elitist connotations implied in such commentaries give rise to a sense of identification with the man, as do the foible and idiosyncrasies. In effect, these formulations have by in large backfired, transforming Bush from what he is, one of the most privileged of this society, educated in the most expensive schools of the nation, into a sort of bumbling, addled common man. This perversely transforms him into a proletarian figure, persecuted by a sort of cultured bourgeois elite.[1]
       Religion becomes an important element of this mode of identification. As I noted before, conflating religious belief with superstitious fear avoid the more substantial structural issue buried beneath it, but it also alienate a substantial portion of the U.S. audience, who are religious. Karl Marx, whose commentary is so often taken out of context, has something substantial to add to this conversation. He notes that “religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world. It is the opium of the people.”
       Religion, even in its most reactionary formations, is a place of community. It offers its adherents a sense of belonging and love outside of a capitalist structure in which all that is sold melts into air. It provides a basis of common identity in the love and kingdom of god. And within that structure, there are both opportunities to care and to be cared for. We may prefer, as Marx does, that these communal functions occur elsewhere, in the workplace, the union hall, the international, but the reality is that for most, these structures have been laid to waste by capitalist domination. In this void, it is not that surprising that many would turn to religion despite the fact it is so frequently manipulated for the needs of the status quo.
       So in effect, this mode of critique offers no real alternative to people, while at the same time mocking the tools that they have available to them in order to cope with and engage with a world that is so exploitative. We need to offer something more than this superior laughter. I think that Barbara Ehrenreich has the right train of thought in this matter. She suggests returning to a certain programmatic element of 1970’s feminist organizing. This element recognized the importance of mutual aid. It offered things such as child care, health care, and other essentials of life. What’s more, within these contributions to life, it offered a real meaningful alternative for the structuring of a community, a real meaningful definition of liberty and equality in the face of hierarchical patriarchy.
      We need to take up this project with a sense of urgency. The possibilities of a foundation are already in existence through a myriad of collectives, co-ops, social service, and mutual aid organizations. Similarly, the possibilities for the expansion of this project already exist in the immense creativity and interaction that allows for the production of a world system that is mind boggling in and of itself. In the most modest and simple of settings we need to desire, conceive and create a new structure for the future, both with our labor and our imagination. I neither think that this task is easy, nor do I think that it can be accomplished in a short period of time. Instead I propose in the spirit of a long march of transformation, one in which there is very little alternative to in the creation of a new society.
       In the end, I am reminded of a lecture by social theorist Achille Mbembe. He posed two alternatives for engagement with the ‘Other’. The first was that of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt defined sovereignty in the battle with an alien 'Other' that he defines as the ‘enemy’ where one kills or is killed. This very much defines the position of the Bush administration and its followers, with the exception that they may hold the possibility of the neutralization of the 'Other'. The second formulation was Emmanuel Levinas’, who placed his definition of sovereignty on the recognition of the 'Other', and his care. This recognition moreover is not dependent on the assimilation of the 'Other' into the recognizable. One perspective creates a world of walls and paranoia, the other is based, as Billy Bragg puts it so eloquently, in “faith in my fellow man” and mutual aid. This second option is not available as long as a small portion of the world’s population dominates the vast majority of its resources. I am not sure of the likelihood of this radical transformation of the world, but we need to put it forwards in both our words and deeds, as a response to the current state of things.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. I remember that whole post-election "moral values" moment real well. There were snooty articles appearing in liberal journals like The New Yorker talking about these strange beings out there in the heartland and how can we possibly engage with these bizarre, uncouth creatures. It was like reading imperial scientific journals pontificating on the behaviors of colonial peoples. -Chris Baden