Turning into the Storm
Love and hate, hope and fear, war and fatigue, ecstasy and melancholia: all the tried and true variations in the space-time of the American story. Never one without the other, always both at the same time, one the hauntology, the other the dynamic, each goading the other, bothered by its absence, pushing it on or dragging it back, but all the time this strange formula of mutual contradictions in perfect disharmony preserving the American will to power, making of the United States an inspiring beacon and a much-feared and fearful demonology. When the ruling signs reverse as they just have in the 2016 election, you can just hear the melancholic sounds as the fantastic inflation of the rhetoric surrounding liberal internationalism suddenly goes flat-line, shudders to an unexpected and unpredicted halt, and then with fantastic manic energy instantly reverses into its opposite—heart of the heart of the country nativism and raw capitalism. One song of a split country is on the night-time airwaves, discord everywhere about the implosion that has just happened, and a lot of confusion and depression as the seventy-year trajectory of an empire built on the usually self-serving rhetoric of liberal internationalism gets ready to be not just reversed, but deconstructed in every granular detail.
From the Atlantic to the Pacific there has been a story-line imprinted within the subterranean spirits of the American heart. A deeply divided consciousness with hopes for a better tomorrow riding shotgun with fears of the return of a bitter yesterday. This moebius strip of the hopeful sublime and melancholic fear structures the American story. It is the American short story, the song that just cuts deep into the heartland of feelings, the film that jumps through your eyes to your soul. Sometimes it is told in the rhetoric of downbeat analysis and upbeat conclusions and, at other times, as exultant diagnostics and anxious endings. However, in the way of all things in the American story, it doesn’t really matter how it is told or even who is doing the telling because what really counts is that internal movement of the deep rhythms of the story itself, that core fact that whether it is the moment of light or darkness, peaceful talk or violent interventions, it will always be an American story. Fundamental to that story, the one nagging historical fact that it is best never to forget, is that its forward accelerations and abrupt reversals are now as they have always been just different iterations of the very same will to preservation of what is typically called the American dream but, of course, what is really meant is the power of the American narrative. In this case, splits, reversals and radical disjunctions in the American narrative are not so much its limit experience but its animating energetic force, what moves it forward and backward, making of the American story a singular expression of the intersection of artifice and reality.
There are two distinct stories that animate contemporary American politics today. Trump’s America where there is nostalgia for an America that never really existed and Obama’s America typified by his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pickney, one of nine victims murdered by the white supremacist, Dylann Storm Roof, whom they had welcomed into their bible study group at “Mother Emmanuel”—Emmanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. In his eulogy, Obama tells the story of African-Americans and the importance of the church as a place of peace, shelter and refuge. On this occasion, it is a story of sadness and grief, but it is also a story of grace. In Obama’s words, “If we can tap into that grace, everything can change.” A technocrat who opened himself up to grief, Obama rose to speak that day about a different vision of America, one that refused the raging storm of hatred. In a eulogy that eloquently and emotionally merged the biblical story of human redemption with the “systematic oppression” and “racial subjugation” that was American history and is its current reality, Obama called out the American spirits of “our better selves.” His chosen text was the hymnal, Amazing Grace. A song that is sung in every church, a lament that inspires with its hope for redemption, Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, the English captain of a slave ship in the late eighteenth century who later became an active abolitionist, a slaver who credited his transformation to the power of religious grace. At first speaking about and then actually singing the verses of the hymnal, Obama argued with eloquence and passion that it is the power of grace with its appeal to forbearance, compassion and inner restraint that is so desperately required in America today, by “every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country.”
So then, which story will be the story of America? We have just witnessed a political campaign in which the nostalgic desire to, in effect, make America white again, has clearly won, won just not in over two thousand counties across the American homeland but, more importantly, in the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Americans. For all the media neglect of this new awakening of the spirit of racism, it is very openly celebration time for whiteness. This will have consequential results. When whiteness becomes the universal signifier, suddenly it’s no longer simply “terror from the air,” but now terror from the ground and terror from within. While the external violence of “terror from the air” best expresses itself in the form of drone warfare and police intimidation, terror from the ground is the focus of the many protests by Black Lives Matter and by Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock, terror from within is more shadowy, more elusive in its implications. Here, terror has a privileged racial representation just as much as it feeds on feelings of economic anxiety and social anger as psychic gateways to the street politics of revenge. These days, you can just hear the rhythm of that story in the euphoric rallying cry of reactionary populism and in the Infowars and net screeds of white nationalists: an American story that looks past the defeated ideas that spawned the Civil War and the deliberate genocide of tens of millions of Indigenous peoples to a deeply Euro-style experiment in racial purity. Perfectly asexual and thus adoptable by both men and women, breaking beyond the boundaries of conventional politics, whiteness is a flickering signifier, having no real meaning in itself, only a powerful will to exclude, police and dominate the always threatening Other: black bodies, brown bodies, LGBTQ bodies, the bodies of racially diverse immigrants and, of course, Muslims.
Two stories, then: the spirit of grace or spiritless cynicism? Which will America choose?
“There’s been a real change in the animal spirits of business people.”
David Cote, CEO of Honeywell
American capitalism is on the move again. Shedding its previous moral veneer of liberal internationalism, the triumphant sign of contemporary capitalism does an instant field-reversal, putting on the new skin of raw capitalism allied with right-wing populism. In the former, the rhetoric of liberal democratic values disguised the cold logic of the global supply chain which places premium value on outsourcing, offshoring, and automation of what’s left of living labor. While the newest phase of neo-liberalism will probably not disturb the relentless, complex logic of the global supply chain that acts in active alliance with predatory finance capital it will most definitely wear a very different ideological mask, namely the disguise of right-wing populism. While neo-liberalism in its first phase represented directly the economic interests of the rising middle class, a class of specialists which enabled the global switch from a manufacturing based economy to the digital commodity-form, the newest phase of neo-liberalism is enabled by a powerful alliance between capitalist elites, workers and those left behind by the digital economy. Here in a reversal of the laws of simulation, territory clearly comes before the map which is why the most striking visible image of this election is the digital cartography showing the pervasive geographical diffusion of Trump’s support across the rural counties of the United States, while Clinton’s electorate was particularly strong in the most privileged urban centers of the rising sectors of the middle class.
On the surface then, a politically powerful, massive grassroots revolt against the establishment. But just beneath the surface an equally powerful mutation in the direction of extreme capitalism. Everything is there: a promised elimination of the already weak social safety net; the installation of low corporate taxes for the business class; the creation of an “infrastructure bank” which will have the effect of replacing public ownership of social infrastructure with the proprietary rights of finance capitalism; the withdrawal of the apparatus of the state from complex, international trade agreements with their emphasis on the imperatives of national governments versus private business; the unfettered intensification of the global supply chain; outsourcing of jobs to waiting robots; strict austerity programs directed against the institutions of the social economy, health and education most of all; and harsh disciplinary measures against all forms of public dissent.
All this will be accomplished in the name of the public good, particularly in the interests of ridding American streets of all those outside the new skin tone of white nationalism: Muslim immigrants, undocumented ‘aliens,’ documented ‘aliens’ and black lives and brown lives that, from the viewpoint of power, really do not matter. The new era of raw capitalism, then, as a fusion of fascist demagoguery and unfettered capitalism: one based on the politics of scapegoating and the other deriving its strength from the feverish dreams of unlimited market accumulation; the former working in the nihilistic language of ressentiment, the latter intent on the corruption of the social foundations of democracy. Consequently, two major regressions: the regression of finance capitalism in the age of advanced technologies of communication in the direction of primitive capitalism (“work or starve”); and the regression of lawfully constituted democratic discourse into the psychic discharge of mean-spirited private affect onto the public scene.
Capitalism moves further to the right. Authoritarian populism mutates into authoritarian capitalism. The capitalist order discovers in right-wing demagoguery an ideal means of imposing discipline on dissent and austerity on public institutions. That this will all be accelerated by “public works” programs means that the hegemonic position of finance capitalism will be able to disguise itself by adopting the always appealing rhetoric of providing jobs. Extreme capitalism, therefore, promoted, defended and sold in the name of the dark side of a utopian imaginary, radically disconnected from the vicissitudes of history.
That this newest twist in the logic of neo-liberalism in the direction of extreme capitalism fueled by right-wing affect does not represent the interests of a declining sector of the American capitalist class but its ascendant leadership is indicated by Trump’s choice of cabinet secretaries which is, in itself, an intimation of the future. Here, global finance capitalism in the form of representatives of Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil combine comfortably with a cabinet that is strikingly anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-diversity and, of course, aggressively pro-military. It remains to be seen how long it will take leading sectors of the technocratic class to get in line with the changed trajectory of extreme capitalism. In this case, will the majority of innovators of the digital imaginary continue to support the values of liberal democracy, including diversity, equity and social justice, or will a significant section of that class break away to find common cause with the mutating logic of extreme capitalism, particularly since the political foundations of the latter are based directly on the real power of social media in enabling the construction and circulation of equally extreme right-wing phantasmagoria?
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are the editors of CTheory.