The night of the election, I went to bed before the final results were in. By that point, Clinton was down to a 50% chance of winning, so I thought I’d spare myself the gory play-by-play. But every hour or so after falling asleep, I lurched awake with my heart in my gut, thinking “Maybe Clinton squeaked through,” or “Oh my god, Trump is President.” Finally, at 4am, I picked up my phone to check and saw the anguishing results. I had had to hold my nose to vote for Clinton, but Trump’s triumph foretold unspeakable disasters.
Still, in spite of the sickeningly surreal confirmation that this country had elected a mentally unstable, reality-TV star whose onscreen role was to fire people, and whose discourses and actions included misogyny, sexual assault, racism, ethnic hatred, and financial deregulation favoring only the super-wealthy – in spite of this, within days it seemed to me clear that the election of such a person was not surprising, and would have happened four years from now if it hadn’t happened now. And let’s be real, a Cruz win – other than, maybe, regarding the question of the nuclear button – would have been equally harrowing. Say what you will about the popular vote favoring Clinton by 2 million votes, she wasn’t running to be president of New York, California, and Massachusetts, the only states where she picked up the great majority of her popular vote margin over Trump. (Trump won many, many states by very large margins). She was running to be president of the whole country and Democrats completely underestimated the mass economic precarity and inchoate anger against dysfunctional government that drove large numbers of people to support a demagogue who did not represent their interests. And I’m not talking about the educated and moneyed Republicans who voted for him. “Liberals” can delude themselves that Trump was elected only by white racists and misogynists, but by doing so they conveniently overlook the fact that many counties and states that were won by Obama in 2012 went to Trump (i.e. the same voters), and that there were many indicators during the campaign that the white “working class”- in areas that had traditionally voted Democratic, and were suspended in the abyss created by globalization and automation -were going to shift to Trump. According to the NYT, for example, “The Wyoming River Valley of Pennsylvania voted for Mr. Trump. It had voted for Mr. Obama by double digits.” “Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Obama won by more than 20 points in 2012 was basically a draw.” “Counties [along Lake Erie] that supported Mr. Obama in 2012 voted for Mr. Trump by 20 points.“ “In Iowa, which Obama won easily in 2012, Trump easily prevailed. Trump won Maine’s second congressional district by 12 points; Obama had won it by 8 points.” And on and on. Salaries for those up to their mid-30s have declined – accounting for inflation, which is always underreported in the US – by 36% since just 2008. And labor statistics don’t even account for the middle-aged who are unemployable and unable to collect unemployment benefits. 42 million Americans currently don’t have enough to eat every day. If it wasn’t going to be Trump in 2016, it would have been a demagogue equal to him in 2020.
But this is just a preamble to posting something here about a discussion that I witnessed the other night at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in which Alain Badiou was asked by Abreu to respond to a presentation by the two men I think of as “the accelerationist guys” – Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (an American and a Brit who both teach in London, and who published in 2013 a text called “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” that addressed earlier positions by Nick Land and Benjamin Noys on the destructive drives of Capitalism, its effects on its subjects, and its potential for self-destruction. 2015 saw the expansion of the Srnicek/Williams text into an updated book entitled Inventing the Future.
Oh the joys of being an artist who writes – I don’t have the pressures of academic precision and comprehensiveness. I can present to you what I caught of the event – from schematic notes I took and from what I remember during a dense exchange. And even that will be even more incomplete than it sounds, because I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion that followed the presentation by Srnicek and Williams, and Badiou’s critique of their positions. But I felt that Badiou’s critique and proposals were so important for the present situation that they merit the dissemination that this blog platform can provide. Because relatively modest as is my readership, I would guess that it’s pretty much made up of just the sort of people who should have heard Badiou’s points – left-oriented people who are eager, if not desperate, to figure out how to develop effective resistance to Trump specifically, and to the general relentless march to the political and economic right that we’ve witnessed in the U.S. (and other parts of the world) since the Reagan years.
When I was first led to read “#Accelerate” in 2013, I was excited at the prospect that someone was writing about the dissipation of left movements and about ways to strategize more effective resistance. But the Futurist-like arrogance, or coldness, of the tone and some of the ideas and omissions quickly put me off. I let it go without much thought or hope.
Much of the presentation made on the 22nd by Srnicek and Williams was of that ilk also, although their beginning analysis of the current effects of neoliberalism in the U.S. and some European countries was sound. Here were some of their points:
- Neither the Right nor the Left were prepared for 2008 or 2016. Trump, and Theresa May in the UK, are symptoms. They are pragmatic opportunistic responses to the crisis and despair produced by a jobless “recovery,” the destruction of unions, job automation, etc.
- There is a crisis of governing in Western Democracies. Technocratic forms of government have arisen in countries like Italy and Greece. In the UK, there is an unelected leader.
- The dysfunction of government has given rise to conspiracy theories and false-news reporting.
- Trump and Brexit represent a crisis of fear. Clinton and the anti-Brexit vote were just about supporting the status quo. This is the face of the failure of neoliberalism.
- Trump and May reject aspects of neoliberalist support of free trade and open borders. They choose the border over trade. But finance still travels freely and observes no boundaries.
- Trump talks about stimulus – but this is not a Keynesian stimulus. It’s giveaways to corporations.
- The Trump rhetoric is fascistic and white nationalist.
Contradictorily, they went on to say that Trump’s victory was clearly not about white working class suffering, because the black working class had suffered more (the unspoken point being that they largely voted for Clinton in spite of having suffered more). The white working class vote for Trump, according to them (and according to many American liberals, as far as I’ve seen) was a vote to resist the loss of white privilege. This was a very odd argument by them, or at the least a very unsubtle argument, since statistics as shown above prove a complex situation in terms of what motivated the white working vote for Trump (as well as for 29% of the Latino vote). At the very least, it’s obvious that whatever reservations Black voters had in supporting Clinton (and they did not turn out in historically significant numbers), one cannot blithely assume that their suffering would not have pushed them to a different kind of authoritarian demagogue promising unbounded economic recovery, while actually supporting only corporate power – one that might have been clever enough not to make racism a central issue. To me, this kind of conveniently packaged thinking is proven by the utter lack in the two long presentations made by Srnicek and Williams of anything at all to do with Trump’s dire misogyny. Another degree of illogic arose in their critique of current or post-2008 forms of resistance to neoliberalism. For them, resistance has taken the following ineffectual forms:
- Defensive stances of trying to hold on to what we have within neoliberalism, even as wealth gets more and more concentrated at the top.
- Defensive resistance does not result in a different future, not even in the possibility of envisioning a different future.
Although they were critical of the Occupy movement and its offshoots for having had no significant program and for being ineffective in combatting neoliberalism, they praised the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the Standing Rock resistance. I suppose this was because they had stated programs? Certainly they weren’t supporting them for their effectiveness in terms of results. Again, no mention of equivalent feminist or LGBTQ forms of resistance, which have to be considered alongside economic and racial justice demands and programs.
Srnicek and Williams made four clear demands that they felt were the only ways to deal with this moment of neoliberal breakdown in relation to what, for lack of a better term, I would call the 99% of the world:
- A world without work [WWW]
- Full automation, which would facilitate a world without work
- A Universal Basic Income, which would facilitate left political development, among other advantages.
- The elimination of the work ethic.
They also added that one way to start to achieve these four was to create a four-day workweek. They ended their presentations with a question about whether neoliberalism was just in crisis or had already broken down completely, and indicated that it was not completely knowable at this moment, but that it had probably broken down completely.
Then it was Badiou’s turn to critique these arguments as laid out in their newly issued book. What struck me right away was the humanity of Badiou’s response. His humane consideration of the subjects of the proposals at hand.
While he agreed with some of the Srnicek and Williams critiques of neoliberalism and ideas, he was deeply critical of the starting point of their argument and proposals.
His initial objections were to the categorical idea that defensive resistance was totally useless at this moment. For Badiou, there must be movements of different kinds across subjectivities, containing differences AND strong commonalities.
Srnicek and Williams had emphasized the essential need for envisioning a new kind of future. Badiou agreed that a new positive vision must unify people, and articulated the need for the creation of a new common sense in place of today’s kind of resistance. He invoked Gramsci, and referred to Mao’s ideological preparation of public opinion. To put it in my own words, mass demand for a new vision of the future wasn’t going to come without an effort to create commonalities amongst the marginal.
But the real critique began when he stated his objections to Srnicek and Williams’ three demands (WWW, Full automation, UBI):
- These ideas are not a real possibility (just like utopian communism). They’re too abstract. What is work, Badiou asked? It’s not just about money. Work is the global relationship of humanity fighting against nature to survive. This cannot be suppressed by full automation. Automation, in any case, would create other forms of work that were unimaginable before.
- The end of work is not good news for the billions of people who roam the world looking for work today. Even if a WWW is the future, that is in strong opposition to present suffering. A WWW is a western idea. He invoked the condition of millions in Africa, for example.
- It’s better to propose the drastic diminution of the workweek to 20 hours. Badiou pointed out that this was an old, but still a good idea to generate jobs for the chronically unemployed.
- The idea of a WWW is not clearly in opposition to Capitalism, an opposition that is defined not by a “we” per se, but by the end of private property. This was one of his major critiques of the book. As he put it, “I am suspicious of the complete lack of an argument against private property in the book.” Maybe even more importantly, he pointed out, the book begins as though we are already beyond Capitalism. Private property, private ownership – that is the HEART of the matter. And he stated with sobering emphasis that Capitalism would prefer a world war to giving up private property. To go beyond Capitalism is not an abstract argument. It is THE challenge itself. The current distribution of wealth is more oligarchic than a monarchy. It will take dire conflict to overturn this.
- With regard to the demand for full automation, Badiou asked why Srnicek and Williams thought that full automation would actually benefit workers, when the ownership of automation and its profits would still be held by the powerful minority, who would not easily give up those profits.
What must be done, Badiou asked, before we resort to a future world war to abolish Capitalism? Strategy cannot be reduced to a vision of the future. Strategy must include judgment about what is possible NOW. Movements are a necessity. They say that what seems impossible is possible. This doesn’t always involve a program, but the possibility to experiment in the current situation at the border of what is impossible and what is possible. Resistance formation allows for the development of what is possible.
Badiou then stated four principles for developing resistance. These were not a program, but what he called protocols of judgment regarding decisions to be made for the development of strategic programs for resistance, for displacing the limit of what is impossible to what is possible:
- Demonstrate that private property is neither necessary nor a law of humanity. Emphasize collectivism.
- Reduce the workweek drastically. Demonstrate that the specialization of labor is not an eternal law. That is, suppress the opposition and hierarchy between intellectual and manual labor. It is a false opposition. I also seem to remember him pointing out that physical labor should not be disdained.
- Equality must exist inside and across differences. Affirm that difference must exist across equality. Demonstrate that boundaries between differences are not eternal law.
- It is not a necessity that a state exists as a separate and armed power. Following Marx, the people can determine themselves collectively. Free association against the state.
And he closed his critique by stating that when collectivities developed programs for resistance, if all of these four principles were not included, then the program should not be developed.
As someone who takes a very holistic view of resistance, whose feminist activity– for example –is never without an analysis of power of all kinds – economic, racial, ethnic, gendered, this seems to me a very fruitful way to move forward in what is shaping up to be a new moment of crisis for the great majority of the world’s inhabitants. But I would add a fifth principle to Badiou’s four. Any program that does not recognize the dynamics of the human psyche – its mechanisms of displacement and projection, for example – will never be able to generate collective engagement toward the common good, and will always be susceptible to being led by self-interested demagogues.