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Trump and Disruption, by Robert Geroux

The ideology of disruption and its dangers

Among the many surprises of the 2016 presidential election was the large number of former Obama supporters who voted for Trump. This undermines one thesis (namely that the rise of Trumpism is nothing more than the triumph of racial resentment), but it also raises other questions, not the least of which concerns ideological consistency. It would seem that a large slice of the American electorate is brutally pragmatic in looking for an outside candidate, someone willing to ‘take on Washington’, someone who can shake things up, a person who can ‘disrupt the system’. Clearly this motivation isn’t apolitical. Like other ideologies from right to left, its current form contains a vision of the past and the present, articulates an aim for the future (Make America Great Again) and plots a rough set of points that show us the path there. At the same time, there is something disturbingly different about Trumpism, something that sets it apart from most familiar ideologies. I say most here because, as will become clear shortly, there are some ominous points of contact between what I will call the ideology of disruption on the one hand, and fascism on the other. I believe it is not alarmist to call attention to these points of contact. We have not arrived at a point where this ideology has morphed into a nihilistic cult of death. The warning flags are up, however. The danger is clear.

Another way of making this point is that, while the ideology of disruption may metastasise into a malignant and deadly form of political life, its proximate origins are not in radical thought. Instead, its genealogy begins where neoliberal economics meets the life sciences in biotech. As Australian social theorist Melinda Cooper has pointed out, what happens at this intersection is a discovery of common purpose: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the old and somewhat hysterical demonisation of trade unions, Keynesianism and all forms of social insurance suddenly finds new energy. Strategic appropriation takes place: economists borrow and begin to talk about relatively new concepts in evolutionary biology that reinforce their own rejection of equilibrium states; neoliberals begin to use models of evolutionary change in time that prioritise punctuated bursts of activity in response to existential pressure. Scholars in both fields embrace a vision of what I call extremophile life, namely the notion that vitality finds its most concentrated and fullest expression in conditions of marginality and risk. Capital’s frantic pursuit to discover and capture ever-higher levels of surplus finds hope in a new vision of nature, of life within nature, of various vectors of vital forces and flows bursting with productivity at the point where individual beings are maximally exposed to threats to their survival.

It will not take long for these ideas to filter down into the realms of middle management. Administerial cadres will embrace the gospel of extremophile life, translating the old language of ‘management by stress’ into terms neutralised and valorised by science. So-called thought leaders in tech industries will integrate these ideas into what will become known as the ‘California ideology’, an inconsistent and ultimately incomprehensible mix of social progressivism and market-obsessed libertarianism. From here the narrative arc becomes clearer: what was a kind of quiet tragedy in the 1980s and nineties becomes in the next two decades history repeated as a loud and loutish farce. Financial capital and the intellectual architects behind social media develop and come to share a single ideological outlook. The old embrace of risk and a vision of agonal struggle as a kind of ‘life enhancer’ become part of neoliberal subjectivity. The gospel of disruption spreads to academia via administerial fiat. Popular culture becomes suffused with paeans to disruption’s benefits, tributes to the ‘revolutionary’ effect of what we used to call disruptive individuals, and so on. This is how many of us have come to believe that the first and maybe only solution to any stubborn problem is to simply ‘shake things up’.

We would do well to stop here, however, and dilate on an important distinction that brings us back to the discussion above. We can make sense of the ideology of disruption as one more means of concealing/valorising the extraction of surplus by capital. As such, it causes a lot of unnecessary suffering and unquestionably limits our ability to maturely face the greatest problem of our time: climate change. By itself, the embrace of extremophile life is worth critique and radical opposition. We need to reconsider the value of equilibrium. Above and beyond that danger, however, is an even greater threat. Turning to disruption in the hope that it will produce something good is politically stupid. Embracing disruption as an end in itself, however, represents a point of no return, a signpost that demarcates clearly the descent into fascism. This is the point where a distorted and illusory embrace of life becomes a cult of death. This is the world of state-sanctioned popular violence, widespread threats and repression, a world ruled by deplorable monsters brought forth by the sleep of reason.

We have already seen intimations of such a world. The gap that separates ideology from cult has been narrowed by Trump and a complicit and cynical Republican party. As of this writing, bridges are being built from one side to the other. The path across that bridge is made up of small, incremental steps represented not only by a refusal to accede to the norms of liberal government and civil order but an open mockery of those norms: Trump refuses to submit his taxes; Trump refuses to hold press conferences; Trump refuses to extricate himself from business interests; Trump refuses to attend intelligence briefings; Trump defends—and even invites!—Russian interference in the presidential election. And so on. Disdain for the rule of law in turn opens up space for living vicariously; disrespect begets more disrespect, which is where the immediate and tangible danger lies. Trump’s promises to establish a Muslim registry or to ‘build a wall’ on the southern border of the United States have already established ticking time bombs across the country; pliable and violent followers will think of Trump’s election as a green light to address grievances on their own terms. We have seen this before. We know where this leads. Some of these followers will wear the uniform of state power; some will even be appointed to judicial office. This will make our resistance even more vexed and complicated. Our task as radicals will be doubly difficult: we will be charged not only with protecting institutions that only imperfectly protect and sustain us but also with keeping an eye fixed constantly on general conditions. Like doctors of medicine, we will have to keep close watch on the condition of the body politic, diagnosing whether and when its current flirtation with an ideology of disruption will have become a cancerous cult of destruction and death. Diagnosis at that point will also have to include prescriptive measures—forms of collective political action that will restore some modicum of health. It should be obvious that the ideology of disruption will not help us then, just as it cannot help now. A counter-vision of equilibrium is already necessary; I would suggest that its articulation can be found in places like Cannon Ball, North Dakota, at the protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline. That, however, is a topic for another time.

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