Trump might disappear, but Biden’s assumptions promise further eruptions from the base
There is little doubt that most of the 70 or so million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in the recent US election would not have supported the actions of those who invaded and trashed the houses of Congress on 6 January. Nor would they regard themselves as ‘deplorables’. What does group them together, however, is that all those who voted for Trump rejected the core elites and associated institutions that make up the ruling order in the United States, the order that has now concretised in the Democrat ascendency. This and the events on Capitol Hill are the political expression of a deep division that marks the social and institutional life of the United States today.
That the ‘insurgency’ at Capitol Hill was chaotic and unorganised, and went nowhere, is not especially significant. Initially, insurgencies often have a chaotic and disorganised character. Of course this particular event also carried the mark of Donald Trump. One of the things about Trump, for which we should be grateful, is that even though he was destructive, that destruction always emerged from an incapacity that actually limited his power: he led through a loose, self-affirming and self-referential rhetoric, not through any capacity to organise socially and practically at scale. His impact on US political institutions has been significant: there is no doubt that he made real inroads into US legal institutions, for instance. But his media strategy—to rely on social media while fencing off mainstream media—was only partly successful: it always left the powerful mainstream to hound his every move. And despite reported widespread support within the military rank and file and National Guard, he was unable to turn such influence to his ends. He did not even recognise the capacity to organise where it existed among his supporters—such as in Steve Bannon, say—and this put limits on where his ‘revolution’ could go. A chaotic insurgency seems typical of what to expect from Trump politically, and this was a manifestation of his real limit, but that is not to exhaust the meanings or potential flow-on from the events on Capitol Hill.
The Trump account of his failure has been to blame the media. Trump’s struggle with the media was always ugly, of course, but in certain key respects he was right: the mainstream media are a part of the elite and related institutions that have now been re-affirmed in power. It is no surprise, then, that they are at the centre of the conventional narrative that has taken the form of decrying 6 January as an assault on the institutions of democracy. This is a narrative that drives an emotional response, especially so given hopes that Joe Biden will bring America together again. But it is a view that provides no insight whatsoever into what happened at the Capitol—what those events mean socially. To the contrary, this narrative works to ensure a focus on certain individuals—Trump, the ‘deplorables’—that only reaffirms the institutions of social order, without any serious consideration of how those institutions had fallen into disrepute for such a large segment of the US population. In other words, despite expressions of outrage and denunciations of ‘domestic terror’, it minimises the significance of the eruption by, first, constructing it as a challenge to sacred democratic universals and rituals while, second, emphasising the actions of the foolish, even evil, individuals who dared to step upon the political stage. It is an account that points to outrageous political actions that demand a response but then allows, or hopes for, a return of the social order to an unquestioned normality.
Some commentators have made an attempt to go beyond this kind of account to grapple with aspects of the social whole that is the context of these events. The conservative commentator Paul Monk, writing in The Australian, attempts to say something about a larger framework in order to address the seriousness of the insurgency. Referring to Trump as a symptom rather than a ‘cause of underlying maladies in the US body politic’, he draws on Roman history to make his point. Reflecting on the Catiline conspiracy of 63 BCE, which was followed, after a period of twenty years, by the Caesarean takeover, he concludes that the ‘deeper challenges facing the American republic…should be our fundamental focus’: the 2021 Trumpian ‘insurgency’ is only a sign of things to come. However, he makes no attempt to name the fundamental challenges, let alone lay bare their nature. Not only are they left unexplored, Monk treats the ‘body politic’ as an autonomous sphere untouched by the larger social whole. Yet it is here in the social whole and in social life generally where the fundamentals for interpreting this moment are to be located.
Others outside of the mainstream, such as Pankaj Mishra in his Bland Fanatics, are more likely to take the social whole seriously. Written before the events at Capitol Hill, Bland Fanatics captures the Trump setting more appropriately: ‘It is only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hard-headed liberals—who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war—are coming to grips with America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’. However, if this approach gives some points of entry into the nature of the social order that has propped up the liberal elites and institutions of contemporary America, it also suggests that Trump gained power because he is a white supremacist. But far broader processes are at work here, which, among other things, have allowed supremacists to move into the foreground, and it is these processes that suggest that the assault on Capitol Hill is only the beginning, not the end. Contradictions within the social ground of American (and late modern) society generally are working to fracture old certainties, creating the conditions that allowed a Trump to emerge. Those contradictions will continue to unfold long after Trump himself has gone. Far more than mere political contradictions, we are seeing life transformed by deep-going social contradictions.
There is widespread agreement that the nature of social relations in contemporary society has changed and that these changes are contributing to contemporary unease and disturbance. Yet while change is everywhere, it’s hard to put a finger on just what the scale and significance of this process is. For the person, change is experiential; it is understood according to implicit personal-historical comparisons that are largely subjective. Further, because change is a constant of every generation, it is a concept that by itself does not help us differentiate levels of significance. But it is necessary to come to terms with what change means today because contemporary life is increasingly traumatic in all of its locations and at all of its various stages: while change once meant that reference points for people simply became different over time, what does it mean today that there are so few stable reference points for people in community or as individuals passing through the various stages of life?
One round of changes that especially stands out relates to the young. Can young people growing up rely on a relatively stable range of employment choices? Can they rely on the relative fixity of a family unit? Can they place themselves by reference to kinship networks and places important in the life of the generations? Can children or adults take the existence of their neighbourhoods for granted? For workers, there are similar questions. Can workers feel confident that their skills and education will give them security? Change of this very general kind can be the consequence of war, of natural catastrophes like an earthquake, or a pandemic—or a profound change in social process. Compared to once familiar generational change, this more encompassing form of change in everyday life and its various institutions takes place at another level. If such change has a source in the nature of the social itself, it indicates the emergence of an unfamiliar social type.
It is not adequate to handle such phenomena by saying, ‘But change always happens’. Lynn Margulis, the well-known researcher in biology, finds that the biological world is widely composed of change—what she calls the gradient in cellular life. But biology is also typified by strong strategies to fight against change, to achieve relative fixity. Similar processes are typical within the social order. No social world is completely fixed, despite the hopes of some conservatives. But the social order today is different: it institutes change as such.
While existential upheavals and ‘revolutions’ of this social kind have political consequences, they are not political in the first instance. They reach deep into our personal make-up, the effect of general social processes. How is it that social relations that facilitate rapid change are somehow overwhelming relations that have typically been keepers of relative fixity in human life?
In the world of Homo sapiens relative fixity has usually been associated with generational continuity and stable place-based relations. This is the world of face-to-face relations and in-person communities, those grounded in relations with tangible others and ethics of care born out of shared life and love of place. Even in the grip of an earlier capitalism’s essential engine of change, those ‘residual’ features of communal and intimate life held, more or less, and were the guarantee of a continuation of our species nature as cultural animals.
The change that has taken hold of our lives over the last two generations, which we witness in the global market or in the relations of a thoroughly networked, digital society, is a radical shift of balance away from the face to face to technologically extended social relations. This shift is underpinned by basic scientific-technological revolutions that have transformed social institutions. While the relations of social media are not the only example of this process, they illustrate well the fleeting nature of relations and lack of tangibility in systems that do not require embodied or mutual presence in the connections they make. As we are lifted out of face-to-face settings, increasingly the Other loses all tangibility. We cannot sense, touch or smell them: they are not present to us in this sense. They are an abstracted Other, one that we can only know with the help of technology: writing, print, emails, tweets. This Other is always fleeting because it has less phenomenological force; because it can be filtered or kept at bay; because it is thinner in its history and in its ‘presence’ as text or image rather than as an embodied being.
Such relations can always be combined with relations formed in more stable settings. But the revolution of our period shifts the balance of social relations towards greater abstraction and less tangibility. As a consequence, physical neighbourhoods and communities are transformed, and stable reference points in work and life are undermined. This is the cultural shift that has now turned into a cultural and political crisis. What processes drive this transformation?
To speak of technological revolution today is to speak of a scientific revolution. In particular, the transformation of science into techno-science, which has occurred in stages throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, gaining momentum in social life with the deregulation of currencies in the 1980s, has reconstructed the gamut of social institutions along more abstract lines. Centrally, the institution of the market itself was reconstructed by the new forces of scientific-technological development, becoming a global market: more abstract, faster moving, and with a broader, deeper reach than the modern market into culture and the self, becoming the central mechanism of economic and cultural globalisation. Local economies were decimated as swaths of local industry and jobs went offshore. Defence industries began to jettison embodied war-making, gravitating towards drones and robots as the up-to-date abstract approach to warfare. Techno-scientific medicine declared its victory over disease and pandemics. Others, including space scientists, seek to move into the colonisation of outer space, transcending Earth. Yet others seek to transcend evolutionary processes they feel are unnecessary constraints on individual and species possibility.
This is a world where science in its high-tech or applied mode, which seeks to reconstitute the world rather than understand it, has become the key factor in ‘new’ capitalism—techno-capitalism, in which the consumption of resources expanded vastly after the Second World War, and even more rapidly since the globalisation process was set in place in the 1980s. While this emergent world gestures towards responding to climate change, its challenge to the natural world continues through economic growth and forces of expansion that accept no limits. As a social order it is out of human control, and will continue to be so until the key agents in this interweaving of capital and science, the high-tech scientific intellectuals, begin a process of returning to their longstanding ethical commitments to ‘earthlings’ and grounded communities.
It is no surprise that in such a world we have ‘winners’ (the political and corporate elites) and ‘losers’ (the ‘deplorables’), or those who have no purchase on the reconstructed institutions of the high-tech world. Beyond winners and losers there is also a primary sense in which we are all losers. For Homo sapiens is inseparable from that relatively anchored world of face-to-face relations and embodied being that is fast dissipating.
In the past intellectuals and scientists, while formed by extended and abstract relations, employed their knowledge to support the mainstream face-to-face world on which they too were dependent. Often they were corrupted by power. Yet standing beyond the face-to-face world gave them the potential of drawing upon a universal ethic unconstrained by the particular. It is this potential that Noam Chomsky invokes when he states that the responsibility of intellectuals is to speak truth to power. Once, such ethical potential supported social movements that erupted both within the universities and within the wider society.
We now know how this relation of intellectuals with the everyday was utterly corrupted in the period of the Enlightenment, the shaping intellectual force of today’s liberal democracies, with shocking outcomes for Indigenous and colonised peoples around the world. This relation is now taking an even more troubling form: inseparable from new capitalism, scientific intellectuals (and intellectuals generally) have developed means that support processes that displace the supports of the everyday world, taking a portion of citizens with them into a new social order. The rest, facing precarious existence or, more strongly, being on the wrong side of what Silicon Valley calls the ‘80/20 society’, edge towards social redundancy.
Having no future in this techno-world, they can passively accept their fate or they can seek to resist in various ways. Capitol Hill was only one moment in the life of this reconstructed world.
Donald Trump, like Pauline Hanson in Australia, is a symbol of the contradictions of this emergent social order—what the media ignorantly diminish by calling them populists. As the first political manifestations emerging out of this new social order, they are a response to the devastating effects of economic globalisation. But they cannot respond in a rounded way. If Trump seemed to intervene in the globalisation process, he actually merely responded to particulars within it; economic globalisation remained a broadly assumed background. Being a transactional thinker, he had no grasp of the general nature of how globalisation works or why it had devastated the conditions of life for large segments of the population who found their local worlds shut down. While such devastation created an opportunity for Trump, America First was never a general approach resisting the directions of the overarching form of development in high-tech capitalism. We can only expect that those underlying processes destroying the stable reference points of jobs and community in everyday life will continue to unfold. Now firmly controlled once again by the liberal elites, they can be expected to generate further resistance against the social order.
The media and much of the world are now putting their hope in the ‘safe’ hands of Joe Biden. There is an enormous upwelling of feeling, in the hope that he will return US society and politics to normality. Uplifting rhetoric is not actually where he shines, but an emotional coming together around key symbols of modern hope may temporarily help some of the many who are suffering. His assurance of more rationality in the campaign against a rampaging COVID-19 is promising; it is certainly needed. But after what may be success here, he will surely return to the tried policy frameworks of the past. Emotional commitments to the democratic institutions will be renewed, but these are the institutions, combined as they are with open-ended developmental assumptions, that have already failed Americans. Returning to the Paris Accords should be welcomed, but the Accords offer little real hope. Drawn up by those who want to believe that a few adjustments with little economic cost will solve climate change, they ignore the enormous challenges around the development assumptions that are embedded in our way of life and that continue to overwhelm climate and the environment.
Similarly, we should not take too seriously the portrayal of Biden as a leader deeply formed in the experience of grief and the practice of care. No doubt he has experienced much trauma in his personal life and no doubt this has affected him deeply, enhancing his humanity. But he is also a Cold War warrior, with a demonstrable inclination to pursue the Democrats’ hawkish orientation towards war where it encounters resistance. He is certainly stronger in this respect than Donald Trump, whatever the latter’s rhetoric. And now with the Democrat ascendency, with control over all the main sources of political power, what is likely to happen when mounting conflicts arising out of deep contradictions confront him? Biden’s immediate reaction to the events on Capitol Hill is suggestive. He instantly conjured the category of ‘domestic terrorism’. Will he act on this and seek another round of terror legislation? As Branko Marcetic writes in Jacobin, Biden has a long history of involvement in the development of terror legislation, including the Patriot Act after 9/11. That was the Act that unleashed US agents upon the world to engage in illegal killings and the rendition of ‘suspects’ on a scale that will forever mark the history of American liberal democracy.
We have commenced a new chapter, with a leader who shows little capacity to recognise the scale of the developmental crisis or the aspirations that define our social world, and he shows every likelihood of labelling and legislating to contain those who oppose his utterly conventional agenda.
Simon Cooper, Mar 2021
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