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 ’90s 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’ becomes 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…
* The full article will be available next week in Arena Magazine, in hard copy and online.