Political Economy for the Time of Monsters
1. Four years and twenty riots ago we read in the figure of the newly-elected Trump the conjuncture made flesh, social volatility come walking, drooling, gibbering. Matters have unfolded more or less as promised; the fascists without fascism have disembarked, we hope our readers will now admit. Our inclination was then and remains now to read Trump not as a unique or even a dramatic divergence in national narrative but rather as expression of an ongoing decline in the fortunes of the United States as global power and wealth machine, in flight for half a century but manifesting, as appearances do, rather suddenly. This idea, of Trump as weak and temporary while the rising tide of white nationalist frenzy he rode to Pennsylvania Avenue is dangerous and durable, is now something of a commonplace. The meaning beneath it remains for most commentators opaque.
The phenomenon that first political scientists and then pundits kept calling “norm erosion” is, after all, little but a name for hegemony unraveling, the rags and tatters of which now walk the streets as real abstractions. Norms are the guides and rails that subjects follow in relation to condensed wealth because it is in their interests to do so, affirming and preserving power in the process. After a historically unprecedented five decades of downturn, after a massive contraction in the political-economic power available to be handed out, the grooves and slots of norms tend to decay. Morbid symptoms, things fall apart, erosion of norms: these are psalms from different bibles, the good books of left, right, and center — but they sing a single situation.
If Trump’s sheer childishness (though this is unfair to children) coupled with the extreme force of his delusion made him more unpredictable and more purely literary than we might have supposed, it also hindered his capacity to bind the state apparatus to his ends or engage those who could. Nonetheless the lineaments are visible, particularly in the final chapter. “Civil war,” we wrote, “will not look much like two color-coded armies clashing on a plain, but like one state’s national guard carrying out orders another will not, the overriding of one branch by another, the spurning of electoral legitimacy.” That was the plan, and then as now the same obstacles appeared. Trump was “a Mussolini without his Italy…. To become a true fascist, he will need loyal people at all levels of the government, as well as extra-governmental forces capable of doing the dirtiest work but also forcing the hand of bureaucrats and judges too loyal to the letter of the law.” Some elements of this fascist network were in place, it’s clear, perhaps more than we will ever know, the beginnings of the necessary conspiracy. But if the fascists are to have their fascism they will need more than an ersatz putsch and then some violent kitsch, and that they did not have. The ensemble of forces, masses, and coordinating organizations that could make of them an army — these did not exist, whether some cops let the horde in the door on January 6 or not.
And so we see that whether we say fascism is right here or a distant possibility matters little without any understanding of how the state and capital actually function, and what would be involved in their transformations. Communists are better at these discourses (or should be) because we are charged with knowing what revolution presupposes, with thinking through the active power of the police and the army, and the passive power of the market, the modes of discipline, the expressions of order. We can recognize in the forces ascending the steps of Capitol something more than a performance and less than an insurrection. But here all comparison with emancipatory uprisings must end, for fascists are driven forward by myth and mystification in ways that no proletarian insurrection has approached or desired. Every fascism has irony for a midwife, as the grinning upstarts of the Republic of Fiume in 1919 attest; it is always fake it till you make it and funny until it isn’t, and in the passage from poetic fascist D’Annunzio’s Fiume expedition to the fascism in full flower of Mussolini we see clearly how today’s freikorps chanlords would chuckle their way right through to death squads.
2. Driven forward by the experience of superhuman abilities that comes with believing the unbelievable, by cosplay and Q-pidity, this “movement” was barely a movement as we know it, as we understand the development of emancipatory forces — incapable of knowing itself, hoist on the petard of its own viral madness, a bunch of coplovers beating a cop to death in the pale shadow of the Republic, led into the Capitol by phantoms.
This is only a breakthrough, it should be clear, in the way that a dead weight collapsing through a rotting floor is a breakthrough. Those whose jouissance in vital destruction leads them to dumb identification with any and all wreckers must fall with and fall into step with the worst — beware the acid Arditi, comrades. Now everything drives for the moment toward the consolidation of state power by the center even as the edges become all the more crazed. In advance of the election, let’s remember, the forces of the radical center announced their plans to defend the sanctity of the vote with their bodies, ex-generals and mid-list novelists declaring that if there was any occasion that called for violence it was toward the only legitimate and legitimating goal: keeping things the same. It will be strange indeed to see any party slogans endorsing change again (and yet tiresomely inevitable). In the end, when the coup attempt such as it was made its way past the police barriers, the guerrilla units of The Resistance were nowhere to be found, too busy day-trading the upside of The Restoration. Instead we were offered the otherworldly scene of jubilant, befuddled would-be Day of the Ropers dwarfed beneath the Capitol rotunda with their spears, zip ties, and animal skins, their imaginative evocation of the white lynch mob as Fyre Festival.
Things fall together. The ruling class’s greatest powers are passive, invisible, and January 6 brought out all the hard-wired system stabilizers. Crises consolidate the ruling class as a matter of practice: the MAGA senator has more in common with AOC than any of us, in the end, and it is this that has eluded audiences across the nation and the world. From one vantage point — one that believes that the norms were in charge up until quite recently — the dissonance seemed baffling. They carried Thin Blue Line flags and fought the cops! Minds reel from Twitter to the Tuileries. How quickly has the Struggle on the Steps led us to forget the no-less suggestive scene just a few months earlier wherein Kyle Rittenhouse, having seized upon the confluence of racial hatred and the sanctity of property to murder two men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, meandered untroubled through a line of police, his assault rife slung over his shoulder, ready to shed blood for a used car dealership. What is it that Rittenhouse wanted? It cannot be terribly different from the petty desires that seized his cartoon cousins in the Capitol, even as we know that Rittenouse dreamed only of becoming a cop. Just as surely, both sides of the capital confrontation would have assassinated Michael Reinoehl without a second thought; the cops entrusted with that task would have had kind words, we are sure, for all January’s parties.
3. It is perhaps helpful to formulate the events of January 6 in this way: law-preserving violence fought hand to hand with law-making violence. “Trial by combat!” declared America’s Mayor, become the wax-faced carnival barker of Trumpism gone wild, reminding us that armed landowners wearing animal skins have often made the laws on this continent, have inscribed those laws in letters of stolen land and enslavement. These were not pitchforked peasants marching on the castle of their lord, but ruined local gentry and minor nobles marching on the king to demand the return of their acquired right which that plague called modernity had stripped from them. On order both sides agree, even if one threatens disorder as part of their negotiation about what kind of order, exactly, and how it is to be achieved. Salon owners and state senators, veterans and tax attorneys, influencers and podcasters — first and foremost, we should stress, those who made their way from the Ellipse to the Senate chambers were directly dependent upon the Trump conjuncture for their livelihood. But secondly they were all of those who could not distinguish what was said from what was meant, who truly believed that they had been chosen to restore the soul of the nation and that they were matched move for move by omnipotent actors behind the scenes.
This is what separates this sedition from any comparison with ostensibly similar moments, with the sacking of the Third Precinct this summer, for example. The Q-surrection took place in some world other than ours. It was launched by a speech from the President and in keeping with this imagined itself met, at every moment, by some providential violence from inside the state — the arrival of Q, a Kennedy resurrection, the final destruction of the pedophiliac deep state. Partisan movements, by contrast, may suffer all manner of delusion but they take as their objects features of the real world. The storming of the Capitol operated entirely on the plane of the imaginary — confusing capital with Capitol, the capital with the Capitol, capable of coup in some world other than other than this, an insurrection of unmeaning, forced by a few thousand people who needed to bring this story to some kind of satisfying close.
And that they did. Everyone who survives within the halo of meaning got something out of January 6: the fascists, their myth; the president, his image; the center, its revenge. It is only those who would alter the material world who get nothing, not even a lousy two grand.
The right can riot, but its violence is always personal, always victimizing and scapegoating, always symbolic even when it spills fatally into the material. This is its understanding of order. This is why the gallows looms so large in its imaginary, why so many of those interviewed speak of stringing up politicians, making them pay for their crimes, watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. But here tyranny grows capacious, for it designates any figure who threatens their inalienable right to harm. They wanted to hang Senators but they would have gladly killed a Black person, a Jew, an immigrant, and they settled for a cop. One single article by an embedded reporter on January 6 captures, without meaning to do so or seeming to notice, seven different references to communists. This is what you get when you imagine yourself a rightful heir, dispossessed by social justice warriors, by the RCP puppeteering the rise of China, by northern carpetbaggers and urban elites. You get people who want to cleanse the Capitol’s marble with blood, who fight cops in order to be cops.
The burning of a police station by partisans, by comparison, targets a basic structure of domination. It wants the unmaking of everyday life, not its purification and repetition with a slightly changed cast. In this regard the Capitolists could not have been more eloquent. Having breached the building and reached the Senate chambers, the boldest and most ludicrous among them, dressed as a reiver, could think of nothing better to do than install himself at the desk of the Senate president. Elsewhere one of his brethren settled into Pelosi’s chair, feet up. More deskwork, but now for real patriots. It seems not to have occurred to them to burn the place down.
4. It was the “Q Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, who found his way to the great dais. Two horns protruding from his headpiece, momentarily at war with the state because he was more on the side of the state than he believed the state itself to be, he was the figure of dilemma itself.
In the wake of the Buffalo Horn Qoup, there was an effort to name the clashing factions within the Republican camp: gamers and breakers, system-loyal and system-oppositional, and so on. The side of Romney and the side of Trump, the side of the Capitol police and the side of QAnon. Such taxonomies were shaped in part by what has been a useful analytic for radicals, that of the “three-way fight.” The idea is that, against a rising tide of reactionary violence (whether one names it fascism or not), an alliance with liberals and social democrats will be offered, a popular front deemed necessary to fight the fascists . . . but, eventually and inevitably, these allies pro tem will move to annihilate their militant flank and will have to be fought in turn.
Applying this formula to the present moment, however, risks confusion. Peering at the chaos trolls in the Capitol, the three “ways” appear to be two factions of the Republican party and then everyone else — a schema which exaggerates the opposition between the factions while abandoning the real contradictions within what has long been called the left. Both of these are severe errors. The latter elision is in keeping with the optimistic and surpassingly odd idea that, for example, the successes of the Sanders campaign were of a piece with the uprising of May and June, just two different instances of one struggle thereby promising an increasingly powerful left, rather than incommensurate proposals for how to escape the nightmare. The former exaggeration has also found its exponents in comradely quarters. Even the redoubtable Mike Davis suggested that Qoup’s real meaning concerned parliamentary dynamics among official Republicans, with one side now empowered to expel its disgraced opponents. This account grants to the party the same causal role erroneously granted to Trump four years ago — as if it is elected officials who make the world and whose maleficence can be banished by some victory in the realm of politics.
A different framework will be needed, a political economy for the time of monsters. The petty proprietors storming the Capitol are those who have been most acutely impaled on the horns of the “K-shaped” recession, which affects the commanding heights of the economy not all, at the mercy of pandemic winds and flailing, half-assed quarantine. To notice this is not to justify their deadly insurgency. Nor is it to offer the optimistic promise that, lacking the rude vitality imputed with one valence or another to the fabled working class, this petit bourgeois flame will surely gutter before the season ends. The crucible of the present will not cool so easily.
The Trump regime for its duration remained, as far as the structure of the state’s purse, an adherent to Koch-brothers Republicanism — an obstructor, a denier, a bankruptor, here to renegotiate the price of the damaged goods known as the United States, both in the face of the pandemic and the ailing American economy it drove into open crisis. The pandemic did of course loosen the flows of budgeted money from the Treasury considerably, but much of the support has come instead from the Federal Reserve, not beholden to interminable budget brinkmanship, able to manage the economy by managing the terms of money itself.
What neither the Federal Reserve nor the Treasury can do, however, is direct the newly created money toward employment and investment with any precision. Only the biggest corporations, the ones able to issue bonds, really benefit from this support. Smaller businesses — and here we speak of everything from mid-sized firms worth many millions of dollars to petty proprietorships — have been forced to queue up for a limited pool of money administered by the banks (and which was often slurped up by the big corporations anyway). Nonetheless as the morgues and hospitals fill with those whose deaths or illness were needless many times over, bankruptcies are at an all-time low, which tells us how many of these enterprises are, in fact, on life support, lying in hospital beds of borrowed money.
But for how long? We stress this not to let you know that we, too, mourn for our favorite restaurant, but to underscore the extent to which ruined small proprietors from some scorned province are the very type to go fascist, to hate masks and rioters, and by type we mean a relationship to the means of production that cuts across identity categories. This is all the explanation you need for the increase in support for Trump observed among non-white voters — in the Rio Grande Valley, in the suburbs and exurbs of American disrepair. No surprise that those who have skin in the game choose law and order when push comes to shove; if you don’t understand that, you’ll miss the counterrevolution every time.
5. Meanwhile our suicide lords sweep the table. The center cannot but hold, for the state and for capital. Centralization and concentration of capital forced by the pandemic enthrone Musk and Bezos, the transport kings of our immovable world. Amazon won on both ends, truly become the tributary system, the vast river basin of consumption in the United States and beyond. There will be no real return from the regime of homework and perfected separation that has been life under quarantine. Where there might have been hopes that the pandemic would restore some balance to the class struggle, the opposite has largely been the case. Inequality unequalizes. In the Bay Area, where the real-estate market and in turn the rent level is by and large determined by employment and equity in the tech sector, the massive nonpayment of rent by the newly unemployed might have restored some sanity to the rental market. A middle layer no longer tied to the workplace has, it’s true, fucked off to Austin et al. More dramatically, however, the shift to homework has meant that those who can have taken extra space, concentrating real estate still further. The real value accrued to the technology platforms undergirding the shift to homework means the economy of the Bay Area will continue to be driven by tech and those it employs.
What is unclear is how everyone else will pay their rent, now that the vast in-person service sector of bars, restaurants, gigs, and monetized encounters has been leveled by Covid-19. Much of that will return, and more quickly than one might expect, but enterprises are fragile things, both more and less than a sum of goods and employees. Most will never see the earth again. We do not mourn them but we recognize that this was the major source of income for our friends, comrades, and families. Now there is simply not enough money being paid in by renters and mortgage-holders, which is why there is no debate about the stimulus check arriving in the mail, only its dollar amount. That check is an attempt to settle the class struggle taking place among renters, workers, landlords, owners of capital, and bankers. So far, the terms of that settlement (though not explicitly stated) have been clear. The Federal Reserve, the self-consciousness of the market given a fancy title, will flood the system with enough money to keep the banks and landlords solvent until renters can be made to pay. But renters cannot pay if they cannot work and they cannot work now without getting sick. Therefore, everyone is getting sick, and it really is that simple.
We wrote a few years back of San Francisco’s dystopia made real, of an overclass perpetually seething that the services they required — pizza delivery was our example — required the intolerable presence of the impoverished in their demesnes, accelerating a demand for fully-policed borders administered according to race and class. Covid-19 in this sense has functioned as a floodlight cast on this service-sector apartheid, with its naming of essential workers, its launching of Instacart to the skies and Amazon to the vault of heaven.
But it also acts as a concentrating power. Covid-19 clarifies the workplace for what it really is, a charnel house with private offices attached. Some of us work from home, others can’t find any work at all, still others are forced to get sick and to sicken others in the name of necessity, so that all of us can purchase our supplies or receive care if we get sick. The new variants are more transmissible but so far this has been a disease of cramped spaces rather than sporadic contact, affecting anyone who must work indoors with others, anyone who cannot go outside: workers, prisoners, residents in nursing homes and other facilities. Confinement is the disease’s metier: wherever humans are treated like objects, massified without egress, there the disease thrives. The summer’s insurrection showed us the creativity with which people can act together who are nonetheless disconnected, a lesson that doesn’t stop needing to be learned.
6. When we first began writing more than a decade ago, there were more of us, more people to coordinate in the writing of texts. Our friends and comrades are now general, torn this way and that by the compulsion to sell their labor or refusals of same, involved in struggles on every continent. Beginnings are always sweet, and we remember the sweetness of that time primarily as one of mass unemployment. Maybe it was just that we were younger, but everyone seemed less busy then, less overcommitted, less working three jobs to afford rent and the price of recovering from working three jobs. There was more time. More time for research, more time for destroy.
Let us not however wax elegiac. It may simply be that in 2009 the crisis felt for many of us new. We had the ambiguous blessing of living in interesting times. The openings were there, not that we seized them. A dozen grinding years in, we must admit, even once-a-century novelties like the pandemic take their place within a long crisis, within accruing misery and planetary die-offs. The dilemma of the moment, for our side, remains familiar. It is not how to choose between the breakers and the gamers, Democrats and Republicans, the moderate and progressive wings of the party, the DSA or the Democrats. Nor even how to choose between electoralism and other confrontations.
Rather it is how to recognize and reckon the forms of appearance, the ways that crisis manifests among our enemies and our friends and ourselves, and how to do so without being drawn into the thousand fantasies which share, as their invariant feature, that we might resolve some matters and advance others by sufficiently rebuking this villain, that party, these yahoos. The tide continues to flow in the wrong direction. The least we can do is to see that it is a tide rather than being assorted flotsam and jetsam bobbing on its flood.
The mass of flotsam and jetsam is real of course. It is part of the whole. This is always true for forms of appearance: they are not false, not mere illusion. They offer a moment of meaning and, as we have suggested, it is dangerous to find oneself suspended at the level of such meanings. They give the whole neither its motion nor its force. The goal of theory is not to interpret the tide, but to recall that it is a tide made by human activity and that it can be changed in the same way, not by theory but through struggle. If we can draw one last and crucial distinction between January and June, between the Buffalo Horn Qoup and the George Floyd Uprising, it would be this. It may feel, perhaps, that there is something coordinated, organized, about all the conspiracists descending on a single location, sharing a vague but unitary plan, successfully overwhelming at least for a few hours the forces of the state in the very heart of the state, seizing a building that one cop offered as “the sacredest place.”
This was possible only out of constraint. January’s reivers came to the place of purest meaning, meaning to purify it. The rebels of May and June made few such choices. Beginning from an actual killing in Minneapolis, the uprising was answered in Los Angeles and Louisville, Seattle and Sacramento, Memphis and Detroit. This was a moment not of monomania but commonality. It was not enough, it is never enough, and we are not here to call riots revolutions. But if the tide is to turn we have no doubt that there will be a moment that looks something like May, like June, like a thousand of each, all partisans lacking a sense of the sacred, no stars in their eyes.