Field Notes Editor’s Note
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” — Marx
Over the past four years, I have occasionally used this space to argue that Donald Trump’s presidency did not, as many worried, represent the advent of fascism in the United States. Trump was uninterested in building a strong state, in preparing America for a dynamic imperialist part in world affairs, in harnessing patriotism and racism for the suppression of the working class in the interest of economic growth. Far from building a mass paramilitary force, he was content to inspire pathetic “militias”—all beer hall and no putsch—unable, for instance, even to kidnap the governor of Michigan. (The Weathermen, in contrast, though upper-middle-class ex-college students, succeeded in freeing Timothy Leary from federal prison and smuggling him out of the country.) What he did accomplish, apart from easing somewhat the personal financial difficulties resulting from his business ineptitude, was to push through the Republican program of business deregulation and tax-cutting, while staffing the judicial system with conservatives ready to rule future “progressive” initiatives out of order. His administration, that is, moved in the opposite direction from fascism’s increase of state control, further undoing the efforts commenced under the New Deal for at least some state oversight of capitalism’s anarchy. Economic stagnation was met not with spending on jobs—the fabled infrastructure program—but with the simple injection of funds into the circuits of financial speculation.
Exulting in the triumph of American democracy, the New York Times like so many others celebrated Joseph Biden’s promise “to restore political normalcy and a spirit of national unity to confront raging health and economic crises.” It is hardly worth pointing out that normalcy produced those crises in the first place, and that unity can only mean the subordination of the interests of some people to those of others. While Republican opposition to government planning and control, along with Trump’s lack of interest in anything but self-promotion, certainly exacerbated the toll taken by the pandemic, its foundation was already present in the long-term unwillingness of the American business class to pay for a working public health system (echoed abroad by the ongoing destruction of such systems in countries that established them after the Second World War). The Democratic repudiation of “Medicare for All” promises to leave this state of affairs untouched. And since the deepening economic crisis is basically due, along with its exacerbation by the pandemic, to the normal operation of capitalism as a system, there is no remedy for that crisis beyond further depressing the living standards of the world’s working people, either through a full-blown depression or through continuing government-supported austerity, and further concentrating the ownership of capital in the hands of even fewer firms.
Those who worried about fascism were looking to the past to understand the present; this is equally true of someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose horizon of aspiration is visible in her attachment to the idea of the New Deal, even if modernized with the prefix “Green.” It is telling that in an interview published in the Times of November 8 she said that if she couldn’t make headway against the Democratic machinery she might well leave politics to “homestead,” an ideal as backward-looking (though quite understandable) as the wish for increased party-politics democracy. A stagnating economy, with less to be divided between the 1% and everybody else, means that the wished-for popular coalition for social democracy is as much a pipedream as the wish of American farmers, expressed in their support for Trump, that the nonstop concentration of industrial farming, along with the rapid degradation of the environment, can be held back by the old-time community values of white small-business owners.
Meanwhile, the fires rage on in the West, while hurricanes and floods ravage the Southeast, and it is 77 degrees here in Brooklyn on November 8. Since hope springs eternal in the human breast, some are excited by Biden’s invocation of $2 trillion to be spent on combating climate change. But just as Governor Newsom, who promised a carbon-free California by 2050, is authorizing numerous new fracking leases, and the government of Japan, which made the same promise, is opening new coal-fired power plants, Biden is hardly preparing to expropriate the oil companies, ban the production of gasoline-powered vehicles, and fight for an end to economic growth—even if such goals were within his power, which they are not. (The relatively “realistic” idea of stopping the Keystone XL pipeline hasn’t, so far as I know, even been mentioned.)
Nor is he going to work to defund the police, who continue to shoot, beat, and arrest the citizenry with abandon. Past champions of mass incarceration, the president-elect and his ex-prosecutor sidekick are acutely aware of the need for police and prisons to maintain social order, especially in a time of deepening economic difficulty. When the moratorium on evictions expires on December 31, it is not to be expected that every one of the millions of people under threat will simply allow themselves to be thrown into the street. The police—and the military, if need be—will be required to quell the forces of anarchy and disorder.
All of which is to say that, despite the understandable euphoria at seeing the imminent departure of a particularly unpleasant—at once incompetent and needlessly cruel—incarnation of the American political economy, the advent of the new presidency in January will leave us facing essentially the same problems we faced the day before the election. Perhaps the Biden government will cease to incarcerate children as a form of immigration policy (will it simply return to the mass deportations of the Obama regime?); perhaps it will not promote the drilling of national wildlife areas (particularly at a moment when oil prices are low). But such Trumpian policies are drops in the bucket of human suffering and natural destruction our social system is filling at an accelerating rate. The collective reaction to the killing of George Floyd showed that sometimes the bucket is just too full, one drop too many. Having seen that the magnificent, strong response produced little more than increased Black representation in advertising, people understandably wearied of daily fights against the forces of law and order, and many hoped that a politician or two would do something significant for us. As this too fails, we will be forced once again to confront the real problem: not a temporary departure from the American norm, to be rectified by a return to one imagined past or another, but the basic nature of our present social reality itself.
November 8, 2020