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The Spectacle of Disintegration

Everyone I know was sad and shocked and disbelieving when Donald Trump did so well in the 2016 election. Whatever happened was not quite what the models predicted. It may take some time to figure out what part of this was driven by a rage whose roots are in experiences of race or gender or class. Let’s just assume for now it was all three.

Listening to President Obama on the night before the election, I felt as though he had managed, with his superior oratorical grace, to conjure an image of liberalism on an upward swing. Despite everything, reason and progress would prevail. Only they didn’t. There will be recriminations to come, of course. But in the immediate moment of defeat, there is a mood of melancholia, as if something has been lost, but nobody is quite sure what, or where, or how.

The challenge is always to turn melancholia into mourning, to really home in on what has passed, and how, and why, so that one can move on to another day. This may be as true of mourning lost forms of political being as it is loved ones.

I feel as though I have already had to do this, and for some time now already. I was trained by a defeated people. They did not quite know it. A certain melancholia had descended. People kept to the old beliefs out of habit, keeping alive a sense of loss rather than face the dark. My people were the socialists of the labor movement. As one old comrade said to me: “I won’t live to see socialism, Ken – but you will!”

Loss had nearly destroyed them. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, they had stayed loyal to the Prague Spring, to “socialism with a human face.” Copies of Civilization at the Crossroads by Radovan Richta were still passed around ten yours later. It’s not a great book, but it is at least not melancholic. It’s about accepting that something had died – bureaucratic state socialism – and waking up to it.

It’s an instructive in one way at least. It’s about a mutation in the mode of production, in which scientific, technical and intellectual labor becomes more important than manual, service and clerical labor to the development of the commodity form. In this analysis, the traditional working class is no longer part of the forward movement of the forces of production, but something residual in it.

This strikes me as pertinent to at least part of what just happened in the 2016 election. Large chunks of the working class that had resisted the appeals of reaction up ‘til now succumbed to it. Yes, much of this was misogynistic – but a lot of white women voted for Trump too. Yes, much of this was racist – but apart from Black and Latin@ voters, Trump did have some appeal to non-whites. Yes, much of his support was petit-bourgeois rather than working class, and as such looks much like a traditional fascist movement.

But perhaps there’s this as well: the old working class cannot be articulated to a progressive project, even a merely liberal one, because the growth and development of the economy will only push them (or their offspring) further into marginality. This is no longer the capitalist mode of production that our parents knew. But that is what there’s a melancholy longing for.

Maybe this is not capitalism any more, but something worse. Something that does not offer anything to the traditional worker. In reality it may be that the vanishing jobs are being taken by robots rather than the Chinese or the Mexicans or who-ever. The project of a liberal capitalism that can lift all boats and deal with its own flaws through redistribution may now be as dead as the socialist project has been for some time.

Maybe this is why I have been interested for some time in figures who did the work of mourning for socialism, who transformed melancholia into mourning and moved on. Such an affect may now be relevant for liberals too.

Guy Debord is one such figure. His masterpiece, the film in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a work of mourning. It’s about situations that that opened for the labor movement, but in which that movement was extinguished. He came to give it a proper burial. And so it says at the end of the film: “to be begun again, from the beginning.” I wrote about this on The Spectacle of Disingration, which seems like a not-bad title for this era.

I think also of Victor Serge, and his stunning series of novels about victory and defeat. He was present during the revolutionary moment of 1917. But his masterpiece is surely The Case of Comrade Tulayev, with its vivid and detailed description of the fates of those who had made a revolution only to be murdered and tortured by its own children.

I think also Aimé Cesaire, particularly his plays about Lumumba and King Christophe, about what happens to postcolonial power. He anticipates Achille Mbembe’s postcolony only too well.

Two neglected figures I’ve been working on: Charlotte Haldane and her sister in law Naomi Mitchison. They did not get on, and for many reasons. The former was a communist; the second with the Labour party. Haldane lovingly describes the effort she put in to working illegally to get volunteers into Spain to fight the fascists – a job only the communists would organize. But she also works through her mourning for the failure of the party, its murderous turn. Her late books are biographies of powerful and original women, as a place in the past to begin again.

Mitchison wrote a great neglected book of the thirties, and clearly saw how the rise of socialism as a movement brought down fascist vengeance upon it. But late in life she also wrote Memoirs of a Spacewoman. It’s about mourning for the loss of a child. But it is also about affect, about something beyond empathy that one could only call the comradely. Its where she began again,

And I think of Pasolini’s unfinished Petrolio. He was working on it when he died. Perhaps what it exposed about the corruption of the state oil company was one of the reasons for his murder. Some pages are still missing. It is an extraordinary story about a character who is doubled. One sells out, the other does not. But it’s not always clear which is which. One changes gender (maybe) and offers himself, or herself, to be fucked by a gaggle of local boys out on the wasteland. It’s like a sacrifice. A giving up to go on.

To be a socialist with any real clarity and honesty is to realize we are a defeated people. If commodification doesn’t get us, then climate disruption will. But one can’t linger in a melancholy embrace of defeat. One can’t hold on to what’s lost. Nor can one study past defeats simply to win the next time. There is no next time. Hence I don’t have a lot of patience for that art form – mostly inspired by Trotsky – of replaying the events of the early Soviet Union over and over, as if by studying it down to the finest details, we could will it to turn out differently.

Rather, I think we have to look to the past for those who took defeat to mean not just a lack of forces but a change of situation. In my reading, this is why Bogdanov changed tack and dug in for the long haul. One has to begin again to find the counter-hegemonic forces – if that is what they still are – who point the way within this rather strange new mode of production to its transformation. The affects and images that might work are imminent to it.

Contrary to the slogan – “don’t mourn, organize!” – I think the mourning is important, crucial. As a means to foreclose the endless melancholy longing for situations past. So mourn good and long. And then we’ll organize, but differently. Now that not only the old socialism but also the old liberalism is dead.

McKenzie Wark

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