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Month: November, 2016

Melancholia after Fidel

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The world is a poorer place; a sterile promontory. The earth is dried up, its surface drifts away in tiny whirlwinds, and there’s nothing underneath. Every year it shrinks, weaker and worse, stripped away by a thousand chattering stupidities; everywhere the desert is growing and the ice caps melting into the sea, two vast blanknesses gorging themselves on what remains. How could a famished world like this continue to sustain someone like Fidel Castro? All the great national leaders are going. Kwame Nkrumah is dead. Salvador Allende is dead. Thomas Sankara is dead. Hugo Chávez is dead. Fidel Castro is dead. Socialismo o muerte: are the terms becoming indistinguishable? What remains is stunted, compromised, and ruthlessly eradicated: Dilma Rousseff is shunted from office by an authoritarian coup in everything but name; Venezuela is torn apart; and already the sarcophages are burrowing into Cuba, swarming to eat it alive. Something has passed away, most likely for good: perhaps not the future, but something. Where are our Fidels? We’ve fallen from the madness and frenzy of the twentieth century to an age more bureaucratised and banal than anything that preceded it, a vast system identical to its own crisis, a soil utterly incapable of supporting the kind of grand socialism – epic, mythic, heroic – that died with Fidel Castro. Which might be for the best: epic socialism had its excesses; maybe it no longer makes sense to have our movements led by grand cigar-chewers. Wherever there is injustice there will be resistance. But it doesn’t diminish what’s been lost: not one frail nonogenarian in a two-storey house, but the knowledge that we can not only fight but win, that we can not only defeat the reactionaries but build socialism, that we not only have to do something, but that we know how to do it.

We’re not supposed to think like this; revolutionary socialism has faith in the people and hope for the future or it has nothing. But sometimes we do, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

I first came to Latin American socialism through the music. It was the mid-2000s, a far darker and more terrifying time than anyone will admit; I was a teenager, and it was easy to confuse a genuine political commitment with being a fan. There was a hopelessness to the whole movement, and had been ever since 2003: you line up to protest the latest war, scream until you’re hoarse, raise the anti-fascist salute, be baton-charged by the police, and then it would happen anyway. We were always anti, trying to put the brakes to capitalism and imperialism, trying to fight with thousands of weak bodies against a machinery too enormous to really contemplate, and it wasn’t working. I listened to the Clash, and then the people they namedropped, and then their comrades. That loud, stomping, strident chant of Venceremos was something completely different: the voice of a socialism that knew it could win and had no doubt on its claim to the future, the joyousness of a new and better world coming closer every day. After centuries of rot, the sunshine, cold and bright and devastating, pouring over the Andes. It wasn’t some economic doctrine, it wasn’t an initial in the acronym shouting at us through a loudspeaker in another rainy slog through Westminster, it was alive. Todos juntos haremos la historia, a cumplir, a cumplir, a cumplir! I played it loud in my room and stomped around restless. There was so much to be done. Mil cadenas habrá que romper, la miseria sabremos vencer! But then at the same time I always knew what had happened. I knew that Victor Jara sang Venceremos in the stadium on the day he was murdered. He was herded there with thousands of others for the crime of making music that the people loved; he never left. Pinochet’s soldiers tortured him for days, breaking his ribs, mangling his hands, shattering his teeth, and then threw him out in front of the other prisoners. ‘Sing now if you can, you bastard!’ And he sang: ‘We will triumph, we will triumph.’ Then the soldiers dragged him away again and shot him.

It was impossible to hear those songs without remembering this. All those glorious rousing songs formed the chorus to a tragedy, the singers just didn’t know it.That horror lurking at the end of the story seeped back in time to colour everything, to turn that ever-incoming future into a nostalgic past, to fossilise it in history. It happens everywhere now: socialism is haunted by its own ghost, the failure that is still to come. It’s so much harder now to say that we will triumph – even if Victor could sing it surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, that sense of historical certainty has been lost. You can inveigh against this tendency, but that won’t stop it happening; cheery and voluntaristic false optimism is not what inspires hope. We know that we’re doomed, and we fight anyway, against it all. But not in Cuba. In Cuba we survived. For decades Cuba was a light to Latin America and the world, a sign that it was not all futile, that however many times they tried to kill us we could still carry on living. In Fidel Castro we mourn something else; not our defeat, but our victory.

Communists don’t like melancholia; it’s indulgent, verging on the aristocratic, sedentary, acquiescent, and fatalistic. We’re meant to take the manic posture, to ‘be staunch and active.’ Don’t mourn, organise! Walter Benjamin quotes a unnamed critic of the melancholics; the ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness;’ as he notes elsewhere, the melancholic hero of the Trauerspiel is almost always a monarch or a prince. Marxists know that nothing simply vanishes, that negation is determinate, that everything is preserved in the dialectic. This is why we continue to shout Fidel vive, just as we insisted that Lenin lived long after he was embalmed in Red Square: these names don’t refer to a person but to a struggle, the desperate fight against immiseration and despair; they stand for victories that an be overturned but never annihilated. The mistake comes in thinking that this determination is always opposed to melancholia or to the tragic. Melancholia is a dialectical procedure. In Freud’s account, the melancholic subject introjects the lost object; it’s a refusal to abandon the object-cathexes, a refusal to simply mourn, to let all the scars of past struggles simply heal over; melancholia is, as he puts it, ‘like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies from all directions.’ There is a work of mourning, a process by which subject and object gradually and painfully disentangle themselves, and the latter is consigned to the grave. It is, Derrida writes, ‘not one kind of work among others’ but ‘work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production.’ Marxists should recognise this kind of work: it’s alienated labour, the production of an object divorced from us entirely. But melancholia resists any principle of economy; as soon as Freud thinks he’s found one in its complex he is forced into an abzubrechen, a breaking-off of his inquiry, a further loss reproduced within his text. In melancholia object and subject endlessly produce each other; what’s been lost is never alienated from ourselves. We preserve it even as it falls away: socialism has the keen sense of its own defeat because it is a movement of the defeated. Socialismo o muerte: socialism or lethe, the dead object, the void. Benjamin: ‘The past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity.’ There is much that we’ve lost, but until then we will not let it go.

Don’t mourn, melancholise. Hasta la victoria, siempre.

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How you lost the world

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I think I’m still in shock. When the sun rose this morning it was blistered with the face of Donald Trump, bronze and smirking hideous, and all I can think about is Hillary Clinton. It’s what I know. Throughout the entire election, one slow-motion clip of a clown car ramming into a crowd of pedestrians, I’d assumed that the danger of Trump and the danger of Clinton were of two different orders. Trump was dangerous because of what he said and what he represented, the waves of fascism and violence that rippled out from the dead plopping weight of his speeches. Clinton was dangerous because of what she would actually do, because Clinton was going to win the election. I was a sucker, the kind who gets duped precisely by believing himself to be too smart for any kind of con. I thought I saw through it all, the whole stupid charade, a coronation disguised as a battlefield. I was wrong. This was exactly what Hillary Clinton wanted people like me to think; she wanted to be an inevitability. And this is why Trump won: the presidency was Clinton’s to lose, from the moment she announced her candidacy, and she lost it. She was the only person who could. People don’t like taking part in someone else’s inevitability.

Why did Hillary Clinton run for President? The most gruesome spectacle of Election Day was her short speech outside the polling station in Chappaqua, New York. ‘It’s the most humbling feeling,’ she said, of voting for herself to control an enormous nuclear arsenal. All electoral politics are predicated on this kind of bullshit, the debates, the campaign ads, the phony acceptance speeches, the highminded types trying to focus on the ‘issues,’ as if there’s any issue at play beyond a pair of hungry-eyed megalomaniacs deciding that they want power. Someone like Trump might have been stupid enough to convince himself that he at least had some kind of grand vision for the country, or the will and dedication to really get things done, but Clinton had no such illusions. She’s been in government for a long time; she knew that the powers of the presidency can be competently exercised by any grey and dismal middle manager, she knew that she had nothing particularly unique to offer. She was running not because there was anything in particular she wanted to get done – look how slippery her positions have been on just about every issue – but because she wanted it, the big chair and the big desk and the first female President; she decided that it was her turn, that it was hers by right. She knew that she was electoral poison, that vast swathes of the country hated her and for good reason, that she was compromised by a miserable record spotted with sleaze and criminality, that she alienated the left, inflamed the right, and appealed mostly to a small coterie of sexually repressed and pathologically centrist think-tank nerds, that her entire constituency was made of limp cardboard and backlogged semen, that her candidacy raised the serious possibility of a Republican victory when anyone else would have beaten that divided and frothing party into insignificance with one hand tied behind their back – but she ran anyway.

And then she lost. Despite it all, the vast monumental horror of a Trump presidency, it’s hard not to feel a little twinge of satisfaction as Hillary Clinton is denied the only thing she ever wanted and which she never deserved. Trump has promised to send her to prison. Good. It’d be for all the wrong reasons, but her crimes are many, and losing a general election to an overgrown baby should absolutely carry a long minimum sentence. Let her rot.

Clinton’s media foot-rubbers are presenting this result as a victory for prejudice: Trump won on a platform of racism, sexism, ableism, misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia; the American people are hateful beyond reason, and they elected a knight of the kyriarchy to turn their roiling incoherent psychopathologies into government policy. Of course these people are right; it would be incredibly stupid to discount the role of outright bigotry, especially in a country that has fuelled itself on bigotry for three hundred years. But it’s not enough; if the only problem was too many bigots the whole elections collapses into a question of tribes and demographics, and you don’t have to think about why Clinton lost. Trump won among voters who ticked the box for Obama in 2008 and 2012, he won decisively among white women, he picked up a far bigger share of ethnic minority voters than anyone would have reasonably expected, he won because the standard formula of American liberalism – eternal war abroad coupled with rationally administered dispossession at home and an ethics centred on where people should be allowed to piss and shit – is a toxic and unlovable ideology, and his candidacy turned it from an invisible consensus to one option among others.

Hillary Clinton had nothing to offer people; all she could give them was fear and herself. Her campaign was the most cack-handed and disastrous in recent decades, managed by a gang of simpering imbeciles pretending to be Machiavellian strategists; it was all on the flimsy depthless level of TV. Now watch her whip, now watch her nae nae. Yaas kween, slay kween, slay. Clinton was to be carried through her path to the White House on the shoulders of irritating media celebrities; Lena Dunham’s Instagram feed, Beyoncé’s stage shows, Robert De Niro’s menacing monologues. Clinton strategists actively and deliberately abetted Trump at every stage of his rise through the Republican primaries, dignifying his candidacy with every statement of disapproval, because they thought that he was the enemy she had the best chance of beating. Clinton spent the final weeks of her campaign against a parody toddler obsessing over weird conspiracy theories, painting her opponent as a secret Russian agent. Clinton decided, as a vast country fumed bitterly for something different, anything, that she would actively court the approval of a few hundred policy wonks. Clinton all but outrightly told vast swathes of the American working classes that they were irrelevant, that she didn’t need them and they would be left behind by history, and then expected them to vote for her anyway. Clinton was playing at politics; it was a big and important game, but it could be fun too; it was entertainment, it was a play of personalities. Her campaign tried to reproduce the broad 500-channel swathe of TV: an intrigue-riddled prestige drama and a music video and the 24-hour news; they forgot that trashy reality shows always get the highest ratings.

Donald Trump is a fascist. We shouldn’t be afraid of the word: it’s simple and accurate, and his fascism is hardly unique; it’s just a suppurating outgrowth of the fascism that was already there. Still, this time it’s different. The fascisms of Europe in the 1920s and 30s, or east Asia in the 50s and 60s, or Latin America in the 70s and 80s were all the response of a capitalist order to the terrifying potency of an organised working class. Fascism is what capitalism does when it’s under threat, something always latent but extending in claws when it’s time to fight; it imitates mass movements while never really having the support of the masses. (In Germany, for instance, support for the Nazis was highest among the industrial haute bourgeoisie, and declined through every social stratum; look at Trump’s share of the voter per income band and see the same pattern. The workers didn’t vote for Trump, they just didn’t vote for Clinton either.) But today the organised working class is nowhere to be found. There’s no coherent left-wing movement actively endangering capitalism; the crisis facing the liberal-capitalist order is entirely internal. It’s grinding against its own contradictions, circling the globe to turn back against itself, smashing through its biological and ecological limits and finding nothing on the other side. This is the death spasm, a truly nihilist fascism, the fascism of a global system prickling for enemies to destroy but charging only against itself. There’s no silence in the final and total victory, just an endless war with only one side. It’s not entirely the case, as the slogan puts it, that the only thing capable of defeating the radical right is a radical left. The radical right will defeat itself, sooner or later, even if it’s at the cost of a few tens of millions of lives. We need a radical left so there can be any kind of fight at all.

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