The numbers from Miami-Dade County were the first sign that something was off. At first Joe Biden’s steep fall-off there seemed like an effect of that city’s Latin American oligarchies-in-exile, with all the usual talk of Cuban voters’ unswerving conservatism, but as the evening went on it became clear that a larger, inchoate phenomenon was taking shape. Biden was underperforming with Black and Latino voters in the cities, and Trump was running up the score in rural America significantly. The mood never turned as dark as it had four years earlier, but particularly on election night there was a pervading sense of disappointment just shy of disaster. Victories in Georgia and Arizona and a stark gap in the popular vote failed to displace the frantic questions asked by many: how could this happen after everything Trump had done; how did the Democrats blow it; who could possibly bear the suffering of 2020 and return for more; how could we relate to such people going forward?
Do we live in a society? Looking back on a brutal and miserable year, it’s easy to think not. In her excellent recent book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, Wendy Brown takes seriously as an agenda—if not an empirical description—Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Without the social, there is of course no need for social protection; this is the neoliberalism we know all too well. But, Brown observes, the social is also the primary realm in which hierarchy occurs, and where challenges to hierarchy are organized:
The social is where citizens of vastly unequal backgrounds and resources are potentially brought together and thought together. It is where we are politically enfranchised and gathered (not merely cared for) through provision of public goods and where historically produced inequalities are made manifest as differentiated political access, voice, and treatment, as well as where these inequalities may be partially redressed.
The social is a level of reality; it’s the fabric of human connection—glancing or lasting connection, institutionalized or habituated, hierarchical or egalitarian—that is not analytically reducible to the economic, though it is interwoven with it. To understand the social, think of schools, both sites of segregation and oppression, and also of social movement activity and demands for justice; or neighborhoods, where people both associate together and advocate for themselves and at the same time, dominate and exploit each other. Or think of your roommate or coworker—all the ways that you know each other, relate to each other, are bound together that are not reducible to sharing a landlord or an employer. If society does not exist, then to point out and resist injustice is to be hysterical—cry more, lib. “The neoliberal attack on the social,” writes Brown, “is key to generating an antidemocratic culture from below while building and legitimating antidemocratic forms of state power from above. The synergy between the two is profound.”
This certainly describes key aspects of the Trump phenomenon, and in particular the spitefulness that characterizes Trumpism from top to bottom, with its denial that we owe each other any recognition. But Brown’s formulation contains a paradox: on what substance does this “antidemocratic culture” grow, if not a social substance? A new participant must pick up the habits, tendencies of thought and speech, from older heads. How can a people so ostensibly atomized share a culture, something which propagates laterally? Aren’t a desocialized people too far apart for this to work? Aren’t their conditions too sterile?
Sterility, of course, is hardly the first word you’d come up with to describe our humid and infectious common habitat. If Americans are, per the famous study from the 1990s, “bowling alone,” are they not connected in other ways? Of course we know the answer—it’s practically the only thing we still know. Amid underfunded schools and neighborhoods scarred by gentrification, disinvestment, or both, vestiges of the social still exist—privatized, digitized, and politicized. Much as the tedium of Facebook and Twitter might persuade us otherwise, how can we understand social media except as the refuge of society?
Digital platforms have of course been absorbing social life for years, but the forced and fearful isolation of 2020 has exaggerated the process considerably. People gather, they talk, they try to understand their world and to feel some agency over it. Out of this substrate, Trumpism and its associated phenomena have grown. And too, these phenomena often have distinctively, insistently social qualities: the role of the mass rally in the Trump campaign, for example, suggests that gathering and sharing an intensity of feeling is important to the experience for the participants as well as the performer. The spread of right-wing misinformation on WhatsApp threads has been cited as a partial explanation for the swing in the Latino vote for Trump in 2020. Even the QAnon cult, repellent as it is, makes perfect sense as an online salon where millions of individuals frantically cooperate to give the world some kind of coherent shape. Their motto, “Where We Go One, We Go All,” is only a portentous and insane version of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Commenting on a Facebook post or catching Covid-19 in a regional arena while Don Jr. vibes at the podium is hardly equivalent to serving as secretary of the PTA or shop steward in a union. In truth, where Q followers go one, they only go some. But even a diminished sociality still amounts to a form of connection sufficient to create ideology and, on occasion, action.
Political speech does not find individuals as points on an economic grid, directing them toward the party or politician whose platform matches their abstract preferences. It finds them, instead, embedded in particular lifeworlds. And if class processes form the basis of political action, they still must become manifest through the organization of social life, which in turn becomes meaningful as culture. This goes some way toward explaining how so many people could vote for Trump and his party, even as large majorities endorse progressive policy goals in surveys and ballot initiatives.
As Alex Pareene observed last month in the New Republic, Joe Biden’s promise of a fifteen-dollar minimum wage might mean little to a given voter if everyone around thinks Biden is a pedophile and a crook, while Trump is a working-class hero. The former’s nattering about higher wages will seem duplicitous no matter how many times the campaign slogans are reiterated. But the situation is even more straightforward than this example suggests: if your experience of the world bears no residue of popular power, and no residue of that power having brought about any improvements in the quality of your and your neighbors’ lives, it is natural that such promises sound fraudulent. Even without the excessive layer of conspiracy theory and hysterical grievance, what politicians say only succeeds if it checks out against social reality as it’s lived.
The obliteration of the institutions that gave the working class some social reality in the past—trade unions, affordable urban neighborhoods, risk pooled more equally by social insurance—means that there is no one out there to be hailed, at least at the level of national electoral politics. Eugene Debs could rise from the dead and would get little traction. The working-class majority still exists, of course, but only as an economic category—not a social one. Not coincidentally, as our 2020 sage Mike Davis has pointed out, Democrats’ best performances around the country seem to have tracked histories of social movement activity—to oust Joe Arpaio in Arizona, to resist the police in Minneapolis, to throw back cuts to union jobs in Philadelphia.
But in the general absence of such socializing movements and institutions, the alternatives that have arisen may generate active hostility to egalitarian politics. In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, for example, where Trump made some of his most dramatic gains, the absence of any significant Democratic organization allowed local conservative activists to conquer terrain. (Surely the springtime efforts of the Democratic Party to quash Jessica Cisneros’s heroic grassroots campaign for Congress against an incumbent beloved by the border patrol did not help here.) As the Washington Post reported on the activities of a local Republican leader,
Peña and his family switched parties in 2010, helping to form the foundation of a Republican grass-roots resurgence in the Rio Grande Valley. They organized gun groups, Boy and Girl Scout parents, Bible study groups and started College Republicans chapters to run conservative candidates for government. They encouraged church groups to vote not for parties but values, specifically promoting antiabortion issues and upward mobility in one of the poorest and most religious regions of the country.
“Republicans sometimes sneer at Obama’s past as a community organizer. But I correct them because he had the right idea. We took that Democratic playbook and applied it here,” Peña said.
In the next county over, another Republican organizer explained, “It’s hard to be a Republican here because you are stepping out of the norm.” Hard, but not impossible: his “neighbors are Border Patrol and US Customs agents, veterans and oil and gas workers, who he argues are naturally conservative. Many Latinos here also identify as white and don’t subscribe to a pan-ethnic identity apart from their Texan identity.” Without grounding at the level of daily life, large-scale abstract affinities like “Latino” or “worker” pale next to the social effects of a job as a contractor for an oil company or a cop on the border patrol. They may even pale next to the texts you get on the group thread your cousin added you to.
Across the country’s working-class zones, Republican organization has tapped into actual living sociality and lent it reactionary meaning while Democrats are surviving on existing and anachronistic “norms” like an inheritance they are spending down. One thinks here of how the Congressional Black Caucus rallied around Eliot Engel, the hapless white incumbent in the Bronx challenged by Jamaal Bowman: an execrable (and unsuccessful) attempt to deploy the Black rank-and-file alliance with the party leadership, based in the victories of the civil rights struggle and the New Deal, in order to protect that leadership from accountability to the very kinds of social movements that established that loyalty in the first place. All this does not mean that the Republicans have become, or will become, the “party of the working class.” It means that such a party doesn’t exist—not even in the pallid form the Democrats have offered historically, and certainly not after Bernie Sanders’s defeat last winter. In effect, Eugene Debs did rise from the dead—and it didn’t work.
The socialist call sounded, we must acknowledge, tinny and thin across much of the country. But in some places it resonated richly, where existing pockets of organization received it, amplified it, and sent it back out. From Queens, the Bangladeshi Tenant Union and their struggle against negligent and extortionate landlords became the national face of Sanders’s demand for rent control and tenant power. In Iowa, an Ethiopian immigrant who works at a unionized pork processing plant organized his coworkers (who were also his neighbors) for Sanders in Amharic, delivering a victory at his workplace’s early caucus site and setting the tone for the evening. Among Latino voters nationwide but particularly in California, the Sanders campaign embedded itself in existing organizing networks and made itself meaningful to a layer of traditionally unmobilized people—marking a sharp distinction from the behavior of the rest of the Democratic Party. “I think other candidates are dealing with us how they usually do, which is just tokens,” DACA recipient and activist Belem Orozco told the New Yorker. “Bernie sees us . . . We’re not fighting for him, we’re fighting with him.” Perhaps no group better embodied this logic than the casino workers in Las Vegas, who had learned the principle of solidarity so well through their union that they disregarded their own leadership’s effort to apply that principle narrowly, thronging instead to the candidate who saw the whole country as one big union to be forged.
In Florida, the Dream Defenders—a radical abolitionist organization of Black and brown youth—spearheaded the Sanders effort on the ground, and cofounder Phillip Agnew became one of the most prominent surrogates for the campaign nationwide. It was Agnew who gave the best speech delivered by any person in the entire 2020 election cycle, in Iowa on January 24. First he asked audience members to hold hands, if their neighbors consented. Then Agnew catechized:
If you grew up in a happy home, please squeeze your hand. If you grew up in a home that wasn’t so happy, please squeeze your hand. If you’ve ever wondered where your next meal might come from, please squeeze your hand. If you’ve ever been harassed or catcalled as you walked down the street, please squeeze your hand. If you’ve ever been told to stop crying, that tears are cracks in your armor and signs of weakness, please squeeze your hand. If you’ve ever fallen ill and self-medicated or ignored it because the bill might hurt more than the ill, please squeeze your hand. If you’ve lost a job, please squeeze your hand. If you’ve laid awake at night wondering if your son or your daughter is going to come home safely, please squeeze your hand. . . .
Now raise them. . . . I want you to repeat after me: With these hands [with these hands] we will rebuild our communities [we will rebuild our communities]. With these hands [with these hands] we will free our people from prison [we will free our people from prison]. With these hands [with these hands] we will fight for a nation that makes our grandparents and our grandchildren proud [we will fight for a nation that makes our grandparents and our grandchildren proud]. With these hands [with these hands], we will build power and transformation [we will build power and transformation]. With these hands [with these hands] we will do miracles [we will do miracles]. Now repeat after me: power, transformation, miracles [power, transformation, miracles]. We want it [we want it], we need it [we need it], we got to have it [we got to have it]—right now [right now], right now [right now], right now [right now], right now [right now], right now [right now]. Tell your neighbor thank you.
The night of the Iowa caucuses, I crowded into a small apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts with a dozen friends—half of them contributors to this magazine—to do last-minute turnout phonebanking, trying to get wavering Democrats through the doors of their local school gyms before the cutoff. Someone hustled a voter into his car with only a few minutes to go, shouting “pedal to the metal, dude” into the phone; then we had a long, nervous wait before we heard anything. So we pulled up the Agnew speech on YouTube. We held hands when he asked us to, and we repeated after him.
For the campaign to succeed, it had to overspill its constitutive scenes, to become something greater than the sum of tenants in Queens, hotel workers in Vegas, academics in Somerville. There were not enough parts to sum up this way; so Sanders told us to “fight for someone you don’t know,” and we did. Millions of Americans heard a message of radical political solidarity for the first time; some could make out a meaning for themselves. Thousands repeated it to someone else.
But not enough thousands. Not in enough contexts where it made sense and matched the data of the world—and in particular, and most painfully, not enough of the members of the Black working class without whom American socialism is an absolutely impossible project. Because the Black working class remains somewhat more socially organized through churches, public employment, extended family networks, and civic associations—and in a distinct way that links its members to the machinery of the Democratic Party—Sanders’s message and his organizing efforts could not take root, particularly among the older voters for whom longstanding forms of organization remain more meaningful. In the end this wasn’t especially surprising. I remember a housing justice campaign I worked on in New Haven in 2016 with a group of Black union members who were active in local politics. Sitting around waiting for a meeting to start, three of us chatted about the primaries. One, who was a maintenance worker, elected union officer, and an active member of both a fraternal organization and a church, complained affectionately that his daughter in college was harassing him to vote for Bernie; I made encouraging noises. “I don’t know though,” he said. “I’m a Democrat.” The other, a food-service worker and shop steward, agreed. “The Clintons have to be held responsible for mass incarceration,” she said. “But Bernie is crazy.”
Although members of the Black working class—particularly in their more industrially organized sections—are more likely to have substantive left-wing views than virtually any group in America, they have been paradoxically unreceptive to attacks on the centrist party establishment from the left, at least among older cohorts. To say “Bernie is crazy” is to say, with almost perfect economy, “he does not make sense from where I sit in the world.” It is the same logic by which political conservatives can be militant union members if they have a sense of their collective power at work, or obversely how radical academics so often behave like petty baronets. Such orientations are not amenable to rhetoric or argument alone, as none of our orientations are. They make sense in the same way ideology always makes sense: as an expression of the relationships that define a person’s sense of the world’s existing and possible shapes. Such a belief changes only when the world around its bearer changes. Fighting for someone you don’t know is a beautiful idea; fighting for someone you do know is how you win.
Perhaps the socialist project would have done better in a presidential election shaped and determined by the pandemic, as Sanders’s message, amplified by his capture of a major party, would have resonated more loudly and seeped further into resistant pockets of American society. Or perhaps it would have repelled more of the affluent suburbanites the party has so thirstily pursued, without generating a counterbalancing mobilization. This latter possibility was always held out as a device to discipline the left: ignore the sensitivities of the nervous centrists, open the door to fascism.
If after 2016 “Bernie would have won” became some combination of mantra and all-encompassing theory of politics, this time around, given the unspeakableness of a second Trump term, debate on the left seemed academic, rather than electoral. Would Bernie have won? Maybe. But was Trump a fascist? Suddenly this was the key question, one not settled by the election itself. In 2020 Trump failed, as he has typically done, to seize the opportunities that have fallen into his lap. If ever a national emergency afforded an opportunity like the Reichstag Fire, Covid-19 was it. Trump managed to exacerbate a terrible situation and make the worst of it, but beyond appending his name to the $1,200 relief checks, he cannot be said to have exploited the crisis. The inability to do so—a result of the same combination of laziness, malice, and idiocy that has characterized so much of his administration—lends some credence to those who have recently argued that Trump is not a fascist, that Trumpism is not fascism.
The most thorough account of the character of Trump’s regime, and the most rigorous critique of the fascism thesis, was delivered two years ago by sociologist Dylan Riley in the New Left Review. Riley pointed out that Trump did not lead a mass party-state but rather ruled in a premodern “patrimonial” style, conflating the state with his family—in turn generating the frictions that we recognize in the chaos of the news cycle of the past four years.
The combination of a charismatic leader ruling in patrimonial fashion over a legal-rational bureaucratic state, in a political system that is largely oligarchic, within its democratic forms, is constitutively—and manifoldly—contradictory. Trump’s incoherence as a ruler is thus not just, though also, a temperamental failing. It is a structural effect of the kind of figure he cuts, presiding over the kind of political-cultural order that is postmodern America. The extreme form of hybridity he embodies suggests that it is futile to assign to him any general classification like fascism, authoritarianism or populism, even though he may exhibit traits of at least the third, if not the second—as well as nationalism, racism and sexism. Flukey in origin, this form of rule is too unstable a compound to have much staying power. There is no Trumpian ideology or “cause” to which loyalists might commit themselves when he leaves office.
According to this view, calling Trump a fascist is useful, since it compels the left to fall in for a coerced popular front behind the Democratic Party. And now, with Biden on the path to installing a restorationist government, the alliance is suspended and the left can be hounded and marginalized safely.
Critiques of the Trump-as-fascist argument almost always focus on the character of Trump-in-government—which Riley’s “patrimonialism” captures best—dismissing liberal alarmism about an incipient strongman; and almost always operate by comparison against interwar Europe. But as Alberto Toscano recently observed in Boston Review, this country and the rest of the Atlantic world have been home to a much older and more intellectually and politically committed analysis of “racial fascism”—an analysis emerging from the Black radical tradition. Pan-Africanist Communist George Padmore, for example, argued as far back as the 1930s that settler colonialism was the germ of fascism, and South Africa fascism’s archetype. In the US, Black radicals identified fascism with Jim Crow in the 1930s and 1940s and then the emergent carceral state in the 1960s and 1970s. Toscano writes,
As [Angela] Davis puts it, fascism is “primarily restricted to the use of the law-enforcement-judicial-penal apparatus to arrest the overt and latent revolutionary trends among nationally oppressed people, tomorrow it may attack the working class en masse and eventually even moderate democrats.” But the latter are unlikely to fully perceive this phenomenon because of the manufactured invisibility of the site of the state’s maximally fascist presentation, namely, prisons with their “totalitarian aspirations.”
Paradoxically in our moment, “moderate democrats” have identified a threat to themselves without grasping its actual origin, basis, and targets—opening themselves to the scorn of Marxists like Riley.
Yet fascism is not a characteristic only of leaders, but also of followers. In his trenchant book The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe, Riley carries out a Gramscian “reconstruction” of Alexis de Tocqueville to establish this very point. Examining the emergence of fascism in Italy, Romania, and Spain, he shows how rich associational worlds developed in these countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: cooperatives, peasant organizations, religious groupings, and much more. This efflorescence gave rise to democratic impulses, as association gave a sense of agency and empowerment to those now connected to each other. National political systems were unable to accommodate and incorporate these impulses. Civil society without hegemony, Riley argues, yielded fascism. Transposing Tocqueville—the great discoverer and enthusiast of American civil society—onto Europe and sieving him through Gramsci, Riley thus punctures the self-important liberal pretense that civil society, the realm of voluntary civic association, is necessarily the cradle of universal human freedom. Fascism is not liberalism’s external other but rather always bred within liberal society.
What happens, though, if we reimport this idea back to the United States? In the New Left Review, Riley sees Trumpism as an atomistic, anomic phenomenon, ported out of the White House by mass and social media and consumed by a basically stultified rank-and-file in a one-directional relationship. “The unity of Trump’s supporters consists in the image of Trump, just as the unity of those queueing consists in the bus for which they wait. But this is a standard postmodern format, exemplified by Obama and Berlusconi before Trump.”
But is this the total basis for the unity of Trump’s supporters? Believing so rests on a naïve and depoliticized reading of Tocqueville in the American context that Riley would never tolerate for Europe. The egalitarianism of the American project, so admired by Tocqueville, did not occur in a historical vacuum. Rather, as Aziz Rana argues in The Two Faces of American Freedom,
This ideology fused ethnic nationalism, Protestant theology, and republicanism to combine freedom as self-rule with a commitment to territorial empire. . . . For settlers there existed at the heart of republican notions of economic independence a basic divide between free and unfree work. Over time, Americans solved this problem by employing subordinating external groups, particularly African slaves, to engage in the most oppressive modes of production. And they justified both the expropriation of native land and the control of dependent laboring communities through arguments about ethnic and religious superiority.
Tocqueville’s utopia, in other words, was egalitarian not in spite of those whom it left out, but because of those whom it subordinated. The freedom and equality of the settlers were the enslavement and conquest of their victims. The primary factor of social cohesion in Tocqueville’s America was nothing other than white supremacy. Given that this structure has endured—not unaltered, but unmistakably intact—it makes little sense to imagine our society as formerly rich with association, but now bereft of it. The gun-waving McCloskeys in St. Louis are presumably not members of the same kind of fraternal organizations that were popular in the 19th century, but they are members of a homeowners’ association. Whiteness itself is a kind of inchoate associational gel, out of which a variety of more specific associations may grow in a given historical conjuncture.
How is the Trump phenomenon based in this kind of racialized civic life? First, it enjoyed a clear social-movement predecessor in the Tea Party, a genuine form of mass political association, based in the petit bourgeoisie, and giving prominence to figures like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Kris Kobach, Ken Cuccinelli, Steve King, Mark Meadows, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Price, and Mike Pence—all lesser versions of Trump, many of whom eventually joined the administration. As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson found, despite liberal accusations of “astroturfing” and a visible slick of billionaire cash on its surface, the movement of 2009 and 2010 was the genuine article. “Local Tea Party groups met in churches, libraries, and restaurants, and collected small contributions or sold books, pins, bumper stickers and other Tea Party paraphernalia on commission to cover their modest costs,” Skocpol wrote in Dissent. Occasionally this movement intersected with paramilitary formations like the Minutemen or developed them as its own excrescences, as with the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters—prefiguring the various armed groupuscules of our moment. The substance of Tea Party ideology—a simultaneous commitment to the validity of white middle-class access to social protection and a belief that racial outsiders and young people were being unfairly favored by the welfare state—was only barely altered in the rhetoric of Trump’s 2016 campaign, which broadened the social base of the earlier movement, in particular incorporating more white members of the working class.
Second, the carceral state itself has a massive social base. Large numbers work directly for the system: over one million police, sheriff’s officers, and prison guards; the twenty thousand who work for ICE and the twenty thousand who work who for the border patrol. As employees they retain significant industrial organization, and as their job functions have become increasingly politicized over recent years the militancy of their unions has grown. They also maintain other kinds of organization: forms of charitable association, for example, often with an edge of coercion. (Hence the stickers police associations give donors to put on their cars.) As the movements to abolish ICE and defund the police have grown, we have occasionally gotten glimpses behind the curtain into the online social worlds of enforcement agents, revealing a running dialogue of racist spite and violent fantasy. Entire departments are known to be saturated with white supremacist gang organizations. The appearance in the physical world of Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia and Punisher symbols are the visible trace of the closest thing we’ve ever had in this country to a Freikorps. Their job, collectively, is the violent maintenance of the racialized social order through a program of mass internment, expulsion, and abuse.
And finally, we return to technologically mediated forms of association. Certainly there is a passivity, as Riley suggests, to a standard-issue Fox News watcher or even someone who merely follows Trump on Twitter. But far-right online environments have become immensely richer and more participatory than this, as Talia Lavin’s new book Culture Warlords shows. QAnon enlists followers as sleuths, readying them for political deployment. Across different online right-wing communities, various analogues apply: incels commiserate and share advice, and occasionally do far worse; neo-Nazis play race war—sometimes only textually, sometimes even getting together in person, and now from time to time moving beyond play.
Two years ago, in his New Left Review essay, Riley pointed out that the long-term decline of voter turnout is evidence against the fascism thesis. But, we now know, the 2020 election marked a sharp reversal. In a recent election postmortem, Riley accordingly describes high Republican turnout as the “the puzzle of the 2020 election.” His explanation is that the zero-sum pattern of economic development, in which state power decides who prospers, has caused members of the Republican coalition to treat control of the state as an existential question. This makes sense, but it sits uneasily with a blanket rejection of the fascism thesis, for which conflict with existential stakes is good evidence. Riley circumlocutes around this problem with the coinage “macho-national neomercantilism.”
Trump is a factor of cohesion and mobilization not in the absence of any other, but because there are numerous, albeit fragmentary and frequently unaligned, underlying forms of social composition that constitute Trumpism—and that began to do so in the years before he burst onto the scene. These in turn are owed to the far longer history of patriarchal white supremacy, which does not express itself only in a single, unchanging, or unitary form. But under certain circumstances—zero-sum economic conflict, for example—some of the many forms of white settler sociality align, and their members begin to form into ranks.
Over the past four years, while arguments about Trump’s fascism occupied a narrow intellectual stratum, the market for books on tyranny, populism, and autocracy exploded, as liberal readers and commentators sought to grasp the contours of a crisis that resisted their methodological apparatus. Six weeks after the inauguration, Timothy Snyder—a prominent scholar of war and genocide in 20th-century eastern Europe—published a book entitled On Tyranny, organized around “twenty lessons from the twentieth century” about how to resist. Many of these lessons are perfectly good on their own terms: “do not obey in advance”; “believe in truth”; “contribute to good causes.” Me, I try to do all these. But as a code of conduct it’s impotent, and the reason is obvious: it’s addressed to the individual, and it is accordingly apolitical. It’s nice to be nice, but it has no immediate bearing on the disposition of political power. “Make new friends and march with them,” says Snyder. Certainly! But whom should I befriend, and where should we march? What should we do if the police attack us? These are the decisive questions, to which On Tyranny provided no answers. It was, however, a number-one New York Times bestseller.
Now, with Trump ejected from the White House by legitimate procedure, the conservationist efforts have won a victory. The platitudes have prevailed. But the country remains stuck in quite a bad mess, indicated by how the Republican Party continues to claim its opponents are not legitimate citizens eligible to cast valid votes. What Gramsci described as an “organic crisis” will persist no matter how much Democratic Party elders wish to will it away and relive their fond memories instead. “A crisis occurs sometimes lasting for decades,” Gramsci wrote.
This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves and that despite this the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them within certain limits and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will concede that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain that the opposition organizes.
Though this passage was written about interwar Italy and appropriated to great effect by Stuart Hall to explain the rise of Thatcherism in Britain, it is difficult not to recognize our moment in it.
In Riley’s reading, an organic crisis is a systemic political dissociation between represented and representative. Political leadership forfeits the acknowledged legitimacy of its constituency. Such a scenario may or may not call forth a novel political formation, depending on the development of civil society—which he finds an autonomous and contingent matter. Hall, however, adds another element: he distinguishes between the “conjunctural” and the “organic,” observing that a crisis only passes from the merely conjunctural to the organic when the “efforts” described by Gramsci cease to be restorationist and take on an inventive character, aiming to establish a new “hegemony” on the basis of a new social bloc. Per Riley, this is only possible on the basis of civic association, which he sees as largely absent across our political spectrum.
Certainly skepticism about the possibility of resolution to the crisis is warranted. Even the unlikely victory of both Democratic candidates in Georgia’s January senate races won’t transform the underlying fact of American politics: the ungovernability of the country. That, in turn, can only mean that the crisis will not be resolved in the near term. It’s true that efforts to resolve the crisis from the right have, for the moment, been beaten back. But Trump’s failure to cohere what Gramsci would call a hegemonic “historic bloc” across class lines is no guarantee that the right will not produce such a formation successfully in the near future: one can see the outlines of it in Trump’s barely defeated coalition and the fervid, if ineffectual, resistance to the election outcome—and can easily imagine its triumph in the absence of Covid-19.
Looking to the other side, it goes without saying that the current leaders of the Democratic Party are fundamentally incapable of resolving the impasse. As the weeks since the election have revealed, the party’s directorate wishes desperately to convey to its public a willingness to accommodate the police and the system of white supremacy of which they are the visible and contested face. This is nothing other than an announcement of an intention not to contest for hegemony—since the rival far-right hegemony coheres precisely around the slogan “Blue Lives Matter.”
At the same time, and more promisingly, the disarticulated elements of a left-wing hegemony also appeared in 2020—not together, but rather in sequence. First the Sanders campaign, and then the spring-and-summer uprising against the police, each expressed a fragment of a new historic bloc. The relative social disconnection between the different parts of this hypothetical bloc, itself emerging from the disorganization of the American working class, is the reason it appeared in two parts rather than one. Each half has its own internal structures of organization. Virtually every city in America and many smaller towns are now home to what is a national panoply of Black activist organizations that emerged or grew this summer, some associated directly with larger national groups, some local specialties. Their reach, depth, and radicalism vary, but we still have yet to fully digest the scale of their achievement this year in pure organizational terms. Similarly Democratic Socialists of America and related local groups such as the tenants’ unions that have emerged in cities across the country, the Sunrise Movement, Reclaim Philadelphia, Reclaim Rhode Island, Lancaster Stands Up—and even more moderate cousins like the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, and Indivisible—have seen very broad rank-and-file participation over the past four years. There are points of intersection between these halves, particularly promisingly among young Latinos and in the struggle against the deportation machine. There are individual people who straddle them in a sustained way, and voters and activists from one who will turn out for the other. But the overall pattern of separation at the associational level is unmistakable.
In the moments of celebration after Biden’s victory was announced, however, one could faintly glimpse a new level of unity emerging. As people filled the streets both to defend the election result and to exult in it, a new bloc began to show its face. Trade unions, largely absent from the year’s earlier movements, figured centrally in demonstrations in Philadelphia, as they had done in the election campaign beforehand. The energy and solidarity of the summer uprising were present as well, transposed into a more joyful key. The decisive role of cities like Philly, Detroit, and Minneapolis in the defeat of the right points toward the possibility of leadership for the emerging socialist and abolitionist politics based in the young activist centers of those cities, and embodied on the electoral stage by Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and of course Nikil Saval. A socialist program that confronts white supremacy as its immediate object—rather than trying to find a majority by navigating around the edifice of white supremacy—is the principle of unity for this bloc. Its social basis lies in an alliance of low-wage workers and high-debt workers, disproportionately young, who are concentrated together in cities and increasingly in suburbs. It is not that such an alliance on its own constitutes a majority; it is that it forms a potentially solid social foundation from which to provide rational answers to the structural problems of American society, and thus to recruit the more disparate elements needed to resolve the crisis. Join together these parts, and you have a big enough resonator.
Still, to achieve this coherence will be a task of enormous conflict—with the forces of direct repression in the streets, which will not be discouraged by the presidential transition, and with the conservationist Democrats. Organization is the entire question—the building of relationships and trust across the forms of social difference that have thus far prevented the socialist message from resonating as widely as it might. For this, as it happens, Snyder had some advice, although he perhaps didn’t realize this was what he meant: “put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people.” Or, as Phil Agnew put it—knowing exactly what he meant—“squeeze a hand.”