Occupy the Farm Redux

Five years ago I wrote about the eviction of Occupy the Farm from UC Berkeley land on the same day the Denver City Council passed the “urban camping ban” to further criminalize homelessness in Denver. If you look at the URL of that post, you’ll see that I had originally titled it “A Depressing Monday.”

Back in 2012 I thought the eviction was the end of Occupy the Farm and never heard anything else about it until I came across a 2014 documentary about the project earlier this month. It turns out I gave up too early and Occupy the Farm has been one of the most successful of the camps inspired by Occupy Wall Street: the activists broke back onto the land in May 2013 to re-establish the farm. Despite two more raids by police, they refused the university’s comically bureaucratic attempts at co-optation, successfully got Whole Foods to back out of their development plans, and finally the university capitulated and has committed to preserving a plot of land including a little over an acre which has been turned into the UC Gill Tract Community Farm.

One of the more novel tactics the university used was to file a lawsuit against individual activists (which it later dropped). It’s silly, but much preferable to the Reagan approach of simply shooting activists with shotguns (I’m surprised the documentary didn’t point out the parallels between Occupy the Farm and the 1969 occupation of People’s Park).

Berkeleyside reported on the progress of the farm in the summer of 2005:

The farm aims to be a source of organic produce for anyone who lacks access in the East Bay. Volunteers have harvested 17,000 pounds of produce since June 2014. Today, about 30 different types of crops grow on just over one acre of land — everything from dry-farmed tomatoes and leeks to pineapple ground cherries, which are tomatillos that taste just like, well, pineapple.

…​

The farm has seen seven field trips from nearby schools and has hosted interns and over 40 different workshops. Volunteers also supply food to the Berkeley Food Pantry, senior housing communities including Harriet Tubman Terrace and the Sojourner Truth Manor, and other community groups. (“UC Gill Tract Farm blooms amidst controversy” by Kathleen Costanza)

After Whole Foods backed out, the university did make a deal with Sprouts which protesters were unsuccessful in challenging (I believe the store opened for business this month). In an interesting contradiction which seems to have escaped the film-maker’s notice, the documentary begins by lamenting the lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods (in order to make the case for urban farming) while many of the Occupy the Farm activists ended up spending much of their time protesting the construction of grocery stores.

The documentary is called “Occupy The Farm”. I paid $0.99 to watch it on Amazon. Review in California Magazine: “Getting a Front Row Seat at Occupy the Farm: The Movie”

BoycottSprouts

On the road to May Day: A non-report-back from Denver 2017

Diogenes Asking for Alms
Figure 1. “Diogenes Asking for Alms” by Jean-Bernard Restout (1767). Here Diogenes is begging from a statue, which he did to practice being rejected.

A spectrum of beggars

Being asked why people give to beggars but not to philosophers, Diogenes said, “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.”

Every other day of the year I’m dismissive toward churches, parties, unions, and holy days; but on May 1st, I’m somehow always hopeful that a large number of radicals will turn out and cause trouble. It’s been a few years since I’ve written a post complaining about the tameness of May Day in Denver. That’s because I realized that I’m too shy to contribute to or get much out of protests and stopped attending them. This year, however, with good weather, the drama around Trump, and the centennial of the 1917 revolutions, I thought the demonstrations could be big. I searched online and saw that the Democratic Socialists of America and some other groups planned a “May Day Against Trumpism” at the capitol building. Wanting to not miss out, I took the bus to the city.

Between Union Station and Denver’s capitol building is a mile of pedestrian shopping called 16th Street Mall. Recounting one’s walk down 16th Street Mall is often to sketch a continuum-forming typology of beggars:

Diagram of begging typology.
Figure 2. A print-quality diagram depicting the perfectly sensible multi-dimensional typology of begging. I’m not at all embarrassed of the concept or drawing. The bus icon is by Naomi Atkinson; the capitol icon is by Loren Klein (CC-BY-3.0). The lines were drawn by me: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click image for SVG version.

Almost as soon as I stepped outside of the bus station a woman approached me and asked if I had “a dollar or something to help with food.” I remembered that I had grabbed some extra change with my bus fare and handed her the two dimes. She cheerfully assured me that every little bit helps. This is the unpretentious beggar: she offers nothing in exchange for taking money except to live and beg another day. Every other beggar I’d meet on my way to the capitol would present their case as an exchange; they’d tell me that either I or an even more helpless third party somewhere would benefit from my donation.


A girl with a clipboard standing at the nearby intersection who witnessed my twenty-cent donation caught my eyes and asked, “Do you want to save a child with me today?” From what I gathered before the crossing light changed, the plan was for her to get paid to solicit donations for some sponsor-a-child charity scheme and for me to give her my money. I couldn’t even think of a sensible response to that offer of teamwork and just awkwardly shook my head before crossing the street. Later down the mall I met some more clipboard beggars, and I did much better. One girl got my attention with a friendly greeting and then explained that with Trump in office it is very important that I give to the ACLU. I told her I didn’t have any money. She was understanding and told me that I could donate online whenever I do have money.

A man begging on behalf of Save The Children, an organization currently helping victims of the Syrian civil war, asked if he could talk to me about their work. I told him I don’t have any money, and he politely asked if he could give me his spiel anyway. So I listened. When he got back to asking for a donation I wished him luck and walked on. It turns out that while he’s trying to extract money from unemployed anarchists on the mall, the President and CEO of Save the Children, Carolyn Miles (whose background is in marketing, specifically in selling American Express cards to college students), is paid $455,000 per year.

Further down the mall I looked down and walked fast to avoid interacting with a pair of clipboard-holders wearing Greenpeace shirts.


But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. When I crossed to the other side of 16th Street, on the first block of the mall, there was a man playing the flute along to some kind of electronic jazz music playing from a loudspeaker while also talking to passers-by trying to get them to dance. It was a tough crowd, but he was a skilled performer and there were several dollars in the wooden box on the ground in front of him.

Unlike most beggars, buskers are generally not only tolerated but desired by downtown business improvement districts because they provide some cultural authenticity which makes shopping a less sterile experience. People often give to buskers because they genuinely enjoyed the performance rather than out of pity, in which cases street performing is a commercial art rather than begging proper. While I’ve not witnessed them in Denver, other cases in which unsolicited services are pre-rendered with the expectation of payment, such as squeegee beggars who clean windshields at stoplights for donations, probably rarely make that transition (and so precede busking in the spectrum).


The claim that donations are actually payment for a service is a rhetorical game Diogenes played when he said people should pay him “not for alms, but for repayment of his due” (presumably for being such a great philosopher). And like some guilt-tripping clipboard beggars, he also tried leaning on potential donors' sense of fairness and morality to reason them into giving to him: “If you have already given to anyone else, give to me also; if not, begin with me.”

Jesus, the founder of the other ancient tradition of begging which has been gnawing the foundations of Western civilization for over 2,000 years, also gave some rather cynical advice on how to handle beggars. Included in his Sermon on the Mount are three of his most characteristic pronouncements. The first, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is followed by three examples of enduring more abuse than one’s day-to-day abusers expect (if someone slaps your face, turn turn the other cheek; if someone sues you for the literal shirt off your back, give them your cloak too; if you are conscripted to walk a mile, walk two miles). The third is “Love your enemies,” after which Jesus points out that even tax collectors — the very agents of exploitation — are nice to their friends, so that should be, like, the absolute minimum standard of behavior.

Perhaps less famous (though not less vexing) than those two paradoxical sayings is found right between them: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Jesus’s first followers were propertyless peasants who had left even their homes, were used to putting up with abuse at the hands of their social betters, to going without sufficient clothing, to walking more than even soldiers, were more often beggars than givers, and who nevertheless treated everybody well. Whatever the deeper and more general applications of these sayings, then, on their surface they not only presented the lifestyle of the early Christians (that which potential followers would be expected to adopt), they also seem to be lightheartedly self-serving in the same style of the Cynics who taught that it was virtuous to give to homeless philosophers.

The co-optation of Christianity by the rich and powerful not long after Jesus was executed imbued these sayings with even greater difficulty for their future audiences, especially “give to everyone who begs from you” which cannot be so easily philosophized away as a paradox. As an example, consider the case of a 19th-century Russian aristocrat named Leo Tolstoy who after a legendary career as a novelist attempted to take the sayings of Jesus seriously. His struggles with “do not resist an evildoer” produced several works which had profound influences on social justice movements around the world and are still read by pacifists and anarchists today. But it wasn’t until he was quite old that he finally got the courage (if sneaking away from one’s wife in the middle of the night counts as courageous) to leave all of his possessions by setting out on train with nothing but the clothes of a standard Russian peasant. He developed pneumonia and died within days of leaving home.

The pretensions of the cynical beggar are ironic in that the audience is aware of the rhetorical game, but like in the case of the street performer, it is the decision of those who give as to whether they are giving out of pity or gratitude. Beyond that, the type of beggar represented by the Cynic and the Christian are honest both in the sense that they present neither sob stories nor pretended friendliness, but even more so in that they invite their listeners to throw off their own pretensions about the society they are living in and reproducing. That is, to the Cynic and the Christian, giving to beggars is not in tension with more systematic solutions to poverty, it is the systematic solution to poverty. The clipboard-holding fundraiser, in contrast, who has perfected the sob story, the salesman-like friendliness, and who claims salvation is found in non-profit organizations, is perhaps the paragon of the dishonest beggar.


I didn’t have occasion to mention it, because I have thankfully never been a witness or victim to a robbery (not that such crimes are unknown on the 16th Street Mall), but robbers also make no claim to be helping their victims and should logically precede the unpretentious beggar in our spectrum. While of course theft and robbery, being characterized by their involuntary demands, are not begging properly, even muggers sometimes couch their activity in the language of a market exchange (‘your money for your life’).

Julian, the fourth-century Roman emperor (a nephew of Constantine) who tried to peacefully revert the empire from Christianity back to Paganism, was annoyed with the openly atheist and crude Cynics of his day. He wanted all Cynics to be as pious and educated as he imagined Diogenes and Crates were, and argued that most Cynics were even worse than bandits and pirates who were at least decent enough to be ashamed of their lifestyle and live in their faraway hideouts instead of preaching at people in the streets. He also referred to Cynics as “monks,” intending the association with Christians to be an insult (Christians were only one or three gods away from being atheists themselves).


At many of the intersections along the mall I saw newspaper salesmen — often older men with all of their possessions in bags on the ground at their feet — selling the Denver VOICE for a suggested $2 per copy. Originally founded 20 years ago as “a grassroots newspaper created by homeless people for homeless people,” the VOICE is now written for a general audience and sold by homeless vendors (who buy the papers for $0.50 each) as a way for them to earn some income. (The Denver VOICE is independent, but its operating model is influenced by similar street newspaper vending networks which operate in cities around the world.)

These charity vendors, whose sales depend at least as much on pity as on satisfying the wants of their customers, are located in the middle of the murky space where begging becomes selling (somewhere to the retail side of the children in third-world cities who sell trinkets to Western tourists).


Of course the entire mall is lined by actual retail shops and beggardly advertisements. Salespersons and advertisers (and the business owners they work for) likely imagine they are much further along the spectrum of begging than they actually are.

Downtown business associations and city councils will often commission artwork to help beautify shopping areas and, as in the case of buskers, will happily tolerate some guerrilla murals which provide a degree of authenticity to the shopping environment. But for the most part any art or graphic design which might distract from the commercial purposes of the property is forbidden. In the words of the street artist Banksy, “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back.”

Banksy’s observation echoes one by GK Chesterton a hundred years earlier that “It is really not so repulsive to see the poor asking for money as to see the rich asking for more money. And advertisement is the rich asking for more money”:

A man would be annoyed if he found himself in a mob of millionaires, all holding out their silk hats for a penny; or all shouting with one voice, “Give me money.” Yet advertisement does really assault the eye very much as such a shout would assault the ear. “Budge’s Boots are the Best” simply means “Give me money”; “Use Seraphic Soap” simply means “Give me money.” It is a complete mistake to suppose that common people make our towns commonplace, with unsightly things like advertisements. Most of those whose wares are thus placarded everywhere are very wealthy gentlemen with coronets and country seats, men who are probably very particular about the artistic adornment of their own homes. They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.

Shop and restaurant owners on the 16th Street Mall have been known to be hostile to the more needy beggars operating on their turf and have enlisted the police to carry out revanchist actions against the most vulnerable. In 2012, legislation criminalizing the act of sleeping outside with shelter (defined as “any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing”) was passed on behalf of downtown business owners. Under the authority of that code, police have conducted winter raids on homeless camps to confiscate blankets. Recently three individuals accused of camping with shelter were tried by jury, convicted, and sentenced to several days of forced labour.

The City of Denver in collaboration with downtown business owners has installed mechanical panhandlers — modified parking meters — which are meant to compete with live beggars. The city has promised the money collected by the machines will go toward “job training, meals and permanent housing options that help get people back on their feet,” but it has been caught spending it instead to help fund the police sweeps of homeless camps.


The mall ends where 16th Street dead-ends into Broadway. To the north is the financial heart of Denver’s business center. On 16th Street itself are the two Denver World Trade Center buildings and Republic Plaza (the tallest building in Denver); scattered beyond those are more high-rise office buildings and skyscrapers. These buildings exhibit almost none of the colorful and chaotic elements of the shopping mall and are instead dark, sleek, and inauspicious.

The craft of capital allocation and investment, which is practiced in many of these buildings, does not depend on demanding, begging, or offering so much as on staking ownership and simply taking interest. Like the robber on one end of our spectrum, we have financial capitalism on the other: the bandit subsumed. The full spectrum of begging plays out between these dialectical bookends of the modern capitalist economy, as it does everyday between Union Station and Broadway.


Walking a block south on Broadway brought me to the state capitol building. I could see maybe 100 demonstrators nestled up on the steps waving red and black flags. A large banner facing the street read “No War But Class War,” and another further back read “Workers & Oppressed People of the World Unite!” There were no police or pro-Trump counter-protestors in sight.

The prospect of joining them seemed both socially overwhelming and boring. Like some sort of party. So I continued walking down Broadway and spent my afternoon in the Denver Public Library. It was a good May Day.

Other people’s May Day 2017

Of course, some people actually followed through on their plans to attend a May Day demonstration. The local Fox News affiliate was kind enough to both get the word out about various May Day protests in Denver as well as to follow up with a short video and a couple of pictures from the event at the capitol: “May Day events taking place in Denver” (Fox31, 1 May 2017). More photos can be found on the Facebook event page.

A few cities around the world saw major protests, with the riot in Paris getting the most headlines because protesters responded to police tear gas with spectacular petrol bombs. Hundreds of protesters and six cops were injured during the clashes.

In the United States the most unusual thing about May Day this year was the presence of Trump-inspired right-wing counter-protesters who turned up in several cities. Seattle was unusually quiet though there was a minor confrontation with participants of a “Stand Against Communism” rally.

The most rowdy demonstrations were in Portland and Olympia. In Portland a minor riot broke out after a few protesters threw full cans of Pepsi at riot police who responded by charging into the mostly peaceful crowd of marchers. The bloc’d up [mostly-anarchist, no doubt] protesters who instigated the police response have been criticized for endangering the rest of the march.

There was also a small riot in Olympia where protesters threw rocks at police (and some counter-protesters threw rocks at marching demonstrators). In one unfortunate and embarrassing instance, a protester tried to pepper spray some taunting counter-protesters and accidentally sprayed passers-by including a dog. Most cops are not even that irresponsible with chemical weapons.

The Red Guards Austin, a Maoist group which has gained some notoriety in recent months due to their open-carry demonstrations, tried to march in Austin, but they were surround by an alarming number of reactionary counter protesters. Apparently racists and anti-communists of the InfoWars variety are numerous in the Austin area (I didn’t realize until now that Alex Jones lives in Austin and hosts his show there). Some Red Guards members were carrying rifles, and so were a few of the right-wingers. In their public self-criticism which they posted to their weblog, the Red Guards described this scary moment:

Early on in the march a fascist named William Fears physically assaulted one of the comrades who was guiding chants and for this Fears came very close to forcing our units to use lethal force. Those in attendance could see fear in his eyes as the Partisan unit moved into the ready position prepared to chamber a round.

My impression is that the Austin PD did a good job keeping the groups apart and possibly from literally killing each other. The independent journalist Kit O’Connell was present and wrote a good postmortem of the event: “Unpacking The Fascist Rampage On May Day In Austin: What Happened, What Went Wrong.” I could not find a single report from a main stream news outfit.

Sources of quotations

The sayings of Diogenes quoted above can be found in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book VI. Those of Jesus are recorded in Matthew 5:38-48. Julian’s thoughts on Cynics are preserved in his seventh Oration: “To the Cynic Heracleios.” The Banksy quote is from his introduction to Wall and Piece. GK Chesterton’s opinion on advertisements can be found in his 1920 book The New Jerusalem.

Guides to the Alt-Right

Here are some of the better introductions to the alt-right that I’ve found, just in case anybody wants to waste as much time as me reading about this stuff:

This Andrew Jackson Jihad: Thoughts from the first forty days

Donald Trump is President of the United States of America

I was a sexy little viper rune
In the corner of a King Tut tomb
When the hate train started
Going "Choo-choo"

Radical social change is difficult; much easier is Cynicism: just awkwardly excuse yourself from society and then bark unconvincingly at passers-by as they try to go about their business. And of course if you can’t change a thing, you can always change its name. If you were in St. Petersburg on March 8, 1917, for example, you would say you were in Petrograd on February 23. But regardless of calendar or map, to the war protesters staging a march in that city on that day it was International Women’s Day, and, to everyone’s surprise, that little Women’s Day demonstration prompted a spontaneous strike of workers and soldiers. The rebellion lasted for days in the streets and shook the establishment to its top, resulting in the abdication of the Tsar and the replacement of his autocracy by a contentious dual government of liberals and socialists — and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution and civil war.

Now, after so much intervening Russian history — the rise and fall of Stalinism and European Fascism including another world war, a nuclear cold war, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, other things, Putin — it is in the headlamps of the approaching centennial of those days in 1917 that I’ve set about trying to understand the crisis Donald Trump has brought both to America’s ruling classes and to my own personal political views.

Because of his anti-political and buffoonish style, his denouncements of the press, his early push of executive power targeted at immigrants, and the encouragement his success has provided to white nationalist movements, there has been some debate as to where Trumpism fits in the Fascist family tree. If Trump is the farcical reappearance of one of those tragic 20th-century personages, then he is something like an inarticulate ghost of Mussolini. But as far as comparisons to other political leaders go, Trump is probably best understood as an American Berlusconi with a platform heavily flavored by his old Reform Party rival Pat Buchanan (but without Pat’s dedication to non-interventionism) who is assembling a band of robbers to exceed the cronyism of Warren Harding's cabinet.

His own administration seems to favor comparisons to Andrew Jackson (seventh President from 1829 to 1837). In an interview with a journalist for the Hollywood Reporter in November, Stephen Bannon said of the Trump campaign that “Like Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” Pat Buchanan described Trump’s ‘America First’ inauguration speech as “Jacksonian” in that “he was speaking to and for the forgotten Americans whose hopes he embodies.” And during his first days in the White House, Trump had a portrait of Jackson installed in the Oval Office so that a painted Jackson could watch him sign his flurry of executive orders beside a real-life Bannon.

Most of the parallels that could be drawn are shallow, but Jackson was a populist candidate who was elected as a champion of angry white men who felt disenfranchised by the East Coast elites and bankers. While its opponents accuse Trumpism of implicitly empowering white supremacists (as do some of its proponents), Jacksonian democracy explicitly emphasized the whiteness of citizenship. As was the fashion of southern job creators of that period, Jackson enslaved almost two hundred black men, women, and children as workers at his Tennessee cotton plantation. Jackson also developed a reputation for sometimes flexing his executive powers, like when he ignored the spirit a Supreme Court ruling by continuing to help Georgia in its negotiations with the Cherokee government. The result of those negotiations was the forced relocation of tens of thousands of indians (and their slaves) during extreme weather which killed thousands.

Neoliberalism with nationalist characteristics

To a formalist, the way to fix the US is to […​] figure out who owns this monstrosity, and let them decide what in the heck they are going to do with it. I don’t think it’s too crazy to say that all options - including restructuring and liquidation - should be on the table.
— Mencius Moldbug

As if in a nod to that brutal 19th-century primitive accumulation, on his fourth day in office Trump directed the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite their review and approval of the easement required to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline. The next week North Dakota police raided a camp established by the Standing Rock Sioux to protest the pipeline and arrested 76 people. The easement was granted, and on February 22 the main Oceti Sakowin camp was cleared and razed.

Andrew Jackson was true to his commitment to the common white man, including standing up to a central bank he felt unduly privileged the wealthy. But during Trump’s transition to the White House, there have been strong indications that not only does he intend to continue the plutocracy as usual, he intends to further it toward a naked fact. Like his role as a billionaire non-politician in the highest executive office, his executive actions and appointments tend to erase the imaginary line between business and government.

With now-former Goldman Sachs COO as Director of the National Economic Council and hedge fund manager (and former Goldman Sachs partner) Steven Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury, the Trump Administration is posed to reduce corporate taxes and rollback regulations put in place by the so-called Dodd-Frank legislation in response to the 2007 financial crisis. Trump’s appointee to Chairman of the FCC is an opponent of net neutrality and an advocate for private telecommunication monopolies which charge prisoners and their families exorbitant rates on phone calls. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s controversial Attorney General, has already rescinded an Obama-era memo that directed the Justice Department to reduce the use of private prisons. In a rent-seeking parallel to support for private prisons, his appointee to Secretary of Education, the billionaire Betsy DeVos, is a proponent of public funding for privately owned schools. The fact that Trump’s Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA several times on behalf of industrial profiteers indicates probable deregulations in that agency’s future. Etc.

In some ways the orientation Trump’s administration seems to be taking with its planned regulation cuts, infrastructure spending, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and increased immigration restrictions are consistent (one of the precious few consistent points through Trump’s campaign) with what Bannon (who is a former Goldman Sachs deal maker himself) calls a policy of “economic nationalism.” But Bannon has also spoken out against bailouts and crony capitalism, qualms which Trump obviously does not share.

In any case, deregulation and de-facto privatization are the major economic motifs of the emerging Trump administration. Bannon has described the goal behind those trends as a “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It looks a lot like typical neoliberal fare taken around an introspective turn. Using David Harvey’s terminology, the Trump folks are reverting from a spatial to a temporal fix to the recurring overaccumulation of capital. Will it be enough to revive the profitability of American manufacturing and mining? Or has the Eye of Sauron turned its gaze inward to Mordor too late?

In much the same way as Sauron could only respond to the movements of the ring bearer, I think Trumpism is a response to global economic conditions more than a determining cause. Take, for example, this sentence from Trump’s executive order on border security and immigration enforcement:

The recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico has placed a significant strain on Federal resources and overwhelmed agencies charged with border security and immigration enforcement, as well as the local communities into which many of the aliens are placed.

It is a strange and circular justification for the executive order, because other than the possible increase in illegal immigration triggered by Trump’s own rhetoric about building a wall, there has been no surge of illegal immigration. In fact, as reported by the Pew Research Center, the net immigration from Mexico between 2005 and 2014 was negative and the Mexican immigrant population has been in decline since 2007.

For decades nationalists and wage-jealous racists have been screaming about the porous southern border, but the ruling class paid them little heed and instead maintained whatever level of control at the border was deemed necessary to steer wages and keep illegal immigrants abundant but vulnerable and easily exploitable by employers. Now, when migration levels are such that controlling the border provides little in the way of economic leverage, the xenophobes and protectionists have won the day. How convenient.

Culture/Wars

The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.
— Esther 3:15

Steve Bannon must be some kind of a genius. In a span of about two years he boosted the significance of Breitbart News (a pro-Israel right-wing news site) by aligning it with the antisemitism-riddled alt-right, then leveraged his position at Breitbart to become CEO of a presidential campaign where he got Donald J. Trump elected as President of the United States of America (?!), and he has now managed to get himself appointed to the National Security Council. Yet everything I’ve heard him say sounds typical, a mundane obsession with defending the “Judeo-Christian West” against its conspiring enemies (represented most fiercely by “jihadist Islamic fascism”).

He reminds me a bit of Robert California, the opaque, psychopathic, manipulative character featured in some of the more tedious episodes of the American version of The Office who was hired as a manager but then immediately convinced the owner of the company to give him her position as CEO. Not so much his personality, but in his enigmatic genius and his knack for landing in positions of power (including a stint as the CEO of the company running the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona).

The 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Trump in the US signal a widespread discontentment with neoliberal globalism finally reaching the Anglosphere (almost ten years after the 2007 financial crisis and 17 years after the Seattle '99 WTO protests). Maybe Bannon’s current success stems simply from his inclination to keep in touch with the underlying sentiments which have now surfaced in a cultural confluence.

I don’t understand much of what motivates the alt-right and its reactionary fellow travelers in Europe. I do suspect that in many ways they can be seen as ‘Western’ counterparts to the patriarchal revolts against globalism in the developing world. As racial and gender hierarchies are being reformed to better serve capitalism, and as oppressed groups continue to further the progress of their own liberation, old local and familial forms of privilege, wealth, and exploitation are being lost at both ends — whisked out to financial centers or destroyed by feminists and other progressive reformers.

Trump and company hitched a ride to power on the conservative cultural impulse desperately opposing those changes. They have an ideology to execute. Even if they are adrift in economic currents they have little power over, they seem determined to do more thrashing than floating. So opposite the most extreme, violent patriarchal groups like ISIS we now have Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful armed forces. Trump has no business being president, and the powerful machines of war at his disposal have no business existing. Yet he is and they do.

In the words of Bannon, “We are — I believe — at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” (Or more concise is Trump’s own analysis: “I think Islam hates us.”)

It should go without saying here — but American leftists sometimes fail to make clear — that denouncing Trumpism and its Islamophobic tendencies is certainly not to side with Islamist regimes. Frankly, Bannon’s “jihadist Islamic fascism” is an apt description of the war Salafism espoused by groups like ISIS in the wake of America’s overt and covert imperialist actions in Iraq and Syria (respectively) and elsewhere. While the movements may draw on much different traditions, the label ‘fascist’ applies more cleanly to ISIS — which maintains totalitarian rule through terror while adhering to a philosophy of endless war and is using its newfound state powers to institutionalize slavery, genocide (including antisemitism), and rape — than it does to America under Trump. I will always oppose American militarism, but you won’t hear me complaining very loudly about NATO airstrikes which protect Yazidi villages and Kurdish forces in Syria.

The Obama State Department spent eight years waging slow-burning proxy wars against Russia. Trump has already tried to bring about a realignment of foreign policy by consistently making nice with Putin (likely for the sake of some shady Crimea deal or other scandalous intrigue). An improved relationship with Russia could have a drastic effect on the priorities of America’s intelligence/military adventures — a shift from maintaining American oil interests to a more ideologically-driven crusade against Islamist militias (though, like Obama, I expect the Trump administration to fight Islamist groups in places that just happen to be oil-rich and where America is already heavily invested: places like Iraq but not Nigeria).

But it is far from clear how Trump’s foreign policy will evolve. His Secretary of State, former CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, has extensive business experience in Russia and personally with Vladimir Putin. Tillerson has expressed his opinion that Obama’s sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine were too weak and the US should have instead responded with military support to Ukraine. Tillerson also holds more conventional views on free trade (he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and may be a counterweight to the Bannon wing of the administration.

Trump has already demonstrated he lacks the light touch required by Obama’s drone war approach. The first raid he authorized in office, a continuation of the Obama-Saudi offensive against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, resulted in a reported 24 civilian deaths (including 9 children) and the Yemeni government’s revocation of its permission for US ground missions (it still allows drone strikes). Who knows, maybe with Tillerson keeping the State Department on the same hawkish anti-Russian line as Clinton and Kerry, combined with the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam schemes of Trump and Bannon, we could be in store for one of the worst of all possible foreign policy positions in American history.

For a president who has never had a popular mandate — but who does have enemies in the intelligence community, the tech sector, the media, and probably the judiciary — Trump’s noisy entrance to the White House resembles a page from the ISIS playbook: usurp a few pieces of artillery, declare war on everyone, enjoy a life of heroic conflict while it lasts.

Trump remains unpopular and his executive excesses in check by the courts, but I can’t shake an uneasy feeling that he has managed to wriggle onto the throne in such a way that the sword of Damocles is hanging at least as much over American civil liberties as it is over his own head waiting for (almost taunting) any self-motivated terrorist to cut the thread. A patriotic fervor uniting behind Trump could easily be more devastating than it was with George W. Bush in office — and the wars it would make possible could be more bloody than anything even the deranged minds in ISIS could hope for.

And so it is with Trump and Bannon in the White House that those who are obsessively frightened of violent Islamists destroying our way of life have made it possible that violent Islamists can trigger the destruction of our way of life to an unprecedented degree.

Politics

How’s the world so small when the world is so large?
And what made the world, may I please speak to who’s in charge?
Everything is real, but it’s also just as fake
From your daughter’s birthday party to your grandmother’s wake
And your bipolar illness, it comes and it goes
Your parasympathetic nervous system reacts
And you’re in fight or flight mode

From my vantage point here at American Cynic (where I never vote but I do occasionally bark unconvincingly at a passer-by), there is a silver lining to Trump’s electoral victory. Well, there is a grey lining and an opportunity.

If you are like me, there is also a fleeting moment of joy: it is a delight to see democracy backfire, smug liberals despair, and the federal government so embarrassed. By “like me” I mean a healthy, white, straight, uneducated, contrarian, broken-hearted American man who was long in the process of giving up on fitting in to any meaningful extent within capitalist society before Donald Trump became president. I realize that for people not like me in those regards, Trump may be more terrifying than fun.

There is one quick distinction I’d like to make, because I do see some of myself (and Diogenes) in the trolls celebrating the folly of Trump. That is that there is a difference between Cynic parrhesia and what is sometimes defended as free speech these days: one is a homeless man telling Alexander the Great to step out of his sunlight; the other is an internet shock troll stepping into the shadow of the White House.

The grey lining is that Trump’s victory in the face of a nervous establishment demonstrates that the American electoral system is more democratic than I thought. Not only did Trump — a controversial, unpredictable, perhaps uncontrollable populist candidate — survive the Republican primaries and that party’s safeguards against popular misfits (unfortunately the Democratic Party was much more successful in defeating Bernie Sanders), but he survived a general election despite (or unintentionally because of) hostile media coverage, and he got the requisite votes from the Electoral College, the last defense against democracy, despite a record number of faithless votes (okay, only seven) and a plot to use the electoral college to replace him with a mainstream Republican post-election (Colin Powell ended up in third place with three electoral votes, good enough to have been considered if nobody got a majority).

And, as always, I was impressed by voter turnout. About 55% of American adults voluntarily cast a ballot in the presidential contest (59% if you count only eligible voters).

I’m aware, of course, that given those points many people would not find evidence for the resilience of American democracy — America maintains an unusually low voter turnout for a rich republic, Trump lost the popular vote, and his administration may be the biggest threat to the American system in recent memory (in my lifetime, anyway). But those people, I submit, hold an overly optimistic and realist, almost magical, view of formal political process.

With the election of Trump, concrete reality is seeping into the liberal delusions that constitutional republicanism can produce equality and liberty. Faced with a rising cognitive dissonance, many progressive liberals have retreated from democracy to the safety of the institutions. This retreat can be seen in the current hysteria over Russian influence. They are willing to believe that by exfiltrating a bunch of boring emails from the DNC, which almost nobody read and even fewer people considered when voting, the Russians have successfully subverted the electoral process. (I’m not even that cynical about elections.) And, despite being shocked (shocked!) that rival imperial powers would dare interfere with each other, those same liberals, who have become little neo-McCarthyites suddenly discovering all-powerful Russian spies lurking in every corner of the White House, while whining about a lack of democracy, and with a straight face, are putting their hopes in the intelligence agencies, the judiciary, and the media — powerful institutions with little democratic allegiance or oversight — to save us from Trump.

But there is nothing like a state of emergency to reveal the nature of sovereign power — or at least a state of epistemological crisis to shatter one’s illusions. The opportunity provided by the Trump victory is in its revelatory (apocalyptic?) potential. As the embodiment of the dishonest lie, Trump reveals the truth of political power: its reality is something more like blind obedience and brute force than the formalisms of monarchy, democracy, et cetera that it is so often clothed in. Thanks to Trump, even true-believing liberals have found themselves faced with the insight, as David Frum put it in his story about what America might look like under a Trump dictatorship, that “checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism.” Maybe some will also realize the same applies to politics-as-usual.

Karl Marx observed that the liberal forms of governance and wage work simply mask old relations of brutal rule and slavery in an idyllic, ideological veneer. Carl Schmitt noted that no matter how seriously parliamentarianism takes itself, the rule of law can never completely do away with sovereign power or escape the fundamental political distinction between friend and enemy — as exemplified in [the possibility] of war. These two philosophers, Karl the Communist and Carl the Nazi, can provide a crude schematic of the bifurcated post-liberal possibilities which Trump’s moment has brought back into view. One path, socialism, seeks to take out coercive social hierarchies including those upon which capitalism relies; the other, which we can generically call fascism, seeks to preserve social hierarchies against the leveling and self-destructive tendencies of capitalism. Liberals pretend that equality and liberty exist where they don’t. Socialists seek to create equality and liberty where liberalism has failed. Reactionaries believe equality and liberty are undesirable (and probably impossible anyway).

Interestingly, some of Trump’s most sophisticated supporters cling to the possibility of a third way. They see the futility of existing liberalism and are revolted by equality, but they cannot stomach the reality of fascism. So they hope to ditch the democratic elements of liberalism and thereby arrive at a stable, peaceful version of capitalism (using the right-wing definition of ‘peaceful’ that means ‘undisturbed status quo’). Peter Thiel, a billionaire donor to Trump’s campaign and member of his transition team, wrote in 2009 that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” By “freedom” he seems to mean capitalism (he goes on to call “capitalist democracy” an oxymoron), and he cites the enfranchisement of women as one of the major stumbling blocks to his vision of a “free” society. Thiel, who was a student of the late René Girard, hints that through meritocratic monopolies, the elimination of economic competition, humanity’s cycle of mimetic violence can be escaped (and then king-CEOs can finally sleep peacefully without worrying about becoming scapegoated victims of mob violence, or something).

Thiel’s ideas are a variation of Silicon Valley neoreactionary thought as propounded by Mencius Moldbug, the movement’s pioneering theorist. Moldbug views democracy as a source of inevitable violence (and latent totalitarianism). Many of his essays are dedicated to exploring capitalism-preserving alternatives to democratic systems. One possibility is what he calls neocameralism in which a state is a joint-stock business that owns a country. A more obvious name might be “neofeudalism” (and Moldbug has half-jokingly described his anti-democratic project as neo-fascist).

But despite its fascist-like qualities, the apolitical, non-democratic capitalist utopia proposed by Moldbugian neoreaction, in which wars for survival have been made impossible and economic categories blur with and replace the political, would seem to represent everything Schmitt was against. From a Schmittian view, we might conclude that such neoreactionary thought is not an alternative to bourgeois liberalism, but its most degenerate form.

Whether neoreactionary schemes are classified as fascism or extreme liberalism, Karl Kautsky’s famous dictum from 125 years ago has gained a renewed relevance in Trump’s shadow: “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.”

Of course no matter how interesting or illuminating I think Trump might be on questions of political theory, it is not the case that police and customs enforcement agents are about to look at him and then resign en masse. The fundamental conflict of politics is now the same as ever: between police and their victims. Resistance is also the same: finding means of disobedience — with a renewed emphasis in America on defending immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and people of color against police and white-supremacist violence.

Trump didn’t invent borders or deportations or prisons or torture or execution or the military-industrial complex or patriarchy or racism or theft or taxes or profit. They have been normal for my entire life, so I don’t really understand my own visceral response to his presidency. I traditionally struggle alternately with apathy and pacifism — the Trump victory has muted both impulses within me.

Still, I’ll grudgingly agree with liberal opponents of Trump that a contingent retreat to the institutions may be the only practical chance to minimize the damage he can do in the short term, but it would be nice if in doing so we manage to avoid the intellectual retreat to liberalism’s false promises.

He tells it like it is (a note on Trumpist propaganda)

Cartoon of sheep looking at a political sign depicting a wolf declaring "I’m going to eat you" and commenting approvingly "He tells it like it is"
Paul Noth/New Yorker; © Condé Nast
Irony once expressed: this is what it claims to be, but that is what it is; today however the world alleges that things are just so, even in the radical lie, and that such a simple finding coincides with what is good. There is no crack in the sheer cliff of the existent, to which the grasp of the ironist may cling. (from aphorism 134)
— Theodor Adorno
Minima Moralia

In his first days in office, Trump has signed an onslaught of executive actions which target immigrants (already ICE has arrested nearly 700 people in raids conducted according to the relaxed criteria) and refugees (he signed his infamous Muslim ban to refuse Syrian refugees on International Holocaust Remembrance Day). He’s also directed “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border” (which can’t be carried out unless Congress approves the expense), the expansion of the US military, and for Federal agencies to find new ways to “support and protect Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

But as an attempted reassertion of white supremacist authoritarianism, Trumpism is a version taken close to its farcical limit. It feels like an alternate timeline of 20th-century Fascism where Mussolini has a barely-functioning vocabulary and Carl Schmitt is illiterate. (Of course that doesn’t make its threats of violence any less serious.) I’ve heard Trump’s distinctive manner of speech described as an example of “post-literacy.” But the associated style of his propaganda, which simply ignores known facts and asserts more convenient ones on-the-fly without regard to their plausibility, might be better described as reflective of a ‘post-ironic’ society.

The most striking thing about Trump’s rhetoric (which is often preoccupied with accusing his opponents of being liars) is how his endless, incoherent lies are received by his followers as “telling it like it is.” By lying so transparently, Trump reveals with clarity a truth that resonates with his supporters: that politicians are liars who serve wealthy elites. At the same time, through his braggadocious and intentionally offensive language he cultivates the image of someone who can protect the cultural identity of his supporters. He so perfectly is what they claim to hate, fulfilling his own charges of political corruption and chaos, while at the same time soothing their anxieties about the changing world, that he is perceived as a prophet rather than a hypocrite.

The relation in which Trump, a lying politician par excellence, stands to his supporters, who celebrate his victory as a triumph over lying politicians, might seem ironic. But irony depends on a recognition of the difference between circumstances as they appear and circumstances as they actually are, and that differentiation is not available to Trump’s audience for whom it is lying itself that manifests the truth. Adorno, who began writing Minima Moralia in America as an exile from Nazi Germany, observed that “Among today’s cunning practitioners, the lie has long since lost its honest function, of concealing something real” (aphorism 9). That is an apt description of Trump, whose lies are revelatory to his followers precisely insofar as they lack the sophistication to actually conceal anything.[1]

Trump’s simplistic rhetoric allows for only a minimal propaganda, which has several advantages:

  1. It is inexpensive. Because his lies avoid much of the pretense of competing with other narratives on factual grounds, his propaganda does not rely upon direct censorship or control over the established media. Now that he is in office we may see attempts to implement actual policies to control the press, but so far his strategy has been to denounce the media at every opportunity by accusing journalists of being liars and “fake news” (essentially treating the press as he would a political opponent), and that has been effective enough to satisfy the demand for ignorance of his core supporters. (Media Matters for America has been tracking Trump’s attacks against journalists and media outlets: “The Trump Administration’s War On The Press.”)

  2. It is unassailable. Trump’s propaganda is not sophistry; it doesn’t even try to be persuasive. His alternative facts need only reinforce existing fears and prejudices, they don’t need to be convincing or rational; they never need to be defended, they can be simply contradicted or re-iterated in the next sentence or Tweet.

  3. It is easy. Trump’s propaganda does not seek consistency. Any spur-the-moment thought that praises a friend or denounces an enemy will do. Even his interest in conspiracy theories, like his ‘birther’ campaign against Obama, has nothing to do with posing alternative theories consistent with known facts and everything to do with opportunistically emphasizing anything that might appeal to the existing biases of his potential supporters.

The disadvantage of such a minimal propaganda is that its effectiveness depends almost entirely on an active cooperation with listeners who must want to believe. It provides almost no indoctrination of its own and so requires pre-indoctrinated masses to whom appeals and dog whistles can be directed. But that again makes it easy: Trump does not need to formulate and disseminate ideas of resentment, he only needs to discover those ideas already existing in the population.

In his book on the rise of Hitler, Konrad Heiden explained that those who were confounded by the effectiveness of Hitler’s propaganda when it contained so many obvious self-contradictions were people “who do not understand propaganda, who regard propaganda as the art of instilling an opinion in the masses. Actually it is the art of receiving an opinion from the masses.”[2] That captures very well the essence of Trump’s method, which depends so much on receiving opinions rather than imposing them that it may already be hindering his administration. During the controversy over the Muslim-targeted travel ban, the White House attempted to control the discourse by imposing the idea that it was a travel “restriction” rather than a “ban.” But after a single question from the press about Trump’s own choice of words, Press Secretary Spicer had to immediately give up the effort and explain that Trump is merely “using the words that the media is using” (though it might be more accurate to say he is using the words that he knows his xenophobic supporters want him to be using).

It’s impossible to judge how many people are true-believing members of Trump’s narcissistic cult of personality. I suspect very few, but they are evidently enough to have become the kernel of a populist movement around which anyone with a nationalist, traditionalist, or monopolist agenda has coalesced. The number of Americans willing to go along with him remains alarmingly large. Even after his first two bumbling weeks in office, polls put his approval rating among the electorate at 40%-54%.


1. It will be interesting to learn the outcome of the investigation into Trump’s relationship with the Russian government. If it turns out he has been personally bribed or blackmailed or otherwise conducted secret business with Russia, it will show that Trump is capable of honest lies as well as his typical dishonest variety.
2. Konrad Heiden, Der Fuehrer: Hitler’s rise to power, trans. Ralph Manheim, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1944, 139

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