Looking at the primary results this morning, I wasn’t angry or outraged so much as sad. And there was something else in there I had trouble placing — almost a whistfulness or nostalgia, as though I was savoring the memory of that moment when I believed that a moonshot to the leadership of the Evil Empire was a feasible strategy. Ah, to be that young, that hopeful! I wish I could still be that person I was before 6pm yesterday evening! Most affecting, I think, was recalling some of my Twitter commentary, where I had bought into the Sanders narrative that mobilizing the grassroots would outweigh any chicanery on the part of the DNC. Who cares that a bunch of sad losers were lining up behind another sad loser? Who cares that another candidate is splitting the left-wing vote? Who cares that media coverage is one-sided and unhinged? At the end of the day, the people vote. And now Joe Biden is ahead in both the popular vote and the delegate count.
One of the nice things about Twitter is that you can get instant feedback. Most useful here are not the direct comments, but the declining follower count that shows you are beyond the pale. And I always lose the most followers when I appear to be too pessimistic. This weekend, I mentioned that Bernie Sanders was very elderly and had had a heart attack. Some people responded as though I were hoping for his death, but what resonated loudest were the people who simply absented themselves by unfollowing. They didn’t need that kind of negativity in their lives. Sharing this article about the inadequacies of the Green New Deal has also earned some unfollows on a few different occasions — along with comments asking what my alternative plan is. Neoliberal solutionism has taught us, it seems, that it is illegitimate to mention a problem without having a solution in hand, which means, of course, that we should never mention problems until they are no longer a problem. But there are problems that we cannot fix. When your doctor tells you that you have six months to live, the problem is not her negative thinking.
When I was lecturing frequently on Neoliberalism’s Demons, I would inevitably get the question of what we should do to change the situation. I intended for the book to be purely diagnostic, but I knew that if I did not include some kind of prescriptive element, people would latch onto some random point and hallucinate an agenda on that basis — so determined are people to be told what to do. I included, then, a call for abolishing the market society and establishing direct collective control over economic production. In short, we need to amputate the invisible hand. I don’t know how to bring that about in practice, but unless it is at least on the horizon of our thinking and strategizing, I think we’re simply doomed. Capitalism, in any form, will ultimately grind us to bits under the pressure of its nihilistic accumulation.
If we reform capitalism, we will only be drawing out the process — which may work as a harm-reduction measure, but does not count as a solution. And in practice, we may no longer be able to significantly reform it, because all our mechanisms for doing so are partial and regional (i.e., the nation-state) while capital is global. Indeed, capital is the only effective global agency currently in existence. The people arguing that we should rename the Anthropocene the Capitalocene are correct, but they miss the way that capital claims to speak for us, given that its operations result from our ostensibly free choices. Any attempt to restrict its operations, which are obviously not premised on free choice all or even most of the time, thus appears as a restriction of freedom, and the selfishness and short-sightedness it inculcates are presented as unchangeable features of human nature. Don’t blame Capital, blame Man — here using the anachronistic sexist language because of its theological legacy, which figures Man as a cohesive morally responsible unit only for the sake of inculpating each and every person from birth, heaping them with a moral debt they can never even begin to repay.
In reality, “we” cannot be responsible for climate change, because “we” aren’t even a we — there is no sense in which humanity as a whole is a moral agent capable of concerted deliberation and decision-making. The only mechanism that purports to represent us as a responsible “we,” capital, in fact renders us atomized and impotent individuals who can’t but contribute to their own doom.
How do we undo this? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone does. In fact, I doubt that many of us have truly meditated on the depths to which (to quote a modern apocalyptic preacher) we are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death. Part of why we don’t face that is the pressure to always be positive, hopeful, active. And I get it. When faced with two possible diagnoses, you choose the one that’s not terminal and act accordingly. If you assume your condition is treatable and you’re wrong, you lose nothing, but if you assume that it’s terminal and you’re wrong, you’ve lost your one shot. I adopt this principle in my own life all the time. But here again, we bump up against the theological legacy, because one of the first to formulate this type of logic was Pascal, who argued that the prospect of eternal reward meant that it was sensible to bet on the existence of God. If you bet wrong, you lose nothing in the afterlife because there is no afterlife, whereas if you turn out to be right, you get the greatest possible benefit.
There are many strong arguments against Pascal’s wager, such as pointing out that we don’t really face the binary choice between atheism and conservative Catholicism that he seems to envision. More convincing to me, though, is the existential objection that if you bet on God and you’re wrong, you have wasted the only life you will ever have on a lie.
I think about that when people try to dissuade me from saying pessimistic things online — even when they suspect those things may be true — because our only hope is if people act on the assumption that there is hope. That does make sense, just as Pascal’s wager makes sense. But at what point are we demanding that people waste their finite time on earth trying to wring good outcomes out of a system designed from the ground up to deliver bad ones and squander their intellect and creativity on the analysis of a political milieu that is, in the last analysis, beneath contempt and unworthy of sustained attention? I sometimes joke about responding to political events with a “retreat to aestheticism,” but I do honestly think that a fresh interpretation of the Iliad would have more intrinsic value than 95% of what we find in the pages of Jacobin, and I’m being generous to Jacobin here. And more concretely, how many times can we ask people to give up whole days of their lives to vote in elections that are long-shots and in any case may be stolen — much less uproot their lives to travel and knock on every door in Iowa?
In Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir says that a revolution that doesn’t have room for an old man to enjoy a glass of wine is not really about human freedom. I suppose the better-known slogan about dancing is trying to get at the same point — which is that there are moments of human joy that are of intrinsic value and are the ultimate end of any real revolutionary movement. That joy can come from may places — social connection, or sensual pleasure, or aesthetic enjoyment, or intellectual insight — but wherever it comes from, it is ultimately what we live for. And even if there is no hope for large-scale change — for dismantling the horrible machine and making room for us to live in an authentic and durable way — that kind of joy is still available. Asking people to give it up in service of a hopeless cause is no small thing.
There is a joy, of course, that comes from fighting for what is right in solidarity with others, regardless of the outcome. I think it is only if we are offering that kind of intrinsic worth in the movement itself that we can justify asking people to take the Pascal’s wager of activism and spend some portion of the only life they will ever have on something that may turn out to be useless. Demanding continual sacrifice for the sake of an end that is just as continually deferred is the failed formula of twentieth-century Communism, and even if it weren’t, it is not available to us because our future is not one of abundance, at least not in the sense that we would have envisioned in the postwar Golden Age.
What will our legacy be to that future, if it is not to save the world from the disaster that capitalism is unceasingly working toward? We don’t know who those people are or how they will live, but we do know that they will regard us as monsters and fools who doomed the world. They will not be likely to devote much time to our political or economic thought, much less our fine-grained parsing of individual elections or our edifying social media debates about what is the most politically beneficial thing to say. They may be able to find some use for our technology, but probably not in the large-scale and casual ways we now take for granted. What they will most likely find some use for is what brings us joy — our art, our music, our food, perhaps even our philosophy. We still read the Iliad even though the people it depicts are violent monsters, and we still read the Stoics even though they had very little practical effect on a Roman imperial milieu that had gone insane. More to the point, we still enjoy Victorian novels even though they are the product of the industrialism and imperialism that will have broken the world.
They may also find some solace, I think, in people who found creative ways to resist — not necessarily the activists and the organizers, but the prophets. We do not read the biblical prophets today because they succeeded in heading off the Babylonian invasion, but because they memorably articulated the doom that was coming, in poetic proclamation and in shocking performance art (like walking around naked for a year). Without thinking they had the ability to effect large-scale change, the prophets were performing the contingency of their present by showing that another possibility was known even if it was not chosen. In the event, of course, their poetry and performance were appropriated by forces that wanted to present all of life as the playing out of a predetermined scheme, but read rightly, they show that the present is always open-ended.
They may have turned out to be wrong. The Hebrew cultural heritage could have been snuffed out just as so many others were by the forces of imperialism. Those texts, bereft of readers who were willing to preserve them through copying them, would long since have rotted away into nothing. That may be what happens to us and our legacy as well. There is no guarantee that there is hope. That recognition does not issue issue in a plan of action, but not everything is about action and results. There is also truth, and no movement can be fully human or liberating if it cannot face the truth.