Silver bullets and the illusion of control

Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies —
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.

I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.

So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.

— Isaiah 1: 13–15

After floundering in the face of the social democratic challenge for months, the Democratic Party establishment’s sponsors finally enforced sufficient discipline to blunt the Sanders surge. This is no testament to the Party’s great power or the perspicacity of America’s ruling class. The calculation was that it will be better to attack Trump for four more years than to allow the small-d democratic impulse to continue growing within the Party. Proof of this gambit’s desperation is in the result: they’re preparing to run a doddering corporate sycophant with signs of dementia against a clown fascist with an electorally powerful social base of suburban rubes, white supremacists, pig-headed crackers, and sexually insecure men. That this is the strongest political movement in the country ought to tell us plenty about the United States of America — the great bastion of racial capitalism.

America, the City on a Hill, is now revealed as a shallow, destructive, and narcissistic people, ruined by generations of “consumer choice,” thought-free spectacles, technocratic fakery, and Babbitesque boosterism (all replicated in the more restrictive social spaces of subjugated peoples who “aspire” to the cult of success and consumption through greater “inclusion”).

People wonder now how we ended up with a race-baiting rapist and snake-oil salesman in the White House. We seem to have forgotten that our inauguration into capitalism’s accelerated stage of terminal parasitism — neoliberalism — came with the election of a B-grade Hollywood actor who did detergent ads and co-starred with a chimpanzee.

Terminal parasitism now converts into generalized auto-immunity.

It’s not Democratic poobahs who are failing, nor the phallocentric nitwits of the right. Civilization is failing. Civilization, all civilization without exception, has always been destructive, always built on mountains of corpses.

COVID-19 is merely giving us a preview of mass unemployment, defaulted debt, and disrupted supply chains. Just weeks ago, we saw Australia burn. Still we just don’t get it.

Here is where I part with many of my allies during the Sanders surge who are now debating DemExit, the formation of a new political party and a mass exodus out of the Democratic Party. I know the temptation to chase fantasies, and fantasies of single-shock transformation are among the most tempting to would-be social engineers.

Climate change — with its droughts and fires, its floods and famines, its rising seas and melting ice, and its migrations and wars — is already dissolving the fabric of global capitalism. In four more years, it will have advanced, exponentially in its own multi-lectical way, toward a tipping point whereupon we tumble into a climate-sourced catastrophic cascade — one estimated to be here within a decade.

This election was the last battle for a long shot — a managed exit from civilization in the world’s most influential and destructive polity. COVID-19 is just showing us how utterly fragile the whole illusion was. We were already dying, species by species, stream by stream, sea by sea, hectare by hectare of land.

Yes, the Democratic Party has been exposed as a corrupt house built on sand, like the Republican Party. But the illusion that these were stable realities is the selfsame illusion that motivates the armchair strategists calling for DemExit . . . the illusion of “building” parties . . . the illusion that if we just exercise enough control, someday, somehow, everyone would live happily ever after.

Strategy is the word that tips us off first regarding the illusion of control. Any time I hear someone talk about strategy, I know in advance that 99 percent of the time, I am dealing with a fantasy. Strategy assumes control that doesn’t exist, based on simplistic assumptions about complex realities being stable in a world that never quits changing. Strategy assumes non-existent power, except for the most powerful — who are, by the way, the only groups of people for whom strategy can work. Strategy assumes a unified and cohesive core which is hardly ever there, and a degree of control over the “external” environment that is a delusion of grandeur at the same time that it’s a delusion about “external environments.”

DemExit is just another delusional strategy, the backup strategy for the one that is failing now. We continue to believe that we just had the wrong strategy; and we fail to apprehend how strategy per se is the principle error.

The Sanders campaign was capable of executing a kind of strategy, because it was well-funded, well-staffed, and had a point focus — a clear and singular objective within an established practice. The point focus — an election — was a still-stable reality (or so we thought before COVID-19 came along). It was this concrete focus that facilitated the funding and staffing and gave the movement a simple, tangible goal to give every intermediate objective a teleological steering wheel.

It was worth a try, because we couldn’t assess our electoral strength without trying . . . and we were within striking range. It would have been irresponsible not to try. But we can see now from numbers that on the one hand the Democratic establishment’s patronage and propaganda systems were still strong enough to shave off a big chunk of support, and our wishful calculations about youth voter turnout were overly optimistic. That electoral window is closing now — barring some new black swan event; but more importantly, looking forward, the whole electoral system is aimed at control over a state that itself may be in terminal crisis . . . and which is slouching toward ineffectual, disorganized authoritarianism from either or both parties of the ruling class — itself facing a dual crisis: a crisis of finance and a crisis of legitimacy.

COVID-19 is a kind of time-lapse photography revealing something that has been true all along, but which progressed slowly enough for elaborate rationalizations to conceal it: capitalism always makes bad choices for people and for the environment of which we are an integral part. COVID-19 is showing us why we oughtn’t have global supply chains for essential goods, why we shouldn’t let the market make medical decisions, and how “market solutions” are antithetical to human flourishing. COVID-19 is running over finance capital like a rogue wave over a sand castle.

Our entire global social infrastructure is designed around assumptions about the future, fossil energy, and general purpose money. With one wrong assumption, one disruption of energy supplies (imagine no electricity right now . . . or no gas at the pumps) or any disruption to the stability of value in the money-form, the whole thing is in danger of collapse. None of these is independent of the other. But that’s not the real kicker. The kicker is that this infrastructure itself, which we will try to rescue, is the effective cause of its own crisis; and it is itself based upon assumptions about the future that are proving disastrously wrong.

Socialists and social democrats are deeply divided on the question of technological optimism, which means in the unlikely moment that a social democratic bloc wins, a ferocious internecine conflict will break out between them with regard to “development.” (Full disclosure, I will be in the camp of the subsistence socialists, and opposed to the technological optimists.)

If you think that’s a fault line, wait until we open a real discussion of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the latest form of semi-magical thinking on the left (MMT can work for a while in the US, but only because of imperial monetary privilege that continues to dump on peripheral economies . . . also a problem with technological optimism!). This one promises an infinite supply of money, with little regard for the productive economy and no account of money’s ecological ramifications.

Everyone wants the silver bullet, whether that’s MMT or solar arrays or “post-revolutionary” rule-by-decree. Or DemExit.

“Revolution itself, that ‘modern’ idea,” wrote Michel De Certeau, “represents the scriptural project at the level of an entire society seeking to constitute itself as a blank page with respect to the past, to write itself by itself (that is, to produce itself as its own system) and to produce a new history (refaire l’histoire) on the model of what it fabricates (and this will be ‘progress’). It is necessary only for this ambition to multiply scriptural operations in economic, administrative, or political areas in order for the project to be realized.”

That script is fiction, a deux ex machina for “the left.”

COVID-19 is a by-product of capitalism every bit as much as trawled sea floors, denuded forests, mega-slums, and resource wars — an “externality” necessary to enable further accumulation. But just because we can mentally encompass a highly complex and now global social organization as “capitalism,” that conceptualization exercises not one iota of actual control. Here’s the disconnect, that leap into fantasy where we confuse the grasp of a concept with the power to gain control over the material reality for which that concept is a mere mental reduction.

There is one policy that would go further and faster than any other to blunt the impact of this crisis, and it’s finally being discussed even in the Washington Post. The ancient Levitican practice of Jubilee: generalized debt forgiveness. But even this has its hitch — it will require nationalization of the banking system by a government that is run by and for bankers.

This so-called system will continue to degrade, and not in predictable ways. It’s not a werewolf, and there is no silver bullet. What we have left now is improvisation — practice must precede theory. Not the politics of the concerto, but of jazz. Not the strategies of past illusions, but the day-to-day tactics of survival in ordinary life . . . motivated by love.

I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to the children of men that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of men and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and the human has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of a human goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that humans should rejoice in their work, for that is their lot. Who can bring us to see what will be after us?

Ecclesiastes 3: 16–22




Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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Stan Goff

Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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