The use of cruelty

Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.

— Engels, from a letter to Marx 

The upcoming American presidential election is framed by partisans and the press as a question ultimate of political importance: on the right, Joe Biden portends socialist revolution; on the left, Donald Trump is days away from a fascist putsch. In reality, both men are ideologically identical: they are liberal-conservative nationalists. They are candidates of two factions ideologically posed as the past and future of America: the Republican base is composed of an increasingly racially diverse electoral coalition of poorer Americans, while the Democrats' support is increasingly white and affluent. The Right represents the material interests of the nation's largest energy producers; the world's largest energy consumers finance the Left. Trump is backed by the religiously devout, and Biden is supported by the religiously unaffiliated. Yet they are all ultimately on the same team: they represent the same elite and share most values. The American system of government is constituted such that whoever wins, the most likely result will be a continuation of the entrenched status quo.

This truth has not impeded American partisans and press from conjuring panic about the election. Neither faction views the other as legitimate. Both sides agree that defeat spells doom, that the Republic is foundering, and that the end is nigh. Americans are becoming more accustomed to armed conflict in the streets. Self-proclaimed patriots and antifascists have over the years developed an evermore deadly enmity. Terrorist violence has seared in the public imagination fear that death may descend anywhere at anytime: at school, in church, or wherever there are police. The vestigial remnant of what was once the American Left has consecrated itself to the defense of neoliberalism by any means necessary. The growing ranks of the Right relish any chance to punish whom they resent. America hates itself; Americans hate each other.

Liberal governance was founded on terror, and it should come as no surprise that the liberal order sustains itself by terror. In America the aforementioned social tensions are strategically key: polarizing the population over questions of racial identity has aided American elites from the beginning. Social solidarity is even more impossible if women and men are hostile, if young and old are divided against each other. The status quo is safe so long as political unrest is scattered as sporadic violence: mass shootings and riots are of course undesirable, but the elites for the most part manage to handle them. A particularly explosive event in one locale may be reproduced in another, but reproduction does not imply generalization. A generalized popular uprising similar to Hong Kong or the Yellow Vests pose a far graver danger to American governance. American elites guide their factions in such a way that conflict does not threaten the the legitimacy of elite power itself, but rather the legitimacy of the ascendant faction. The force of these mystified social tensions keeps the top spinning.

Much could be made of the libidinal and otherwise symptomatic American affect. What is rather more important is to understand that while the terror may be— as Engels wrote — “useless”, it is surely the work of truly frightened people. Death is on the minds of everyone as pandemic spreads, wildfires blaze, and bullets fly. It is natural, even honorable, that so many want to take up the cause of the slain and seek revenge. A contested election may very well invite even more bloodshed. But the terrifying spectacle takes by nature the form of a spiral: it leads only further into its own dismal logic. For those seeking an exit, the way out begins elsewhere. Cruelty is a choice, but it is not the only one we have.

The portal to most arenas is a tunnel. To leave the coliseum is therefore first of all to enter the shadows, to turn one's back on the audience. Those of us who dream of a better world will not find it slaughtering Gauls or Thracians for glory and applause. It is rather refusal to fight — even when compelled to do so —that most threatens the spectacle. Only by refusing the political polarity known as “the culture war'” can popular opposition to elite rule be developed. All their arsenal: moral calumny, opprobrium, and hostage-taking — all of it must be bravely faced down. American politics is realigning. To stop this abysmal spiral, and to upend the elites governing it, Americans must first meet each other as potential friends — not mortal enemies.

The demise of Amercia's elites can only come from below: and all of below. Every model of electoral campaign, rank-and-file syndicalism, and party organization has failed. What's left of the American working class is clearly not interested in what American socialists are offering. Bludgeoning them in the name of the Biden-Bezos campaign will only alienate them further. It is frankly impossible to imagine that the American Left, even if they were to mentally assent to this, could change their trajectory: they are composed of precarious, would-be elites. Their politics are tidally locked to the class they aspire to replace. Those interested in undermining the powers that be should therefore abandon the Left. New movements are needed, experiments aimed at destituting American politics and constituting new forces.

Such experiments would study why, for example, Bernie Sanders failed worse in 2020 than in 2016. What stopped the anti-police protests of this summer from generalizing? How are the various ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in America divided and what can unite them? Whose interests does wokeness serve? What really drives people to join the alt-right? Such attempts must be bold, because they will surely be denounced by the legacy politics they seek to overthrow. The new forces might emerge in the aftermath of this election, or they might take longer to germinate. In any case, they are sorely needed if we are to escape from interminable and useless cruelty.