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The Two Politics: 2020 So Far

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For U.S. politics, the year 2020 has provided a practically laboratorial clarity. The ongoing pandemic is not the proximate cause for this unfolding, though one might argue that its context enforces certain kinds of reductions or focalizations. As a total phenomenon, the aggregate effects of the novel coronavirus fill up a lot of space, so that it seems like there is room remaining for only one other story at any given time. Perhaps this explains the clarity of the sequence we have seen but not the sequence itself: the efforts toward social transformation of first one approach and then another, each in turn unfolding with something like total engagement before yielding its place. For political theory, or really political practice, it has been something like a natural experiment measuring two politics against the world and against each other. 

There are more and less complex ways to narrate the two politics, though there is little reason to indulge in excessive nuance. The brutalist narration is this. From January through April, official politics was dominated to the exclusion of all other stories by the presidential election, which means for the most part the Democratic primary and then the responses to it by President Reply Guy. It is a commonplace to note that, in the U.S especially, presidental elections have the power to draw all other politics into them and perhaps have this as their essential purpose, absorbing the power of social movements with the to-date unmet promise to organize their energy and magnify their capacity. If one was a follower of the national news, the election eclipsed all other stories. There was, in effect, nothing else to talk about. Debates, interviews, data displays, whatever misspelled and sociopathic message the president had issued in response. As the pandemic seized its share of newstime, the election’s domination of political space grew even more total, as it remained while absolutely everything else was squeezed out. Nothing else was happening and nothing else could happen. 

And then came the uprising following the police murder of George Floyd, itself happening in the wake of police or police-deputized murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Unfolding against and in the penumbra of the pandemic, the national riot displaced the election coverage swiftly and utterly. It happened within days, maybe hours, as the nation pivoted from one politics to another. At the end of May and into June one could watch national news for days, a week, and encounter no mention of Joe Biden, much less Bernie Sanders or Liz Warren (one would hear periodically of Amy Klobuchar, but only because of her unfortunate record as the former attorney for Hennepin Country where Floyd was killed). 

How to name these two politics, if not the election and the riot? 

Other formulae have certainly beenn proposed, perhaps with the goal of obscuring this clarity. CNN anchor Chris Cuomo provides a useful example. Night after night from his perch on standard-bearing national news channel, amidst an uprising with which he claimed sympathy, he articulated the difference between protestors who “do it the right way” and rioters who do not. This difference was, in his telling, childlike in its simplicity. But it was not the conventional moral lesson regarding peaceful and violent behavior. Indeed, it is this opposition that Cuomo endeavored to reconfigure according to a more foundational distinction: 

Remember, overwhelmingly, protests are what we would call peaceful. I don't really agree with the description, because I don't think it's necessary. People who want to protest in this country, it's not incumbent upon them to be sweet about it. You can be outraged. You can be angry. You can yell. You can shame. You can blame. That's OK. This is America, you know? Protesting doesn't have to be peaceful to be OK. (June 3)

Here peacefulness appears as a sort of disposition, and as far as our newscaster is concerned, violent speech is just fine. His operative framework is prior to this. By his measure, those who are legitimate actors engage only in communication, while those who are not do not. The category of communication is both recognizable and clearly marked. It dwells in language. Signs, chants, singing, yelling, speeches, all good. Departure from this realm is clear and decisive. It goes immediately to looting, smashing windows, arson, attacking officers. There is no middle ground. There is no zone of indistinction. 

Those who have encountered the pleasures of high theory will know that much of its intellectual project has been to efface this distinction between words and action, to destabilize if not unmake the priority that a vulgar (which is not to say mistaken) historical materialism gives to definite relations, which it would affirm always lead while discourse follows. For Theory with a capital T, the speech act and its performative function, the materiality of the signifier, hyperstition, and various other phenomena describe and underwrite the breakdown of the opposition, and of the priority given to one side over the other. 

Chris Cuomo is not trying to hear this. And it is not just he who understands that words and deeds are clearly demarcated and provide the foundational distinction but his prime time colleagues Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper, and the anchors on other networks, reporters on the scenes, the mayors they interview often, the top cops they interview ceaselessly. Presenters, politicians, police: they may disagree over various matters but in this they are univocal. The distinction is not subject to any serious inspection, but neither is it casual. It is the fundamental wedge used to divide a nation in rebellion. It is this division that Martin Luther King, Jr., sought to overcome in his famous declaration that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” a phrase that has ironically become a sort of liberal shibboleth meant to affirm that it is the communicative function, even within a riot, which grants legitimacy.  

I do not here mean to reopen fractious theoretical debates about language, materialism, the failure of all binaries, the critique of ontology, spectres, marks. I mean to note only that, as the opposition of word and deed has weakened in the realm of academic theory, it has if anything strengthened in the managed public sphere. As to whether academic theory or the public sphere is more vulnerable to the claim that it is pure ideology, I think it best to withhold judgment. What is critical at present is that this public commonplace, Cuomo’s Razor let’s call it, is first and foremost a method for disciplining unruly populations. But it is also a theory of politics, or it offers up two theories of politics, and they are the same two we have seen this year. 

The holding that communication holds the truth of politics presupposes, in the end or really the beginning, an electoral framework. This is why Cuomo is within his cohort both exceptional and exemplary: the son and brother of New York state governors, his feel for the ballot is genetic. For him, and the millions who accept the framework to which he is lashed, all roads lead to the voting booth. Politics, in this telling wherein communication is both self-apparent and primary, is a matter of persuasion, of drawing together polities that can move in the same direction for long enough that history’s arc might bend toward justice. Language is what you do and how you win.

Moreover, language constitutes the inside, the people. For the first 10 days of riots, the window-smashers and bottle-throwers, the looter and arsonists, were said to be outside agitators, as if the locals of every city in the country would know better than to exceed the domain of language. There were attempts to racialize this in presidential murmurings (dutifully repeated in various quarters) about white anarchists — a pathetic attempt to wish away Black rage and Black mobilization. There was as well a parallel denial of the threat posed by multiracial and mutiethnic solidarity. This racialization forms an inversion of the traditional insistence that so-called “race riots” have departed or never entered the field of politics and merely express inchoate and spasmodic rage. That idea is stupid and racist and was set forth as well. All the moves were made. Against all of them, as the facts came in (notably regarding the surpassingly high percentage of arrestees with local addresses) falsifying all these fantasies, we were called to recognize that there was simply a different theory of politics existing in the crowd. 

Said theory, let us call it critical, is neither premised on persuasion nor pointed toward the polling place. It is a theory only because it is first a set of practices. We might simply say that they provided the singular character of May and June to the extent to which they are not electoralism. But such a description in negative elides the positive character of such struggles. Looting, a universal phenomenon wherever the market is the primary mechanism for acquiring necessaries, does not demand subsistence but takes it. The seizure of the former Sheraton Minneapolis Midtown Hotel may usefully communicate a battle plan but its salience lies in providing shelter for the unhoused and everybody wants that. The sacking of the Third Precinct police station about 20 blocks to the east finds its social significance in the fact that the total number of police stations has been lowered by one. Everybody wants that too. 

It is difficult, finally, to dispute that the character of this national riot — neither the first nor the last regarding racialized policing and state murder but in this case generating a sense of the historically extraordinary — derives from the degreee to which this politics held sway night after night. And because of this it stands in stark contrast to the months preceding. First one politics, then another. 

The relative consequences to this point are clear. The massive disbursal of resources by the left toward electoral success could not in the end put Medicare for All on the table, much less send forward the desired candidate. The uprising’s outcomes have already been transformative — certainly the most explicit and dramatic reckoning with white supremacy in half a century, longer. The City Council of Minneapolis, population near half a million, pledged to disband their police force. The claiming of autonomous, self-managed neighborhoods was suddenly an option. These things will go sideways, already have. They are nonetheless real advances, whether one sees the world from the perspective of reform with its creeping Overton window, or sees the palette of direct action expanding. We might all just take a beat, take a breath, and register just how remarkable this is. 

In its wake the matter of language reasserts itself. Underscored by the knowledge that decades of reform promised and enacted have left undisturbed the police habit of raced and classed violence, a movement for police abolition (heroically forwarded for some time by Black feminists) has reached into the popular imagination. Instantly, a debate has broken out between those who prefer the slogan “defund the police” and those who prefer “abolish the police.” It is for the most part a friendly debate among those moving in the same direction. Those preferring the former regularly insist that defund assuredly means “abolish” while being more apprehensible to newcomers; it has a broader appeal and, not coincidentally, a clear mechanism rather than an abstract and absolutist demand. Those preferring the latter worry that the two terms might suggest different outcomes, with one opening the way to familiar and potentially empty reforms. Given this, the very fact that there is a debate seems to decide that debate in advance: the language is at least ambiguous enough to argue over, and that is one of the sides’ point. 

In either regard it is a matter of language and so makes an uneasy fit with the opposition that animates this essay. The disagreement deserves more attention however. The two sides do not offer merely different inflections but distinct theories of politics. The term defund comes from the language of policy; moving budget lines is an instrument. Contrarily, abolition is not an instrument; it is an outcome. That the outcome of abolition will involve within its unfolding budgetary changes seems likely to me, which is why the two sides ought to make common cause, so it seems a matter of notpicking to oppose the defund line, even as we have already seen the onset of the proliferating chicanery shenanigans have started to proliferate wherein apparent budget-cutting masks what is in main restructuring. 

That said, it is strange, to say the least, to suggest that a mechanism and a goal are one and the same, or that it doesn’t really matter which one you put forward. One version sees politics as happening, finally, within the framework already in place. We must persuade people, it proposes, that it is fiscally sensible to stop paying those dudes to preserve the social ordering of racial capital. We must shift the line item underwriting the ceaseless and deadly production of differential citizenship wherein some lives matter more than others. As an approach, it hurls itself into the meatgrinder of political compromise. The other approach, seeking an outcome beyond the current framework, understands politics not as policy but as power. Admittedly this is power it does not yet possess, though it is closer now than it was in 1992 or 2014. In that sense the debate over defund vs abolish replays in a single moment the two political movements spanning the year. And the debate should be thereby informed by what we have learned over the course of the year.

This is only one way that the two politics stand in tension that cannot be easily resolved. Their irreconcilability will frame US politics for some time going forward. The most demoralizing form of their false reconciliation is obvious enough: In another and more dire instance, it seems likely as of this writing that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden will choose for a running mate either Kamala Harris or Val Demings. The two Black women are a career prosecutor and a career cop respectively. Such a course designs to capture a Black-led and extra-electoral antipolice movement for a pro-police electoral campaign, to drag 2020’s spring back to its winter. 

That will be the core project of the political class over the coming weeks and months: the reforming of the two politics into one, wherein language is the limit of the world and policy the language of transformation. Should this consolidation succeed it will sting for those who see in late May and and early June a radical repudiation of such a vision. There is nonetheless some hope in the great efforts and expenditures being directed toward this effort of retrenchment. The desperation of the political class to chivy people back toward such a purportedly realist framework has betrayed a single thing, and that is a real terror of a Black-led proletarian politics that does not thus confine itself, that forms solidarities across racial and other lines rather than voting blocs, that knows already what the laboratory of 2020 has shown us, that comes out at night to get things done.