No Way Out but Through


Beyond the bobbleheads of our tottering world.

Always the places of statecraft, which is to say the places of death, borders have at times swallowed almost all political concerns before them. They now appear poised to do so with terrifying force. In Europe, once and present site of borders gone bonkers, this is clearest in the policy positions of its contending nations, and most spectacularly in the remaking of the electoral sphere into a pure contest of xenophobia, such that progressive parties essay to determine what precise degree of racism they must display in order to peel votes from the parliamentary avatars of ethnonationalism.

Meanwhile, the Mediterranean dead, drowned en route to Italy and Greece, to Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. They did not survive to meet La Lega and Golden Dawn nor, should they pass through those pickets, to encounter the ruling parties of Poland’s Law and Justice or Hungary’s Fidesz as they journeyed inland, perhaps with the grand hope of reaching Germany where the new formation of Aufstehen farcically demands a Fortress Leftism to keep pace with Alternative für Deutschland. Across the Channel, Brexit: oriented, both in the first instance and final hour, by power over who and what flows across borders, and how it happens. In a perfect irony, it is the bloodied border separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland, almost a century old and less than five hundred kilometers in length, that has presented an impossible topological puzzle regarding which side is which: a border that must be closed in one direction and open in another, inhibiting any solution to the puzzle of departure as the party system splinters. All of this is Eurocentrism with a vengeance: neither worldview nor episteme, just armed frontiers formed around visions of whiteness, internal to the European Union and at its limits, now that the Westphalian virus has settled and carved the world up entire.

The United States, fulfilling its historical mission to out-Europe Europe, perfects its own parallel pathologies: Muslim bans; armed vigilantes assisting the Border Patrol; concentration camps for migrants, some specializing in the torture of children; military budgets directed toward Ozymandian border fortifications. A political economy of white supremacy for the end of the world.

For the moment, terror dwells in the coalescence of these two phenomena: white supremacy and climate collapse. They increasingly form a unity,
here taking the form of ecofascist shooters maddened by fantasies of demographic and climatological inundation, there the form of entirely non-fantastical migrants set in motion across the planetscape by drought, flood, starvation. To say we must secure our borders — whether it is the right nationalism of open xenophobia, the left nationalism that purports to protect labor markets and resources, or the strange synthesis developed by Angela Nagle and her ilk — is to take the side of death. In some anonymous office in northern Virginia, a team of well-dressed policy boys calculates the month and year that Canada’s fresh water supply will need to be seized.

“The goal matters little if there’s no path there.”

Over all this, like a cloud of tear gas coalescing into a vast clown’s head, leers Donald Trump, careering into the 2020 election, inviting us to fight his summoned white supremacists on their own terms, in the halls of power that are little more than the congealed violence of racial capitalism. Bernie Sanders, we hear, will clean house, revealing a new battlefield where the freedom struggle can be fought anew, history once again open for the seizing. In the UK, the drama of Boris Johnson (should he survive the period between this writing and its publication), not the same, is not entirely different: a parliamentary opposition pushes their favored candidate under the mantle of socialism, an arsenal of white papers at the ready, proposals that gain their revolutionary fervor not so much from their modest contents but the abhorrence and vitriol they inspire among reactionaries of the sort who would foam at the mouth if told that the tip was included in the dinner bill.

Elsewhere, impossible predicaments force crowds toward a thunderous No in Sudan, Puerto Rico, France, Hong Kong, annihilating unloved policies when not evicting leaders from their palaces. But because these utterances are directed to the state, they too give way, ultimately, to its mortifying intrigues. “After the final no there comes a yes,” wrote Wallace Stevens, the reactionary poet and history’s greatest accidental dialectician, “And on that yes the future world depends.” Everywhere, our era seeks out its emancipatory Yes: a struggle that can state its own terms, its goals and needs, and immediately set out toward meeting them. In this respect, 2019 has lost something that the preceding years in moments possessed, with their slogans in the affirmative — water is life, black lives matter — articulations that cannot be so simply redirected, that set forth not only a principle but a terrain for politics, located far from any ministerial chambers.

There are surely many visions of a positive project toward emancipation, of the form it could take. One decisive split might be described as that between the inductive and the deductive. There is no doubt that adherents of each will insist they have synthesized the two already, that it is everyone else who is one-sided. It is apparent that this is not the case or, among other things, we would not be in the predicament in which we currently find ourselves.

The inductive project begins with what it finds immediately before it, with the building blocks to hand; it makes claims on pragmatism, realism, and so on. It needs no better methodological summary than “the left wing of the possible.” It accepts electoralism as a constraint, though in a most curious sense: it is a constraint in that it determines the arena of initial struggle, but at some point it is claimed suddenly not to be a constraint regarding what outcomes can be achieved through such an approach. The advantages of the inductive approach are immediately apparent: because it offers general familiarity and recognizable activities that run little risk but failure, it has a far easier time appealing to the majority of people for whom the legibility of politics is premised on its conventionality. And because it begins from achievable tasks, largely within the electoral sphere, it can provide the real and meaningful experience of successful participation and indeed, perhaps, even of progress.

However, to leap forward just a bit, none of this offers any assurance that the endpoint — ever the problem with induction — will be adequate to the task at hand, for the task at hand is not to defeat the ethnonationalists nor the centrists, nor is it to achieve self-managed workplaces and Medicare for all. These, or versions of these, will perhaps need to be done along the way. But the task, and it is truly at hand, is to end capitalism and the nation, an outcome absent which untold species will die off, humans among them, dying in millions first at the borders and then everywhere, dying in queues chaotically ordered according to race and ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, nationality.

The inductive method, thereby, is obligated to explain how we move from the electoral to the adequate, to the defeat of capital and state. Much ink has been spilled on this topic to little effect. The tales told about this middle phase are too numerous to detail; most notably, they promise that electoral triumphs and Green New Deal initiatives will provide the conditions for emancipatory struggle that will form in the turbulent wake of these wins and overflow the banks of presidents and policies. But this paints history in reverse, or accedes to history as it is seen from the far right, where movement and state swing together like parts of a terrible cantata. There is almost no historical precedent for the favored story, made explicit in Bernie’s campaign materials, wherein reform projects are driven into the heart of the capitalist state by charismatic politicians, hit the wall of entrenched bureaucratic and corporate power and, rather than being broken on the rock, summon to their aid social movements capable of pushing through the barrier or perhaps shattering the state altogether. Instead, where such reform projects have emerged, they have been, without fail, the alternative offered by the left wing of capital to consolidate and recuperate an extant movement whose power lay in its indeterminate character, its aspirations a mélange of reform and revolution impossible to sequence in some singular way. Where parliamentary projects lead and collective action is presumed to follow — whether in Britain’s Momentum, slowed to a crawl by parliamentary tableaux vivants , or the Green New Deal’s policy-sponsored social movements — that mass mobilization already lies in state.

The deductive method, alternately, begins with a view of the whole and the necessary, begins with historical fundamentals and first principles: the mission of the proletariat, the incorrigible logic of capitalism, the impossibility of proletarian state power, the correlation of emissions, global temperature, growth. Against these predicates, all visions of emancipation must test themselves, whether they like it or not, and all current actions will fall short. In the long run, getting shorter each day, we must abolish class society or perish. But how do we get there from here? The deductive method runs the risk of pure utopianism, planning the cities of the future for some world other than ours. The goal matters little if there’s no path there.

Both methods, that is to say, feature a lacuna, a moment of hand-waving in the exposition. For the deductive, the question is how to begin, where it might start. Or perhaps not that exactly, as we are suggesting that in the instances of Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, the Yellow Vests and Abolish ICE, it has already begun, at least as a matter of potential. For the inductive, the moment of handwaving covers over the question of how it is that submitting to the discipline of policy papers and national electorates can produce an internationalist communism adequate to the minimum task of ending class and capital. How can demanding full employment, labor-market protections at the borders, and the depredations of growth, perhaps with green edges, lead to the end of wage labor, the death of borders, the ceasing of extraction?

The imagined solution, as we have noted, lies in the belief that the left will trail the passage of its electoral leaders to the brink of power, perhaps across the threshold, and thereby use them to direct itself in a dramatically different direction. But in the absence of any movements on the ground showing their ability to set the terms of this political discourse now, what reason would one have to believe they will do so in the future? Otherwise one has only unfurled a sail above a political project that, lacking any kind of rudder, must drift with the current.

The problem with this approach is not “reformism,” not an inability to promote a specifically revolutionary vision. Rather it is in the first instance that the inductive method’s fundamental claim on our political lives — its pragmatism, its promise of the possible — dissolves amidst the hand-waving and the shuffling of policy papers. It may be plausible in its command of opening maneuvers, but once we cease valuing that above the far more important matter of where we must end up, the inductive method is no more practical than the deductive. Arguably it is less so, a utopia of the pragmatists. It offers a paralyzing substitutionism, whereby these electoral figures stand as placeholders for a common project that doesn’t exist and the building of which they, in fact, hinder. Every movement is reformist until it has abolished the ruling powers who might hear, in its actions, a demand for “change”: who hear in the poverty of daily life a call for full employment, who hear in “Abolish ICE” a call to reconfigure the Department of Homeland Security, who hear in “Black Lives Matter” a call for sensitive policing, who hear in “Water is Life” a call for more strategic pipeline routes.

Nonetheless, there is something totalizing about these slogans and the mass actions they convoke, something that can’t be banished. Not only because, in order to achieve the indictment of a single cop, you need to burn half a city, but because they frame a goal far in excess of any single reform. You can’t abolish ICE, in truth, without abolishing policing and borders and thereby the state as such; you can’t make black lives matter in the US without ending the differential valuation of lives, which is to say, without overthrowing racial capitalism. In this sense, the first principles of deduction appear as a dim image inscribed within the partial objectives of the movement, something made apparent in its every encounter with the organized violence of the state and the passive power of capital.

Our interpreters in the halls of power will never hear these slogans in their fullness, nor can they ever be adequately interpreted by any figure of leadership but our own self-organization. We cannot find our unity, we cannot become a we, in the projects of the state. That must be built solidarity by solidarity, neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace, in struggles that directly interlink our material well-being. There will be no common plan before it’s far too late to devise one, no charismatic leader, no single Yes in the place of the grand No on which we can all agree. But in forcing ourselves forward without knowing the way in advance, without delegating our power to the bobbleheads of our tottering world, pointed at adequate ends rather than the battlefield of foreclosed means, we give ourselves a chance to find a way. We’re smarter than any of them are because there are millions of us. And we’re stronger because they can’t kill us all. No borders can stop us.