Artwork by Aziz + Cucher
Where are the girls
I left far behind
The spicks and the specks
Of the girls on my mind
Where is the sun
That shone on my head
The sun in my life
It is dead
It is dead
—Bee Gees, “Spicks and Specks”
May I call you that? The word is laden with so many meanings in this language, a term of curiosity as well as disapprobation, dense with layers of exclusion and repulsion, what we use to refer to those who don’t actually belong to our spaces or, really, we think, anywhere.
We have always wanted to meet you, and while some of our imagined narratives about you have been horrifying, we are mostly a hopeful people, if an arrogant one. A scientist has warned us that those coming to our world will be more like Columbus and other colonisers. That you will probably be more intent on sucking our resources, or our bones and flesh, than on peace, love, and interstellar harmony.
We have imagined you as giant octopoids, somehow able to make it across vast oceans of space and yet incapable of telling us why you’re here. We have rendered you monstrous or cunning, creatures bent on destruction or on long, complicated conspiracies with the elites on this planet, dark confabulations that involve sticky black oil and a virus injected into all our newborns. In our fevered imaginations, we have seen you as tall, wise, glowing creatures filled with divinity as well as rapacious beings looking for nothing more than the next host planet from which to draw nourishment. We have convinced ourselves that you’ve come by here quite often, our basements filled with grainy photos of your vessels. Once, we think, you even left behind an entire machine for all to see, not very well hidden behind the Doric columns of an existing structure.
Our concept of time is linear. Even when we speak of dimensions and portals, we still think of past and present, fretting about what has been, what could have been, what might be, a time still to come.
In that vein, we thought it useful to think about what we would like the future to be. In our endless optimism, we thought it would be nice to speak to you of what we hope for.
Of all those asked to produce these documents, I may be the most pessimistic, living in the center of an empire so cunning and contrived it has managed to disguise itself as a land founded on the principles of freedom, despite being founded upon slavery and genocide. Others seek to imitate it, enabling its rampages and wars, shattering peace and buildings in their wake. Given this long history of constant violation, you will understand why, in my mind’s eye, I see one of two possibilities of what the future might look like. Burnt-out buildings, with people and possessions tumbling out through walls and shattered windows, or the enforced calm of suburbia, unending expanses of identical houses with identical trees, and placed far away, crowded enclaves of the disenfranchised, the unnecessary, as we deem them, despite the fact that their labor makes our lives possible.
We are a brutal, vicious people. We have a hard time imagining our own deaths, even as many of us wish death upon ourselves, longing for an escape from the torture of our own lives or the brutality exerted upon us by others..
Perhaps I am dead after all. It is fascinating how often we are able to inflict death upon people, to watch them die in almost as many ways as there are, well, us, and yet how assured we are that it will never happen to us. We devise and concoct ways to make each other beg for the most meager of resources. Death, which should simply be something that comes to us, is instead an instrument of dominion and torture. We have perfected instruments of death-making. We extend such deathery even to our social systems, creating ways to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable among us will die because the rest of us don’t believe they deserve the methods and technologies by which we keep ourselves alive.
Sometime in the early part of the twentieth century we stopped imagining hope. We saw apes take over from us, our monuments shattered and washed ashore. We saw ourselves turned, literally, from life to death and then back again to a state that is neither and whose only conscious condition is a desire to—how do I put this delicately, given that I cannot fully surmise what you are about to do here?—eat us. We have imagined cities constantly on fire, we have imagined ourselves driven underground and into the tunnels that once carried our methods of transportation. We have imagined ourselves competing for meager rations, traveling with the animals we long ago tethered to our side. We have imagined the end came because our own bodies halted the processes of reproduction, mourning the last born person, waiting for us all to die, our habitats and schools falling into disrepair from disuse.
We were able to conceive of those dystopias, we wanted to conceive of those dystopias because, at our core, we understood we were hurtling towards them in reality. But in truth, we also conceived of them because we hoped that thinking them out aloud, wishing them into being through creative sources would mean that we could somehow stave them off.
Is there anything left of us, or are we, like the gnats and mosquitoes in amber, forever suspended in the extrusions of the earth? If so, please don’t try, as some have, to bring us back to life using our DNA; we are probably not worthy of retrieval. Use us as we use amber, as relics in museums, or as ornaments bedecking your forms.
In the future we imagine, we cling to our need for possessions. Everywhere there will be death and devastation, but somehow we will manage to reach back into the depths and retrieve the things we consider precious for reasons that are entirely arbitrary. A giant statue of a man we call David is brought into a private penthouse, its leg reattached with a metal prosthetic. It stands alone and aloof, seen by no one except its private owner, who also has Guernica tacked up in his dining room. Meanwhile, outside, people starve and kill each other.
In one of our most ambitious texts, we imagine a future in which we travel boundlessly across the universe to explore strange new worlds, into the final frontiers, to boldly go where no one has gone before. We create a replicator that can literally make anything and everything we need, from milkshakes to vintage guitars to entire ecosystems. And yet, even in our imagination, we cannot conceive of a world where abundance is enough. We can literally create anything we want and live without want, but we still want more.
In this imagined new world, we are still at war with others, crisscrossing space to divide it up into sectors and grids, cutting up even empty air into parcels the way we do patches of land. We make the vast and incomprehensible universe malleable by exerting our history of dispossession onto it. Our thirst for possession is as boundless as the universe we inhabit. Even our imagination is limited by avarice. This is why, dear aliens, I feel no real pain or sadness at the thought of what you might do to us. The sorrows and suffering we have inflicted upon each other, the degradations, the humiliations, the pain, the contrasts in resources and the creation of need—nothing in the universe can match what we have already done.
We have long wanted communication from you. Some among us remain convinced that you have in fact yielded such. Klaatu barada nikto: a phrase that has vexed and haunted us, a phrase, we were convinced, you cleverly managed to insert into a text about you.
Klaatu barada nikto.
In light of what you have seen, was this the message? Prepare to die, humans, for you are worthless.
“A particularly American problem is the preponderance of affect in politics. Too many Americans prefer to focus on how they feel.”
1. The Audacity of Failure
The future is certain
—V.M. Varga, “Fargo”
You might wonder why, if this is being sent with the awareness that it might well appear in the midst of destruction, I bother with a manifesto, which is by definition designed to provide a blueprint for an imagined future.
Manifestos aren’t easy answers. They provide diagnoses. They exist because we have reached an intractable state. Because we feel the need to find a way out. Manifestos come about because we want to keep the present alive in its most vivid form, remember the past without nostalgia, and generate a vision of the future that is as clear-eyed as possible. Manifestos aren’t about hope—a word that has been denuded, stripped, corrupted of its meaning by the last ruler of this country—but about pessimism. Like the utopias they bring forth, manifestos are birthed in the possibility of failure. They succeed not in the audacity of hope but in the audacity of despair. What is the present and the future we need to keep imagining? What is a utopia? What is the nature of our utopias? Do we still dare to have any?
How do we keep the past alive without falling prey to it? Manifestos force us to remember what we ought not to do, providing histories and memories. Too many on the left have declared utopias useless because they are, well, too utopian. Yet, a manifesto creating a utopia is what we crave, what we need. It helps us formulate our ideology.
Ideology. The word terrifies liberals and conservatives. Even leftists are apt to shrink from it, worried that it will turn off people from politics—even though politics is ideology. We like to imagine ourselves free, making decisions based on rational calculations, but ideology binds us, and to speak of it means that we have some kind of utopia in mind.
No one is outside ideology. Yet, too many Americans believe they are, and prefer to focus on how they feel: a particularly American problem is the preponderance of affect in politics. But when it comes to politics—to anything that calls itself justice—we should only pay attention to two questions: what do people need, and how do we get them what they need without having to beg? Yet our political programs are neither initiated nor sustained by the will to redistribute our ridiculously ample resources. Rather, we obsess over whether the people who receive them are worthy of our care. We ask questions we never ask the well-off: Are you deserving? Do you have the proper moral character? If we give you this money, how do we know you won’t spend it on cigarettes? If you buy food, will it be junk food or apples? But wait, how can we be sure you won’t blow it all on lobster?
In such ways, we calibrate the allocation of resources—did I mention how ample they are, that we could literally feed the world?—and make redistribution seem like charity that those in need should be grateful for. We take pride in the growing number of food banks as evidence of our munificence, and pretend that the growing numbers of hungry people dependent on those begrudged rations are nothing to be proud of. When we decide who should or should not be deported, we look for someone with a suitably photogenic (and copiously weeping) family, whether they have demonstrated appropriate amounts of contrition for having dared to be here, whether they can passionately declare fealty to a brutal state. We demand that the most vulnerable amongst us derive succor only by making us feel for them. Our politics is a politics of contingent feeling—of affect, not action. Not justice. If you want our help, then make us weep for you.
In that, the left has failed miserably. The left can barely articulate what it stands for without weeping for forgiveness for its own existence. This manifesto is an attempt to instantiate the left. How do we learn to be the left fearlessly, without either shame or arrogance?
A true left understands that the redistribution of resources is not a literal proposition, food via food banks, say (at best a temporary solution, if at times a necessary one), but shattering the methods by which people receive food, housing, education, healthcare. A true left is acutely attuned to the fact that access to the necessities of life has been amplified or reduced, denied even, on account of material and bodily realities. Women, nonwhite people, the descendants of slaves, nonwhite immigrants from countries we deem overpopulated and ripe only for exploitation, those defined as “other” by a strict binary system: all these and more face exclusion and state control and surveillance, their marginalization a matter of generational accretion. Generational poverty and stigma don’t magically disappear just because a black man gets tenure at a university or because a woman becomes the chief executive officer at a bank. A woman in a position of authority battles each day to gain the respect of a staff that still thinks she got there by luck or a blowjob; the black professor is likely to have family members and friends whose lives are yet so precarious that he cannot but keep reaching into his reserves to help them. He is more likely than not to get questioned about his presence as he works late at night in his office.
No doubt, dear aliens, you will have found in your exploration of our debris or our archives (who knows in what state you encounter us) rants from leftists about “identity” or “identitarianism.” It has been difficult to convince this kind of activist that a true left finds a way to think about getting people what they need without erasing the material realities of their lives, but without capitulating to the essentializing of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Yet, even now, in most left organizations, it is women who do the emailing and the cleaning up, while the menfolk spout on about the revolution. The fight against fracking drew upon the worst stereotypes about Native Americans, presenting an economic and political problem as one about taking away traditional ways from a traditional people. Never mind that both the ways and the people had been marked and moved and occasionally destroyed by capitalism, for better or for worse. No one is outside capitalism at this point, but we persist in imagining “the Native American” as an uncaged noble beast, even as we push entire tribes onto crumbling reservations and, having shut off their educational and political opportunities, compel them to turn to casinos as a source of revenue. The left does not need such cheap mythologizing to support its anti-capitalist movements. Nor do Native Americans.
A true left abjures philanthropy, which only enables the concentration of wealth by providing the super wealthy with fantastic tax breaks. A true left fights for a society where housing is not a matter of investment linked to the survival of an economy but simply a right. It fights for a world where prisons don’t exist to extract life from those whose failings, real or imagined, we cannot confront and whom we would rather shut away forever. A true left understands that a feminism that does not think of abortion as an economic right guaranteeing women’s autonomy, a feminism that is not grounded in the idea that women need their economic rights before their right to be worshiped as goddesses or mothers or motherly goddesses, is useless.
Someone once said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In the last few years the American left has ceded control to privileged people who can afford to be on the left. What many like to see as a proliferation of socialist ideas is little more than the long-overdue rumblings of an understanding that the system is flawed. This is a good thing. At any rate, it’s better than being mostly obsessed with thinking about how systems might better accommodate us. Americans are finally seeing the acid waves of several economic crises lapping at their shores. But that doesn’t mean Americans are embracing socialism. The idea that they are is a sad and tattered dream, wistfully spun by a few well-off writers in the Independent Province of Brooklyn who spend most of their days patting each other on the back for having read (or at least quoted) Marx a lot.
As I write, the American left and the left abroad are panicked about the election of Donald Trump, which portends the end of the world. Hopelessness gets us nowhere. It makes us forget that the present moment comes to us not with unexpected suddenness, but as the result of decades of preparation. Consider the supposedly new directives on immigration from Trump’s administration. Stories about a new “police state” went viral on social media when it was discovered that police were checking bags on the Brown line station near downtown Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, or when Amtrak riders noticed ICE agents asking to see passengers’ identity cards. All of this was presented as proof of how horrible Trump is, as if these were all new signs of a repressive state.
In fact police have been checking bags since 2014 or earlier. The elite crowds at Merchandise Mart were unused to being treated like the riffraff in the city’s more vulnerable neighborhoods on the Orange and Green lines, home to undocumented immigrants who, upon seeing cops waiting with their gear, are accustomed to turning around and using different modes of transportation. As for Amtrak: any immigration activist can tell you that these have been ongoing, and have spiked since the “War on terror” started after 9/11. Similarly, a recent story on the use of high-tech surveillance in immigration crackdowns grudgingly admits that such technology was in fact used and refined by the Obama administration.
Such focus on Trump’s xenophobia ignores the fact that the millions of undocumented in this country became such under Bill Clinton. Two pieces of immigration legislation, in 1994 and 1996, made many simple misdemeanours into felonies only for non-citizens, and created the three- and ten-year bars on re-entry, which pushed undocumented people, now afraid of not being allowed to return if they should leave the country, into the shadows. Arguably, Trump has fine-tuned such mechanisms, but the tools for expulsion and removal were left there by Democratic administrations and are simply being sharpened and honed by this one.
This is the problem with the kind of forgetfulness about history that is such a unique feature of American political life: it allows not just for an amnesia about facts but deletes memories of the processes themselves. By constantly invoking Trump as a figure who has singularly changed immigration law, we are able to believe that government is inherently benign; we forget that the state itself is bent upon expulsion and brutality.
2. Not a New Age
The past is unpredictable
—V.M. Varga, “Fargo”
In November 2016, the world’s most powerful, most wealthy, and most despotic country finally expressed its innermost yearnings and vomited up a powerful, wealthy, and despotic ruler. For his plainly visible horrors, some of his subjects have taken to contemptuously calling him Cheeto, the Orange One, and other such names, as if hurling epithets would make a dent in his popularity. For his garish opulence we mock and deride him. Against his brutal and exclusionary policies we show up in droves to protest and ostensibly protect those to whom he causes harm.
Trump’s name, anglicized from Drumpf at some indeterminate point in the past (the will to power runs strong in this family), serves, in other contexts, as a verb, meaning to overpower, to master, to be the unexpected card that smashes the hopes of others, is now metonymic with the nature of his “entirely unexpected” rise to power.
Trump’s victory was not entirely unexpected, although there is some evidence that even he was surprised. But it blindsided the left, which had spent months mocking him at every turn, first predicting a Sanders candidacy, then smugly intoning that Hillary Clinton would win with a massive majority. That such predictions came from people who are designated “political theorists” only made it possible for many to continue to burrow their heads in the sand, mired in the belief that because their hero, Sanders, had declared himself a socialist, the winds of change were gusting across the land and that the millions disappointed by his removal from the scene (deliberately orchestrated by Democratic Party elites) would rise, even if reluctantly, to ensure that a second choice made it across the line.
In this, they were woefully wrong—even with a characteristically low voting turnout, the loss for liberals and the left, who simply sat back and grandly envisaged a future where the fight would now be to make make Clinton do their bidding, was stunning.
Despite the sheer wrongness of its analysis and projections, the left continues to hold on to its delusions and has begun to capitulate to a political vision that is about, in essence, becoming less left. While pockets of the left have, as in the Chicago Teachers Union or the Socialist Alternative, understood how to leverage political power with a degree of steadfastness, the putative left, preferring to spend its time regurgitating op-eds and think pieces, has squandered its chance despite strong evidence that a significant part of the electorate was in fact inspired to take up more of a left-socialist political agenda. (To be fair, the rise of a younger, more dynamic set of people wanting to create a socialist political framework in various parts of the country is an excellent sign). Sanders’s rise also created a massive corps of people with little political experience who see their only goal as “winning.” The goal, they intone over and over, is to win.
The problem is that no one quite knows what, exactly, is to be won. Do we win elections? What does the left know about winning elections? In Chicago, the putative left here ran a mayoral candidate who literally had no idea, till late in the season, what he would do once he got power—in interviews, Chuy Garcia declared that we needed to get in there first, as if somehow politics was like a building that had been locked to him. In fact, he had the floor plan, and could do anything he wanted. The arrogance of the left lies in its assumption that, really, after all, nothing needs an explanation. Just get us in there and trust us to do the rest.
So, there’s a frightening question that no one knows how to answer: what does the left do once it’s in power? What does an election yield if the left has already surrendered its core, when it’s too terrified to speak of its ideology?
To speak of resistance is futile, because it implies that resistance should only begin now, when in fact it was needed for so many years prior and because it furthers our delusion that we are somehow doing something in our resistance. What do we resist when in fact, for eight years, we did not march against Obama’s wars, when our votes endorsed his bombing of myriad countries even as he was, outrageously, given the Nobel Peace Prize? Resistance, like the heart, is a muscle, and needs to be constantly exercised. Instead, it’s become a buzzword. It’s made people think that somehow they’re soldiers now, fighting on every front. Ongoing work gets rebranded as “resistance” as if magically, due to the presence of Voldemort, everything changed overnight. The press plays up a collective sense of impending doom, making it seem like our lives are now unfolding like a scene from The Deathly Hallows.
But what is resistance without strategy? On January 21, a Saturday, millions of women, many donning pink pussy hats, marched across the world to protest a man who boasted of being able to grab women’s genitalia whenever he pleased. On Monday, January 23, Trump signed the “global gag rule” on abortion into effect, ensuring that foreign organizations that receive US government money cannot talk to women about abortions. As many commentators pointed out, this has drastic effects on abortion and reproductive rights for women across the world, particularly in developing countries. But such commentary skirted, even completely ignored, the far greater problem, which is that so many women across the world are dependent on US government funding. Similarly, on the domestic front, Planned Parenthood received a massive boost in its funding from private donors, emphasising the fact that it was the organisation that offered American women access to abortions and to reproductive healthcare. But again, the question that needs to be asked is: how did we get to a state where one single organisation is entrusted with so much, especially in a country where abortion is completely inaccessible to poor women who don’t live in urban areas? As for immigration: immediately following Trump’s announcement of a Muslim ban, thousands marched to airports and their efforts yielded results as refugees were let in and the order was temporarily stayed. Yet, despite all this, the Supreme Court recently sided with the Trump administration on the Muslim ban (versions of which have been in effect for many years prior). Obama deported millions more than both the Bushes combined, and made drone warfare a natural part of empire-building, even joking about it, but we cling to the fantasy that Donald Trump’s election came about not because 63 million Americans voted for him, but because of demonic forces actively colluding to get him elected.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Okay. The trouble is, when you said that, the whole world heard it. David Cameron in Britain heard it. The Japanese, where we bombed them in ’45, heard it. They’re hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.
DONALD TRUMP: Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?
To liberals and lefties, this August 2016 exchange was evidence of Trump’s madness and his dangerously childish naivete. But in fact Trump’s response revealed the idiocy of nuclear weaponry and exposed the irrationality at the heart of American foreign policy: that somehow there is nothing wrong about possessing nuclear weapons. Trump’s question exposes the brutality at the heart of American policy: its willingness to exert strength through the threat of using nuclear power. Instead of acknowledging that, Matthews decides that there is something wrong with a guy “running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons”—when in fact the whole point of the American presidency is that it allows that guy to be in charge of using nuclear weapons.
3. Capitalism Is My Lover
I could leave but I won't go
Though my heart might tell me so
I can't feel a thing from my head down to my toes
So why does it always seem to be
Me looking at you, you looking at me
It's always the same, it's just a shame, that's all
Turning me on, turning me off
Making me feel like I want too much
Living with you's just putting me through it all of the time
Running around, staying out all night
Taking it all instead of taking one bite
Living with you's just putting me through it all of the time
—Genesis, “That’s All”
Some years ago, I discussed the title of my book with a colleague who said, “Oh no, you can’t sell a nonacademic book with the word ‘neoliberalism’ in the title!” She was absolutely right. But in the years since, “neoliberalism” as a word and a concept has become increasingly familiar. It defines our existence and it has become a topic of conversation even in mainstream publications like the New York Times.
Still, there are Marxists who complain about the emphasis on neoliberalism. One grouchily asked me, “I mean, really, when and why did we stop thinking about capitalism?”
Neoliberalism is in fact capitalism made familiar, which is why I describe it as the endless privatisation of everyday life. It survives on vectors of intimacy, transforming capitalism into an emotional matter rather than an economic one, even though its incursions and devastations are deadly and long-lasting precisely because of the way it serves to insinuate itself into the machinations of the daily world.
To explain what I mean: a few years after I moved to the north side of Chicago, into a neighborhood that was not claimed by either Uptown or Andersonville, Chase bank began its first inroads into the area. A few years later, it would get a neighborhood park named after itself, around which would spring a small cluster of coffee shops and pet salons, always the first harbingers of gentrification.
But when I first moved in, what would turn into the Chase was a laundromat called, to my delight, The Queen’s Basket. For a queer moving into a neighborhood with its own bathhouse, it couldn’t have proved more of a sign that I had found my people. Its walls were papered in a silver and brown pattern straight out of the ’70s, and it was kept busy by a stream of neighborhood residents, mostly brown and black. But when gentrification arrives, laundromats are the first to go—in fact, I had moved into my apartment complex precisely because it had a laundry facility in the basement, an unusual feature for a rental. Public laundromats are considered an undesirable part of a neighborhood, loudly proclaiming that it belongs to renters rather than homeowners. The Queen’s Basket disappeared.
While Chase renovated the interior it pasted advertisements about the upcoming branch on the windows. Giant posters featured attractive young men and women (we hadn’t yet begun to call them millennials), on bikes or on foot “Which branch should I go to? To the left? To the right? One block over?” Chase was offering itself up as not just a bank, but a neighbor. The fact that it has a record of being good only to wealthy account-holders (and squeezing the last dime out of everyone else), was, of course, occluded.
"If laundromats signify renters, mattress stores are, for gentrifiers, much worse. They’re the equivalent of a toilet paper dispenser, and no gentrifying neighborhood would deign to allow one to exist in its midst.”
Neoliberalism works as well as it does because of this kind of intimacy: a large, faceless multinational presents itself as a friendly neighbor on whom you might drop in to borrow a cup of change. Its genius is in making its rapaciousness seem affable and even necessary, especially as smaller entities are edged out. Over the next few years, Chase would establish itself as the go-to banking entity, taking over grocery and convenience store ATMs on the north side of Chicago, becoming a ubiquitous “neighbor” everywhere, while edging out local banks and credit unions that would actually work with communities of color historically underserved by conventional banks.
On our street was a well-known aquarium supply store that had gone through extensive renovations, applying blue wave-shaped siding with white details. But even its popularity couldn’t meet the rise in rent and the owners eventually relocated to Skokie. For a while, the space became a mattress store. If laundromats signify renters, mattress stores are, for gentrifiers, much worse. They’re the equivalent of a toilet paper dispenser, and no gentrifying neighborhood would deign to allow one to exist in its midst.
So it was no surprise when one of my gay neighbors (the neighborhood was very gay) complained about how much he detested it. He ran an iconic business that was well known in the community and of which I was fond, but as we spoke, he revealed the kind of class snobbery that gay men in particular are so apt to demonstrate. He went on and on about how it was simply not the right kind of business, that it brought the neighborhood down (by which he really meant the value of his house), and that he wanted nothing more than to see it gone. It was, he emphasised, the wrong kind of business, unsavory and cheap.
I had to struggle to stop myself from exclaiming, “Not the kind of business you want in the neighborhood? Dude, you own the local jerk-off joint, a place where people go to watch gay porn and fuck in the back room.” This is the genius of neoliberalism: that it can persuade a gay man who owns the kind of business that would have been raided just thirty years ago that it’s okay to be contemptuous towards a store that sells mattresses because that might bring in the kind of people who don’t belong.
You could argue that this kind of hypocrisy isn’t new. I’m not arguing that it is. But what is remarkable about neoliberalism is how it can make this contradiction seem not just inevitable, but necessary. As Heidi Nast, Margot Weiss and other critical scholars of queer culture, sexuality, and gentrification have pointed out, the emergence of fetish lifestyles and a more open and public sexual life may mean a certain kind of intimate freedom for some, but it combines with a decimation of other kinds of intimacies shared by the most vulnerable, such as the formation of neighborhoods and networks amongst occupants who are quietly and quickly phased out. Chicago, unlike New York, can push people outwards into the surrounding areas. On a recent ride share, the driver and I spoke about our neighborhoods. A young Latino man, he had grown up in Pilsen, along with his friends and his parents’ friends and, as he put it, they had been happy to see the changes as the place got better and the gangs were not so prevalent. We laughed as he said, without bitterness, “You can always tell when they’re gentrifying, when these white kids come in to restaurants asking for stuff not on the menu,” and I added, “Yes, and when the dog salons come in.” But he could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, and had to relocate to the border between Illinois and Indiana. Meanwhile, those moving into areas like Pilsen were unlikely to actually stay there for long, using the area to get rentals cheaper than anywhere else or buying houses simply as investments in an economy that rewards ownership over neighborhoods. This is not to wax nostalgic about “neighborhoods” or to imply that everyone needs to be an “ethical gentrifier,” but to point out that the economic structure in relation to something as basic as housing is entirely set up to benefit the banking and finance industry. Meanwhile, Chicago resolutely and proudly refers to itself as a city of neighborhoods. The question is: who gets to belong, who gets phased out?
Another story, dear aliens (I’m full of these): the corner where I lived was also home to the storied bathhouse, Man’s Country, founded and run by the late and legendary Chuck Renslow. As the area gentrified, newer residents included—in a city that is now home to a powerful mainstream gay community that practically runs the city—wealthy or well-off gays and lesbians, eager to occupy a space that heralded their arrival on the upper rungs of the social ladder. I loved Man’s Country, into which I would never have been allowed, even as friends said it wasn’t clean enough (I’ll admit, I loved the scent of jizz and steam as I walked by), and others preferred the tonier Steamworks franchise further south. The neighborhood gays hated it, and constantly tried to have it shut down. Like the mattress store, a seedy little bathhouse was, to them, a carbuncle on the face of a pretty neighborhood that emphasized its Swedish ancestry (ignoring the many decades of Middle Eastern, Somali, and Vietnamese immigrants who had moved into the area). One such opponent was another white neighbor of mine, and he often ranted about the bathhouse as well as the tattoo shop nearby, owned by Renslow, because, as he put it contemptuously, it was drawing gangs like the Latin Kings to the neighborhood.
One early morning, about 2 a.m, I came home and found the same man—such a respectable gay man who lived in a nearby condo—fumbling around the dumpster behind my own building. He was clearly drunk or high out of his mind, swaying slightly and barely able to slur back at me as I cheerily said hello. I noticed that he was dropping a constant flutter of dollars towards a considerably younger Latino man standing nearby. I said hello to this second person as well, who smiled awkwardly and nodded, and it became clear he understood very little English and was, furthermore, concerned with making sure to gather up the money, which was dropping everywhere, dollars here and there lifted up and spinning around in the summer breeze around the two of them as they stumbled and shuffled away. It was only once I’d reached my apartment that I realized I’d witnessed the end of a transaction, the sort that happens furtively in alleyways. Was my neighbor paying for blow, a blowjob, or both? It was never clear.
No doubt, dear aliens, you will have discovered that hypocrisy is a driving force in human history. Behind every witch hunt and hysterical pedophile scare is a group of people who hate women just because they are women or parents raping their children behind closed doors. But my neighbor’s rank hypocrisy wasn’t just evidence of a double life (presumably, his husband slept peacefully in their nearby condo as he did what he had to do behind the dumpster). Rather, it tells you a lot about how neoliberalism operates upon various vectors of intimacy, and how that intimacy cuts across lines of class, race, and gender with varying effects. The married gay men and women who so stridently turned my neighborhood into a gentrified gay enclave refused to allow bathhouses and such in the area, but they still needed public sites of sexual consumption that involved the bodies of nonwhite men and boys. They hated places like Man’s Country for not being elegant enough (it has since gentrified and adopted an edgy, hip veneer, with a leather store in the front) or for just being, and they hated the Latinos who came to the neighborhood unless it was to work as busboys and kitchen staff who disappeared at nightfall. But they would happily trek to Latino areas like Humboldt Park for sex or drugs with them, or hump them behind dumpsters. Local papers constantly bemoan the drug trade and what it’s “doing” to Latino places on the west side, like Humboldt, but ignore the fact that the trade is mostly sustained by demand from white Chicagoans living downtown on the north side who “slum it” for a few hours in areas south or west. Over and over, Chicago and other cities fetishise their “neighborhood feel,” creating “community” out of displacement, demanding that the displaced then return only to satisfy the cravings the new residents refuse to acknowledge or to perform the jobs beneath the newcomers’ pay grade. Home ownership is what Americans, gay and straight, are expected to do as married people and the intimacy of married life brutally occludes the covert and hidden intimacies of transactions that keep underground economies flourishing.
Neoliberalism seduces us with its intimacy. Intimacy with our workplace, our occupation, the idea of having to “love” what you do: our work becomes our lover. Neoliberalism feeds off our sense of constant economic precariousness by convincing us that we must never demand more from the state or corporations, that what we label “sharing” economies are somehow community-based endeavors. And so people everywhere distribute their labor almost for free, in workplaces that are described as “mobile” and to which they “commute” as free agents. But these are in fact far more onerous than regular workplaces, and are mostly unregulated enterprises, and offer neither benefits nor protections (the field of “left publishing", including this publication, consists almost entirely of such labor).
But what they do is put us in touch with our own labor as something we control, birth, operate. We work with the illusion of control, but we are compelled, all the while, to cede it. We believe that having no control over the circumstances of our lives yields an intimacy that we cannot get elsewhere.
Neoliberalism survives as well as it does because its machinations allow people to express dissent even as they in fact only echo support for its worst effects. During Occupy, it was incredible to watch so many take to the streets, finally critical of how capitalism had wreaked its havoc. But as I wound my way through the massive crowds and their signs, it also became evident that the palpable anger was not so much at the system but that the system had failed them. Signs everywhere said, in effect, “I did the right thing for years, and I was still screwed over.” Everywhere, there was an anger at the ruling classes, certainly, but I couldn’t help but recall yet again those words about America’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The subsequent bailouts only confirmed a widespread sense that if we just fix the system, we can make it all better, when the system itself is the problem, and “fixing” it only serves to concentrate resources and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
The Chicago protests at one point stopped at the Art Institute’s newest wing, where people were gathered for a reception for futures traders. As protesters stood outside and chanted, amused partygoers quaffed their wine and champagne and watched from up above.
Capitalism flows unimpeded.
But neoliberalism comes with its contradictions, filling needs that are otherwise unmet, exploiting the unequal distribution of resources. Take, for instance, the system of ride-sharing. Leftists of a certain ilk are fond of sneering that ride sharing (Uber, Lyft, and such) is anti-union and that those who use it are striking against the interests of hard-working cab drivers who need stronger work protections. They forget that not everywhere is like Brooklyn or downtown Chicago, with myriad cabs zipping in and out to whisk us to our destinations. In Hyde Park on the south side, where I live, no cabs are to be found except at certain times and at some corners. In other parts of the city, it is possible to wait on a corner and fruitlessly hail cabs as they drive by, refusing to take black and brown passengers or “queer freaks.” The city’s public transportation is carefully configured so that it’s impossible to get quickly from the mostly black south side to anywhere else. I once ran into a friend from Hyde Park who had just transferred to the downtown hub and still had a way to go before she got to her destination: “I’ve been on buses all day so far, and I’m still not where I need to be!” For those of us living in such places, ride-sharing has been a boon. An hour-long trip to a gig in my area involving two buses was cut to twenty minutes and cost me about $5.
When it comes to neoliberalism on a global scale, the devastation is certainly hard to argue against. But there are, for significant pockets and groups of people, immense social and economic changes that have made a difference in their lives. Western visitors to China and analysts of that economy bemoan what they see as the loss of family and cultural ties as young women and men leave their traditional lives behind to get jobs in a vastly growing capitalist economy. While this is true, and many or most of these jobs are exploitative, it’s also the case that the explosion of such jobs has enabled Chinese men and women to find and embrace entirely new and, for them, desirable lifestyles (in a similar vein, gay historians have pointed out that thousands of gay men, conscripted in WWII, were moved from their heartland homes to cities like San Francisco, where they could now build a fantastically new public queer sexual culture). Western analysts take their own social freedoms for granted—average Americans have, for many decades, left their parental homes in their late teens—but when it comes to other and what they fondly imagine as “more traditional” cultures, would prefer it if everyone just stayed transfixed in quaint old ways, please.
Neoliberalism fills the immediate needs of people in ways that other systems cannot—because, yes, that’s how capitalism functions, by dismantling our existing structures, and creating a need for new ones that provide the illusion of stability but in fact cause more harm. Consider schooling, at least in the US. We first eviscerated public education by defunding it, except in the wealthiest districts, and then created a demand for (exploitative, ruinous, substandard) private charter schools by presenting them as alternatives to the public schools we had caused to fail in the first place.
Neoliberalism is like that furtive lover you know you should leave but can’t, the one who promises to be better, the one who, each night, teaches you a different trick, another position, gives you a different orgasm.
The failure of the left is in its refusal to see how neoliberalism rationalizes capitalism along these lines of intimacy, even love, creating profound necessities, an ardour without which we cannot live. But, dear aliens, you might be wondering, how do such intimacies operate without bodies, without embodiment, without those corporealities that drive our very existence?
For an answer, we turn to this thing we call social media, which barely existed a decade ago from the time of this writing, but which has changed how we operate in the world.
4. The Age of the Tardigrade
Forgotten while you're here
Remembered for a while
A much updated ruin
From a much outdated style
—Nick Drake, “Fruit Tree”
In your excursions and incursions into our worlds, you might have encountered the Tardigrade, a terrible, monstrous, horrible thing, with keen but barely visible eyes, claws like the Wolverine’s, a nose that looks like something off the top of a spaceship, an exterior that can withstand radiation a thousand times more than what most living creatures, including humans, can endure, and a slow, threatening gait that lends a sense of impending evil to the topography of terror that is its body.
Or you might have missed it altogether because the Tardigrade is, at best, a millimeter in length. In the natural world, the Tardigrade, though a hardy animal that has been around for at least 500 million years, is harmless.
Social media is full of Tardigrades, user accounts (I hesitate to refer to all of them as “people”) who project themselves as fearsome entities able to summon millions to the most toxic and usually utterly useless “campaigns.” Suey Park, in the not so distant past, and Lauren Chief Elk can be counted as among the worst, along with Richard Spencer and Michelle Malkin. This is the age of the microcelebrity, the individual who becomes famous for being famous amongst relatively tiny clusters of individuals. The real-life Tardigrade has a complex biology and serves a function in the general ecology of life; one of its main purposes is to enter new habitats as a “pioneer species,” making it possible for other species to enter. The worth and relevance of human microcelebrities has yet to be determined.
Microcelebrities hold sway over infinitesimally small patches of social media real estate, like feudal lords standing on slowly but surely eroding hills of dust. They make grand proclamations about territory, death, and destruction, call for their enemies to be vanquished by followers, latch on to “causes” that are often muddled and designed to do little more than draw attention to themselves. Their campaigns usually last as long as the memory of a six-week-old kitten, but their effects are long-lasting and toxic.
But what matters about the microcelebrity is not their trolling, but that they have enabled the creation of a very particular self, the self that acts out its complete transparency, that supposedly leaves nothing to the imagination, that is embroiled, day in and day out, in a stream of narratives that reveals all its inner workings. (Do you have what we call selves or have you formed Borg-like conglomerations?) Among these selves, confession is the order of the day. Everyone confesses to everything, all emotions are laid out in public view. Acts of kindness? They must be described at length, with disquisitions on the gratitude expressed by those upon whom it was bestowed. Unkind behaviour, verging on pure assholery? A penitent post, or two, or five, a paean to one’s ability to expose all one’s flaws, a lapping up of all the praise that comes from such “revelations,” and then it’s back to the same shitty online behavior, flameouts followed by penitence, and then back again.
Microcelebrities are the mayflies of the social media world; a month is eternity, and few last beyond a year or two at their peak before settling into online corners of disgruntlement. Indeed, this transience helps perpetuate the phenomenon, as thousands upon thousands of bloggers, tweeters, and Youtube "personalities" vie to become the next flavor of the month. The problem lies less with who and where they are, and more with what their existence—and our obsession with them—has done to change who we are and how we respond to each other. We have adopted a microcelebrity way of being in the world. We aspire to the same levels of narcissism, which is, please note, different from being narcissistic. Which is to say, a prominent social drive these days is not narcissism per se, but that we fear that a lack of public narcissism will come across as a lack of self-awareness and mark us as inadequate for modern times. Along with this comes an easily held belief that everything we need to know about ourselves is right there, in public view, with no messy underside to any of us—after all, aren’t we all confessing all our sins and more?
Like a Tardigrade turned inside out and upside down, all our (mostly simulated) feelings and emotions are on full display. We assume this means empowerment, as if being on full display is a show of strength. We have no ability to read people, which means we have no way to organise them, but if they like our posts—or, even better, share them!—we think we have effected profound social change. We have lost our sense of the unconscious because we deem it unnecessary and even unclean. How do I feel today? Let me turn to social media. Am I on vacation? Let me spend every waking minute posting about how lovely it is to get away from the grind, and then obsessively check and recheck to see how many have hit “like.” We are suffused with intimacy, an intimacy with millions of others we conceive of as hanging on to our every word when we are no more present for them, no more real, than they are for us.
We’ve reached a point where there are no secrets, where we are not permitted secrecy, where even our innermost desires must self-correct. Are you attracted primarily to white people? You’re a racist. Are you attracted primarily to non-white people? You’re a racist. Don’t argue, just keep vomiting out your feelings and thoughts. You are not who you are, you are everything you say you are.
We have scrubbed ourselves clean of our unconscious.
5. Nostalgia for the Future
I can remember when this was the future
where it was gonna be at back then
Why don't we tear the whole bloody lot down
and make a new start all over again?
I can recall utopian thinking
bold mission statements and tightening of belts
demolition of familiar landmarks
promises made and deals that were dealt
This used to be the future
where it was at back then
Let's tear the whole bloody lot down
and start all over again
But that future was exciting
science fiction made fact
now all we have to look forward to
is a sort of suicide pact
—Pet Shop Boys, “This Used to Be the Future”
So there you have it, dear aliens. Devoid of messy, complicated thoughts and emotions, unable to remember even the recent past with any degree of accuracy, we have launched ourselves into a deep void of blandness that we mistake for politics.
There is so much that needs tending to in this world. Remember those dystopias I described in the beginning, the premises of so many of our fictional worlds? Those dystopias already exist. The burnt-out hollow buildings, the bodies strewn in the streets, the battle for meager resources and against the constant entrapment of hunters and torturers who turn in people for profit. The cities of Mosul, Aleppo, and Detroit, the slums of Mumbai and Kolkata, the south side of Chicago where venerable school buildings are emptied out awaiting the call of gentrification while residents of the surrounding communities travel hours by bus to find groceries: all of this is already a part of our present. Our dystopia is here.
And worse, and more: the brutality and deprivation faced by millions as they flee their homelands and seek shelter in countries that either turn them away or treat them with greed, rape, and parsimony; the extension of a prison industrial system through ways and means that extend far beyond physical walls and exerts its eternal regime through innocuously termed methods like “civil commitment”; women whose bodies are never granted to them and who face the daily, inexorable struggle of violation and degradation; the greedy gathering of resources like healthcare and housing in the hands of a tiny minority while billions go without; the overwhelming sense spreading across the planet that those who suffer brought their suffering upon their own heads and that they should work to better themselves while tightening their belts in the service of austerity.
The tragedy of our time is that our solutions to such matters are increasingly tied not to what we might do, but to what kind of people we might become, and whether or not those who suffer at the hands of the state are good people, deserving of our compassion, or “criminals,” “rapists,” “terrorists, “enemies,” who must be walled off in cages or across borders.
Take, for instance, the case of Philando Castile. Shot to death in front of his partner and four-year-old daughter, it was Castile’s life and character that were presented for public judgment rather than the police officer who shot him. It seemed only natural that Castile’s family, friends, and community should work to show his exemplary side, as, for instance, with anecdotes about how good he was with the children whose nutritional needs he tended to when he worked at a Montessori school.
But even if Castile had been all that and more, even if he had rescued the Pope himself from drowning, the officer would still have been exonerated. Or, to put it another way: even if Castile had been, say, a rapist, he still wouldn’t have deserved to be murdered. If we construct laws to judge actions and not individuals, then we ought not to dwell upon what kind of people they were in order to guarantee justice. When we try to paint victims as perfect, almost godlike people, when we speak of “innocent victims” of police brutality, we are implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—stating that there are, somewhere, somehow, those who deserve to die.
"What I propose instead is a strategic pessimism, a full understanding that we will, as a band of queers once said, first get our asses kicked before we win."
6. Race and Nostalgia for the Future
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
—Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”
This is not to say that matters are uncomplicated. Despite the efforts by some parts of the left to forgo questions about identity, who people are and what positions they inhabit still determines their access to anything resembling justice. Consider, for instance, the utter failure of the left to consider race.
The right’s tendency to imagine that the past was unclouded by unhappiness and its yearning for a time when women and people of color knew their place are well known, but we on the left forget or ignore that the left also suffers from its own nostalgia.
Consider the problem of class. “Class is everything” insist too many on the left. In the wake of the Trump election, it was the left, not the right, that turned to a shoddy political analysis that was disturbingly racist in its complete erasure of people of color, particularly of black and brown people, including immigrants. In supposedly left publications, pundits were screaming that Trump won because he was able to appeal to the white working class. The solution? We must now work on reintegrating the white working class into the left’s supposed vision of the world and—this was the crucial point—dispense with the silliness of “identity politics” or “identitarianism.” Enough already, they insisted, with all this emphasis on race and ethnicity! Conveniently, white women leftists and their comrades quietly de-emphasised gender, replicating feminism’s historical erasure of race and ethnicity. From now on, we only need to think about how to unalienate the white working class!
There are several problems with this excuse for an analysis. The first is empirical: only about 55% of US voters went to the polls, which means that it is simply not factually the case that the majority of white working class people voted for Trump. The left enclaves of Chicago and Brooklyn like to think of the link between class and race in 1950s terms, where, certainly, the majority of the “working class”—that is to say, for instance, factory workers—were in fact white. But this was mostly because of the exclusion of other categories of people, who were systematically disallowed from workplaces and neighborhoods. As the conventional occupations of the white working class eroded with the loss of factory and mining jobs, and manufacturing began to be outsourced, the whiteness of the working class also went through dramatic changes. In rural and semirural areas and suburbs across the country, the complexion of the working class has shifted dramatically, with entire towns reflecting the demographics of change as black, native, and brown immigrant families set down roots or pass through in waves as documented or undocumented workers. Class and race are complicated even in urban areas. In places like Philadelphia, black and white working class families and individuals have historically often lived in proximity to each other.
Such matters challenge the easy narratives of black and white that the left is tied to. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, the discussion about class and race among the left betrayed the left’s inherent racism. After all, if it was in fact the case that a white working class had brought a racist demagogue to power, why did the left decide that it needed to reach out to this demographic? Why not seek ways to think about and through the complications of race? Why, in the year 2016, decide that the working class was white, and that its whiteness was what needed to be highlighted and assuaged all at once? Why erase the presence of so many black and brown and immigrant workers who were alienated by Trump’s rhetoric but clearly not inspired enough by leftist talk of a socialist future or by Clinton’s neoliberalism to turn out in massive numbers? Why not instead reach out to those massive numbers of black and brown and immigrant voters who did not vote?
What was so troubling about the left’s response to the identity question was that in attempting to “reach out” to white working class voters, it chose to ignore the real issues about what it admitted might be their beliefs about the rest of society. In effect, the left doesn’t dispute that the white working class is, for example, often racist, sexist, and homophobic—after all, its very contention that focusing on those identity matters lost the white working class vote establishes that. In which case, the left actively seeks only to change whom the white working class votes for, without caring about possibly changing or even challenging its beliefs. The widely held view in this section of the left is that an attention to class and matters like, say, guaranteeing universal healthcare to everyone will take care of racial inequalities. But in a country like the US, access to basics like healthcare and education are also severely affected by race—ask any black or brown person seeking hospital care: the fear of inadequate treatment is justified. Ignoring such historical factors, many lefties tell me, with barely disguised contempt, when I ask, yes, but what do we in the meantime about those who find themselves at the crossroads of sometimes multiple identities and economic hardship: “If we take care of the economic issues, everything else will just fall into place.” Well, then.
The left set about joyfully criticizing “identity politics,” declaring that any focus on identities was the problem. In all this, it conveniently forgot or sidelined an inconvenient truth: whiteness is an identity.
In other words, the left doesn’t have a problem with identity politics because, after all, it clearly wishes for the reinstatement of white people as central to any political or cultural work. It simply has a problem with black, brown, and immigrant people’s presence in the political fabric of this country, choosing instead to wax nostalgic for a bygone era when both the working class and the left itself were predominantly white.
Despite all its talk about socialism and capitalism, the US left fails to grasp the realities of neoliberalism. The left’s vision of the working class falls somewhere between Norma Rae and the salty plumber who shows up in that film to “check your pipes.”
"We need to dispense with the idea that we owe love to each other. The stickiness of that imperative, that we must care for each other or die, has been ruinous to our efforts, leaving us mired in the mud of affect.”
7. Moving On, Moving Out
We're so far away
Floating in this bay
We're so far away from home
Where we belong
—John Cale, “Half Past France”
And so, dear aliens, this missive comes to you from within a morass of bad political will and deep affect. Did we resolve our issues and create a better, more just society or did we wither away, the few with wealth dying of inbred rot and disease in their art-filled mansions, the many of hunger and deprivation?
As we seek answers in this most turbulent of times, those earnestly in search have been apt to adopt time-worn and largely useless tactics. Most of them are founded on the idea of love, an illusory, indefinable entity that changes shape as it moves from person to person.
I grow tired of words like “love” and “solidarity” being thrown around, especially in the radical queer circles I inhabit, as if they mean the same thing to everyone. Love always devolves to the individual level, and when push comes to shove we choose the needs of our loved ones (which is to say ourselves) over the needs of our community and our world. This makes for good epics and action movies, but makes genuine justice that much harder to achieve. Love, furthermore, is cheap and easy as an organising tool. Rather than focus on the hard work of changing systems, we dwell endlessly on the degree to which we can love one another; inevitably, at some point or the other, we become so immersed in loving each other, we forget that justice should exist even for those we hate or dislike. Even if we can find a way to move forward without love, we can’t help but congratulate ourselves on how fabulous we are, how grand, to be able to resolve matters even with those we don’t love. The line between worldly love and self-love to the point of narcissism is thin.
I told you at the start that this would be the most pessimistic of the documents stored in the capsule. Pessimism is not encouraged, especially in this land of sunny smiling faces where everyone has to keep insisting that they’re okay, even as the world falls around them. But as I think of how to move forward, dear aliens, the struggle is to consider revolutionary zeal that is inspired not by boundless love for one’s fellow creatures or sunny optimism that “we” will be all right. Because “we” are fucked.
What I propose instead is a strategic pessimism, a full understanding that we will, as a band of queers once said, first get our asses kicked before we win. We have to dispense with the idea that we must first love or like those whom we work for and with and, instead, understand that the point is not to create a giant happy neighborhood where everyone knows your name.
In an interview, the psychoanalyst Patricia Gherovici relays an anecdote about a Jewish man who once asked Sigmund Freud, also a Jew, “Should I convert my son to Catholicism?” And Freud responded, “No, no, no, don’t do that, don’t spare him this experience of alienation. To be a Jew in this society is something he shouldn’t miss.” For Freud, says Gherovici, “it is not necessarily a negative experience to be outside society.”
I have spent nearly half my life in a country that operates on the seemingly irreconcilable paradigms of both assimilation and expulsion. The only way to navigate this strange climate is to understand that alienation is profoundly liberatory; without it there is no understanding, no searing sense of what actually needs to be done. When movements are taken over by love and optimism, or at least a will towards love and optimism (be happy, or else!) they fail because they reach the limits of possibility almost instantly.
If a movement around, say, immigration is simply built upon compassion for refugees and on “letting them in,” the failure becomes apparent when those goals are realized. Nothing at all is done about the unending chaos that drives millions across borders, or about integrating them into their new countries. But what if we decided, instead, that the point is not to be compassionate towards refugees—to love them—but to think about ending the situations that create them in the first place? This would require us to stop laughing at our favorite leaders’ jokes about drones, to take seriously the question echoed by another whom we hate: if we think weapons are so deadly that they should not fall into the wrong hands, why do we have them in the first place?
Consider this line of questioning in everything else we think of as social justice and, suddenly, the stakes are clearer, and harder. With gay marriage and the fight thereof, the argument was always, “People should be able to marry their same-sex partners in order to access tax breaks and healthcare, just like straight couples.” But this could have been a moment when we asked, instead, “Who came up with the idea that only married people deserve healthcare? And whom do these tax breaks benefit, besides the well-off?” When Trump tried to disallow trans people from serving in the military, there was much outcry and panic because, as many put it, the military is, for a severely marginalized group with little access to healthcare or any other benefits, one of the few places that affords its members anything like social mobility. But this ignores the crucial fact that we live in a society where people have to enter an institution that blankets the world in terror, including many LGBTQ people everywhere, in order gain the basics. And so on down the line: pose similar questions in any other context, including housing and education (instead of giving students vouchers to private education, why not work at making public education better everywhere?) and we see that in our frenetic rush to include people in flawed systems we have lost the sense that the systems should not exist in the first place, or what could exist in their stead. The point is not to focus on whether the individuals should be blamed for any system, but on why all of us are forced to support systems that made their lives intolerable in the first place and which are, at best, themselves unjust arbiters of the most basic benefits.
In their films Homotopia and Criminal Queers, the filmmakers Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas trace a tale of radical queers in San Francisco. Their lives become embroiled in a resistance to the gay mainstream that eventually lands one of them in prison and leaves others to scramble to the safety of the underground as the state and gay men and women and their organizations come after them, baying for their blood. What binds this lot together is not a sense of love and connectedness—the films deliberately avoid giving us too many details of how and why they know each other—but a sense that the political project, of dismantling the prison industrial complex and the mainstream gay agenda that ruthlessly cuts out nonnormative queers from all kinds of benefits, is what matters. In other words, it is not a sense of community that draws them in the spirit of revolution, but a strategic coming together for the purpose of a project greater than the sum of their feelings for each other. And in this coming together, they make enormous sacrifices, willing to forgo the safety of their lives in order to protect and save the lives of others.
What if our organising work, whether around prison abolition or healthcare or education or housing, was built not on the premise that people, some kinds of people, the good kind, deserve better conditions, but that our systems should benefit everyone?
What do people need? And how do we get them what they need, without their having to beg for it?
We need to dispense with the idea that we owe love to each other. The stickiness of that imperative, that we must care for each other or die, has been ruinous to our efforts, leaving us mired in the mud of affect.
As we move forward in confusing times, admonishing each other to be perfect people is a shitty, stupid, time-wasting tactic. The left is far too concerned with proving its moral character instead of doing what it needs to do: prove that its vision of the world is what will save us all.
In organizing on the left, dear aliens, we should consider how to organise economically but without ignoring the fact that our lives and structures come constituted out of messy matters that involve race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.
In organizing on the left, we need to regard, again, the unconscious, described by Gherovici as “the last activist.” As long as we continue to pretend that we no longer have or need an unconscious, as long as we insist that all our actions and thoughts, from sex to desire to politics can be enacted on a publicly available plane of penitence and piety, there is no hope for us. We are doomed to fail, and not in the good way that reveals how to move on but in the endless loop of constant failure that comes from never seeing the light.
My late friend George Stotis once said to me, when I wailed that I would not give in on a particular political battle, “Compromise is not surrender.”
The left has to reconcile itself to the messiness of political life. Consider how much time I spent here talking about why love was not a foundation for organising. And yet, as you will no doubt have noticed, I not only resort to the words of someone I loved, but make a point of acknowledging that love. This is not a contradiction—we can acknowledge that there are things we live with and in, like love and ride-sharing, and things we would like to change or remove, like the deployment of love as an organising tool and the insidious economic conditions of ride-sharing.
How do we navigate between compromise and surrender? There is never a perfect decision; you can only make a decision within the full integrity of the moment. You might well be proven wrong. Nothing might work out the way you hoped. But working in the integrity of the moment is what matters. So, yes, march against Trump, by all means, but march with a strategy, with a politics and goal in mind. Promise yourself you will march when the leader you like does something you don’t. Stop worrying about how to bring people together in order to be happy and focus instead on getting everyone what they need. Understand that people’s needs will sometimes be in conflict, and when that happens, spend time in real time discerning how to reconcile seemingly contradictory needs instead of taking flight to Twitter. Embrace the unconscious and understand that real power lies in discerning that people’s struggles are driven by murky unconscious drives, not simply by what they state coherently in public.
A successful movement assumes that people may not always act in the ways that are to their best advantage, but strives to get them what they need anyway. Be utilitarian about everything, including social media, instead of letting it consume you. Understand that real power lies not in boasting about what and whom you know, but in the trust and relationships you forge over many years with different sets of people. Power always lies in the unseen, not in the drama of online toxic fights that give you nothing but the ass-kissing devotion of those drawn not to your mission but to your purported fame. The right in this country has built decades of organising on all fronts, including the ideological, and it knows how to run meetings on time and feed people who show up. The left still doesn’t know how to respond to any new leader without fetishishing him as a literal poster boy. It spends most of its meetings smoothing hurt feelings from weeks ago, and it schedules meetings at dinner time without so much as a pizza slice in view. Organise with people or don’t, and stop shaming people for either—but most of all, keep thinking about what political and social change has to mean in the long run, not just the election around the corner.
Compromise cannot mean giving up what is critical.
Did we succeed, dear aliens? Did we compromise and somehow manage to survive without causing further harm? Or did we surrender everything and leave nothing in our wake but the blasted-out edifices of fruitless hope?
Klaatu barada nikto. Change or die, humans. Change or die.
It took a village to help write this; whatever does not work is my fault alone.
For suggestions on manifestos and what to include, I thank Seth Giovanni DiMartile, Uday Jain, Mariame Kaba, Conrad Ryan, Eric Stanley, and Nathan Cedric Tankus. For reading endless drafts and commenting exhaustively, my thanks go to Eli Massey, Gautham Reddy, Richard Hoffman Reinhardt, and Matt Simonette.
I especially want to thank Dale Peck—not just for being an excellent and patient editor, but for giving me a rare opportunity that has helped transform the way I both think and write.