Not Breathing Much Easier...But Still Breathing
Especially for people deemed “too political” (a label I’ve worn proudly for decades), this has been one Hell of a year. It’s the pandemic effect, obviously, but it’s more than that. While 2020 may be remembered as the year when Trumpism achieved its full flowering in a frontal assault on democracy, the hellaciousness that I and so many others have felt goes well beyond that.
Trumpism is the symptom, not the disease itself. The disease is a radical and widening inequality that’s not incidental but integral to the project of making the world safe for billionaires. The disease is the oligarchic death spiral and the necropolitics it engenders.
A triumphant winner-take-all ethic means the Devil takes the hindmost. It poisons and distorts everything. It corrodes our politics, most obviously, but it also taints our religion (e.g., the ubiquity of the Prosperity Gospel and the obscene obeisance Trump gets even now from white evangelicals). Determined above all to preserve their wealth—and the commons be damned—our plutocrats don’t hesitate to undermine citizens’ foundational attachment to reality. Witness reactionary billionaires like Rebekah Mercer deliberately polluting the mediasphere and thereby perpetuating what New York Times columnist Charlie Wurzel calls the “eternal culture war doomloop.”
I’m aware that this is too much raw Marxism for many readers to swallow. I simply counter that Marx was right about many things. We Americans tend to overcompensate for our aversion to the Marxist critique by holding, against all evidence, that culture rot proceeds entirely independently of class war from above. That is a naive and dangerous delusion. Economic spoliation and civic decay go hand in hand, but the leading hand belongs to the iron law of oligarchy.
When 80% of the population is being fleeced by greedheads at the top (who now have so much money they literally don’t know what to do with it), a coruscating rage fueled by status anxiety is bound to keep on bubbling and burning. And the greedheads need not worry that they’ll get scorched. By now they’re really skilled at turning anger away from themselves, inviting their victims to blame technology instead, or (better still) to blame the very government they themselves have colonized, corrupted, and sabotaged—or (best of all) blame POC, immigrants, and Jews for ruining the American Dream.
In practical terms, the Biden Administration will most likely fail because it won’t be able to deliver the goods people need, at which point a carefully cultivated proto-fascism will come roaring back.
What this means in practical terms is that the Biden Administration will most likely fail because it won’t be able to deliver the goods people need, at which point a carefully cultivated proto-fascism will come roaring back. What it means is that Biden’s appeals for “civility” will go nowhere and even make him look weak and foolish. What it absolutely means is that nothing transformative will be done to arrest climate change, a phenomenon that is part and parcel of the oligarchic death spiral and one that will compound suffering and disease, hugely exacerbate inequality, and induce more panic and rage than we’re capable of imagining now.
I need hardly add that as this nightmare unfolds, our oh-so-discreet oligarchs will simply wash their hands of it and retreat to their gated and guarded enclaves while the rest of us sweat it out, as crops fail all over the world and tens of millions die.
Have I brought sufficient holiday cheer yet?
I cannot avoid ending this piece with some reference to my personal faith, and I hope to do so in a way that won’t give offense to people of other faiths or no faith. I ask my readers to bear with me here.
I’m a preacher who always tries to preach hope and who remains on the lookout for signs of hope, even itty-bitty ones. But I also absorbed a strong dose of Christian realism during my formative years; a realism that lingers, reminding me that sin is real and that evil is incredibly resourceful.
So yes, on the hopeful side I do see and rejoice in the widespread awakening to the pervasive effects of white supremacy, most notably its central role in birthing and maintaining our uniquely vicious American capitalism. But the time we have left to turn things around is very short. And wokeness by itself does little to change the toxic power relations that are killing us.
One way I cope with all of this is to pray for a deeper faith—for myself and for others. I pray every day for fearlessness and for the courage to fight on. But there remains a side of me that suspects the only chance at survival we have is to pass through an apocalyptic event of some kind—something far more apocalyptic than even the current pandemic. And this thought scares me. The specter of violence terrifies me.
Scholars will attest that the apocalyptic material in the Bible grew out of the unredeemed suffering of the Hebrew exiles. I do not want to be the kind of believer who calls down fire from heaven to smite the evildoers and bring miraculous deliverance at the far side of the flames. I realize I must resist this impulse and lean always into hope and struggle. But the worse things get, the harder it is for me to keep my own hope alive.
All that said, I remain hopeful. And here’s where my remaining hope is anchored: there are times of great moral crisis that do sometimes produce changed consciousness and positive political will on a wide scale, and this could very well be one of those times.
The deprivations of the Great Depression gave us a vital labor movement and the political will to curb the worst excesses of capitalism. The cruelty and shamefulness of Jim Crow’s persistence, following a war ostensibly fought against fascism, offered the opening for the rise of a powerful 20th century Civil Rights Movement. And today there are thousands of clear-sighted organizers, many of them young people of color, who’ve done their homework and understand the basics of movement-making: the need to engage head, heart, and spirit all at once and to fully understand one’s opposition so as not to be sidetracked, blindsided, seduced into a phony peace. As well, there are plenty of elders, some of them movement elders and others not, who are prepared to join the struggle for a human future.
It’s possible we won’t make it out of our 21st century impasse. The scale and depth and complexity of our current crisis exceeds that of these earlier junctures, and in each of these past instances the path forward was easier to discern than one is today. But if we do make it out of this wilderness, I am certain the path for us will have something in common with the paths taken to escape these earlier times of desperation. I am certain that ours will likewise be a path marked by collective resistance to evil and collective refusal to submit to unjust power.
If there is to be any lifeline in our time, that lifeline will necessarily entail nonviolent resistance on a mass scale: a worldwide uprising, most likely, but at minimum a righteous insurgency right here in the belly of the beast.
Creative, persistent nonviolence has been called “a force more powerful” for a reason. Nonviolence brings together body and spirit for those who participate. It draws great strength from the work and witness of the ancestors. Most crucially, it summons basic morality and aligns it on the side of those who suffer. Powers and principalities can never prevail against it. And here, in the soil of nonviolent resistance, is where I will place my faith and plant my hope for humanity’s last chance.
I am now too old now to do much frontline street-level organizing. But I’m not too old to at least try to help light the way, connect the dots, recall and distinguish among the strategies that succeeded and those that failed in the past.
There will be no deus ex machina deliverance, no Red Sea parting, for this generation. But the God who dwells in each of us isn’t giving up—and neither should we.