Category Archives: Walls and Lines

Tense of history

One leftist response to Trump’s installation has been to counsel those engaging in the resistance to him to do so with a “sense of history,” that is, with the knowledge that he didn’t invent the techniques and forms currently being used for such awful ends. Some even go so far as to give permission to the protesters to protest as long as they do so while being conscious that the awfulness has all “already come to pass.”

This, I suppose, is the legacy of historical materialism (though it is strange that a methodology that strives to be alert to historical differences ends up homogenizing history). As an analytical imperative, it does make some sense. Recognizing the genealogies of things can give us insight into how they might be put to use in the near future, how they might mutate, and how they might be interrupted. It might also help cure us of the belief that opposing state actions can be more effective by exploiting fissures in governance or, worse, by aspiring to governance.

But as an immediate question while Trump and Bannon are purposefully creating a state of emergency by overwhelming us with events, I don’t see the strategic necessity of being cognizant of these histories, especially when this demand for awareness is couched in vague, almost mystical terms like “sense of history” or in a blithe dismissal that it’s all happened before. This sort of intellectualistism, whose own genealogy is Leninist, is idealist in its conviction that awareness precedes action and vanguardist in its belief that organization needs theory to become legible. 

But the people crossing borders, harboring migrants, blocking pipelines, protesting police violence, and participating in all the other antistate actions going on today lack nothing, certainly not awareness and certainly not tactical sophistication. Instead of making sense of history, they are doing something way more valuable: making history tense. 

Those great Danes

The love Bernie Sanders and his coterie of propagandists have for Denmark is disgusting in its selectivity. They have lots to say about the country’s generous social benefits but nothing to say about who gets to receive them or how the polity’s access to them is protected.

Denmark was the first European country to close its borders this summer and instituted strict new asylum laws specifically for people that were fleeing the brutality in Syria, Eritrea, and other places. The government even placed advertisements in newspapers in Middle East newspapers discouraging people from migrating there because their families would not be able to join them and because there would be a four-year wait before they would be issued even a temporary residency permit. Bernie’s social-democratic paradise was called the Hungary of the north for good reason, except that it was probably even worse: at least Hungary allowed, at intervals, migrants to travel through; Denmark’s policy this summer was to detain and deport.

The government that instituted these emergency measures was the recently elected rightist Venstre party, but they were mostly an extension of the logic of citizenship-based policies instituted by the Social Democrats, which controlled the previous government and admitted that it had to tightly control immigration in order to protect the welfare state.

The Social Democrats saddled the migrants that are able to stay with the strictest requirements in the EU: migrants must marry someone with citizenship to a EU country; migrants earn points toward citizenship by showing they’re serious about linguistic and cultural assimilation through active labor force and civic participation, by being tested on their knowledge of Danish history and culture, and by attaining advanced educational degrees, and those who came from certain places (EU and Nordic countries) are awarded more points than those that came from other countries; the state instituted a nine-year waiting period before a permanent residency permit would be issued, and longer even for full citizenship; and those that need to access social services first have to place 13,000 euros into escrow.

None of this is to even make the argument that social-democracy is inherently racist. But if people are going to lionize the Danes, it’s worth pointing out that even by the country’s own estimation, the continuation of those social benefits and the happiness they create entails a managed cultural homogeneity and universal acceptance of the nation’s communitarian principles. Not even those fleeing war, famine, and climate change can be exempted from those requirements.

On the other hand, Bernie and his fans — the guy who called open borders a “Koch brothers proposal” and blames migrants from driving down wages — are not being selective when they ignore all this. Maybe they just don’t care.


What if the demands for trigger warnings aren’t expressions of revulsion at what is but an anticipation and warding off of what could be? Of course they can be and are both. But the accepted assumption that they are indicators of an almost-puritanical aversion to risk misses that they are as much oriented to the future as they are to past trauma and that, in their blithe dismissal of institutional protocol and hierarchy, they exhibit a utopianism that’s about more than just rejection and self-protection. The act of demanding is more akin to workers who move to obtain some degree of control of their workplace, a completely appropriate response to students’ position in the contemporary university.

Of course trigger warnings — under which I’m also including safe spaces and the like — have a conservatizing element. But everything that’s recognizable is conservative — ordered/ordering, formed/forming — in some ways. The more interesting questions are about how things are conserved, who decides how they are ordered, and how the burden of risk is distributed. Those are the questions that the demands for trigger warnings are forcing, and it’s not surprising that the people who seem to be reacting most strongly against their being raised are academics, aspiring and established, who were promised full control of their workplace environment. These academics often present their objections as a radical embrace of risk, experimentation, and unbounded learning, but the idea that students should be empty receptacles for professors’ presentation of an already-formed canon is itself highly conservative, based as it is on institutional hierarchy, credentialed mastery of subject matter, and a lot of other accepted truths about how an education should be achieved.

It’s no coincidence that these issues and antagonisms seem to have become acute as more people, and more different kinds of people, pursue higher education than ever have before. For most of the history of universities, until the last 40 years, say, the people allowed to attend them was highly circumscribed — monied (or those who had proved their merit), white, and male, by and large. There was no need for content warnings because the community was already defined. The university was, in other words, its own kind of safe space. 

The challenge presented by trigger warnings and safe spaces is that those who demand them want to redefine that space for themselves. This will probably inspire some conservative fortifications and violent exclusions, and those should be criticized and defeated. But there is nothing inherently conservative about people attempting to define the space they want to occupy, just as there is nothing politically radical about defending institutions and processes that structurally obstruct those attempts.

Anarchists and occupation

I’ve been a little surprised at the critical reactions by some anarchists to Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds of spinoffs. Not that there isn’t room for criticism. There’s plenty: to the extent it has a critique of capital, OWS errs on the side of the populist — parasitic finance, evil capitalists, biased governance; the 99% slogan is problematic not just because it elides difficult issues about difference but because it assumes that structural forces (the police, for example) can be overcome with shame or rational argument; some of its elements are too hasty to call for reregulation and are ripe for co-optation; and this just begins the list.

No, the problem with certain anarchist reactions, besides the fact that they sometimes fail even to make the basic points outlined above, is not criticism in general but the kinds of criticisms, which are primarily ideological and programmatic, and reterritorializing. For instance, this article from the Workers’ Solidarity Movement, which I’ll take as exemplary here, claims that “the [occupy] movement’s unwillingness to attempt to agree on a coherent set of positions” indicates a sort of generalized depoliticization. Perhaps, but isn’t the work of movements precisely to formulate those positions? Entering a struggle with already-formed positions and tactics smacks of vanguardism, with the attendant necessity of adhering to the ideological program. Acts of resistance and refusal are nothing if not the time to experiment with tactics and devise (or at least reformulate) positions and principles.

For WSM, the occupations and assemblies are problematic because they operate from the assumption that “no two people experience oppression in the same way, and thus any attempt to unite people under a political programme inevitably ends up erasing some people’s perspectives,” which in turn “produces a vague and weak politics.” While I agree that so far a sort of happy tolerance and an evasion of disagreement too strongly animate the occupations, there’s something admiral and even novel about this stubborn refusal to eclipse difference in favor of a muscular political agenda. And even though this sometimes makes the events seem like giant self-help sessions, something is being enacted that, at least in the United States, hasn’t been seen in awhile: the act of being together, the reminder that doing politics is possible only in a group, and the enacting of a politics that isn’t only adversarial. Faced with the challenges of doing that work, political programs and demands can wait.

“Bring back the working class!” WSM says: “One of the major victories of neoliberalism is the eradication of the working-class from the popular consciousness. One of the results of this is the prevalence of the idea among certain sections of the left that the working-class is no longer relevant to understanding power in the modern world – an outdated idea clung to by old-left dinosaurs.” Well. OWS’s avoidance of this sort of reterritorialization should be praised, not mocked. Sure, the evasion could be primarily attributed to its incompetence and bland acceptance of everything under the sun, but it’s nonetheless there and it’s why, unlike, say, antiwar protests and syndicalist workplace action, it keeps open the possibility of a movement that encompasses not just wage earners but everyone who is striated by capital, and does so without curing those subjects of their singularity: the unemployed, the unemployable, the incarcerated, the homeless, students, and others.

Some anarchists, like the state-happy Marxists they criticize, assume that people gather for political reasons and then articulate political positions that correspond to the aims of that organization. There is some of that, for sure, but in many ways it also gets the relationship backwards: people organize because they already share political concerns and ideology, even when they are never articulated. What marks the work of political organization is less programs and ideology formation and more resonance and affect, the doing together and the interaction of bodies. If occupy movements have something to recommend them, it’s that they haven’t foreclosed this aspect of politics and have in fact deliberately made it their primary concern.

Not getting it

Corey Robin, in that patronizing tone left-liberals (the kind who self-identify as socialists to distinguish themselves from the liberals they are barely, uh, distinguishable from) have adopted since Occupy Wall Street began:

In the last few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields—and it’s considerable—it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.

Robin trots out as his “acute observers” de Tocqueville and DuBois, whom he ventriloquizes violently, and himself and his own liberal take on the national state, specifically that it is absolutely separable and actually autonomous from capital. So for Robin, the Pinkertons are definitively not of the state because they were deployed and employed by capitalists. But this overlooks the Pinkertons’ origins: the agency was created because businesses thought the state was not up to its designated task, of policing labor disputes, and in fact the agency’s first notorious achievement came when it stopped a plot to kill the head of state, Abraham Lincoln, who then employed the Pinkertons for his own security. Then as now, the lines separating state and capital are suppler and more complicated than Robin pretends they are; the assignation of functions and duties is always changing and crossing, and stark ownership distinctions between capital and state, between public and private, can’t begin to approximate the ways the effects of policing are lived by its subjects.

Of course I wouldn’t really expect left-liberals to appreciate these dynamics — after all, their whole political philosophy is predicated on a belief that the state can be a neutral arbiter between labor and capital — but I wish they wouldn’t be brusquely tone-deaf in laying them out. Even on his own terms, Robin’s distinctions don’t hold, and are condescending and insulting to the people he presumes to speak for. For instance, grouping the Klan with capital is disingenuous at best — it is nothing if not a quasi-state organization; ditto for chain gangs. Ridiculously, he seems to think that slavery existed purely economically, that there was not a state apparatus — laws, policing, the judiciary, etc. — that enforced its micropolitical and macropolitical operations. In a more contemporary vein, he doesn’t even seriously consider the war on drugs or a penal system that directly monitors and regulates almost half of all black men to be a serious expression of “repressive political power.”

Maybe if the criminal justice system were fully privatized he’d “get it.”

Resonance, representation, revolt

There are probably a thousand things to say about the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, and I think concepts such as resonance nicely capture their effectiveness, novelty, and rapid expansion. But what also strikes me about the revolts is an “older” problem, that of representation, for lack of a better term. The difficulty for so-called totalitarian states — a terrible label, I know, mostly because of the orientalist assumptions behind it, but if used strictly it is descriptive — is that by banning or limiting independent movement(s) and making all institutions coterminous with the party/leader, there are no substrata to draw from when the people become ungovernable. Of course, organization exists, but totalitarianism makes it exist in the margins, in forms that can’t be transformed into governance.

It’s this inability of organization to jump the gap between modes of marginal creation and democratic capture that movements can use to their advantage. Of course the moment can just as easily be decided by restoration with a different face, but as the Egyptians have taught us, the insisting on a single demand, which is nearly the same as making no demands at all, can hold open the gap, the moment of undecidability, so that no forces of reterritorialization can step in. It’s fragile maneuver, filling the space with the barest of anything, and can be difficult to maintain when the crisis wanes or shifts (as the Egyptians are finding out now under military rule), but delaying the imposition of representation makes governability and statecraft much more difficult. And that marks the difference between revolt and revolution.

Capital flows and nations

The previous post doesn’t imply that resistance to nation-based solutions has been the only response to the crises. That’s not been the case, as the recent explosion of nationalist idiocies — to use just some of the proper names: tea parties, Germany’s program of austerity in defense of its exports, and France’s explusions of the Roma — show clearly enough. Not surprisingly, the twin crises, of the economy and of finance, have produced autarkic fantasies everywhere, and not just on the political right.

The key word here, I think, is produced. It’s become standard analysis to describe nationalist upsurges in the last few decades as reactions to the increasing borderlessness of capital. The implication is that older economic forms that used the nation as the primary determining economic and political boundary actually tamed, or at least rationalized, these latent tendencies, while globalization’s deterritorializations have loosened them. But even though such views give the nation a certain amount of autonomy that is missing in economistic accounts, they still assume that nationalism is natural, eternal even, and overlook how it is created and maintained, however fragilely and imperfectly. It would be better to investigate how the global movement of capital has produced these nationalisms — in both their quotidian and evental expressions — rather than relegate them to the status of mere anachronism.

Of course that’s a big project, one definitely worth researching but more than I will or can do here. For now I’d like to look at just one aspect of the recent crises and its relation to a nation: the flow of foreign capital into the United States. Obviously it’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions from these very partial figures, but I think the flow of money is certainly a matter worth investigating.


As this first chart shows, at the onset of the crises, the flow of private capital into the United States completely stopped. Of course in one sense this is hardly a revelation: as everyone already knows, in 2008 private credit flows completely froze. But less frequently acknowledged is that their immobility was due in large part to the fact that the multibillion dollars coming into the United States each day, which was required to sustain the current world dynamic, dropped to below zero. (Significantly, it was also at this time that another incoming flow turned negative: the flow of labor.) Nonstate investors everywhere held on to their cash.

In the absence of flows, the world economy started living off its stock.


The next chart shows this in more detail: In 2008 and 2009, there was no incoming capital from private sources for private investment. But notice also that as total inflows dropped off massively, the levels remained the same or increased dramatically in three areas: foreign official (i.e., government) purchases, U.S. Treasuries, and U.S. currency. In other words, though foreign private capital fled away from the United States (and back to its “home”), foreign states still invested strongly in the United States and they did so by resorting to safe-haven investment: government bonds and currency. (This turn to certainty was mirrored by domestic private investors, who either hoarded their money or parked it in nationalized instruments.)

The intertwinement between the U.S. government and foreign governments grew ten-fold in five years, and this relation became almost exclusively based on conservative modes of investment, became directly correspondent with and even determinative of national regimes of production and accumulation, and became the primary mover of capital. Without the government’s direction of flows, there would have been almost no movement of capital at all. So Tea Party delusions about Obama’s socialistic expansion of government are not entirely fanciful, but they ignore that their beloved market turned to government, not vice versa, and that the state only performed its historic role both as chief reterritorializer, and added to its resume the role of only efficient allocator of capital.

It’s probably also worth pointing out that also in 2008 foreign ownership of total U.S. Treasuries decisively topped 50%, after hovering around 35-40% for most of the aughties.

So private capital is largely staying to its national territory while public capital seeps more fully into the pores of global capitalism, looking primary for safe, nation-based investment. Meanwhile, within the United States something else notable is happening: an immense increase in the rate of domestic/household savings, and to a lesser extent business savings. As the following chart shows, U.S. households underwent an epochal transformation from huge deficit spender (“the consumer of last resort”) to huge saver almost overnight.


As soon as the crises hit, Americans withdrew from the world, holding onto their cash and not spending either on investment or consumption. This hoard of money became, I think, the basis for the moral revulsion of government debt and of the foreign lenders who enabled it.

So what does this very brief statistical sketch indicate? Well, as I said, drawing exact conclusions directly from the figures would elide the contingencies of politics, but it might be possible to draw a (segmented, perhaps convoluted) picture from the flow of money. As private capital stopped flowing productively, as it either sought safe (i.e., national) foreign investments or (along with the flow of labor) returned home, the U.S. government became the de facto receiver and director of capital flows. This increase in state-directed investment was largely underwritten by foreign investors, particularly foreign governments. It’s not coincidental that this (foreign-financed) state became so hated in the political imaginary, a hatred no doubt magnified by the U.S. president’s race and complicated, enigmatic national history. Rhetoric about Kenyan-Islamist-Marxist-Nazis crept in, but what produced it was as much the decisiveness of foreign capital in the U.S. economy as a president with suspect loyalties.

As the state became so despised, questions about national orientation became primary. There are right-wing versions (kill state socialism!) and left-wing versions (where’s the new New Deal?) of the questions, but the aspirations of independence and self-renewal were fueled by the huge surge in the household savings rate and the government’s increased role in directing industrial policy.

And so from this something like the current situation emerges: a bunch of material (monetary) factors have increased the importance of national economies, which has given rise to politics that are bounded by those national dynamics. The increase in nationalism is not limited to the exceptional varieties I listed at the beginning of this post. The everyday mechanisms of national difference — currency differentials, central bank policy, etc. — which never disappeared even during the high point of “globalization,” are becoming more, not less, decisive. As the recent quantitative-easing flap between the United States, China, and Germany shows, nations’ function of projecting or protecting their economies remains a central element in the world economy. It’s no surprise that political programs would follow from these national requirements.


The name comes from a book by Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, which I’ve just started reading. There’s also an excellent blog inspired by Puar’s coinage called No Homonationalism, by the group Suspect, that tracks some of the movements against it. Of course resistance to and actions against instances of homonationalism are not a new thing, even if the name is. Continue reading Homonationalism