Irreducibly Multiple

Notes on the US Election

November 4, 2020

Last week, my family drove from upper Manhattan to southern Pennsylvania. We went to visit my parents in Gettysburg. On their street, Trump signs jostle with those asserting: “This battle was fought because Black Lives Matter.” A few days before our arrival, a Trump truck caravan rolled down their block. Then, a few days after we’d left Manhattan, similar caravans blocked bridges over the Hudson River.

These truck caravans are curious things. On one level, they are barnstorming efforts – something like political advertisements from below. On another level, they appear to rehearse more serious paramilitary violence. In Queens, an effigy of an antifascist was lashed to the front of a Trump truck. This grim embellishment calls to mind the recent use of vehicles as deadly weapons – both by vigilantes and the police – against Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The caravans convey meaning on multiple levels at once: they carry echoes of street fighting and of congressional votes, of the bullet and the ballot box. The truck lines thus appear as efforts at bridging or articulating discrepant levels of political activity. For Trump supporters, they helped answer the question: how does my upcoming vote relate to my ongoing vigilantism, whether imagined or actually practiced?

As I write, the outcome of the election remains in the balance. It’s clear enough that the vote was not a repudiation of Trump, nor did the election hand Biden a mandate. What’s not clear at this point is how likely we are to face the much-discussed “nightmare” scenario – that is, a situation wherein the Electoral College outcome turns on Pennsylvania. This, along with a combination of lawsuits, intimidation tactics from below, and the intervention of the Supreme Court prevents the outstanding ballots from being counted, handing Trump a dubious victory. However plausible or implausible this scenario may be, as a sort of speculative fiction, the scenario performs the same bridging function as the truck caravans, suggesting that the electoral process is coming to be inextricably woven together with the play of forces on the ground, with who holds the streets, with how different groups wield irregular violence.

To be clear, the formal political sphere could yet salvage a semblance of autonomy. Votes could be counted. Legal challenges adjudicated. Electoral delegates assigned. A new president inaugurated. The creaky apparatus of liberal democracy could lumber on into the new year, relatively impervious to the dust and smoke billowing from within and without. In honor of this possibility, let’s entertain for a moment the question of what the vote tells us about the defining dynamics of the electoral sphere, viewed on its own terms.

However plausible or implausible this scenario may be, as a sort of speculative fiction, the scenario performs the same bridging function as the truck caravans, suggesting that the electoral process is coming to be inextricably woven together with the play of forces on the ground, with who holds the streets, with how different groups wield irregular violence. 

With a few notable caveats, the vote seems to confirm the picture that emerged from the 2016 election. The political geography of the US is not terribly plastic at the moment and is characterized in most places by a widening gulf between the country and the city (the latter including suburbs) This is a split that imperfectly maps onto various identity categories, including race; and then, at least among whites, class and credentials. In Manhattan, where I cast my vote, Biden currently leads by 70%. In Adams County (PA), where I’m visiting, Trump currently leads by 62%. These staggering margins – which are likely a bit inflated at the moment – register a process of political separation that will not easily be reversed, let alone slowed. That said, if Biden does manage to eke out a victory in Pennsylvania this time around, I’d give at least some credit to the intrepid Left organizers who determined to act on the lessons of 2016 and who’ve been building political bases in smaller towns and cities of PA, including Lancaster and State College.

Over the past year, those inclined to support Biden entertained hopes that this election would provide a sharp contrast with 2016. Trump was relatively unpopular. His open courting of white supremacists could no longer plausibly be denied. His administration had fumbled the bag, to put it mildly, on the pandemic. Unemployment had spiked and recovery packages were lacking. A multiracial, mass social movement in defense of Black Lives had shifted the political ground, making law and order appeals ring hollow. For reasons of misogyny, Biden was more popular than Clinton. But, in the end, 2020 was more like 2016 than not.

Over the coming days, Left analyses of the election are likely to feature various permutations of the following three observations:

  1. Biden’s past involvement in mass incarceration and deportation regimes rendered him a less than appealing vehicle for Black and Latinx voters;
  2. white people in this country – and particularly those inhabiting certain life-worlds – remain massively committed to racism; and
  3. neoliberalism holds precious little appeal in our crisis-ridden era.

It will be tempting for many, I think, to imagine democratic socialism as the neat trick to sort out this multi-layered political predicament. The idea here would be that appeals to shared class interest and social solidarity – advanced via renewed organs of class struggle, coalition-based movement work, and campaigns for universal social benefits – could galvanize disaffected workers of color, while peeling enough white working-class people away from reactionary attachments in order to redraw the political map and compose a new hegemonic bloc. I come not to bury this political project, but to point up some potential troubles.

We confront a set of overlapping crises and political predicaments, and the ways through them, to what we hope are fundamentally transformed conditions of life, can’t but be multiple, disjunctive, and hard to hold in our heads all at once.

I suggested above that the truck caravans and the “nightmare” post-election scenario both offered ways imaginatively to bridge the sphere of formal politics with sites of embodied confrontation and violence: the street, above all. Increasingly, it seems that the stories we tell about politics assume the co-implication of the street and the legislature, the bullet and the ballot box.

Notwithstanding some holdouts, I think most in the DSA and other socialist formations see the need for engaging in confrontational street actions – those associated with the Movement for Black Lives, above all – even as major tendencies in the party still appear to incline down electoral roads. From within, the party might be imagined as the medium through which these multiple dimensions of struggle – including as well various labor and social struggles – could be bridged or bound together.

My concern with this vision is the extent to which it resolves in thought a set of practical disjunctures, tasks, and conundrums that would nevertheless remain, and would rear up inconveniently unless they were more actively confronted. Electoral politics, labor organizing, mutual aid processes, and street confrontations may at times, or even more often than not, run along disjunctive tracks. They might do so even as, from a certain perspective, they can be viewed as working in concert.

It strikes me that the party as one big articulator may not be the most fruitful way of imagining, and thus of beginning to structure, the interactions between these levels of activity, their particular forms of organization, their temporalities, or the groups that they make and are made by. Rather, I’d imagine the scene as irreducibly multiple, with certain formations making interventions at particular times and places, in active deliberation across various divides, but not along or in relation to prefabricated lines. We confront a set of overlapping crises and political predicaments, and the ways through them, to what we hope are fundamentally transformed conditions of life, can’t but be multiple, disjunctive, and hard to hold in our heads all at once. That said, today there are clearly some pressing organizing tasks, especially for those based in the states that still hang in the balance.

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