Expect Catastrophe: Reflections on the Impending US Election — Nate Holdren

A friend abroad asked if I’d write something about the US election. I hesitated because it seems like a whirlwind—noisy, chaotic, destructive, frightening, exhausting—but there is nothing good in shrinking from thought. A couple of days out, much remains unclear. Generally speaking, I think of the election by analogy with the Cold War and the “War on Terror”. Both involved powerful actors whose antagonistic relations ultimately swept away political positions antithetical to each. It seems obvious to me as someone living in the United States that it will be worse if Trump wins, but a Biden presidency will be bad as well. I think there is a serious possibility Trump will win. We have a good idea about what sort of catastrophe that will be, as that is well-covered ground by left-liberal writers. I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said already, so I won’t spend time on it. On the latter, my impression is that Biden is a Clintonite—as Starmer is a Blairite—and completely inadequate to the demands of the multiple intersecting political, economic, and ecological crises in which we find ourselves.

Politicians respond to changing circumstances; they don’t float freely above the whirl of society. Their professed views and policy records are not entirely determinative. But based on past behaviour, there’s little reason for hope that a Democratic ascendancy would provide much that is actively positive, aside from an end to some of the worst excesses that occurred under Trump. (I will note that these excesses are largely par for the course for the Republican Party, and not unique to Trump, which makes Democratic gestures toward bipartisanship unjustified, misguided, and ultimately disingenuous.) If anything, given Biden and Harris’ roles in the processes of criminalization, mass incarceration, and imperialism at the core of the US state, we should think of a possible Biden-Harris administration as yet another iteration of the Reagan presidency (as all US presidencies over the last thirty years have been), even though they are both clearly less right-wing than Trump.

I suspect that many liberals will ratchet down their outrage if Trump loses. Having had family members deported under Obama, I’ve been frustrated by the selectivity of liberal anger at the brutality of the United States’ policies concerning refugees and migrants, and I worry that this anger will dissipate once the president in charge of caging people coded as “outsiders” stops tweeting so vulgarly. (Of course, I’ll be very happy if I’m proven wrong in this respect and liberal concern over the appalling treatment of migrants continues.) I suspect that rhetorical appeals to—and institutionalized rituals of—expertise will serve an important role in turning down liberals’ outrage. So too will uses of proper procedure.

The Trump administration’s kleptocratic willingness to trample norms is surprising—though I suspect that surprise is at least as much a measure of the degree to which I am interpellated into the position of a liberal professional as it is information about the world—and that trampling should put to rest the idea that norms will protect us. They should, but they won’t. The alternative to norms would be real power sharing: a democratization that expands who gets to make decisions. Any such proposal would likely be written off as “populism”, when what we need—according to liberal common sense—is technocracy, vetted by the rituals of voting, hearings, commissions, and so on. A return to relative procedural normality will work in tandem with technocratic impulses to restore a sheen of legitimacy to those aspects of the state that Trump has tarnished. We should expect liberals to make continued and increasingly strident rhetorical appeals to the demographic backgrounds of individual officials. As a case in point, I have repeatedly been surprised to hear people labouring under the illusion that Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot is a progressive. That a queer woman of colour can become mayor is surely a sign of social progress, but it’s a category mistake—and a distressingly common one—to assume that group membership automatically means that a given group’s rights and interests will be represented to a greater degree by that politician. Defenders of politicians like Lightfoot (and Kamala Harris) will likely resort to tools picked up in sanitized corporate diversity workshops. Demographic facts about individual state officials will silence critics while enhancing ideological legitimacy. (Liberals detest critics to their left.) The best response for those of us on the left will be to note the opposition to those politicians by large groups of oppressed people collectively, in both the labour movement and the movement against police violence.

We should expect that, after the election, police brutality will continue undiminished in the United States.1 Large numbers of police officers clearly identify with Trump, and this could create space to force Democrats to curb police powers, tackle police unions, or perhaps even implement some features of recent proposals to transform policing as a whole. Clearly, though, the willingness of Democratic mayors and governors to call upon the National Guard, to grant the police additional powers under curfew laws, and to seek increases in police funding suggests that this new potential space will be hard to actualize. There is also a danger that the supposed opportunity offered by change in the White House will help liberal politicians and non-profit organizations exert greater influence on the movement against police violence, and to continue to insist on the dangerous political distinction between good, peaceful protesters and bad, dangerous rioters.

Most discussions of the election are suffused by a strong sense of panic—of impending or ongoing catastrophe. This creates a terrible cocktail of anxiety and exhaustion. I have begun to suspect that this exhaustion is itself an important political factor. (I highly recommend Göran Therborn’s short and very good book on ideology,2 which, among other things, theorizes the inculcation of resignation as an example of ideological practices that sustain domination. That analysis applies to anxiety and exhaustion in the current moment.) Responses by employers and state authorities to the pandemic amplify these ideological affects. The pandemic is in many respects turning up the intensity on the patterns Marx identified in the later chapters of volume one of Capital: millions are losing their jobs and their access to what they need to sustain themselves, and many who remain employed are facing longer work hours, work that is more intense and draining, and significantly greater danger in the workplace. All such patterns create yet more anxiety and exhaustion.

I want to comment on “Trump exceptionalism”, a rhetorical device that will figure prominently in any ideological legitimation exercise after the election, even if he loses. Trump is, of course, an exceptionally odious individual. He is also a relatively typical example of the US ultra-rich, differing only in that he says publicly (and exceedingly loudly) what is often said in more coded and private ways. In any case, the notion that Trump is the worst US president seems hard to square with, say, Truman dropping atomic bombs, the age-old US tradition of supporting coups, massacres, and dirty wars in Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere, or the great many slave-owning presidents who regularly bought and sold some of their fellow human beings. “Trump exceptionalism” whitewashes all of that brutal history. (In this regard, I recommend in particular historian Boyd Cothran’s book Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence,3 a study of a specific war between the United States and the Modoc people that sheds light on how practices of violence and injustice are rhetorically laundered in the United States.) Ultimately, the magnification of individual people in the political sphere amounts to a reduction of politics to celebrity gossip, itself another facet of depoliticization—the presidency as spectacle (“what hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery”, as Guy Debord once put it).4 That these cartoonish celebrities are so controversial, and dislike each other so much, helps to hide the fact that they are manifestations of a form of depoliticization. Examining the character of individual candidates and office holders (which president was the worst human being?) is a poor substitute for political struggle. Similarly, the frightening but nonetheless socially marginal extreme right is above all a distraction from the organized (and orderly) violence of the basic institutions of state and class power.

I worry that I am saying obvious things. I also worry that people who don’t agree will scoff. Still, it seems clear that the only prospect for anything like fundamental improvement lies in the kinds of collective action that made big waves in the wake of George Floyd’s murder (or such events as the recent wildcat strikes of healthcare workers in Alberta). Those forces will continue to be opposed by austerians and law-and-order advocates in both parties.

I suspect that underneath the liberal faith in what can be accomplished by elections is a despair over the prospect that such mass movements may grow and begin to pose a serious threat to the existing social order. Having written off more robust and militant forms of politics, liberals promise us that electing a new batch of condescending saviors is the best that anyone can do under the circumstances. Overemphasis on the election is an effect of such despair, and spreads it further by deepening our exhaustion and fear. I have not seen any evidence that the alt-electoralism of Sanders supporters has produced anything of note: “we can build for the election and also build a movement”, Sanders’ supporters said, but that doesn’t seem to have materialized. Rather, its electoralism seems ultimately to have been tantamount to a kind of “left self-dissolution”. Personally, I think that a serious left-wing orientation toward workplace organizing (I recommend the Organizing Work blog for some practical takes on this, and Simon Clarke’s theoretical analysis of the labour movement in his critical response to John Holloway5) would be a good replacement for such electoralism, though I’m aware that there are other equally valid (far-)left contenders, such as movements against police violence and for police- and prison-abolition. It seems to me that all of these alternatives—and the left’s relationship with them (like the left itself)—are relatively small, fragile, and faltering. This condition is partly maintained by the electoral process and its outsized social and political role. Finally, paralleling my emphasis on the importance of disruptive collectivities, I think those of us who are academics should return to discussing class and class formation: how does the working class generate collective subjects, and under which conditions? In doing so, we should note the plurality of political positions that workers and workers’ organizations may take.

Whatever emerges from the election will be grim and inhumane—and very clearly in need of criticism. I write these provisional thoughts in the hope that they might spark some discussion to deepen our shared understanding of the present orderly disorder, so I welcome replies.

Nate Holdren is an assistant professor of law, politics, and society at Drake University. His first book, Injury Impoverished: Workplace Accidents, Capitalism, and Law in the Progressive Era, was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year.

[1] On the police in capitalist society, I recommend the work of Stuart Schrader and Sam Mitrani. See, e.g., Sam Mitrani, “Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People“, LaborOnline (29 December 2014); Stuart Schrader, “To Protect and Serve Themselves: Police in US Politics since the 1960s”, 31 (2019) Public Culture 601.

[2] Göran Therborn, The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (London: New Left Books, 1980).

[3] Boyd Cothran, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1977 [1967]), § 63.

[5] Simon Clarke, “The Labour Debate”, in Mike Neary and Ana Dinerstein (eds), The Labour Debate (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002) 41. For a related and important essay, see also Simon Clarke, “Socialist Humanism and the Critique of Economism”, 8 (1979) History Workshop Journal 137.