Creatively Maintaining the Empire, or Overthrowing It
Crises in the World, Crises in the Empire, and Crises in Legitimacy
In the days following the fascist attack on the Capitol Greg Carr commented,
“The more I think about it, the more I have the feeling that America finally broke in the last week. I don’t mean that it was ever “fixed.” I mean that its white frame finally cracked beyond sustainability under its own weight. That isn’t a thing to lament. Quite the opposite.”
Right now everyone who’s working or even hoping for a better future has got to ask themselves — am I trying to paint a beautiful new picture or find a new fix for that old frame? With any honesty, more than a few may be surprised by their answers.
Capitalism-imperialism crushes the life out of people around the world, forcing the great majority into an existence where their creativity and insight are squandered if not destroyed. But every ruling class faction in every country finds its own unique, often imaginative, ways of legitimizing capitalist-imperialist rule through every crisis. Creativity in this pursuit seems boundless and it’s endlessly encouraged. It’s rare, if ever, that these uniting mythologies come pre-packaged from some elected official or think tank. Most often they are creative and idealistic variations and interpretations on old themes, developed collectively by people who refuse to live in the old way any longer, contorted through the realities of this system into new horrific normals. As you dream about and strive for a better future, are you dreaming about what humanity really needs? Or are those dreams being twisted to legitimize and maintain this empire, maybe modifying it and making it more livable but keeping it intact?
Divisions and Crises
“The divisions among people in a society like this — including the unequal and oppressive divisions between rich and poor, white and non-white, men and women, and so on — are real and objective. Democratic Party politicians keep saying things like “Trump is dividing us instead of uniting us.” But these divisions are not caused by the “divisiveness” of someone like Trump. Trump makes use of these divisions in pursuit of his fascist agenda, but neither he nor anyone else has caused, or could have caused, these divisions — they are rooted in the very nature, functioning, and requirements of this system, in the way all this has historically evolved. To eliminate these divisions, it is necessary to eliminate this system.” — Bob Avakian
The crises facing the ruling class today are mounting. Global Warming threatens humanity while destabilizing economies and alliances and undermining that pillar of the US empire: oil. The tens-million-strong refugee crisis and other demographic changes wrought by imperialism (and in part by global warming) rip up people’s lives and social relations causing major ideological shifts and redistributing or even wiping out the social bases of important political forces. White people in the US are losing their majority status and changes are playing out in the ethnic makeup of the largest cities and the smallest towns. Competition amongst subordinate nations for a bigger piece of the pie and a stronger negotiating voice simmer as the largest among them (still subordinate but unhappily so) strategize to ascend to the throne.
Over the last 5 years, Trump & co have taken hold of the deep divisions in this society to deal with these snowballing crises, doubling down on the horrors of this system with real consequences for millions of lives, and recast America’s political landscape. It has been clear every step of the way that Trump’s fascist base represented a minority. A key sticking point for the fascists themselves is that they represent a shrinking portion of the population, as this system’s driving contradictions are changing the demographics of this country beyond anyone’s conscious control, eroding the domestic white majority as a side effect of ripping up billions of lives around the world through war, hunger, ecological crisis and more. The election made their minority status even more clear and yet they are not slithering away, are even gaining ground in some ways, especially in the streets. The Tea Party should be ringing bells in people’s heads right now, reminding us the consequences of fascists unleashed in the streets repolarizing society toward their aims, sucking up all the air of opposition. But we are way beyond that today with Trump, Pence, Cuz, Hawley, and more sitting to the right of Sarah Palin’s wildest dreams.
So what explains the fascists’ outsized power in contrast to the size of their social base? Is it just their passion? There is extraordinary hate that emanates from the base — the white supremacy, the christian fascism, the misogyny and xenophobia, and more. But ultimately, their power is not just a sum of those parts and its not just that people feel those things, though millions feel those in their hearts and are willing to live and die for them. Their real power comes through the fact that the fascist clique, which Trump has played a key role in consolidating, has solutions for the crises that the ruling class faces — global warming, the refugee crisis, unruly subordinate powers, etc. Not solutions in the interest of humanity, mind you, but solutions to maintain their power in the face of these crises or even schemes to use them to advance their power. And those solutions rely on violently reasserting white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, Christian fascism, a doubling down on American military power and promoting a deep disconnect from reality. This is what is meant when it is raised that a significant source of the fascists power and unity is that Trump hates the same people his base hates. This is an extremely strong unifying factor. Not only can that give insight on what feeds the fascists’ power but it can also provide a look at what restrains the power of the majority.
The Liberal Program
The ruling class Liberals — especially the Big D Democrats — have no clear answers for the ruling class’ crises. They have no vision. What does that mean?
At the top it means this:
In a world with accelerating global warming, the Liberal order aims to maintain their global empire in the ways that they have maintained it for 70 years, with oil itself and access to oil-producing countries as key assets and bargaining chips. Yet their form of rule drives them to simultaneously acknowledge a basic understanding of reality and science and “cooperate” with the “international community” — meaning relying on more than brute force to maintain a leadership role amongst other powers, maintaining the impression that those other powers can gain from voluntarily subordinating themselves to the US.
The technology exists to make significant strides towards non-CO2 emitting energy, but to do so would undermine a key pillar of the US empire, and the way that has structured the global economy and power relations. This would open the US up to serious competition. Meanwhile the modern American Liberal paradigm cannot muster its capitalist class to cooperate, sacrifice, and transform itself in the ways that European social democracy does or that the US did in the late 30’s-70s. Deregulation is one of the key elements that maintains the ties between the US political structure and its economic powerhouses*. These are thick intractable contradictions.
As demographic changes erode the domestic white majority, and the comfortable white middle class is undermined including in suburban and rural areas of the country, much of the basis for classical liberal white supremacy — boiled down to its essence in “Get Out” — is being undermined. When oppressive relations are unspoken, they rely even more on the stability of unequal relations of power. While elements of the mentality are widespread, the actual communities that foster that mentality are disappearing, as the much-vaunted “white middle class” disappears and is either integrated into more diverse sections of the population or isolated into hardening fascist cores. While changing demographics alone will not end white supremacy, they will transform it. The fascists’ proposal is some mixture of ethnic cleansing and putting all people who aren’t white in explicitly subordinate positions. The Liberal proposal is… to put their head in the sand and to maintain unspoken oppressive power relations that correspond to a time when there was a large, comfortable, stable and segregated white middle class.
At the same time, precisely because they have no vision or program, the Liberals’ biggest selling point is that they have much more influence among — and can maintain legitimacy among and rule over — people of color. Fascists don’t even try. So the Liberals aim to rely on those demographic changes to win elections even as those same changes undermine their rule.
External Enemies and Internal Cohesion
Which segways into the deep issues the Liberals face in connecting to their base of support. As much as American Liberalism relies on an individualist ethos of live and let live in order to pacify the masses, their central mythology of “the arc of history bends towards justice” requires something to smite, or at least something to contrast against. They are bloodthirsty imperialists. But simply admitting that comes with a high price that’s best to avoid if you can. They need a worse enemy. In the past this has been a source of strength for the Liberal rulers over domestic conservatives and fascists. The wealth that the US sucked out of oppressed peoples at home and abroad afforded white people rights that they could contrast against authoritarian others. When US interests dictated the need to enter WW2, the liberals had the upper hand in mobilizing against foreign fascism. As the top-dog imperialists, internal divisions and power balances became ever-more inseparable from global economic transformations. Through pushes and pulls the Liberals maintained that upper hand against segregation in the 50’s and 60’s, “totalitarianism” in the 70’s and 80’s, and Islamic theocracy in the 00’s and 10’s. These campaigns have all been rooted in geopolitics and power rivalries but have all taken on strong ideological components — through politician’s speeches yes, but also through the media, through education, supreme court cases, labor laws and workplace trainings, grants to non-profits, etc. The liberals have been able to set the terms so strongly that they could often unleash sections of their base of support amongst the oppressed and those that empathize with the oppressed to fight their ideological battles without too much fear that this base would turn against the empire. As much as revolutionaries may want to take credit, these have been major factors in promoting a population the majority of which see wars of aggression as unconscionable, explicit racism as an evil, who see women and LGBTQ people as full human beings, and who don’t believe that empathy ends at the border. The rulers have even hamstrung themselves from open political persecution. At the height of the cold war, the US imperialists’ ideological offensive against totalitarianism promoted their perceived lack of explicit political repression and “freedom of thought” in ways that suited them very well at the time. They instilled generations of people growing up here with enlightenment ideals of the right to individualistically explore political ideas, all while seeing those ideas as your own property — maybe something to express or identify with but not to seriously advocate, strategize or struggle for and definitely not to scientifically study.** These sentiments have important righteous aspects to them even as they have, in limited and contradictory ways served the interests of Liberal sections of the ruling class and we’ve seen them promoted for and sculpted by that. At the same time fascists used some of the same ideological campaigns to their ends, as they grew their power within the American Republic, emphasizing the anti-communism during the cold-war, emphasizing the racist xenophobia through the War on Terror, etc.
Since Obama’s presidency, there has been a conscious effort throughout the ruling class to pivot that main enemy to China, as China has become a significant imperialist force on the world stage. Without invading countries or directly challenging US dominance, without even pulling the strings of proxy wars (Russia’s bread and butter), China has increased its influence over countries and economies worldwide.
But the ruling class Liberals (and the fascists, for that matter) have been unsuccessful in pivoting the population to perceive China as a major threat in the ways they have done to those isms of the past. And they can’t actually fight what is clearly the most pressing threat today — global warming. The Liberals have staked their position as against the increasingly powerful open white supremacists. But they also can’t uproot white supremacy without ripping this whole country apart nor maintain it as it has been. They can’t maintain their empire without treating the world as a battlefield, even if they aim to do it with less “boots on the ground.” They can’t force companies to employ people domestically in meaningful jobs and they have nothing meaningful with which to incentivize the ultra-rich to contribute to the social welfare. There’s no Soviet bloc with notorious financial restrictions anymore. The ultra-wealthy can go anywhere. The Liberals can’t even take on the domestic theocrats in any serious way. In addition to their worship of order, they are the party of domestic unity. Whereas for the fascists, the immense force of the US military is their power, for the liberals what is much more important is the threat of that immense force, a threat which all but disappears if the country is at war with itself.
There are still live land mines across Southeast Asia left by the US imperialists, deadly detritus from old battles even as the power relations have radically changed. They kill children whose parents weren’t even born when the war was raging. Meanwhile, these ideological leftovers from past battles at home are the only remnants that can come back to hurt the empire, but they may yet contribute to taking the whole thing down.
The Consolidation of the Weimar
And now with Trump the fascists have turned from a general pole of attraction and scattered powerful interests into a consolidated and united fighting force. In the same way that Trump was not just a pendulum swing to the right, but the consolidation of fascsim, there has been a similar effect among the Democrats. It’s created not just another rightward lurch by the Democratic Party but a situation where the Democratic Party now represents the whole array of the ruling class of the American Weimar. Biden represents this through both his ties to Obama and the Party’s pre-split heyday and the fact that Obama picked him because he was the most conservative of Democrats, chosen to balance Obama’s Blackness. And we all saw the parade of Republicans at the DNC. This comes even as oppressed people and young people who are on the opposite end of the Democrat coalition are — in ever greater numbers and ever more vocally — their most impassioned voter base. Like the Weimar, deep-seated individualism plays a major role in enabling these forces to see themselves as a united cause.
In this situation, what does the Liberal ideological offensive look like? How are they cohering their base? One way is through a fetishization of the trappings of American Democracy and institutions and especially among older people a fetishization of the Democratic Party itself. During the primaries, this became a virulent anti-Bernie movement, during the general election it took the form of posing voting in opposition to any and all other political activity. And now in the aftermath of the election a concerted effort as part of this of going back to brunch. Promoting trust in the system. Promoting an individualism which goes as far as not caring whats happening in the world, or at least not doing anything about it, but not so far to become a fascist, wanting to fuck over everybody else to get yours.
But this is not enough for many. It used to be the case that all the liberals had to do to disarm those looking for solutions was trot out a Kucinich, a Sharpton, or even a Dean in the primaries every four year to rope such folks back into the political process. When the liberal conception of power had legs, and the Democrats had vision, power and momentum to effectively run the empire, this effectively diverted the opposition that did exist outside of the duality, isolating those who stuck to their principles.
The overall polarization has maintained between the poles of the fascists and the weimar, for the most part corresponding to the Republicans and the Democrats. And even as they both continue to transform dramatically, they also continue to resurge. But the fact is that for the first time since the 60s there have been consequential ideological forces on the scene through the course of this whole election independent of the leadership of the Democratic Party, to its “left.”. This should be recognized. But are they good forces?
Today’s Left: An Expression of the Same Contradictions
These forces have emerged out of these very same contradictions: the crises in the world, the crises in the empire, and the crises in the empires attempts to maintain and reforge legitimacy. In such a situation, it’s clear that you will have some people responding to such crises by looking for truly radical solutions, ones that overthrow the whole system. And yet that is a tall order. Is this what we’ve seen finding expression in this left?
In a situation where the status quo is falling apart and simultaneously being enshrined and reinforced as the bulwark against fascism, moderate improvement seems radical. There are also strong pulls on even many oppressed and exploited people in the imperialist core to find a different ways to improve the world while maintaining their overall position in it, to find a different way to stay on top of the world, to see this as opportunity for advancing ones’ own group or even ones’ own ambitions, to solve one crisis while leaving others for someone else, or even solve one crisis by doubling down on another. To the extent that people can, there is a pull to dig your head deeper into the sand, find a way to ignore the world more effectively than in normal times — if you squint really hard, some folks say that can even start to look like justice.
So we have a deep contradiction of many good people, many who want something better but are reasonably afraid of the leap that is required, asking these questions, all of which ultimately amount to “how do we maintain this empire?”
After all, a radical solution calls into question not just the ways that we ourselves have been wronged but it calls into questions how the whole world works, our place in it, notions we hold dear, forcing us to reconsider even our very conceptions of justice, identity, even existential questions about purpose and the universe and consciousness. A radical solution is not simply an improvement, it will require sacrifice and change on our own part and on everyone else’s.
In such a situation, some latch onto a reform or set of reforms as the best of bad options. Others think their reform is the golden key. But either way we see people twist their highest aspirations into policy proposals for an improved American Empire often undermining and distorting basic and/or revolutionary demands, concepts and legacies in the process, and obscuring the nature of what we’re up against. Think about every “sensible” policy that the powers-that-be write off: medicare for all, cancelling student debt, raising the minimum wage, the green new deal, reforming the police, Covid relief, etc. Like Kleenex for Tissue, some of these have come into the current lexicon as replacements for our most basic needs: Healthcare, education, a decent life, etc. Terms like systemic change and abolition are fashioned and re-fashioned to maintain a lofty aesthetic while leaving the capitalist-imperialist system intact. And many analyses of capitalism itself reduce it to just another -ism — a bad word meaning systemic greed or merely specific conditions of employment..
While many of these ideas aren’t new, their value to the ruling class has increased exponentially alongside these crises. Without any coherent inspiring vision that they can follow through on, sections of the Liberal rulers back these efforts enough to keep advocacy going, or to tinker around the edges. Through grants, charities, advocacy and community service organizations, academic institutions, alternative media, arts funding and more, along with more explicitly political non-profits, money flows into the programs that know the boundaries. Whether they genuinely think they can reshape the empire or see them as the kind of things society should aspire to, they fail at actual implementation because these are rational answers for people’s crises, not real-life answers for the ruling class’ crises. But the failure is constantly framed as a problem of individuals: the Republicans and the centrist Democrats that just happen to be there in the way. The effect is to consume peoples passions for justice in dead-end discourse over creative ways to maintain the empire.
Meanwhile, these same sentiments and proposals serve fascist sections of the rulers as well, with Trump being the most explicit with this. He parades the fact that these reforms will never come to fruition under this system, fueling an impotent rage at the Liberal leaders, who are ‘supposed’ to want these things. The fascists frame this situation as scheming elites manipulating the little guy.
The ruling class interest provides popularity (or even perceived popularity) to specific versions of these ideas without actually advancing them towards implementation. This has transformed many useless dead-end idealistic proposals by well-meaning but delusional people into ideological factories churning out new justifications for this system — as real radical ideas and organization become liabilities to the popularity of these policy proposal products.
Even many who attempt to go beyond individual policy proposals, with tepid notions of socialism or Democratic socialism or anarchism maintain the notion that there are people or organizations or traditions or specific systems in our way, as opposed to the basic structure of the system of capitalism-imperialism.
Through all of this, bourgeois modes of politics and thinking are constantly fed and reinforced, contributing to a parasitic “left” that only really exists as discourse, without any impact, constantly sniping at eachother and everyone else. With the increasing value of these ideas to sections of the ruling class, the popularity of such ideas rises, the popularity itself is presented as success, and left populism surges, even as fascism advances. No matter how popular or impassioned that base of support is, this dynamic serves to keep even these reformist struggles within the normal channels of advocacy and discourse, where they cannot even implement their own ideas. This dynamic ends with truly radical ideas being not only ignored but despised, given pariah status. After all, the logic states that the left discourse is making progress (in gaining popularity even if not power), and talking about real revolution would rock that boat.
For many living in the belly of the beast, the crises facing humanity and the crises facing the system can often seem helplessly tied up in eachother, inseperable. To a great degree we are trapped in here — our lives shaped by the success and failure, the shape and form of the monster we’re a part of. But in these times of great potential, positive and negative, if we can untangle our imaginations from this empire, we might be able to join humanity and get out of the swamp altogether. During the Cultural Revolution, a slogan was popularized to frontally challenge those capitalist-roaders who took over upon Mao’s death and turned China into first a sweatshop for the west and now increasingly a bloodthirsty imperialist power. The slogan was “Grasp Revolution, Promote Production.” To constantly be grounding oneself in for who and for what you are working, not just in the abstract but very directly. at that time, it was very literally about production, but until we control the means of production, this should still have meaning. As we dream of a better world, in order to set our course, we cannot base ourselves in what seems popular, or seems like it has a shot through the logic of the system’s discourse but instead we must be constantly deepening our understanding of how our actions are directly related to seizing power and liberating humanity.
*To a large degree, instead of punishing dangerous ideas as the Soviet imperialist ideas did, the US propped up and funded a whole range of useful ideas
**That’s deregulation for those economic powerhouses and regulation for everyone else in order to enforce that deregulation.