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Occupying the Imagination, Cultivating a New Politics

By: 
Vijay Prashad
Date Published: 
November 23, 2011

Melanie Cervantes & Chris Crass-www.dignidadrebelde.comMelanie Cervantes & Chris Crass-www.dignidadrebelde.comMy heart makes my head swim - Franz Fanon, "Black Skin, White Masks"

Part I: Bare Life

Reports and rumors filter out of government documents and family distress signals to locate precisely the ongoing devastation of social life in the United States. Unemployment rates linger at perilously high levels, with the effective rate in some cities, such as Detroit, stumbling on with half the population without waged work. Home foreclosures fail to slow-down, and sheriffs and debt-recovery paramilitaries scour the landscape for the delinquents. Personal debt has escalated as ordinary people with uneven means of earning livings turn to banks and to the shady world of personal loan agencies to take them to the other side of starvation. Researchers at the RAND Corporation tell us that absent family support, poverty rates among the elderly will be about double what they are now. In other words, economist Nancy Folbre’s “invisible heart” is trying its best to hold back the noxious effects of the “invisible hand.”

Swathes of the American landscape are now given over to desolation: abandoned factories make room for chimney swallows and the heroin trade, as old farmhouses become homes for meth-amphetamine labs and the sorrows of broken, rural dreams. Returning to his native Indiana, Jeffrey St. Clair writes, “My grandfather’s farm is now a shopping mall. The black soil, milled to such fine fertility by the Wisconsin glaciation, is now buried under a black sea of asphalt. The old Boatenwright pig farm is now a quick lube, specializing in servicing SUVs.” Into this bleak landscape, St. Clair moans, “We are a hollow nation, a poisonous shell of our former selves.”

What growth comes to the economy is premised upon the inventions and discoveries of a fortunate few, those who were either raised with all the advantages of the modern world or who were too gifted to be held back by centuries of hierarchies. Bio-chemists and computer engineers, as well as musical impresarios and film producers – they devise a product, patent it, and then mass produce it elsewhere, in Mexico or China, Malaysia or India. These few collect rent off their inventions, and hire lawyers and bankers to protect their patents, and to grow their money. Around them, in their gated communities, exist a ring of service providers, from those who tend to their lawns to those who teach their children, from those who cook their food to those who protect them.

Those many who would once have been employed in mass industrial production to actually make the commodities that are invented by the few are now no longer needed. They have been rendered disposable – unnecessary to the political economy of accumulation. These many survive in the interstices of the economy, either with part time jobs, or crowded into family shops, either with off the books legal activity or off the books illegal activity: the struggle for survival is acute. Only 37% of unemployed Americans receive jobless benefits, which amounts to $293 per week, and only 40% of very poor families who qualify for public assistance actually are able to claim it. Strikingly, the new recession has hit low-wage service jobs with no benefits, which are mainly held by women, the hardest. In recession times, these women, with those jobs, stretched their invisible hearts across their families. Now, even this love-fueled glue is no longer available.

The few luxuriate, the many vegetate: this is the social effect of high rates of inequality, the trick of jobless growth.

The political class has no effective answer to this malaise. It has drawn the country in the opposite direction from a solution. Rather than raise the funds to build a foundation for the vast mass, it continues to offer tax cuts to the wealthy: the average tax cut this year to the top 1% of the population was larger than the average income of the bottom 99%. Furthermore, the political class has diverted $7.6 trillion to the military for the wars, the overseas bases, the homeland security ensemble, and for the healthcare to the veterans of these endless wars. There is no attempt to draw-down the personal debt that now stands at $2.4 trillion, and none whatsoever to tend to the $1 trillion in student debt that remains even if after a declaration of bankruptcy. Our students are headed into the wilderness, carrying debt that constrains their imagination.

Part 2: Dates

By 2042, the country is going to become majority minority. Or, to put it bluntly, more people who claim their descent from outside Europe will populate the country. This worried Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, who wrote in an influential Foreign Policy article in 2004, “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream US culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves -- from Los Angeles to Miami -- and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

Globalization hollows out the core of the nation’s manufacturing, devastates the social basis of its culture, and threatens the integrity of its people, and yet, it is the migrant who bears the cross. Illusions about the social glue of Anglo-Protestantism, which whips between the Declaration of Independence and chattel slavery, provide the only outlet for Huntington’s frustrations. There is no authentic cultural project to attract the new migrants, to encourage them to find shelter in these Anglo-Protestant values. Huntington knows that these have run their course, or were never such strong magnets in the first place. Huntington’s fearful panic can only be mollified by the prison-house of border walls, the Minutemen, the Border Patrol agents, SB1070, English Only ordinances, and so on. Force alone can govern Huntington’s vision. It no longer can breed mass consent.

2042 is far off. Closer still is 2016. It is the date chosen by the International Monetary Fund in its World Economic Outlook report from 2011 to signal the shift for the world’s largest economy: from the United States to China. We are within a decade of that monumental turn, with the US having to surrender its dominant place for the first time since the 1920s.

By 2042, the country will be minority majority. By 2034, it will be as unequal as Mexico, with an economy shrinking and formal unemployment steadily rising. By 2042, people of color will inherit a broken country, one that is ready to be turned around for good, not ill.

The collapse of the US economy is a “sign of autumn,” as the historian Ferdinand Braudel put it; our autumn is China’s springtime.

Linked to this 2016 date is yet another: 2034. The US governmental data shows that by 2034 the United States will have a rate of inequality that matches Mexico. The United States today is more unequal than Pakistan and Iran. The rate of inequality has risen steadily since 1967; it is going to become catastrophic by 2034.

By 2042, the country will be minority majority. By 2034, it will be as unequal as Mexico, with an economy shrinking and formal unemployment steadily rising.

By 2042, people of color will inherit a broken country, one that is ready to be turned around for good, not ill.

Part 3: Conservatism

In his new book, Suicide of a Superpower, Pat Buchanan bemoans the decline of the United States and of white, Christian culture. What is left to conserve, asks the old warrior for the Right? Not much. He calls for a decline in the nation’s debt and an end to its imperial postures (including an end to its bases and its wars). These are important gestures. Then he falls to his knees, begging for a return of the United States to Christianity and Whiteness. Buchanan knows this is ridiculous. He makes no attempt to say how this return must take place. His is an exhortation.

But Buchanan is not so far from the general tenor of the entire political class, whether putatively liberal or conservative. It is not capable of dealing with the transformation. It is deluded into the belief that the United States can enjoy another “American Century,” and that if only the Chinese revalue their currency, everything would be back to the Golden Age. It is also deluded into the belief that the toxic rhetoric about “taking back the country” is going to silence the darker bodies, who have tasted freedom since 1965 and want more of it.

The idea of “taking back the country” produces what Aijaz Ahmad calls “cultures of cruelty.” By “cultures of cruelty,” Aijaz means the “wider web of social sanctions in which one kind of violence can be tolerated all the more because many other kinds of violence are tolerated anyway.” Police brutality and domestic violence, ICE raids against undocumented workers and comical mimicry of the foreign accent, aerial bombardment in the borderlands of Afghanistan and sanctified misogyny in our cinema – these forms of routine violence set the stage for the “a more generalized ethical numbness toward cruelty.” It is on this prepared terrain of cruelty that the forces of the Far Right, the Tea Party for instance, can make its hallowed appearance – ready to dance on the misfortunes and struggles of the migrants, the workers and the disposed. The pre-existing cultures of cruelty sustain the Far Right, and allow it to appear increasingly normal, taking back the country from you know who.

The Right’s menagerie sniffs at all the opportunities. It is prepared, exerting itself, feeding off a culture that has delivered a disarmed population into its fangs. They are ready for 2034 and 2042, but only in the most harmful way.

Part 4: Multiculturalism

Obviously multiculturalism is the antithesis of Buchananism. But multiculturalism too is inadequate, if not anachronistic. Convulsed by the fierce struggles from below for recognition and redistribution, the powers that be settled on a far more palatable social theory than full equality: bourgeois multiculturalism. Rather than annul the social basis of discrimination, the powers that be cracked open the doors to privilege, like Noah on the ark, letting in specimens of each of the colors to enter into the inner sanctum – the rest were to be damned in the flood. Color came into the upper reaches of the military and the corporate boardroom, to the college campus and to the Supreme Court, and eventually to the Oval Office. Order recognized that old apartheid was anachronistic. It was now going to be necessary to incorporate the most talented amongst the populations of color into the hallways of money and power. Those who would be anointed might then stand in for their fellows, left out in the cold night of despair.

The same politicians, such as Bill Clinton, who favored multicultural advancement for the few strengthened the social polices to throttle the multitudinous lives of color: the end of welfare, the increase in police and prisons and the free pass given to Wall Street shackled large sections of our cities to the chains of starvation, incarceration and indebtedness. Meanwhile, in ones and twos, people of color attained the mantle of success. Their success was both a false beacon for populations that could not hope for such attainment, and a standing rebuke for not having made it. There is a cruelty in the posture of multiculturalism.

When Barack Obama ascended the podium at Grant Park in Chicago on November 4, 2010 to declare himself the victor in the presidential election, multiculturalism’s promise was fulfilled. For decades, people of color had moved to the highest reaches of corporate and military life, of the State and of society. The only post unoccupied till November 4 was the presidency. No wonder that even Jesse Jackson, Sr., wept when Obama accepted victory. That night, multiculturalism ended.

When the economy tanked in 2007-08, the victims of the harshest asset stripping were African Americans and Latinos. They lost more than half their assets, which amounts to loss of a generation’s savings.

It is now exhausted itself as a progressive force.

Obama has completed his historical mission, to slay the bugbear of social distinction: in the higher offices, all colors can come. Obama’s minor mission, also completed, was to provide the hard-core racists with a daily dose of acid reflux when he appears on television.

What did not end of course was racism. That remains. When the economy tanked in 2007-08, the victims of the harshest asset stripping were African Americans and Latinos. They lost more than half their assets, which amounts to loss of a generation’s savings. As of 2009, the typical white household had wealth (assets minus debts) worth $113,149, while Black households only had $5,677 and Hispanic households $6,325. Black and Latino households, in other words, hold only about 5% of the wealth in the hands of white households. The myth of the post-racial society should be buried under this data.

Even Obama knew that it was silly to speak of post-racism. Before he won the presidential election Obama told journalist Gwen Ifill for her 2009 book The Breakthrough, “Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that the African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history. We have never fully come to grips with that history.” What was meant in the jubilation of Obama’s victory was that we are in a post-multicultural era. Racism is alive and well.

Multiculturalism is no longer a pertinent ideology against the old granite block.

Part 5: Occupy

In 1968, just before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

It is now dark enough.

Out of the social woodwork emerged the many fragments of the American people to occupy space that is often no longer public. It began in New York, and then has spread outward. The demand of the Occupy Wall Street movement is simple: society has been sundered into two halves, the 1% and the 99%, with the voice of the latter utterly smothered, and the needs of the former tended to by bipartisan courtesy.

Why there is no list of concrete demands is equal to the broad strategy of the movement: (1) it has paused to produce concrete demands because it is first to welcome the immense amount of grievances that circle around the American Town Square; (2) it has refused to allow the political class to engage with it, largely because it does not believe that this political class will be capable of understanding the predicament of the 99%.

Occupy is not a panacea, but an opening. It will help us clear the way to a more mature political landscape. It has begun to breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction and breathe out a new radical imagination.

Two more reasons to discount the ideology of multiculturalism: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, one of the founders of Asian American Studies; San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, one of the main fighters in the I-Hotel struggle in 1977. One sent in the police to run riot through Occupy Oakland, and the other threatened the same in San Francisco. The passion that is pretended is only to obtain advancement.

Occupy is not a panacea, but an opening. It will help us clear the way to a more mature political landscape. It has begun to breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction and breathe out a new radical imagination. In Dreams of My Father, Obama relates how he was motivated by the culture of the civil rights movement. From it he learnt that “communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens.” Social life does not automatically emerge. It has to be worked for. The social condition of “commute-work-commute-sleep” or of utter disposability does not help forge social bonds. Communities, Obama writes, “expanded or contracted with the dreams of men – and in the civil rights movement those dreams had been large.”

Out of the many struggles over the past several decades – from anti-prison to anti-sexual violence, from anti-starvation to anti-police brutality – has emerged the Occupy dynamic.

This new radical imagination forces us to break with the liberal desires for reform of a structure that can no longer be plastered over, as termites have already eaten into its foundation.

It has broken the chain of despondency and allowed us to imagine new communities. It has broken the idea of American exceptionalism and linked US social distress and protest to the pink tide in Latin America, the Arab Spring and the pre-revolutionary strivings of the indignados of Club Med.

This new radical imagination forces us to break with the liberal desires for reform of a structure that can no longer be plastered over, as termites have already eaten into its foundation. It forces us to break with multicultural upward mobility that has both succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling, and at the same time demonstrated its inability to operate on behalf of the multitudes. Neither liberal reform nor multiculturalism. We require something much deeper, something more radical. The answers to our questions and to the condition of bare life are not to be found in being cautious. We need to cultivate the imagination, for those who lack an imagination cannot know what lacks.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. In 2012, three of his books will be published: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, Spring), Uncle Swami: Being South Asian in America (New Press, Spring) and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, Fall).