- Not Him, Us (and we aren’t populists)
The key issue of Donald Trump’s presidency is not Trump. It’s us. The Left needs to focus on getting organized, not on seeing the world, the country, the political conjuncture from Trump’s perspective. Getting organized then means knowing where and who we are, which requires a perspective other than, opposed to, Trump and the setting that produced him. Our setting is that of communicative capitalism. We who oppose him should see ourselves as communists, that is, from the perspective opened up by communism.
A fundamental mistake of the Bush years was that the Left displaced its attention from the deep divisions within the US and onto a narrow vision of the US as dominated by white capitalist evangelicals. Despite the fact that Al Gore won the popular vote and the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, thereby handing the election to George W. Bush, much of the Left seemed to wallow in a fantasy that the country was now a massive red state, taken over by people who liked imagining themselves having a drink with Dubya. The country was split, but all the Left could see was a vast expanse of conservative power, an enormous resonance machine rather than a complex field of multiply interconnected yet antagonistic forces. Because of its failure to emphasize division, this limited vision—one that neglected distinctions between fundamentalists, evangelicals, conservatives, neoconservatives, capitalists, neoliberals, libertarians, and the raced and classed conflict that cuts through all these designations—participated in the consolidation of a Republican hegemony. The Left saw itself as hopelessly fragmented and divided; the Right it saw as a unified whole.1
The Left cannot make the same mistake again. It must emphasize division, not only Trump’s failure to win the popular vote but also the large number of people who stayed home in the last election. Trump won the support of a quarter of the country—even as his popularity remained at a record low for US presidential candidates. The country is divided. The establishment is divided. The Republican Party is divided. The government is divided, as we saw in the early tension between Trump and the intelligence agencies and as later appeared in the ever-escalating number of “rogue” and “alt” government agencies on Twitter (for example, Alt National Parks and RogueNASA). Division [End Page 38] is good, if we know how to use it to find and exploit the political possibility in the gap.
Exploiting division requires enough unity to pursue a strategy. A lesson from the last thirty years of intense neoliberalism is that a Left that emphasizes individual choice within a broad, vague democratic milieu is indistinguishable from mainstream liberals. Multiple actions and approaches within a pluralist milieu reduce politics to a market where momentary initiatives compete with each other for funding and attention. This multiplicity may describe the inchoate left of communicative capitalism. But it fails to present an alternative for which we should fight.
Communicative capitalism and its extreme economic inequality produced Trump.2 Communicative capitalism is that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance. The media practices we enjoy, that enable us to express ourselves and connect with others, reassemble dissent into new forms of exploitation and control. Communicative capitalism’s attributes include the shift from the use value to the exchange value of any utterance (which is a shift from the “message” to the “contribution”), the decline of symbolic efficiency, and the amplification of inequality in the powerlaw distributions of complex networks. I summarize these in brief before turning back to Trump.
First, the shift from message to contribution subjects speech or language to an economic logic. Communicative interactions take on crowd dynamics. This is because the channels through which we communicate reward number: the more hits and shares the better. Words are counted in word clouds, visualized in terms of numbers of time repeated. What they might have meant, signified, implied doesn’t matter. Words and images start to combine—we get memes and emojis as people feel compelled to express and respond more and more quickly. In the affective networks of communicative capitalism, each communicative utterance...