I just finished reading my friend Bernie Wills' book Believing Weird Things. I’m writing a review of it at Social Epistemology, but today’s monologue will work through some of my initial reactions to what he had to say. As well, I’m going to see what can come out of playing Bernie’s ideas off some arguments from Antonio Negri’s latest book Assembly, available in intelligent bookshops and online stores near you.
So the last two essays of the fourteen in Believing Weird Things were published on the open-access side of Social Epistemology early this year. They confront different aspects of the resurgence of nationalist politics in Europe and the Americas.
I’ll expand a little more on this in my official review, of course. But the last essay, “Conservatism: The End of An Idea” made me think of a curious idea. It wasn’t something he said, but something he never said.
The essay identified and explored the nihilism driving all the most radically destructive forms of extremism.
Since the show is called Radical Democrats Radio, I thought I’d at least consider the implications for the brand.
If I can distill the argument to a single sentence – Bernie saw the nihilism of nationalist right and anarchist left ultimately leading to the same ends. The radical nationalist replaces rule of law with fascist kleptocracy. The radical anarchist replaces rule of law with social chaos.
Here’s my problem with this idea. I think it departs from the material situation we’re in, veering a little too conceptual.
In the actual political situation of Europe and the Americas in 2018, our popular political conflicts are realigning into a new order.
The general right wing blends two ideologies: 1) economic libertarianism that enables cronyism and kleptocracy, 2) xenophobic nationalism. The particular flavour of xenophobia in a country, is usually cobbled together from what’s available.
For example, xenophobes in the United States are deepest dedicated to being anti-Hispanic and anti-Black, and Islamophobia is a bold new vector of aggressive racist paranoia. They’ve resurrected their fear-mongering anti-communist messaging to describe anything in favour of a welfare state, environmentalism, or social liberalism in general. The most extreme xenophobes are more marginalized Nazis.
I say more marginalized because you can’t say k-i-k-e on FOX. At least not yet. So I’m speaking relatively.
Bernie’s right about that designation. So what about the left?
Well, I’ve hung out in some pleasant anarchist communes. But they aren’t exactly networked into the new progressive mainstream. Because the conservative mainstream includes open dedicated racists like US Representative Steve King, FOX News’ Tucker Carlson, Presidential Advisor Stephen Miller, and President Donald Trump.
Today’s new alignment in the progressive left is toward a new social democracy that includes ecological priorities in its economics, and a cosmopolitan ethnic, religious, sex, and gender freedom in its cultural liberalism.
An essay that seeks to diagnose our times leans too heavily on a concept instead of the real. That’s my main problem with that last essay in the collection.
Yet. I have to say yet. There is a very subtle kind of opposition to the state that the 21st century social democrats of the West share with the most nitrous-addled anarchist shack-dweller. It’s the opposition to sovereignty.
Sovereignty is a conceptual framework of what governments are for. But a government can be organized according to a lot of different conceptual frameworks. Sovereignty is an ideology that unites two principles – 1) Borders become sanctified; 2) A state’s borders create a united social entity, the nation.
This is what Negri diagnoses. Sovereignty ideology defines the purpose of the state as maintaining the population in order. So the primary institutions of the state are the police and military.
The new social democratic vision defines the purpose of the state real economic and personal freedom. Everyone has the capacity and opportunities to make a decent living and avoid indebtedness. Everyone has the right to live however and wherever they want.
What are the institutions of a state with those priorities? It’s not keeping order. It’s about preserving the lives and dignity of the population. Those institutions would be public health infrastructure, social security, schools and universities.
This wouldn’t be a sovereign state that prioritizes social order. It would be a people’s state that prioritizes social dignity.