In this wide-ranging discussion, Idris shares some notes reflecting on How It Might Should Be Done, one of the most innovative and strategic theoretical interventions of the George Floyd uprising.
“The horizons which the social revolution in America opens up are more tremendous than anywhere else in the world. But the path which the revolution will have to take in this country is also more difficult and vicious than anywhere else in the world. First, it is the Warfare State with huge forces that have to be challenged. And second, inside each American, from top to bottom, in various degrees, has been accumulated all the corruption of a class society which has achieved its magnificent technological progress first and always by exploiting the Negro race, and then by exploiting the immigrants of all races… The struggle to rid themselves and each other of this accumulated corruption is going to be more painful and violent than any struggles over purely economic grievances have been or are likely to be.”¹
That was James Boggs in 1963. And I pulled it out because I think it’s amazing how it captures the task that’s in front of us today. He identifies the immensity of the problem of revolutionary change far better than any academic or civil rights leader. He’s a factory worker by trade. And this is the same question that I tried to tackle in “How It Might Should Be Done.” I was never confident in offering solutions, so what I tried to do was to frame some questions and facilitate discussion.
I’ll be referencing a lot of people who have worked on the project. In fact, the Boggs quote is from a text that Jason Smith wrote a year after the rebellion, on Boggs and The American Revolution, which is excellent. It still amazes me how in '63 he anticipates Italian autonomia of the 70s; and there still so many people studying post-operaismo, but he's got it in '63. Boggs seems to suggest that the complication that is posed by a revolution in America is how much is riding on it. It needs to be said that radical transformation in the United States opens up unforeseen possibilities for the rest of the world, which has America’s imperialist boot on its neck, so that task is also thrown in front of us and makes it ever more difficult.
If you were out there then, you guys know it went down. That is to say, in the slogan that goes around a lot, a militant nationwide uprising did, in fact, occur. But nevertheless there are talking heads who will go on about the mostly peaceful character of the protest. But it’s becoming easier and easier to confirm that in the most remote corners of America, it really kicked off. Of course, some of the protests may have been peaceful, but there were a lot where things got a little ill, for example, in the strangest places.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota: They attacked the mall.
Reno, Nevada: They burned cop cars and burnt down the city capitol from the inside (which is a little sketchy, but yeah). In both cases the governors declared states of emergency and activated the National Guard.
Davenport, Iowa: They had a shootout with the cops. It escalated to that, so it's really kind of just backwards to say that there's a mostly peaceful character.
In Michigan, more happened here than I can even recount. Looking through it, I was like, wow!
So I think it's important for us to consider why so much of what we witnessed firsthand can be denied outright. I believe there were martyrs in Michigan during the uprising, so our honor to them means that we have to recognize what happened.
To some degree, the spectacular misrepresentation of the George Floyd Uprising as a kind of peaceful non-event can be explained by what Debord called in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle “forgeries without reply.” I'm going to quote Debord here: “The simple fact of being without reply has given to the false and entirely new quality. At a stroke, it is truth which has almost ceased to exist or at best has been reduced to the status of a pure hypothesis that can never be demonstrated.”²
Debord argued in Comments that the spectacle had achieved this kind of sophistication now that it can declare that when something did not happen it therefore did not happen. I think actually the present situation – and I typically will always agree with Guy Debord (we can talk about this) – but I think the present situation requires a bit more nuance.
So I took the lead from a Greek theoretical group called Flesh Machine and Ego te Provoco. They put out a book in 2010 about the Greek uprising and what they did was they tried to chart the way different political positions produce different discourses about violence and each of them had a different counter-insurgent effect. Alain Badiou's Logic of Worlds had just been published then, so that was the main theoretical background for their project.³ I tried to do that with the first thesis.
On the one hand, Badiou separates what he calls the reactive integration of the event. This is the position that's going to be taken up by liberals, progressives, everyone from the center to certain sections of the left. The aim of that discourse is to downplay the significance of the uprising by passing it off as a kind of a civil orderly protest. Why is this done? This is done to reaffirm and reassert that an event occurred but not an event that's a radical break, so the possibilities for change are redirected back into the status quo. As with all liberal democratic reformists, the slogan I say is, they change things just a little so that they don't change at all.
So that's the progressive side: The strategy of reform and denial.
The other side is what Badiou calls the occultation of the event. This is the fascist response to the rebellion from Trump, to the right, to the far-right, to the alt-right, whatever right you want, Fox News, etc. In the occultation of the event, they have to acknowledge that an uprising did occur. These were the ones who said, “okay, yeah, there is an uprising.” They had to recognize that the uprising did jump off because they wanted to violently repress it. The fascists, the ones out in the street, wanted to bring it down.
Badiou argues that the drive to crush and fully extinguish an event is always done on the basis of some sort of transcendental idea or standard. This could be an immutable notion of, say, law and order, he argues, but in the American context it could be something like white supremacy or the American settler colonial project, but in their positive light, like the American Dream.
Later in an interview with Gerardo Muñoz, I tried to argue that these kinds of liberal delusions about violence and insurrection resemble the right's fantasies about Qanon - especially after the January 6th storming of the Capitol - they've gotten to the point where liberals deny that certain things even happen. I want to point out the mass looting that's been going on in the past few weeks. I think this is a good example of what the liberals try to deny. The Italian Autonomist tradition calls it collective auto-reduction. This is obviously in response to the Rittenhouse verdict. It's been going on for weeks and it keeps being de-politicized by the state and by the media, and separated from the actual political revolt that it's attached to.
In Thesis 2, I wanted to emphasize that there's something very unique about the black experience in America that was exemplified in the uprising. It sounds like a PBS special, “The Black Experience in America”, but there's something unique that was shown there. I'm still working on trying to articulate it. But how I tend to see these things is on the one side, you have America. I keep calling it this vast and desolate wasteland. In Endnotes I recently put out an article to mark the anniversary of the revolt called “Civilizing the American Wasteland.” I tend to think of the citizens of America as Debord thought of the planetary petite bourgeois. He would describe them as something like, “deprived of freedom, tolerating every abuse, subject to humiliation, cramped and gloomy, ugly and unhealthy habitations, ill-nourished with tasteless and adulterated food, poorly treated for constantly re-occurring illnesses, under continual petty surveillance, maintained in modern illiteracy and superstitions that reinforce the power of their masters.”⁴ This is the inversion of privilege discourse. Especially if you read Peggy McIntosh, in a weird way I'd argue that there's times where it seems to imply that black people want these advantages that white people have. I always try to switch this around and use what Debord said in In Girum. He gives a scathing indictment of what he calls “the spectacular salaried masses," or the French petite bourgeoisie, which he thinks is really lowly. I apply this to all America and say that this country is completely antithetical to anything that's like the good life or eudaimonia. And more so, it's allergic to fine arts and literature; it's allergic to love; it's against communism. Everything that matters in the world, America stands opposed to.
On the other side, you have black Americans as the avant-garde in this formulation. What I argue, at least in the talk, is that they were responsible for everything in the country that's valuable – every contribution from the beginning. I get some of this from Cornel West on the philosophical tradition in America.⁵ But I think it goes further than that. All these valuable contributions that the country neglects even go as far as the fine arts. Ahmad Jamal the pianist – he lived in Detroit for some time, is that right? Someone correct me. He would say, “I'm not gonna refer to this as jazz, this is American classical music.” I think he's right in the sense that jazz is the only American music that can stand on par with European art/classical music.
In this way, I think the black role was a spearhead in the rebellion. But we're also on a civilizing mission, as I like to call it sometimes. For this reason, I also found it factually false and ideologically spurious to misrepresent the summer of 2020 as a purely black uprising. For starters, you saw the different people out there. We all know both the day and the night were very mixed.
Second, the rebellion itself was nothing other than the overcoming of these state-imposed divisions. As Agamben astutely judged in his chapter on Tiananmen – and I've written about this elsewhere – it's impossible to ascribe a legible demand or goal into the uprising or the movement. The summer's uprising was not about passing some sort of anti-racist legislation that was going to land on some bureaucrat's desk and die a stillborn death.
What occurred was what we saw in the streets. What it was doing – it didn't have a goal or have a telos. But we saw the concrete overcoming of boundaries as it played out – the alienation that separates us from each other. Agamben refers to this as whatever singularity, as a human that casts off its predicates. For him, this is the strength of the movement: having no demands; the breaking down of identity. The state on the other hand always works to reinscribe identities back into the domain of capture. This is what I was trying to aim at here – this is what the black avant-garde was initiating.
So you have this clash between the state and the non-state, or as Agamben says, the state versus humanity. I see the black avant-garde as having this role of initiating the civilizing process that demonstrates what humanity really is in the most inhumane country in the world.
This is saying the same thing. It's using some constructs from both Agamben and Badiou. What I want to say is that identity politics is overcome here.
But I'll go to this one, the one that people want to talk about.
This thesis splits into two parts. On the one hand is the critique of identity politics, intersectionality, and social privilege discourse. On the other hand is what I call the morbid libidinal economy.
The first part of the project comes from work I've done with John Clegg, a scholar of prison and slavery at the University of Chicago – I won't go through all the statistics that he's been working on and all the empirical data that he's collected, that's his side of the project – but I want to give a basic sketch of some of the arguments that I was trying to put forward against intersectionality.
So start with, on a very basic level, intersectionality is obviously true. It's correct on some very basic fundamental level, if we follow Kimberlé Crenshaw's original line of reasoning. Then we could say something like, yes, there is something very unique about a person who's simultaneously being held between two intersecting oppressions. In a way, that's tautologically correct. Yes, it's unique, but what are we going to derive from this? And you have certain crude models of intersectionality which will argue, whether implicitly or explicitly, that multiple oppressions entail more oppression – something more than uniqueness. But of course this doesn't really follow.
The other problem which I think occurs in both the crude and the refined models of intersectionality is that they'll argue that this kind of intersectional position, this position at the conjunction between two oppressions, this crossing, is what confers agency into a subject. I also think this is incorrect. This doesn't follow. Just because a group is situated at the crossing point of two forms of domination, it doesn't make that person or that group more equipped to fight one oppression, or the other oppression, or both oppressions.
Typically intersectionality is contested from some sort of class first perspective. This is not what I'm doing. I always want to make that clear. In fact, in the (Red May) talk, I argued that Marx makes some of the same mistakes that intersectionality makes. He has several formulations of the proletariat. There's some that are really good, but he makes the same mistakes at other times. There's times where he says that the proletariat is the most oppressed, therefore it's the one revolutionary subject. False. There's times where he says the proletariat is located on the levers of production, therefore it's the revolutionary subject. Also probably false.
So what I was trying to do was more of an immanent critique of intersectionality to show that it can't achieve the aims that it sets out for itself.
As for privilege theory, I should fix something. If you guys saw the talk, I argued that a psychological component has been added to it after the fact. Du Bois does talk about a psychological wage of whiteness. Nevertheless, the psychology of the wages of whiteness has been morphed into what Peggy McIntosh talks about, about chewing with your mouth open. Most importantly, it becomes this way to wallow in psychological guilt.
Rest in peace to Noel Ignatiev. He once said, I remember, before he died, that he wanted to give up the term race altogether because it's been abused so much. I'm starting to think that he should have said that about privilege, even though that was his idea. I tried to go back into the more revolutionary lineage of privilege and look at Harry Haywood, Theodore Allen, and Noel Ignatiev. What's important for me is that their formulation entailed that white workers have to strike alongside black workers. They have to recognize that their real alliances aren't with the white bourgeois but with black workers, and strike in solidarity with them, recognizing that they share the same class enemy. This comes out to something much different than the crap you get in diversity trainings, which really promotes inaction.
Lastly, identity politics. This is the hardest one to deal with. I've been messing with this for a decade now. I think it's really hard to deal with because, as this philosopher Cressida Heyes writes in her entry on this, it's such an incredibly loaded phrase, and it has such an extremely wide reference that it's really hard to tie down. So it's difficult to construct a precise objection as to what identity politics wants to do, or is doing, or what it stands for, what it holds. It means so many different things to different people.
I even think about it as something that’s really deep inside us, a kind of pre-philosophical understanding. I gave the example from Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein.⁶ He said that Wittgenstein was attacking the urge to do bad philosophy. Identity politics seems prior to theorization. This urge that we give into. In other ways, I try to analyze it as a technique of power in the Foucauldian sense. Instead of being one theory, it’s a multiple set of mechanisms and techniques and procedures for power.
The overall critique of identity politics will carry over into intersectionality, privilege theory, etc. Each of them work by subjectivating identities and enforcing certain rigid lines of categorization. And so no matter which way you cut it, it’s always going to have some counter-insurgent basis because you have to start from these rigid lines of identity and then get these systems moving.
On the flip side, the insurgent side, the insurrectionary side, would be the shedding of those identities, the breaking down of those borders. And this is why in the talk I refer to it as the most sophisticated sector of the police, or the most sophisticated sector of the police apparatus or the police modality. Some of this I’m getting from Deleuze as well. He argues in A Thousand Plateaus and Anti-Oedipus that whenever you have this kind of order, it's easier to control.⁷ So every time that identity is trapped and combined and captured within the state apparatus, it's also easier to control.
What I try to propose, instead of just being wholly against intersectionality and privilege theory, is to look at Toni Cade Bambara’s book. She edited a collection called The Black Woman in 1970.⁸ She wrote an excellent preface and I suggest everyone read it. You can get it on libgen [Library Genesis]. She never tried to define black women. Black women is a very interesting topic because that’s what intersectionality starts out with. But she never looks at intersecting oppressions, she never looks at people on the margins of two hierarchies. She’s going to argue that black women ought to be conceptualized as an open possibility, understood through their struggles, and their revolutionary activities, and their agency. So she starts at the exact opposite of what intersectionality is doing and works in a completely different direction. In general as black people, we can say that it would be wrong to say that black people can be defined by the accumulation of their oppressions, oppressions imposed from the outside.
The other objection I had was that none of them have the resources to account for what I called the morbid libidinal economy of race dynamics. I began speaking about these terrifying libidinal drives and desires, because I observed that especially after 2020, there was endless talk about race, endless talk about white supremacy, white privilege, black radical tradition, black liberation. There was so much talk about race, but it seemed like there was always something notably absent and off limits, a kind of taboo.
Following Robert Bernasconi, the philosopher of race, he repeatedly emphasizes that race and sex are irrevocably linked. We’re starting to reach something, a certain unsaid that’s omitted. When we have something like this unsaid, it starts to resemble the Freudian death drive. Or more rigorously, it functions like the traumatic kernel we find in Lacan. He delineates the three-register theory, and the register of the real is what we always circle around but never want to touch. If we touch it it’ll break us apart. I tried to give examples of the morbid libidinal economy. I started with David Marriott’s example – that’s where I got the reading of Baldwin from, or at least his book is what led me to go in that direction.⁹
Do you guys know the story now, or do I have to recount it again? Tell me you know it. Some of you know it. Anyway, okay, I was super hyped when I did it the last time in Seattle. Then my friend came up to me and said, “Hey, great talk, but how do I explain this to my teenage kids who I brought?” I was like, ehhh.
In brief, you have a white heterosexual couple in Baldwin’s story. The setting consists of the man who’s a redneck cop, he’s laying in bed with his wife. He’s suffering from impotence and he’s unable to perform. What’s more psychoanalytic than impotence? Spoiler alert: He begins to think of his boyhood attendance at a lynching. As we know, lynchings are always exceeding sexualized rituals of white supremacy. The corpse of the black man is not just mutilated, but it’s sexually mutilated. Upon remembering the sexual mutilation, the cop is able to achieve erection.
I compared this Baldwin story to the real life murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I still think this holds, we could work this through a little more, but it’s obvious to me that there’s some kind of libidinal desire motivating those rednecks down in Atlanta. They were getting something out of it. They could have just sat there on their porch. Of course that’s never talked about. You don’t hear, what’s the guy’s name, Don Lemon talking about the morbid libidinal drives of those rednecks down there. It’s uncomfortable to talk about for a lot of reasons. And one would have to admit that all heterosexual white males in America have some similar impulses. That’s why it makes us uncomfortable as well. I was debating whether I’d say this, but I moved from New York City to the University of New Mexico, and the weirdest thing was not so much being the only black person there, but how much attention I got from white heterosexual men: they'd always be following me around with their eyes on me. On a general level, our society also associates black suffering with gratification, and that’s another way we can approach this.
Additionally, a lot of the influence, a lot of my understanding of the morbid libidinal economy, comes from Hortense Spillers’s work. She did the best work on this. Her text, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” is groundbreaking. For instance, she gives a really fascinating interpretation of Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography. In that part in the book, Jacobs recounts how she’s undergoing incessant sexual harassment from the plantation owner. His unwanted attention precipitates the jealousy of the master’s wife. In the quiet of the night, the jealous mistress begins to enter Jacobs’s slave quarter and speaks to her while she’s sleeping. If you remember this part, it happens around chapter 6. And it’s this murderous voice of envy. Jacobs is like, she’s going to kill me. And the voice enters into both the manifest and latent content of her dream. So you have a classic psychoanalytic instance. And the mistress also begins to mimic the voice of seduction of her husband and also the threats. It’s a little bit of both.
Spillers concludes – I’m just going to quote her because it’s perfect. She says in a conclusion about this passage, “In both male and female instances, the subject attempts to inculcate his or her will into the vulnerable, supine, i.e. slave, body. . . . We might say that Jacobs, between the lines of her narrative, demarcates a sexuality that is neuter-bound, inasmuch as it represents an open vulnerability to a gigantic sexualized repertoire that may be alternately expressed as male and female or male/female. Since the gendered female exists for the male, we might suggest that the ungendered female – in an amazing stroke of pansexual potentiality might be invaded/raided by another woman or man.”¹⁰ So basically her conclusion is that this degendering of black flesh serves as the foundation for the white gender binary, which only exists for whites in her view.
It’s not always about life and death. I think that there’s always the less exaggerated instance of this. You can think of times you’ll see a white girl who’s friends with a black girl, and then the white girl is like, “Oh I’m so cool, I’m so hip-hop now.” It's these subtle ways they manipulate their black friends in friendships. I think it’s really prevalent in woke activist circles. It’s not something that’s going to be talked about.
The reading also shows that gender and race are way more complicated than the three calculuses can really account for. For Spillers, the account of black gender and black female gender paradoxically involves a degendering. Something like privilege theory, intersectionality, or identity politics, where it becomes one plus/minus – it’s just not going to work here. And there’s another instance, and maybe you can help me with this, Joy James, in a talk I did with her and Shemon Salam and Wendy Trevino, she said there’s another account of a whipping in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl where the morbid libidinal economy also comes up.¹¹ Where Jacobs is very frightened and disgusted by the sight of a naked male slave body. So maybe we can talk about that.
Anyway, what psychoanalysis teaches us – and it’s very interesting that Spillers says that Jacobs had invented psychoanalysis 30 years before Freud had, or had arrived at the real conclusions. But what psychoanalysis teaches is that whatever is strategically left out or omitted stands at the core of the system as a whole. That real is what structures the system, that’s what’s holding everything together. This accounts for the kind of defense mechanisms against it. We block ourselves in various ways from touching the real, whether symbolically or with our material bodies. The end of the white deputization that we saw in the Ahmaud Arbery case is only going to come by traversing that symptom, by beginning at the real core of the symptom.
I added in the bottom, “whitey loves property.” The idea was to remind me that one of the arguments I made during that part was that there’s a special kind of sanctity or prestige that property has in the American case. If you’ve ever rioted in another country, it’s much easier because people just don’t care about windows as much. So, how to account for this sanctity of property? A lot of historians – some historians, John Clegg is one of them – argue that there’s a particular kind of prestige that property has in America because of the fact that it was once alive. We had living, walking, breathing property.
What I find interesting and what I’ve been meaning to develop once I finish my dissertation is that there seems to be this interesting shift now. On the one hand, I was in a minority for hating the police. You couldn’t say it, especially in New York you couldn’t say “fuck the cops,” someone would slap you. But with Generation Z, they all hate the cops now. Or at least it’s a little bit more open. And you don’t sound like a crazy man by saying, “fuck the pigs.” But what’s interesting to me is that we’ve gone from a critique of the state to the fully situationist critique of work, but this critique hasn’t been fully articulated. There has to be a link there, in some way. There's a small step from recognizing that the cops protect the property, so let's go after the property as well.
This one I need to work on too, but it is what it is. I’ll get there at some point. So my hero, Simone Weil, always argues that war is never fully external.¹² It always has an internal dimension on the people who are waging war. What I was coming to notice, especially leading up to the pandemic, is that all these problems that America shifted onto the colonial periphery were starting to come back. The classic Malcolm X “chickens come home to roost.” I wanted to give an account of that somehow, and I’ll fully get it structured sometime. How I see it, at least in broad sketches, is that in both Foucault and Agamben, you have biopolitical security, and then you have the sovereign state. The sovereign state is always an individual state, or it tends to be an individual state. Then you have biopolitical security which is a global network. But America is in a strange position because it’s an imperial state that reaches out, but is also a part of this global network. So maybe that would explain this internalization of war, internalization of all the things America foisted onto other countries in the global South.
Some scholars have argued that Agamben has never gone the length needed to reconcile the two, and some people have argued that Junger’s “total mobilization” is a good way to explain how war comes back home.¹³ His line was that what marks modern war is of course the biopolitical clash between populations, but also the fact that the population needs to be mobilized. This mobilization occurs as much behind the front as it does on the front line itself. That same mobilization can be used later for putting down a strike, or in a crisis, or in the war on COVID, or the war on drugs, or the global war on terror. And of course we’ve seen now the shift from the war on terror to the war on COVID. Even Andrew Lakoff, the medical anthropologist, has argued that even banal terms like “the essential worker” comes from the Cold War. These are the workers we need to survive a nuclear blast.¹⁴
One of the ways I looked at this was that Foucault says about the security state, or security: it’s a framework that doesn’t block the event, but lets the event happen, and tries to optimize it. And with Lakoff’s preparedness paradox, he argues that whenever we prepare for an event, and the event doesn’t happen, then we stop preparing for the event, and then it does occur.¹⁵ We can see it now with Omicron. One of the things he argues is that there’s a reluctance for countries to report that they found a new strain of whatever virus, like H1N1, since they’re penalized for it. So in the next round, no one is going to do it. So it becomes impossible to prepare for the next pandemic.
If the event has to be admitted through security, Lakoff’s paradox shows why we periodically get these things that get out of control of the maintenance and optimization of the state.
This was the one about Haiti. Instead of taking the extreme left-wing view that’s changed out of nowhere to being partisans of security and supporters of security and biopolitical control, or on the right, this conspiratorial denialism of the facticity of the virus, there needs to be some other way of understanding it. This is very much an open question. The example that I tried to pull from was the example of the Haitian Revolution. The slaves in Haiti were well aware of yellow fever by the time it came around. They had developed immunity, they had developed ways of treating it for themselves. So when Napoleon’s huge army landed on the shores, they knew that they weren’t going to be prepared to deal with yellow fever, and that’s when they launched their guerrilla attacks. In the end of Security, Territory, Population, Foucault’s ‘77 lectures, he talks about these counter conducts of knowledge of medicine that were lost in the middle ages.¹⁶ In Federici’s Caliban and the Witch,¹⁷ or Carlo Ginzburg's, my favorite book, Cheese and Worms,¹⁸ the miller knows all this secret knowledge that is only dispersed around the proletariat. This is what I was aiming for here. It’s the hardest to do because you don’t want to fully discount all the scientific knowledge that we’ve been using to deal with the event. The one great contribution is from a biophysicist named Sonali Gupta who wrote a text in e-flux called “Virality.” She takes up the problem straight from “How It Might Should Be Done.” How should we think about this without going to extreme poles of total fear or total denial?
This is the more Blanquist thesis. If you read To Our Friends, this is really influenced by that text.¹⁹ At one point they say, we’re not going to talk about means of production, that’s the old way of thinking about things. The real point is one of either controlling or destroying infrastructure. It's weird to talk about Alfredo Bonanno in a place like this, but he often emphasizes the very materiality of things and not in terms of Marxist value production.
Blanqui is going through a kind of revival – Peter Hallward’s new book on Blanqui.²⁰ It’s not just a bad word to be called a Blanquist. There’s a certain technical dimension of revolution or insurrection that I wanted to pull out at that time. To think about the equivalent of the telephone exchange that the CNT fought over in May of ‘37 in Spain, or in 1905 and 1917 in St. Petersburg, the railway was a big, very contested thing. Not because of value production, but because of what it did for communication, infrastructure, etc. At the time I was even reading a lot of books on how to pull off a coup.²¹ The problem is that doing a coup in America just seems kind of insane, because it’s such a big place. And there’s always the complexities of taking the TV station, taking the phone – you can do it in a small place, but in a big place like America it poses a lot of problems.
So this leads to the next one, civil war.
At least in radical revolutionary circles, or whatever you want to call it, leftist circles, this one was one of the most controversial and contested. People didn’t like talking about civil war, and just to be frank, it was mainly white readers who really didn’t like talking about civil war. I think there’s a reason for this. I’ll talk more about Nicole Loraux’s analysis of civil war, but she argues that civil war is always this repressed kernel in society. It’s this trauma that’s repressed in a very psychoanalytic way.
My initial reasons for taking up the question of civil war is that it was constantly being put on the table. For partisans of the left, we tend not to read the normal sources that other people are reading, but it was everywhere in 2020 if you looked around. Throughout the Trump presidency, civil war was almost a mainstream topic. Even now if you open up an editorial in, say, the Post or the Daily News, you’ll find stuff on it. I thought that it was something that needed to be addressed if it was on people’s minds.
And I argued also – and this comes back to the question of the size and the immensity and the complexity of America – that civil war would also facilitate in breaking down America into sizable chunks to deal with in a revolutionary way. We have to remember that during the Chinese Revolution, during the Russian Revolution, they were largely feudal countries. A civil war in America, with this much technological progress, on top of its size – there’s really no historical precedent for this. So I argued that the fracturing of America would facilitate revolution. And that we could put the smaller puzzle pieces back together later.
I tried to read this into Harry Haywood. He wrote Black Bolshevik, and he also had the Black Belt Thesis – he was a leading figure in American communist movement.²² His argument was that the south should be an independent soviet state, a black soviet state in the way that Kyrgyzstan or Georgia was in the Soviet Union, satellite states. And the north would be a socialist state for white people.
The other thing that led me to talk about civil war was when I was in the northwest, it just felt like a civil war. I’m from New York City, and guns are illegal. But I would go to demos in the northwest and I’d see people carrying guns on both sides, and I’d be like, oh, all right. Carrying in demonstrations, hiding in bushes when demonstrations were going on, and then with the Portland thing going on, with the federal troops – every day Portland was doing the demos, and people were coming from rural Oregon and invading. It was a lot of gun play out there. It felt like it had the dimensions of civil war and that’s why I put it in there, I thought I needed to address it.
Now, back to Nicole Loraux, the French classicist. Now how I want to go is through her account of stasis in the book, The Divided City, with stasis as Greek for civil war.²³ Stasis carries much more than what civil war means. Factional conflict, partisanship, sedition, it has all these meanings in Greek. What I found interesting initially about Loraux’s account of civil war in the ancient world is that there are analogous currents to the abolitionist current and the suffragist current in ancient Greece, at least in her argument. Also again, she takes civil war to have the same status as the psychoanalytic real. A lot of her analysis speaks about why it is that in the ancient world, once the civil war is over, there’s always these agreements never to talk about the past. Following Loraux – and also Agamben, Agamben really likes Loraux – there’s a politicization of the private sphere and a privatization of the public sphere. So domestic and civil life start to bleed into each other and they become rendered indistinguishable. I think we can see this in the country today. This is what I argued in the Revista Disenso article. There’s an abolitionist overcoming of whiteness that implies this fracturing of the family. Ever since Trump, a white friend will tell me, I went home for Thanksgiving and after talking to my uncle, I told him I’m going to kill him when the revolution comes, my racist uncle. So it’s happening! Again and again, this is playing out. In more general terms, black liberation does entail a forsaking of white lineage, the lineage of whiteness. And that’s what’s going on at the dinner table.
Hence the banal oft-repeated saying that civil wars are a clash of brother vs. brother. This is why it became so taboo or controversial for my white friends, when white readers read this part. They really didn’t like the civil war part. Shemon Salam and Arturo Castillon even argue that civil war should be fought within whiteness itself. It should be an explosion of whiteness from within. James Boggs argues that civil war is white vs. white, black vs. white, but black vs. black as well.
On the other side, we have this kind of politicization of the family, the politicization of the oikos. For me, the slave plantation is the paradigmatic instance of oikonomia. This is the kind of state that the economy comes from. It’s a productive state with a family structure within it. It’s everything that the private realm was for the ancient Greeks. I think it’s obvious that many aspects of American society reflect or exhibit relations that were formerly invested within the system of plantations, especially when these libidinal relationships spill over into public view. The family romances that took on a terrifying turn in the plantation now play out in the public sphere. I work a lot on destituent power, and what I argue is that destituent power is the breaking of these binds that keep the oikos and the public so close together. They blend in with each other, and then they’re unraveled.
I put the Battle of Antietam down there too. I’m gonna say a little about that. The Yale historian, David Blight argues that at Antietam there was the most carnage ever on American soil, the most lives lost on both sides. There’s no decisive tactical victory in Antietam, it’s just carnage. One of the arguments against civil war is that we’ll lose. But in that case in the Civil War, it’s interesting to know that they did these old Napoleonic charges with very modern weapons, so it was just carnage. Due to tactics, not so much the weapons. But he argues that the carnage that occurred on the battlefield on both sides gave Lincoln the kind of leeway to push through emancipation. The interesting thing that he argues is that no one from Lincoln, to the Northern soldiers, was in favor of emancipation. Sometimes history jumps ahead of its actors. I find that an interesting way to look at the Civil War. And it also goes into the next part on whiteness and martyrdom.
This is the last one, the political theology one. What I’ve been working with more is trying to understand martyrdom. It continues to be a pressing question. There’s the martyrdom of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber – they were killed in Kenosha with Kyle Rittenhouse getting off for it. Their martyrdom is now in the popular consciousness in some way. I began to address the topic more seriously with the “Letter to Michael Reinoehl,” which you can find in Ill Will. He was hunted down and assassinated by federal agents in the Pacific Northwest. I compared him to John Brown. There’s a picture of him during the Vice interview, and the look of fear in his eye – it just reminded me of that classic picture of John Brown. So I compared them once it struck me that there’s some sort of similarity there.
Stefano Harney wrote to me and sent me some literature on this. W. E. B. Du Bois arrived at very similar conclusions about John Brown that I did in the Reinoehl article – I was shocked. And of course Du Bois did so much better and more eloquently than I will ever do. When I was on the plane flying here, I found that he wrote in 1909, the same year, a shorter text called “John Brown in Christmas,” which fits because it’s December.²⁴ It’s a little strange, but hear me out. He writes that this is Christmas time – this is Du Bois – “This is Christmas time and the time of John Brown. On the second of this month [i.e., December], he was crucified; on the 8th, he was buried. On the 25th, 50 years later, let him rise from the dead in every Negro American home. Jesus came not to bring peace, but the sword, and so did John Brown.”
In that little poem or passage that Du Bois wrote, there are some problematic things with it. But in the same way that when Benjamin writes in the “Critique of Violence” that he wants to strip out the Christian baggage and get to the Jewish core of the critique of political theology, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. All these Greek and Roman influences that he detects in Christianity, he wants to pull them out. Agamben does the same thing in a different way, and Jacob Taubes, when they argue that Paul really should be understood as a Jewish figure.²⁵ Relying on Benjamin’s notion of pure and divine violence, I tried to explain the act of self-defense that Reinoehl was persecuted for. In Benjamin’s “Critique,” he insists that even though there’s the fundamental commandment that thou should not kill, it doesn’t hold in self-defense.
And it’s important for people to wrestle with what it means to take someone’s life and contravene that commandment. John Brown was such a religious person, of course, he had to wrestle with this internally. What Benjamin goes on to argue is that there’s something more valuable to a good and just existence than existence alone. The sanctity of life, this humanitarian sanctity of life, there’s always something more than that, and that’s justice itself. And in seeking that justice, which is beyond life and death – whether your life or someone else’s life – the martyr transforms themself. In this context, in our context, this transformation is what it means to be a traitor to the white race. That’s the abolitionist project, and it coincides with martyrdom.
In studying martyrdom, I was going back to Perpetua and Felicity, and Polykarp; to try to pull the theological core out of the accounts of the early Christian Martyrs. Martyrdom is so misunderstood and brings up so many connotations in people’s heads – a lot of the arguments that I got about this was from someone’s perceptions of martyrdom after 10 years of Islamophobia. In the West, there’s a lot of resistance to assuming self-sacrifice. The theoretical side of it that I’ve been looking into takes up the work of the Palestinian-Chilean philosopher Rodrigo Karmy Bolton.²⁶ People should check him out, he’s really dope. He comes out of the 2019 uprising, and he’s a scholar of medieval Islamic thought. He does a lot of stuff on Avicenna. He wrote a great article on martyrdom and he takes up the project that I want to take up, which is how to think of martyrdom in a way that’s not fully sacrificial, but also we need to go past the hedonism of ‘68. Bolton explains that the martyr is someone who’s totally immersed in revolt.
Anyone who’s participated in a revolt knows that in an uprising historical time stops. Linear time gets broken up. Bolton argues that the martyr becomes unwilling and unable to conceive of the ramifications of their actions outside of that insurrectionary moment. Time is so jarred by the uprising that that person can only conceive of what’s going on within the moment itself. Things like their physical, psychological, financial well-being, all the things that the status quo tells us are important, all become worthless to them, because they can’t see outside that revolutionary moment, that insurrectionary moment. This is the theoretical underpinning to that Pasolini slogan – well, it’s a civil rights slogan that Pasolini loved: “You have to throw your body into the struggle.” You have to give everything, you immerse yourself in the struggle. To quote Karmy, he says that, “In daring to revolt, the risking of one’s life or one’s own person on the incalculable intensity of insurrection implies forging a link between the mythic and the political, the eternity of an immobile time and the contingency of history.”²⁷ He gives us a way to understand, to rigorously account for the old saying that martyrdom is a gift. You surrender a life that’s plagued by injustice, or a bare life, for something immeasurably greater or more valuable. For good, for humanity. And it’s a change of the self.
When I was writing “How It Might Should Be Done,” I ended by speaking of these kinds of historical wrongs that need to be righted. The revenge for the dead, and the dead of the struggle, but also the dead who never had a moment of freedom. And what I wanted to say here now and to end this off, is that when we heed their screams for vengeance, we also fulfill ourselves. It’s a two-fold thing. It’s not just fully sacrificial. To partake in their struggles is to partake in that eternal life that they’ve created. So finally allowing the dead to rest is the only way we can put our own souls at ease.