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Makepeace Sitlhou’s report, in this issue of The Baffler, on the agonies of Bengali Muslim Abubakkar Siddique, finds the worker stripped bare by his rulers, cast into statelessness and monitored by militant immigration enforcers in Assam, India. Sitlhou writes that in more than one-fourth of cases like Siddique’s, where proof of citizenship through records was produced, the Border Police booked the person anyway, citing the “illegibility” of names written on voting rolls. Siddique can show his voting card and record of attendance at court, to which the state can always respond: it’s your word against ours, but we can’t hear you, and no one can read your name. Whose names are legible in America’s so-called democracy? Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is what Siddique is not in India: a recognized person with democratic speech rights. Ironic, then, is Google’s recent firing of Blake Lemoine, an AI researcher who claims the company’s LaMDA bot is sentient because of its ability to convey emotion in language. In “Sentience and Sensibility,” Meghan O’Gieblyn reminds us that Google silences in-house critics like Lemoine while using its formidable speech power to fund groups that lobby for conservative Supreme Court justices. It’s a foundational neoliberal scheme: corporate personhood leads to the elimination of a non-corporate person’s rights—for example, the right of anyone to have an abortion. Both parties are implicated, if you’re checking boxes ahead of an election. For its part, the Democratic Party, Dave Denison writes in “The Democracy,” evolved from an organism that can’t hear itself into a New Democrat cyborg that listens only to the market. “The so-called New Democrats believed they could use market-based approaches that would create ‘win-win’ policies,” Denison writes. “They would do it by harnessing the power of credit.” Bankers would help solve poverty and inequality. Credit became the signal and democracy the noise. But while the Democratic Party followed the market, a proto-Trumpist faction grew stronger under the guidance of the “emblematic intellectual of the twenty-first-century American right,” explains Daniel Luban in his essay about the late writer and scholar Angelo Codevilla. The noise of democratic deliberation has grown louder, in the aftermath of the New Democrats, with the frustration and exhaustion that leads to radical politics. Austin McCoy’s “After Floyd,” which documents attempts to organize before and after the police murder of George Floyd, finds the author pushed further into abolitionism, not away from it, by the “insult” of an “entrenched power structure that is resistant to basic democratic dialogue and negotiation.” In Bryce Covert’s “We Mean Nothing to the Company,” Starbucks updates its legal tactics with “the worst excesses of their accumulated authoritarian power” against growing union membership. One of the company’s tricks is familiar: fire an organizer with good attendance by stating, without evidence, that they never showed up for work. No one can hear you, and we can’t read your name on the list. Jake Bittle chronicles a similarly frustrating tale in the face of climate change, wherein “decarbonizing the power grid on the timeline that scientists have agreed is necessary will require facing up to a fundamental paradox of climate action in our idiosyncratic democracy.” How do we address the people if the people won’t acknowledge our collective reality? Jules Gill-Peterson has these rights and this speech in mind with “Doctors Who?,” a history of DIY transition that doubles as a political lesson from trans feminism. “You can steal your body back from the state,” Gill-Peterson writes. “DIY treats legitimacy as arising from the people.” Here democracy is treated not as a form of government, or the fair election of a certain political party, but as an action. It’s the rejection of the authority, the taking of the list, the signal breaking through the noise, and the realization of an equalizing power that can’t be given away, even by the enemies of the many who claim they cannot hear or read the names.

The front cover of the magazine. It features a tissue box with a colorful bouquet of flowers coming out of it.

Forty-five years ago, the radical historian of science and technology David F. Noble observed a consistent pattern in modern American life: “Each major scientific advance, while appearing to presage an entirely new society, attests rather to the vigor and resilience of the old order that produced it.” Those words were written on the cusp of the personal computer revolution, which led to our dismally networked society of consumer-citizens addicted to disinformation and  content-trash injected into our brain stems by powerful, pocket-sized devices, on hand at all times. Rather than delivering, in Noble’s words, on the “escalating promise of technological transcendence,” the twin forces of scientific technology and corporate capitalism gave rise to global behemoths—Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon—that reproduced the same “corporate monopolization of technological intelligence” that marked the industrial age. We’re living in what Noble described in America By Design as “a remarkably dynamic society that goes nowhere.” Can anyone possibly believe that this time, it’ll be different? Apparently so. For Baffler no. 64, “Reality Minus,” our writers find enthusiasts for all the latest varieties of technological utopianism. Virtual reality? Life in the metaverse? As Jeffrey Sconce notes, you will be expected to participate in this brave new world, and to like it. “For those who can pay, Club Zuck may well offer a few hours of diverting yet ultimately sad grinding in a hallucinated discotheque,” Sconce forecasts. Yet, how dispiriting to see “the human species continue to run away from itself, draining more and more enchantment from the real world just to prop up commodified fantasies of disembodied contentment in places that do not actually exist.” But what about fantasy and fun? Lyta Gold recalls the holodecks on Star Trek as a model for high-tech, anything-goes escape. But in “No Sex for You,” she explains that in Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta-branded metaverse, sexual freedom will be way too complicated for designers to manage. The leisure activities Zuck’s envisioned for his virtual world are almost unbearably wholesome: “a child’s idea of utopia.” That kind of arrested development distinguishes so many visionary tycoons leading us against our wishes into their idea of the future. Jacob Silverman zeroes in on the leading contender to become the new Brat-King of Twitter. Elon Musk might or might not end up owning his shiny toy, but in proposing to sink billions into a platform for short-form bloviating—a company that Musk uses to juice Tesla’s stock price but that for the most part creates nothing of value—one begins to wonder about the idea of wealth without worth. Noah Kulwin sees parallels between the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s and today’s cryptocurrency schemes. But at least the S&Ls helped people finance homes. Kulwin writes that in the world of cryptocurrencies, “it’s waste all the way down.” Artificial intelligence, rule-by-algorithm, augmented reality . . . it’s not all in the distant future. As Lizzie O’Shea explains, it’s happening now, and these systems “provide cover to governments that prefer to spend money on technology-as-magic rather than grapple with social inequality and dysfunction.” Hannah Zeavin zooms in on algorithmic wizardry—specifically “affective computing,” wherein the already-booming AI industry births “surrogate humans,” bolstering “a fantasy of a future free of reproduction via reproduction, where the fear that automata will replace us is turned to a utopian dream of incorporation.” However they function, the message is the same: AI babies opt in so that humans can opt out. It’s a natural human urge to invent new tools, of course. But for an example of how out of whack the corporate-driven technology market is, take a look at Laura Mauldin’s report on how people who depend on tech to get through the day—disabled people—are ill-served by both the public and private sector, especially in housing and health care. In the face of state and market failures, “caregivers and disabled people are left to crowdsource improvised hacks to navigate a world indifferent—if not outright hostile—to their actual needs and desires.” For Black Americans, there is a similar problem. We now live in a relentlessly data-collecting society. Historians of the Black experience go back to the archives, though, and find information about property transactions and little about the human experiences of those who were denied their humanity. Data has always been a political tool. Shamira Ibrahim considers current efforts at “undisciplining data,” a necessary part of reanimating Black lives, and connects that concern to the ways modern data-collection and surveillance can deny the humanity, and human aspirations, of those on the margins. Meanwhile, we never escape the celebration of the dynamic entrepreneur with a Big Idea. Nicholas Russell details Tony Hsieh’s attempts to remake downtown Las Vegas, once known as the “Implosion Capital of the World.” Hsieh made a fortune with Zappos, the online shoe retailer, and then became a self-appointed visionary of urban renewal. “He thought he could transform a city that’s perpetually in flux but utterly disinterested in genuine change,” Russell reports. Many of Hsieh’s plans were assumed to be “eco-friendly,” as is often the case with publicity-savvy business elites these days. They are ever in search of remedies that can be sold as wins for the environment but that are also “market friendly.” Finn West examines the idea of trading carbon credits in the global marketplace. Thus, Shell imagines itself becoming a “net-zero emissions energy business” by 2050—not by producing less oil and petrochemicals but by getting credits—for example, by planting more trees—that offset their emissions. It’s been a popular idea among polluters, supposedly “green” think tanks, and state regulators. Yet West argues that halting the increase in emissions doesn’t equate with reducing total emissions, which is what the climate emergency requires.  So much of what goes on in tech solutionism is, well, bananas. Which brings us back to the crypto craze. In a rollicking account of a recent road trip, Jasper Craven tells of crossing the highways of America in a rented truck hauling a lifesize Harambe gorilla statue, all for the purpose of setting up Harambe while dumping a load of bananas in front of Facebook’s headquarters. Why? An upstart company with a “crypto-fueled metaverse” business plan saw the opportunity for a publicity stunt they hoped would go viral. Craven admits that his initial reaction to the business plan was that “most start-ups seem to be solving problems that don’t exist.” The trip itself solved a problem for him, though: he was paid $5,000, and in cash, not crypto.  America has always been rife with pyramid schemes and scams. Elias Rodriques and Clinton Williamson show that sometimes the scammers are small-timers and sometimes they’re big businesses. Every technology brings new scamming techniques: the telephone did and so did the internet. Scams and “the confidence man” make for good stories; Herman Melville knew that. Still, Rodrigues and Williamson observe, “the scam genre tends toward the myopic, getting us to fixate on the wrong object. It insists that the confidence trick is an aberration rather than the norm.”  David Noble saw in our history of technology a pattern of “change without change.” That’s another way of saying that we are devoted to “innovations” nobody needs while we get nowhere, as Jeffrey Sconce puts it, in making “the decidedly non-Meta lives of most humans slightly less awful for the limited time we each have on this ridiculous planet.”

Art for no. 64—Reality Minus.

JOHN DOS PASSOS wrote that the radical critic Randolph Bourne—“this little sparrowlike man”—“put a pebble in his sling and hit Goliath in the forehead with it. War, he wrote, is the health of the state.” In the spirit of Bourne’s “unscared ghost” (JDP again), we offer a slightly more prosaic riff to convey our motivating ire in Baffler no. 63: division among workers is the health of the capitalist class. The techniques of division mutate like a virus. In battles over unionization, the powerful spend millions on smarmy union-busting lawyers. In politics, the majordomos of the ruling class rely on old-fashioned racism, tweaking the formula a little this way against immigrants or a little that way by ginning up fears of any kind of “otherness.” Always, the idea is that one worker is not like the other. Don’t say proletarian. Don’t even call yourself working-class. The American habit is to pretend most of us are in the middle, while the unfortunates are the poor. And the rich? They’re to be envied. As Shamira Ibrahim notes in “Redefining the Working Class,” there are a lot of poor people in the working class, often with multiple jobs. They are just as likely to wear hairnets as hard hats. The working class has been defined by scholars in many different ways—by income level, education level, by kinds of jobs. Any way you slice it, the majority of those employed in the United States would qualify. And crucially, as Ibrahim reports, we’re not far off from the point where the majority of the working class will be non-white. You wouldn’t know that by reading most mainstream political coverage, where explaining the voting patterns of the working class is limited to interviewing white guys in the Midwest. Molly Osberg zeroes in on Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as a modern-day union buster with “a weakness for sentimental messaging,” even as the company he says is devoted to “social responsibility” retains a thirty-lawyer team at a notorious anti-union firm. As Osberg shows, the Starbucks suits are hard at work telling baristas “we’re all in this together” while using the old tricks and plenty of new ones to divide their employees. One executive warned that a unionization drive could jeopardize the free Spotify subscriptions the company offers. Another old trick: a status-obsessed culture tells workers that some jobs are superior to others. The slogan “sex work is work” is meant to contest that notion, and to that, end, Benjamin Weil considers how digital platforms such as OnlyFans have transformed porn’s gig economy, for better and for worse. Meanwhile, Robert Iulo and Ilya Gridneff write on the forces arrayed against those in risqué businesses in Rudy Giuliani’s New York and present-day Amsterdam, where cities cordon off illicit activities and shape neighborhoods around the needs of capital.  Meanwhile, Dan Albert sorts through the messy politics of transit in the United States and finds that a functioning car is often a necessity for a working person. Jérôme Tubiana explains how migrants in sub-Saharan Africa make easy prey for jihadi recruiters, who prey on cash-strapped young men to wage war. And Max Nelson reads the work of Brigette Reimann, an East-German writer who, like her peers, searched for objective truth—and, in her diaries, “gives up on finding it and throws herself into the judgment of an unknowable future.” Anxious to maintain their status, the powerful refashion radicals and agitators as quacks, Willis McCumber discovers while paging through the literature written about John Brown. And Charlie Lee laments how the novels of Halldór Laxness have been “retooled as chronicles of heroic self-reliance” when they are, in reality, tales of mutual dependence.  Which is just what we need when mere survival is criminalized. Alessandra Bergamin takes us into the world of land defenders resisting the palm oil industry in Guatemala, while Joe Purtell spends time with the least respected of all workers—those cast out onto the street. Purtell’s dispatch highlights an Oakland encampment fighting for the right to exist and the resources to survive. So, take aim at Goliath, and hit him in the forehead. Let your solidarity be the bosses’ infirmity.

Art for no. 63—Proletarians.

“Our literary elites may all come from the same expensive institutions,” Jessa Crispin writes in issue 62 of The Baffler, “but they are all working stiffs in their own minds, pretending to feel solidarity with the working classes.” Those literary elites, she writes, have helped flatten contemporary literature into a few “dead zones incapable of innovation . . . How does one expect to find something wild in a plot of feed crops constantly doused with herbicides?”  Meanwhile, the titans of multinational corporations scaffold their shitty politics with precepts ripped from shitty novels. Politicians, oligarchs, sextons, and janitors routinely junk fictions for parts in order to get things done. Thankfully, the writers in this issue are first readers who approach a fiction, or even literature itself, as a collection of scenes of instruction. Lucy Ellmann, in “My Study Hates Your Study,” compares literature (and art more broadly) to a “last wilderness” unspoiled by science and technology; for his part, Nathan Shields recounts the century-long winnowing by which classical composers became just another set of entrepreneurs hawking personal brands. Lucy Ives, writing about the fiction of Dodie Bellamy, follows the nonexistence of the clitoris in fiction to a startling revelation on the mirror-like emptiness of sex. Wen Stephenson links the scandal scenes of Dostoevsky to a moment of profound domestic horror in his own life. Other writers approach political rationales as fictions (and not merely as falsehoods). As Sophie Pinkham reminds us in her essay on Ukrainian writer Yevgenia Belorusets, “This is a moment when facts are both utterly compromised and vastly overvalued—asked to do all the work of politics, to justify whole worldviews with single data points.” Writing about the grave history of human contagion, Ben Ehrenreich explains that the science surrounding aerosol transmission was never “a noble crusade against superstition, as modernist mythmaking would have it, but a political struggle.” Maxwell Burkey unwinds the civil religion of postwar American patriotism, finding a literary genre with its own Christs and perennial left-wing devils. Lisabeth During, perusing Jacqueline Rose’s writing on male violence, asks, “Do you need to be above or beyond violence to deliver judgment on it? And if you are above it, how on earth can you understand it?” Sophie Lewis, in our opening salvo, takes to task a historical feminism whose exclusionary fiction of womanhood has made very real ways of living “impossible to knit into the story.” While the powers that be stop to lick their pencils, taking more cues from lousy science fiction writers as they pen these political rationales, Christopher Urban turns instead to the astronauts and academics (not to mention the vampires) that populate Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, which provides “a critique of the kinds of bourgeois literary fiction unwittingly produced today to maintain the status quo.” Will Burns finds both communion and transgression in the literature of the English pub. And Michael Hofmann surveys the career of Bei Dao, whose poems “stare back at the reader, unflinchingly, confrontingly. One can feel the energy that has gone into their making, the hard masking-tape edges, the chips and curds of unmixed color applied with a palette knife. There is no empty space, no wash, no contextualizing, no aspic. No throat-clearing, no storytelling, little paraphrasable content.” We’ll take it—and let the literary elites keep to their light reading.

Art for no. 62—Political Fictions.

World leaders are searching for a resolution to the eight-billion-body problem. Eric Dean Wilson reports that ministers gathered at COP26 for “The Shitshow in Glasgow,” where, sipping tequila and vodka, they committed to ignoring the climate crisis despite significant cost outlays. Jessica Fletcher writes of dilapidated parks and unused public spaces in New York City, which reflect the broken social hopes of the city’s past urban designers. Kevin Rogan surveys the damage wrought by landlords, Amazon, and the real estate monopoly Vornado across Manhattan. Meanwhile, in other horrifying non-places, Jonathan Katz reports that the American government upholds its tradition of renditioning its presumed enemies to the crippling darkness of its global black sites; John Washington describes the space left behind by victims of forced disappearance around the world; Kit Duckworth tells of nuns in Tuscan convents penetrating the mysteries of religion; Daniel Fernandez prods liberals’ reformist delusions about the classrooms inside America’s prisons; and Patrick McGinty describes a nebulous cult of “cryptopians” that worships at the altar of the blockchain and prays to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, now the world’s richest man, who’s got his sights set on the colonization of Mars. After a three-hour tour of the cosmos, Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos, previously the world’s richest man, openly declares class war on earth, thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this.” In “Dawn of the Space Lords,” Corey Pein describes such jaunts as characterizing a new era of “blown deadlines and spectacular failures” in the space race. Astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein skewers these undemocratic pretensions in “Becoming Martian,” and considers, by way of the history of transatlantic slavery, which futures of space travel are preferable or even plausible. What isn’t plausible? Kyle Paoletta, inspects the spectacular claims of former Harvard professor Avi Loeb, who has spent four years trying to convince readers that the strange artifact called ‘Oumuamua is alien technology fueled by light from the sun. And Matthew King wonders whether this new space age will lift off at all, what with the ever-growing rings of junk clogging earth’s orbital lanes. “The brave new world unfolding before our eyes is no endless frontier of renewed exploration,” King writes, “but an uncontrolled experiment of epic proportions.” Issue 61 of The Baffler is a “Space Opera” in two acts. For the intermission, we’re thrilled to present a new work of fiction by Samuel Delany.

Cover of issue no. 61
 January 2022

IF YOU’RE FEELING FRACKED, maybe it’s time to make the Great Resignation work for you. In August, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.3 million people left their jobs, the highest quit rate they’ve yet recorded. A March 2021 survey indicated that 41 percent of employees worldwide have considered resigning this year already; another survey, also published in March, reported that more than half of American workers are realizing they’re burned out on the job. Whether the “pandemic epiphanies” of newly existentialist workers will last is debated on television, but we know for sure one of those surveys was published by Microsoft, and the other by the job platform Indeed. At last the cycle of being tired all the time reveals its shape: the exhaustion we feel because of our jobs is being monitored and extracted, as data, by the transnational corporations that monitor and extract our work, which exhausts us. In “The Squandering Earth,” issue no. 60 of The Baffler, we cast aspersions on the accumulation-crazed multinationals ransacking the planet for profit, making us all feel like used-up bottles of stuff while they amass exponentially more indestructible bottles of stuff. This waste-producing apparatus is vast, Ajay Singh Chaudhary writes in “The Extractive Circuit,” “the leaden reality of a global human ecological niche organized for maximal profitability—no matter how difficult or costly to maintain.” This circuit, he stresses, “is not a metaphor,” but an accelerating systems-crash that steals time and resources from zones of least resistance, like fragile habitats. One such zone, Zachariah Webb writes in “Dead Pools,” is the state of Arizona, which has achieved almost total dehydration in a global scheme with no prospects for reform. Another is Sudan, where drought, famine, and civil war project a future of stark nomadism, Jérôme Tubiana reports. And as Bryce Covert explains in her survey of the United States’ frayed infrastructure for distributing pandemic relief, stopping this systems-crash will require a jolt to our political imagination. At other nodes along the circuit: Dave Denison follows the trail of his own recycling to the overwhelming realization that single-use plastic production will soon swamp the habitable world; Allyson Paty documents her waste stream against the “environmental ouroboros” of liberal individualist ethics; and Samuel Stein surveys the ultra-skinny high-rises and other towers of waste that now sprawl upward in our cities like accusing fingers pointed at god. In conditions of total extraction, culture is mined like anything else. Rich Woodall writes accordingly about copyright in a music industry dominated by three major labels, and other investment groups, that strip catalogs and even songs themselves for sellable parts. In “Beckett on the Richter Scale,” Marco Roth looks at the work of Evan Dara, an anonymous novelist whose intensifying fantasies of disaster seem to draw mysteriously from disparate communities. And, mercifully, J.W. McCormack’s “Mr. Garbage” finds hope in the fiction of Donald Barthelme, whose “junkman aesthetic allowed him to regulate the temperature in his model worlds and reframe their parameters accordingly.” Node, zone, worker, consumer, or resource: we’ll have to do some regulating to overcome this fatigue and ask, as Chaudhary does, “How has this level of degradation become so acceptable?”

Art for no. 60—The Squandering Earth.

Don’t look now. Contemporary liberals are summoning an omnium gatherum of dead words and outdated textbooks, dredging up confused accounts of Enlightenment rationality that tend to mutate into smug but underfunded mandates to “believe in science!” and calling everything from Bernie Sanders’s speeches to January’s Capitol riot to the global profusion of Black Lives Matter protests “illiberal,” an insult so circular it’s almost vicious. With the election of Joe Biden, this liberal consensus found its politics ascendant—we’re a long way away from the illiberal summer of 2020. But what to do with all this power so over-theorized and underused by the solutions-free left? By this time they’d lost sight of, or confusedly tried to befriend, their enemies on the right, though the latter continued to grow less and less subtle, as we see in the Trumpification, even now, of liberal pets like J.D. Vance. No, at the climax, liberals got sweaty and confused, “trapped at the stage of analysis,” as David Berman once wrote, “unable to perform some simple task,” like canceling student loan debt. By its own diagnosis, liberalism was ill. It needed to be “rehabilitated.” In issue no. 59 of The Baffler, “ILL LIBERALISM,” we’ll not do that. Instead we anatomize liberalism’s self-diagnosed illnesses, from its preoccupation with the post-Enlightenment idea that “history will judge us,” a way of deflecting responsibility for real-time justice in the case of atrocity; to the way it twists international consensus on nuclear deterrence, leaving nations saddled with terrifying weapons that have been used “repeatedly across the years to threaten and to dominate, though not always successfully”—and one expert’s prescription for “possibly the only non-destructive way out of the double bind of arms races.” Then there’s the nearly forgotten history of “corporate liberalism,” which might help explain why liberals today love to align themselves with progressive causes in order to latch onto and temper the forces of populism, democratic socialism, and antitrust policy, among others. Liberalism has always been, we argue, the politics of business—all the way back to slavery. And the business of liberalism is making everyone, including liberals, sick.

Screaming and crying blob creatures are stacked on one another in a huge pile.
 September 2021

Last year we learned that an unspecified number of computer networks affiliated with the American government were compromised—maybe still are—by Russian actors. Not long ago, an oil pipeline supplying the East Coast was successfully targeted in a ransomware scheme. Earlier this week the New York Times posted a test article that described watermelons found on Mars; this non-news was an echo of real news we heard last year about possible microbes living in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, too, the epistemic weather is inclement. Possibly the most storm-damaged truth claim of all is the one that promises market exchange can provide a stable foundation for democratic life. It’s this dying rumor of liberalism that Tope Folarin considers in “Masters of Reality,” the opening essay of this fifty-eighth issue of the magazine, where the childhood memory of a transaction gone wrong hints at the white arrangement of truth. In very much the same spirit, Tarence Ray’s “United in Rage” has in its sights the web of myths that’s pushed the opioid crisis in eastern Kentucky, a region plagued by the kind of transactional logic that has offered the poor not the truth but rather another means to die. Their mortal remains are often subject to yet more bureaucratic dealing, as we hear in Wendy Selene Pérez’s “Letter From Texas,” a story of migration, debt, and a family’s struggle to repatriate a loved one’s ashes to Mexico at the pandemic’s height. Mohammad Ali, meanwhile, writes of his experience reporting on Hindu vigilantes in Modi’s India, where a “fringe” ideology has now become a constant threat to the country’s Muslim population and journalism’s “conventions of self-effacement and objectivity” are little match for the grief and fear endured by Muslim reporters. Famous men, in these conditions, act mysteriously, or much worse. In Hussein Omar’s survey of Edward Said’s career, we see how a charismatic public intellectual can easily become a cipher for a biographer’s ideas about what matters. New York mayoral also-ran Andrew Yang, in Matthew Shen Goodman’s analysis, likewise loses himself to competing truths, in this case about the political market-value of Asian American life. Madison Mainwaring dissects the horrors of ongoing sexual abuse in elite French cultural institutions, where men become rumors to evade detection, responsibility, and prosecution.  We don’t know how to cut through this electrofog—to find what David Hume called “the secret connexion” that explains why one event follows another. But we suspect whatever works will keep to the light of Jess McAllen’s “The Anti-Antidepressant Syndicate,” which uncovers Marxists and Scientologists alike in its effort to get to the bottom (or the top) of the anti-psychiatry debate. Or Evan Malmgren’s strange trip into the Quiet Zone of those living in fear of 5G. Or Marlowe Granados’s defense of the bimbo—a figure in pop culture who is always beset by nasty rumors. Or J.W. McCormack and John Semley’s inquiries into the fiction of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, respectively, or new fiction from Alexandra Kleeman—all consulted or presented here, but never made into an instrument, a smokescreen, or even a rumor.

Baffler Issue 58 Cover

Baffler no. 57 takes its title, “Movements and Campaigns,” from Richard Rorty in Dissent. Is it better, his question went, to complete discrete projects in solidarity with individual interest groups, or to focus our energies on “building a movement”? In other words, how do we pick up the pieces and prevent the current global disaster from being used to further exploit us? And how do we make sure that we get what we need to survive the next one? Looking to the last century, George Scialabba cracked open Louis Menand’s new history of art and thought during the Cold War, an important work that nonetheless misses its chance at a cohesive understanding of the era’s driving political concerns (in favor of electing Menand’s own dubious pantheon of culture-heroes). William Giraldi gets in a quick word for literary obsession. “Say what you will about obsessives,” he writes, “but they know suffering, and they know suffering because they know sacrifice, and they also know sacrifice’s confederate devotion.” Britt Stigler takes a pragmatic view of high art in her consideration of the harm done to workers in American ballet. The work, she asserts, is no less physically punishing for the devotion of its practitioners, and the way out, if there is one, is in robust support of the arts and good old-fashioned organizing. Across the world, Alizeh Kohari reports on the labor struggle of a Pakistani fishing community. And those campaigns? Well, recently they’ve left a lot to be desired. Exhibit artist Lucas Sharp, once a member of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s design team, autopsies that ill-fated branding exercise and calls upon artists and designers to more clearly draw the line between commerce and participatory democracy. But answers to our questions aren’t much more likely be found in the larger-than-expected decaying particle lumps of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the spectacular collapse of which is covered at length in Brendan O’Connor’s “When the Party’s Over.” More politically promising are the subjects of essays, in this issue, by Olúfęmi Táíwò on the surprising power of ostensibly failed political actions in both Kenya and Ireland; Keisha Blain on black women in the United States as “key political actors, working to obtain justice for their loved ones and also attempting to change the nature of policing in this country”; and Simon Balto on the legacy of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Taken broadly and variously, they form a spectrum of resistance—from Black Marxism (or Marxist-Leninism) to more pragmatic varieties of black activism. Just as importantly, they offer a way of thinking about the “morality of risk” that underwrites all communities that look after their weakest members. How do we get people to stick their necks out for one another, even when they don’t have to? In the pandemic, Sarah Jaffe sees her way to a world in which that kind of care, exemplified by the black women activists of the Welfare Rights movement, is supported and compensated as all work should be. “We remain cut off from so many radical imaginings of ways we might arrange ourselves to safely share caring responsibilities,” she writes. “But this could always have been otherwise, and this moment of obvious breakdown ought to inspire us to dream differently once again.”

Art for no. 57—Movements and Campaigns.

A public sphere drunk for years on Trumpism and anti-Trumpism has meant a lack of attention paid to everything else. In Baffler no. 56, our writers mine borderlands and boxing rings, national forests and MFA programs, to ask the questions omitted by our emaciated public sphere. For one: What about counterpublics? Issue 56, “The Counterpublic Option,” is an alternative made up of alternatives to the berserk Trump years and the frothing liberal malaise. In “The Judgment of Paris,” Lizzie O’Shea finds, in the counterpublic principles of the Paris Commune, which she contrasts with the inegalitarian mania of Facebook, ideas and policies that may help us avoid content nausea. Barry Yeoman, in “Battle Hymns of the Old South,” visits Graham, North Carolina, where “activists of different races and generations [are] building a superstructure larger than their individual organizations” and thereby challenging the mutations of neo-Confederacy sprouting in the South. Dan Royles likewise considers an overlooked counterpublic of the American South when he recounts the life-saving AIDS activism of Black gay men in Atlanta and elsewhere. In the same vein, exhibit artist GenderFail contributes typefaces in homage to the historic STAR and ACT UP movements and the activists of today’s “Say Their Name,” memorializing black Americans murdered by police in an act of cross-group solidarity. And Lina Mounzer, in “Going Beyond the Veil,” raises her objections against ‘aib, a Lebanese euphemism for the regime of shaming that places women in an impossible public and private bind. Looking to our shared ecological world, Sami Emory questions the fate of German forests “co-opted by artists, historians, Nazis, politicians across the spectrum, and scientists.” Here to add not much at all to the conversation are the renegade idiots of Silicon Valley, whose more recent intellectual pursuits have shown us, Aaron Timms writes, what happens when the counterpublic impulse goes strangely and stupidly wrong. The culture trust incubates its own particular stupidities, as Kyle Paoletta demonstrates in his essay on the craft advice of writer George Saunders, which seems “less like a creative endeavor than assembling flat-packed IKEA furniture,” and the homogeneity of contemporary MFA fiction. Meanwhile, Nathan Goldman and Cristina Rivera Garza find the counterpublic project explored and tested in the work of Guido Morselli and Gloria Anzaldúa, and Irish writer Declan Ryan writes about family, class, and boxing, a sport that has a foothold wherever deprivation can be found. Not all counterpublics, it turns out, are created with the same pretensions to equality.

Baffler Issue 56 cover

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, is more like an Uber driver than a salaried employee. And his rates, in the Covid era, are surging. Now our desperate video chats with the hospitalized dying are coins in their mouths—the psychopomp’s fare. Our wits crazed with grief, we still have to find a way to survive this depression and Depression, to make ends meet. This issue of The Baffler, no. 55, has arrived too soon—it is too soon to take a full accounting of those who are gone. But the waves of the dead are arriving on the shores of the underworld, and someone has to balance the books. We can be thankful that the dead, at times, leave instructions. In Debra Levine’s “You are Witness to a Crime,” the life of ACT UP activist and artist Ray Navarro is revisited with militancy, and his memory serves to remind us of Mark Lowe Fisher’s injunction to “bury me furiously”—to pay Charon’s fare with political might and rage aimed at those with the titles to govern but not the decency. If there are parallels and non-parallels between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19, they are to be found in Levine’s writing, as well as in the efforts of our exhibition artist and essayist Ann Cvetkovich, who gathers the life-work of gay artist Robert Lynch into what she calls an “archive of feelings.” Hai Dang Phan, meanwhile, studies the photography of An-My Lê, much of it concerned with curious American reenactments of the Vietnam War, whose history is personal for the photographer. “In Lê’s silent American scenes,” Phan discovers, “the work of mourning is ongoing—as is the work of cultivation and recreation, protest and celebration.” Elsewhere, Bongani Kona excavates the bloody years of Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga and “the ambient, hushed-up violence that lingered on long after the war.”  Ben Ehrenreich laments the death of the state of California, razed this year by fires, where the “Anglo-European settlement of the Americas came up against the hard edge of the continent. This is where the conquest ended, and where it bounces back.” Hanif Abdurraqib weighs a tentative political hope against a surfeit of grief in a year of tumultuous organizing. Emily Harnett provides an account of those who claim to have glimpsed paradise before being ferried back to this purgatorial Earth. And Jess Bergman reckons with her own experience of death in order to undermine the prevailing story about our incoming president—that in this time of Depression and mourning, he is the grief-stricken governor we need. Biden’s sophistic project, it turns out, is the opposite of ours: he intends to strip-mine Hades in order to waylay socialism in the living world. What can we glean from a look back at America’s first Great Depression—and its last socialist putsch? The striking taxi drivers of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty might give us much to hope for and much to grieve, according to Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein’s account of workers’ perennial struggle for control of their unions. Wen Stephenson, for his part, finds a model in Stud’s Terkel’s oral history of that period, Hard Times. “No doubt the word “solidarity” has been worn out,” he writes, “overused to the point of abuse, but I don’t know a better one for what I’m seeking—and for what seems so needed now, at a time of national, global, and for so many, personal crisis. It’s hard to see a way forward without it.” In the realm of cultural decay, A.S. Hamrah watches the documentaries he’s been saving to watch at home all through a year without movie theaters. Adrian Nathan West and Matthew McKnight offer twin essays on the American novelists Gary Indiana and Percival Everett, in whose works low, dishonest characters are subjected to the putrefying gaze of televised true-crime drama and “the churn of racialized capitalism.” The hustlers and tricksters who populate their novels can’t be blamed for trying to wriggle out of such easy judgment: “in the end, people are unscrupulous, and it is no surprise they do unscrupulous things.” On the other hand, there’s no cheating a psychopomp.

Art for no. 55—Psychopomp.
 January 2021

The spine of the international liberal order is the global supply chain, a magical formulation that is meant to make us believe capitalism has an organized nervous system we can study. The supply chain is written about and thought about as an organic structure shaped by the markets and supported by reasonable states and leaders who appreciate the balance between competition and cooperation. In recent years, much of the content of liberal newspapers like the Financial Times has been devoted to news and analysis and commentary that implicitly calls for the maintenance of the supply chain and its tributaries through investment and multilateral agreements. The promise of Biden is a return to the efficient production and distribution of goods and services along this chain, and so to the jaunt of progress. It’s not so much that the supply chain isn’t real—it’s just the aggregate processes of production throughout the world. The problem is that Covid-19 should have wrecked this myth for anyone who still believed in it. The uneven distribution of Covid death among the poor and the marginal in these countries, far from explaining this away, merely proves that the smoothest operators of global capitalism are nations with rotten underbellies—those that have found a way to hide the violence that surfaces against workers at the nodes of global production. This month, a joint study from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the excessive Covid-19 mortality rate in the United States “may have been a result of several factors, including weak public health infrastructure and a decentralized, inconsistent US response to the pandemic.” The “inconsistent response” could be chalked up to malfeasance on the part of the Trump administration, but decentralization is largely about the unmapped and unregulated U.S. supply chain and the ideological unwillingness of those in power to use it to save lives. It’s a position that is every bit as liberal as it is Trumpian. The essays in this issue of The Baffler, which we’re calling “ReGlobalization,” are not set moralistically against American domestic controversies of the sort weirdly churned out during presidential elections. But taken together, they do acknowledge, as David Bromwich argues in Writing Politics, that “the idea of a good or tolerable society now encompasses relations between people at the widest imaginable distance apart.” And their response, if we may speak for them, is “no shit.”

Art for no. 54—ReGlobalization.
 November 2020