The Amazon Drama

Anatomy of a skirmish

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On November 13, 2018, it was announced with great fanfare that Amazon—one of the world’s most valuable publicly traded corporations—would be putting one of its two new headquarters in Long Island City, the western edge of the New York City borough of Queens. It was presented as all but a fait accompli. A massive raft of city and state tax breaks and NDA-protected deals to avoid and circumvent local oversight and regulation had been procured. The usually quarrelsome Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo were suddenly able to come together in common cause. Representative institutions (like the City Council) had been circumvented, and all that remained, legally speaking, were a few surmountable roadblocks. A mere three months later, however, on February 14, 2019, the deal was no more. Amazon withdrew.

The Amazon HQ2 story is a microcosm of twenty-first century capitalism and a parable about the changing nature of politics for the left. The stakes are nothing less than the habitability of a global human ecological niche, and the necessary flourishing of some seven plus billion people within it. Put simply, as I have argued in more oblique terms elsewhere, Amazon, and firms like it, are incompatible with such a niche.

In this brief play, we have not the full scope of an available political response, merely a taste. And in Amazon’s exit, no war was won, merely a skirmish undertaken—Amazon was merely nicked. It felt pain for the first time. Still, I intend here to briefly sketch a live politics, its strengths, its differences from what many on the left know from the twentieth century, and its present weaknesses. Obviously, a fully detailed portrait would require hundreds of pages; what I offer instead is to help describe the stage, set some scenery props, name the players, and give the barest lineaments of how the story unfolds.

All the World System a Stage

States are less and less able to govern firms of the power and scope of Amazon, even collecting taxes in any meaningful sense; Amazon will pay $0 in federal income tax on a profit of $11.2 billion in 2018. This means regions, cities, whole countries participate in a unique twenty-first century race: Who among them can self-impose the most “structural adjustment,” become the most “business-friendly,” provide the most compliant workforce, the most complacent, controlled citizenry? New York City “won” just such a race. Once this set of conditions was reserved for the decolonizing world, imposed through institutions of global governance, and sometimes enacted by force. But the chickens have come home to roost, and now even in “the metropole”—even in the still vital imperial centers like the United States—the force of fully unfettered capital is felt.

It is worth mentioning that these boondoggles—which appear in simpler forms as publicly financed or incentivized stadium constructions, for example—rarely pay off. In particular, the track record of new tech campuses mostly amounts to local governments scrambling for corporations to fill the very gaps where corporate power itself has denied states revenue and room to maneuver. Local populations, in other words, rarely benefit. (In this particular case, the idea that New York City is somehow lacking in potential revenue sources is farcical. New York City desperately needs public investment for public goods. Not hopeful peonage.) Where once early “competitive” capital depended on states to enforce contracts, coin money, establish uniform weights and measures, and so on, and “mature” capital tempered states by withholding or even threatening to withhold the investment of social surplus, twenty-first century capital is able to extract both value and political acquiescence from states like a medieval lord from a vassal—and nearly shape them according to its will.

The Amazon HQ2 story is a microcosm of twenty-first century capitalism and a parable about the changing nature of politics for the left.

Amazon, though far from alone, is almost too perfectly the avatar of such a system. It is a multinational monopoly in e-commerce (the “everything store”) as well as a web-storage/cloud computing behemoth (through Amazon Web Services), and it has considerable positions in everything from groceries to artificial intelligence. It additionally uses heavily leveraged finance to increase market share against any would-be competitor. Its structure is designed—like most modern supply chains and financialized entities—to shift risk, avoid regulation or legal compliance. And, of course, its tremendous economic power is political power as well, not only through the financing of campaigns, lobbying, and other ordinary but crucial practices in everyday American politics, but also through shaping the very environment in which “the political” reacts. To paraphrase Facebook’s old motto, it must move fast and break things, whether those things are the bodies of its warehouse workers (and “Mechanical Turks”) or states, societies, and the biosphere that surrounds them all. For his part, Jeff Bezos—the richest human being in modern history—earns reportedly just under $9 million an hour and owns The Washington Post. This wealth concentration, and the economic, cultural, and political power it portends, amounts to a robust picture of Amazon, though it’s hardly the fullest or most interesting—for that, we’d need to look at new organizations of value through data, questions of “platform capitalism,” and quite a lot more. It is, however, for the purposes of my little play, a rough accounting of the power it expresses in markets, states, and media. It would not be an exaggeration to speak of Amazon’s hegemony in any sense of the word.

From Bit Part to Ensemble Cast

In some sense Amazon is causally the “protagonist” in this tale. This can be extremely disconcerting to many Marxist thinkers who are used to thinking of class struggle as “the motor of history.” But this is a new spin on the genre. Capital—and specific formations of it—are the key organizing center. The challenge for our actual protagonists will be how to initiate, or recast, a political struggle.  

Similarly, many on the left are used to “labor” being “the subject” of history. While it would be simply an analytic error to equate existing organized labor with “the working class,” in practice this happens quite frequently, and here we must look at organized labor in particular. One of the most egregiously wrongheaded understandings of the Amazon HQ2 story is that is some kind of missed opportunity to finally “organize” Amazon. Firstly, efforts to organize Amazon continue—from warehouse worker to coder—completely independent of Amazon taking over vast swathes of New York City for itself and increasing its corporate power through better access to NYC’s corporate, finance, and telecoms infrastructure. It’s a rather bizarre argument that the boss getting exactly what they want, when and how they want it, is the path to worker power. It’s an even stranger story that the path to worker power lies through ever-increasing corporate power including over democracy itself. If Amazon’s own leaked internal conversations are to be believed, part of what drove the decision to give up on NYC was precisely the political threat that existing laws (including labor regulation) would be enforced and democratic oversight constant. The skirmish was not a missed opportunity for organizing; if Amazon had won, the kind of organizing imagined by some mainstream labor leaders would have been off the table entirely. Formal, official organized labor was to be found on both sides of the skirmish.

It’s telling, though, that the pro-Amazon labor argument envisions European Union-style regulation at best. There is a long history of the limitations of a union-only approach to politics. But I am not interested here in familiar critiques, appropriate as they may be, of labor aristocracy and non-aligned internal interests. The kind of institutionalized labor détente embodied in the EU in general and in Germany in particular is the only endgame imaginable for such a politics. Are these better regulations against the kind of practices Amazon uses in the United States? They are! But not much. In places with union militancy (for example, France) that far outstrip the United States, capital has still been able to force new, “flexible” labor regimes. Southern Europe has been forced into capitulation, time and again, and faces dire economic conditions and social crises. But even in Germany—that supposedly “strong” industrial heart of Europe, where some ideas that appear radically progressive (and indeed would be a mode of progress) in the United States, like labor representation on corporate boards, have long been institutionalized—this has not prevented domination by capital and “social decline” (as so carefully described in Oliver Nachtwey’s recent book on the subject).

A mentality (of some, if certainly not all, trade-union leaders and social democratic thinkers) predicated on negotiating material benefits from capital can never get over the hump of anything beyond direct (if, of course, vital) economic benefits. As Adam Przeworksi demonstrated in his classic Capitalism and Social Democracy, and many others similarly argued, workers and their representatives are unlikely, without a far broader, more radical movement, to opt for radical social transformation (socialism but also quite a bit less) “in an exclusive pursuit of their economic interests.” Even in the “Golden Age of Capitalism,” (for the Global North), there would come a point in which it would be in the immediate rational self-interest of some workers to prefer to keep the ship sailing (whether we’re talking about individual firms or the system as a whole), to maintain a share of the profits rather than rock the boat and risk lower wages, capital divestment, and more. But even worse for union leaders who yearn for the post-War compromise or politicians who dream of Germany’s “social market economy” is that they cannot grok that the game is increasingly zero-sum. Twenty-first century capital, desperate to keep up profitability in a “post-growth” world, neither wants or even really can make those kinds of concessions. Wages, for example, might budge up here or there, especially from their hyper-depressed levels, but wage stagnation overall is a key component of profit, structurally necessary to keep growth sputtering along. There’s no more win-win thirty glorious years to be had. The fight with the Amazons of the world is a fight to the finish.

So, who then are our players? The true protagonists in this scenario? Here is just a partial list of this cast of characters: DRUM, CAAAV, DSA, NoAmazonNYC Coalition, RWDSU, MPower Change, JFREJ, ALIGN, the Teamsters, Julia Salazar, Alessandra Biaggi, No IDC NY, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the State Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Make the Road New York, and quite a lot more. How does such an array of organizations and individuals from so many disparate directions actually end up functioning, together, as a political subject?

Let’s dismiss a few potential plotlines, however attractive they might be.

(1) Community organizations scrambled, and through direct action and public pressure alone won the day. This is not the case. Community organizations such as DRUM, Make the Road NY, CAAV, and others were a huge part of the story, but the plot is not theirs alone;

(2) Charismatic political figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have changed the lay of the land. This is not the case, either. As I will discuss below, having a foothold—a trench—within “the state” was vitally important, but in a much more complex way and beyond any one (or many) figure’s charisma, no matter how much one might personally support them;

(3) Amazon shot itself in the foot. While Amazon certainly made some heavy-handed mistakes, these were not the only openings that opposing forces were able to take advantage of.

The Scenery

Let’s untangle this little narrative knot with just a touch more stage-setting. The twenty-first century capitalism embodied and enacted by Amazon (among others) has been incredibly destabilizing, of course, and one form this destabilization takes (although we’re skipping a couple of steps) is as a rolling legitimation crisis: the manner in which the global economic system manifests locally across the world is out-of-joint with the wants, needs, and desires of the vast majority of people and incommensurate with its own stated ideals. This is true even within the narrow band of the stated objectives of neoliberal capitalism.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher jokingly called this system “market Stalinism,” although when faced with conditions like the American penal system, the decline of social conditions, and ecological crisis, the phrase becomes less wry. In the ordinary Reaganite/Thatcherite and Clintonian/Blairite manner that the Anglophone world knows it, neoliberalism promised us a world of efficiency, plenty, opportunity, abundance, and freedom. It has delivered instead a proliferation of bureaucracy, shortage, stultification, scarcity, and coercion. We have recreated nearly all the negative aspects of the old Eastern bloc—from soft budget problems to Kafkaesque bureaucracy to unsustainable resource use to our very own gulag—only, this time, it’s for the benefit of a tiny number of market actors. At the same time, traditional media power is rightly less trusted as grievance pours forth from social, economic, and ecological exhaustion. It is not surprising that on this ground mass destabilization and dissatisfaction takes root.

It is here as well that we do find a rather different recent labor militancy in the U.S., not in formally labor-“dense” centers and “labor-friendly” states, but in radical actions like those found in the teachers’ strikes that have roiled the U.S. since last year—predominantly in Republican states. And it is here that we also find—and for some time now—the general ferment for a whole host of social movements reflecting demands for broad social change far beyond the workplace.

Meanwhile, while multinational firms like Amazon are able to operate in ways unimaginable not only in the nineteenth century but even in the mid-twentieth century (see for example the discussions of firm-to-firm transnational business independent of states in Adam Tooze’s recounting of the 2008 financial crisis), they are still dependent upon states and political actors within states for everything from the exercise of coercive power over populations, to forced market activity, to military intervention, to upholding the very global governance institutions that stymie states’ popular sovereign powers. Not only has ideology become more “threadbare,” and coercion more blatant vis-à-vis populations and states, but the rule of capital—especially concentrated and as manifest by firms like Amazon—over states has become both more coercive and more direct.

Neoliberalism promised us a world of efficiency, plenty, opportunity, abundance, and freedom. It has delivered instead a proliferation of bureaucracy, shortage, stultification, scarcity, and coercion.

Ironically, this greater force—which capital needed as part of its forty-year return to profitability, which has granted capital the greatest freedom it has known in history—has made its political power more brittle. The ways in which states have been transformed and, in some sense, weakened by capital has made those same states far more (a) vulnerable to counter-hegemonic power and (b) even in weakened form, a potentially tremendous force to reign in capital. This is one of the reasons why the state of play for the left vis-à-vis existing state structures is dramatically different today than at any time in recent memory. This is of course not the same in all locations, for all formations, at all levels—but especially for those with long historical memories concerning formal political participation and state power, or about the sapping of movement power into meaningless state representation, or deep theoretical analyses of the “class character of ‘the state,’” it should be internalized that the present terrain is qualitatively different. Capital has depended on simultaneous depoliticization with continued democratic legitimacy for the past forty years. The right has always (correctly in my view) viewed democratic and decolonial state power as a fundamental threat to the freedom of capital. With a fierce return of politicization, an increasing mobilization of people through political struggle as opposed to depoliticized tacit or explicit consent to a foregone social order, a weakened state is paradoxically a powerful potential tool, and a fortification more easily breached.

So it is there—between “market Stalinism” and the political rule of macrofinancial capital—that we can finally watch as the players act out their parts of what could be called a truly global phenomenon on an extremely local stage. Only it’s over a longer scale than months. On such ever more contradictory social terrain, social movements not only organize but are able to find larger and larger constituencies pushing radical demands. To use only two examples already mentioned, organizations like DRUM or JFREJ, which long preexist this particular moment, are able to increase their membership, partners, buy-in, and visibility while increasing the radical nature of their demands. Forces like these become a “position” in the broadest part of society.

Organizers in such movements are able to build networks of at least enough trust and solidarity to mobilize when a crisis is recognized. In the end of the last remaining strands of the great labor “treaties” of the twentieth century, we find unions unsure of the new landscape. Some desperately cling to a past and a vision long since ended and others align with rising radical sentiment. Forces like these, alongside other renewing labor militancy, become a “position” in “the economy.” In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and of the rapid instantiation and dissipation of Occupy Wall Street, a whole host of alternative institutions—particularly in culture and media—have arisen and now argue for policies once deemed too radical and new positions not formerly dreamed. These become a “position” in civil society, in cultural commonsense. With all these developments and the growing legitimation crisis, the doors of political imagination and possibility swing wide, in every direction, and there are new formal socialist and other left-leaning political formations able to catch what might be otherwise ephemeral political outbursts (like the 2016 presidential election and its political aftermath) in the near constant anti-Trump mobilization. It’s the new vulnerability of the state and the increasing illegitimacy of established political and economic elites that has allowed even relatively small numbers of radicalized political actors to win a series of primary challenges and then general elections. These become a “position” in “the state.”

Amazon Agonistes

Now we can more easily see the play in action. And the key player is the one I started with: Amazon itself. Amazon is easily recognized across this heterogeneous and disparate formations as an “enemy,” as the cause of “common grievances.” Disparate feelings (affects, to use more formal theoretical language) intensify through different identities and social positions into a common bond. Movements actors such as DRUM and CAAV and JFREJ are already strong and organized enough to spring into a rapid action. Groups like DSA and No IDC NY have already helped get socialist politicians like Julia Salazar into power in the New York Senate, alongside left-leaning Democrats like Alessandra Biaggi and others. And it’s important, and noteworthy, that they’ve risen to power without the support of real estate and finance capital, dependent not only on popular mobilization, but on its continuation and tipping the New York State Senate further to the left than it has been in many generations. Similar figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar are elected to Congress, not only giving left positions an even higher profile but also—all within a week of the HQ2 withdrawal—demonstrating the illegitimacy of this state from within “the state.”[*] As groups like CAAV, ALIGN, DRUM, the Teamsters, RWDSU, DSA and others agitate on the ground, there is an outpouring within new left media and cultural institutions of anti-Amazon argument, analysis, and anger. Even mainstream media like the New York Times comes out with cautious opposition to the plan. Whereas before Amazon and Cuomo and similar minded Democratic and Republican politicians could have expected a swift implementation of even so brazenly an anti-democratic maneuver, suddenly an unexpected array of fortifications appears, working in concert, exerting something quite rarely seen in the United States: democratic power.

What had at first seemed like a trivial surmountable final legal bump-in-the-road, approval by the Public Authorities Control Board, becomes suddenly the tipping point in the story. Andrea Stewart Cousins, leading (and given greater room for maneuver by) a now left-leaning State Senate, against Cuomo and against Amazon, nominates an avowed Amazon opponent as the deciding vote on the board. It is not that this is the one thing that “actually” or “finally” accomplishes the task. Rather it is all these organized social forces in all these different positions in economic, social, and political life that allow this fulcrum to be exploited. It’s that all those positions were taken first and those forces able to coalesce in opposition to an enemy and with shared feeling with each other. The final turn of the screw comes as Amazon, realizing that its political hirelings cannot carry out the task, reaches out for its own bastion of popular support looking, maybe, to cut a deal with some part of labor as described above. It looks promising; meetings are constructive and even labor leaders are optimistic. And those leaders—buoyed by the radical ferment all around—largely stick to their guns. But Amazon realizes that to give in here would be to give in too much. To labor on the floor and democratic jurisdiction above. They would be subject to some democratic control. This would hardly be much. But it was too much to take. Where once Amazon and their pet politicians dreamed Queens remade in Amazon’s image, New York’s labor laws ground under the weight of Amazon’s sheer wealth, undesirables displaced, ever-appreciating real-estate secured, and even playgrounds for the corporate-state on Governors Island, Amazon—after all corporations are people my friends—looked down and saw that its arm was bleeding.

Amazon exeunt.

Theater of War

Some readers have likely realized by now that what I have rendered with my little “play” is a twenty-first century spin on Antonio Gramsci’s war of position. To keep up with the shifting grounds on which such a war must be fought, I’ve had to account for the way in which the current global political economy qualitatively augments the concept, and how ideas from political theology and affect theory help clarify not only the political theory, but the overall stakes of the conflict. One of my interests in the Amazon case is that, as I said before, it is a microcosm; in some ways this “skirmish” (and that’s all it really was) is a burgeoning paradigm of political possibilities. Yet it is also a moment of war proper. Amazon is not an adversary to be reasoned with. There may be temporary agreements—concessions won—along the way. But Amazon—and all entities like it—are enemies to be defeated, which means a defensive maneuver (even if impressive and successful) is far from “winning.” Winning would likely look like some combination of breaking up the company, turning the useful bits into public utilities, and selling the rest off for scrap. And expropriating the majority of Mr. Bezos’ fortune towards funding a more reasonable society that isn’t chewing through the social and ecological fabric at such frightening speed.

Gramsci’s political theories are notoriously difficult, partly because he had to write them under the watchful eyes of his fascist jailers, partly because these were questions he was working out and changing his mind about, and partly because the political challenge he was theorizing—how does a subordinate power become a dominant one?—is a notoriously difficult one, stretching, at least in Western letters, from when Machiavelli put pen to paper to the present day. My adaptation takes one of the most expansive views possible—that the war of position is fought across all aspects of society, roughly speaking: economic, cultural, and political. And that, furthermore, the political itself has “hegemonic” functions in both senses of the term: cultural authority (consent) and political power proper (force.) In each of these “positions,” the left, from a position of relative weakness, is able to dig a “trench,” a little “fortification.” One of the great strengths of Gramsci’s political thought is that he understood that politics is a question of a longue durée. That it took more than spontaneous uprising or an immediate crisis; it took institutions, planning, and preparation. So, what can we gain for such a moment from understanding this little skirmish?

First, that it is only a skirmish, and this is not the final political form of “the subject” which will carry through “the war.” As our old Florentine friend would note of history like this, fortune smiled a little more brightly than might be anticipated on our scrappy band of heroes. Had Amazon played its cards slightly better, had the governor not completely misread the field, it could very well have won the day. There is nothing automatic about political struggle.

Second, if this is to scale, it must, well, scale. Across all positions, as best it can, understanding that each is enemy terrain as it stands. Luckily, there is more mobilization—in protest, in strike, in mass action, in civil disobedience, in civic action—than there has been sustained in decades. That is a good place to start. Even with the growth of a nascent radical left, we’re still quite small. There is also a vast depoliticized mass which still must be politicized. As against common wisdom, now is the time for increasing polarization and politicization. But politicization begins from the important point that those not currently mobilized or organized have every bit of historical evidence, every instinct, every justification on their side for their skepticism, wariness, or desire to simply be left alone. It is only with mass politicization that the power capable of winning such a war is possible.

Amazon—and all entities like it—are enemies to be defeated.

Third, that as part of such scaling, real accounting must be made of shortcomings. Much media hay has been made out of how some LIC residents—notably leaders in local housing projects—felt betrayed by left opposition to HQ2. However bad faith such media might be (consciously or unconsciously), this points to real challenges for a left that is trying to take power. It may very well be that such leaders are representing their own positions as much or more than the larger mass behind them. But that is far from certain. Even still, there is a failure here on multiple levels: (a) an organizational failure of connection and communication with communities, like those in public housing, who have every reason to think nothing of this new, new left; (b) the inability or unwillingness—i.e. current weakness of the left—to achieve political solutions to the demands for jobs and representation or alternative institutional (dual-power-like) solutions to such demands; (c) even though the growth of parallel left media and cultural institutions in the past decade or so has been tremendous, and even given that it will never achieve parity with pro-capital media basically until such a war would be won, there is still much work to be done such that left analysis can become a truly counter-hegemonic “commonsense”; (d) and as part of that, reevaluating ideological, strategic, and other thinking vis-à-vis why a to c have not already happened.

Fourth, this formation is neither inchoate nor spontaneous, nor has it yet fully coalesced. Like Gramsci, I am agnostic on a whole range of questions about something as specific as “party form” and think any number of things can count as “parties.” I think this question particularly open in as bizarre and archaic a political system as that designed in the United States constitution. But unlike mistaken left political theories of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, besides advancing a powerful set of metaphors, there is no particular strength, for a protracted conflict, of a completely fluid, amorphous formation that comes together and dissipates ad hoc. The various failures of the Movements of the Squares, the Arab Spring (outside of Tunisia), and Occupy Wall Street, among many other examples, should have disabused the left of notions like these long ago. What I mean by “coalesce,” though, is nothing more than shared feeling articulated still differently must coalesce into a shared political identity, coordinated strategic action, and broadly common program. This level of unity is not some theoretical abstraction; it is the bare minimum for possibly winning beyond a skirmish here or there. The political question is always about power.  

But what we can see here is the lineaments of just such a subject. A heterogeneous mass that is contesting power across the whole of society, strategically, turning its various small advantages into a power which can overcome tremendous odds and oppositional force. It is connected not through identification with charismatic authority, but rather it crystalizes through political identification, through differently articulated feeling and struggle with a clearly defined enemy. Elsewhere, I have called such a subject by a properly climate-inflected name: “the exhausted.” All the people who feel the exhaustion—ecological, economic, social, and political—of this moment. Such a feeling, I would argue, is palpable in understanding this “skirmish.” It is part of a war, and it’s not simply for economic gain. But rather a fully radical, even revolutionary, understanding of the real possibilities for a differently conceived and previously inconceivable flourishing and freedom in the here-and-now. This radicality is as much a sine qua non of any such political subject or formation as formal labor, as masses more broadly, as political power itself. It is even a hint of this radicality that separates the smallest of victories—even in skirmishes—from the most capacious capitulations.

Finally, in such a conflict, these small victories are reversible, and retribution is all too possible. In the aftermath of Amazon withdrawing, Governor Cuomo engaged in a flurry of activity to try and lure back the corporate giant and assure it that its massive capital, flowing uneasily “above” the Earth, would have a safe, unfettered landing site in New York City. The governor in many ways displayed exactly the qualities Amazon would expect from a more willing vassal: a true passion for exploitation, an almost absurdly obsequious fealty, a willingness to suffer whatever indignity in service to the multinational corporation. A public letter in the New York Times begged Amazon to reconsider, signed not only by corporate CEOs, but also by several labor leaders, university presidents and deans, right-leaning politicians, civil society leaders, and others. All joined together to laugh off New York’s “strong” opinions (one can barely believe they held back a jab at “New York Values”) in a statement whose title should have read “Status Quo or Bust.”

For now, this effort seems to be doing far more to underscore the governor’s and these “leaders” clownish desperation than to actually lure Amazon back. Meanwhile, legislation is being considered in Arizona, Illinois and, yes, New York, to prevent the kind of self-imposed “special economic zone” treatment the Amazons of the world have come to expect. And similar protests—although without the same level of movement infrastructure, political “trenches,” and facing even steeper odds—have broken out in Northern Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee.   

Even if these efforts are unsuccessful, they are part of an ever-broader example of the political formation I discussed above. And all face retribution beyond the specter of Amazon’s return. This can be frankly silly: a Times Square billboard (probably the last thing any resident of New York City would ever think to look at) mocking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, indirectly funded by the Mercer family, best known for its hedge-fund wealth and enthusiasm for Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and other contemporary right-wing grifters. But they can also be serious, from proposals to end New York’s “fusion voting” system to proposals for a so-called “activist tax,” which would treat small donors to community and political organizations as akin to wealthy individual corporate donors, burying organizations in costs and fees ironically designed to (unsuccessfully) limit corporate influence, and forcing community groups to classify ordinary volunteers as “official lobbyists.” The host of financial and bureaucratic burdens therein incurred are easily shrugged off by the Morgan Stanleys of the world, but harder to take for the Make the Roads.

And this is just scratching the surface of what is easily known and what is unfolding in real time. Below, mechanisms turn, forces are martialed, new players prepared. Worse retribution—whether through immigration courts, through legal maneuvers, through media strategy, defamation, attack, direct force, and more—will come. This drama, the twenty-first century war of position, is far from over. But make no mistake, the play was a success.

 


[*] Ilhan Omar’s sparring with Elliott Abrams during a public hearing is a prime example of this. Her presentation of Abrams is the presentation of the unvarnished truth of an American Empire which benefits entities like Amazon, not the vast majority of people. Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez’s “corruption game” demonstrated the illegitimacy of most existing representation by an act of actual representation. While some commentators might dismiss such actions as grandstanding, what is actually being accomplished is the hegemony of existing political power being contested not only in its political manifestation (i.e. that new, different, left legislation and law might be enacted), but in those cultural functions which reside through the very practice of a liberal democratic republic in and of itself. While building actual political power in their position in state (towards political ends), they are delegitimizing the ideology of some preexisting (or transcendental) “neutral,” “just,” or “fair” state.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a core faculty member specializing in social and political theory. Ajay is currently working on a book of political theory for the Anthropocene.

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