In the Ruins of Decaying Empire

In the Ruins of Decaying Empire May 7, 2020

The idea of some grander scale reorganization is, well, unthinkable—it’s a non-entity. A society where insurance isn’t tied to work, so that losing a job wouldn’t mean Lord knows what? No way. A society where labor is more than a paycheck? Not a chance. One could go on and on. For now, though, we need look no further than yesterday’s wondrous New York Times op ed, “I believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway”:

Suck it up and make the utilitarian bargain.

All major Democratic Party figures have indicated they’re not budging on the presumptive nominee, and the transaction costs of replacing him would be suicidal. Barring some miracle, it’s going to be Mr. Biden.

So what is the greatest good or the greatest harm? Mr. Biden, and the Democrats he may carry with him into government, are likely to do more good for women and the nation than his competition, the worst president in the history of the Republic. Compared with the good Mr. Biden can do, the cost of dismissing Tara Reade — and, worse, weakening the voices of future survivors — is worth it. And don’t call me an amoral realist. Utilitarianism is not a moral abdication; it is a moral stance.

Utilitarianism arose from the Industrial Revolution, a time of terrible economic inequality and abuse. It was intended to make a moral claim for the equality of all creatures who can feel pain and experience pleasure.

Weigh it: Don’t a few extra cents for each worker matter more than the marginal dollar for the boss? Weigh it: Won’t the good for all the Americans who will benefit from replacing Donald Trump with Joe Biden, including the masses of women who will get some crumbs, count for more than the harm done to the victims of abuse?

Utilitarian morality requires that I turn my face away from the people I propose to sell out: Monica Lewinsky, Tara Reade. This is agonizingly hard for me to do. Pretending not to believe the complainants — which is what is taking place with Ms. Reade — or that they’re loose nobodies, which is what much of the media did to Ms. Lewinsky, is just an escape from the hard work of moral analysis.

And it adds to the harm. How is feminism advanced by casting a reasonably credible complainant as a liar? Better to just own up to what you are doing: sacrificing Ms. Reade for the good of the many.

Never mind that the Democratic party could easily nominate someone else, including Bernie Sanders (who, whatever else one might say about him, at least had a slightly more expansive imagination than most of those who hold power in this country). Never mind that Donald Trump is basically any old Republican with more virulent rhetoric (he’s certainly killed far fewer people than Bush II, who we are now, somehow, praising). All of that aside—what is clear from this piece and from the way we act in this country is that we have no imagination, no ability to think anything more than neoliberal capitalism, a false choice between dumb and dumber henceforth and into eternity. As Eugene McCarraher has written:

The rising generation is in desperate need of a revitalized moral and political imagination. As Fredric Jameson once ruefully observed, it seems easier now to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. The ubiquitous but unavowed despair of many who long for something different is camouflaged rhetorically by calls for “subversion,” “transgression,” or “resistance”—none of which amount to a clear and convincing project of social and political transformation. At some point, you have to be for something, not simply (and rightly) against something horrible; but it is the very capacity to imagine alternatives that neoliberalism seems to have effectively paralyzed. What was and is still called “the left” was marked, in part, by faith in the ability of human beings to collectively construct a world in which all of us could live and flourish—but it is precisely that ability that neoliberalism’s capitulation to the market has so successfully called into question.

So perhaps the thing most needful right now is imagination, not resistance, or, perhaps better, the imagination of a future in terms of which resistance makes sense. As in eros, so in politics:  you are what you desire. Right now our desires are not strong enough, not large enough, not bold and generous enough. And they are not strong and large and bold enough because we seem to have forgotten who we are. (“You’re a Slave to Money, Then You Die”)

Money, jobs—these things for us are the end-all-be-all. We know nothing else. We can think nothing else. We entrap ourselves in false choices, refusing thought in the name of the Big Mac and the stock charts. God help us. The Bible, of course, presents a different vision, a vision in which money and job are not the only ways in which people can survive; they’re not, on this view, the only way to derive self-worth and security. Need we be reminded of the widow’s mite?

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44)

Here, money is merely a way of expressing love, of showing reverence, of helping. Its quantity is effectively meaningless, except insofar as it signals sacrifice and love. But such, such is unimaginable now. We are, in the Gospel’s usage, pharisees standing among the ruins of the Temple, debating whether this or that is clean or unclean. Whatever we are—empire, nation, civilization, Christian Sparta—is dying as we kick up dust. God help us.

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