Hope in the Heart of Empire

I’ve been consistently returning to this radio essay from Mumia Abu-Jamal over the last few weeks. Titled “Disaster at the Heart of Empire,” Mumia succinctly captures the unease and malaise I’ve been feeling — but unable to describe — in anticipation for the November elections:

As Americans slink towards the elections, a sense of disquiet haunts the land. It’s a feeling of heightened caution, the shadow of fear radiating from a proto-fascist government. One riddled with disease, the fruit – not just of the coronavirus – but of unease, unwellness, a mind burdened by weight.

This must be what fascism feels like. Deep, gnawing distrust of government institutions. The scent of corruption (born of crony capitalism where everything and everyone has a price) is fetid and rotten. Who thought — really thought — that things could fall so fast, so far. That hundreds of thousands could have perished so quickly, and that the state would stand by in utter impotence.

This is the American Empire, lurching towards free-fall …

This feeling is certainly everywhere in D.C. – at least, to anyone who has left their house in the past few months. It feels a bit as though we’ve been preparing for the worst. This is D.C. after all – and if Trump refuses to step down, or if Republicans plot some nefarious scheme to steal the election, it will comedown to us to somehow impede it (peacefully) – right?

And so, what has formed across D.C. is a nascent sort of rebel alliance: a diversity of organizations and individuals teaching each other how to organize direct action; build trust and communication networks across geographic and demographic lines; cataloguing resources and counting up our forces. All in preparation for whatever might happen after November 3rd. Much of this is an extension of the mutual aid networks, ongoing resistance efforts, and political alliances between leftist groups that have carried on since the economic shutdown back in March. And since the explosion of protest activity that followed George Floyd’s death in May, many organizers and activists in the DMV have honed their skills in mass protest and “good trouble.” Even if many of the ongoing street demonstrations have waned in scale over the last few months, I suspect (well, hope) that much of this is because locals are mentally and physically preparing to do what is needed to react appropriately to November’s election.

But for all the mental and physical energy preparing for whatever sort of response is demanded, little of it feels satiated by the upside. In Joe Biden’s victory, many have resigned themselves to accepting that “nothing would fundamentally change.” If the worst of Trump’s abuses will be curtailed by a Biden Administration, the core issues – exploding inequality, a racist and abusive justice system, the deterioration of labor power, and the waning ecological balance of the planet – are likely to go unanswered by the return of neoliberalism to Washington.

I dreamed of celebrating the end of Trump’s regime with a working-class conquest of D.C. – one that would finally heed the call and answer to America's epic problems and seeking, once and for all, to challenge that head on. Instead, the Trump family is likely to be replaced by the same neoliberal corporatists that got us here in the first place. Come January you will see them everywhere, slurping down orange goo in some insane and expensive ritual called “brunch,” dashing around D.C. in labor-exploiting ride-shares, and dazzling network television with their nasty parlor tricks. And so I have to ask if this empire is really falling, or just transitioning into a new shape? And should we really be mobilizing on its behalf?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, “The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice…” and so maybe I shouldn’t be so dour. But truthfully, a lot of my hope in whether or not this whole system is worth demonstrating for has been tied up in these local D.C. elections. I have hope in this new labor-activist-progressive coalition that has been coalescing across the District. It’s a sort of quiet alliance between the Working Families Party, the DSA, various social and environmental justice organizations, labor unions, and racial justice formations. What’s so encouraging about this burgeoning alliance, and what might differentiate it from prior left-wing stabs at electoral power, is that it feels truly multiracial, multi-generational, ardently anti-capitalist, and based out of the working-class it claims to represent. Isn’t this what a winning labor-left alliance is supposed to look like?

Janeese Lewis George over in Ward 4 may be the standard bearer for this local alliance, as she’s enthusiastically united the socialists, labor unions, community activists, progressives, and racial justice organizers in a way that has eluded other local left-wing politicians in the last decade. Her triumph over an ex-Republican opponent in the primary back in June rekindled the hope that corporatists will, eventually, get their comeuppance, and that the multi-racial working-class is a real electoral model capable of being assembled to challenge entrenched power.

But the outcome of this year’s local election may determine if Janeese’s victory will mean more than just aberration. In order for this alliance to really pick up the speed it needs to puncture city hall, longtime progressive activist Ed Lazere will need to win the At-Large Council race, and Mysiki Valentine will need to trounce his charter-lobby-backed opponent in the At-Large Board of Education race. These races may seem like small footnotes, especially relative to the neo-fascist nightmare looming over the country. But these campaigns’ enthusiastic embrace of the concerns which dominate labor, anti-racist organizers, and anti-capitalist politicos in the city marks a dramatic shift away from the timid and meaningless “progressivism” that has come to define D.C.’s local political leaders. D.C. has been ground zero for neoliberal urbanism over the past decade, and delivering on a victory for these campaigns will give me some good evidence that democracy is capable of repudiating the ideological engine that sits at the heart of American Empire.

But I haven’t even mentioned the virus, or the depression, or consistent murders carried out by the police state, or the new nationalist formations budding across the country. These factors always seem to shoot a spear through the pangs of hope I’m able to find in looking forward to November. There is just so much to think about – so much to write about. Where do you start, and how do you focus? There are so many problems to be solved, and as inspiring as these local races are, we know that few of our problems can be solved by a city’s Board of Education.

In thinking about all of this, I see now how labor, left, revolutionary, and socialist movements of the past may have fallen into pits of inaction. This will come as no surprise to older or more experienced organizers, but in the face of all these problems, it becomes really hard to figure out where to focus attention, how to manage burnout, how to maintain communication and coordination between various cadres and factional interests, and how to determine which battles are worth fighting and which are worth ignoring. And so, even as the Empire you’ve loathed seems to be on its last gasp, you’re having trouble mustering the energy or inspiration to act on the opportunity to supplant it; given this, resigning becomes an alluring alterative to constant unease.

Countering this appeal to apathy might be why these hyper-local gambits feel so paramount. I need some proof that neoliberalism and austerity economics are capable of being thwarted at the ballot box. I need to know that there’s something about this system worth marching for on November 3rd. And I need some assurance that this American Empire is really capable of coming apart.

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