Alan Gisburg, Boots Riley, capitalism, Das Kapital, David Rockefeller, deus ex machina, Donald Trump, fascism, Hip Hop, JP Getty, Karl Marx, Miles Davis, Sorry to Bother You, the Coup, Tupac Shakur
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was an epic shitting-of-the-bed with no parallel in American election history. The first, most important point to be made about this is that our corporate and political elites made that bed; we need to make sure they must now lie in it. When they blather about Russians stealing the election or the deplorable nature of the white working class, force-feed them the truth. It was their hubris that fertilized a garden overrun with weeds that produced the superbug that is Trump.
According to virtually all prognosticators, once the Sanders ‘political revolution’ was dispatched the Unfiltered Orange Sociopath would surely lose, and the ship of state, with another captain Clinton at the helm, would continue on course. Only two newspapers with circulations above 100,000 endorsed Trump for President, while all other major media formats, excluding Fox News, and only after the primaries, either dismissed his candidacy with a shrug or actively campaigned against him. He was not from the establishment. He was not the first choice of the ‘smart money’. He wasn’t their 20th choice. He was not one of them. Trump arose from a social movement he did not create within conditions, not of his making. He is more an expression of those developments–riding the wave, so to speak–rather than the wave itself. What produced that wave is most certainly a generalized crisis within capitalism and its ruling ideology, neoliberalism. But the wave is now large enough that it drives that crisis as much as it is a product of it. It’s important to call that wave what it is: white nationalism or the American form of fascism.
If what happened on November 8, 2016, is best understood as a sharp departure from an otherwise healthy and democratic political culture, then the solution might plausibly be a restoration of democratic norms. But what took place was not a departure from the norm, but a logical outcome of that norm. What they call ‘progress’ will always invite the eternal return of fascism. What transpired was not a coup, a ‘stolen’ election, or an excess of American democracy that, if you listen closely, certain bloodless technocrats now argue requires an enlightened despotism as a corrective. This is, of course, how everyone from conservatives to progressives views things: Everything was more or less fine until–WHAM!–the impossible came to pass. The solution is to boot the bigot out of office, fix the damage and move on. But the problem is much more than that and much worse. Even Bernie Sanders can’t fix it now.
On this question of fascism and Trump, much of the socialist left is mistaken in other ways. For instance, a rendering of Trump’s triumph as the ‘rotten fruit of the ruling class’ correctly locates the general responsibility for the world of shit that we live in with the rich and powerful, but it cannot explain two things about that world: first, Trump’s contradictory relationship to that ruling class and, second, his ability to command support from millions of (white) people manifestly not from that ruling class.
To understand how what happened came about and what, more than two harrowing years later, can be done in response, requires an understanding of Trump’s appeal, especially that ‘authenticity’ so often associated with his “saying out loud what some people only dare to think”. Part of what that something amounts to is the genuinely contradictory relationship he has with established centers of economic and political power–what we anarchists and communists call the ruling class. He is from their family but in their eyes, he has always been and will always be something of an embarrassment. They will never fully accept him, something that is, oddly enough, part of his strength. Trump was always invited to the party, but the hosts secretly hoped he wouldn’t show up. If he did appear, everyone would cringe, but they would not kick him out. Why is that? What is it about Trump that makes him a social outcast, yet a fixture at the same time? And why do certain people turn to a billionaire in order to punish a ruling class?
Sometimes wisdom can be found in unlikely places. The nooks and crannies of oppositional subcultures sometimes become the interstices that make history. It took Marx’s body of work decades to marinate before becoming a set of ideas followed by millions across the planet; but those ideas started on the fringe, within spaces in between what is and what could be. If we want to understand Trump and fascism here’s a source from the recent past that sheds important light on a particular dynamic of Trump’s ascendency and its relationship to fascism. Set aside that academic article, that peer-reviewed journal, the latest tweet from that celebrity intellectual. For the moment dispense with those shopworn terms: ‘populism’, ‘authoritarianism’, ‘monopoly capital’, and ‘privilege’.
Listen to some rap and read the lyrics.
The Oakland-based Hip Hop band The Coup released an album in 1994 called Genocide and Juice. It is my favorite work of art in that musical genre and is to hip hop what Alan Ginsberg’s Howl is to poetry, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is to Jazz, or Marx’s Das Kapital is to socialist theory. It is remarkable in many ways and anticipates band member Boots Riley’s film, Sorry to Bother You, released to critical acclaim last year. I will focus on two songs, “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” and “Free Stylin at the Fortune 500 Club”. If you can, listen to these two songs and follow along with the lyrics. And remember, all of this was created prior to 1994. Apologies in advance for any lyrics that are incorrect.
“Fat Cats, Bigga Fish”
Well, now haha, what have we here?
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
It’s almost ten o clock, see I got a ball of lint for property
So I slide my beenie hat on sloppily
And promenade out to take up a collection
I got game like I read the directions
I’m wishing that I had an automobile
As I feel the cold wind rush past
But let me state that I am a hustler for real
So you know I got the stolen bus pass
Just as the bus pulls up and I step to the rear
This ole lady looks like she drank a forty of fear
I see my old-school partner, said his brother got popped pay my respects, “Can you ring the bell?” We came to my stop
The street light reflects off the piss on the ground
Which reflects off the hamburger sign as it turns round
Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW
Which reflects off the fact that I’m broke
Now, what the fuck is new?
I need loot, I spot the motherfucka in the tweed suit
And I’m on his ass quicker than a kick from a grease boot
Eased up slow and discreet
Could tell he was suspicious by the way he slid his feet
Didn’t wanna fuck up, the come on,
So I smiled with my eyes, said: “Hey, how’s it hanging guy?”
Bumped into his shoulder, but he passed with no reaction
Damn this motherfucka had hella of Andrew Jacksons!
I’m a thief or pickpocket, give a fuck what you call it
Used to call ’em fat cats, now I just call them wallets Getting federal, ain’t just a klepto
Master card or visa? I gladly accept those Sneaky motherfucka with a scam, know how to pull it
Got a mirror in my pocket but that won’t stop no bullets
Story just begun but you already know
Ain’t no need to get down, shit, I’m already low
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
My footsteps echo in the darkness
My teeth clenched tight like a fist in the cold sharp mist
I look down and I hear my stomach growling
Step to Burger King to attack it like a Shaolin
I never pay for shit that I can get by doing dirt
Linger up to the girl cashier and start to flirt
All up in her face and her breath was like murder
Damn the shit I do for a free hamburger
“Well, you got my number, you gonna call me tonight?”
“It depends…is them burgers attached to a price?” “Sorry, sorry, I’m just kidding, I’m a call you, write you love letters…”
“It’s all good…” “Thanks for the burgers…um, hook me up with a Dr. Pepper?”
“That’s cool you want some ice?”
“Yeah, and some fries will be hella nice!”
“Damn, my manager’s coming, play it off, okay? Have a nice day!”
“I’m up outta here anyway”
I use peoples before they use me
‘Cuz you could get got by an Uzi over an OZ.
That’s what an OG told me
Gots to find someplace warm and cozy to eat the vittles that I just got
Came to an underground parking lot
This place is good as any, fuck, it’s all good
Walked in, found a car, hopped up on the hood
Ate my burger, threw back my cola
Somebody said, “Hey!” It was a rent-a-pig, I thought it was a roller
“Want me to call the cops?” I don’t want them to see me
Looked down and saw that I was sitting on a Lamborghini
It was Rolls, Ferraris and Jags by the dozen
A building door opened…Damn, it was my cousin!
Getting off a work, dressed up, no lie Tux, cumberbund, and a black bow tie
I was like hey, “Who is it?” “Me”
“Oh, what’s up man, I just quit this company
They hella racist and the pay was too low,”
I said, “Right, what’s was up in there though?”
“A party with rich motherfuckas, I don’t know the situation
I know they got cabbage, owning corporations
IBM, Chrysler, and shit is what they said”
Just then a light bulb went off in my head
They be thinking all black folks is resembling
“Gimme your tux and I’ll do some pocket swindling”
Fit to change in the bathroom and I freeze off my nuts
Let’s take a short break while I get into this tux
Alright, I’m ready
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Fresh dressed like a million bucks
I be the fliest muthafucka in an afro and a tux
My arm is at a right angle, up, silver tray in my hand
“May I interest you in some caviar, ma’am?”
My eyes shoot ’round the room there and here
Noticing the diamonds in the chandelier
Background Barry Manilow, Copacabana
And a strong-ass scent of stogies from Havana
Wasn’t no place where a brother might’ve been
Snobby ole ladies drinking champagne with rich white men
All right, then let’s begin this
Nights like this is good for business
Five minutes in the mix, noticed several different cliques
Talking, giggling and shit
With one motherfucka in betwixt
And everybody else jacking it, throttling
Found out later he owns Coca Cola bottling
Talking to a black man whose confused
Looking hella bougie, ass all tight and seditty
Recognized him as the mayor of my city
Who treats young black man like frank nitty
Mr. Coke said to Mr. Mayor, “You know we got a process like
Ice-T’s hair, we put up the funds for your election campaign
And oh, um, waiter can you bring the champagne?”
“Our real estate firm says opportunity is arising
To make some condos out of low-income housing
Immediately, we need some media heat
To say the gangs run the street and then we bring in the police
harass and beat everybody till they look inebriated
When we buy the land, motherfuckas will appreciate it
Don’t worry about the Urban League or Jesse Jackson
My man that owns Marlboro, donated a fat sum”
That’s when I step back some to contemplate what few know
Sat down, wrestled with my thoughts like a Sumo
Ain’t no one player that could beat this lunacy
Ain’t no hustler on the street could do a whole community
This is how deep shit can get
It reads macaroni on my birth certificate
Puddin-Tang is my middle name but I can’t hang
I’m getting hustled only knowing half the game
Shit how the fuck do I get out of this place?
Our protagonist is broke, hungry, and without transportation, while also a poet, a pickpocket, a thief, and a flirt. He’s also not a worker, at least not in the formal economy but his epiphany is dependent on posing as a worker. In other words, understanding the deus ex machina of capitalism requires the vantage point of a worker. And yet when he poses as a worker he doesn’t so much as to gain access to a point of production, as to a locus of social reproduction, the leisure activities of the ruling class, where the ‘art of the deal’ really takes place out of the prying eyes of the public.
To rich white people, all Black people look the same (“resembling”) which gives our protagonist the opportunity to infiltrate their posh gathering so as to pick some pockets. But what he overhears is shocking, and I don’t think this guy is shocked by much. The hustler, knowing but “half the game” is being hustled. The analogy here, between the hustle of the street and the hustle of capitalist exploitation and domination, posits a world where there is no in-between–you are either a pimp, a John or a ho. There is no way to act ethically within a capitalist system short of overthrowing that system; no way to be right with the world until those categories are utterly obliterated.
That’s as profound and accurate a portrayal of the exploitation and domination of capitalism as I have ever read. Here, in searing terms is the carceral state and gentrification, racism and urban pacification, the two-party system and elite command and control together with a breathtaking cynicism. It also upholds the humanity of a petty thief without romanticizing it and demonstrates how it is possible, and desirable, for that person to become a radical. There is no direct or easy path from “using people before they use me” to “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. But the possibility is there, it just needs a kickstart and guidance.
The revelation that corporate and political power is a hustle, but on a scale so vast as to be hidden in plain sight, forces us to “wrestle” with our thoughts. It challenges seemingly sacred convictions about the meritocratic principle, that competition leads to opportunity and the common good. But the reality is that a fair playing field is nowhere, to climb the ladder is to place one’s foot on a rung that is someone’s head. The song’s emphasis on an epiphany experienced by a member of the so-called ‘lumpenproletariat’, or Black underclass, challenges those sneering socialists who consider this consciousness-raising on the part of ‘criminal classes’ virtually impossible. I don’t. I think it’s essential to our collective struggle. In a world increasingly characterized by the deterritorialized nature of the gig economy, we need to theorize a terrain of rupture with capitalism at points other than those, strictly speaking, of production.
“Free Stylin at the Fortune 500 Club”
Mr. Rockefeller, let me in on the gossip
I heard you and Mr. Getty are getting into rap music or something?
We sing like authentic rappers.
[Rockefeller] Well if they could make this music more funky…
Let me see if I can get my voice like those rappers. Ahem. Ahem.
Here we go.
You could see I’m David Rockefeller
So much cash up in my bathroom it’s a Ready-Teller
I’m outrageous, I work in stages, like syphilis
But no need for prophylactics
I’ma up you on some mean old mac shit
Ain’t buff, but my green gots amino acid
Keep my hoes in check, no rebellions
If your ass occur, shit
It wouldn’t be the first time I done made a massacre
Nigga please, how you figure these
Motherfuckers like me got stocks bonds and securities
No impurities, straight Anglo-Saxon
When my family got they sex on
Don’t let me get my flex on, do some gangster shit
Make the army go to war for Exxon
Long as the money flow, I be making dough
Welcome to my little pimp school
How you gonna beat me at this game? I make the rules
Flash a little cash, make you think you got class
But you really selling ass and ho keep off my grass
Less you cutting it, see I’m running shit
Trick all y’all motherfuckas is simps
I’m just a pimp”
We will begin at the commencement of the next measure.
I am tearing shit up like confetti
My money last longer than Eveready
Ain’t nothing petty about cash I never lose
This is just like the stroll
But the hoes don’t choose, I choose you
No voodoo can hoo-doo you
From getting treated like a piece of ol’ booboo who
Do you think want those niggas that don’t turn tricks?
The loco ho in ’94 is getting 86ed
I got the po po’s for their daily pimp slap
The motherfucker gangsta, rolling Fleetwood Caddy
I’m that mack ass already pimped his daddy
Lay you out like linoleum floors
I’m getting rich off petroleum wars
Controlling you whores, making you eat Top Ramen
While I eat shrimp, y’all motherfuckas is simps
I’m just a pimp
Trump, Trump check out the cash in my trunk
I am Donald Trump me think you mighta heard about me
How me last wife Ivana come and catch me money
She want all, she want this, she want that, of fun
X amount of this like just like the gap hear me
Hol’ up your hand if you love the money
Hol’ up your hand if you love punanny
Gun pon mi side mi afi kill somebody
Because the money inna mi trunk dem wan fi come tek see.
Trump’s inside/outside status is captured perfectly by Riley through his representation as a reggae-rapper, something I gather was anathema to hip hop during the 1990s. The first two rappers in the song were meant to represent the then-emerging feud between east coast and west coast rap traditions, memorialized through the mortal conflict between Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Rockefeller is the east coast, J.P. Getty west coast. Trump is the outlier. There was no reggae-rap. That just wasn’t done. Perhaps this is still so today, I’m not an expert on hip-hop.
In any case, the rendering of corporate bosses and their political lackeys as pimps playing a cynical and profitable game is brilliant. ‘Punnany’, by the way, is slang for vagina, a further foreshadowing of Trump’s misogynistic ‘pussy-grabbing’.
Trump is clearly an embarrassment but he’s still at the party. Begrudging acceptance is still acceptance. We are never at the party unless we have a tray in our hands. At that time Trump was a millionaire, but not a member of the ruling class in good standing, just as the interloper in the song above is at the party, but not entirely welcome. So it is today. This dynamic, captured so well in the song above, also highlights a facet of fascism that is essential to understanding it and therefore fighting it effectively. Fascism, in its classical, Cold War and 21st-century versions always involves a fight above and below and from a relatively independent, or semi-autonomous, racist, and nationalist mobilization of large segments of a population. A fascist movement in formation cannot be understood exclusively through the prism of class, although it cannot be apprehended without it, either. Fascists fight ungrateful elites above and unworthy black and brown hordes below. That fight above is not disingenuous, either. All so-called ‘issues’ and ‘policies’ (trade wars, immigration, Supreme Court nominees, corporate power, etc.) need a theoretical framework that includes this element within the definition of fascism. Otherwise, it is lost.
As fascism contends for state power it becomes more than a product of capitalist crisis; it becomes the crisis itself.
The (often) missing element of socialist analyses of fascism is precisely a recognition of the relatively independent nature of fascism as a social movement. The second missing element is an understanding of an eliminationist form of racism that undergirds and binds together otherwise disparate factions into a social movement.
Trump follows, he doesn’t lead. Another way of stating this is that he is a symptom of a much deeper and entrenched problem: the slow, long term yet quickening growth of fascism throughout North America and Europe. Here, where I live, its particular expression is American white nationalism. It takes other forms elsewhere, but the family tree from which all variations descend can be identified and then fought.
The nature of fascism cannot be captured through attitudinal surveys, marketing pitches and polling preferences. Therefore, fascism can never be substantively defeated at the ballot box alone. Emasculate him through constitutional checks and balances, harass him with deep state democrats, impeach him, or defeat him during the 2020 elections–it will not be enough and will only serve to deepen the rot. Fascism is more than a form of authoritarianism counterposed to liberal democracy. If your frame of reference for fascism is bookended by these two concepts–authoritarianism and liberal democracy–as most conventional frameworks are, you will misunderstand it and be hapless to stop it. Only leftists have the theoretical framework to understand this, if only they would use it.
A defeat as epic as that of 2016 has produced precious little soul searching or self reflection. Instead, the tenuous and brittle state of neoliberal ideology has produced a default explanation for defeat that has settled on theft. Liberals and (neo) conservatives were predictably apoplectic about the Orange sociopath ‘stealing’ their election. Their wrath was directed outward, toward a mostly imagined conspiracy of a resurrected KGB that, whatever its influence on the 2016 Presidential election in no way whatsoever represented a significant deviation from the constant interference practiced by all states against one another as a matter of bourgeois routine since time immemorial. Besides, the United States is the undisputed world heavy weight grand champion of sovereign interference. Regime change is, after all, a particularly aggressive form of electoral interference that both Russia and the U.S. practice practically everywhere. The wrath of disenfranchised elites was directed internally, as well, at those ungrateful ‘deplorables’, a handful of utopian Jill Stein supporters, and of course the millions of us who said ‘fuck you’ to both parties. Their own complicity–either through deliberate policy, as with Obama’s deportation of 2.5 million souls and Clinton’s reminder that Honduran children may have crossed our border but they didn’t get to stay, or a whoopsie such as neglecting to campaign in Wisconsin–is always rendered as a mistake to be corrected, a flaw to be remedied, a wrinkle to be ironed out, rather than something irredeemable at the core of their rule and the values that justify it. But their rule is irredeemable. This ruling class sips champagne while gazing over infinity pools of conspicuous consumption. When they fuck up, it is by definition our fault. Everything is our fault. They are gods. We are mortals. So, what do we do with gods? Hold their heads underwater until the bubbles stop and be sure that there are fascists at the bottom of that pool drowning with them.