In all the feelings this has brought us to—the sadness, anger, fear—it’s easy to lose track of the first feeling, of surprise. Surprise is the first to arrive and the first to leave, but I think it’s important to catch it and hold it, to keep track of the surprise. We thought we were on our way to one place, and we woke up, unexpectedly, somewhere else. One reason surprise leaves so quickly is that it’s always tinged with shame: we were wrong about something, and no one likes to remember that he has been wrong.
And so surprise gets suppressed. Several of my friends have noted with a certain amount of embarrassment that everyone, both “us” and “them,” after two or three days of catatonia returned quickly to saying just what they were saying before the election. Everyone agrees that everything has changed except everyone’s opinion, as though the game were to reconstruct one’s worldview with as few adjustments as possible and then say “I told you so.”
That’s part of it. Another part, though, is that changing one’s mind takes a long time; it’s just not the work of a week. We haven’t thought and felt our way back into the world in which we find ourselves, we haven’t attained an understanding that could smooth what was experienced as a rupture in political time. We keep saying the same things because we don’t know what else to say yet; the new thinking this will require hasn’t shown up yet. In the meantime we live in suspense, out of joint, in a lame-duck session of the mind.
And yet, and yet—part of the question has to be why we were so surprised. “Socialism or barbarism,” like the man said; we of all people should have known. We didn’t really think this could go on forever, did we, with Team Blue squeezing out coin-toss close wins every four years and staving off disaster; if it hadn’t been this year, it would have been next time around. The only thing that could have met the challenge of an increasingly militant American right was an organized left offering material improvement in the lives of working-class Americans; instead we had (and have) the Democrats. Flat wages, technical fixes, lowered expectations. Beneath all the contingencies of campaign messaging and candidate selection and turnout strategy there remained that cold truth: the situation was unsustainable. And now here we are.
People said, the day after, that it was as though they had woken up in a different country. It’s the same country; we were already here. We should have known.
Now we know where we were; what we don’t know is what happens next. Everyone’s looking for work. Everyone’s looking to find their place in this new reality, and we know – we must know – that this problem is not so much intellectual as organizational. We will need to build institutions that embody our collective power—it’s the only way. Building those organizations will take a tremendous amount of often tiresome, boring, discouraging, unremarkable work over the course of several years in trying circumstances. What I find most encouraging right now is the tremendous thirst so many of us feel for that work. I hope we find it and keep it.
Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940:
The class struggle… is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. Instead, they manifest themselves in the struggle itself, as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call ito question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformation.
The next few years will be very bleak. May we all find our work, and may the work itself bring us the courage, humor, cunning and fortitude we need to do it.