In his classic account of the Revolution of 1848 in France and the dictatorship of Napoleon III, Karl Marx pointed out that “history always happens twice, the first time as tragedy. The second time as farce.” He was right. The authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary, right wing populism in Italy, Boris Johnson in the UK. Narendra Modi in India, and of course Donald Trump in the United States, we are currently living through the farcical second act of fascism. What’s more, the crisis we’ve all been waiting for, that new 9/11 which would push our damaged neoliberal society over the edge, is finally here. The new reality is terrifying. We are going to be tested, and I’m afraid we’re going to fail badly.
I’m not afraid of Donald Trump. I’m not afraid of Boris Johnson or Marine Le Pen. Eastern European Nazis make me laugh. They remind me of John Cleese’s “Mr. Hilter” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I really couldn’t care less about the latest group of teenage skinheads in the Pacific Northwest, and while it’s certainly true that I’m not a member of any targeted group — I’m not a Muslim in Modi’s India or an undocumented immigrant in Donald Trump’s America — I doubt we’re going to see a rebirth of Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. Yet I am also terrified. I am what kids on social media refer to as “black pilled.” I have little or no hope for the future. In the age of the Coronavirus, a lot of people are going to die. Even more are going to be driven into poverty. Our political and financial systems are going to collapse. At the end of the current crisis, the American ruling class is simply going to dispense with the facade of democracy, and we will be ruled openly by an oligarchy made up of people like Jeff Bezos, Mike Bloomberg, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and a lot of shadowy billionaires none of us have heard of. We will not rebel.
You would have liked my mother. She was a nice, middle-class American, tolerant, fairly open-minded, but not particularly bright. As much as it pains me to say it — “my mother was not particularly bright” — I feel I have to confront what really terrifies me about Americans. Unlike the British, French, Danes, or even Poles and Italians, we Americans have no sense of “civil society,” no limits, no sense that certain things are allowed, and certain things are not allowed. Whatever the rich use their media to tell us to believe we believe. I grew up with my mother telling me that “people shouldn’t talk about politics or religion.” I never heard her say “blacks are no good” or “Jews control the media” or “we have to keep the Mexicans out.” Her entire worldview could be summed up as “don’t talk about politics or religion. Don’t argue with the experts. Don’t question authority. The people in charge are smart, or they wouldn’t be in charge.” If my mother had any strong opinions about anything, they usually expressed themselves through trivialities and unquestioned assumptions. “Put your coat on before you go outside or you’ll get sick. The fact that you left the light on when I told you to turn it off proves you’ll never amount to anything. Make sure you turn the dryer off before your clothes are dry or you’ll ruin them. Palmolive dish washing liquid is fundamentally better than Ajax.”
I think most Americans are like my mother. Unlike the French, for example, who immediately rebelled when Emmanuel Macron tried to cut pensions, we Americans get angry about trivialities. Yesterday, Richard Burr, a United States Senator from North Carolina, and Kelly Loeffler, a United States Senator from Georgia, were revealed to have sold millions of dollars worth of stock after a closed door briefing about Coronavirus back in February. Not only did they commit fraud, they committed fraud in a way that put millions of Americans at risk of dying from a deadly disease. In France in 1793 the Committee of Public Safety would have marched them off to the guillotine, if only to save them from the far more painful death of having an angry mob storm their houses, tear them limb from limb and put their heads on pikes. Yet my guess is that as long as both Burr and Loeffler are useful to the American ruling class they will not only avoid jail time. They will finish out their terms in the Senate. On the other hand, just yesterday, in a ShopRite in an affluent New Jersey suburb, I witnessed two nice, upper-middle-class white ladies almost get into a fist fight over the last case of toilet paper. My guess is that if Donald Trump announced tomorrow that the federal government was abolishing Social Security in order to use the money to bail out Wall Street, most Americans would say “well I guess the people in charge know what they’re doing.” But if a rumor surfaced that Trump was hording a secret stash of Charmin in the White House basement, a Jacobin mob would materialize on Pennsylvania Avenue just like it was August 10, 1792 in front of the Tuileries, and woe be it to any Swiss Guards or Secret Service that get in their way.
We Americans are the most powerful, privileged, and dangerous people in history. We currently maintain sanctions against countries like Iran and Venezuela that prevent them from fighting the same Coronavirus pandemic that threatens us. Our military is twice as large as the armed forces of Russia and China combined, and then some. Our nuclear arsenal can destroy the world many times over. Yet we are not the Romans, or the British of the 1800s. We have no sense of solidarity as a nation, no sense of duty, no sense of destiny. We are not the same Americans who rebelled against the British or fought the Battle of Gettysburg, or even built the New Deal in the middle of the Great Depression. We are a tired, passive, spiritually empty people, a sick old man with unsteady hands holding a gun at the rest of the world. I do not exempt myself from this charge. My great great great grandfather came to the United States from Germany after participating in the Revolution of 1848, and enlisted in the United States cavalry in his 30s to fight slavery. I will do no such thing. I will not rebel. I will go along to get along. I will obey the policeman at the checkpoint when he tells me to go indoors. I will fight valiantly for the last roll of toilet paper at ShopRite. I will sit by passively as the world goes straight to hell. And that is what really terrifies me.