Resistance in the 21st Century and the Futility of Reforming the Fundamentally Vicious

Out of necessity, organized resistance to the Trump administration’s authoritarian and hyper-violent policy agenda is growing rapidly, both domestically and internationally. Within this context, it is important for those of us who engage in individual and collective acts of resistance – based on our varying proximities to power structures – to consider what and how we resist by taking into account larger structural considerations.

A Brief History of Resistance in the United States

The political, economic and cultural foundations of the United States have consistently proven over time to have a unique ability to legally pacify, repress, vanquish, enslave, murder and inflict suffering on a massive scale. Due to this, there have been an abundance of collective efforts by marginalized and subjugated groups since the the birth of the nation to transform the core political, legal, economic and cultural institutions of the U.S. to be less barbarous and more equitable, inclusive and participatory.

According to political scientist Uday Chandra, “to resist is, in ordinary parlance, to oppose or fight off what is pernicious or threatening to one’s existence.” Resistance strategies can range from full on rebellion with the intent to reform or overthrow and existing social order, to simple forms of contestation and concessionary seeking acts of disobedience against institutions of power. Based on the beguiling nature of the nation’s origin story myths of universal freedom, equality and democracy or out of a desperate need to end long-term suffering, resistance in the U.S. has evolved to entail marginalized or subjugated individuals or groups actively seeking redress through government intervention. This by and large involves taking a defensive position in the pursuit of legal accommodations, which automatically renders emancipatory and revolutionary visions and objectives imperceptible, or to be strived for incrementally or a later time.

Historically, these efforts have most often leveraged the collective power of social movements as a means to expand recognition rights (protections) and representation (access) by and within institutions of power to ameliorate social, political, legal, cultural and economic conditions.

As such, resistance in the U.S. largely became associated with methods and outcomes that use the “master’s tools” to attain protections from the master’s cruelty by having access to the “the master’s house.” Otherwise known as “working within the system.” Chandra refers to these forms of resistance “as the negotiation rather than negation of social power.”

Most of these efforts have failed, while some resulted in mixed improvements in the quality of life for some, including small segments of populations that are persistently targeted. An example of this is middle-class Black and Brown Americans, who are insidiously held up as proof that the U.S. has become a post-racial society, a fictional narrative that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ultimately, progress that was made to substantively constrain or disrupt the hegemony of the nation’s core intersecting structures of heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism have largely resulted in temporary “parchment barrier” policies. By design, the founders’ governing contract – the U.S. Constitution – and the infrastructural power that operationalizes it are designed to self-correct and bring the founders’ social order back in line when it is diverted from its intended aims.

The Nature of Power in the 21st Century

In the 21st century the ideology and directives of financialization rules over our lives, our societies and our planet. This autocratic system dictates a highly disciplined neoliberal landscape where state power structures and advanced technologies facilitate and protect the activities and interests of finance capitalism over all else. Financialization occurs via securitization, which, simply described, is a process where financial institutions bundle together (illiquid) financial assets – primarily debt instruments – and transform them into (liquid) tradable securities that can be expeditiously bought and sold in secondary financial markets. Within this insulated global network, high-frequency trading of digital securities – including “fictitious” trading, hedging and speculating in derivative markets – generates “phantom wealth”; whereby the exchange of capital, money and currency is detached from material or labor value. In the twenty-first century, debt is the new global currency and is a primary source of (intangible) wealth accumulation.

According to economist Gerald Epstein, financialization is centered on “speculative and excessively liquid financial flows that create debt-laden balance sheets, overly short-term perspectives, volatility and mispricing of important asset prices, including exchange rates, and subsequent misallocation of resources and unstable economic growth.” More to the point, the global financial system is based on a massive “spiral of debt.” Under the domain of financialization, investor activity requires the flow of various forms of credit that can be transformed into securitized assets and rapidly converted into cash (liquidity) without losing value. As Bloomberg Business put it, the three things that matter most in debt (bond) markets are “liquidity, liquidity and liquidity.” According to financial industry attorney Jake Zamansky, “without liquidity, markets plummet, as they did in late 2008 and early 2009. Liquidity is all important to investors. It’s oxygen to markets.” Thus, the only way for there to be “economic growth” is to inject more and more debt into the machine. This is what happened in the 2008 financial crisis (or “liquidity crisis”) and by most predictions, this same outcome is inevitable sooner than later, yet even more intensely since global debt has risen by $60 trillion since 2008. Essentially, any economic system that is based on debt will crumble.

Within this global landscape, national borders are largely inconsequential and financial markets are globally integrated, swift, complex and untamable. Financial exchanges are facilitated by global automated computers, which slice, bundle and flip securities at a pace and scale that exceeds the capacity of human capability. As anthropologist Patrick Wolfe put it in 1997:

…how are we to conceive of a system that lacks exteriority? This question grows ever more insistent in a decentered era that we might term virtual imperialism, when radically de-territorialized forms of capital flash around the globe at fiber-optic speed, seeking out low wages, tax and tariff advantages, currency disparities, and innumerable other opportunities that presuppose the very nation-state boundaries that their exploitation transcends.

Since many dimensions of this state-finance nexus reaches deeply into the daily lives of billions of people across the globe in novel ways, daily patterns, choices and potential for resistance are apparent to, and an extension of, the global financial market. Sites and sources of resistance and compliance to this social order are conveyed through all digital activates and devices, connected to the sophisticated surveillance technologies of artificial intelligence as part of the ever expanding “Internet of Things.” More disturbingly, all of these integrated “data mining” activities are increasingly feeding financial speculation and derivative (bet) markets.

As an intangible sphere of wealth accumulation designed to facilitate both competition and cooperation between professional investors, this financialized ecosystem is virtually ungovernable. Even if state actors were motivated to stop, or effectively regulate this machine, they cannot for a number of reasons. First, the machine is structurally entwined with the interests of the most powerful and violent nation-states, particularly the United States. Second, any meaningful disruptions of the machine will crash the global economy. The state’s role to both deceptively and openly collude with finance were at play after the 2008 “liquidity crisis.” The federal government started by deregulating finance and thereafter protected risky financial activity, then bailed out the largest investment banks and devised the superficial parchment barrier that is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

At the behest of this comprehensive and unaccountable web of power, the role of the state – particularly the U.S. – is more authoritarian than ever. Domestically, militarized austerity and sophisticated surveillance and penetrating security apparatuses is at its disposal and are part of everyday life for most Americans; even more so when resistance is deemed too disruptive to financial markets. As part of this, within the last several decades, finance capital and neoliberal states have learned from and adapted to dissent and resistance. Once tried and true tactics and strategies in the pursuit of state protections can now be effectively ignored, dismissed, tolerated, coopted and preempted. This reality, along with the diffuse power of global finance and its proxy authoritarian states render the pursuit of basic human needs and rights ineffective. Combined, these dynamics have extensively neutralized how resistance movements have historically leveraged power. Instead, the social order of neoliberal financialization predicts and integrates resistance into its risk speculations, which according to critical scholar Max Haiven is, “factored into financial flows in advance as ‘risk’: the present calculus of future probabilities.” Haiven goes on to explain:

With this hyper-commodification of risk, finance has become a vast, interconnected, pulsating organ fed by billions of local readings of “liquidity” and “resistance” which are constantly coursing through the system, being decomposed and rebundled in patterns… [and] the final result is this: finance as we now have it, as a system that “reads” the world by calculating the “risk” of “resistance” to “liquidity” and allocating resources accordingly, already incorporates “resistance” into its “systemic imagination.

From UAW members in Ford plants resisting pension cuts, the Great Sioux Nation protecting its water from the fossil fuel industry, Indigenous revolutionary movements in Bolivia and Venezuela to a U.S. presidential candidate campaigning as a social democrat; finance capital “imagines” these (and many other) possibilities and their disruptive potentials so as to incorporate associated risks into its internal equilibrium. These calculations can then determine preemptive or subsequent interventions and disciplining actions. Thus, as Max Haiven points out, financial speculation is a means of “reading” and “indexing” resistance. Finance is also preventing future resistance through the application of economic performativity, which explains the ways that financial instruments can calculate and construct financial actualities that will shape and ensure the futures on which investors speculate. Impact investing and education reform (here and here) are two critical financial instruments that serve this purpose as social engineering mechanisms meant to reduce risk of resistance to maximize liquidity in futures markets.

As part of this, based on the logic of derivative speculation, “risk management” creates a paradigm of neoliberal biopolitics that sorts groups of people according to an economic pyramid that demarcates their market – and therefore their social – value. Those who are doing the sorting are the exalted risk-takers who “hedge” their subject position into wealth, power and prestige. In varied degrees everyone else is viewed as flexible workers and debt instruments to be exploited for the purposes of securitization, speculation and predictable cash flows. For those at the lower end (largely Black, Brown and Indigenous people), whose subject positions are assigned to perpetual austerity and criminalization; their value is derived from being subjugated and rigidly controlled sources of predictable cash flows, often through the funneling of government funds to wealthy financiers. A significant portion of these financialized instruments of social control focus on strengthening the carceral state (schools, jails, prisons, counterinsurgency policing, immigration detention centers, parole and probation offices, advanced surveillance technologies, etc); as well as predatory “anti-poverty” schemes such as social impact bonds, which are essentially derivatives or swaps (bets).

State-finance authoritarianism and repression through militarized austerity along with deeply penetrating surveillance and security apparatuses work in tandem with many forms of disciplining. School choice, charter schools, policed schools, standardized curriculum, punitive tests that sort students, determine funding as well as the fate of schools and teachers are forms of disciplining attached to the financialization of education. Finance also disciplines political, economic and social actors more directly. For example, if federal and state governments in the U.S. are compelled to reverse existing policies that serve neoliberal financialization and instead reinstitute Keynesian economic policies, or dare to move towards social democracy; financial markets would quickly interpret and respond to these moves by devaluing the U.S. dollar and bond prices while divesting from equity shares in “risky” ventures. This type of financial disciplining can easily lead to larger destabilization within the “house of cards” that is the financialized economy. While its existence is destructive, its disruption can also have catastrophic effects. Therefore, forms of viable “resistance” do not even need to be successful for the state and markets to preemptively intervene and discipline. The mechanisms for disciplining and maintaining social order are also ready-made and built into the structures of the founders’ U.S. cultural political economy. The hegemony of market ideology is often enough. If not, the U.S. Constitution’s function of safeguarding capitalist accumulation and private property rights, the undemocratic electoral college, the stacked federalist system of government, the corporate two-party system and its delegate scheme as well as the ability of capital to influence or direct social, cultural and political affairs (including “news”) also effectively quells substantive resistance. Additionally, as Max Haiven describes:

…firms are increasingly pressured to increase exploitation and surveillance of workers, and attack union and workers rights, in order to improve their credit rating and share price. And local, regional and national governments are, in an age of austerity, compelled to destroy public power (invested in public space, welfare programs, civil services, public employment, and collective projects) in response to financial pressures and massive deficits (caused, in effect, by decades of corporate tax cuts and the massive transfer of public wealth into private hands.

Financial disciplining also applies to the daily life of families and individuals, where forms and levels of resistance to finance capital is moderated by employment, income, housing, transportation and food insecurity; individual debt; education expenditures; concerns about healthcare and saving for elderly years. Fears of disrupting any sites where these needs and concerns exist have an understandable chilling effect.

In sum, as subjects of this global empire, seeking relief or justice (as a legal concept) within state institutions and civil society is largely futile. In the 21st century, civil, political and economic rights (as functions of state protections) are more than ever at odds with the long-standing and intersecting interests of capitalism and white supremacy. Governments either function as proxies for finance capitalism or face being subjugated by it. This ensures that nation states are more unresponsive than ever to the needs and demands of those who reside within their borders, borders that are non-existent for elite financial investors and increasingly punitive for dispossessed groups. In this landscape, banks and other global financial institutions are setting and enforcing the rules that govern social relations in societies across the globe, including relations between states and their citizens. States have effectively become subjects of bond markets and Central Banks. These are the layers of power that operate above states and control what states can or cannot do. Essentially, the plutocrats of this global financial empire have no national loyalties, they possess no conscience, their domain knows no borders, their institutions have no center and their wealth has no real material value.

Reevaluating Resistance within the State-Finance Nexus

For emancipatory resistance movements in the 21st century to have a chance of being successful in the U.S., it is essential to first recognize the inherent structural barriers that have persistently restricted substantive or lasting social change. Therefore, it is time to reconsider resistance strategies that seek redress from an inherently violent state and to refocus our efforts away from working within a political and legal system that is “rigged” to preserve systems of domination. We must acknowledge the futility of seeking to transform the state (or its public spheres) into something that it was never intended to be – nor ever could be – based on it being the protector of the founders’ despotic cultural political economy, which is now even more intensely embodied by the state-finance empire of the 21st century.

In the absence of large-scale cohesive objectives that are revolutionary in nature and international in scope, at best resistance in the U.S. will continue to be reduced to ineffectual outlets and rituals of rage and have little real strategic value beyond groups experiencing a fleeting sense of solidarity and belonging. Tragically, this became the fate of organized labor in the U.S., but only after it largely evolved to reflect and embrace the structures of domination that it should have been resisting.

For those of us who are compelled to resist the various dimensions of the state-finance empire, we must first recognize its inherent ties to the foundational structures of the United States so as to abandon the ideologies that preserve them. This begins by repudiating the mythical origin story of the United States and the glorification of its duplicitous Constitution. Moreover, resistance must be more than a pragmatic undertaking that chases illusive state protections from a nation state that is despotically constituted. In essence, the foundational cultural political economy of the U.S. and its current globalized manifestation cannot be reformed and instead must be dismantled.

Still, it is important to honor the history of resistance against subjugation and struggles for state protections and emancipation in the U.S., for they are rich and vibrant, and often speak to Frederick Douglass’ 1857 declaration, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” Yet, the lesson attached to the Scorpion and the Frog fable is instructive in terms of fanciful strivings to transform the United States into a robustly democratic and equitable nation:

A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog voices her fear of being stung. The scorpion convinces the frog based on their shared interest to survive and get to the other side. The frog agrees. Midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies… it’s my nature.

The underlying moral of the story is salient to what can be learned when the true history and character of the United States is unveiled: no change can be made in the character and behavior of the fundamentally vicious. Time and time again the foundational structures and institutions of the U.S. have proven to be just that, and much more.

Some say that to accept these understandings can lead to hopelessness, despair and apathy. Yet, to continue to believe in deceptive narratives that preserve fundamentally vicious constructs supports their intent: the suppression of creative forms of resistance guided by emancipatory imageries that forge lasting solidarities and the establishment of holistic and equitable approaches to organizing society. To be clear, the current structures of domination are on their own unsustainable and will in time collapse with dire consequences for all life on the planet then, and in the process of getting there. It is imperative for resistance strategies here and now to be guided by this understanding, with a focus on expediting the inevitable collapse, yet with significant ecological and humanistic infrastructure at the ready. Moreover, resistance here and now require us to focus our efforts on developing sites of resistance and alternative institutions that are grounded in environmental sustainability and emancipatory cultures, primarily led by those who are persistently subjugated by the current systems of domination.

These strategies therefore require revolutionary objectives that envision societies without national borders which divide and dehumanize and are rooted in the principles of participatory parity, collectivism, status equality and the equitable distribution of wealth. This vision is anchored by a fundamentally different construct of the public sphere, one that is constituted by a cultural political economy that is the antithesis of white supremacy capitalism, settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy.

Tim Scott is an educator, critical theorist and social worker who has been a community and union activist and organizer for nearly 20 years. This work has involved holding union leadership and staff positions (lead organizer and field rep); anti-racism work; global justice organizing (“anti-globalization movement”) within international networks resisting IMF/World Bank/free-trade/structural adjustment policies; harm reduction advocacy within LGBTQ networks; resisting US/UN Iraq Sanctions; Single-Payer Health Care organizing; anti-war/Counter Military Recruitment work; grass-roots media (radio & publication) and being a public education activist. Read other articles by Tim.