What to do about the government shutdown

Students of a certain political persuasion will no doubt see truth in this prophecy: “The question of the state is now acquiring particular importance both in theory and in practical politics. The imperialist war has immensely accelerated and intensified the process of transformation of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism. The monstrous oppression of the working people by the state, which is merging more and more with the all-powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous.” Lenin, who penned these words on the cusp of the October Revolution, was not writing about the United States and its entanglement in intractable Asian land wars, its ballooning security state or the increasing dominance of its capitalist class over both electoral politics and the nation at large. In the wake of yet another government crisis, we can see more clearly than ever that the American state of affairs is becoming increasingly monstrous.

The resonances with the period before World War I go deeper, as critic and New York University professor Boris Groys articulates: “Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the 19th century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.”

You need not fret too much, though, as the president assures us that “our troops will continue to serve with skill, honor and courage. Air traffic controllers, prison guards, those who are with … Border Patrol will remain on their posts.” Our legislators and executives, including the president and members of Congress, will continue to be paid as well, though some are donating their salaries out of a sense, one thinks, of noblesse oblige. While NASA and the National Institutes of Health are being shuttered, the CIA and NSA continue to do their diligent work despite losing most of their civilian workforce, possibly committing extrajudicial killings and almost certainly spying on Americans and foreigners alike.

All of this kerfuffle is unfolding over conservative objections to a health insurance expansion scheme first proposed by The Heritage Foundation and first implemented by a Republican governor. While historic by American standards, the bill does not cover all Americans nor does it break away from the existing model, which will continue to be overseen by private insurance companies and for-profit hospitals. To halt this incremental reform, Republicans are willing to risk what moderate liberal magazine The Atlantic calls “pointless harm” to the capitalist system they hold dear. Instability is terrible for business.

After the shutdown whittles away all the nonessentials, what is left? The massive military and security apparatus for carrying out that violence remains, along with some basic “services” like Medicare payments and the post office. This dramatically reveals that the American state, as such, is an ideological being by nature. It does not simply exist as an inanimate machine for problem solving and the provision of services. Rather, it is a living system with its own intentions built to serve a specific purpose. That purpose is to serve the market economy, to ensure that its various contradictions and structural crises do not bring the whole system toppling over. All of the important social decisions in economics are, in the words of scholar Adam Kostko, “outsourced to something called ‘the market,’ which is presented as a kind of naturally-occurring decision-generating machine despite being a product of human choices that runs on human choices” (An Und Für Sich). Given that neither party questions this consensus in any way, we can see that they function more like two feuding wings of a single neoliberal capitalist bloc. What the House Republican insurrection has done is rend the mask of neutrality behind which the state normally hides, using it as an instrument to utterly negate the remnants of America’s mid-20th century flirtation with social democracy.

What can we, as average citizens, do in this nation for, of and by the people? Our enlightened founders, of course, made it extraordinarily difficult to expediently remove elected officials without a gun, so those outside the halls of power in Washington are legally powerless in the short term. Medium term, we can go to the polls, throw the bums out and elect no doubt far more principled and adroit figures — in a country where reelection rates typically run at or over 90 percent according to Politico — who will put all to rights. I hope you will understand my cynicism about electoral politics even if you do not share it. As states roll out more restrictive voting laws, lawmakers aggressively gerrymander districts to ensure the status quo and whole swathes of people, especially the young and working class, decline to participate, elections are becoming more exclusive and unrepresentative of America. Beyond that, the whole system excludes voices from beyond a narrow slice of the political spectrum, placing most debate about the trajectory of the nation off-limits. Despite my skepticism, however, I remain convinced that we can overthrow these systems and cast off our burdens.

My proposal is that we issue an emphatic ‘no’ to this hell. Remember the words of John Calvin: “We were redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety.” To Calvin, there was no contest: between the power of humanity and the reign of God, the latter would always triumph. In some ways a highly conservative thinker, Calvin nonetheless read the Bible too well to believe that the powers and principalities of the world are here to stay or that their snares and oppressions are built to last. So, with Calvin, Marx and radicals of all stripes, I affirm that another world is possible. Revolution is needed because nothing short of revolution, the undoing of an entire mode of being, will suffice to even begin healing the systemic ills that plague our system. While I am sure that not everyone will flock to the streets and demand the overthrow of capitalism because of some opinion piece, I see my role and the role of intellectuals throughout the world to remind us that the present era, like all others, can and will pass away and open a space for truly free debate over the political future of the world. Even now, as young students, we can start to rethink our world and redeem our lives, finding new modes of living within the system that will start to push it until it breaks. Capitalism is not God, and it is time we stopped treating it as such.