Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Trump’s neoliberal melodrama

Jon McNaughton paints Trump threatened by a crowd of Democrats carrying Mexican, European, and Soviet flags, while they stand on the US flag.

I recently noticed Elisabeth Anker’s Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom on my bookshelf, and that’s a title that resonates at the moment, as the emotional register of politics ramps up, especially in the US. But the book, although advancing a theory of melodrama as a general political mode, is primarily about the Bush administration, which a certain segment of liberal opinion is currently attempting to retroject as a period of reasonableness. This revisionism is probably itself a version of melodramatic politics, which, as Anker argues, requires positing history as a period of innocence to dramatize our current politics in terms of dastardly assault and heroic response to it. What’s interesting about re-reading the book now, though, is the continuity between the post-9/11 period and today, which I think shows some interesting things about supposedly post-neoliberal politics, and potential responses to them.

There are some surface differences between politics after 9/11 and today, most obviously that 9/11 really was an attack on America, in the sense of an actual violent attack carried out by people who considered their target to be both the policies of the American state and more broadly American culture, whereas Trumpian rhetoric involves more obviously inflated or imaginary attackers. The other difference is the way in which the unity of the response to 9/11 among the political class supported this melodramatic narrative. Of course there were Americans who were painted as part of the attacking outside, and Americans who resisted the wars which were the narrative denouement. However, the agreement of politicians and the media that “we” had been attacked made the characters in the melodrama clear, in a way that’s a little difference in the era of the celebrity “resistance”.

I think, though, that these differences are more apparent than real. Just because the inciting even actually happened doesn’t make 9/11 any more “real” than antifa super-soldiers or postal vote fraud. The political consequences of 9/11 didn’t come directly from its brute facticity, but from the way this singular event was interpreted as a crisis, the political circumstances that allowed this interpretation to take hold, and the consequences that were drawn from this manufactured crisis. Anker argues that what was specific about the political discourse built on the 9/11 attacks was that it allowed to the US to be presented as fragile. This allows for a melodramatic narrative, because fragility becomes a kind of unjust vulnerability, an innocence preyed upon by evil, which in turn renders the response to 9/11 heroic.

I think this is a useful way of understanding the currency of discourses of elite fragility in the Trump period. The most obvious such discourse is the revival of the anti-semitic conspiracy theory which sees white, western, power as under threat from cultural Marxism, but there’s a complementary liberal discourse of elite fragility, which sees Trump himself as the threat to the US constitutional order. What both share is that they see the status quo as fragile, as subject to an unjust or unfair vulnerability, and they use this unexpected vulnerability to create a sense of an imminent and dramatic crisis.

The dramatization of crisis is central to Anker’s characterization of melodramatic politics, and gives her book its title. The dramatic, unexpected, exceptional, character of crisis gives them an emotional intensity which contrasts with the low-level pain of much of contemporary life. Anker analyses this contrast through Nietzsche’s idea of orgies of feeling, which “overwhelm a dull and commonplace experience of pain that has become paralyzing by inflicting a greater pain on the subject” (154). Anker distinguishes her use of the idea of orgies of feeling from Nietzsche’s original understanding, in that, for Nietzsche, a subject inflicts pain on themselves in order to exercise sovereignty in a case when any other exercise is impossible, whereas in the cases Anker is discussing the subject identifies with suffering in order to be able to feel part of a sovereign agent that takes action against the apparent external source of this suffering. However, I think more recent melodramatic politics since 9/11 emphasises how close the willed identification with suffering is to an active choice to suffer; think of how desperate Andy Ngo is to be beaten up by antifa. The sovereign choice to identify how one is to suffer (identified by Nietzsche) feeds into the identification with the sovereign response to suffering (which is key to Anker’s analysis).

Maybe the most interesting part of Anker’s use of Nietzsche is this connection of orgies of feeling with sovereignty, in a political sense, and in a specifically neoliberal context. Anker identifies powerlessness as one of the key affects of neoliberalism, because neoliberalism deflects political contestation into technocracy, and obfuscates the exercise of power into the opaque workings of market forces. By paying attention to the affects that neoliberalism promotes, Anker helps us see continuities that might be obscured by thinking about neoliberalism solely in terms of technocracy and market rationality. Trump doesn’t use the rhetoric of expertise or market solutions that are often associated with neoliberalism, but that doesn’t make him post-neoliberal; he still channels the effects of a neoliberal organisation of society (of course, neoliberals have never just used rhetoric of expertise and market solutions; Anker’s discussion of the longer history of melodramatic modes in American politics is also useful in understanding this history).

Applying this understanding of the neoliberal roots of a certain melodramatic politics to the present also allows us to capture something that is missed by analyses which see support for Trump as a (perhaps misdirected) response to poverty (the “left behind white working class” theory). This analysis isn’t really supported by the demographics of Trump supporters, who tend to be comparatively well off. However, if we turn from their actual economic position to a more general “structure of feeling” generated by the neoliberal organisation of society, we can understand the material roots of this feeling of powerlessness, without having to say that their grievances are valid (either in the sense of being factually accurate or ethically acceptable).

Furthermore, Anker’s analysis allows us to see why this neoliberal feeling of powerlessness might lead to Donald Trump as a political response. Anker points out the liberal (broadly construed) equation of freedom with sovereignty. Given that identification, feelings of powerlessness generate as a response a demand for sovereignty; and that demand is expressed towards the traditional locus of sovereignty, the state. The political support for a strong state that followed 9/11, that is, was not a demand for a strong state in opposition to freedom, but a demand for a state that would exercise sovereignty on our behalf, and thus restore to us the freedom we feel we have lost. This is if anything more obvious today, when the demand from the right is that the state’s sovereignty be exercised closer to home, but always against the internal others (BLM, antifa), and the increasing self-identification of milita movements (traditionally, at least rhetorically, anti-state) with the repressive forces of the state. The same logic is at work in liberal turns towards organs of the law (the FBI, state attorney generals) to “restore” the American polity that has supposedly been usurped by Trump.

Anker also considers left-wing variants of this melodramatic politics which centres on crisis and heroic response. Given the important role played by the concept of sovereignty in her analysis, though, it’s surprising that the two examples she considers (Hardt and Negri, and Agamben) are prominent critics of the emphasis on sovereignty in politics. Perhaps the melodramatic form of their interventions blunts the force of their critique of sovereignty, but it seems to me a more natural target of Anker’s criticism would be recent attempts to reclaim sovereignty for the left; I’m thinking particularly of Jodi Dean’s endorsement of the party form and Peter Hallward’s arguments for popular sovereignty. Critical analysis of left melodramas of sovereignty seems particularly important now, in the aftermath of Bernie and Corbyn, which saw significant left-wing energies channelled towards an attempt to capture state power.

I wonder if a useful way to move forward from the failures of these attempts would be through what Anker calls “melodramas of failed sovereignty” (to borrow her phrasing, the Corbyn leadership as a women’s weepie). Anker argues that melodramatic narratives in which the attempted heroic exercise of sovereignty fails to secure freedom can help us work through our attachments to sovereignty, and so can allow us to begin building non-sovereign understandings of freedom.