This article was written on 09 Nov 2016, and is filled under Urbanities.

The Industrial Fire of American Democracy

Bethlehem Steel Plant, Lackawanna, NY. Photo by George Burns, 1896-1996, Photographer (NARA record: 1340567) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bethlehem Steel Plant, Lackawanna, NY. Photo by George Burns, 1896-1996, Photographer (NARA record: 1340567) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the morning after the election of Donald Trump, the massive and abandoned Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, NY (just south of Buffalo) became engulfed in fire. I live in close proximity, in another suburb/exurb of Buffalo, by the name of Orchard Park, home of the Buffalo Bills and a great number of lawn placards promising to make America great again. Passing Lackawanna on my way to work, the fire looked like an active volcano on the shore of Lake Erie. Home to industrial jobs that disappeared long ago to far flung parts of the world, a perfect metaphor for the country I woke up to this morning:

Later in the day, just about an hour ago, I drove past Lackawanna on my way home, just a little closer this time. The smoke had subsided, but it was still very active. You could see the silhouettes of the giant windmills of “Steel Winds” — a wind farm built several years ago on an old slag heap next to the factory — through the smoke. Old economy/New economy. But beyond this poetic vision, an olfactory disturbance: The foul stench of burning industrial waste permeated the air, singing the throat.

Old economy/New politics? Trump’s victory is as if the old economy had come to burn the new politics of Obama’s America down to the ground. Today there is a great deal of fear in the air, especially for those of us who live in areas of intense Trump support. (We refused to put any Hillary signs on our lawn, for fear of being identified — the other side is heavily armed and unquestionably willing to shoot). Yet living in fear is inhuman — and we owe it to ourselves and those close to us to be more human, not less. Mourning the loss is inevitable. But it stands to reason that we must prepare and act for what will be coming upon us sooner than you might expect.

Political structures on both right and left collapsed last night, under intense infernal heat. The Democratic Party is now fractured, and the Republican Party permitted such a vile candidate because it was in the midst of its own collapse. Stable ruling coalitions have been broken, and nothing remains to take their place except the overblown personality of a narcissist. But the takeaway from this election is not that coalitions within our political institutions have failed, but that a fundamental breach has opened between those institutions and the people they nominally represent. A crisis of representation, if you want to call it that.

This crisis of representation lies precisely in how political institutions have represented politics to themselves. These institutions like to think that constitute a democracy. But since actual people are the source of their power and legitimacy, they have utilized advanced forms of demography to carve up and extract that human support. They are incapable, in other words, of divining the distinction between democracy and demography.

Democracy vs. Demography: Over the course of this election the polls (the grafē of the Demos) seemed to acquire more reality than the movement of actual bodies (the kratia of the Demos). However, citizens have been treated as mere denizens for as long as they can remember: they merely reside where they live to be grafted into a political establishment, to maintain the semblance of legitimacy and hegemony of the nation’s political system, increasingly through quantitative measures, machines that track and channel people’s movements. This election showed, however, that citizens still exert a democratic power as citizens. This can be a frightening amount of power, in fact, but it should not be misrecognized for what it is. Citizenship.

The votes cast resulted from democratic decisions on the part of citizens. But it seems clear to me that there is a woeful understanding of the power unleashed by those decision on the part of the citizens making them. The vote therefore becomes a mere symbolic gesture in the eyes of those who, let us not forget, have been treated more as denizens than citizens, and therefore have become inclined to believe their actions carry only symbolic weight (rather than material political-economic effect): namely, in this case, to blot out the rather vampyric political-demographic system that leeches power from them, nihilistic action under the sign of whatever position that has been prohibited to them (racism, sexism, classism, whatever). The long-term solution seems to me a kind of throwback to the late 18th century: public education in civics and polity. And who is poised to offer such education? Scholars in the humanities who, as a class, have largely come to cast aspersion on any sort of institutionalism, and indeed upon the very citizens with whom they disagree — those who they would like to lump together as some nameless “multitude” for theoretical purposes rather than empathizing with them as people with actual stories to tell. One can both theorize and empathize, of course, but in my experience this is an exceedingly rare occurrence.

I can already feel the backlash coming from my colleagues (whom I love as friends) as I write this. But I cannot avoid feeling this: Right now as I conclude this post, the post-industrial fire continues. The air is still metallic. Soot filled with god knows what kind of dioxin has settled on rooftops and driveways throughout Lackawanna and Hamburg, and from there the rest of the nation. Our children will play in this toxic dust tomorrow, and the fire will continue. And yet, and yet…

Now is the time to teach again.

One Comment

  1. Henry Sussman
    November 23, 2016

    Under precipitous conditions of social as well as ecological climate change, meticulous observation & description of developments literally on the ground, such as Read has provided concerning Lackawanna, constitutes a political act. Feedback welcomes the unfolding narratives furnished by its readers.