January 1st is the day of Janus, the Roman god of change, time, and transitions. Janus was a god they did not inherit from the Greeks, and whose origin is mysterious still to this day. The god looks out at the world with two faces, gazing as it were across the world ceasing to be and the world coming into existence. 2016 is a year of yet another presidential election in the United States, but one taking place in an environment of increasing uncertainty about the future for world powers and their subjugated. The last serious presidential contest in 2008 seems worlds away in terms of the context. When youth and the poor mobilized in unprecedented numbers for the Obama campaigns vague promises of change, it would have been hard to imagine that only a few short years later some 40% of the protesters at Occupy had worked for the Democratic Party in their attempt to secure Obama’s victory.
Since the crisis began to unfold more fully in 2008, politics as it was has been steadily undermined by a series of disruptive events such as the tea party, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter. Internationally, quantative easing led to surging economies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa fueled by easy money. When Europe and the US regained their footing with financial interventions by their governments, the investments came flooding back out of the largely export-economies which has developed into the second stage of global crisis.
Signs of new times are not hard to find. Consider the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The US is supporting it’s traditional ally Turkey who in turn is supporting ISIS and launching attacks against the Kurds who the US are also providing assistance to in the fight against ISIS. Open disagreement exists within both the Democrats and the Republicans over who is friend and foe including discussions of joining with Russia and Iran, let alone the revolutionary leftist Kurds.
Trump and Sanders are perhaps messengers of things to come. The ruling class increasingly looks like a schizophrenic Janus with its faces lost in a sea of change, with a sea of contender ready to take up the mantle. Today the outcome of the election is unclear. Even should traditional Republican and Democratic candidates secure the nominations, the candidacy of left and right populism has posed a severe threat to the party such that establishment candidates like Clinton and Bush have been forced to shift positions in light of the challengers. Trump comes on the heels of the tea party tendency in his party, but with distinct politics that managed to express the dissatisfaction of a section of the populace normally comfortable in that political home. The politics of Sanders and Trump are not the voice of a shifting public per say, but instead reflect the attempt of the political elites to shift with a public that is steadily undermining their way of doing business for the past few decades at least.
The simple formulas of the left that Sanders represents social democracy and Trump fascism, beyond being just incorrect, obscure something much more fundamental. The election is demonstrating that the instability at home and internationally has created cracks in the political structure. Whoever wins the election will face a country and a world in flux, and in which increasingly popular pressures are pushing against traditional arrangements for settling disputes within society.
The thousands of recently politicized participants in the campaigns will face the reality of our situation and the coming polarization with whichever outcome. Revolutionaries should avoid getting sucked into yet another electoral contest. Even if it were a good idea in itself, our abilities would be lost in the vast sea of reformism seeking to improve capitalism, when we could focus our attention where only we can shine. Where possible, we should be speak to those who are questioning and taking action to plant seeds against elections and for another way of doing politics that will inevitably follow election day. We should be preparing for a different context than we’ve been used to that could lead to surprising and unexpected situations of potential or repression.