Proposition 22 & Its Discontents, Part 2: The Postmodern Joke

This morning I am overwhelmed by sadness — the type of emotional overwhelmed-ness that sort of makes it, like, really hard to put into words exactly what I think and feel. Frankly, I suspect that even if I were not emotionally overwhelmed, I doubt I’d be able to sort through all the “hot takes” this morning for whatever “truth” exists within the barrels and barrels and barrels and barrels of hay. This morning — on the day after the election — there is just too much content: information, mis-information, well-informed opinions, not well-informed opinions. This much I know, though: this Facebook rant you are reading is a fraud, a sleight-of-hand that steals away political action like a thief in broad daylight. (Phrase borrowed from Zizek.)

My social media usage has gone way, way up in this last month. Why? Because social media is fun. Because it allows me to feel “connected” with and “validated” by my peers. Because I get a rush when I check that so-and-so “liked” my Facebook rant or whatever I was posting that hour. And lastly because — this is my dark confession — I worried very much so that Proposition 22 (the Uber-backed initiative that would strip California gig workers of their employee rights) might pass, and so I figured, since at work I was feeling so overwhelmed and frustrated, I might as well allow myself to be caught in an ideology that, like, “posting on Facebook and shouting into the void of the Internet might be good for the world.”

Maybe, then, my sadness is informed by my forced confrontation with the Real of the situation: Californians have overwhelmingly voted to strip away hundreds of thousands of workers of a basic minimum wage, real benefits, sick pay, and the right to form a legally recognized Union. Uber — with their $204 million campaign war chest, the most expensive war chest for a ballot proposition in California history — won. And despite the best, most innovative, most creative, most hard-working minds of the United States labor movement, we were unable to stop what — as I wrote earlier in Part 1, and which I still believe — will become a fundamental shift in the development of neoliberal capitalism that we have only begun to understand.

I have not fully developed my thoughts on this. But I think that Uber (and gig work in general) being on the phone is fundamental — for theorists have long talked about how under capitalism human beings’ labor becomes commodified. But I think there is something deep happening within our experience of reality where — at least it used to be that human identity and expression remained outside the realm of the neoliberal commodifiable totality. But — dude, look at all these Facebook posts. Look at the “humanist art” and “resistance art” on Instagram. This all feels too common: the Imaginary fantasy of neoliberal reality is fractured by the Real, we are traumatized, we are outraged, we post what feels to us to be our deepest rage, and then the world-historical carries on, as if our resistance identities have themselves become circumscribed within the capitalist totality.

And let us not kid ourselves. It’s certainly something I’ve been kidding myself with during this last month: this phone that I’m typing this on right now overwhelmingly serves in my mind the creation of my individualized, commodified identity, overwhelmingly only serving my narcissistic Imaginary self. Sure, through DMs I can discuss and debate Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and don’t get me wrong that’s a lot of fun. But I’ll also tell you another dark secret: recently I have not convinced one person of my new ideas using this platform. Facebook is almost useless to me in this regard. Even my original “Proposition 22 & its Discontents” essay, which 60(!) people shared, along with the 8 people who shared my post saying that we all had to textbank voters about Prop 22 — of those 68 people, only 1 person followed through with engaging voters. 2 people showed up to in-person events.

Thankfully through actual worker organizing and calls to community allies, we were able to still have many great events with lots and lots of people. And thankfully — just to soften this polemic — social media influencers like Adam Conover did play a large role in turning out dozens of people to phonebank and textbank. Overwhelmingly, though, the majority of our hundreds of phonebankers and textbankers came very traditionally — through the structural infrastructure of the labor movement: unions, central labor councils, etc.

As for the vast majority of social media users, I mention the above not to chastise anyone. I don’t think it’s our fault that we have become so addicted to our phones. But I do think these phones act as a thief in broad daylight of human connection and intimacy. And we all know this! Even when we talk about the alienating nature of our phones, we talk about our resulting alienations on, you guessed it, our phones — raging against neoliberalism and atomization, all while further atomizing ourselves ever more. And I do wonder: if Uber drivers were not controlled by mystery algorithms but instead controlled by humans with real faces, I wonder if the California drivers’ movement would not be even bigger. (Your human boss tells you how to vote, it’s easy to tell him to go f*ck himself; your employer through an app shows you a deceptive video about a ballot proposition, you accept it.) You might start to see my point: intimacy is hard through a phone, and although rage becomes more expressible with our phones, through our phones rage also becomes commodifiable on both the levels of consumption (political outrage) and of production (the absence of a human boss to archetypically have an Image to more easily organize against). And even beyond Posts, there are also Stories, so perhaps really it is the whole human soul which is becoming commodified under capitalism.

Allow me to get even more depressing.

I mentioned that the best minds in the United States labor movement failed to stop Proposition 22. I also mentioned that there were many Leftists who repeatedly posted about how Prop 22 was an existential threat but failed to take any action. But I am not only a union organizer and a Leftist — I also used to be on the Board of a local neoliberal non-profit (and through those connections ran for our local Democratic Party’s central committee last year). I am here to report to you that neoliberal “consultants,” who act extremely confidently about how social movements and politics work, absolutely have no idea what they are talking about. Clearly. I mean, Jesus, look at this election outside of Proposition 22.

I received a lot of DMs this morning. This one was from my dad: “So sorry about prop 22. You guys worked so hard to fight it.”

But would this reaction — me feeling sorry for not having won a campaign despite my hard work — not be, like, the most narcissistic reaction possible? Like, don’t get me wrong. I know perfectly well what my dad was trying to do: comfort me.

But politics is not about individuals. Politics is not about what any individual union organizer dreams up as a strategy. Politics is not about what a Leftist posts on Facebook. Politics is certainly not whatever some neoliberal consultant thinks is the answer. I’m terrified to report the most beautiful of truths: politics is about coming together collectively to build Real power to confront the Real order.

I really do believe this deep in my soul: this is an opportunity. Never before have the attacks on the working class become so glaringly obvious. We have an opportunity to mass organize.

We must take action.

And in confrontation with the ridiculous postmodern individualization we find ourselves in — we must think and theorize our way out of it. We must also think critically about what we are doing too — clearly no one, if we’re being fully honest, knows what the answer is.

So we must take action. And we must critically think about what we are doing based on that action. And we must talk all the time in good faith about how to take effective action.

I mentioned at the top of this post that this Facebook rant you are reading is a fraud, a sleight-of-hand that steals away political action like a thief in broad daylight. It certainly does feel as if sincerity in these times is itself the postmodern joke, and that the postmodern jokesters — exemplified by Trump — are actually the ones getting their agenda done.

Don’t allow me, then, to trick you with my form.

Let’s make our resistance Real.

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