Little events, ordinary things,
smashed and reconstituted.
Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story
The God of Small Things
The small drop of water
from the Bronx
You and I know that a small drop of water can sometimes reflect the sun. That is, it has the ability to throw light back to those able to see it. The drop of water reflects without any interest in absorbing or keeping the light. All it needs is the appropriate weather conditions and people willing to pay attention to their immediate surroundings.
Like a particularly brilliant drop of water, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has found the right weather conditions and people are paying attention. The light Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez shares with us is political, grounded in knowledge of two things: first, the knowledge that most Americans live in grinding socio-economic conditions characterized by poverty and inequality, while a miniscule group of individuals lives under conditions of obscene wealth, unregulated behavior, and demented political power.
Second, she understands that grass root activism in service of community matters. This was confirmed during a visit to Standing Rock where AOC witnessed the struggle of Native People to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to an interview published in June 2018 by The Cut, watching others “putting their whole lives and everything they had on the line for the protection of their community” led AOC to change her perception that the necessary conditions for running for office included being wealthy and having power and political influence.
In relative terms, one might say that in that moment in North Dakota, AOC ‘squared the circle’ in terms of understanding the material and subjective basis for progressive and radical politics. Perhaps in that moment in North Dakota, AOC realized what type of knowledge is essential to defeat the current version of this corroded America.
“Last year we brought the power to the polls, and this year we need to make sure we translate that power into policy.”
This moment of reckoning illustrates the convergence of knowledge that Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor described in a Monthly Review article: “The ability to distinguish between the ideology of the American Dream and the experience of the American Nightmare requires political analysis, history, and often struggle.” AOC’s political analysis, informed both by history and her knowledge of current struggles, coupled with her political praxis, is what the former waitress and working-class activist from the Bronx, now radical member of the US House of Representatives, has to offer to all of us in the process of transforming America.
The biblical sin of knowledge in the Age of Finance Capital
The Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran once suggested that the biblical myth about the sin of knowledge is the deepest myth imagined by humanity. (God in the book of Genesis forbids the first man and woman to eat from the tree of knowledge.) Throughout history, life has been tough for humans with a predisposition for knowledge. For those who simply dare to know or dare to know different things in different ways, or things not contemplated in the official narrative or code of belief, the consequences have more often than not been catastrophic.
History provides us with a long list of how existing powers at a given time dealt with individuals with a proclivity for learning, understanding, and critical thinking. This ranges from the original sinners cast out of Paradise by ‘God in person,’ to Socrates forced to switch to hemlock as a key ingredient in his last meal, to the Roman Empire’s executions of the first Christians (which gave a macabre connotation to the ‘Roman Circus’ festivities), to the thousands of people burned at the stake by the combined power of the Spanish, Portuguese and Roman Catholic inquisitions (do we still remember Giordano Bruno?), to the Galileo Galileis, and the Baruch Spinozas of all time who saw their work placed in the Index of Forbidden Books.
We may delude ourselves that this punitive mentality no longer exists. Modernity and liberal democracies welcome all forms of knowledge; tolerance and diversity of ideas constitute the jingle of our times. Nonetheless, when we frame this belief in historical terms and compare it against the material reality of existing social conditions, we note the lack of accuracy, and verify the delusional aspect of this view.
The many instances in which our ‘Short Fingered Vulgarian’ (a term borrowed from Vanity Fair) and his administration have dishonored the principles of tolerance and diversity constitute proof that the sin of knowledge persists. Nonetheless, it is important to consider that Trump’s behavior is not simply the result of his personality traits, but his behavior (aberrant as it may be) must also be understood as part of an attitude embedded in all levels of society, a society that does not exist in the abstract, but is closely imbricated with a particular form of capitalism.
The castigatory eye of society
Punishment for the alleged ‘sin of knowledge’ has gradually morphed to focus its castigatory and panoptical-eye on the realm of revolutionary politics. Particularly in America, there has not been a single revolutionary leader or political organization that has not become a target for elimination, neutralization, cooptation, or plain intimidation. From the slave rebellions of Gabriel Prosser in Virginia (1800), Denmark Vesey in South Carolina (1820), and Nat Turner in Virginia (1831), to the Socialist, Anarchist, and Communists militants and trade union leaders during the first half of the 20th Century, to Civil Rights and human rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the American Indian Movement, revolutionary student organizations, the Black Panthers and the Anti-War Movement in the 60s and early 70s—all have experienced the castigatory eye. They all partook of the forbidden fruits of the tree of knowledge, the tree of political consciousness towards real transformation. This is the tree from which American capitalism does not want you to eat, either in this country or overseas.
The punitive mind of American society has evolved in sync with the development of its historical forms of capitalism. The merchant model that predominated during the first decades of the republic was followed by an industrial and technological model prevalent until the latter part of the 20th century. Finally there arrived the present form in which finance capital becomes the center of gravity with a direct impact on the totality of the elements of society and the planet: individuals, organizations, institutions, and nature itself. At this historical moment, finance capital has hegemonic control not only over the economy but over our modes of existence and modes of thinking through subtle and not too subtle mechanisms of ideological person, manipulation and surveillance.
The effectiveness of these mechanisms must not be doubted. It is not casual that since the advent of Reagan in the 80s, America appears dormant and complacent before the eyes of the world, in spite of the rapid acceleration of internal social inequality and damaged physical surroundings. Not until the Occupy Movement in 2011, the advent of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2013, the resurgence of ecological awareness, and the impact of Bernie Sanders’ movement which agglutinated over a dozen million discontents not afraid of the word socialism has a potentially dangerous fissure in the existent political solace of American finance capital and its state institutions been so clearly marked, and from so many different lenses: race, class, gender, environment.
It is within this broader context that we must understand the multifaceted hostility displayed against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by the Trumpian republican media and its political apparatus. It not because she dresses in inexpensive off-the-rack garments or conversely because one day she wore expensive shoes. It’s not because she cannot afford a DC apartment and another home in New York. It’s not because there is a video of her dancing while she was in college or another one showing that she still knows how to dance and in the Capitol no less; and not because she is second only to Trump in Twitter power.
The attacks and the failed campaign of vilification against AOC are the expression of a capitalist political unconscious triggered by the fact that her presence is a constant reminder of her sinful knowledge–her political awareness (in her case, based on class, gender and ethnicity) combined with an understanding of the necessary organizational steps needed to transcend the current system—and the threat this poses to their political interests. As she put it during the women’s march in NYC: “last year we brought the power to the polls, and this year we need to make sure we translate that power into policy.”
Not by rushing to the center!
The battle against capitalism (the only battle worth fighting) has been a long and difficult one. Along this path, the Left has experienced many defeats, either for its own shortcomings or because of the malevolence of others. When the Left has proclaimed victories, even if short lived, they have been grounded in the interest and support of people at the core of the struggle. This conviction and this support will motivate the battles to come. Shortly after her victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in an interview with Amy Goodman, AOC summarized her strategy as follows:
I knew we were going to win. The way that progressives win on an unapologetic message is by expanding the electorate. That is the only way that we can win strategically. It is not by rushing to the center. It’s not by trying to win spending all of our energy winning over those who have other opinions. It’s by expanding the electorate, speaking to those who feel disenchanted, dejected, cynical about our politics, and letting them know that we are fighting for them.
The true sin is that AOC’s knowledge threatens the Trumpian republicans. As is to be expected, defenders of finance capitalism have her squarely within their castigatory eye. In a better world, knowledge would not be a sin. Until that time, let us all become better, bolder sinners for the cause.
Enrique Quintero writes regularly in Works in Progress and is a member of the Publishing Committee.