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OPINION: Our political institutions are dying. We can’t count on them to solve our era’s biggest problems

<p>A banner taken from the Destituent Power website for IU&#x27;s 2020 Critical Ethnic Studies symposium, which will take place Nov. 13 to Nov. 16.<br/><br/></p>

A banner taken from the Destituent Power website for IU's 2020 Critical Ethnic Studies symposium, which will take place Nov. 13 to Nov. 16.

Election Day has come and gone. As we wait for results, we should reflect on what this election won’t decide for us. It will not offer solutions to the political predicaments in which progressives find themselves. Neither former Vice President Joe Biden nor President Donald Trump has offered ethical ways to contend with anti-Black police violence, climate catastrophe, immigration or health care. 

What are we going to do about a “democracy” that is impotent to solve the most pressing problems of the day? How long will we accept the forced choice between bad candidates and worse candidates, between bad health care and worse health care, between bad climate policies and worse climate policies? Between the border wall and the ruthless surveillance and deportation of thousands of migrants?

Now that we’ve dutifully gone to the polls in an effort to ensure the lesser of two evils will become president, it is time to start thinking about how we will deal with the evil they both represent. 

Let’s face it. Police brutality is still rampant, the globe is accelerating toward climate catastrophe, Americans still cannot afford the health care they need and there is no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our political institutions cannot save us. For that, it is necessary to look beyond these institutions to our communities. 

The uprisings this summer gave us a glimpse of the possibilities that collective self-organization offers. A hotel in Minneapolis was transformed into a shelter and health clinic for people experiencing homelessness and managed collectively in George Floyd’s memory. Basic necessities were distributed in the streets, and public parks were occupied and turned into collective gardens where local food was produced.

These events may seem small on their own, but they are experiments in building collective life that challenges racialized capitalism. They may seem spontaneous, but they are rooted in a revolutionary tradition that traces its roots through the Black radical tradition and global struggles.

The Black Panthers, after all, knew — when the government doesn’t care whether children go hungry — it is a revolutionary act to build community infrastructure and feed kids before school.

Over decades of struggle, two political traditions have emerged that grapple with the potential for life outside capitalism. Fred Moten, a professor at New York University, and Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher and professor, write about the pressing issues of the past year. Both are committed to not just critiquing the current political order, but thinking through what it would mean to build a collective life outside of it.

Moten’s work, in particular, sheds light on the problems the Black Lives Matter movement has posed, and attempts to envision what it would mean to abolish racism. 

“What is, so to speak, the object of abolition?” ask Moten and Stefano Harney, a professor at Singapore Management University, in their book, “Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study."

"Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery . . . and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything, but abolition as the founding of a new society,” they answer.

Keeping with the spirit of the decentralized Black Lives Matter movement, Moten and Harney seek to affirm the different ways of living that flourish outside of centralized institutions. They refer to life that slips through the cracks of the current order as the “undercommons.”

Moten and Harney explain the undercommons using the striking image of the colonial fort — a militarized enclosure surrounded by indigenous forms of life. The life surrounding the fort is an undercommons because it is held in common and is fundamentally plural. It escapes colonial logic that flattens out different forms of life into citizens under a single constitution, or economic subjects who relate to one another only through a single system of exchange.

The undercommons contain the key to understanding police violence in the U.S. Moten and Harney argue white supremacy has always viewed Black people as being an outside threat to civil society and to its political and economic institutions. Moten gives the example of Eric Garner, who was murdered by police for selling cigarettes without a license. Police did not murder him simply for breaking the law, but because he was surviving outside the accepted economic channels.

Government will always need to suppress the forms of life that escape it. Finding new ways to collectively live apart from current institutions is a better option than trying to reform or revolutionize the institutions themselves.

Coming to similar conclusions as Moten and Harney, Agamben points out that revolutions have thus far always represented a constituent power, a power constituting a new government. Agamben seeks to theorize a “destituent power.”

Destituent power seeks to render sovereign political authority powerless once and for all. 

For both Agamben and Moten, we cannot work toward fixing our rotting political institutions. We have to render them unnecessary. The proper response to political authority is to desert it, to build forms of life that can abandon it entirely.

What would it mean to have community-based responses to crime, so the police are no longer necessary? What would it mean to have community-based medical collectives where people can get the health care they need without paying thousands of dollars in deductibles, or even going bankrupt? What would it mean to decide to take the health of our planet into our own hands?

These questions are worthy of serious thought. The election is over, and we must accept we require far more imaginative solutions than waiting for politicians to save us. 

Fortunately, IU scholars and community organizers have created a forum to discuss the potential for collective life. From Nov. 13 to Nov. 16, scholars from around the world will convene for a conference called “The Undercommons and Destituent Power: Between Pandemic and Revolt.” 

Together, we will ask ourselves and each other the question: from where we are now, how do we build a life in common that takes anti-racism, our health and our planet’s health as its starting point?

To read more about the Undercommons and Destituent Power conference or to register, visit the website.

Bradi Heaberlin (they/them) is a second-year Ph.D. student studying geography and informatics. They are also a member of Young Democratic Socialists of America Bloomington and the Graduate Workers Coalition.

Nick Bergen contributed to writing this column. He is a survivor’s advocate and activist in Bloomington. Nick's been involved in initiatives to push progressive climate policies on the local level.

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