No one expected that it would happen the way it did. When the system started unraveling as it did in 2016, it was perceived to be an aberration. A freak event emerging from freak circumstances. What we didn’t know then was that it had all started much earlier, that outward sign having been long in the making, as it would have to be for something as radical as the canceling of a general election to occur.
There was a candidate from one party who desperately wanted to be President of what was then the United States of America, and who was certainly qualified to do the job, but so much a product of the political system of the time that she ended up being almost as out of touch with the populace as the other candidate whom, consensus opinion had it, was mostly to blame for the disruption. In the end, it turned out that he was as much a product as she was, even if he appeared somehow less of a product and more of a renegade lunatic or rogue actor. What we didn’t understand then was that what we were really witnessing was the final death throes of the public sector. The market had already won the battle, but we were still pretending that there was something called government that was separate from it.
Democracy is a funny word, hard to define and therefore, or perhaps because of that fact, mythic. Most of us just believed that we were still living in the midst of a democratic system because we had elections and could exercise our collective right to vote. But that is a very narrow definition of democracy. You could call it a “democracy,” but even that is an exaggeration. What we had was an illusion of democracy. A willful illusion. It was as though we had all agreed to pretend we were living in a democracy, when what we were living in was something very different. Could we have seen that then? I’m sure some people could, and at this point it is easy to say that people’s actions stemmed from the fact that there was no longer a functional democratic system in place. Whether or not those people would have explained the reasons for their actions in such a way is doubtful. At the time, they were just angry and felt excluded and disempowered, which they were.
I hate to go back to a metaphor based on something as dated as watching a movie at the cineplex, but I still think it is one of the best images I can use to explain what happened. For a long time, we all just believed that the movie we were watching was real and we were comfortable believing that because there was enough to go around and people were pretty comfortable. But once people started to realize that this was a movie being produced by forces that they had no control over, that they were just being manipulated to believe in a political fiction that was only superficially related to the political reality, there was really no going back.
The minute you say to yourself, “I do not live in a democracy” is the minute you have to start figuring out exactly what kind of system you do live in. If not x then what? There are only so many options: oligarchy, dictatorship, monarchy, etc. Or what we have now, a “market government.” Is that an oxymoron? Probably, but only if you have a very idealized and old fashioned understanding of government and its aims and functions. The government was supplanted by the market. It was simply replaced by it. You could say it was “taken over” by the market, which is certainly what happened, but the process through which that happened took decades. Looking back at it now, it seems incredible that people did not see what was happening sooner.
It was just logical, the events and their consequences, at least in retrospect, even if, then, none of us really knew what was going on, just thought the world had gone a little crazy, was off its meds. It sounds so naïve, I know, but at the time, there was still a notion that there was an entity called government that functioned outside of the market economy. That it could not possibly function in such a way is crystal clear now. But as I said before, just before everything fell apart, we were still pretending that the fiction, the movie, was real.
Johannah Rodgers is a writer, artist, and educator whose work explores issues related to representation and communication practices across media. She is the author of 52WordDrawings (mimeograph, 2017), At, Or To Take Regret: Some Reflections on Grammars (2016), Technology: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2014), and the digital fiction project DNA (mimeograph/The Brooklyn Rail).