“Living without the skin”: Or the ego position of not voting for Hillary Clinton

I always say, I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I grew up on Mao. Of course, the latter part is not strictly true. I barely read Mao when I was sixteen and joined campus marches against the Marcos dictatorship at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. But, as they say, I have many good friends who were Maoists. I watched how campus activists moved and strategized for larger aims—the larger aim being to destroy imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism, of course. 🙂 We weren’t marching for small change. We were going for the big bucks, the revolution. But the chess-positioning and the coalition-building and the tactical warfare maneuvering even re: the most picayune details of campus-election-candidates and so on are imprinted like weird DNA that never gets erased in my brain, no matter how I try. I do strange internal analytics whenever confronted with anyone (friend, lover, boss, student): I consider myself and my class and historical position in relation to the other, and I am always refracting this positionality back into my relationship with that other [friend, lover, boss, etc] so that, however desperately I would like to have an unmediated relationship [with anyone really, even my daughter], I am always defeated. My old teenage, UP-campus-activist mind gets in the way. I am never only myself: I am always part of a goddamned world dialectical-materialist struggle, even when I am just choosing my kid’s gym shoes or bored as shit at a faculty meeting. 🙂 But what my experience with campus activism at Diliman taught me was that the decision one made (and ALL of one’s decisions were political) was always contingent on the needs of the moment—in relation to the larger cause.

It was our end that was necessary; our means were contingent.

Thus, the rift among my friends upon the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, for instance—a figure (correctly) enshrined in our PSR teach-ins as basic panginoong-maylupa slash comprador-bourgeois. When one of my classmates from the English department, Cochise Bernabe, asked me in 1983 if I wanted to go and serenade Ninoy at the airport when he arrived, I looked at him as if he were nuts: why would I want to do that?? Cochise, clearly, was not among the Maoists. Of course, now, looking back, I regret not going—what experiences I miss as a writer because of what I scorn as an ideologue! Anyway, we had to decide: were we for the obviously imperfect widow Cory Aquino (an oligarch, from one of the most powerful landlord families of the country—but also, at the time, clearly a means for change) or do we boycott? Officially, the party line was boycott; at the same time, many of us joined the Cory marches: the split, in my view, lay in the Gramscian instincts that, however doctrinaire the higher-ups might be, were deeply engrained in our campus activism. Not that we read Gramsci then (our handbook was Amado Guerrero, after all). But as Gramsci says, “the truth is, one cannot choose the war one wants.” There is an ego position, I think, in seeing political choices as being determined by ideological purity: we wish the war to be on our personal terms. In 1986, I chose to march for Cory because I thought the left needed to be in the trenches given the needs of the moment—marching strategically, with larger aims in mind. I still believe that at the time, even with what I know now, my choice was correct. Overthrowing the dictator was “historically necessary,” a material change for the country (though revolution is yet to come…). And it is terrible that the left, which gave organization and momentum and clarity to the anti-dictatorship movement that installed Cory, did, as we argued would happen, get left behind in the immediate euphoria of that so-called rebellion, since it had publicly boycotted her election. The leaders of the left failed to seize the moment.

They should have read Gramsci.

(Of course, there are many, overdetermined reasons for the weakened Philippine left and, of course, for all the atrocious post-Marcos governments that followed the people power rebellion of 1986.)

In the case here of Hillary Clinton, I choose to vote for her because we need to be in the trenches and so advance our larger aims. The notion that she must respond perfectly to my demands is an ego position that I have long discarded. As I learned as a kid in Diliman, I am never only myself—I am part of a larger struggle. My vote is strategic and provisional, and yes, it is a sign of my defeat, but it is also a sign of my refusal to lose the war. With Trump, we lose a lot—not least of it enthroning a raging racist—he is a concrete threat to people of color—we need to accept this fact—that allowing this man to govern us is an irreparable reality that we do not need to live to regret. (That Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, was the PR consultant to the dictator Marcos is a historical repetition not lost on me.)

Gramsci had made this interesting analogy of politics to anatomy: “By highlighting the anatomy and the function of the skeleton nobody was trying to claim that man (still less woman) can live without the skin.” He was talking about “structure/superstrucure”; but I use the metaphor in terms of ethics. To imagine that we can live with the harm of a trumpity presidency on our civil liberties, on the poor, on #blacklivesmatter, on Muslims, and so on, to not recognize the ethics of the moment, is to imagine that we “can live without the skin.” We highlight the skeleton—our ideological purity—but we still need to live in the world.

I’m not saying that a vote for Hillary is “historically necessary,” as an election is just one of the tools for change, and repeatedly, as we can see, it is a fairly deficient one. But a vote for Hillary is also, to me, not merely “arbitrary”: there is a concrete difference in our choices. One is flawed but makes sense and has allied goals (for one thing, she shifted given the demands of Bernie Sanders: one must see that as a good sign); the other makes no sense at all.

Difference matters: literally. Difference is material—difference is part of the world of things.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: the Gramscian mantra my friends in Manila mutter every day as they wake up to more strange news of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines on one hand and the prospect of peace in Mindanao on the other, both under the not-so-trumpian yet certainly perverse new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Everywhere, there’s a specter of global weirdness haunting the world these days. Sadly, it is not the specter Marx was foretelling. But we can still act in the ambiguous moment and vote—with our larger goals in mind.

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