The Character of the Crisis: On Dylan Riley’s “Microverses”

By Luisita Lopez TorregrosaFebruary 9, 2023

The Character of the Crisis: On Dylan Riley’s “Microverses”

Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present by Dylan Riley

A NEW BOOK of short essays, Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present, delivers small starbursts, “pieces of thought” about our current social and political crisis. The author, Dylan Riley, is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who began these notes in the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown in the United States and continued through the January 6 insurrection.

Written with a light hand but deep scholarship, Riley punctuates his numbered mini-essays with references to Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Gramsci, Hayek, Lukács, and other great theorists, befitting the sociological heft of his prior work, The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania 1870–1945 (2010). Riley turns his focus to the darkness of the present day, among questions of class, race, elitism, the bourgeoisie, reparations, feminism, and adjectival capitalism (racial capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, and more).

Presidential politics plays a predictably significant role in early passages, but after President Biden’s January 20 inauguration and first months in office, their presence takes a back seat. “This reflects in part my own uncertainty about the nature of the incoming administration,” Riley writes. “Biden ran a strategically shrewd but substantively empty campaign; in office, all that is so far clear is that his domestic agenda will express the balance of sharply opposed forces within the Democratic “Party” […] and little of his own meager stock of ideas.”

He’s also skeptical of Biden’s American Rescue Plan:

First and foremost is that a willingness to engage in massive deficit spending is no indicator whatsoever of social democracy, either as a policy program or as a political force. […] The second lesson is the substantial room the Democratic Party center has to cement its coalition exclusively with debt; tax increases are nowhere to be found.

The last jab at Biden comes toward the end of the book:

It would be a very comforting story to imagine that Biden’s strikingly ambitious domestic policy agenda (oversold by the liberal media but nonetheless remarkable) has something to do with pressure from the Democratic Party’s neo-social-democratic left. This is fantasy. […] The real pathbreaker for the Biden agenda is Trump, who destroyed neoliberalism as a distinctive intellectual and political force.

Marx looms large in these notes, and it’s never simple. For instance, in his preface, Riley asks:

What, then, is the relationship of these notes to Marxism itself, sociology’s ur-antagonist? Marxism’s two main twentieth-century revivals, in the twenties and sixties, were both marked by a productive cross-fertilization with sociology […] The current resurgence of Marxism shows very little sign of this […] largely because the concerns of contemporary social theory have little relevance to socialist politics. This lack of engagement comes with costs. The main one is that the new socialist and progressive literature relies heavily on essentially legalistic concepts in its mode of social analysis.

Riley is referring to ideas like justice, fairness, and equality. Marxism, he says, does not rely on such concepts, aiming instead for a “humanized society.”

The book’s slim format makes it look easy to flip page after page. Riley numbers each note and uses brief headings that provoke discussion. The notes are a mixed patch of ideas, questions, and partial answers, sometimes contradicting or challenging established dogma, explaining comments and contradictions.

For instance, the fourth note, titled “Politics in command,” asks, “What is the nature of the political economy emerging from the coronavirus? Are we heading toward ‘state-capitalism,’ or ‘neofeudalism,’ or something altogether different?”

Well, it’s complicated. What is the character of the crisis? One common explanation, he says, is that the coronavirus is an “exogenous shock to an otherwise healthy economy.” Riley does not entirely agree, suggesting instead that COVID-19’s impact intersects with an already extremely fragile economy.

The “retain and reinvest” model of the pre-1980s United States, when corporations invested in plants and equipment, became “downsize and distribute,” in which corporations did not invest but gave priority to shareholder value and redistributed profits. The pandemic, Riley says, “has exposed this crisis; it has not created it.”

What about successful companies like Amazon or other businesses that were likely to do well during the coronavirus crisis? Riley writes,

These firms increasingly derive their profits from their monopolistic or monopsonistic position in markets, which, although initially gained through competitive struggle, tends to be reproduced by political means. These are very dangerous developments. The increasing importance of political power as a determinant of the rate of return is one of the basic reasons for the hollowing out of democracy. But viewed more dialectically, socialism is now increasingly a reality.

On several contentious issues, Riley takes a contrarian view. For instance, he does not agree with the general description of the January 6 protesters as a “mob” of white supremacists out to overthrow democracy. He writes:

[T]here are problems with this description. Surprisingly, the crowd contained a few people of color; it was not homogenously white. More importantly, the basic demand of the “insurrectionists” was that a stolen election be made right. […] As far as I could tell […] explicitly white-supremacist demands were unusual. What to make of all this? The point is that in their own view the insurrectionists were small “d” democrats acting as Jeffersonian tyrant slayers. They viewed the Capitol as an iniquitous den of corruption. Were they wrong?

In a note on class and race, he asks,

What are classes? What are races? These basic conceptual issues are left in the cognitive mire of everyday political jargon. Classes are usually identified with something economic, and ultimately are identified with income groups. […] Races, in contrast, have something to do with culture and identity. But both of these are inadequate formulations.

He offers the example of Northern workers (not high-income earners) and capitalists in the late 19th century who “came together as a nativist white bloc against competition from foreign goods and foreign persons […] [Class struggle] can also take other forms such as religious affinity […] or national or regional identity.”

About our deeply polarized society, he points at the blurring of fact and opinion, religion and science, subjective and objective: “[O]ne of the characteristics of American culture, particularly in the current period, is that ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ are conceived as existing in unmediated opposition. […] The missing link between the two is critical rationality, especially as applied to politics.”

In note 32, he takes on AOC (he doesn’t spell out the name of United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York) and the American Left as a whole: “[T]he US left should talk much less about making society ‘fairer’ (a muddled and basically petit bourgeois notion) and much more about making society more rational or human.” Later on, in note 38, he criticizes the Left again: “The American left would do well […] to spend less energy on outrage and more on the study and appreciation of the laws of power and its exercise. Isn’t that what Machiavelli was trying to teach us?”

Discussion of equality and elitism consumes many pages, and here, in note 49, Riley may be at his most provocative. “Devotion to the demos and hatred of ‘elites’ is perhaps the only commitment shared across the otherwise profoundly polarized political and cultural landscape. […] [But] it seems, in fact, that no one is standing up for the elites these days,” Riley says. “And yet, in the midst of so much fervent chest-thumping on behalf of the little guy or gal, never in its history has wealth and income been so unequally distributed in American society. What is going on?”

There is no clear answer, only more questions. Riley says that socialism, or the humanized society, suggests a concept that is somehow beyond equality and inequality:

This is so because it would be a society allowing for an absolute flourishing of individuality, where people are neither equal to one another, nor unequal to one another; they are instead irreducibly unique (which is why life is tragic). In the humanized society we could say that the concepts of equality and inequality will be relegated “to the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.”

That may be as close as Riley gets to an optimistic reflection or sliver of light.


Luisita Lopez Torregrosa is a journalist and award-winning author with a focus on cultural trends and political and media profiles.

LARB Contributor

Luisita Lopez Torregrosa is a journalist and author who writes about cultural trends and politics, sex and gender, and political and media profiles. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, NBC News/Opinion, Air Mail, Vogue, Texas Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveler, and The Washington Post Magazine.


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