As I went out for a small picket protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump today, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on the recent events, and the ongoing drama that has unfolded like a horror show ever since he announced his candidacy in the primaries last year.
The protest, held in the center of Cambridge, UK, where I currently live, brought together a curious mix of people – from disgruntled liberals, Labour voters and Corbyn supporters, to union organisers, socialists and a couple of us anarchists. Among the signs and chants condemning racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiments, ours stood out a bit – while we agree with all that, we also reject what many people unfortunately mistake for the solution. Let’s face it, where would most of these people be had Clinton picked up her expected win?
Comically, a passer-by reproached us for being anti-Trump and anti-Brexit, telling us that we should accept the democratic outcome, as he would have done. Obviously missing the part of our signs saying no to Clinton and Remain as well as Trump and Brexit. After hearing that we seemed to have a broader critique of the system, and of capitalism, he backtracked and told us communism doesn’t work. He then discovered our red and black flags: “Oh, so you have the anarchy flag…” he said, “but how do you organise things without leaders?” Soon after he disappeared into the crowd again. I guess sometimes you just can’t win either way.
And that is sort of the point here. Saying no to Trump, for many, implies saying yes to Clinton, or perhaps Bernie Sanders. But the fixation with these false dichotomies is a symptom of a deeper problem with politics today, where representatives and celebrity-like political figureheads are hailed as saviours. Instead of analyzing the systemic issues, the particular interests of various powerful groups, and of the capitalist class as well as of the government, we reduce the problem to simply one of having the wrong ideas or personality traits. That is dangerous, because if your analysis misses the point, so will any action you take based on said analysis.
The outrage over Trump’s sexist, anti-immigrant and populist rhethoric, and the hypothetical difference that a Clinton would make, has to be put in perspective, beyond the type of superficial identity politics by the logic of which, Clinton, as a woman, would mean a victory for the struggle over patriarchy and sexism. As quick as some people seem to be in hailing the next saviour, as fast do they seem to forget what just played out before their very eyes.
The outgoing president, Barack Obama, a black man, if that eluded anyone, oversaw a regime of brutal war, detentions, neoliberalism and, crucially, blatant structural racism towards indigenous as well as black people, to the point where violent clashes with the police and a growing Black Lives Matter movement materialized as the desperate outcry of various hugely marginalized and horribly abused communities. Behind the scenes, the entire prison-industrial complex with it’s lifeblood – the war on drugs – ensured black americans could be used as cheap labor, in what is nothing else than modern day slavery. Exactly how did the symbolic presence of a black man at the helm of this oppressive system help those people?
The anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, in his eerily prophetic polemics against authoritarian socialism in the late 1800s, once pointed out that the people do not really care whether the stick they are being beaten with is called “The People’s Stick”. Likewise, today, we can say that any oppressed group – be it women, blacks, immigrants or LGBTQs – is not automatically better off just because “one of them” is administering the oppressive system at some level. This is because the dynamics of power itself , be it political or economic. A shared identity, in some narrow sense, does not necessarily mean a shared interest in abolishing all those structures of power.
Now some could say that Obama, for instance, faced a hostile Republican party apparatus that crippled his possibility to enact meaningful change in many areas. While this is partially true, it has to be noted that this is pretty much by design. No matter if we’re talking of a system rigged for a two-party setup, or one with a multitude of bickering political interests, the entire point is to direct people’s attention to something that does not and cannot emancipate them – the theater of parliamentarism – and away from what can – self organisation and direct action.
Change has never emanated from parliaments, it has rather reached them after often long and arduous grassroots campaigns and people’s struggles in the streets, in their communities and at their places of work. But it is easy to mistake the cause for the effect, when, day in and day out, we’re fed media images of those parliaments as the real seats of power, while we rarely get to see the people that really make change happen, or force it on parliaments, by their own actions. What parliaments do, though, is often to take the momentum out of such social movements and struggles, pacifying them, and in that making them reliant on an alienating form of politics that limits them to adjustments within the pre-determined parameters of the system.
Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as the president of the United States, several sections of the White House website were taken down. Most notably, those concerning LGBTQ rights and environmental issues. Many take this as an ominous sign of things to come. While it is true that we should not expect much good from Trump in this regard, it could be argued that the US government now operates according to a more honest policy than it has in a long time. Because despite Trump’s awful politics and track record, it is not at all obvious which is actually worse; the powers that be openly rejecting the important problems facing us, or ostensibly acknowledging them and then pretending to be doing something about it.
While the latter will just pacify us and make us expect someone else to actually make the change we want and desperately need, the former offers a meaningful alternative, although disguised as a sobering realization.
We have to be the change we want to see. We have to fight for ourselves.