Trump and Brexit left progressives aghast. They should be emboldened | Jeff Sparrow


As a movement dedicated to social transformation, the left must reclaim the idea of progess from the reactionaries and demagogues

In 2017, how might progressives win?

Even posing the question feels odd almost a category error since winning scarcely exists as a referent in so much of progressive practice.

The late Peter Cook used to perform a sketch in which he played a leftie working for the media empire of Lord Beaverbrook (think Rupert Murdoch).

Cook assures his friend that he remains as radical as ever.

There are about 10 of us on the paper, young, progressive, liberal people who dont believe a word we are writing, and whenever the old man has a party a cocktail party we all gather together down the far end of the room and drink as much as we can we really knock it back we drink and drink and drink trying to break him from within; then quite openly, behind our hands we snigger at him.

The friend looks doubtful: Well, it doesnt seem very much to me sniggering and tittering.

A titter there, a titter here, says Cook. It all adds up.

Thats very familiar today.

On the left, we spend our time calling out and shutting down, lolling and meming and dropping mics.

But winning? What does that even mean?

Lets put the problem another way.

Traditionally, progressives defined themselves, at least in part, by a desire for change. The right defended the status quo; the left agitated to overthrow or at least ameliorate it. Progressives sought progress, movement, transformation, forcing the old to give to the new until wed built a modern Jerusalem.

The year might be drawing to a close but the instability of 2016 will continue. You can feel it everywhere: all that is solid preparing to melt into air.

With change so palpably afoot, this should be our time.

So why isnt it?

In 1939, WH Auden wrote The Unknown Citizen to satirise the managerial revolution already then under way. Today, the poem reads like an eerie anticipation of liberal incredulity at Brexit and Trump and the other recent upheavals.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

In theory, progressives recognise the necessity of fundamental social change. In practice, weve responded to explosive manifestations of discontent with a mixture of fury and disbelief, aghast not just at the reactionary sentiments expressed but at the very existence of a dissatisfaction about which we knew nothing whatsoever.

All over the world, pollsters report deep unhappiness with the institutions of liberal capitalism. Yet somehow the left a movement dedicated to social transformation has become the defender of a status quo that no one much else likes.

Francis Adams was also a poet (though far less distinguished than Auden).

In 1889, he explained his parallel career as an activist:

Five years ago, I broke up my health in the struggle then just beginning to organise the unskilled London labour. It seemed a failure. But I never despaired, or saw cause to despair. There was a splendid foundation of hate there. With hate, all things are possible.

Its difficult to imagine a progressive saying that today: the formulation sounds more like a grab from one of those well-coiffured Nazi boys currently clinging to Trumps coattails.

Actually, though, Adams was a gentle and sensitive man, a rare opponent of the anti-Asian racism dominating the Australian labour movement. What he meant was that the London workers found their situation intolerable and their justified anger fuelled the New Unionism that transformed British politics.

Well, theres a splendid foundation of hate today, too and if we dont build something positive from it, the edifices that will inevitably emerge will be very ugly indeed.

Unfortunately, so much of what passes for activism now centres on an individualised moralism, less about changing the world than about making yourself feel (or perhaps sound) good while all about you everything remains exactly the same.

In 1959, Raymond Williams described the seemingly insurmountable gulf between the progressive intellectuals of his day and the great bulk of the population. Nothing, he wrote, has done more to sour the democratic idea among its natural supporters, and to drive them back into angry self-exile, than the plain, overwhelming cultural issues: the apparent division of our culture into, on the one hand, a remote and self-gracious sophistication, on the other hand, a doped mass.

Since, then, of course, that division has only widened.

The academic Colin Crouch describes a tendency to post-democracy, in which public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams [while] the mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them.

We all know exactly what he means.

But thats why its worth rereading Williams.

After all, many progressives reacted to Brexit and to Trump by demanding more rather than less state control over the citizenry. Aghast at the reactionary ideas that emerged during those votes (the misogyny, the xenophobia, the outright racism), they concluded that ordinary people couldnt be trusted and needed better, more efficient management from the political class.

To put it another way, confronted by widespread hatred for post-democracy, they doubled-down on the post bit rather than the democracy aspect.

Williams suggests a very different orientation.

So who then believes in democracy? he asks. The answer is really quite simple: the millions who still havent got it where they work and feel. There, as always, is the transforming energy

He sees the resistance to top-down management, the desire for self-expression and self-determination in the workplace and the school and the home, as an opportunity for the left, not a threat.

The business of the socialist intellectual is what it always was: to attack the clamps on that energy in industrial relations, public administration, education, for a start; to work in his own field on ways in which that energy, as released, can be concentrated and fertile.

Its a challenging formulation as we approach 2017, flying in the face of whats become progressive common sense: the condescending conviction that only enlightened liberal stewardship stands between civilisation and the hordes of tabloid-reading Morlocks.

But Williams recognises that, too.

The technical means [of facilitating participatory democracy] are difficult enough, he says, but the biggest difficulty is in accepting, deep in our minds, the values on which they depend: that the ordinary people should govern

Thats not to deny the genuinely disturbing racism manifesting in the US and across Europe. On the contrary, its to suggest a strategy or at least the raw beginnings of one to combat it.

Williamss point is that a left orienting to participation, to mass involvement and to democracy stands a better chance of overcoming the demagoguery of the far right through what he calls the transforming energy of the masses, since people exercising some control over their workplaces, their universities, their homes and cultural lives are less susceptible to the imaginary solutions of scapegoating and bigotry.

No one can offer a blueprint for activism in 2017. The only certainty in times like this is that certainties will be confounded. Nonetheless, its difficult to believe that, in societies governed by some of the least popular leaders on record (from Trump to Turnbull), the next 12 months wont bring further eruptions of discontent.

How then will we respond? The temptation will be, once again, to defend liberal values by reinforcing the institutions of liberalism. But thats not going to work. Quite simply, progressives must discover progress. Rather than buttressing a moribund status quo, the left needs to place itself on the side of change. Thats how we win by reclaiming the notion of a better future from the reactionaries and demagogues.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/02/trump-brexit-left-progressives-aghast-they-should-be-emboldened

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