Don’t Let Them Win
“For the war goes on; and the enemy organizes . . .”
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
I realize now that I’ve been writing the same article for years. And I’m surely not the only one—all writers do this to some degree. Whether the topic at hand is antifascism, free speech and higher education, the criminal justice system, new media, the concept of history, the concept of progress, or even the concept of empathy, I’m a broken record. I’m a village drunk, screaming one thing over and over: as the old gives way to the new, as the battle over who and what gets to define the good rages on, the status quo won’t save you—you have to fight.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”; so on, and so forth. A beautiful line has become a cliché in our handwringing times. But what matters most is that it’s not a cliché for everyone. Some take it more seriously than the rest. And it becomes new again. And the gyre widens.
This is precisely why the charge of “hypocrisy” is such a dull weapon against political foes today. Of course Mitch McConnell and his gang are hypocrites for what they’ve done to secure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But to presume the charge of hypocrisy carries any weight whatsoever is to believe in some semblance of an official politics that ultimately strives for balance at the same time that it provides the means for one side to eventually eat the other. When the stakes at hand amount to re-litigating the fundament of what is right for years to come, to ensuring the brutal hegemony of one order over others, to pushing the de-democratization of the demos, cries of “hypocrisy” are nothing more than the death rattle of those who realized too late what they were actually up against.
“The growth of these fascist-hate movements [does] not occur in a historical vacuum . . . the historical phenomenon . . . cannot be dealt with abstractly . . . it needs to be dealt with materially.”
—George Ciccariello-Maher, “Nazis, the ACLU, & the Moral Limits of ‘Free Speech’”
This is why debates about campus activists and “free speech” in centrist and certain leftist circles today seem so unhelpful, nearsighted, and even absurd. It’s absurd to berate these left-leaning activists into about-facing and subscribing to an institutionalized notion of free speech as if such notions and the institutions that define and enforce them haven’t been redefined, restructured, and increasingly weaponized by the right in a decades-long war to reclaim higher education for itself. It’s absurd to take the right and far-right at their word when they parrot the center’s naïve appeals to tradition, employing the same liberal platitudes about free expression and open dialogue at the same time that they are working to undermine them by curtailing the freedoms of their enemies. Whether or not campus communities continue to protest these injustices, the onslaught will continue, and we need to get that through our thick skulls.
What free speech means on and off college campuses, and how it is policed, has never been a static issue. Ever. What it will be made to mean in the decades to come is, as it was before, a historical question, a material question—which is to say it’s a political question. The institutions and laws and norms that have upheld the status quo until now won’t save us—one way or another, we have to fight.
“For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.”
—Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
This is also why, like the grieving odes to “normalcy” that accompanied our entrance into the Trump era, the current status-quo-enshrining obsession with “civility” in politics is, more than anything, a symptom of time in motion, not a solution. What do calls for civility amount to at a moment like this, in our ever-unfolding history, when people can no longer bear their complicity in the unspeakable government cruelty committed in our name? Why are we placing a premium on mannerly dissent when those elected to represent our interests are gleefully and openly destroying us, giving more wealth, control, and destructive power away to the ruling class while the rest of us scrape, struggle, fight amongst ourselves, and die?
Such calls for civility are little more than a plea on the part of those who benefit from the status quo to be spared the discomfort of acknowledging or addressing the pain of others that underwrites their pleasure. Civility bromides are a last-ditch effort to preserve the brutal illusion that the pain of politics, like the savagery of the market, is a gray, neutral, and body-less process, not a deliberate assault on the humanity of others committed by real people and material entities that must be opposed, fought, and defeated.
It is certainly not the case that all calls for civility and appeals to shared principles are so vicious and disingenuous, but that doesn’t make them any less self-destructive at a time like this, when the tide of the dialectic is rising. Muzzling the people’s righteous, necessary, and creative rage with demands for civility is itself a violent attempt to strip away their means of self-defense. The mantra of civility coerces us to surrender our power to fight an increasingly fascistic tide, to put our faith in the same institutional bulwarks and milquetoast vanguards that helped let the tide in—and have since proven themselves to be both incapable and unwilling to fight the fight that’s needed to push it back.
Once again, the whole thing amounts to an absurdity—an absurd wish to live outside the meat grinder of history, to proceed as if history itself isn’t already at stake. At a time of such pronounced official powerlessness against the willful barbarity of a ruling class overrun with cowards, game-riggers, and authoritarian enablers, to appeal to civility is to hope that a pack of hungry wolves will suddenly be interested in table manners.
“Fascism strongly relies on the complete lack of decision-making agency within the broader community. It is nourished by a climate in which the community is stripped of its ability to initiate direct action, express creativity and develop its own alternatives.”
—Dilar Dirik, “Radical Democracy: The First Line Against Fascism”
History has no “right” or “wrong” sides. Its arc is long, and it bends toward whatever its own weight and the pressures of power determine to be “justice.” To be on the “right side of history” is the same as being on the right side of war—who among those willing to kill and die for it doesn’t think their side is the right one? What matters is who’s left standing.
It is equal parts tragic and comic that we have been raised with a sense that history doesn’t need to be fought for (not anymore, at least). Having been born at the tail end of the Cold War, my generation has only really known history as a sort of birthright—an origin myth that tells of battles already fought and won, of our ancestors’ journey through molten, shifting terrain to the Elysian flatlands of world-historical “peace.” It’s easy to see now how laughably premature the self-congratulatory neoliberal pronouncements of the “end of history” were, but it’s harder to unlearn the resignation or complacency that has allowed us to live as if history had, indeed, ended.
That such a vision of historical completion was underwritten by ensuing decades of new wars, continual military expansion, increased mass surveillance, the consolidation of economic dominance, and the corresponding explosion of wealth inequality is a testament to the utter brutality required to maintain even a fleeting, hallucinatory sense that history has stopped moving. That our political establishment now finds itself incapable of defusing the long-simmering forces that have exploded this mirage is a testament to the truth that, while it may slow down, stopping is something history just doesn’t do.
By and large, from the “end of history” to now, what has passed for official politics in this country has amounted to a tenuously held bipartisan effort to maintain the integrity of a capitalist war machine and the interlocking systems of hierarchical domination (imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, oligarchy, etc.) that it produces and depends on. The tireless battle between Democrats and Republicans has upheld the illusion of politics while securing an anti-political lock on the means of capitalist domination.
However, out of the broth of this anemic anti-politics, insurgency brewed. The GOP establishment has succumbed, not only to Trump, but to the stubborn movement politics and financial might of a radical libertarian force that is getting what it wants out of Trump. This same oligarchic formation has been working for decades to remove, disable, or neutralize any democratic, legal, or legislative means its opponents might use to counter its dominance whenever they finally decided to fight back in earnest.
The neoliberal center, and the technocratic consensus that held together this momentary vision of historical stasis, has given way to something else. There’s no going back to the way things were. There never is. That’s not how dialectics work. Like a tightrope walker who sways to keep her balance, the movements from left to right become increasingly severe, countering each other in opposition until the legs eventually buckle. And then, something new. The question is not whether but when the bough will break. This extreme rightward sway has brought us to the brink, and it can only be countered by a more powerful and forceful push from the left.
“In history, indeed, the negative and the positive seem fatally to assume the form of success and failure, triumph and defeat, as though these categories . . . offered the only ways in which biological human individuals could imagine the destiny of their collectivities. The dialectical union of these opposites . . . reminds us, not only that ‘success’ was never really in the cards for mortal beings in the first place, but also that history progresses, not by way of victory but by way of defeat.”
—Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic
Politics is the art of endless war. And the battlefield of history is an infinite boneyard of eventual defeats.
Forces remain at odds, vying to undo the other’s work and to remake the world as they see fit. We are witnessing firsthand the tectonic shifts of an unstoppably dialectical power struggle to do just that. And yet so many of us continue to think that—or at least act as if—clinging to “solid” ground will save us from the resulting tidal wave that aims to reshape the landscape entirely.
We still seem to think “progress” can’t be undone—that it only has one meaning, and only goes in one direction. But this, to quote Lenin, is “undialectical, unscientific and theoretically wrong.” However the pressure of the present wills it, that’s how the arc of history will bend. The status quo won’t save us from what will be—we have to fight to give a more just and humane shape to whatever comes next. And if we’re not fighting, we’re losing.
That’s just how it goes, says the village drunk: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the dialectic.
But you can’t. You’re in it. So, act like it.
“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”
Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”