When saying No isn’t enough: what should progressives do?

The far-right and conservatives who support them nowadays are interested in the appearance form of political change necessary to keep the status quo essentially as it is: with themselves among the first beneficiaries.

The required style of leadership includes adopting a fundamentally anti-democratic posture against consultation, negotiation or debate and in favour of ’getting things done’ – easily achieved when there is a total split between what you say and what you do, since fundamentally, you have no intention of doing anything.

You have many powerful institutions on your side to help you to defend power as it operates now. None is more important than the media, especially what is left of mass media. You tell the people whose support you require what they wish to hear. This is what fake news is, that is when it isn’t involved in undermining the reputations and crushing the careers of Them.

As progressives, we have a completely different set of tasks ahead of us because we are committed to real systemic change on behalf of and in the interest of ‘the many’. Instead of the fantasy identification with the ‘strong man’ offered to humiliated individuals of a rightwing persuasion, the left need to persuade real people – a hugely diverse spectrum of people – that they can come together themselves and act effectively in their common interest. We have been hearing moving accounts of how our forebears, the Greenham Common women discovered organisational effectivity for themselves in last week-end’s joyous 40 years’ commemoration. They never pretend that ‘the journey’ was easy!

An early challenge for progressives is to know who we are. This is easy for the far right, such is their need to belong that it is immediately fulfilled by the fantasy monolith of the monocultural National Us. Once in place, it is just a matter of ‘winning’ against the existential foe, since ‘winner-takes-all’. So the only thing they do need to know is “Who We Are”. Compare the emergence of the Sardine movement. In the early months of 2020, people packed Italy’s squares in protest against Salvini’s lightning-speed construction of the Real Italian People whose interests he alone could defend against migrants, Roma and other existential enemies. They were united only in their opposition to Salvini’s definition of the Real People – after all weren’t they real too? So they shrugged, called themselves ‘The Sardines’ and got on with packing the squares.

Once the initial protest was over, however, it became apparent how difficult it was to convert a horizontal movement into an organisation that can move beyond just saying No, building on the different constituencies and capturing the various institutions that must be won over for progress in our complex political systems. For that what is needed is a two-prong exercise in extensive persuasion that happens to be the exact opposite in all respects to the structuring of the monocultural National Us. And that is no accident.

Just think of the fantastic work done by Theresa May’s oft-reiterated slogan, “Brexit means Brexit.” In one fell swoop it united their people into a monolithic phalanx without any need for debate and with any future debate ruled out of the question. The fact that no-one has known what Brexit means from 2016 to this day – as I write, the UK negotiates the unnegotiable re the borders and peace treaties of Northern Ireland – is immaterial. “Brexit means Brexit” told us “We know who we are and who our enemy is”.

Even better, in response, a thoroughly needled enemy closed ranks and refused to allow a single intelligent criticism of the EU – on its response to the financial crash, its treatment of Greece, its merciless ‘migrant problem’ or rising fascism in Hungary and other EU countries to which the EU has turned a blind eye – to cross its lips, immediately rendering itself unconvincing to any intelligent doubters, let alone skeptics whom they should have set out to persuade. Both sides played the same game – but only one benefited from saying No.

All the Brexiters who UKIPised the Conservative Party and then took over the helm of the British state had to do, was to polarise the country in the first place and make sure it stayed polarised. A binary referendum out of the blue was a good beginning, and the UK became considerably more polarised and fragmented once the Liberal Democrats (misleadingly named) proposed revoking the Article 50 that paved the way for it, thereby erasing it from history. Leavers of course responded by telling opinion pollsters that they would happily part with Scotland and Northern Ireland to boot, if they could just secure a No Deal that saw England turn its back on the EU and walk away.

Two-pronged approach

What should progressives have done to avoid this dead-end? Any institution containing large numbers of passionately committed and articulate leavers and remainers such as the Labour Party in opposition at the time could have modelled itself on the excellent Brexit citizens assembly organised by academic experts in deliberative democracy in Manchester at the end of 2017. They debated six key issues regarding what kind of relationship between Britain and Europe (in all its variety), people in the UK really did want (in all their diversity). Sortition was used to select people from both tribes reflecting the demographic make-up of the UK. The results were impressive, but the process – the reconciliatory sense of citizenship resulting from considered judgment – was a political game-changer. (It is noticeable that in 2019, the threat of the Archbishop of Canterbury conducting a similar Brexit citizens assembly caused panic among leading Leavers in the Tory Government.)

Before I am accused of reducing politics to talking shops (a professional liability at openDemocracy) let me quickly add that this alchemy of deliberative democracy is not enough on its own. Enter the second prong.

Real change comes about thanks to the action of real activists, so what we also need is an empowering, horizontal movement engaged in open-ended, democratic, pluralist growth. This is a democratising movement that skills people in crossing the barriers and boundaries erected by the proliferating enemy images of the right wing; skills in non-violent communication, in empowering organisation, deep democracy and mutual pleasure. These qualities are particularly important when it comes to persuading far right supporters to part with their aggrandizing fantasies.

Only a real experience of empowerment and community can oust these. Black Lives Matter leaders must be hugely encouraged by the waves of heartfelt support they have received from white supporters world-wide, not only for their own sake, but because this gives them a better chance to reach the millions of white supremacists in our midst. Which progressive, American or otherwise, can turn his or her back on the 73 million Trump supporters who still believe the election for president was stolen from them, and just say, ‘No!’ ? Luckily, Anthony Barnett reports on the interesting progressive left coalition that helped Biden win. Will this grow into such a movement for real change?

My favourite example remains the 15M movement (the indignados) and the role the PAH (anti-evictions platform) in particular played in the rise to fame of the great feminist municipalist and Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. A decade later Carlos Delclos, a social movement expert living in Barcelona at the time summed up its vital features in my interview with him:

 The PAH are in many ways the best migrant rights organisation in Spain, because they organise around a common need – housing – and say, “ I don’t care if you have got documents. If they try and evict you, I’m going to show up at your house to block it, if you will show up at mine when they try to evict us!…

That’s really the key to the success of the indignados and the situation in Spain right now, this ability to take hopelessness and make it about that vision! It’s not the vision of society that they propose ‘out there’, but the one that they put into practise which made the difference.

The key to the indignados was how they organised in the midst of the hopelessness dominant in Spain prior to their emergence, pushing developments in a virtuous, subversive, emancipatory direction, as opposed to this game of, “How can we play with xenophobia without being xenophobic? ” which was going on in the rest of Europe. They said, “We have to be the protagonists of our own change. We have to break down borders in our own practise.”

In conclusion, leftwing iconoclasm can be a wonderful thing. At its very best, however, it is equivalent to the consciousness-raising phase of feminism in which women realise that they share a legitimate interest and that it is theirs to fight for. Which is why, when I come across progressives or leftists saying No to speakers, books ancient or modern or art-works, or even toppling statues into the nearest river, I ask myself one question: What are you going to do next? Because it is the follow-up that really makes a difference, since this is where persuasion begins.

If no one has a clue or indeed much of an intention of working out who to persuade next, then I’m afraid I might suspect you of confusing progressive action with the winner-take-all competitive sport of neoliberal identity politics, whose forces bid against each other for jobs, department funding or the social recognition measured in Facebook likes and competing adoring tribes. This doesn’t lead to progressive change. It plays straight into the hands of the right and far-right.

See When saying No is not enough in Splinter Part.1 here and Splinter Part 2. here

This piece was originally published by OpenDemocracy.

Photo (c) Supporters of the ‘Sardine di Roma’, February 2020. | Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy. All rights reserved.

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