We are talking at rather than to each other
- Richard Raber
- 02 Dec 2016 12:30 (South Africa)
Marx was right, modernity is mirrored by the inherent contradictions in capitalism. Capital moves in ways that both dazzle and menace, jerking us into complex, often challenging realities to navigate. With this understanding, Marshall Berman in his classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air correctly raised the question “[h]ow can any lasting human bonds grow in such loose and shifting soil?” If we are to formulate meaningful political communities in the Trump era, we must consider this issue.
Nowhere does Berman’s question ring more true than in the realm of truth. We live in an era wherein our understandings of reality vary to the extent that we no longer share any sense of basic actualities. Accordingly, Donald Trump embodies a pathos-heavy truth fuelled by rage, disaffection and chauvinism. Meanwhile, an elitist political class has taken stewardship over a different kind of truth, one perceived to be cold and objective, reflected in the boom of purported fact checkers. Jason Hannan correctly notes our unusual paradigm; as many disregard conventional factuality, others are fixating over who is fact-checking the fact-checkers?
The failures of this self-professing rational or empirical truth in its universality echoes in the shock many are feeling after recent successes of reactionary politics. Countless otherwise insightful people have been rocked by Brexit, the rise of Filipino President Duterte, the failure of Colombia’s peace referendum and most recently, the election of ignoramus-at-arms, Donald Trump. The polls were wrong, how could so many people be irrational enough to support such dangerous jingoism? These sentiments reflect both a false consensus of an overly technocratic sense of truth as well as the fractured nature of our (political) communities; for many Americans this reactionary wave could happen there, not here.
The fallout of disbelief has resulted in many establishment Democrats accounting for Clinton’s loss by playing the blame game with a host of actors from Bernie Bros, to James Comey to (as Politico correctly noted) everyone but themselves. While this certainly reflects the hubris of the Clinton campaign, how could the Democrats, perceived to be the party of facts, have such a poor understanding of the contemporary political context? It is simple, as a society we are talking at as opposed to each other. This has left many Democrats asking how so many Americans missed the memo; Hilary, as the first woman to almost be President, was inevitably supposed to be next in line, the logical realisation of Progress.
The seemingly seismic and irrational shift towards Trump and his ilk the world over cannot simply be explained by its appeal to our worst (and deeply rooted) sensibilities – chauvinism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism or the like. We certainly cannot ignore these elements as they have always existed in our societies. However, highlighting them as the sole reason for the recent anti-democratic surge is insufficient and irresponsible; these elements are energised by pain, rage, suffering and a lack of hope in more traditional politics.
Centrist leadership has been ineffective at engaging with and speaking to the struggles of everyday people, a purported objectivity (which as Fanon taught us, is never neutral) is a culprit; raising the question, what does a singular truth look like in a world of “…different collectivities with different conditions”? In other words, how could the Clinton machine, with a platform predicated on the professed universality of rationality and empiricism, conceive of respectable alternative visions for society other than their own? Embodying a perceived inevitable Progress, Clinton was paradoxically producing truth while intellectually reliant on its independent nature.
As efforts to stop the Trumps of the world are failing we must recognise that orthodoxy in otherwise conventional realms such as truth are destabilised if not collapsing. As our dominant institutions fail to reflect and produce consensus, perhaps we should problematise them; to what extent do they (continue to) reflect foundational tenets of dignity, fairness and justice? Moreover, are they sustainable, at least in their current forms? Such institutional inconsistencies generate disaffection, disillusion and rage; reactionary winds caught by the sails of demagoguery. Meaningful resistance requires that we address such cleavages.
Sisonke Msimang makes a compelling argument for the collapse of compromise in South African politics reflected both in student movements as well as reactionary politics. Key to Msimang’s argument is that compromise has vacated political discourse, a trend recognisable in the American political sphere. Within the polarisation that is American politics, there is a progressive movement viewed as holding political correctness as the finality juxtaposed with a reactionary right viewed simply to be jingoistic mouth-breathers. While undoubtedly such actors exist in both communities and it may be expedient or easy to simply label the other side, ideologues do not make up the masses. Looking upon large segments of our societies with condescension reflects that we no longer understand each other nor do we care to; perversely, we are more isolated in an increasingly interconnected modern world.
In trying to regain a common language we must actively seek to understand how competing social actors conceive of notions we all hold dear; truth, compromise, dignity, agency and prosperity. For without this, we cannot articulate a coherent alternative to the reactionary backlash facing us in the age of Trump. Our times are marked by contradiction, meaning we must accept that our grasps of reality are not the only ones. If we want to put forward an effective resistance platform, insularism and a perceived ownership of truth must be abandoned while humility, reflexivity and empathy must be adopted. DM
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