I’d been planning to write a post about violence – political, personal and virtual – when I’d finished working through the copyedit of my book, and as I emerge blinking into the light I see that it’s suddenly rather topical. There’s little I can say about George Floyd’s killing and the events arising from it that somebody somewhere hasn’t already said better than I could, but I tried to write a post that started with those events and steered its way to the more specific concerns of this blog with agrarian and social futures. Somehow, though, I don’t think what I wrote hit the right notes. Instead, I’m just going to offer a few questions that recent events have prompted for me. If anyone would care to essay an answer to any of them, I’d appreciate it. Perhaps I can then circle around to this again with a more considered post at some point in the future.
The philosopher Étienne Balibar has written that the human world increasingly divides into “life zones” and “death zones”. As climate change, resource crisis and growing economic inequality begin to bite, it seems likely that the death zones will grow, along with border tensions between the zones of life and death. I’d argue that, for numerous reasons, affirming the wellbeing of people in the death zones is critical for bequeathing a planet that’s habitable for humanity in the long term. Black Lives Matter has illuminated the fact that there are death zones right in the heart of wealthy, democratic countries like the US and Britain that many white people like me who live right alongside them scarcely notice. Yet already this has prompted widespread pushback of the #AllLivesMatter variety. The outcome of this tussle seems to me of the utmost importance.
Questions: Can our politics embrace and defuse the systemic violence of racism in our midst right now? If not, what chances for embracing and defusing the systemic violence involved in the growing death zones of the future?
The State and the People
Around the time of his 2016 election, a lot of people – me included – spilled ink worrying about whether Donald Trump was a fascist. Plenty on the right dismissed this as left-wing hyperventilating, while certain historians of the left got to work itemizing all the ways in which Trump 2016 was different from Mussolini 1922. In certain respects, all that now seems by the by to me, because I’ve now seen enough of Trump’s administration to be able to characterize it sui generis – a systemically racist, authoritarian, state-capitalist form of big government that’s anxious to use paramilitary or even straightforwardly military force against its own citizenry.
But since it’s hard to fathom the politics of another country (indeed, I can barely fathom the politics of my local town council) my question to those more grounded in US politics is this –
Question: how is the government and police response to Black Lives Matter playing out among the various factions of the US right in light of the fact that the Trumpling of states’ rights and freedom of citizen assembly surely offends some of its most sacred causes?
Let me anticipate an answer. My guess is that some people will oppose state authoritarianism in general terms or as it applies to their own freedom of manoeuvre, but not when it’s applied to ‘terrorists’, ‘looters’, ‘Marxists’, ‘anarchists’ or ‘antifa’.
Now seems a good time for all of us to consider the distancing and objectifying language of this kind we often use to characterize political antagonists. I was once taken to task on this site by one commenter, no longer active here, for likening Trump’s politics to fascism. Fair enough, probably. Yet this commenter’s own unreflective use of ‘antifa’ as a way of diminishing political actions they disliked was surely just as wayward. My feeling is that, while social distancing might be a good way to minimize the misery of COVID-19, the social distancing of political labelling probably isn’t a good way to minimize the misery of human conflict escalation.
Question: Is it possible to operate without the use of distancing political labels?
Marshall Rosenberg wrote that that “Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need”. Having immersed myself recently in some of his writings while doing a non-violent communication course, I’ve become more inclined to try to attune myself to such unmet needs in myself and others. Here at Small Farm Future I serve up plenty of criticism, judgment and diagnosis – and, regrettably, even the odd flash of anger sometimes. I don’t think Rosenberg was opposing the kind of political criticism and diagnosis that’s normal service on this site so much as the kind that’s moralistically directed at individuals or groups as a way of creating distance rather than empathy. But the one can easily run into the other, and I know I’m guilty of that.
Rosenberg spent a lot of time seeking to transform conflicts into more positive interactions, even in intractable political situations such as Israel/Palestine. I think such work is going to be vital in the future if we’re to bequeath a habitable world to our descendants.
Questions: Does Rosenberg’s framework resonate with others who read this blog? If so, what can I do at Small Farm Future to be better at meeting needs and transforming conflict?
Here in Britain, a prominent aspect of the Black Lives Matter protests has involved the toppling or defacement of various statues of historical figures associated with slavery or racism, and far right mobilization to, er, defend them – including Prime Minister Boris Johnson fulminating against those who would “rewrite the past”. Leaving Johnson’s own rewritings aside, I can’t really see statues as anything other than acts of political performance art that always incite a performative response – whether it’s hushed reverence or daubed graffiti. Edward Colston’s bronze has excited rather fewer defenders than Winston Churchill’s – perhaps because while Britain’s status as a major slave-trading power isn’t part of its present national self-consciousness, its status as an allied power that defeated Hitler’s Germany certainly is (OK, ‘helped to defeat’, but there seem to be curiously few memorials to Roosevelt, Stalin and other allied notables in Britain).
Statue-toppling and statue-defending too easily distract from the deeper political engagements that are necessary, and the politics of the crowd can get scary, but the battle of the statues does very palpably raise a historical question.
Question: What kind of past does our political community wish to cultivate and project into the political present in order to meet present challenges, such as trying to keep the planet habitable for humanity?
My answer would be not the one represented by Colston, nor the one represented by Churchill. But I’m interested in other answers to this question, and all the others.