Wars Against Democracy
Rules, Money, Culture and Violence
Russian Warship: Go Fuck Yourself
It’s irresistible, the appeal of this retort, like the image of the protestor standing up to the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The stories of bravery of Ukranians and of journalists and protestors standing up to Putin’s government in Russia are profoundly moving. Even those among us (like myself) who have a strong left critique of the liberal capitalist form of democracy and the western imperial alliances being defended by some (not all) in these scenes find them heartening and heroic. But I’m also glad to see so many pointing out the stark racism in the contrast between the way these protestors and refugees are being treated and represented, vs. the Muslims, Africans, Palestinians and Central Americans that have been so widely and horribly abused and maligned
This contrast illuminates the complex and layered interrelations among political, economic and cultural projects of oligarchy and autocracy around the world.
In the U.S., the broadly conceived left has made enormous strides—Bernie Sanders’ campaigns and the growth of the progressive left in the wake of Occupy’s rhetorical, cultural achievements; Black Lives Matters and the tremendous upsurge of political mobilization in the wake of multiple police murders of Black people; the Native/Indigenous/First Nations’ astounding achievements against impossible odds against the fossil fuel industrial complex; the enormous growth in recognition and support for gender and sexual dissidents, all over the past decade. During the pandemic, public opinion swung even more decisively in favor of broad social supports and against climate destruction. Meanwhile, among the young, capitalism has become more and more a dirty word, and socialism a powerful resource.
But all of this forward movement has generated a powerful backlash, deploying all the weapons at the disposal of a powerful minority in danger of losing the upper hand—money, culture, violence and underlying it all, the long game of changing the rules to cripple the power of political, economic and cultural democracy. The attack on Critical Race Theory uses all the cultural communications machinery, backed by oligarchic funding, to try to overtake school boards, change the rules for public education, and energize a push toward privatization of schooling. To that end, disruption and threats of violence generate fear and create the chaos needed to obscure the long game. This process, these layered forces, are being deployed on multiple fronts to change electoral maps and voting behavior, to push the courts (that have already been transformed by a decades long right-wing effort), and to install, in effect, minority rule. The goal is to render the progress the left has made useless, to stack the rules so that the material needs of the majority of people, and public opinion itself, do not matter. This rule-stacking effort to support minority rule extends back to the Constitution, of course. But it is in a new and active phase now.
Globally, as the liberal center collapses, battles for social democracy and democratic socialism have been met with ferocious backlash by oligarchs and autocrats. These efforts have combined crony capitalism with rabid racist nationalism, attacks on migrants, refugees, labor organizing, “gender ideology,” and public life. Here again, the political and economic projects can not be separated from “culture wars” that are conducted in service of the overall project. When the oligarchs and autocrats are losing, and the culture wars are failing, the rules are being challenged with some success by the left, or public opinion is taking a threatening turn—the recourse is violence. Violence was essential to the project of establishing racial capitalism and colonialism in the first place, and it continues to be a core response to the forces of opposition. Violence does not always win, but it takes united creative courage to make it fail. We are seeing a lot of that, from BLM to Palestine to Brazil to Ukraine.
But the question before us is—where are we now? Are the strides of broadly aligned left forces deep and wide enough to prevail against oligarchic culture wars and violence? Or is the left not only substantially unorganized (the biggest problem) but also so divided against itself— “universalist” vs. “woke” (as if all so-called woke politics equates with superficial, liberal multiculturalism—a rank and loaded distortion), etc.—that we leave our potential gains on the table.
Recent reporting and polls are showing that, despite appearances, the right in the US is not winning—if we play by the rules of democracy. But meanwhile, the rules are in play in ways most of us may not see or understand. For us on the left the challenge is as always—how do we come together, grasp the big picture, and avoid defeating ourselves now?