Winter is Here: some thoughts on political polarisation

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

winter 2

I intended to call this post ‘Is Winter Coming? because this was a question posed during autumn, when the weather was unseasonably hot. In fact, we’ve just experienced the hottest autumn on record and for a long time it seemed as if winter was never coming. Yet as we enjoyed an ‘endless summer’, it was hard to ignore that this was just a taste of the climate change threatening our lives. At the same time, a political chill was sweeping across much of the globe. Along with terror and war, hatred, racism, xenophobia, religious conservatism, fundamentalism, nationalism, right-wing extremism, ethnic cleansing, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny, all darkened our horizons. Here in Australia, new resistances also emerged to the black shirts of the border force, the ultra-right threat on our streets, racist militarism, and the torture and death camps. Is winter coming?

I decided on the title Winter is Here, when, as if to remind us that the diversity of climate change is already upon us, winter finally arrived, bringing a major storm to the east coast of Australia, causing flooding, widespread destruction, and resulting in the declaration of a ‘disaster zone’ in this region and many others. While we mourned the dead and repaired the damage, a number of friends re-posted a previous Revolts Now post – Disaster Communism – which discusses the way people often respond to such events with altruism, resourcefulness, generosity and love – and how authorities often respond with fear, panic, repression, and savagery. Winter is here.

Love or Hate

As the storm recovery was underway, news of its aftermath was overshadowed by the horrific slaughter in Orlando. While the motives for this attack were widely debated, a series of vigils and funerals began, and a common theme emerged – the attack was a hate crime and the best response was to promote, support, and enact, love.

Orlando love

Just days later, winter fell on a village in the north of England, when Jo Cox, the local Labour MP and a mother of two young children, was stabbed and shot to death by a fascist assassin. Jo was a vocal opponent of Islamophobia and a passionate advocate for refugees. While still alive, she argued that we “have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Her husband Brendan put out a statement the day after she died saying; “Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.” How to defend ourselves against hate is a crucial but difficult question and the importance of love to positive social transformation is becoming more obvious. Our loving resistance is at the heart of the crisis of capitalism, because love is a demand that capitalism cannot provide, a desire that it cannot satisfy, instead love is created by struggling against capitalism. Today there’s a global movement to promote love as a power for revolutionary social development and change. That’s why hate is being deployed against us and why we assert – ‘your hate will not defeat love!’

Jo Cox banner

‘Winter is Coming’

The phrase ‘winter is coming’ has been popularised by the TV show Game of Thrones (GOT), a tale that captures the mood and temper of our times. In GOT, ‘winter is coming’ isn’t a proclamation of doom, nor is it meant to be a contemporary version of ‘the end is nigh’; instead it’s a warning – be vigilant. This call for vigilance is increasingly common as it speaks to widespread social anxieties about environmental and social crisis, climate change, war, terrorism, job and financial insecurity, and a range of other concerns.

According to George R. R. Martin, “history is written in blood” and his GOT characters are constantly haunted by the vicious and icy history hanging over their fantasy world. As well, those seeking to do some good are regularly reminded that ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’. While this truism is deployed to scare and intimidate people, the threat of the living dead – those for whom life is nothing – is rising again and the Seven Kingdoms have turned a blind eye, as they remain embroiled in civil war. This life during wartime, where armies continually gather, coups are prepared, barbarism is common place and walls are meant to secure borders, suggests an obvious comparison between the media spectacle of a TV show and a range of electoral versions of Game of Thrones, including the current US presidential election campaign featuring Donald Trump & Hillary Clinton in the starring roles.

Occupying the White House

The campaign for U.S. president has featured two of the most interesting candidates for many years. Not surprisingly, the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ candidate has received much less publicity than a multi-billionaire right-wing TV star. But importantly, not only has the Bernie Sanders campaign popularised socialism in the United States, its most powerful message has been that political/social movements are the greatest social forces, not electoral systems.

The Sanders campaign both reflects and feeds off a groundswell of grass roots participatory organising which was powerfully invigorated by the Occupy movement. Those who maintain beliefs in the electoral system and representative democracy have sought to occupy space within government, even within the White House – attempting to make this ‘public space’. Such a campaign once again poses questions about whether state-focused struggles can assist progressive social movements? Can state power be used to deepen democracy? How does a diverse movement of movements, avoid being co-opted, infiltrated, captured and managed by capitalist state forms?

The mainstream media went into overdrive to downplay and sideline the Sanders campaign, with Trump receiving the lion share of publicity, helping to channel widespread anger with the political and economic establishment into the rise of authoritarianism. Trump provides a smokescreen to obscure the Sanders campaign – starving it of media oxygen and helping to position Hillary Clinton as the ‘progressive’ candidate – in order to counter widespread rebellion and defend the ruling class. Meanwhile, the ‘Sandernistas’ have discovered that the Democratic Party is anything but democratic – a lesson seemingly needing to be learned by generation after generation of U.S. reformists.

The menace of Trump’s presidential campaign is only the most visible example of a political climate change. While the horrors of a Trump presidency are hard to comprehend, some ask; how much does it matter who gets elected? What difference does it make whether Trump beats Clinton? Or whether Clinton beats Sanders? In Australia, where the election race is still a 50/50 call, similar questions about the two major parties are understandable, since so little differentiates them. After all, doesn’t real power lie elsewhere – isn’t it the ‘ruling class’ who actually rule? Isn’t representative politics just a sham democracy – a cover for the dictatorship of capital?

But its cold comfort to believe it doesn’t matter whether a Green candidate or a far-right candidate gets to be Austria’s President? Or whether Golden Dawn or Syriza are elected in Greece? When we consider our options, doesn’t much of the world show us that extremist violence and hate could now have the hour? Are we really ready to let it all burn?

Here in Australia, the extended Federal election campaign feels like it’s lasted much longer than the current GOT season, and unlike that show, many are wishing we could just get it over with. There have been some interesting moments, like when the reactionary Murdoch press called for voters to ‘save’ Labor MP Anthony Albanese from the challenge of anti-capitalist Green candidate Jim Casey.  Luckily for me, at least in this election I get to vote for one of my friends, Cath Blakey, the local Greens candidate. (For those interested in debates about the potentials and pitfalls of such Green electoral campaigns I highly recommend my friend Dave and Jon’s latest podcast).

Still, there is widespread mistrust of political parties and the political process in much of the world. Growing numbers of people see that power tends to lie elsewhere – both in the hands of the ‘ruling class’ and the social movements. Whoever wins the throne – the emperor has no clothes.

Winter of Our Discontent

What increasingly appears to be a stark choice between real democracy or no democracy, has also been brought into focus by the Brexit referendum. Not that this was the choice on offer. Although ‘taking back control of Britain’ was an attempt by some to democratise political institutions, for many it was about restricting other people’s room to move. The ‘Leave’ vote advanced the growing popularity of xenophobic isolationism, while those on the left supporting Brexit posited an escape from an undemocratic neoliberal union of European Central Bank dictatorship and austerity. For those on the left supporting ‘Remain’, the rise of nationalism and the growing danger of the far-right concentrated their minds on defending the European project, at a time when it appears to be disintegrating. However, both retreating to defend the sovereignty of the nation-state, or the fortressing of Europe as a project of internationalism, are clearly problematic in a ‘globalised’ world. As the Brexit votes were declared, the picture which emerged was of a widespread rejection of elites, growing vulnerability and division; a polarised country in a polarising world. With much of the continent now gripped by fear and a ‘crisis of compassion’, border fences are rapidly going back up. But these walls are no defence against the powerful forces breaking the bonds of the current world order and the civil wars in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Libya suggest Europe is on the brink of disaster.

Contrary to popular belief, World War Two did not defeat fascism and the Cold War isn’t over. In a relentless global war of terror – any victory or defeat seems fleeting and today we’re faced with growing doubts about our safety. At a time of great instability, as systemic crisis intensifies, sections of the ruling class are fanning fascism in order to defend their power and privilege, to maintain their oppressive apparatus, and to stymie popular revolt. The fostering of fear, hatred and bigotry is being normalised, while state authorities concentrate on countering some types of fascism, they continue to perpetuate and promote a range of nationalist, militarist and authoritarian alternatives. When capitalism is in deep crisis, the tendency towards polarisation doesn’t indicate our conquest or weakness but the system’s fearful reaction to proletarian power. Our micro and macro rebellions are at the heart of capital’s vulnerability – we are the crisis that winter is meant to dispel.

As political polarisation increases, intensified struggles are erupting between progressive movements and radical right forces.  In Greece, which suffered under a military dictatorship during the 1960s and 70s, the far-right’s recent successes have been eclipsed by those of the left. As I have explored elsewhere, while those who pinned their hopes on the Greek electoral process have been disappointed, the power and promise of Greece’s solidarity movements remains. In Paris, after the terror attacks last year, a state of emergency was declared, protests were banned, and the extreme right sought to profit from the situation. Yet, a few months later, France is being rocked by a massive strike and protest movement seeking to defend previous social gains and attempting to develop more democratic ones. As well, the rise of the ‘new radical left’ in Spain, where the fascist dictatorship lasted for 40 years until the mid-1970s, has transformed the political situation in that country. These are just some recent examples of continuing widespread struggles against, within, and beyond the capitalist system.

French cops

In South America, political polarisation is also intensifying. For instance, those who recently cheered as a gang of corrupt right-wing politicians led a successful ‘coup’ against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff last month, were quickly reminded of that nation’s dark history. In the 1970s, during Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, Rousseff, at that time in her 20’s, was viciously tortured. For months she was abused and left rotting in a dark cell, surrounded by her own shit and blood. During the torture, she took a punch to the face that broke several of her teeth and twisted her jaw forever. She was electrocuted, with high voltage wires attached to her breasts, vagina, and inside her mouth. She was tied upside down as the shocks made her eyes glaze over and her mouth foam until she completely passed out. A doctor would assess whether she was still alive and after she woke up, the torture would start all over again. The man who did this to her was honoured last month in the Brazilian Congress by one of the most prominent defenders of Rousseff’s impeachment, Jair Bolsonaro, who is now planning to run for president in the next election.

Dilma Rousseff

                                            Dilma Rousseff, at 22, in a military court (1970)

Yet despite suggestions that the ‘pink tide’ in the region is going out, the future is far from settled. Many people have good reason to protest and reject the machinations of state capitalist experiments in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela and it’s no surprise that right-wing forces have taken advantage of popular discontent to oust, or destabilise, progressive administrations. Yet, for how long they can harness economic crisis and broad-based distrust of the political process remains unclear. For all of their mistakes, failures, and betrayals, the fall/crisis of left governments is riven with contradictions which herald both opportunities and dangers for those engaged in anti-capitalist struggle. The institutions of these regimes were/are sometimes guided by communist desires and have at times defended democracy from fascism and reaction. Still, I have written elsewhere about the potentials and pitfalls of the revolutionary process in Venezuela and it is of great concern that the central question there is now more clearly – what will the army do?  None-the-less, anti-capitalist social movements remain broadly popular and powerful across South America. The struggles continue.

The Summer of Love and a Global Spring

Across the globe, political systems are thawing out, offering a range of dangers and possibilities. So, perhaps, despite the cold of winter, we should join those who declare – Summer is Coming!

summer is coming

Yet many now fear the heat of our future summers, believing this will eventually rid the planet of humanity. While some dream of a cleansing fire – the power of violence to solve vulnerability and free us from slavery (Daenerys is coming?) – rather than revenge fantasies, what we really need is another ‘Summer of Love’. Historically, though, it is spring which is most closely associated with revolt and renewal. In the past few years, revolutionary uprisings have blossomed in many parts of the world. Although the suppressing of the Arab Spring illustrates how counter-revolution can put our desires back on ice and freeze our horizons, let’s not lose sight of the freedom fighters of Rojava and the continuing bravery of those struggling through the harshest of winters, as they continue to plant seeds for a different, more beautiful world.

So, instead of wondering, is winter coming? Let’s hope this is our winter and a new spring is coming. Or even better, let’s make sure that this is capitalism’s winter, by helping to sow a global spring of rebellion, democracy, peace and love. In the face of the extremes of winter, or summer, let’s renew our appreciation of people’s ability to change history, to take effective collective action, to struggle together despite various differences, to create progressive change, to construct a range of living alternatives, to reshape the world. We can get what we need and deserve because we are organising and struggling for it. Winter is here – but spring is coming!

Nick Southall

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