The Triumph of American Idealism

I have a piece out in Damage Magazine this week on the global spread of the Black Lives Matter protests. For me, they are indicative of Americanisation, of people living out a fantasy of being American. Except, rather than the forms of Americanisation we saw in the 20th century, this identification is specifically with what has come to be called “wokeness” – a product of the US campus wars.

Here are some additional notes that didn’t make it into the published article, but which I think are worth considering.

On the pandemic and timing…

2020 really is the year of confounding co-incidences – and strange arrivals from abroad. Just as the pandemic and lockdowns spread from East to West, so the US protests against racism and police violence fanned eastwards to Europe and beyond. And like the COVID responses ushered in unparalleled demobilisation – welcomed by the Left, repulsed by the Right -, so the Black Lives Matters protests sparked a remarkable protest wave… welcomed by the Left, repulsed by the Right. Image

The hypocrisy has been widely remarked upon, but it’s worth restating: the “left” was broadly in favour of lockdowns, to the extent – as I noted in my previous Damage piece – of shouting down anyone who dissented. Until suddenly it was okay to protest, because BLM was enough of a justification. And the same played out on the nationalist right: opposition to lockdown (often for spurious reasons), only for the same types to insist people stay at home, respect curfews put in place and so on.

As for my position – I’ve been sceptical of the efficacy of lockdowns and the costs they impose. They’re a last-ditch solution and it should never have come to that. I also am against allowing the state any further powers to quash protest, so for that reason I was tolerant of both the right-wing anti-lockdown protests and the BLM ones, on principle. But if you’re going to be a lockdown ultra, can we at least have a bit of consistency, please?

On historical comparisons and international solidarity…

Some have read my piece as being in opposition to international solidarity. Nothing of the sort! I just don’t think – as I wrote in the piece – that these are solidarity protests, they’re a fantasy.

Compare the global solidarity demonstrations of the 1960s, for instance. In support of the 1963 March on Washington, Third World capitals, fighting to shake off the shackles of colonial rule, saw demonstrations, as did the metropole, with protesters gathered in Berlin, London, Madrid, Munich, The Hague, etc. So far, so similar. But it’s worth remembering what Martin Luther King Jr’s observed at the time: he noted a world moving “with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we [the US] still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Where are we headed today, what is our political goal?

In the 1960s, self-determination was at stake: both for black Americans claiming rights denied to them, as for the Third World seeking decolonisation and their own independent states. In today’s BLM “solidarity” demos, there appears to be little more than bearing witness to suffering. There is little sense of structures to be overturned. At best, the protests have turned to local issues (such as in France, where BLM has been looped into the Justice pour Adama campaign), though I’m still sceptical of importing US frames to explain what is happening in different society. But fine, police brutality happens pretty much everywhere, and should be fought back against.

But at worst, in the global BLM demos it’s that hyperreality I mentioned in the piece: just images on a screen arriving from abroad, meant to teach a moral lesson: don’t be racist, check your privilege. For me, the clue is in the slogans: “I have a dream” is reincarnated in the (pathetic) “I can’t breathe”.

On intellectual imperialism…

Anti-anti-Americans – those who seek to defend the country against its antagonists – like to point to the continuing draw of the US, such as the millions who dream of a place at an American university. They argue that, if the world hates us so much, why do they all come to study here? Indeed, they’re right, the American academy has conquered the world. And what we’re seeing now is one of its products – not just the campus wars but post-colonial theory.Image

Anton Jäger pointed me to a good example. In the Netherlands there’s an ongoing campaign to abolish the (racist, outdated) Zwarte Piet tradition. A leader of the movement is a postcolonial academic, Gloria Wekker, who studied at UCLA in the 1980s and imported the whole intersectionality apparatus to the Netherlands.

As Vikek Chibber has demonstrated (really worth watching this lecture for the full explanation), postcolonial theory adopts the colonialist idea that there is a fundamental and essential difference between peoples, in contrast to older, modernist traditions that held to universal values, and sought to make real the empty promises of liberté, egalité, fraternité. The overseas BLM – wittingly or not – conceive of race in a similar fashion; it is an idealist understanding that treats race as an autonomous force, not a product of class society. The protesters thus show themselves to be mentally colonised, reflexively apeing US fashions. They therefore repeat post-colonial theory’s error: they accept the “coloniser” viewpoint (that of US postmodern liberal institutions).

On bearing witness to suffering…

Maybe it’s ungenerous of me, but I still can’t entirely grasp what motivates the protests – beyond the obvious. Do they themselves identify with victims of brutalising oppression – that somehow, we are all George Floyd? Maybe the inner-city black kids protesting in London have enough similar experience, but the overwhelmingly young, white protesters across northern Europe probably don’t. So what does it mean to chant “I can’t breathe” while marching down the street? You, too, are a suffocating? It’s a strange rallying cry…

It seems plausible that a felt sense of vulnerability is at play – a solidarity rooted not in common struggle, but in shared abjection. Ted Weezy astutely noted in Damage a few years ago how “the most insidious ploy of late capitalist society is the channeling of genuinely human impulses into a resolute commitment to political impotence.” Emphasis on vulnerability might connect people on the basis of recognition and mutual support. But the risk is that, in seeing vulnerability as intractable – indeed, in racism as an inherent property of whiteness – we affirm everyone in their own fixed identity. Cultivating white guilt in young Europeans is not the building of a collective political project, but a quasi-religious self-abasement. Weezy additionally argues that “the solidarity of the politics of affirmation is not one that is worked for, but is rather assumed. Thus, it is less important that it be achieved in reality, through shared struggle toward a common goal, than that everyone participate in the fantasy ahead of time.”

The globalised wokeness on display at these protests would then not really be about a common goal, but about sharing in a fantasy…


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