The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest, Part 2

Recently, a professor at Cornell University named Russell Rickford wrote a fascinating article about the Black Lives Matter movement called “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest”. In this article, Rickford outlines what he calls the “false assumptions” that are “propagated by the corporate power structure [sic]”. He calls these fallacies “dialogue and awareness” “appeal to authority” and “the myth of the disembodied voice”. In short, the first fallacy is the idea that protest should be channeled into legitimate “safe channels”, the second and third fallacy is the idea that the people in power know how to manage effective protest, and the disembodied voice is the idea that people in power will adequately respond to the concerns of the protestors. We see all these fallacies currently at play with the protest movements at Trump’s inauguration. How so?

The Women’s March on Washington, the protest movement that has gained so much traction that plans to protest the inauguration, is essentially a mainstream protest. While it is expected that the March will have 3x the amount of actual attendees of the inauguration in what is expected to be a historic movement, we can safely say certain things about this march. The Women’s March, planned and funded by Planned Parenthood and NARAL, is largely geared toward a single issue, namely the woman’s right to choose and pro-choice movement. Given Trump’s stance on abortion, this is not a bad thing to protest about, and the protest is more broadly a show of opposition toward the incoming Trump administration. It is ALSO true that this opposition has already been co-opted by these previously established “legitimate” power structures and organizations in exactly the way Rickford describes. This is exactly the way wide-scale opposition toward a government is “pacified” and “de-fanged”.

Now, of course, the Women’s March plans to be non-violent, and I am NOT advocating violence. But I believe the “pressure politics” of this protest have been rendered largely impotent, even before it began. Why? Because there is no “day after” for this protest, no concerted movement. People will come to Washington, they will leave on the same Planned Parenthood buses they came in on. Families will come in, experience the “high” of organized activism, the ecstatic moment of being apart of something historical, and then go home.

Precisely by being under the banner of something “legitimate”, opposition to Trump  has been stripped of any power to scare or influence the incoming regime. Yes, I said regime. The incoming regime of the Trump administration is completely illegitimate. In my mind, as Trump was outvoted by 3 million votes, he has absolutely no mandate, and even worse. If it was not for our antedilluvian election laws, we would not have this reactionary holding the highest office of the United States. He deserves to be protested, 100%. But we ourselves our to blame for it, for protesting at the gates of death. We could have broken the electoral college long ago. But now, it seems as if the whole world is panicking the prospect of a Trump presidency, when this is the natural outcome of successive neoliberal policies. Brexit was partially a reaction to corporate neoliberalism which removed all barriers to trade, and Trump is also using anti-globalization sentiments to his advantage by playing the right-wing populist (even though his administration picks demonstrate he is staunchly corporatist).

I like Planned Parenthood, but in this context it also has to be admitted that they are part of an existing power structure, even if that structure is social justice/activism groups. Planned Parenthood’s sponsoring of the march also sidelines economic issues in favor of more identity specific issues (hence Women’s March, even though other groups will also be hypothetically targeted by the Trump administration even more fiercely, like immigrants, Muslims, and people of color).

I think that political will in this country is very dependent on circumstance. And that is ok, to a certain extent. One shouldn’t just protest without just cause. But I believe that these “fallacies” about neoliberal protest and its supposed effectiveness are still in play, especially the “appeal to authority”. If we allow all protest to be guided, managed, and staged, yes we risk the protest devolving into unorganized chaos, but we also also risk the protest becoming part of the existing system. For some, this is a good thing. The protest “should be perceived as legitimate”. The problem with this argument is that civil disobedience, in even wide-scale protest like this one, in the eyes of a reactionary administration, will NEVER be perceived as legitimate. Expect fierce opposition, by reactionary counter-protestors, agitators, and police.

My larger issue with this Women’s March protest, however, is that it does not encompass enough issues. The march is purely an “anti-Trump” movement, and that is how the media will cover it. Sure there will be signs that will say “Save Healthcare”, “protect immigrants”, and “Black Lives Matter”, but if these struggles aren’t given their specific articulations, the existing power structures will not hear the voices of concerned citizens. It does not matter the size of this protest. It could be 1 million, it could be 3 million people. If it continues to be an anti-Trump and nothing but anti-Trump march, and that is the messaging people get, then that is all that will register. Neoliberalism will continue, in its completely unfettered form, and the protestors will all transform back into paranoid and frightened private citizens.

Here is my advice- THINK. Don’t just act. Yes, this is the time for action. But the more we question the ways in which we too, are participating in our own subordination, the more I think we can change the course of history.

Link to “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest”: 

The problem with “pop politics” articles

Well I’ve done it already. I’m already going to write about Trump. No surprise there, he’s unavoidable.

Recently, I came across an article on the site “Everyday Feminism” that provoked a lot of questions for me. The article is titled “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex”. Now I know what some of you are going to say. “But Stephen, why deliberately pick such easy targets of criticism?” As with any article from Salon or Buzzfeed, there’s more here than meets the eye in terms of the current zeitgeist.

This particular site has been a hub of popular Feminist writers, who pen articles on currently salient topics, often from an interesting range of perspectives. Sure, some of the writers may be amateur, but most of them have degrees and write for other magazines (this article in particular was written by Suzannah Weiss, “She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more.”). 

Nevertheless, the site, while aimed at a younger audience, often tries to tackle subjects such as sexism, racism, homophobia and trans issues, often with political undertones, but written from a “self-help” kind of perspective. Some article titles include “How to Compliment Women without Objectifying Them”, “5 Gender Neutral Alternatives to “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”, and “But Seriously, Let’s Talk about Millenial Poverty”. Two things strike me about these articles when I read them- they are at once personal, and from a “social justice” perspective. They attempt to integrate lifestyle choices with a liberal/social justice mentality. Many people (critics of political correctness) will immediately dismiss these sites and communities as “social justice warriors” and be done with it. However, there is an emerging identity/community of people like this, many of them LGBT, people of color, or women in the US, who take this kind of thing very seriously. People are trying to apply concepts originally drawn from sociology like “intersectionality” and apply it to their lives. What’s the harm in that, my inner lib says?

The problems I see with these “social justice pop articles” that have recently been ubiquitous on the internet are multiple.

First, it perpetuates a certain standard liberal narrative without any introspection. In terms of this article about Trump, it focuses on the racism/sexism angle of Trump’s candidacy. While these are undeniable aspects of Trump’s candidacy, and the article provides provides effective counterarguments to Trump’s own arguments about why it wasn’t important to focus “pussygate”, several things in this article are very telling.

First of all, when addressing anticipated and real criticisms in the article, Weiss makes the following argument about political correctness. “Political correctness is just being considerate”, and denied accusations of being the “PC police”. This not only represents a heightened sense of awareness of exactly what type of discourse is being presented in these articles, it is interesting to see a defense of political correctness in and of itself (I’d be the first to guess that it would come from this site).

Is she right? To an extent. Critics of political correctness fail to remember that there are moral standards which we should hold people to in public discourse, most of all people in positions of power. Advocates of this PC culture also are correct in saying that sexism and misogyny have been so thoroughly internalized by the populace that they shut down any attempt to be considerate as being “politically correct”. I would go so far as to say every time Donald Trump has mentioned PC culture, he has used it as an excuse to target some minority group. This is hateful and frightfully alarming rhetoric.

But PC advocates also fail to recognize the complex political valences around the “political correctness” debate. This article is shoddy in its attempt to address current politics, first of all because it doesn’t attempt to be analytical, and was written from a personalistic perspective. The metaphor of gaslighting is supposed to carry over seamlessly into politics. She starts the article talking about how people are “traumatized” by this election. This is standard liberal waffling. Have hate crimes against Muslims gone up? Of course! I’m not attempting to delegitimize people’s feelings about this election. I too am VERY concerned about the direction this country is heading. But the sheer psychological impact of this election is reduced in this metaphor to a personalistic metaphor about an abusive relationship. First of all, let’s ignore the fact that a politician can’t “gaslight” in the normal sense of the word. Sure he can attempt to silence his critics (like every politician).

But how did Trump manage to pull out of his nosedive in the polls after “pussygate”? One reason may be that he controlled the policy narrative afterwards, while Clinton focused on Trump’s personal scandals. Just like Bill Clinton was able to get through his impeachment scandal and his poll numbers even went up, Trump was able to refocus the debate and appeal to voters on the basis of his ideas, not his character. Trump said “I’m not proud of my locker room talk. But this world has serious problems”. This resonated with many voters, working class people in Michigan and Wisconsin for example, who have been left behind by neoliberal policies. It sends the message- “I have my human failings, but I will be your defender in the halls of power”. Clinton could not have done more damage to herself by focusing on Trump’s scandals. Aside from quote “normalizing racism and sexism”, what impact could Trump’s words and actions those many years ago on a tour bus possibly have for a family of 5 in rural Kansas?

It is interesting that despite their apparent ideological difference, the writer of this article and Clintonites appeal to the same moral conservatism as Christian conservatives to discredit Trump. Whether this moral critique is true or not (and it certainly is true- Trump is a cancer to the state of decency in political speech), it is the populism of Trump’s message that is completely ignored in this article. Conservative voters or Trump voters will read the first line and think “oh the poor libs went crying to the hotlines after their candidate lost. They’ll get over it”. Simply put- this rhetorical strategy isn’t working. More talk about sexism and racism, mainstream media friendly topics (if it’s about a dirty word a politician said or a picture Anthony Weiner sent, it will make front page) will only serve to make Trump appear like the arbiter of common sense in politics who takes on out-of-control political correctness in public debate.

I do think liberals have to reclaim the side of morality and decency, and fight against sexism and racism. But taking such a complex political issue and reducing it to a metaphor about your relationship only serves to muddy the waters, and represents the problems with today’s mainstream liberal Left.

I’ll also say a quick word (and try not to be too harsh) about today’s “activist blogosphere”. Too often the articles seem to be aimed at an audience which already believes what they are saying. The debate around Trump in particular in social media has become hyperbolic, emotional, and lacks clarity or any attempt to be analytical. Forget comparisons of Trump’s win to Brexit- Trump is obviously winning because of my ex-boyfriend, racists, and other baddies.

 

http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/11/gaslighting-trump-abusive-ex/