(Note: This piece is adapted from the author’s January 23 and 24, 2017, addresses to Colorado College and Ithaca College.)
Maintaining power in a society as grossly unequal as the United States has become is not easy. It can be accomplished, however, through demagoguery and the manipulation of reality.
Truth is, modern capitalism has entered a deep phase of crisis. Predatory finance and globalization have produced unprecedented concentrations of wealth. Neoliberal policies have eliminated basic democratic protections, gutting welfare programs, dismantling the public sector and decimating unions. Millions of workers face extreme insecurity. Climate change has reached apocalyptic proportions.
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Meanwhile, the US has become a plutocracy, a political system controlled by a tiny elite. The structures of representation prevent ordinary citizens from affecting real change. A vast surveillance state tyrannizes the population. The quest for domination leads to endless oil wars, which in turn spawn more terrorism and instability. The US is a bloated empire slowly collapsing under its own weight.
Naturally, such conditions produce tremendous anxiety. Many working Americans feel a profound sense of dislocation. Their lives have grown more precarious amid the massive upward distribution of wealth. They recognize the underlying corruption of the political and economic apparatus. They are not ignorant; they know that the system has lost legitimacy. And they are understandably outraged at the social turmoil their families and friends have endured.
But they lack coherent explanations for the growing contradictions of society, and for the disorientation and fear that they experience every day. A more critical consciousness might drive them to revolt. Without such a critique, they simply stagnate. Their anguish and resentment festers. Their communities disintegrate. They lead parochial lives, hypnotized by an insipid popular culture and by the false promises of nationalism and fundamentalism.
Along comes Donald Trump. He provides a narrative of restoration. He peddles an aggressive brand of patriarchy. He supplies an explanatory framework: The Muslims — they have caused your suffering. The immigrants. The Blacks. He ignites the imagination. He is vulgar. But his coarseness is a welcome departure from the refinement of an arrogant political establishment. He is lying. But in a climate of desperation, many Americans view his lies as the only weapons they possess, and collectively they hurl them at the power structure they detest.
Now here’s the thing about domination: it is never absolute. When capitalism is most reckless, it is also most vulnerable. As it commits atrocities, it fertilizes its opposition. The outrage against austerity that helped fuel Trump’s victory has also galvanized progressive movements around the world. From France to South Africa, people have taken to the streets to denounce a system that serves only giant corporations and banks, privatizing profit and socializing agony.
In the United States, resistance has taken many forms. Occupy Wall Street. The Bernie Sanders campaign. The Fight for a $15 minimum wage. Regardless of their short-term outcomes, these struggles made real contributions. They offered an alternative to political acquiescence. They revitalized grassroots traditions of dissent. And they promoted the kinds of structural analysis that enable people to understand and confront inequality.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is one of the most promising expressions of the popular resurgence. BLM is a diverse and decentralized movement, yet at its best, it exhibits the egalitarian impulses that have long galvanized the Black liberation struggle. BLM rejects hierarchy and elite leadership. It encourages participants to organize themselves. It harnesses the creative forces of disruption. It exemplifies radical democracy.
Like many of the struggles of the 1960s, it also reflects a broad commitment to human rights. BLM is a response to state terrorism and a form of “ethnic cleansing” practiced by police. However, the movement also addresses the larger problem of human disposability. By recognizing anti-Black violence as an acute symptom of an underlying crisis, BLM goes beyond reform to question the very foundation of our political and economic system.
The continued vibrancy of BLM suggests that even in the cultural desert of Trump’s America, ordinary people can resist political manipulation and develop a potent critique of social realities. We have entered a traumatic period of history, but this moment can be generative. If we can free ourselves from debilitating social myths, if we can revive a radical, collective consciousness, we can begin to forge a more humane social order.
Such an undertaking will not fulfill some innate democratic creed. It will require the construction of a new mass movement in one of the world’s great centers of bigotry and violence. And there will be casualties.
But if marginalized people choose the path of liberation, then even today, in what may prove to be the early stages of mass struggle, we can say to our oppressors, forthrightly:
We know who we are. We are the resistance.
You can attempt to repress and silence us. But you cannot enlist us in your regime of lies.
We are the citizens of the occupied land. This country lies in the shadows, but its territory is vast. It has no flag. It has no army. It has only our bodies. Our Brown bodies. Our Black bodies. Our queer bodies. Our battered bodies. Our raped bodies.
We are the colonized. And this is our land. We are Indigenous, though some of us have only just arrived. We are workers. We are welfare mothers. We are prisoners. We are homeless.
We are poor. We are undocumented. We are the colonized. And this is our land. We will not be your scapegoats. We will not be your subjects.
We are an occupied territory. But we do not want nationhood. We do not want your chauvinism. We do not want your militarism. We do not want your misogyny. We do not want your prisons. We do not want your empire.
We are tired of lies.
We are a new people. We see clearly now. We have cast off the scales. We will never return to the sidelines. We will liberate this colony with the force of our outrage and our dissent.
Long live the new land.