by Siraj Ahmed Sindhu & Brian Z. Zayatz
Liberalism died in 2016, in his fourth century. He was ill for quite some time, and after a series of tumultuous brushes with death over the last hundred years, he passed not quietly but spectacularly by climbing a tree and sawing off the very branch he was sitting on. Many have refused to accept his death, and his body is currently propped up on bumper stickers and mainstream news networks with sunglasses in some weird Weekend-At-Bernie’s-esque charade, preventing his proper entombment.
He will be remembered for the way in which his valorization of moral neutrality made it seem like everything was fine. He will also be remembered for skillfully obscuring the fact that he relentlessly normalized labor exploitation, rationalized casual racism and apartheid and waged perpetual colonial war. Liberalism is survived by his son, white nationalism, who is poised to take up his father’s responsibilities as World Superpower and promises to make his late father’s principles even more explicit.
By liberalism, we mean the idea that progress is inevitably ever on the horizon, that society is collectively marching, through value-neutral parliamentary procedure, towards a more inclusive era — that our journey will be a tottering series of compromises and baby steps, requiring us to be patient while our trusty politicians work things out for us. It is an ideology built on capitalism, racism and cisheterosexism. It has, for many years, served the purpose of mediating the contradictions of our racist and class-divided Western society, which outwardly preaches equality and multiculturalism while simultaneously building its palaces on the backs of the exploited and oppressed workers the world over.
By declaring liberalism dead, we mean that the events of the past year have demonstrated that it has finished serving this mediating purpose.
In the post-Reagan years of neoliberal capitalism and globalization, the left drowsed at the wheel, allowing the arena of mainstream political discourse to be shaped ever more by the right. In that time, and especially in recent years, two of the founding pillars of liberalism — whiteness and capitalism — have erupted into crisis. The refugee crisis, several proxy wars for control of markets in Europe and Asia, and the American backlash over immigration have shown the fatal cracks in these pillars. In America, the Democratic Party, hardly aware of the crisis it faced, let us down over the last eight years, and specifically in 2016, with finality and spectacle.
Under Obama, a candidate who inspired hope like no other, the economy improved but inequality increased, police violence spiked, millions were deported and drones dropped bombs indiscriminately in the Middle East. When indigenous water protectors must face brutality and harsh plains winters in order not to have their source of water poisoned, we must face the fact that shouting from the center that “We see you, over there on the margins, and we’re getting to you eventually!” should never have been acceptable. As James Baldwin said, “You always told me [progress] takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time … How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”
In 2016, the American Democratic Party again failed to live up to its own standards of progress. The party’s failure to represent the needs of working-class people of all races subverted its ability to maintain order, one of liberalism’s highest virtues. Ironically enough, this failure was a product of the party’s prior privileging of order over justice, non-violent protest over physical resistance and the capitalist status quo over anti-capitalist revolution. The 2016 election brought simmering white nationalism, which has long constituted the implicit order of the US, to a disorderly boil. It was the Democratic Party’s election to lose, and despite not actually losing it, they still lost it. The party’s chorus of “vote or things will get even worse,” recycled from the last few elections, proved uninspiring when it mattered most. Banking on the unwavering support of everyone with a drop of non-white blood in their body, the Democrats stopped trying to offer anything substantive to black Americans and Latinx folks years ago. White folks turned out for Trump in numbers that surprised even this white guy, a vote that essentially said, from socioeconomic castes high and low, “I’ll take some more of that white privilege, please.”
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Racial capitalism has served those on top of society well, but the harm and oppression it heaps on the rest have never been clearer. For many in the mythical “white working class,” the racial capitalism peddled explicitly by the Republican Party has long been objectionable. The Democratic Party, increasingly dragged to the right by the Republican Party run amok, is similarly losing its credibility among Americans of conscience. We now know that a platform of gradual liberal progress cannot mobilize many progressive whites and large blocs of people of color. We also know that many white voters, faced with a choice between the liberal status quo and the affirmation that they are not and never will be racially inferior, will vote for the latter.
As long as we perpetuate the myth of the white working class as one with distinct interests from the working class of color (who are, for some reason, never discussed), the white supremacists will continue to win. The Democratic Party has not been brave enough either to address the Republicans’ Southern Strategy (of pandering to racists to distract from class issues), nor to provide a platform that unites the poor across race, gender, sexuality, ability and immigration status. The bourgeoisie of America have bet large sums of their bountiful resources that white supremacy will keep us so divided that we will never get around to uniting against them.
Many liberals who believe in equality, multiculturalism, justice and order should feel disenchanted by the failures of liberalism to resolve the contradictions of the present political situation.
It is increasingly inescapable that the fault lies not with the failure of the two major parties to apply liberal principles, but in those liberal principles themselves. Rethinking the principles of one’s political position is no small task, but if any set of circumstances calls for such a radical rethinking, it is the one in which we find ourselves now. This is no time for unthinkingly recycling old slogans and tired mantras. It is no time for the knee-jerk disapproval of violent insurrection. Nothing is sacred. Now is the time for thinking without banisters.
In the circumstances of the present, we suggest that disenchanted, disillusioned and otherwise questioning liberals consider more radical politics that explicitly oppose capitalism, state coercion and racism. Such a politics interprets our society as inherently contradictory, built on the bourgeois patriarchy’s racially motivated exploitation of domestic and international laborers for their own benefit. This politics takes seriously the fact that the dominant ideologies of our time — such as cisheterosexism, racism and capitalism — are disseminated by those who wield political and financial power. This politics takes seriously the fact that these ideologies and those who spread them must be resisted accordingly, and not on the terms that they themselves set.
If we are to resist the regime of intensified white nationalism, we must resist on our terms. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The point is not to demand freedom; it is to seize freedom through power. If we are to struggle against white nationalism, we can only do so by setting the terms and defining the aims of our struggle.
It is for this reason that we find it imperative to build a broad and non-sectarian coalition on the left. Political liberalism’s tenet of gradual progress emanating outward from a white male center of concern to the precarious lives at the margins is no longer tenable.
It is past time to denounce and oppose capitalist banks and corporations, to demilitarize and diminish the police apparatus, to establish that the purpose of the military is not to keep us safe but to protect corporate and government interests at the cost of the destruction of human life and to resist misogyny and transphobia, by education wherever possible and by force where needed. Our oppressors have gained power through law and the elective process, certainly, but law and elections can only be given legitimacy and authority when backed by threat of violent force. The oppressors, then, rule with shrouded force; we must be willing to respond in kind. Punching Nazis, as they say, is always okay. We must stand firmly and strategically against racism, sexism, imperialism, and state violence.
But what do we stand for? We must proactively ask ourselves what kind of society we wish to form. This calls for serious consideration of a politics left of liberalism.
We stand in favor of wealth redistribution, dissolving the institution of the police, communal ownership of the means of production, ecologically sustainable production and consumption and the rights of communities to self-determination. It is no accident that the liberal state has caused oppression and exploitation; these are results of its fundamental structure. As our bourgeois oppressors grow increasingly bold in their use of naked force, we must either recognize that the present moment calls for a broad coalition on the left inspired by anarchist and socialist principles or find ourselves under the thumb of a dystopian regime.
Liberalism is dead. In its wake, we have an opportunity to struggle for equality and power. It is imperative that we seize this opportunity. If we don’t start optimistically organizing on the egalitarian principles of anarchism and communism, then the authoritarianism sweeping the Western world will gladly take liberalism’s place.
Siraj Ahmed Sindhu & Brian Z. Zayatz are students at Amherst College. Their article was originally published in The Amherst Student.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above was taken by Andrew Salinero during Summer 2016 in San Antonio of Trump supporters countering an Anti-Trump protest.