SOAPBOX

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WINTER OF ’22

By Mike Hembury

How are your hopes for the future these days?

Are you hunkered down in bleak mid-winter, or is there something stirring within you, something stirring and striving towards the light of spring?

If you asked me to give a sober assessment of the state of the planet, it would of course have to be alarm bells ringing: catastrophic climate change continues unchecked, the threat of fascism and civil war in America grows more real by the minute, the pandemic rides around the globe on the back of profiteering, ignorance and massive systemic inequality, whilst the world’s richest men have managed to double their already obscene wealth over the space of the last two years.

If we are to be realistic, we must of course admit that we are light years away from changing any of that.

But what a wearisome phrase “being realistic” is!

Being realistic smacks of accepting the odds, of retreat, of going down without a fight.

Being realistic told David to forget about taking on Goliath, told the suffragettes there would never be votes for women, told the people of South Africa that Apartheid would never end. It told the peoples of Eastern Europe that “Really Existing Socialism” should be the limit of their political aspirations, just as “Really Existing Capitalism” sells itself today as the best of all possible worlds.

Being realistic, in that sense, is the enemy of the imagination, the very antithesis of struggle.

Of course I’m not saying give up on reality, nor that facts are meaningless, nor that science is unimportant. That seems to be all the rage these days— from Trump’s Big Lie, to the illusion of Brexit, to the ravings of the conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaxxers—it seems all too easy to flee into some alternative universe, to give up on your critical faculties and to accept whatever scapegoat gets presented to you often enough.

No, what I am saying is this: don’t let the perceived constraints of present-day society prevent you from dreaming, from imagining what is possible and from fighting to achieve it.

I was talking to some American friends recently and I asked them about their most memorable moments of mass resistance. And one of the group said something which stuck in my mind: “I remember the days when the left was on the offensive, and the right were playing defense. Back then, we were the ones demonstrating, occupying, squatting stuff. And the right were like, what the hell’s going on? But now that’s just totally turned around. Seems like the left are just bad at playing defense.”

That’s true on so many levels. The left-wing spirit of insurgent revolution that characterised the period from 1968 to the early Eighties has been largely replaced in popular perception by an insurgent extreme right, organising militantly around a range of issues, including Covid-related public health measures and the legitimacy of incumbent governments and – particularly in the USA—rejecting the very principle of democracy and the right to vote for every member of society.

In many ways, progressives find themselves in unfamiliar territory, forced into defending restrictive public health measures implemented by Democrat, social democratic or even conservative governments, or defending the gains of democratic institutions when only recently it was the left calling for the smashing of the state.

And to cap it all, there is the opportunistic appropriation of left discourse by the right, which has always been a classically fascist tactic. The talk of corrupt elites, repressive state structures, the machinations of the deep state, and the oppression of the working class has always featured prominently in left politics. Now it has been grafted onto a deeply racist, authoritarian drive towards violent social conflict in country after country around the world.

So if we are forced into playing defense – and by “we” I mean those of us pushing for an alternative to exploitative, ecocidal capitalism— does that mean we have to give up on our political priorities and fall into line behind whatever pro-capitalist politician happens to be leading the government, or the parliamentary opposition?

Absolutely not.

I think that we should have no problem defending positions shared by democrats and social majorities around the world: universal suffrage is non-negotiable; equality is non-negotiable; the right to freedom from discrimination, freedom from violence, freedom from fear. But also the right to education, housing, healthcare. The right to an unpolluted environment and a liveable future. All of these are issues we share with even the most timid of reformists, and indeed with many conservatives who have refused to be seduced by fascist-authoritarian rhetoric.

But where we differ is in how we approach these issues, our take on these things. How we take them further. How we root them in the needs of the working class and the oppressed.

Democracy is such a good idea, how about massively expanding it? How about democratizing the workplace and our community institutions, and taking the money and lobbying out of politics? If we’re talking about equality, how about ensuring that women are not denied reproductive healthcare, or are ensured guaranteed economic parity and independence? How about making sure that Black communities have the right to vote, and to police themselves, and that immigrants are not scapegoated and subject to arbitrary deportation? How about making education, housing, healthcare, local transport free, as public goods? How about seriously investing in the future and massively subsidizing alternative energies, and winding down climate-killer fuels starting now?

None of these things are particularly contentious, in and of themselves. They are all popularly held, even majority positions, in many countries of the world. But they all share a common trait—they all require the confronting of entrenched power and economic interests, at a time when these are precisely the things driving the world towards the precipice.

At this time of global emergency, now is not the time for hunkering down. Now—surely now—must be the time for thinking big, for looking for historical precedents to the approaching crises. Take wealth tax for example. Under Roosevelt, wealth tax stood at 75%. In wartime Britain, under a conservative-led coalition government, it stood at 99.25%, until dropping back to around 90% during the 1950s and 60s. And why? Because it was an emergency. Or let’s look at the expropriation and nationalisation of key industries and critical infrastructure. For most of the second half of the 20th century, energy (including coal, gas, nuclear power and the electricity grid), transport (including aerospace, bus, rail and even part of the car industry), steel production, and the water supply all remained nationalised in the UK and treated as public goods. The production of private vehicles was banned in both the UK and America during WWII.

So while the right are living in a fantasy world of big lies, and Covid conspiracies, and great replacements, we need to be pushing, and organising and mobilising for change around issues that really affect all our lives. The Covid crisis has shown us what is possible, and how society can be shaken up, if the political will is there. And also how capitalist governments fall back into old habits of profiteering and kickbacks. The lesson for progressives is that we need to be putting forward a practical, alternative platform of emergency demands to deal with the global crisis we face.

And if there is one thing we can learn from the insurgent right, it’s that even in their hateful, hypocritical, perversely distorted way, they are taking the needs and fears and aspirations of at least one section of the working class seriously. This is something large portions of the so-called left have been neglecting for years.  As Democratic senator Bernie Sanders put it recently: “It is no great secret that the Republican party is winning more and more support from working people… It’s not because the Republican party has anything to say to them. It’s because in too many ways the Democratic party has turned its back on the working class.”

Far from timidly “being realistic”, progressives need to quit tinkering around the edges and to start to get real with their demands, and to really fight the corner of those hit hardest by the current crises.

So in this time of winter, it’s ok to reflect, take stock, plan for a difficult future, all of those wintry pursuits. But if you were to ask me, what is the best thing I can do to get through this winter and get ready for spring? – I would answer this:  Get organised! Reach out to your colleagues, fellow students, neighbours and like-minded friends. Get networked, get talking. Get yourself in a place where you can do more than just passively observe how it all goes down the tube, and instead, act, react, and really help shape the future.

Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England.  He’s a writer, translator, musician, coder, sailor, environmentalist and guitar nerd in no particular order.  He is the author of New Clone City, nominated as a “Hot Berlin Read” by Exberliner magazine. You can follow Mike on Twitter here: twitter.com/schnappz

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