The imaginary democracy of the Left

While Dutch leftwing politicians quickly call to defend our beloved democracy from the attacks of hate, misinformation and conspiracies, grassroots movements like ours are not afraid to say that what happened at Washington DC on Wednesday is the manifestation of an issue inherent in our democracy: white supremacism.

It is time for us to recognize that our democracies, in Europe as in the US, were built on the belief that white people are superior to other races and ethnicities, and our wealth on the violence that this belief authorized. So white supremacism embedded in our democracy, in its institutions and in the people working for them incited and facilitated the fascist riot of Capitol Hill. The democratically elected president of the United States kindled the fire, and the police didn’t extinguish it, but helped it spread. As a result, rioters were able to roam freely in one of the supposedly most secured buildings of the most heavily armed country in the world, looting, taking pictures in which they can be easily identified, installing bombs, and leaving four people dead. How safe they felt doing what they did is worrisome, because they know – we know – that they will hardly face any serious consequence for their actions. The response of our Left-wing politicians? Heartening words about the goodness of our democracy and the power of niceness.

A Dutch translation. Een Nederlandse vertaling.

In light of these empty statements, movements like ours feel compelled to advance a different narrative of how to interpret instances like this. First, we must admit that our system does not hold white people, especially men, as accountable for their actions as everyone else. Domestic violence and rape rarely result in a sentence, police officers seems untouchable even in front of recorded evidence, white armed rioters can occupy Capitol Hill while peaceful BLM protesters are pinned to the ground.

Most importantly, we must stop thinking that problems like white supremacism are external to our system and caused by a few bad apples. The consequence of such a belief is deluding ourselves that by eliminating these subjects from society – by jailing them, for example – we will have dealt with our problems once and for all. Yet they come back, seemingly stronger every time, in the murder of black people at the hands of police officers, the sexual assault of hundreds of thousands of women in jails, workplaces and homes, the criminalization of immigrants, sex workers and drug addicts, and so on. We won’t be able to solve these issues by criminalizing or demonizing people. Calling for justice in the aftermath of its violation has the impassable limit of overlooking the decisive factors of injustice and their possible prevention.

So when Left-wing politicians call on us to open a dialogue, respect others regardless of the disagreements, and trust law and order (all things that were said in response to the riot), what they do is actually perpetrating a weak and patronizing lie. Unfortunately, to be nice and tolerant and punish those who disrupt our image of a functional society isn’t enough to achieve equality and justice. Following such a rhetoric we end up accepting that certain people, due to their personality traits, are simply full of hate. And while it is undeniable that a member of a fascist group hates everything that isn’t white, this explanation inevitably leads to ignoring the systemic roots of the issue, and focusing only on its individual manifestations. In other words, it would be the same of treating symptoms without curing the underlying disease.

For example, we understand by now that white supremacism is on a rise since white working and middle class people were disillusioned by the politics of meritocracy. The idea that our socioeconomic system fairly and abundantly rewards those who work hard and play by the rules has been promoted since the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, but also reinforced by politicians such as Barack Obama, Silvio Berlusconi, and yes: Mark Rutte. In reality, increasing competition on the labor market means that a college degree does not always translate into a well-paid job. Education is becoming financially less accessible, especially to low income students. Crucially, living a dignified life, or even surviving, on a minimum wage job is literally impossible. Even the wealth of the middle class is shrinking under the neo-liberal restructuring of the economy.

Another key factor is that white people, especially cishet men, saw their long held privileged status destabilized by the rise of minorities’ rights, from LGBTQ+ rights to refugee’s rights. To be clear, the advent of progressive reforms did not strip white people of their own rights. Nonetheless, it rendered them an instance of humankind, instead of the universal and superior expression of it. This is unprecedented in history. Feeling screwed by politicians, as well as by minorities and the economy, white supremacism and reactionary politics came to their rescue.

Even though this is an incomplete explanation of white supremacism, you can already see that assuming a systemic perspective, and one that has the courage to criticize our democracy when necessary, has the advantage of reaching useful conclusions. On their basis we can in fact build resistance, solidarity, and useful solutions. We can identify which aspects of our policies, economy, and culture may exacerbate our problems, and within which institutions they are reproduced. We could for example move from a model that attempts to repair to injustices with ineffective workplace diversity trainings, to one that stops glorifying our colonial past in schools and museums. We could, in other words, achieve that cultural and systemic revolution needed to dismantle white supremacism and the institutions that perpetrate it (the prison-industrial complex, the patriarchal family structure, neoliberal capitalism, etc.) from our democracy.

At the end of the day, it takes effort and courage to deal with the problematic aspects of our society. It takes challenging the status quo, admitting the truth about our colonial history, recognizing systemic discrimination, holding each other accountable, and strengthening our communities. #Leidenvoor14, as well as other groups, are building grassroots intersectional movements that have the bravery of addressing such complicated questions, and this is really the solution we can hope for. Within these communities we unmask exploitation, address discrimination, and envision a just and solidary society. It is grassroots movements that engage on a daily basis different people in a dialogue, one that is not based on blind tolerance and niceness but sincerity and constrictive critique. It is always grassroots movements that keep paying attention to the concerns of working class people and marginalized communities.

In the meantime, Left-wing parties have stopped listening. Yet they ask you to open a dialogue, and defend their imaginary democracy.

Marty, a queer woman and intersectional activist (with #Leidenvoor14 and XR)