The world order as we knew it is disintegrating. Countries are cutting links with the World Health Organisation and other international bodies. They are revoking old armament agreements. Donald Trump announced his intention to use the US army on the streets of his own cities; China talks about a possible military invasion of Taiwan; Valdimir Putin says that Russia may use nuclear arms even if it’s attacked by conventional arms.
In this situation, nationalist populists were expected to seize the opportunity of the Covid-19 pandemic and change their countries into isolated fiefdoms directed against foreign enemies. But it didn’t work. Their bravados instead turned into a display of blatant impotence and incompetence.
Let’s take the three big authoritarian populists. As Angela Dewan put it: “Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro find their populist playbooks are no match for coronavirus.” (And, for that matter, neither is Boris Johnson’s, as he too plays a populist card.) “The coronavirus pandemic could have been a moment of glory for the world’s populist leaders. This is a period of heightened fear and anxiety – emotions that typically allow them to thrive. Instead, some populists are finding themselves powerless against the outbreaks ravaging their countries. The US, Russia and Brazil now have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and as their death tolls continue to rise, their economies are taking devastating blows.”
Trump found himself in a special predicament when the Covid-19 crisis was coupled with the protests against the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police. The two have echoes of one another. A much higher percentage of black people are affected by police violence, and by the Covid-19 infection.
In this mess, Trump is simply out of his league, unable to impose a unifying vision, to perform the gesture of a leader in a situation which calls for a leader: a sincere description of the gravity of the situation with some kind of hope and vision.
As Robert Reich wrote: “You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed. His verbal bombshells are louder than ever, but Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States.” When he threatened, if police and National Guard could not bring calm, to send regular troops in to crush protests with its “infinite force”, he became the agent and instigator of a civil war.
But what exactly is this war?
One thing about the ongoing protests in the US is not emphasised enough, though it is absolutely crucial: there is no place for the dissatisfaction which fuels the protests within the space of the “culture war” between the liberal left and populist neo-conservatives.
The left’s stance towards the Black Lives Matter resurgence is that dignified peaceful protests must be encouraged, but there should be no extremist destructive excesses and looting. In some elementary sense that is right, of course, but it misses the true meaning of violent excess: a reaction to the fact that liberal, peaceful and gradual political change has not worked and systemic racism persists in the US. What emerges in violent protest is an anger that cannot be adequately represented in our political space.
This is also why so many representatives of the establishment, not only liberals but also conservatives, are openly critical of Trump’s aggressive stance towards the protesters. The establishment desperately wants to channel protests into the coordinates of the eternal “struggle against racism”, one of liberalism’s endless tasks. They are ready to admit that we didn’t do enough, that there is a long and difficult work ahead, just to prevent a quick radicalisation of the protests, not towards even more violence but their transformation into an autonomous political movement with a platform clearly demarcated from the liberal establishment.
Violent protests are the return of the repressed of our liberal societies; a symptom which enacts what cannot be formulated in the vocabulary of liberal multiculturalism. Usually, we accuse people of just speaking, instead of doing something. These protests are the exact opposite: people act violently because they don’t have the words to express their grievance within our political structure.
To paraphrase yet again Brecht’s good old saying: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?” What is a direct racist obscenity compared to the obscenity of a liberal who practices multiculturalist tolerance in such a way that it allows him or her to retain racist prejudices?
The result is a culture which leaves a sad choice for the oppressed black citizen: either you are considered subjectively deficient (racism) or you are a product of objective circumstances (the conclusion of the politically correct liberal). How to break out of this deadlock? How to transform that blind rage into new political subjectivity?
The first step in this direction was made by some members of the police themselves. Many police officers, including NYPD’s chief Terence Monahan, “took the knee” alongside the protesters – a practice which was introduced decades ago by American athletes when they won a gold medal and the national anthem was played at sporting events. The message of this gesture is to signal racial injustice in their own country, and since it is a sign of disrespect towards the national anthem, it means that one is not ready to fully identify oneself with the US – “this is not my country”.
No wonder the Chinese gleefully report on the protests in the US, reading them as a repetition of the Hong Kong protests. One of the main demands of the Chinese authorities was that Hong Kong should not allow disrespectful treatment of the Chinese national anthem and of other state symbols of China.
Taking the knee also has another meaning, especially when it is done by those who act on behalf of the repressive apparatus of power: it is a signal of respect for the protesters, even with a touch of self-humiliation.
If we combine this meaning with the basic message – “this America, for which it is my job to act, is not my country” – we get the full meaning of the gesture: not the standard anti-Americanism, but a demand for a new beginning, for another America.
So is the US still the world’s moral leader, as CNN asked this week? No, not after Trump’s actions. But what we now see clearly is that the US never was the world’s moral leader, since to achieve that it would need a radical political renovation way beyond the left’s vision of tolerance.
In my books, I often quote an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. A German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware that all his mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code, if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.”
After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the west – the only thing unavailable is red ink.”
This is what the protest movement should look for: the “red ink” to properly formulate its message. Or, as Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark and son of the great black poet Amiri Baraka, put it, we cannot win with guns. To have a chance to win, we have to use books.