I am currently teaching a course on utopian literature. Considering the daily-updated, IRL dystopia we are presently living in, this is either the best timing possible, or the most ridiculous. Jury is out on that.
Opening social media right now is akin to peering through the gates of hell: all you can hear is the wailing of the tormented. Everyone I know is seriously freaking out—and for good reason. Legitimately, things in the U.S. look more and more like a white suprematist coup d’etat. There has been a purge in the State Department, with racist ideologues like Bannon appointed to the National Security Council. And then there’s the wall and the ban on Muslim immigration. Power is very clearly being centralized in a few hands, and these few would-be proto-dictators are testing the waters of ignoring the rule of law (i.e., ignoring the court ordered stay on the immigration ban). This is all too real, and must be fought tooth and nail.
But—in the name of what are we going to resist the current crisis? I hear again and again fears that we are in the “twilight of liberal democracy”—that liberal democratic systems and institutions are under attack, and must be staunchly defended. Due process, the rule of law, accountable government, etc. etc.—these are of course all good things, and they are indeed under threat—but are they our utopian hope in the face of the Trumpian dystopia?
The question is not only, are existing democratic systems enough to effectively combat Trump, but also, are they really what we cherish, value, depend upon and want?
Maybe I am being insensitive in even asking this, but Henry David Thoreau’s words have been on my mind of late:
“Is democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?”
Let’s remember a few things. A liberal democracy has been at war with much of the Muslim world for decades, created the Guantanamo Bay prison and has been conducting a covert drone war for years—extra judicial imprisonment and execution left and right. Liberal democracies oversaw the globalization of capitalism (further immiserating billions in the “developing world”), and drove the post-war “great acceleration” that has pushed the planet’s biosphere to the point of collapse (blissfully ignoring the global warming warnings that have grown louder and louder since the late 1980s). Liberal democracies have overseen the militarization of their police forces and rampant racial violence and draconian border policies.
So—I want to resist what’s happening here and now—I want to punch fascists in the face, really I do. But I think we need to take this opportunity to consider what it is we struggle in the name of, exactly. I think we need to consider Thoreau’s question again. And—it may turn out that asking what it is we struggle in the name of may also at once be a question about how, by what means, we go about this struggle.
As ever, what I am cheered by, inspired by, and truly find myself loving is the spontaneous, grass-roots resistance of the people taking to the streets and airports of this world, holding candlelight vigils outside beleaguered mosques, welcoming those seeking refuge whether their “democracies” allow this or not. The people united. The people engaged and enraged. The people finding the power, collectively, to organize a better world, from the ground up. This is where the thinking of for what and how we struggle can, and must, happen.
In my utopian lit class, we are reading William Morris’s News from Nowhere this week. I love Morris’s term for the historical transformation his utopia has undergone: “the clearing of the misery.” The social transformation has been a process of “clearing the misery”—the social and ecological “misery” the old world system built and depended upon (the new world order looks, pretty much, like an extensive project of “rewilding,” as well as being one in which such a thing as “government” more or less does not exist, as it is not needed).
If we can “clear the misery” of Trump’s America, we may find the misery we need to clear goes at lot deeper than what’s transpired in the past few weeks. I hope that’s the case. Meanwhile I will keep pondering Thoreau’s question.