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Scot Nakagawa: "We need to be prophets of the world as it should be"

Posted by Jamee Greer at Oct 18, 2016 01:31 AM |

A guest post by Scot Nakagawa of ChangeLab. He is a community organizer, activist, and public intellectual. "Don’t let the scandals distract you. This election should be understood in a much broader, world historical context: We are in a time when old norms are falling and new ones are being established, and through a multidimensional fight in which all sides appear to be attacking the middle."

Scot Nakagawa: "We need to be prophets of the world as it should be"

Scot Nakagawa, www.changelabinfo.com

A guest post by Scot Nakagawa of ChangeLab. He is a community organizer, activist, and public intellectual. Scot has spent the last four decades exploring cultural production and hegemony, racial injustice and racial formation through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash. He is a regular contributor at Race Files, a project of ChangeLab. Scot is also former chair of the Western States Center Board of Directors, 2001-2008.


At the second presidential debate, after a weekend of scandalous news, Donald Trump spent the night flicking shit at the pundit class in order to create a distraction. The pundits duly responded, and…you know how this goes from here.

We are in a time when old norms are falling and new ones are being established, and through a multidimensional fight in which all sides appear to be attacking the middle.

Don’t let the scandals distract you. This election should be understood in a much broader, world historical context: We are in a time when old norms are falling and new ones are being established, and through a multidimensional fight in which all sides appear to be attacking the middle.

The right wing has gone off the rails. Years of attacking liberalism, an assault hardened and given even more explicitly a racial meaning after President Obama's election, have helped to facilitate this, for sure. But there's so much more to this story than the extraordinary polarization between Democrats and Republicans and what the effects of this extreme polarization have been on the electorate (and I'm not trying to minimize those effects which are many and may lead to violence, in fact have done so already).

All of this matters, but they are mainly effects, not the cause of the current chaos, just as Trump is more the buffoonish effect than the sudden cause of destructive white racial radicalism in the GOP, to paraphrase a wise acquaintance.

Liberalism is under attack. Neoliberalism, not an aberration but rather an exaggeration of liberalism, has caused 'liberal' to become synonymous with 'elite' while also weakening government.

Neoliberalism is driving financial deregulation, austerity, privatization, and economic stagnation for the bottom 90 percent. And neoliberalism has also put government on a starvation diet, causing the public sector to grow increasingly unresponsive, breeding resentment and fueling a vicious cycle.

Neoliberalism is the logic of late capitalism, a system that must constantly grow or die, attempting to expand markets through deregulation and privatization. 

But, the thing is, capitalism needs government. The driving logic of capitalism is capital accumulation and growth, not capital redistribution for the sake of community sustainability and work force viability. Yet redistribution in the form of public works and programs is a bulwark against rebellion, prepares and sustains a ready and capable workforce, and ensures worker productivity, and robust markets for consumer goods and services.

Capitalism relies on public infrastructure, public sector employment, and public assistance programs. Government spending on all of the above amounts to subsidies to business financed disproportionately by the taxes of the ordinary wage earners who make the products and provide the services that generate business profits.

But all of this is being chipped away even as the future appears increasingly challenging. Without “big government” will capitalism survive extreme advances in automation resulting in massive unemployment? In a recent gathering sponsored by my firm, ChangeLab, two of the world’s leading technologists warned of 50+ percent unemployment across blue collar and white collar sectors within 20 years, prompting one of them to comment, “That’s revolution time, right?”

In a recent gathering sponsored by my firm, ChangeLab, two of the world’s leading technologists warned of 50+ percent unemployment across blue collar and white collar sectors within 20 years, prompting one of them to comment, “That’s revolution time, right?”

And what about climate change? How are we to survive an increasingly hostile climate without a robust public sector?

And there’s the migration crisis. Huge numbers of people are being expelled from their home countries, driving an identity crisis among Western democracies faced with massive numbers of migrants seeking safe havens. Our own immigration debate is just one example of this identity crisis. The Brexit vote is another, as is the rise of a rabidly xenophobic right in Greece, and growing hostility toward Muslims in formerly liberal societies like France (where a assault on Islamic women wearing the burka being launched in the name of feminism is perhaps the best example of how commonplace Islamophobia has become).

Here in the U.S. more than 85% of the American electorate in 1980 was white. Today, the electorate is only 67% white, and that percentage is rapidly falling. The fastest growing parts of our population are the most economically vulnerable and politically marginalized, again, pointing us toward rebellion. Whites as an aggregate are losing their ability to define and hold the middle of American culture and politics, driving up racist fears and resentment. And those resentments are also stoked by neoliberalism.

Back in the 80’s, the Democratic Party responded to the neoliberal “Reagan revolution” by adopting business-friendly multiculturalism (remember all the talk in the early 90’s of the lucrative LGBTQ market and “gays in the military?”). They created a coalition between Democratic Party stalwarts like big labor (that had nowhere else to go), the traditional civil rights sector, LGBTQ communities, and neoliberal business elites. That coalition was big enough to compete in national politics and win the presidency for Bill Clinton. But the Democrats betrayed workers, an act of infidelity they are paying for now. 

All of that may sound hopeful to critics of capitalism, but here's the rub: The Left took a beating at the end of the 20th century. We now live in what amounts to a unipolar political reality. Many movements may be rising, but the most forceful and articulate radical voices in American politics, especially on the issue of race, are on the right. The Left lacks the kind of infrastructure, leadership, and organizations necessary to arrive at a coherent, legible set of proposals for how to meet the challenge of this time, much less to build broad based coalitions and mount wide scale campaigns on the basis of such proposals.

As political and cultural norms fall, the Left is not positioned to dictate what the new normal will be. It is becoming apparent that “progressive” may be a terrific big tent idea that gave us shelter through years of vicious, racist and misogynistic backlash politics, but under that tent we’ve become too loose, too politically blurry, to define a clear alternative at a time when growing numbers of people are demanding one.

I'm not normally an advocate for preaching to the choir, but at the moment the choir is singing too many conflicting songs at the same time, however lovely each voice may be by itself. The Left needs to get into a huddle and work out a game plan for what is building up to a war of nationalisms.

Nations are founded on territory, managed through institutions, and bounded by physical borders, but nationalism is about belief. It is not about who we are in fact, but about who we aspire to be. Nationalism is the realm in which what we believe we should stand for, what those beliefs mean for us, who gets to belong, and how we will relate to one another and the world are contested.

Nationalism is the currency of nation-building in the modern world. It has always been at the heart of American politics. Every fight over race, gender, sexuality, disability inclusion, workers’ rights, taxes, religious freedom, education, and immigration rights has been a fight over the meaning of citizenship contested within the realm of competing nationalisms.

Do we live in a patriarchal state or a gender equal one? Are we a Christian theocratic state or one in which there is genuine religious freedom? Which will rule, white racial nationalism, or multicultural civic nationalism? How will we balance the need for strong communities and healthy, prosperous workers with the profit interests of business? Are migrant workers entitled to the same rights as citizen workers? Just who gets to be “American?” These are the questions that have been and are now at the heart of American politics.

And here’s a really tough one for those of us who cut our teeth on identity politics: We need to reject strategies that force us to trade power for empowerment. The safety we feel in the alternative spaces we’ve created is an illusion. We live in safety at the whims of those with real power. It’s time to mix it up.

Competing in this arena takes big thinking. We need to muster the courage to be inclusive, and the humility to admit what we don't know and must learn in order to lead.

And here’s a really tough one for those of us who cut our teeth on identity politics: We need to reject strategies that force us to trade power for empowerment. The safety we feel in the alternative spaces we’ve created is an illusion. We live in safety at the whims of those with real power. It’s time to mix it up.

In order to win this fight, we can’t just settle on being critics of the world as it is. We need to be prophets of the world as it should be.

 

Read more of Scot Nakagawa's writing at Race Files.

 

 

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