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Rhodes Will Fall: activism in an apolitical age

Dean Blunt photo

 

“Once we move beyond a certain point, what were requests within institutions became claims addressed to institutions, and at some stage they became claims against the institutional order. When this process has overflown the institutional apparatuses beyond a certain limit, we start having the people of populism” (Ernesto Laclau, 2006)

 

The British left love to disavow the emancipatory credentials of actually-occurring activism.

Slut Walks are consistent with neoliberal emphases on choice and agency. Refusing to share a platform with progressive stalwarts who might or might not have behaved in racist or transphobic ways is equal parts churlish and cultish. Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) is an aesthetic protest seeking to censor history via the removal of a statue.

The specifics of these events are interesting and extremely varied. Less varied are the framing devices used to [mis]represent their points of protest and intervention. There is a uniform rebuttal: these activists are targeting the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. Slut Walks should avoid deliberately provoking whatever patriarchy still exists with gratuitous, anti-feminist nudity; no-platforming makes the twin mistake of placing too much emphasis on the individual while demonstrating intellectual cowardice in refusing to engage; RMFO ought to acknowledge the relative enlightenment of the Oxbridge bloc and focus on fighting racism someplace else.

What I want to examine here is the democratic environment in which these campaigns and the subsequent framing of their messages take place. I claim that a more rigorous understanding of apoliticality and post-democracy will make clear why these “identarian” interventions make up a vanguard of a renewed leftist opposition, and so warrant the support and solidarity of all self-described progressives. I will optimistically conclude: identity politics erected and preserve statues such as Rhodes’, and it is identity politics that will bring them down.

 

Changing shapes of democracy

The neoliberal era has imposed a raft of pressures on populations. Some of these are well documented: increased precarity, underemployment, downwards pressure on wages, the decimation of public housing. Some have not been so well documented: the gendered and racialised impact of austerity, the return of a grim British nationalism and a shift in our understandings and practices of democracy. Critical accounts of neoliberal democracy exist in the academic literature and are worth revisiting, even as the phenomena they describe become increasingly central to the “common sense” of everyday politics.

“Post democracy” offers a materialist analysis of governance, arguing that the outsourcing of political knowledge (e.g. collaboration between legislators and elite City institutions in banking regulation) and capacity (e.g. expanded corporate social responsibility charters in lieu of reform policy) is the institutional context that allows for democratic enclosure. Crouch (2013: 4) uses the term “kinetic energy” to describe what is transferred from a normative function of elected government, to those undemocratic structures and institutional spaces which are increasingly capable of pursuing their own agendas (e.g.  private businesses enjoying monopoly or near-monopoly status).

“Apoliticality” refers to the prominence of a specific set of narratives which describe contemporary society as disinterested and unconvinced by radical politics. These narratives operate performatively, manifesting in emotional investment and instinctual reflex towards pessimism regarding contemporary opposition movements. This is also visible in claims of imminent re-politicisation. Several popular [leftist] theorists have offered ostensibly optimistic accounts of “the return of history” and a revitalised, pro-communist movement (see Douzinas & Žižek, 2010: ix).

What they do not challenge is the disavowal of contemporary radicalism, locating the vast majority of organised protest as more examples of post-1968 political passivity and/or limitation. Sara Ahmed (2004: 92-93) undermines the claim that apoliticality has a causal relation to leftist failure in the last thirty-five [neoliberal] years. Instead she ascribes an affective “stickiness” to apoliticality which effaces the contingency of protests to particular histories. This is how apoliticality functions: emotional investment in failure allows actually-occurring activism to be shorn of its interaction with the present. Instead, it is reduced to the latest incident in a singular history: that of the decline of a socialist alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

How does our post-democratic and apolitical environment shape how we understand campaigns like RMFO?

Let us be specific in what the stated objectives of this campaign are. This is particularly important because of the misleading emphasis that many op-ed pieces have placed on the role of the Rhodes statue itself. According to RMFO’s website, its objectives are as follows:

  1. “Tackling the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history.”
  2. “Reforming the Euro-centric curriculum to remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge – by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies. This will create a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.”
  3. “Addressing the underrepresentation and lack of welfare provision for Black and minority ethnic (BME) amongst Oxford’s academic staff and students.”

RMFO targets the institution that maintains the statue of Rhodes and several others like it. In and of itself, this is unremarkable. Look closer though, and we can observe why this is a critique which addresses the British state and its hegemonic identity. The University of Oxford’s privileged position as the gatekeeper to high political office is well-known and in targeting it the political class is thus implicitly made subject too. It is important to avoid fobbing this off as incidental. Chancellor Lord Patten, for instance, is the former governor of Hong Kong, chairman of the BBC Trust and, indeed, Conservative chairman. This should be in mind when we interpret his response:

“If people at a university aren’t prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history…then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”

Leaving aside Patton’s [revealing] aggression, the above allows us to recast RMFO as an attack on the identities that constitute the most empowered sectors of British society: political, cultural and international. The University of Oxford and other elite institutions represent an apt node for protest under post-democracy: deeply imbricated in the British political system and the identity that this system reproduces. The autonomy it holds over matters of statue removal however makes RMFO’s “physical” demand entirely reasonable and attainable. This is a strategic necessity for activism under post-democracy, wherein protests must isolate a specific demand from which it can communicate a broader message, in this case over latent and explicit colonialism.

RMFO has been critiqued from teleological accounts of apoliticality from which it could never be an acceptable intervention.

The criticisms levelled against RMFO commonly assert the impossibility of its objectives. I will now examine some of these repeated criticisms and their collective conservatism, concluding with an argument for RMFO as the renewal of radical, progressive identity politics. In no way is conservatism exclusive to the right-wing: apoliticality as the preservation of defeat is an inherently conservative phenomenon, and is at least as likely to be evident in left wing circles – perhaps even more so, as the rhetorical commitment to anti-racism is less likely to be challenged here. Indeed, more and more high profile leftists have turned to bemoan the reduction of class-based analysis to the “flimsy” level of identity politics.

I’ve decided to bypass the tub-thumping attitude of some preservationists for whom Oxbridge is the epitome of meritocracy. It should go without saying that Oxford and many other elite institutions have a long way to go before their record of diversity becomes something to boast about, and that diversity and meritocracy are very much part of the same schema.

The first framing I will call the “Narrow Horizons” angle.

Why does RMFO place such importance on one statue, in one university? Why not expand horizons, and search for the hidden machinations that do so much more to reproduce racist logics than the artefact of a bygone era? So the argument goes, and so it was spoken at the debate chaired by the Oxford Student Union. What can we learn from this?

The most obvious lesson is that remarkably few preservationists have engaged with RMFO’s objectives as declared, which are explicit in their broad attack on institutional racism of all forms within the academy. It’s not difficult information to acquire, and RMFO representatives patiently remind viewers in their writings and remarks just in case there is any confusion. This is the first sign that there is something askew in the integrity of this “dialogue”.

The second elision is the international context in which RMFO is embedded. Most people know about the original campaign to bring down a statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, and a noteworthy number of otherwise ambivalent or preservationist commentators accept the justification for this. How ironic then, that the actual “home” of Rhodes, ideologically and biologically, the nation that was remunerated directly via his racist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation, will not tolerate the removal of his statue. No matter that the South African people have a much stronger claim to preserve his figure as a “legacy.” Campuses across the world have and continue to engage in this struggle. Tellingly, elite American institutions (e.g. Harvard) have engaged in far more nuanced and honest debates over such demands. I can’t help but think that this says much about the reach and impact of BME thinkers in the US, and the comparative paucity of well-known BME thinkers in the UK. Regardless, framing RMFO as an exclusively British point of protest is indicative of apolitical de-linking from its historical contingency.

 

But where does it end?

In a sleight of double-speak, the argument against Rhodes falling often descends into panicked glances cast around the rest of Britain and the signposts of its history as an empire. If we cast away Rhodes, where will we stop? Will we see campaigns against statues of other hero-imperialists? What about Churchill? By setting Rhodes as an example, are we not encouraging a plunge down the rabbit hole of narrow horizons? We cannot start because we will not stop and, such is the depth of our historical imperialist practices, we might be quite low on monuments if we apply RMFO logic across the board.

On first reading this is another example of RMFO being misrepresented as fixated on the physical significance of a statue. More interesting is the hypocrisy in a dual framing which posits that (1) RMFO must “expand” (which is to say concentrate upon the non-physical manifestations of colonialism) but (2) avoid expanding its own view of what constitutes colonial legacy, because to do so would mean a radical re-mapping of so much British semiology. RMFO will not be legitimised unless one of these criteria is fulfilled, and the criteria cannot be fulfilled until RMFO changes its objectives.

When facing the question “Where will it end?” the only answer we can make is to ask: Where does it begin? The whole point of an activist movement is to intervene on an existing order and to challenge, undermine or re-contextualise its value system. This is the only answer to the claim that interventions such as RMFO will not stop until our entire landscape has been crucified at the altar of relativism. We must refuse the logic that, because we do not know where the struggle for de-colonialism will end, we should not begin it.

These framing devices operate in tandem within a wider environment of a “Special Snowflake” narrative, perhaps the apolitical tool par excellence.

The reader will likely be familiar with this narrative and, with its contemporary purchase, might well approve of its diagnosis of the zeitgeist. It can be summarised as follows: people – particularly students, young people and those who use social media platforms – are too sensitive. They shirk from honest intellectual debate, opposing views and dissent. They seek confirmation bias and the online world has abetted this desire: we move closer and closer towards an echo-chamber of groupthink and cultish devotion to “purity” from “bad” opinions. More than this, special snowflakes are said to be obsessed with identity – particularly their own. How do we know? All those no-platforming diatribes, those petitions and those safe spaces illustrate that today’s budding intellects are vehemently anti-intellectual. We cannot “identify out of oppression” – and the likes of RMFO are attacking rather than reform dominant understandings of identity in a doomed attempt to do just this.

Apoliticality homogenizes contemporary activism as passive, limited in scope and doomed to failure. Activist interventions are then re-rendered as not only flawed but detrimental to the project of leftist progress. The “Special Snowflake” narrative is a passive-aggressive denunciation of this perceived threat, being used widely and regularly to rebuff activisms which center subaltern identity. So widely is it used that the most disparate group of writers are brought together to sound the alarm. Rod Liddle, a minor British figure of the right, wrote recently in support of awkward bedfellows Peter Tatchell, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Milo Yiannopoulos and the Rhodes statue, all of which have been subject of pressure from student groups. He writes:

The student activists do not wish to hear anything at all that conflicts with their views. Or even hear anything that does not conflict with their views but allows for the fact that there might be conflicting views… It is spreading, this intolerance of dissenting views, from banning speakers to getting rid of inanimate objects that may offend.

But this is not enough. The “Special Snowflake” narrative cannot explain why RMFO is asserting the in/visibility of racism that operates in British institutions. These are not individuals championing their own uniqueness. It is a collective project to raise awareness, to undermine the orthodoxy positing racism as a system of the past, or as a violence that has been pushed to the farthest margins of the political spectrum. No: racism is functioning and it is reproducing at the highest level. No: enduring racism is the product of a dominant British identity politics. In his fantastic long read at The Guardian, Chaudhuri draws out the alignment between anti-immigrant politicians (e.g. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage) and the revisionist academics and artists who claim the positive legacy of the imperial project  (e.g. Niall Ferguson and Martin Amis). Moreover, this re-sanitizing of empire refers back to an ontology wherein the white Western world is defined in terms of political process, adjustment and progress, while the rest of the world is defined only by racial conflict and post-colonial impact.

This is what de-colonising the academy means and this is what RMFO represents. And this is what the British media, political apparatus and public has to face up to: no amount of straw-man arguments over the exaggerated significance of the Rhodes statue, fear-mongering over the censoring of British history, or claims that students just don’t want to see things they disagree with will de-link RMFO from its international and ideational context. Nor will it be demeaned by the term “identity politics”. It is visible in Black Lives Matter, it is visible in the fight for sex worker rights and it is there in trans* movement. These are products of identity politics that know the unspoken, performative narratives which prevent their own legitimacy are the identity politics of hegemony.

 

 

Sources

Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Chaudhuri, A. (2016) The real meaning of Rhodes Must Fall The Guardian 16th March [available at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/the-real-meaning-of-rhodes-must-fall%5D

Crouch, C. (2013) The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism (Cambridge: Polity)

Douzinas, C. & Žižek, S. (2010) Introduction: The Idea of Communism in Douzinas, C. & Žižek, S. (eds) The Idea of Communism (London: Verso)

Faye, S. (2016) If you don’t like no-platforming, maybe it’s you who’s the “special snowflake” The Independent 19th February [available at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/if-you-dont-like-no-platforming-maybe-its-you-whos-the-special-snowflake-a6884026.html%5D

Laclau, E. (2006) Why constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics Critical Inquiry 32.3

 

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