I am an artist. In my work, I look at issues of perception and reality in relation to the information we receive and how this influences and creates our image of the world and the other. I believe the arts are important; they connect us with something beyond ourselves and makes it possible to imagine what is not there yet. I believe in the critical role of art in society; it can empower resistance, question authority, change mindsets and envision possible futures. Every now and then the impact is abrupt and immediate, mostly, however, it is a slow dripping that wears down existing paradigms or beliefs and helps build op new ones.
As a typical artist, I am by no means wealthy. However, as a white, educated, Danish, hetero, non-disabled male I am nonetheless financially and socially relatively secured. Through the sheer coincidence of my place of birth and socio-biological characteristics, I belong to one of the most privileged classes imaginable. With my EU passport there is really no place I cannot go on vacation or to settle for a longer period of time. I will be welcome, always aware that I can return to a basic social service and pension scheme in my home country – should I feel the need. I know how the system works and I can utilize it, because the system was designed to work for people like me. Strike one of the above listed characteristics and the situation changes. Strike a few, or all, and then try to imagine how much more difficult my situation becomes.
For centuries ‘the West’ has been building a system in which my kind of privilege rules. This seems to be about to end. The unchallenged systemic privileges my class has become used to are going to disappear and it is about time too. It is going to hurt us, but probably less than those exploited by our progress and lifestyles have been over the last centuries.
We are witnessing an upheaval of the system all over; minorities are expressing their dissatisfaction, tired of being treated as second class citizens, women are demanding equal pay and opportunity, gender definitions are becoming fluid, the patriarchal dogmatism is being questioned etc.. To me, as an educated, metropolitan person, this is good news. But for someone less prepared for or willing to accept the change of societal and personal morals, values and privileges, these developments represent confusion or even a threat. Coupled with the willful ideological destruction of public systems over the last decades and the following loss of securities, the anger with the current system and the yearning towards some mythical past becomes very understandable – albeit, in the eyes of an educated person, somewhat misguided. The anger and frustration with the neoliberal globalization has led to the rise of rightwing parties in European parliaments, to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the U.S. All developments, which, in some way or other, promised a return to the glory of ‘the good old days’, a mythological time when life was safer and less confusing.
Whether Trump – or any of the likeminded politicians waiting to follow suit in Europe – is able to deliver on his promises or not, is probably of less importance to his followers and, in a sense, this is as it should be. Rather than reflect poorly on his campaign, his promises reveal the staggering political deficit of his opponents. They constitute something most other politicians have forgotten: not a feasible or rational proposal on how to balance the GDP, but a vision. However abhorrent, flawed, incomplete and self-contradictory it may appear to others, Trump lays out a vision of where he wants to take the U.S. His vision does not require a grand codex to contain it – a couple of tweets seem to suffice – but that is only a problem to people who think visions should be of a certain format. Judging by the election results, they are not the ones calling the shots.
Therefore, even though Trump may not ‘succeed’, chances are that that will not be held against him by the electorate – much to the predictable amazement of the ‘established’ politicians and media, and a lot of progressives. He was elected because he did not offer a half-baked technocratic ‘solution’ to real-life problems, he pointed to a future in which ‘America would be great again’. This is deliberately vague and empty – the very opposite of a technocratic checklist to be ticked off. It is simply pointing in a certain direction and saying: There, that’s where we are going; we may not know exactly what’s there and we may not get there anytime soon, but one day… It is the complete mythology of the U.S. as the lost garden of Eden, promised land and ‘shining city on a hill’, and the redemption of man all summed up in a tweet sized slogan on a baseball cap.
In a post-fact democracy, that turned out to be unbeatable.
The balance of global power is shifting, large masses of people are on the move as a consequence of (post-)colonial resource wars or shifts in the climate – largely caused by a relatively small ‘first world’. This is not part of any linear development; the world is not progressing towards some progressive, or regressive, utopia. Change happens, spawns reactions which in turn causes other things to happen ad infinitum. We are not going in a particular direction, we are not being led by God, Nature or Progress, we are just going.
We are experiencing the beginning of a major change and a likely cataclysm which is bound to redefine society and, possibly, the planet as we know it. It will take more than a bit of green power and the tweaking of an inherently skewed system to stop this from happening. The reaction to the ‘Anthropocene’ will probably not favor the system that caused it.
In all likelihood the Trump presidency will speed things up – especially as his victory has opened the floodgates to fascism, and emboldened likeminded people in France, The Netherlands and elsewhere. He seems intent on spewing as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as possible, thereby presenting a clear and present danger to the existence of all the peoples on the earth. He also seems to be set on registering Muslims, building his wall and deporting 2-3 million people to, well, somewhere, setting a dangerous precedent for copycats elsewhere to follow. The U.S. law enforcement agencies and rightwing movements will feel bolstered by his presidency, the #BlackLivesMatter and native American movements will feel lethally threatened. Add to this the large amount of weapons disseminated all over the U.S., the constant fanning of the flames by ‘news’ corporations and the pervasive frontier-mentality, it is not hard to imagine violent confrontations between several factions, guerilla uprisings or even a second civil war. The party of Lincoln may end up causing the breakup of the Union.
In this light it is interesting to see hashtags as #CalExit showing up. The irony of Brexit as an example leading to the breakup of the U.S. would almost be worth the whole mess. Or perhaps, Make America Great Again really referred to the U.S. of 1776 when only 13 colonies were part of the union. Regardless, given the immense difference in political and religious convictions, wealth, education etc. it is hard to see what really binds all the states together. The chants from Clinton, Obama and Michael Moore, that ‘this is not who we are’ or ‘we are one nation’ seem increasingly desperate, hollow, and in their own way as bereft of any sense of realism as the rightwing denial of science.
This applies to the nations in Europe as well. What do we, metropolitan progressive and suburban or rural conservative, really have in common with each other as individual citizens of a nation? Is it true that ‘there is more uniting us than dividing us’ or is this simply wishful thinking? It seems that the things that once bound people together as a nation, e.g. a shared language, history, traditions and religion, have become the things which now drive us apart. The Netherlands is certainly a prime example hereof: at the moment of writing, it is that time of the year again when this all comes climactically together in the celebration of Sinterklaas; a 150 year old festivity during which it becomes painfully clear that #BlackOpinionDoesn’tMatter as much as white tradition. A tradition which – like many other Western national traditions – is so drenched in oppressive Christian, patriarchal, colonial, capitalist symbolism, it makes the Trump campaign seem politically correct by comparison. If a country as traditionally tolerant and flexible as The Netherlands almost falls to pieces over whether or not a blackface at a ‘festivity for children’ can be hurtful and should be abolished, one shivers at the thought of what kind of unrest more far-reaching suggestions of change could give rise to.
And yet, we cling to these myths and traditions. They have become the backbone of our sense of national identity – or perhaps just all that is left of it. This is at a time when nation-states have little more than ceremonial value in a globalized world in which multinational corporations dictate their terms to national governments through lobbyism, secret courts and trade agreements. Paradoxically, or perhaps quite logically, the political parties defending nationality and nationalistic traditions are the same selling out national sovereignty and the democratic process to multinational corporations – in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘greatness’.
What then is nationality today other than a means to categorize and control people, keeping them subdued and blaming others for their own estranged condition? Why the need to associate with strangers on the basis of nationality, why the need to exclude people based on where they happened to be born? And why the constant insistence on the need for integration, why must we all be one and act the same? The answer is simple: When people act and think as one they are easy to control.
We are not one. We have tried that in Europe already: One people, one nation, one leader. Let’s not do that again.
A possible silver lining to the pending Trump presidency: The U.S. isolates itself completely, chokes on its own pollution, destroys itself, then breaks up, leaving Europe to finally stop sycophantically fawning over the U.S. as ‘the leader of the free world’, and free to work with the rest of the world to deal with the big issues of our time without the constant oversight and meddling of the U.S.
Even so, the European countries have their own problems with angry electorates, which according to David van Reybrouck, may very likely break up the E.U. within the next year. Even more so than in the U.S., there are many old wounds that could threaten to tear open if the nationalistic genie is released and allowed to reign freely. Radical change must be swift in order to prevent this.
A continuation of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony and the ideologies that come with it is neither realistic nor feasible. This ultimately destructive societal model has worn itself, the planet and countless people(s) out. Whatever comes next must represent a clear break with centuries of Western exploitation and extraction of resources and people.
To achieve this we must break with the bleak and pervasive dogmas of humans as sinners before a vengeful god and competitors in a (divine) rat race. These ideas are so ingrained in every part of our traditions that we barely see them. They are at the very core of what makes the West see itself in a different light, as the ‘first world’. As the Dark Mountain project states in its manifesto, Uncivilization:
Deeper than oil, steel or bullets, a civilization is built on stories;
on the myths that shape it and the tales told of its origins and destiny.
We need new stories. We need to listen to others. We need to find room within our societies and ourselves for the other and his/her customs, manifestations and beliefs. And we need to accept that we too are the other. We are no more ‘hosts’ in a nation or on the planet, than the other is a ‘guest’ or ‘visitor’.
Uniqueness and the diversity that follows, the opposite of conformism and uniformity, must become the new standard and the basis of the new stories we tell each other. Not the weepy, restrictive, angelic uniformity of John Lennon’s Imagine, but the wonderful, devilish multitude of millions of human passions and causes. Not the mass indoctrination of a Manichean dichotomy brought to us by radical religion, The War on Terror, Harry Potter and Star Wars, but the ability to understand that anyone who feels, acts and fights is motivated by reasons legitimate to her. We may disagree with these, but that does not render him less human, or ‘evil’. Designating someone ‘evil’ leads to lack of understanding, intolerance, dehumanization and ‘efficient’ killing. ‘Evil’ needs no explanation, only extermination.
Only fascism requires blind uniformity of its citizens. Only fascism denies each individual his or her uniqueness. Only in fascism are we all the same, all one. The recognition of every person’s inherent difference leads away from uniformity and oppression and towards curiosity, understanding, empathy and respect.
And yes, diversity can lead to arguments and conflicts, but not to self-righteous conflicts under the banner of some abstract, ruthless ‘good’. Conflict an sich is not something to be shunned. If we dare to understand and respect our opponent, it can be creative and constructive, providing change or definition.
Imagine the worst, then expect worse. This is no time for a moderate stance. There might still be a bit of time left to defuse the tension before our global society collapses, but we have to act quickly and consequently. We, the privileged progressives, need to radicalize too. And not by endlessly regurgitating opinions on social media, but in the real world where actions can have political impact. Individual responsibility is fine, but its impact should not be overrated; collective problems require collective action. At home, we need to confront the established political parties with the fact that enough is enough. The neoliberal status quo is leading us directly into the arms of fascism. The political establishment is complicit to this, as are we, the voters and citizens.
People now calling for ‘democratic resistance’ are predominantly progressives, i.e. the educated white people, who believe in non-violence and the democratic process. If possible, fine, but we have no right to tell others that their mode of protest or resistance is immoral or counterproductive. By assuming a moral high ground, we are – as always – telling the other what to do, how to act correctly. We, the West, have absolutely no right to adopt any kind of moral high ground. We do not get to tell others how they should achieve their revolution. After all, we are not the ones likely to feel regularly threatened by the police or rightwing militias. Neither are we the ones at the blunt end of the wars being waged in our names. We do not have to live with the constant buzzing of drones in the sky nor the fear of being illegally assassinated by the whim of a far-away intelligence agency. Our lands and natural resources are not being extracted by foreign corporations and resold as consumer goods to people who already consume more than the planet can bear.
We need to accept that our ‘enlightened’ and comfortable way of life has severe consequences for people outside of our borders – which is the majority of the world. We need to realize and understand what our human brothers and sisters on the streets of the U.S., the plains of Dakota, the ruins of Aleppo, the boats on the Mediterranean, the mineral mines in Africa, the factories in Bangladesh, the ‘jungles’ of Calais and in the detention centers in our own countries are going through. What we are putting them through by not overthrowing a system that allows drowned children on our beaches, profit-based warfare and the total destruction of the planet, rather than offer up a share of our prosperity. And when their cry for help and humanity is at its highest, we answer them by electing politicians who promise to keep them out, bomb them and their families in their home countries, and ruin what is left of livable land by denying and exacerbating climate change.
If we were in their shoes, how would we react, how forgiving would we be? Would we turn the other cheek, or take up arms against our oppressors?
Over the last decade there have been many movies and television series dedicated to the end of the world and post-apocalyptic scenarios, e.g. The Day after Tomorrow, 2012, 28 Days later, Mad Max, Independence Day, The Walking Dead etc. Every culture has its own story of its downfall. Needless to say, the more pervasive and all-powerful a society becomes, the more cathartic it is to imagine the end of it. We watch these movies and series in which the world as we know it usually ends in a matter of days or weeks at the hands of invading aliens, zombies, sudden climate change or some other extreme event. As viewers we track along with the survivors, indulging in the thought experiment of how we too would be survivors. We too would make the tough but right decisions to survive the eradication of 99% of the population and wake up in a tabula rasa world, freed from the constraints of day-to-day life and with a new and clear purpose.
The longing for and the moment of ‘a new beginning’ is usually well depicted, but not how to get there. The depiction of a realistic transition from a stable and recognizable society to a post-apocalyptic one is completely missing. It seems it is so difficult or painful to imagine a realistic transition from a stable and recognizable society to a different kind of society, that it is skipped altogether. It is easier to deal with aliens and zombies than to consider what such a transition might actually look and feel like.
The real-world breakdown of society as we know it and the transition to a new structure will be shocking and will take time. Fear, anger and a longing for things to return to normality and safety are primal responses which would probably paralyze even the most ardent fan of The Walking Dead or utopian Bernie supporter. In order for those emotions not to allow for the return of the ‘father’ a la . V for Vendetta or Breitbart, we have to have a transition plan and roadmap.
A utopian ideal or narrative is imperative, but not enough. If we are to imagine a new society, we need to be able to imagine and prepare for the transition as well. Because it will be messy, we will have to get our hands dirty and in the process we will have to confront our most basic values and instincts.
How do we channel the energy and momentum which is already present? How do we prepare for transition and renewal? That depends on how we go forward, or as Sven Lütticken puts it: “Which form do we chose? How to organize without just producing more echo chambers? How to be focused yet diverse?”
In the Kurdish region of Rojava, experiments with Democratic Confederalism have been going on for some time. There seems to be at least a cursory similarity between this type of democratic self-governing, the G1000 citizens’ democracy suggested by David van Reybrouck, and the European DIEM25 movement. In all cases there is a call for more direct participatory democracy, a fundamental respect for the other, and a rethinking of strict national borders. In that sense the democratic model might still be salvaged, but it will require a new social contract and a new purpose. Whom should it be for, and what stories should be at the base of the foundation?
First of all, any new society should cherish and propagate diversity as the basic human condition. We should mirror ourselves in the diversity of all life on the planet and take pride in our differences. And while evolution in nature is a dominant principle, this does not equal competition in the market or society. Competition is not the natural human state and leads to envy and the miser’s fear that someone else has more than you. Competition as a driving principle of development and distribution must be discarded and replaced by a more natural altruistic principle.
Practically, a new society should be inclusive, should work for everybody, not just a privileged few or a specific group. It should provide social and economic security for all. Education and healthcare should be free in order to provide equal opportunity for development for all. Infrastructure, energy, postal & communication services, all essential services for ensuring a basic amount of equal footing for all, should be non-profit and under some form of democratic supervision. A new financial and wealth redistribution system would have to be developed in order to avoid the buildup of massive wealth inequality which today threatens the democratic process and the social fabric of western society. The business and financial sectors would have to be fenced in – rigorously. Consumerism should make place for environmentally sustainable and humane modes of production and distribution of goods.
Does this sound ‘communistic’, naïve or ‘scary’? More naïve than ‘make America great again’, or more scary than the divisive and fearful ‘our people first’ fascism being spread around by politicians and tabloid media on a daily basis? Perhaps building a big huge wall is more ‘realistic’…
As the one self-conscious species, we may be the ones naming and defining the world, but that does not make us superior or ‘in charge’ – detached, rather. It does however, give us a unique capability: Just as the artist steps back from his easel to look at his painting from a fresh perspective, so we can choose to observe the world from different angles. This creative observation should be at the base of our morality: There is not only one way of looking at the world, but as many as there are people.
If we can bear that in mind, then – with a lot of luck and even more hard work – we might even survive as a civilization…or even better, we might even want our civilization to survive.