There is something familiar about the current moment in human history. Some of it feels familiar from one’s own experience, while some of it has the eerie and pungent taste of events one has read about, in school history textbooks. In an age of inescapable visual recording, real-life scenes also seem to echo material one has seen in dramatic re-enactment on film or television.
The latest scenes coming from the state with the most powerful military in human history are chilling. Small bodies strewn about the floor under silver blankets, in what are undeniably cages, inside warehouses disturb, as they ought to. They bear out what we have seen elsewhere, and before. The ubiquity of the mobile device with a camera means we have seen the photographs and video images of the children of Syria, and more recently, and increasingly, once more, of Palestine. Then there are the Rohingya, whole families of them, who also turn their faces to the world to ask, ‘Why us?’, and ‘What are you doing about this?’
The names of the places where these things happen can be recited like the lyrics of a dirge: Chibok, Nauru, Lindela, and now, Texas. Some of it is the consequence of the rise in populist politics, some of it because of a resurgence of ethnocentric nationalism, and some of it undeniably the direct consequence of the post-millennial global rearticulation of racism.
The last of the survivors of the European Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century are dying, and with them, the embodied reminders of what inhumanity we are capable of visiting on one another inside this species, homo sapiens. Of course, we have done this to all the other sentient species on the only home we know, Earth, for a long time.
New times call for new forms of resistance, because there are new and ever evolving and adapting forms of dehumanisation. It is as if the lessons of the last thousand years have been erased from our collective consciousness, and in place of it, we are resorting to the ugliest of ways to deal with one another. Language plays its role of course; it matters what we call one another, that old binary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, allowing for the cruelties to be done effortlessly.
Over the last generation the political shifts inside the United States, that experiment in democracy which offered a radical departure from the ancien regimes of Europe, have enabled the election of Donald Trump. There has also been a significant shift in the way the global economy is organised, and how these new forms of distributing resources have impacted people’s lives across the planet increasingly influences their political behaviour. Growing inequality seems to have brought about a growth in irrational, counter-productive politics, the alarming rightward swing in politics which can be traced across the world, in different polities, with particular consequences for the marginalised and disempowered in those contexts.
Tariq Ali warned of the consequences of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ which took such powerful hold in democratic societies in the early years of the new millennium. Economists have warned about the effects of long-term and growing inequality on political stability. Scientists have warned us about the ways in which our political and economic systems are ecocidal. But the psychosis which seems to have gripped the political systems of the most powerful nation-states on the planet seems to want to ignore all of that. Profit is progress, the backroom boys and girls insist. There is only the one system, as Ned Beatty’s villain declared in Network (1976), the almighty dollar as a metonym for the multi-national capitalist system.
Except, we are finding more and more plastic in the fish, at least in which as are left in the depleted oceans, our source of life on this planet. Air quality in our megacities is so bad, scientific studies seem to read like the worst warnings of dystopian fiction from the past. If you tolerate this, a song from the 1990s used to warn, your children will be next. The old cry, in the wake of the Shoah – ‘Never again!’ – seems to have been forgotten, because we are there again. Only this time, much worse, our impulse seems to be to extinguish all of life, not just those bits we find threatening or unpalatable.
One thinks of figures like Virginia Woolf, struggling to make sense of the madness of her times in relation to her own inner demons. Artists have always been more attuned to the horror of the times many of us try to dip out of. It’s only the background, we tell ourselves, and we can get through this. Of course, what is mistaken as background canvas – climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the growth of fascism elsewhere – has the habit of becoming not just foreground, but the air we breathe, the water we drink and swim in, the very inside of our bodies and minds.
This is not a call to capitulation or defeatist resignation. This is a reminder that elsewhere quickly becomes here, and so resistance to and fighting against the exigencies of power should take place across multiple fronts. The racist insult at the local level is one step along the path that could lead to one’s own extirpation, even if one is not necessarily the immediate object of that insult; recall Martin Niemoller. Other people’s children separated from their parents today, ours at some point in the not so distant future.
We in South Africa, of course, have been through this before, and so we ought to be particularly sensitive to the whiff of sulphur in the wind. The time to object is now. The time to move from protest to resistance is now. Like Woolf, we may feel like we are going mad again, but we should not turn our faces from the flames, hoping to survive by avoidance. Not this time, not now. There is no other marble, no other place, no other home, there is only the here and now in which to ensure a future.