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The importance of grassroots democracy in dark times


Does the resurgence of neo-fascism alongside Donald Trump’s nationalist rhetoric signal we are living in dark times? Scholar-activists Romand Coles and Lia Haro argue that we are indeed in darkness, and grassroots democracy can lead us back into the light. 

‘Democracy Dies in Darkness.’ The Washington Post’s ominous slogan, introduced as the paper’s motto in the early months of the Trump presidency, was widely dismissed as a thinly veiled swipe at the divisive leader. 

But the Post was not the only one hinting that we have entered dark times. 

The New Republic coined the new era ‘the Trump Dark Age’.  American historian Robert Dalek characterised the Trump regime as “an unparalleled disaster”, while calmly reminding us that democracy “has gone through dark times before … and managed to bounce back”. Even Rolling Stone magazine threw in its two cents, declaring to readers: “These are dark times, to be sure …”

But what is it about our current socio-political climate that has so many pundits trying to turn the lights on? 

After all, unemployment levels are down in the United States and its economy is relatively stable. In global affairs, Islamic State has all but been defeated in Syria, a major battleground in the fight against radical extremism, and we‘ve had a dialogue (of sorts) with North Korea’s provocative leader Kim Jong-un. 

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Are we really in dark times?

In her ground-breaking 1968 book Men in Dark Times, political theorist Hannah Arendt described the conditions that lead us to dark times.

Arendt argues that “dark times” are not simply those of “monstrosities” like Nazi Germany. Rather, they are those times in which the light of public discourse and action is foreclosed. 

“The function of the public realm [is] to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do,” Arendt wrote. “Darkness has come when this light is extinguished ... by speech that does not disclose what it sweeps under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.”

“For Arendt — and I think she is spot on with this — dark times are those in which the public’s capacities to debate, discuss, imagine alternatives and generate the power to create change disintegrate,” said Dr Lia Haro, a social anthropologist and scholar-activist in ACU’s Institute for Social Justice.

“When everyday people turn away from the political, disengage from one another and concentrate exclusively on their own individual interests, that’s when we’re in darkness.”

Professor Romand Coles, a scholar-activist from ACU’s Institute for Social Justice, said the effects of these dark times were being felt across the globe.   

“What we’re seeing in many places, from the US to Turkey, in places like Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, is an erosion of basic trust in democracy itself, and an assault on democracy. There are many places where political parties and movements are doing things like whipping up hatred against minorities,” Professor Coles said. 

“I think that the rise of white supremacist groups and hate crimes, the rescinding of voting rights, the outright demonisation of all people who disagree, along with xenophobia, militarism and a deepening inequality that's not being addressed, these are the classic signs of rising fascism.”

The return of neo-fascism

“Is it fair to call Donald Trump a fascist?” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation posed the question early on in Donald Trump’s reign. 

Others have obliged with a definitive answer. “Donald J Trump quite literally sympathises with fascists,” said The Guardian’s Richard Wolffe. “He shares their worldview as easily as he shares their language and videos.” 

It’s true that many political observers see parallels between the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini and the politics of Trump and other populist world leaders.

Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, has warned that neo-fascism “poses a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II”. 

In January 2017, Professor Coles and Dr Haro penned an article for the political journal Theory & Event, declaring that fascism had been resurrected.  

“The new regime bears important similarities to classic fascism,” they wrote. “However, today’s neo-fascism relies on distinctive, 21st century dynamics.”

Protesting Trump's presidency

The shock doctrine 

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was arguably the most stunning upset in US political history, shocking America and the world. And from those beginnings, shock has followed Trump through his tenure. 

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has noted that shock is “a word that has come up again and again since Donald Trump was elected … to describe the poll-defying election results, to describe the emotional state of many people watching his ascent to power, and to describe his blitzkrieg approach to policymaking.”

Dr Haro and Professor Coles agree with Klein that Trump’s use of the shock doctrine is deliberate, referring to the “… daily surges of Trump-shock — awful disorienting blasts of outrageous and unaccountable communications and executive decisions —[that] have regularly defied our standard ways of making sense of political life.”

However, while previous shocks have “typically had at least the illusion of a substantive character … Trump-shock manifests more in the very character of shockingness”. And Haro and Coles argue that the whirlwind of shocks undermines whatever footholds publics struggle to find.

 “Shock politics is not a Trump invention, but he is an incredible master of it, and with Trump it's shock politics on steroids,” Dr Haro told Impact. 

“The goal is to create or provoke or take advantage of a crisis and use it to change the rules. It’s latching on to moments of crisis, like a terrorist attack or a fiscal crisis, to promote a fear of the ‘other’ and draw people into your ideology … and this is always to the advantage of the wealthiest and most powerful, which puts the vast majority of people in greater inequality.” 

Grassroots democracy: The way towards the light 

So, if we are indeed living in dark times, how do we find our way back into the light? Or, as Haro and Coles might put it, how do we become publics that can begin generating light?

In their work, Haro and Coles draw on their longstanding participation in global social movements spanning the last two decades, including the World Trade Organisation protests in 1999, protests against the Iraq war in 2003, the 2011 Occupy movement and the Women’s March immediately after Trump’s inauguration. 

While these movements generated incredible energy in their immediate moment, they often extinguished themselves in the protest without building an enduring fire that could grow. On the other hand, Haro and Coles have also actively participated in broad-based community organising efforts that often become overly focused on local issues without effecting grander change. 

“Generating and sustaining the light of the public realm in dark times is a practiced art that requires combining the everyday tending of democratic relationship building with more dramatic performances of ‘publicness’ and the alternatives that we want to see in the world,” Dr Haro said.

“We're not just waiting for the powerful to do it for us, we're not just turned away from one another in the darkness of our own silos … in a grassroots movement, we need to make change and go about doing that in everyday ways.” 

But if protests and marches aren’t enough, what do citizens need to do to make a difference? It’s all about being creative and building things from the ground up. 

“We need to start doing things like using our ears in our street theatre,” Prof Coles said. “By all means, gather by the thousands, but turn outward and start conversations with fellow citizens who aren't just the usual suspects who show up to a protest. People have all sorts of powerful responses to the challenges in their everyday lives. So by bringing citizenship back to life, you allow communities to tap into the untapped brilliance of so many different people.” 

Dr Haro and Professor Coles point to community organising efforts and social movements that accent creative bridge-building across differences.  One emergent local example is the Sydney Alliance, a “citizens’ coalition which builds grassroots power that respects the contribution and dignity of all people”.

“They’ve held a series of table talks involving hundreds of people within various communities – including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, from all around the world - discussing how to address challenges like climate change, renewable energy transitions, refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, transportation, and more.  The question is, how do we come together and see each other as collaborators for improving the world, rather than being at odds with one another,” Professor Coles said.  

In their work, Haro and Coles draw far and wide in search of processes and resources that “enable people to become political again in a grassroots sense, to become citizens capable of reflecting carefully together, of listening to one another, of building a sense of the world and where we should be headed together, and generating relational power to bring that world into being.” 

ACU’s Institute for Social Justice conducts collaborative and interdisciplinary research and provides a creative space for thinking about and responding to the challenges of the 21st century. 

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright @ Australian Catholic University 1998-2018 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G