Passive Voices: On Remembrance, Political Agency and the Rise of Trump

by Eleanor Penny

13 November 2016


“Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity. ” ― Hannah Arendt

This is where grammar matters. Bear with me.

Today is Remembrance Sunday. Veterans and families and politicians united in pageantry, foot-stamping in the cold in front of statues of the dead. The great, or at very least the powerful, proceed to Westminster to lay their wreaths. There is a priest. There is always a priest – stiff collared at the head of it all, leading the frock coats and bargain-strikers, and their reluctant aides out of the gilt halls of parliament and into the sight of god. He always ends it with the same words of Laurence Binyon, echoed by the gathered crowd:

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

It’s beautiful, and it’s moving. Of course it is; that’s half the point, to give us something to weep over. And if the soul of liberal Britain – tight-lipped and stoical at the best of times – ever needed a little emotional catharsis, it was this week. It gave us Donald Trump and took Leonard Cohen, as if in some dubious karmic attempt to make a right of two wrongs. We’re fine, honest, we just need a moment.

It’s what makes the story it peddles so compelling – that the ceremony allows us to publicly engage in the grief for which, usually, so little space is made. And like the best fairy tales, it’s a retelling of a retelling of a retelling. The details change, but the heart of it is always the same: we remember not just to commemorate the millions of dead, to keep their names and their gruesome deaths ready in our minds. But moreover – to honour the sacrifice they made; the lives they willingly gave in order to protect our freedoms. We don’t just grieve, we thank them for their sacrifice.

But here’s the thing: sacrifice is a slippery little verb. You can use it in the active voice; you can sacrifice something. Or you can use it in a passive voice; you can be sacrificed by someone. it’s a matter of whether you’re the lamb or the one standing above it at the altar, holding the knife.

And in these stories, the fallen are always talked about in terms of the active voice: they sacrificed themselves, their deaths were a costly enterprise, nobly and willingly undertaken.

Lip service is paid, of course, to the horrors of war. But by framing these horrors as the price voluntarily paid by upstanding citizens to guarantee our present survival, they become not a senseless evil, but a necessary pain. In this sense, the masters of these ceremonies are not hypocrites for bemoaning war even as they drop bombs, even as the arms trade flourishes at their behest. To mourn the tragedy of war is not an act of rank monstrosity or even a slight gasp of cognitive dissonance. It’s simply the regretful sigh of a nurse who knows that you know this is going to hurt, but he doesn’t like it any more than you do, and we’ll all just have to grit our teeth and get through it, for the sake of Britain and the glories of its freedom. So we traipse every year through the words of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, school children again. But if you strain the ears in the two-minute silences you might catch the whirring sound of these writers spinning in their graves. The nationalist pageantry of Poppy Day was exactly the kind of ‘old lie’ upon which these writers trained their crosshairs, only to be wheeled out annually not understood as a critique of power, of the grand absurdity of conflict, but as a pocket handkerchief to the tearful eyes of the state.

They knew – what passing bells for those who die as cattle – that in the two world wars, our archetypes of conflict, battle was a matter not of glory, but of survival. That if some sacrificed themselves, many more were sacrificed to protect the political and economic interests of Britain, triangulating the colonial ambitions of other European nations, the need to protect its own faltering Empire and the rising threat of communist insurrection. Mass conscription, a relentless propaganda campaign that publicly shamed those who didn’t willingly sign up, and the court-martials that disciplined deserters and mutineers and kept conscripts in line made sure of that. Thousands tried to flee or injure themselves to avoid combat. Not through cowardice, just through the quite sensible desire to avoid being marinated in shit-rat-mud for months before being promptly dispatched by a shell fragment or huff of toxic gas. In response, they were hauled back to the front lines or in front of firing squads. Realistically, once these soldiers – mostly teenagers and young men – had signed up, it was a choice between maybe-dying at the hands of the enemy, or definitely-dying at the hands of their own generals. It makes the ‘they gave their lives’ line a little harder to hold steady, even with the aid of some grammatical wizardry. In fact, this line is a sweeping gesture of public amnesia so gobsmackingly outrageous and ahistorical that the only way to sustain it is to repeat it, over and over again. That too is something we have learnt in recent months – a lie, repeated enough times, becomes true.

But then again, it would be equally misguided if we were to pretend – even to counter the nauseating half truths that are the bread and butter of such state-mandated memorialisation – that these combatants were purely victims. The passive voice does not suffice. If we remember them merely as lambs to the slaughter, we forget the ways in which these footsoldiers – in the battlefields and in the factories alike – did craft their own histories, retaining some kind of legitimate political agency. You will find no shortage of veterans, past and present, who will line up to avow that they fought, killed and bled for king and country. And indeed in the second world war many anti-fascists, demobbed veterans of the International Brigades of the Spanish civil war, signed up to the regular army explicitly in order to fight fascism. Or the many medical staff, farm workers and factory workers who joined up not because they were gulled by the propagandists, but to dutifully mop up their mess. Were this not the case, were the combatants not in some sense willing, the machinery of war would have ground to a halt.

We know this, because eventually it did. Both the first and second world wars were fraught with industrial action; actions that catalysed the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1918. Conscious compliance kept the war roaring, and strikers snuffed it out. They were not merely victims, not simply unthinking cogs in the merciless gears of history: they were at the levers. The ruling class started fights, the working classes finished them. In resisting Poppy Day narratives by drawing attention to the actions of the powerful, we must not erase the actions of the powerless. Otherwise as a pastime of the powerful, done to and with the bodies of the powerless, the Great Man Theory of History rears its head again to explain to us, politely and in the most well-meaning terms that it recently read an intro to Marxism, and has some slightly confused thoughts on the matter. It tells us that history is something that other people do. No wonder then that, caught at the crux of remembered war and present crisis, everyone’s feeling a little powerless and a little bleak.

What do we do then, caught between the discursive horns power and counter-power – given a seeming choice between crediting elites entirely and giving them a free pass for the atrocities in which they were complicit? We have to consider that we – in a duly expansive sense of ‘we’, as people who don’t own banks, armament factories or vast swathes of land – are neither active nor passive, but responsive. Both, and neither.

When we’re born, we’re cast blindly into a history that was never of our making. Some of us get lucky. Most don’t. We don’t choose our histories. But in history, we can choose. And clearly, as 8 November made heartrendingly obviously, we can make some stupendously terrible decisions.

In a rush to diagnose why anyone – let alone 59m anyones – would vote for a barely-literate man-shaped coagulation of skin flakes scraped up off the tiles of a KKK sweat-lodge, foreign internauts, liberal politicians and baffled metropolitans alike fall foul of this same mistake again. You could drown the whole sorry GOP in the amount of ink that’s been spilled in the debate over whether Trump voters were gullible idiots, or simply evil. Whether they were the architects of Trump’s ascendency, or its credible subjects. Both of these conclusions are tempting. Neither are helpful.

Trump’s unlikely ascent to the White House was only made possible because vast tracts of the American electorate are racist. The election was the warm-up to the white supremacist cabaret whose first acts have seen people of colour attacked, women abused and assaulted, swastikas daubed on walls, and suicide rates among trans people spike. These people are responsible for their actions and should be considered as such. But there’s one problem here: when we look at who, ultimately, profits from this unholy festival of demagoguery and reaction, the buck does not stop with your average Trump voter – or even your average mouth-foaming racist.

When we talk about fascism and white supremacy, it’s usually in the voice of the befuddled middle-class liberal commentator adrift in a march of skinheads whose venality and vindictiveness they cannot possibly understand. But we have to remember that they alone are not the sole agents and creators of racism. Racism serves a purpose beyond its immediate capacity to delight a white supremacist electorate giddy on their own power. If we contend that the unbridled political will of Trump voters is as the root of the racism sweeping the US, we forget that racism serves a purpose; it is for something.

Say you want to play to the concerns of a working class that – rightly – considers itself thoroughly shafted by the terms of globalisation, and to the concerns of a middle class pearl-clutchingly terrified of meeting the same fate. Say you also want to aggregate a lot of power and money, and have a lot of friends who do so likewise. Say you have no political nous or experience beyond how to work a crowd, beyond your ability to channel the worst dredges of the American consciousness. Racism comes in rather handy here as a structural reality and as a political weapon. There’s no need here confabulate a new set of fiscal and monetary policies. There’s no need to admit the same political settlements that have plunged your would-be supporters into economic uncertainty are precisely those which have granted you healthy wads of cash. You can just blame the whole sorry mess on the nearest Muslim, on the migrant, on the person of colour, on the Jew. This is the game that fascism plays – a game of distraction and division, promising to fix the malaises of capitalist crises whilst leaving capitalist political settlements untouched and largely unexamined. This is always the game that racism has always played. It was weaponised to turn Irish indentured servants against the black chattel slaves when the two started to organise together. It is used to gloss the enormously profitable prison industrial complex as upholding the interests of all respectable (read: white) Americans, rather than those of the CEOs of private prisons.

If we diagnose this festival of racist demagoguery as no more or less than the malevolent agency of the racists who voted for Trump, a pre-forma gallery for him to play to, we obfuscate the role of the powerful economic stakeholders in structural racism. When Trump was elected, the share price of private prisons skyrocketed. The wage packets of your average worker did not.

But neither is it useful to dismiss Trump voters as thoughtless and gullible; pretending (as did a lot of hand-wringing think pieces) that this was a cry of despair by a white working classes so immiserated and so desperate that they are ready to be duped by the next available despot. If we understand their votes not as political agency but as a pre-rational folly, they are simply borne on the tide of demagoguery, washed whichever way. This analysis sits easily with usual reheated stereotypes about working class people being a bit thick – but became a little harder for your average bourgeois politico to defend when it transpired that the constituency which clinched it for Trump was not low-income people, but white people. And compelling though it may be to conclude that white people are all deeply idiotic and biddable, we do (I’m afraid) have to assume that even the Trump-voting white electorate has a couple of braincells to rub together.

To do otherwise isn’t just foolish, it gives Hillary Clinton rather too much credit. It assumes that to vote against her you have to be a brainless animal yammering and gibbering at the first scent of blood. That it could not be in the rational self-interest of anyone to vote against her. But, grotesque as her opponent may be, she is and was a champion of free trade legislation, a bedfellow of Wall Street, and a darling of a Democratic elite so cloistered in its own ivory towers that it still struggles to comprehend how deeply and passionately it is loathed. For many people it’s not so cut and dried that she would have defended their own rational self-interests any better than the other candidate. Even when that candidate is a white supremacist and a fascist.

Because – and here’s the kicker – white supremacy is supposed to be in the rational self-interests of white people. Particularly those white people who have seen their living conditions fall even as concessions are made towards racial equality, and who have drawn exactly the wrong conclusion. That, friends, is the whole damn point. From a white perspective, white supremacy makes sense. It’s deeply evil, profoundly shortsighted, morally indefensible and gut-wrenchingly grotesque, but it wouldn’t have survived for so long if it did not, according to a venal account of reality, make a kind of sense. It’s a bargain made between the white ruling classes and the white working classes: in return for your support, we will provide you with someone to look down on, someone to be better off than. It’s a bargain so powerful that white women will trade in their humanity, their safety, and the lives of their sisters in order to honour it. But we need to understand this as a rational choice. Because if these people are merely zombified conduits for someone else’s agenda, they’re not really responsible for their actions. They’re not really political agents at all.

If you want to have democracy, you have to recover a sense in which even Trumpmania, at the howling zenith of its bigotry, involves legitimate political agency. Not because we must accept it, because all ideas are valid – but precisely because they are not. You need to credit them with some kind of agency because it is that which must be persuaded, dispersed or fought. If they’re not legitimate, responsive political agents, you can’t really hope to persuade them that Trump’s promised future is at best chaotic and at worst utterly monstrous. You can’t hope to galvanise a self-sustaining, anti-establishment sentiment that doesn’t carve itself out in violence on the bodies of women, queers and people of colour. All you can hope to do is dupe them in the right way the next time. That lofty patricianship represents exactly the kind of hollowed-out vision of democracy that drives people into the arms of anti-establishment reactionaries.

That’s not to kid ourselves that all those 59m people can be brought on side. Not everyone will be convinced that people of colour are, indeed, people. The battles with those who cannot will not be fought in the bloodless camaraderie of the debating hall, but in the streets. And as in the trenches, it will be a matter of survival. But even then, we must fight them not as sociopathic monsters or as crowing half-children, but as people who have picked the wrong side, who are responsible for the choices they made – and who deserve every bit of what will come to them. They are neither purely agents of their own history or purely its subjects. Circumstance called upon them to make a decision and they chose wrong. It offered them a bargain: the fulfilment of a warped, loathsome picture of their own protection for the price of the dignity, the humanity, and the lives of others. And they took it. The fuckers.

But there remains one deeper and perhaps more compelling reason to hold firm to the contention that those who backed fascism were neither innocents nor possessed of an entirely self-sufficient sociopathy. Because neither account provides us with a way of sustaining an awareness that we unAmericans, we non-Trump-supporters – cosseted in the grim satisfaction of distant I-told-you-sos – are also capable of fucking up spectacularly. Everyone believes themself to be a rational person making reasonable decisions. No one sashays up to the ballot box assuming that they are evil or stupid. If fascism is mad or irrational, then it can never be a choice we can be aware of making. We can only ever be the good guys. It blinds us to all the ways we are, and can be, complicit in the structural racism of which Trump is only the latest poster-boy. We can continue to choose poorly. We did not create racism, but it is sustained only by our agency.

In this awareness, we would do well to remember that, as we lay wreaths at the feet of war memorials, it was only by chance that our grandparents were on the winning sides of history, and had their names carved out in honour. No such legacy is guaranteed for us. As I write this, Andrew Marr is on the airwaves nodding solemnly along to Marine Le Pen’s explanations that her party (Front National) is not so bad after all – not racist, just tragically misunderstood and hard done by the liberal press. Marr is wearing a poppy, naturally.

We have sat in the dark and watched this election play out in the distance of the big screen. It was given to us like that. And it made for such compulsive viewing. It’s easy to stay watching, to stare in dismayed fascination at the stories unfurling in front of our eyes. It takes courage to turn around in the movie theatre and look at the whole horrifying tale flickering over the faces of the people we love, how it changes them.


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