Right Back At You: There is a fond assumption among a great many progressive activists that, having seen their cherished social reforms enacted, they can relax – confident that they will remain in place indefinitely. History’s clock moves only forwards, they reassure themselves, never backwards. Unfortunately, that isn’t true.
SEPTEMBER-ELEVEN was a day of disaster long before 2001. Twenty-eight years earlier, another day, 11 September 1973, was seared into the memory of every Chilean as indelibly and irrevocably as 11 September 2001 burned itself into the retinas of every American.
Skyhawk jets streaked over the Presidential Palace in Santiago and battle tanks rumbled through the capital’s streets. Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist leader, died in his palace. The Chilean people would have to wait seventeen years for the opportunity to choose another.
There were countless tales of violence and oppression on 11 September 1973, but the report which stuck in my memory involved a young woman stopped on the street by a squad of young, keyed-up, soldiers.
“What do you think you’re wearing?” One of the soldiers demanded.
The young woman was at a loss. It was 1973 and she was dressed fashionably in a T-shirt and flared trousers.
“Go home and change into something more befitting a decent young woman.” The oldest of the soldiers gestured with his rifle at the young woman’s trousers. “The days of women dressing like communist whores are over.”
The overthrow of Allende was about a great deal more than his Popular Unity government nationalising Chile’s American-owned copper mines. His democratic socialist policies had generated social changes every bit as radical as the changes unleashed upon the country’s capitalist economy. Women swapping their skirts for trousers was but one of the many challenges to the cultural hegemony of Chile’s profoundly conservative social and religious institutions.
Allende’s government had fatally underestimated the political impact of its cultural challenges. He and his followers had no idea how lightly their changes rested on the popular masses they fondly believed to have been convinced and converted by their policies.
They would find out soon enough. What happened in Chile in the months and years that followed General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup of 11 September 1973 wasn’t quite on the scale of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the conservative cultural backlash it unleashed left the Popular Unity government’s emancipatory social programmes in ruins.
There is a fond assumption among a great many progressive activists that, having seen their cherished social reforms enacted, they can relax – confident that they will remain in place indefinitely. History’s clock moves only forwards, they reassure themselves, never backwards.
Unfortunately, that isn’t true.
The economic hierarchies of capitalist society are the least of progressivism’s worries. Older, and much more difficult to eradicate, are the hierarchies of race and gender. Not all Whites can be rich, but on the ladder of racial privilege they have long celebrated their “superiority” to people of colour. A black man’s path to equality may be blocked by the racial prejudices of his white brothers, but that in no way guarantees he will acknowledge the rights of his sisters.
At a post-SNCC Conference party in 1964, the black activist leader, Stokely Carmichael, infamously described the position of black women in the American civil rights movement as “prone.”
Many progressives do not appreciate how deeply these racial and gender prejudices are embedded in the minds of their fellow citizens. With the power to legislate in their hands, and a like-minded news media happy to promote their causes, progressive political parties are often tempted to overestimate the transformational power of their reforms. The embittered silence of those who feel that their most cherished beliefs have been overridden and ignored is all-too-easily mistaken for consent and approbation by progressive campaigners. It is neither.
To date, New Zealanders have been extremely fortunate in the generally benign character of their country’s dominant populist party – NZ First. Winston Peters is no Viktor Orban; no Rodrigo Duterte; no Jair Bolsonaro. And for that we should all be extremely thankful.
It is by no means certain, however, that this country will be spared the malign effects of vicious right-wing populism forever. A significant downturn in the New Zealand economy; one jarring social reform too many; and, who knows, a frightened, angry and culturally displaced mass of New Zealanders may find their “drummer”.
Nowhere is it written that such politicians are bound to observe the democratic niceties. Indeed, in circumstances where large numbers of New Zealanders believe themselves to be the victims of an arrogant and uncaring “political class”, democracy may be perceived as the problem.
Yellow Vests anyone?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 December 2018.