Mano’s Optimism, Solnit’s Reassurances and Progressive Momentum

Mano has a new post up quoting extensively (and agreeing with) a Rebecca Solnit essay in The Guardian that would have us believe that January 6th is not the sign of a rising movement which requires effort to oppose, but the last gasps of a dying political faction drowning under the waters of an unstoppable progressive flood. From the signing of the Declaration of Independence until victory in cases she mentions (Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges) to others not mentioned but surely in her thoughts (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Texas v. Johnson, and Bostock v. Clayton County), accompanied by scores of other victories in major social arenas and uncountable victories on the individual level, Solnit sees a steady direction of flow in the waters of history, and imagines this is entails a liberatory momentum which seemingly cannot be reversed (“The right is trying to push the water back behind the dam.”) Here is a small portion of her argument:

Michelle Alexander wrote a powerful essay arguing that we are not the resistance. We, she declared, are the mighty river they are trying to dam. I see it flowing, and I see the tributaries that pour into it and swell its power, and I see that once firmly grounded statues and assumptions have become flotsam in its current.

… You have to remember how different the past was to recognize how much has changed.

Demography, too, supports her optimism:

White Christians, who were 80% of the population in 1976, are now 44%. Mixed-race and non-white people are rapidly becoming the majority. On issues such as climate, people of color are far more progressive; if we can make it through the huge backlash of the present moment, the possibilities are dazzling.

These are relatively concrete changes.

She does hint at danger, but never seems to take it seriously. Her tone is continually one of optimistic confidence, even when her metaphors are bloody:

Birth can be violent and dangerous, and sometimes one or the other of the two involved die. There is no guarantee about what is to come, and the shadow of climate chaos hangs over it all. We do not have time to build a better society before we address that crisis, but it is clear that the response to that crisis is building such a society. So much has already changed. The river Alexander described has swept away so much, has carried so many onward.

It has come far; it still has dams to overtop and so much farther to go.

One might think that I could agree with her wholeheartedly. After all, she is correct that we’ve come very far as a country and as a society since the truths that we held self-evident included the inherent, inevitable, incalculable inferiority of people of color and women. But I can’t find myself agreeing with her thesis as presented, even if I find no large fault with the facts she mentions along the way. Instead, I find her essay decidedly lacking because even her least confident statements seem mere pro forma acknowledgements of the opacity of the future’s veil (“There is no guarantee about what is to come”). An overconfidence despite such acknowledgements is rightly inferred from the lack of any call to action. A river sweeps away our old injustices, and its flood races on. Why act, in such a scenario? The flood races forward as it will. Solnit herself uses the inability to push waters back behind an already overtopped damn as a metaphor for the futility of actions taken by the USA’s reactionary Right.

It is exactly this failure to recognize that historical momentum is not analogous to gravity, and that progressive action is not analogous to a flood. Many cultures and nations have regressed. The USA will as well if its people do not take direct action to preserve the rule of law, to oppose fascism and reactionary violence, and to dismantle anti-democratic laws and forces.

There is much left to say, and I won’t say all of it (or presume that I can), but at this point let me copy over what I wrote on Mano’s blog on this topic:

I don’t think that the reactionaries are in decline. I do think that they are increasing in number and ferocity.

What I think is in decline is the number of people sympathetic to the reactionary position. Those who hated queer people are now living in a society where we won’t go back in the closet. The people who cling to heterosexual supremacy can no longer be silently sympathetic. It is emotionally draining to live in a world that thinks you’re evil. I know, because just being trans was seen as embracing evil by the majority of my society when I came out. That pressure leads to one of two outcomes: giving up what makes one different, in this case one’s heterosexism, or “coming out”. Some will choose to be loud and proud, to be defiant. Others will shy away from association with them.

The larger base from which the reactionaries draw strength is thus shrinking, but the reactionaries themselves are growing as more and more people are forced to choose between capitulation and defiance.

I don’t mean to defend them. To say that this is a similar dynamic psychologically to what I went through between 1990 and 1993 isn’t at all to say that they are in a morally similar situation. I rebelled at the idea that I could be branded evil for the clothes I wear, the name that defines me, the size of my breasts, the attractions I feel. They rebel at being branded evil for discriminating against others, for enforcing poverty (or wishing to) and homelessness, for enforcing ostracism and harassment, for excusing assault and rape and murder. But those things are evil in a way that loving or kissing someone, receiving medical care, or defining oneself can never be.

No, they are situated dramatically differently on the moral terrain, but they psychological forces that move them aren’t so foreign that I cannot understand them, or predict their consequences.

I imagine that the dynamics I’m discussing are also not far from those in operation in the 1850s. Enslavement was more and more denounced as evil, and there would have been psychological pressure to either give up on slavery, or to stand defiant against the condemnation. The pool of slavery support among non-slavers would have been shrinking even as the reactionary militance of the remaining slavers increased.

The Civil War period should also teach us that another danger exists: the people who were sympathetic to heterosexual or cissexual supremacy mentioned above, or to racism, or to treating drug addiction as a rationale for violent war, when some of them capitulated, that did not mean that they would not turn back to supporting racism or the drug war or anti-queer Christian theocracy if the environment around them once again became supportive of their prejudices.

The pool of support for the true reactionaries shrink, but the number willing to be violent increases, and if we allow the reactionaries sufficient success that their views appear to be resurgent, some of those whom we thought we had convinced to join us on a better path will return to supporting the prejudice, hatred, and violence of the reactionaries.

This provides a possible path back to power for the reactionaries, but it doesn’t work by mere electoral organizing. They have, indeed, lost the majority. They cannot regain power through democracy. But they don’t need to fully regain power to regain the support of the people submitted to anti discrimination law reluctantly. They only need to appear to be regaining power. Given how drastically skewed and drastically powerful are the right wing media outlets in shaping public perception, there is no guarantee that they cannot create this appearance.

But since they cannot return to power through democratic means, a reactionary movement that wins back a portion of their old base will rise to power as fascists or be resisted as the same. In either case, there will be quite a lot of blood shed.

So now we will see if the rule of law can be maintained, if those whose duty it is will keep the pressure on the reactionaries to the point that they cannot successfully portray themselves as resurgent (even with the help of Fox and OANN and the rest).

At some point in the future, we may look back and see Solnit as prescient, but I see her as premature. We may, if we are lucky, hold off the reactionaries and their inchoate fascism. But if we do, it’s not because of the irresistible force of progressive momentum. It will be because we take seriously the battles yet to be fought. It will be because we recognize rule of law and equality of worth as desperately fragile, as frequently insufficient to prevent injustice, and because we then take action to preserve both.

There is no inevitable victory. There is only inevitable struggle. We must take action, specific action, against a threat that is increasing, not decreasing.

Moral condemnation of slavery slowly squeezed the undecideds in the years before the Civil War did not create inevitable liberation. It created inevitable conflict.

Here too we are faced with inevitable conflict. If we take a relaxed view, trusting to momentum and ignoring friction, the inevitable conflict will take the worst possible forms. Solnit’s prophecy is self-negating: believe in its power, in its inevitability, and it will not come true.

Whether you respect Solnit’s writing and wisdom or not, if you share Solnit’s values, you must act as if her prediction is worthless.

Create a better world, or it will never come to be, and you will witness for yourself how quickly the reactionaries ascend.


  1. Allison says

    What I think is in decline is the number of people sympathetic to the reactionary position.

    I’m not that optimistic.

    What I see is a society where the culture of much of middle-class white USA is currently happy to appear sympathetic to (some) progressive values. Most of them aren’t so much committed to those values as committed to going along with what everyone else seems to be going along with. So what are they likely to do if “everyone else” (as they see it) stops being sympathetic to those values?

    Moreover, that lack of sympathy doesn’t translate into actually opposing reactionary policies. Those people who are “no longer sympathetic” to reactionary positions are still willing to cast their votes for extremely reactionary politicians. Think of all the people who voted for Trump in 2020. My guess is that many, maybe even most of these voters might appear to be unsympathetic to reactionary positions, but their unsympathy wasn’t strong enough to keep them from voting for him. There’s a solid majority in the USA that (in polls, at least) support the right to abortion, but there’s an equally solid majority still voting for anti-choice candidates.

    Most of the German population in the 1930’s and 1940’s was not all that sympathetic to Nazi ideas, but being Good Germans, they were loyal to those in power and, by their actions, effectively supported Nazi policies.

    The “arc of history” may (eventually) bend towards justice, but if it does, it’s only because (or should I say “if”?) there are many, many people pushing it that way over a long period of time.

  2. garnetstar says

    I really like your analysis, CD. I remarked on your comment that I sometimes see the very ferocity of the reactionary response as their death throes. But, that such commitment also means that they’ll happily take this fight to the death. They’d sacrifice their lives (already are, to COVID), and that means the loss of many of our lives.

    No inevitable victory, just inevitable struggle: totally agree. And the magnitude of the struggle will be very great, very many casualties. I’m already talking as if it’s a war, because to them, it is.

  3. Dauphni says

    The way I see it, there’s a certain percentage of the population that is wired to have a fundamentally authoritarian mindset. I’m guesssing, but I estimate it’s somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 people. They will always gravitate to fascist beliefs whenever society allows it, so it’s the responsibility of the rest of society to keep them from going down that path.

    At the other end of the political spectrum there’s probably a similar number of people who are fundamentallly egalitarians, no matter what. These two groups would be fairly stable, and it’s the large group in the middle who determine what is acceptable and what is not.

  4. StevoR says

    I don’t know. I hope and fear and oscillate between those and I try to work on making things as much better as I can.

    Which, okay isn’t much but hopefully is better than nothing though Ifera not at times..

  5. klatu says

    I’m gonna be angry at this woman for a bit. Is that okay?

    Add a few hundred million climate refugees to the equation in the next couple of decades, and then tell me about optimism.
    Fucking Europe is already gearing up for the incoming conflicts that will be brought on by scarcity and “healthy competition”.

    Has this woman not been paying any attention? This is an attitude one can only have when one is so far removed from material needs that it’s literally unreal. Did she not notice the fucking reactionaries everywhere clamping down on reproductive freedoms? Basic fucking claims to asylum, that ostensibly are a human right afforded to everyone?

    This crap is really, legally happening, right now in Europe. All that crap about Belarus? Entirely a function of the fact that Poland is allowed to not let anyone in. In complete contradiction to stated EU goals. Because guess what? It’s all voluntary. There isn’t actually a process for kicking out a country when they act like fucking cavemen. LGBT-free zones. Who cares? No. They have to voluntarily step away from the EU. The Nazi fuckos have to voluntarily elect to no longer be part of the predominant power structure. Why the heck would they ever do that? Power is literlly all these fuckers care about.

    The US are seeing the same shit happen, of course. Roe v. Wade and all that.

    All the clever fuckers think that now is the time to outbreed each other. Time to become climate winners. That’s what’s happening. China has rescined its one-child-policy, because 1.6 billion chinese aren’t enough. It’s time to breed! The spectre of racial hygiene is looming large on the horizon.

    Just how fucking stupid is this woman? This is the world we live in. Optimism? Fuck the fuck off. Seriously.

    History just is. Certainly, there may be an arc to it. But only insofar as our view of history always conforms to our own biases. We like to be winners, after all. This is our glorious past. It can’t be all bad if it led to us. We’re awesome! Something like that.

  6. says

    Look at Modi’s India and talk about optimism. Solint’s just parochial. The US’ flirtation with fascism is going to be itrelevant history in 100yr.

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