The reactionaries are in decline, not ascendant

It is easy to feel a sense of despair at the news these days. The coronavirus seems to once again have defied predictions and infections are on the rise with the new omicron variant. We have ignorant but influential people still discouraging people from taking vaccines that could save their lives. We have a Republican senate, aided by Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema block legislation that would improve the lives of so many people. And we have a US Supreme Court seemingly poised to roll back the right to an abortion and otherwise advance a reactionary right wing agenda.

Rebecca Solnit is one of the most thoughtful writers and analysts and she has come out with an opinion piece that suggests that what we are witnessing is not the rise of a major reactionary movement but the dying gasps of a desperate minority waging a bitter rearguard battle against historical forces that they realize are going to overwhelm them and take away the power they have held for so long.

While their fear and dismay is often regarded as rooted in delusion, rightwingers are correct that the world is metamorphosing into something new and, to them, abhorrent.

In 2018, halfway through the Trump presidency, 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. Similar shifts are happening far beyond the United States, but it is this turbulent nation of so much creation and destruction I know best and will speak of here.

All those angry white men with the tiki torches chanting, in Charlottesville in 2017, “You will not replace us” as they sought to defend a statue of Gen Robert E Lee were wrong in their values and actions but perhaps not in their assessment.

White people are not being replaced, but in many ways a white supremacist history and society is.

What’s happening goes far beyond public monuments. The statues mark the rejection of old versions of who we are and what we value, but those versions and values matter most as they play out in everyday private and public life. We are only a few decades removed from a civilization in which corporal punishment of children by parents and teachers was an unquestioned norm; in which domestic violence and marital rape were seen as a husband’s prerogative and a wife surrendered financial and other agency; in which many forms of inequality and exclusion had hardly even been questioned, let alone amended; in which few questioned the rightness of a small minority – for white Christian men have always been a minority in the United States – holding almost all the power, politically, socially, economically, culturally; in which segregation and exclusion were pervasive and legal; in which Native Americans had been largely written out of history; in which environmental regulation and protection and awareness barely existed.

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

Even more profound than this is a shift in worldview from the autonomous individual of hypercapitalism and social darwinism to a recognition of both the natural and social worlds as orchestras of interdependence, of survival as an essentially collaborative and cooperative business. Disciplines from neuropsychology to economics have shifted their sense of who we are, what works, and what matters. Climate change is first of all a crisis, but it’s also a reminder that the world is a collection of interlocking systems. The just-deceased bell hooks talked about a “love ethic” that included “a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on the planet”.

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.

It is a powerful essay and my excerpts do not do it justice. You should read it for yourself.


  1. garnetstar says

    I agree with Solnit (sometimes. Sometimes I weakly think that it is an organized reactionary wave.)

    But I think that sadly, there may be some (many?) white people who would rather die and take the country down to death with them, than allow the country to exist as a modern, multi-racial democracy.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I live in Charlottesville. The Lee and Jackson statues that sparked the protests in 2017 are down. It was announced a few weeks ago that Lee will be melted and reforged into a new statue that better reflects the diversity of our community. Just today we found out that Jackson will be shipped to California to be part of a display that will “contextualize these monuments socially and historically in order to critique and confront the false narrative and ideology of the Lost Cause.” Another statue of Lewis and Clark towering over a crouching, servile Sacagewea was taken down at the same time — no news about where it’s going yet.
    So I think there really is something in what she says.

  3. says

    She sounds like she’s been reading Stephen Pinker.
    Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, more people live under authoritarian regimes, outright dictatorships, or pseudo-democracies than ever before. On top of that, climate change is further empowering reactionaries all over the place, as it hardens ethnic lines and reinforces nationalist xenophobia. When you’ve got changes like India literally being taken over by reactionary nationalists, you can hardly say sensibly that reactionaries are fading out; that’s a huge number of people.

    A little optimism is a good thing, but let’s not be silly about it.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @4:

    A little optimism is a good thing, but let’s not be silly about it.

    Coming from someone who hasn’t, as far as I can remember, expressed the least bit of optimism about anything, that’s a bit rich. She’s “glass half-full”. You’re “glass broken”. That’s not a diss. Just an observation.

  5. says

    I don’t know that it matters if they’re in decline. What matters is that they are working very hard right now to forge the US government in their image, democracy be damned. I don’t think the next few decades are going to be a great part of history to live through if we survive.

    I’ll be more than happy to be wrong.

  6. says

    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.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    They have, indeed, lost the majority. They cannot regain power through democracy.

    Not at the national level, no. However, they can certainly achieve regional ascendency at the state level. As you point out, that state vs. federal conflict was at the core of the problem in the 1860s as well as today.
    What is different today is that the regions are more thoroughly mixed than they were in the 1860s — at least in an urban vs. rural sense. Even Wyoming, the Trumpiest state in 2020, cast around 30% of their votes for Biden. My impression is that the south was far more unified in the 1860s, though I would defer to a civil war scholar on that question.

  8. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#5:
    hasn’t, as far as I can remember, expressed the least bit of optimism about anything, that’s a bit rich.

    That’s because you probably have a shitty memory. My recent postings about the COVID vaccines are quite optimistic (though not if you’re an anticaxxer). I think I’m realistic about other things. You’re welcome to argue what things you think I am wrong about, but your usual huff/puff “gosh Marcus you are so wrong about everything” is weak sauce I’m going to just dismiss; it’s tedious.

  9. sonofrojblake says


    I think I’m realistic about other things

    In fairness, your realism manifests as nihilism, which comes across as pessimistic. Again, not a diss, just an observation. I don’t see anyone saying you’re wrong, either.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @9:

    That’s because you probably have a shitty memory

    Quite possible, but I don’t read all your posts. Certainly less than half. Either way, ‘as far as I can remember’ still holds.

    but your usual huff/puff “gosh Marcus you are so wrong about everything”…

    Coupla things. You’re not wrong about everything. Far from it. But I generally only comment when I disagree with someone, or if I think I have something useful to add, or if I smell bullshit. I’m not a cheerleader. Also, get over yourself.

  11. garnetstar says

    CripDyke @7, that’s a very good distinction, that the reactionaries grow as they are squeezed, and it’s the number who won’t accept their stance that is growing.

    I sometimes see the very ferocity of their struggle as their death throes: certainly, they will not let go without a fight. And some will prefer a fight to the death. So as you say (I really like this one!), there’s no inevitable victory, only inevitable struggle. And I do worry about how far some reactionaries will take the struggle, many to the death, as they say. Which will be, um, very inconvenient at the least (!) for the rest of us.

  12. says

    I read her item yesterday. Something she doesn’t say but is there:

    The rightwingnuts have spent years labelling this coming revolution as a “terrorist threat”, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. They likely because *knew* this would be a peaceful revolution, and the only way to oppose it was to pretend it was violent, to incite and rationalize violence. But outside the echo chamber of rightwing media, the public have seen that it wasn’t true. They’ve witnessed with their own eyes that those seeking change want resolution, not retribution.

    Everywhere that “populism” attained power and tried to impose ideology over reality has seen it come crashing down. They can enact policy by corrupt government and by force, but they can’t overcome scientific and economic realities.

  13. mnb0 says

    @RobG: given your “vote the Donald out of the White House now, fight for fundamental change later” you either have a shitty memory, are more cynical than me or are a hypocrite.
    Your choice.

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @14: It’s more like “vote Trump out and fight for fundamental change at the same time”, pretty much like most other commenters hereabouts.

    You clueless dumbass. No choice.

  15. seachange says

    People have been claiming the imminent death of authoritarian hateful conservatism for as long as I have been alive.

    Those who talk about the Civil War are possibly tacitly omitting all the carnage implicit in the word ‘struggle’.

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