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17 August 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 1:45pm

Fight the power

K Biswas learns a new lexicon of protest with Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

By K Biswas

“Election days come and go,” Bernie Sanders remarked onstage at the Democratic National Convention in July, “but the struggle . . . continues.” The Vermont senator, who endorsed Hillary Clinton to be the next president of the United States, well understands that although his own “political revolution” was thwarted, politics in its broadest sense continues unabated, adhering to a different logic.

Sanders’s 15-month insurgent campaign was powered by the extra-parliamentary protest groups given star billing in Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, a chronicle of post-crash activism in which he garners just a passing mention. Jaffe travelled across the United States collecting interviews and experiences from those seeking “something beyond the ballot box”, for whom “democracy, not electing Democrats”, is the ultimate goal.

Barack Obama’s presidency proved to be dispiriting – it was a continuation of monochrome politics, unable to reverse decades of stagnation, fix the social security net, or revive the postwar consensus. Coming to the conclusion that “asking nicely is not the way to bring about change”, many “turned to protests, to occupations and dramatic direct actions”.

The political beliefs of these new radicals were shaped by the 2008 financial collapse, and Jaffe takes us around communities that have “experienced the worst of capitalism’s crises – unemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, incarceration and untreated illness”. We meet skilled agitators who are “willing to risk arrest” and to build the “infrastructure for protest” by galvanising public anger (demonstrating outside banks, shutting down shopping districts) as well as compassion (assisting people who have been evicted from their home, providing ­relief to environmentally ravaged areas). The “movements”, as Jaffe refers to them, are diverse, from those with a degree of name recognition, such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter, to independent campaigns against “militarised policing”, fracking and student debt.

The unifying (albeit spectral) enemy is “the 1 Per Cent”, a “billionaire class” that viewed the crisis in the economy as “a great opportunity”. Its power and ostentatious wealth are “there for all to see”: armoured yachts, $230,000 guard dogs, luxury bomb shelters. The villains range from Wall Street to Walmart; Jaffe is especially scathing about the world’s largest retailer, which employs 1.5 million Americans and appointed Clinton as its first female board member. She argues that the company specialises in “low-wage, feminised service work”, subjects staff to extreme surveillance and lays off workers at short notice. We accompany former employees to the annual Walmart shareholders’ meeting in Arkansas – hosted by Reese Witherspoon and featuring performances by Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey and the “big finale”, Rod Stewart – where they confront the CEO over job losses.

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In Florida, we witness a “Million Hoodie March” against the backdrop of a failed “broken windows” police strategy, invasive “stop-and-frisk” laws and the shooting of young black men such as Trayvon Martin. “It is hard not to reach the conclusion,” Jaffe writes, “that American society values windows more than it does black lives.”

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Amid the tales of direct action and disruption, we meet some of the ordinary Americans adapting to new times. Among them is the homeowner Nancy Daniel, who once believed that if you could not “pay your bills, then you are not a good person”, before she joined Occupy, having found herself unable to keep up her mortgage payments. The Baptist minister William Barber, meanwhile, is training his congregation in “civil disobedience”. “Our job,” he says, “is to shock this nation’s heart again.”

Jaffe guides us through the new lexicon of protest – a world of “privilege”, “horizontalism” and “microaggressions”. She ensures that much-mocked terms such as “intersectionality” – the phenomenon of experiencing “multiple axes of oppression at once” – acquire a human face here, introducing the reader to individuals such as the labour activist Ivanna Gonzalez, arrested at a university protest, for whom “being a woman, a student, an immigrant and a worker were all parts of her life, identities that couldn’t be pulled apart”.

Neat institutional histories punctuate Jaffe’s journey – from the People’s Party in the late 19th century, which railed against the “money power” of J P Morgan (the banker, not the bank), to the Moral Majority, set up in 1979 largely to oppose abortion and gay rights, whose influence has now trickled down to a younger generation of legislators.

Not one to cosset her readers, she argues that violence has been at the heart of “political and economic systems from the very beginning”, that the nuclear family is not a “product of human nature” and that modern capitalism was “born out of and then fuelled by slave labour”. She picks apart progressive advances and, having highlighted the deficiencies in New Deal-era politics, civil rights and the labour movement, declares: “There is no ‘golden age’ for us to return to.”

Focusing on trade unions – home to the white, male and almost folkloric blue-collar factory worker – she chides them for failing to “adapt to a changing workforce” and being “lukewarm” when it comes to organising black people, and accuses them of not valuing women in the service sector. She reserves her harshest words for progressives who are unmoved by the new radicalism: “colour-blind” liberals who act “as if racism is a thing of the past”; those who are preoccupied with “white, middle-class identity politics”, calling for “a few more women CEOs”; environmentalists content to allow their cause to be a “hobby for the wealthy”. (“No amount of gas-company-sponsored Earth Days or energy-efficient light bulbs or hybrid cars can make up for the damage done,” she writes.)

The book discovers unlikely allies within the Tea Party. Rather than dismiss this nativist, grass-roots movement aligned with the Republican right as an “AstroTurf” group for “wealthy conservatives”, Jaffe argues that it “helped usher in” an era of protest and finds fragments of ideological overlap with a local chapter opposing banking bailouts and pushing for renewable energy.

According to the author, years of cross-campaigning have allowed protest groups to begin speaking with one voice and to embark on “an electoral strategy”. Radical candidates have stood for office, winning individual victories over fracking and a phased-in $15 minimum wage. Hillary Clinton’s pledge of a $12 national minimum wage could also be considered a win, though Jaffe rejects this as an attempt to
silence protesters with “small gifts”.

America’s troublemakers plan to carry on “disrupting business as usual”, regardless of whoever occupies the White House, and they are “thinking big”. Rather than plotting a march through existing institutions, their future promises “an entirely new set of institutions that meet people’s needs”, offering everything from “workers’ co-operatives to shorter working hours to a universal basic income”.

Jaffe believes that rather than aping their left-wing predecessors, these movements, if they wish to succeed, may take their cue from conservative groups, which, like the Moral Majority, brought fringe ideas into the mainstream, and set themselves “up to play a long game, to reshape politics”. 

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge