The following is an adapted version of Owen Jones’s remarks at “The Anti-Inauguration,” an event in Washington, DC, on January 20. You can watch the event in its entirety here.
Above all else, I’m here because of one word: solidarity.
Because the problems and injustices that we face differ in specifics and in scale, but the similarities that bind them are striking indeed. The people we are up against are the same. Injustice does not stop at the border, and the struggle against it must not, either. In the coming months and the coming years, we’re going to have to stand together, and that’s the spirit I’m in and standing here today.
Today’s inauguration is a sh ock, but it’s not a surprise. What did the centrist commentariat expect? That the Western world would be plunged by its ruling elites into the gravest economic crisis since the 1930s and there would be no political consequences?
Discontent is sweeping the Western world, and no wonder. Think of my own country. In Britain, the wealth of the richest 1,000 Britons has more than doubled during one of the greatest economic crises in modern history, while workers’ wages have fallen for the longest period since Queen Victoria sat on the throne in the nineteenth century.
When most people in poverty are working, and they get up in the morning and earn their poverty, day after day. Where hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens, in one of the richest countries that has ever existed, are driven to charities just to eat — hundreds of thousands of them kids. In one of the richest of societies we have ever known, where hundreds of thousands of families are denied again the basic need of a decent, affordable, comfortable home for them and their families as well.
Look at this discontent. The form that this discontent takes differs. It differs according to the cultural and political and historical contexts of each country. We have seen, in part, a politics of hope. We must not forget that. A wave of optimism driven by the desire to build societies run in the interests of the majority, run in the interests of people’s needs and hopes and expectations, rid of society’s exploitation and oppression and racism, challenging the vested interests responsible for the multiple crises that all of us face.
For me, the wave is what mattered, however flawed the surfer has sometimes been. But we’ve seen it, in ways that have often been breathtakingly inspiring. We saw the Bernie Sanders phenomenon here in the United States. We saw the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon in the United Kingdom, and the Podemos phenomenon in Spain as well.
But alongside that politics of hope, we’ve seen the politics of fear, of directing blame for all the economic and social ills that our societies face on jobs, on housing, on wages, on services, away from the bankers, the tax dodgers, the multinational corporations, to immigrants and minorities and those who struggle.
And look at that politics of fear. In my own country, a European Union referendum that had nothing to do with the European Union at all — it was about scapegoating immigrants in the most bigoted and disgraceful way imaginable. A campaign of poison that has sent hate crimes hurtling in my country. A Leave campaign which peddled a politics of fear, that talked of immigrants as rapists and murderers and criminals. A Leave campaign which led the most poisonous campaign we have seen in my country since World War II.
Now, we’re talking a lot about trade treaties at the moment post-Brexit with the United States. I must apologize for the first major British export of the Trump era: Nigel Farage.
Where do you begin? Well, you’re stuck with him now, as well. We will defeat him eventually, but we’ve seen that wave of xenophobia, that fear, not just in my own country, but in France with the National Front, a party that scapegoats immigrants and Muslims. We’ve seen it in the Netherlands; across Scandinavia; in Austria, where, despite the recent defeat of a far-right candidate, 46 percent of people still voted for a fascist.
And now, the greatest triumph of all for the politics of fear: the assumption of power of Donald Trump in the most powerful nation on earth.
There are those that want to reduce Trump’s victory in the Electoral College to one factor or another, that it was either simply economic grievance, or it was simply backlash against the struggle by African-Americans, by women, by undocumented workers, by LGBTQ people. But in the real world we don’t have to choose. It was both.
But there is an inescapable truth. The so-called centrists, the Clinton-Blair axis, those who defended the existing order and promised merely to tweak it — they are politically bankrupt.
Their unique selling point was that we will abandon policies that challenge the status quo in exchange for the promise of winning, a promise that died in November. They failed, because the existing order can’t work. It won’t work. An order that cannot meet the needs and aspirations of the majority, one that enriches a tiny elite as the living standards of millions stagnate or decline, which robs young people of that most precious of all, optimism, a sense that their own lot in life will be better than their parents’ before them.
I spoke to a man in Washington yesterday. He was in his twenties. His father, a Pakistani immigrant, had worked in the same parking garage since 1973. His parents had been inspired by Obama. That was the first time both of them had even voted.
But since 2008, his father’s wages and hours have been cut, and his mum’s health care cost — the very issue that Obama campaigned on — has gone up. As Pakistani immigrants, they were not won over by Trump. But millions of Americans who struggled were, and the brutal truth is that after eight years of Obama’s presidency, the lot of millions of Americans is as bad or worse than it was in 2008.
In terms of the way ahead, we’ve seen for a long time self-described progressives abandon class. Neoliberals have long abhorred the concept of class. They wanted to erase the concept altogether. Why? Because it extolled a sense of collectivism, a common shared interest against the people at the top. They want to abolish it. Margaret Thatcher, for example, said that class is a communist concept — it puts people into bundles and sets them against each other.
But it isn’t so with the new populist right. They’ve tried to appropriate the politics of class, in the most reactionary way possible. They saw the vacuum, and they filled it.
Their populism tries to define a working class that is demonized, that is harped on by liberal elite that hates their values, their way of life, everything about them. A new left, reborn, has to have class — class in all of its diversity — at its very core.
We saw the new populist right’s version of class with that last infamous political ad of Donald Trump. As one American leftist put it to me, it was half Occupy, half The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Nonetheless, it cynically and ruthlessly tapped into frustration and anger felt by millions. That a plutocrat, who has repeatedly screwed working Americans, a charlatan, a misogynist, a mediocre bigot, and racist benefited from this anger is perverse but nonetheless true.
Now there are siren voices — and I’ve heard them, some quiet, some louder than others. They are saying, and they will say, that this loss in November was because the Democrats were too progressive, that they were too zealous in promoting the rights of women, of people of color, of immigrants, and of LGBTQ people.
So let us be absolutely clear: there is no path to power, none, that involves throwing under the bus women, people of color, immigrants, or LGBTQ people.
A left that does not champion the interests of every oppressed group, of every exploited and subjugated group, that does not challenge racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia in all its forms is no left at all. Whether you call the majority the working class — or more commonly in this country the middle class — they are the most diverse section of the entire country. They are women and men, white and black, born here and across the country’s borders, LBGTQ and they are straight, and they should not be seen in competition with each other.
This is the wealthiest nation that has ever existed on the face of this planet. It has abundant wealth beyond all of our imaginations. It has the power to cure this country of its economic and social ills; to build affordable and comfortable housing for every single American; to provide a publicly run health-care system that works for Americans, not the corporations; to offer a world-class education system that does not saddle the next generation with debt; to create the skilled, decent, properly paid jobs of the future, to abolish the social ills of poverty and insecurity; to ensure no American child lies awake at night with a hungry stomach and no American parent lies awake at night because of their unpaid bills; and to overcome a climate crisis that poses an existential threat to all of humanity.
The question that we all face is in whose hands is this wealth, the wealth that is created as a collective effort by all of the American people?
The American people, as in Britain, as in Spain, as across Europe and so much of the world, are angry. And they have the right to be. But we have to make it absolutely clear in all of our countries, that it wasn’t the immigrants from Poland or Lithuania or Mexico or Pakistan who clean the offices, who sweep the streets, who tend to the sick, who educate our children, who plunged this and all of our countries into disasters. It was the banks of Wall Street and the city of London.
It wasn’t those immigrants who avoid tax on an industrial scale, it was the Donald Trump class. It wasn’t those immigrants who paid workers poverty wages on which they cannot afford to live, it was the likes of the people who stuff the new president’s cabinet.
On all sides of the Atlantic, we need a new, progressive populism, one that directs people’s anger upwards — at those at the top, the people with power who are really responsible for all of the crises that we face — and offers a compelling and coherent vision of how society can be.
There will be some now who advocate lurching onto Trump’s agenda, surrendering, and capitulating. For all of our sakes, don’t let them.
This president is not strong, he is weak. He lost the popular vote and is the least popular president in history. His party is divided.
The future of your own country, of Europe, and the world, will depend in part on the decisions made by people reading and listening to this right now. No pressure.
In doing so, you can draw on the great history that exists in this country, of those people who stood up against injustice, who stood up against tyranny. Like the suffragettes who we now laud as secular saints and make films celebrating, who in their time were hated and reviled and dragged from protests by police officers and thrown in cells with tubes forced down their noses.
Whether it be those in the Civil Rights Movement who fought the tyranny of racism; whether it be those in the labor movement who fought for the rights of working people, who gave the world a slogan, “Don’t mourn, organize.” Whether it be the LGBTQ movement, the likes of Harvey Milk, who told us, “I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.” The antiwar movement that stood and continues to stand against the violence of American foreign policy.
All the rights and gains we have, they’re never given to us as acts of charity and generosity by the rich and powerful. They are won by the struggle and sacrifice of people from below — the people in this room, your mothers, your fathers, your grandmothers, your grandfathers, your ancestors before them. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Everything we have, we owe to the struggle and determination and resilience of the people who had the courage to stand up to injustice. That is a great tradition, one that all of us should be proud of, whatever country in which we live.
So in the coming months and the coming years, let us stand together. Let’s have the same resilience and courage that our ancestors showed before us. And as we do so, we will not just defeat the likes of the Donald Trumps and the Nigel Farages and the Marine La Pens and all the other far-right populists, but we will build a new society — a society run in the interests of the majority, a society free of oppression and exploitation and racism, a society that is sustainable. That is our goal, and if we stand together, if we fight together, we will win this battle together. Solidarity!