WORDS

Wolfgang Tillmans is a photographer, musician and social activist. With intense right-wing ideologies gaining momentum in Western media and politics, here Tillmans argues that the return of liberal and progressive ideas among the general public is both a desirable and entirely plausible prospect.

Since last year’s Brexit shock, there has been a lot of talk about metropolitan and liberal people having lost touch with ‘real people’. The term ‘elite’ has been flying around like a slur. It’s often used by members of the right-wing establishment and ‘elite-plus’ members themselves to tarnish the progressive or reasonable thinkers. Since Donald Trump’s election victory, this has reached a new fever pitch. And what we’re seeing again and again is that populists are not bringing people power, but indeed just exchanging one elite for another.

There is now a lot of self-flagellation going on. Have we gone too far with political correctness; with LGBT rights; have we alienated the ‘normal man in the street’? A mood for appeasing the angry white man has become the new standard, as well as this idea of ‘enough of self-expression already’. I beg to differ, because self-expression is not a bad thing, and political correctness is just that – it is correct. Why should we give into macho, racist and xenophobic self-expression?

This eating humble pie in liberal quarters is based on the assumption that a landslide happened. That is not the case. Many significant election results been fairly close to half and half, progressive / conservative. What’s changed is that the propositions that are offered on the right have become more extreme. But in itself, the results – 52% for Brexit and 48% for Trump – are not decisive landslides, even though we are led to believe so. For any slightly racist, angry white man, the 53% in 2008 and 51% in 2012 which Barack Obama won must also have seemed like a slim mandate for a radically extreme proposal: a black president.

The social progress achieved over the past 50 years towards more social liberties has resulted in huge pent up anger in those opposed to it, and the rich media owners and conservative opinion makers have managed to connect issues like respect for refugees or LGBT rights to a downturn in working class prosperity. How come elite figures such Trump and Farage can pretend that they have the working man’s interest in mind? They use resentment and fear of ‘the other’, ‘the immigrant’, ‘feminists’, ‘blacks’ to connect it to well-founded fears of losing out in a neo-liberal capitalist world.

"How come elite figures such Trump and Farage can pretend that they have the working man’s interest in mind?"

There are forces unleashed now (which were always there, but once more hidden) that want to divide us, to make us believe that multi-culturalism has failed, that we can’t live together peacefully, that we must fear the other. They want to make you feel you’re under siege.

Don’t retrench. Politics is only ever decided by those who take the time to get involved or get up and vote. Don’t despair even though the situation now seems desperate. I don’t want to feel bad for having believed in sexual liberation for as long as I can think. Liberating our bodies is the central issue that all this evolves around. In the West, people were kept in check for centuries by making them feel guilt for their body. Islamic fundamentalism gets its fuel from sexual repression and gender misunderstandings. Misogyny and hatred of LGBT people comes from the fear of the liberated free body. We all carry insecurities about our bodies and sexuality; that fear has been central to the history of manipulation and domination by those in power.

How to change hearts and minds? We need to speak to those in our families and those from our old school classes, who want to turn back the clock. Ask them exactly what do they think was better and who is really responsible for the change for the worse? For all the solutions that populists around the world offer now: first of all, they don’t actually offer solutions, they just scream. Second, we need to ask them, what do you actually want? What is better in the models of society you call for? How realistic are they, now in a world that has changed? Do they really want to inflict pain on individuals? Being opposed to wealth accumulated at the top has nothing to do with being xenophobic and being against European cooperation. We need to expel the myth that the cost of unhinged capitalism is related to gender equality, sexual liberation and anti-racism. Unhinged capitalism wants divided individuals in a privatised, individualist, ‘everyone for themselves’ environment. We know better.

Illustration: An Extension

That’s Desire/Here We Are, the EP by Wolfgang Tillmans’ project Fragile is out now

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