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Millions More

In January, I was at the Women’s March in New York. It was a beautiful day out and the crowd was boisterous, warm and engaged. We saw many great homemade signs, heard lots of chanting and it was energising to be with the crowd. It was also reflective, considered, determined. I drew much needed sustenance by being there. Maybe you experienced something similar in your own public acts of collective protest lately.

You could be critical being in New York – you might have noticed the lack of people of colour, you might have assumed the bourgeois nature of the crowd, you might even have pointed out the lack of a visible radical Left. It might have seemed to you like a group of white, middle-class liberals protesting a set of power relations that advantages them anyway, and all in order to make it seem like there is meaningful opposition to the powers that be. That does not seem fair, or the most pressing issue the left faces. Allies, intersectionality, ideology are important considerations, and we must be generous to each other and think of the numbers. Yet, the over dependence on an anxious gestural politics seems anti-materialist and unproductive. To say that does not make me a turncoat, a sceptic, a dissenter. It makes me someone who thinks that we need a different language that has far reaching consequences. This is about solidarity.

I say this as a believer in democracy and as someone who has always been part of ‘the left’, broadly defined. I grew up in a dedicated and politically engaged family even as my parents disagreed on what party to vote for. But, the left is bigger than our voting options in Australia or America; it is bigger than the trade unions and Aboriginal corporations that I worked with; or the Democratic presidential primaries, where I volunteered for Obama in Pennsylvania in 2008. It might not always be that way, but, for now, it is.

We can read the possibilities that lie ahead for the left as being possibilities of numbers. For all the success of the Women’s March, we know it would be a greater success if more people marched with us. What would it mean if there were 2 million as opposed to 200,000 people there in New York? The numbers are the baseline, and they are of more importance than who we are in an abstract sense. If there is only one person arguing for structural change, that is not as good as one million even though we must always pay attention to where our voices are in the structures of power and privilege. That matters for how we reach out and build a coalition beyond the customary expectations we have internalised about identity politics. There is no ideal position, which is not to say that we cannot work for it. It means that we must also balance our ideological pre-occupations with the reality of body counts, bums on seats and votes in the house. If you do not get 50% plus one, then you can forget about government.

In that way, it seems remarkable to me that the conversations around solidarity in Australia so often reference European and American affairs. That includes myself in the opening of this essay. Sometimes there is the valorisation of Latin America, but even in the left’s discourse around decolonisation, people seem to have forgotten the history and contemporary situation of places where this was a popular and pressing reality. Here, I am thinking of the Caribbean, Africa and Asia in particular. What happened to joining with our brothers, sisters, non-binary siblings in those places so that we can liberate ourselves as well? What is happening there today? How can we redefine our world by looking to places that are beyond our gaze?

This seems particularly acute when we look at politics in Australia and it simply implies that we have work to do to truly decolonise. Looking elsewhere helps us understand why we need to become a republic, have a treaty and a universal bill of rights all at once. Saying so does not mean questions of Indigeneity are not at the forefront. Instead, I mean that the demographic realities of ‘Australia’ as a settler society makes decolonisation, as it was understood in India or South Africa, not as pressing to the majority of citizens here today relative to those other places in those other eras. But it does not mean we cannot learn from people there. In that way, who are the people that are decolonising? What are people decolonising into and how does that sit with the demographic majority here? How might it benefit by being placed next to conversations about anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-misogyny and utopianism?

In answering each of those questions, we need to think of the numbers to know how we change our tactics and our language. But it also means that we can follow the numbers to where people are suffering over and above the nation state, to power and resistance as part of worldwide action. To cite only one small example, as of 2011, around 300 million Indians lived on less than US $1.90 per day. That simple fact alone casts Australia in a very different light, which is not to dismiss or minimise our problems but to help us solve them. For the most part, we are doing ok and it is our responsibility to make our state an activist one in a true sense.

To consider this fact about India does not mean I must abandon the Women’s March or the Survival Day Action, but it does inflect what I see our coalition to be. Building up an idea of a global left means paying attention to issues and places that we do not immediately consider, and that means thinking more than ever about the mass of people. If we play it right, there might be millions more on our side than we had ever considered, millions marching from Melbourne to Mumbai, New York to New Delhi.

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Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.

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