Tuesday 30 June 2020

The Statues Were Always A Grab For Power: It Is Good That They Are Coming Down

Some people claim that the prominent display of statues to controversial events or people, such as confederate generals in the southern United States, merely memorialises historical facts that unfortunately make some people uncomfortable. This is false. Firstly, such statues have nothing to do with history or facts and everything to do with projecting an illiberal political domination into the future. Secondly, upsetting a certain group of people is not an accident but exactly what they are supposed to do.

I start with the point that erecting statues is a political action and therefore subject to a political logic. Statues are political insofar as erecting them has an opportunity cost - scarce public money and prominent locations used for this rather than something else - that requires political mobilisation to overcome. In particular, the more controversial the statue, the greater the political opposition to its public display and the more political capital is needed to push ahead with it (in contrast to merely decorative public sculptures that no one much minds). So what is the political pay-off that can justify the peculiar political expense of erecting controversial statues? I believe controversial statues are a kind of political communication, a signal to supporters and opponents of the values and the people in charge, in which the offensiveness of the message is key to its effectiveness.

Such statues communicate to those on the losing political team. They say, 'Fuck you. We're in charge'. To black people in America in the 1960s, the wave of monument construction to Confederate generals who defended slavery sent two clear messages (Timeline). Firstly, it sent a message about the political structure. White domination would continue: the civil rights movement had not and would not change who ruled and in whose interests. Secondly, it sent a message about the style of that politics. Illiberalism would continue: this political domination was justified by nothing but power and would not be constrained by considerations of justice or the rule of law. Deliberately erecting statues that celebrate the very values your fellow citizens have most reason to find odious is a visceral way of telling them that you do not see them as equally morally real. It tells the oppressed that moral appeals are hopeless and will not even be heard; that - whatever the new voting laws say - they will never recognised as equals. This is the hierarchical politics of the bully and it stands directly against the inclusive egalitarianism of liberal democracy.

Such communication is also performative: it is intended to perpetuate a political domination that might otherwise fade quietly away. It does so by distorting people's beliefs about the relative political strength of the dominated and the oppressed. Individuals cannot hope to change a political system by themselves. We know that we need the support of a critical mass of citizens and the acquiescence of the majority or our efforts will fail. But how can we know whether a sufficient number of other people are on our side or at least not against our cause? We have to look around for signs.

Erecting statues in honour of white supremacists - not to mention renaming streets and schools after them and flying their flag from state buildings - creates an environment saturated with signals about their political strength and the political weakness of the oppressed. In such an environment the supporters of continued domination can feel confident expressing their views and acting on them without fear of ever being held answerable. Even though they may be an absolute minority of the population they are secure in their position as the political winners. Those statues say not only, 'Don't worry, WE are still in charge', but also, 'Look how much we are in charge that we can get away with this giant fuck you to those political losers!' Meanwhile, the omnipresence of such statues presents members of the oppressed group with irrefutable evidence of their political helplessness. After all, if they lack the political capital to resist such gratuitously offensive behaviour by the dominant group, how can they possibly achieve meaningful reforms of injustices in education, health, and policing?

This analysis explains both why the current protests against statues are mostly justified and why they have been met with such dismay. The forcible removal of statues is justified once their meaning and function is clear. Since the statues are not merely symbolic, dismantling them prevents them from fulfilling an odious function. Moreover, the huge anti-racism protests on the streets and online that have accompanied the attacks on statues do important work in themselves by revealing that the political supremacy of the oppressors has long passed. As throughout history, the violent removal of political statuary serves as an (often) overdue signal of a shift in the people and values by and for which a society will be governed. The power of political statues lies in broadcasting a particular message that everyone can see. The power of the protests works in just the same way, by showing everyone (supporters, opponents, and those who merely acquiesced in the status quo without thinking too much about it) the overwhelming political popularity of the protestors' cause and thereby drawing ever more support to a clearly winnable cause. Naturally this upsets those defenders of the status quo who hadn't realised that their political dominance had become so eroded. Their attempts at righteous indignation are really denial and self-pity at finding themselves demoted almost overnight from winners to losers in a society in which - by their own design - being a winner is essential to one's moral, legal, and political status.

What should happen to the controversial statues? There is no particular reason that they need to be destroyed. Indeed, it is probably better if they are not. Context matters greatly to statues' power. An enormous statue of Stalin towering over a central square in Prague may be correctly resented as a deliberate act of political domination by Russian occupiers. The same statue moved to an out of the way park together with other similar statues can be rendered entirely harmless, crawled over by children on schooltrips and picnicked among by families at weekends. Anyone who genuinely cares for the historical memorialisation aspect of statues should be satisfied by this kind of outcome. The survival though demotion of such statues can also reassure the losers of the political turn that the repudiation of their rule and their values does not require their annihilation. 

That is in line with a turn in the moral style of politics. The larger problem of the confederate statues is the illiberal approach to politics they reflected and tried to perpetuate, in which politics is conceived as a battle for domination in which winners get to oppress losers. We want a politics that respects each other even when we disagree, not the politics of bullies glorying in their power to dominate over the weak. With this in mind, we should apply a political inclusiveness test to political statuary, as for other communication by those who rule or seek to rule us. Politics should be conceived as a collective project, in which we see past our particular disagreements to our shared commitment to make our common life work. Our future monuments should avoid divisiveness rather than deliberately seeking it out. 


Some have criticised protestors' attacks on statues for their lack of political legitimacy. Who are these few angry young people to appoint themselves the judges of the values (or the history) of a whole society? While it is true that a passionate sense of injustice is no proof of the righteousness of one's cause, in the case of public statues the protestors have much more than that going for them. First, no plausible moral justification is offered for the defenders of white supremacy to be publicly honoured in this way, beyond the 'fact' that the statues are already there. Second, the manner in which the statues were installed seems to lack the very political legitimacy that is being demanded of their critics. The statues were imposed on a dominated group against their will and with the aim of keeping them from changing that state of affairs. The destruction of public property by angry crowds is certainly not the ideal of liberal democracy, but it still represents a corrective to the politics of the bully that got us here.

Note: This essay was previously published on 3 Quarks Daily

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Leiden University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.