by Thomas R. Wells
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 a cost – not merely the direct costs of building it, but also the opportunity cost of using scarce public space this way rather than another – that only successful political mobilisation can meet. In particular, the more controversial the statue, the more political capital is required to overcome the opposition to its public display, and the more distinctly political must be its logic (in contrast to merely decorative public sculptures that no one much minds). So what is the political pay-off that can justify the 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 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, the wave of monuments in the 1950s to confederate generals who defended slavery sent two clear messages. Firstly, it sent a message about domination: that the civil rights movement had not and would not change who ruled and in whose interests. Secondly, it sent a message about political values: that this 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 odious values shows to 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.
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 majority, how can they possibly achieve meaningful reforms of the injustice of 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 their odious function. Moreover, the huge anti-racism protests on the streets and online that have accompanied the attacks on statues do important work 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.
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 actual justice 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.