Perhaps you have seen the old antiwar placard, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this crap”. If not, you’ve certainly seen some more recent, more vulgar variation. As Trump sets about fulfilling each one of his election promises, save for those to “bring the jobs back”, the protest slogan has ascended again to become a minor art form.

As funny as many of the new signs are, I always enjoy the descendants of this progressive original. First, its exhausted tone makes me believe that there has long been great resistance to US foreign and border policy, which, of course, there hasn’t. Obama was able to slaughter and deport millions without inciting much Western disapproval at all. Second, its hubris is nice. It makes me think that we are all individually powerful. Again, a lovely delusion.

The terrible trick of liberal democracy has been to promise us that we can do anything, including upturn the terms of liberal democracy itself, if only we try. If we work hard enough, we can achieve anything! This is, of course, no truer for a minimum-wage worker seeking to purchase a luxury vehicle than it is for the noble individual who seeks, by means of personal virtue, to end all the manifestations of racism. There’s a handful of individuals powerful enough to “be the difference”, and their names are all on this list.

For those of us who do not have net worth comparable to the GDP of, say, the Slovak Republic, our power to act meaningfully alone is zip. This, by no means, is to disdain protest, or to say that it has never changed a thing. It is, however, to consider not just the multiplicity of signs, many bearing individual stories and thoughts, at recent rallies, but the many declarations found in social and traditional media about the political power of personal virtue. It is not enough to love gays, praise multiculturalism and give the wife a night off from the dishes. Really, it’s not much at all.

[Rundle: liberal howls of outrage over Muslim ban play into Trump’s tiny hands]

But personal “nuance” has become key for columnists and protesters, especially those at the recent women’s rallies. Women now bear signs describing their own experiences and their own particular objections. And, sure, such heterogeneity is inevitable, and even good, in protest. At one big rally for women I attended as a kid, I stood before two gals dressed like uteri who were protesting enforced hysterectomies, behind one bearing a photograph of David Gundy, a young Aboriginal man slain in his bed by police, and next to some chicks from school who were very keen on banning all forms of penetrative sex.

The effect for a young protester is to see that, yes, we can be very different; to see we all have different social experiences and sometimes, the political priorities we have as their result may be inimical to others. When you stand shoulder to shoulder with these others, especially the Ingsoc Anti-Sex League, what can unfold is the work of deciding on a common goal. Eventually, you need to answer the woman with the megaphone when she demands, “What do we want?” with a single answer.

The thing about the present, both on the streets and in the news, is the fact of individual difference itself becoming protest’s alpha and omega. The marches of the present seem to have a lot in common with Hillary Clinton’s campaign tactic of presenting as a rainbow coalition. You get a sign and you get a sign and everybody gets a sign and, if we all hold enough signs boldly proclaiming our difference, the hope is, I guess, that there is sufficient nuance to change the world.

This is pretty American, of course, and recalls the old Coke ad, or Disneyland’s animatronic dolls of the It’s A Small World ride. It’s also the stuff that magical kingdom philosopher Juergen Habermas is keen on; the guy believes that deliberation is the way to democracy. It’s also now taken quite a hold in Australia, once a nation full of people that disliked the unabashed flowering of poppies, except on Remembrance Day, but now the sort of place that makes TV positioning statements about how we’re all very different, but all very unified in our difference, which, after all, is what it means to be human.

Obviously, human difference is inevitable. The only people who really think it isn’t belong to One Nation, a party with a false memory of a nation at monocultural peace before “they” came and not, as was the actual case, one deep into some serious class warfare. Just as obviously, no productive modern moment of resistance can be fought without cross-cultural deliberation that is tireless and true — look, for example, what happens when white people try to fight racism on their own.

But, protests and columns now go beyond even considering the interests of different identity groups, and dig down into their data where we have a movement which is now seen to consist entirely of individual interests. There’s little hope for a coalition statement when the statement is difference itself.

We can see this doubling down on the idea of the liberal individual rev up. Every other day, there’s an article on “self-care” and how you can make yourself individually happy in time for the revolution, or one listing reasons to be individually cheerful. Articles about inspiring individuals abound, and I have lost count of the number of white Australian men who have written on how embarrassed they are to be white Australian men. Guilt for one’s identity category is not only useless indulgence, but another statement about how the individual can overcome hardship — in this case, the terrible pain of being an oppressor — and make the world a better place.

[Razer: yes, it is OK to punch a Nazi, but not with your fist]

If you follow the peculiar logic of this progressive liberal individualism to its end, you find yourself somewhere quite peculiar. Somewhere, really, in the salons of the 18th century where philosopher-kings spoke about the need to be individually good, while, all around them, Europe’s peasants were herded into factories, poorhouses and mines. I am quite certain that the new slaves of the Global South don’t give any more of a shit about my personal virtue than a guy who works at Walmart for 11 bucks an hour. I am quite certain that the old Kantian idea of acting from good will produce the same result it always has: blindness to political reality.

My personal appreciation of difference. My white guilt. My experience of oppression as a woman, a tenant, a low-wage worker. These are all things that I have and all things I could, if I chose, mistake for political statements. But where does that get anybody?

Clinton’s granular rainbow coalition didn’t win an election. It won’t win a world back from the now malfunctioning liberal democracies, those that gave us the fiction of the powerful individual in the first place. If we are going to organise against these new powers — racism, nationalism, and their close cousin, wealth accumulation — perhaps we should choose for every action just one theme at a time. Smash the shadow state on Wednesdays, use Fridays to protest black incarceration rates. Why not? The multiplicity message isn’t working and the expression of our identity difference gives no serious pain to a totalising force, even if it remains a great pleasure.

Solidarity requires, from each of us, a temporary revulsion for the individual self. But people have written this before. Frankly, I can’t believe I still have to tell you this crap.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey