Rising to the Occasion?: Activists Ponder the Present and the Future of the Left
Austin C. McCoy
Introduction: "The Stakes is High" (http://www.mtv.com/videos/de-la-soul/133910/stakes-is-high.jhtml)
Much has occurred since we elected Barack Obama President last November. We watched the virtual collapse of the US auto industry's giants--General Motors and Chrysler. We watched in disbelief as the Federal Government, first with President Bush and then with President Obama, enabled various financial institutions "too large to fail" reward top-level executives with large contractual bonuses and golden parachutes for their utter failures. We have watched various news reports documenting the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have vanished since the beginning of the year. We have and continue to watch all of this unfold, unfortunately, while clutching to every last dollar that we have, hoping that we nor our loved ones do not receive the pink slip, praying that none of us or our loved ones fall catastrophically ill, or that we do not lose the roofs over our heads.
Many of us watch this crisis almost helplessly. The best some of us can do is to devise contingency plans should the worst occur. Some of us see the problems too overwhelming and just too draining to even worry about. There are some of us who have decided not to watch. And instead of fretting, many of us continue with our daily lives. We contribute to the well-being of our families the best we can. Many of us choose to only focus on controlling our immediate lives and let the chips fall where they may. Some of us, however, choose to escape. We lose ourselves in movies, the internet, Facebook, music. We shop.
However, not all of us are passive observers. We recognize that crises precipitate change. We search for alternatives and look for fissures within the current political configurations. But, with all of the news coverage of the disintegration and transition within the Republican Party and conservative coalition, many of us would not know that we, on the radical democratic Left, are also regrouping. There is a spirited conversation occurring to the left of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and it is just as vigorous as our counterparts on the right. This discussion--the crucial questions and potentially radical answers--are the subject of my essay.
More specifically, I plan to assess the insights of various activists who have published essays contemplating the crisis of American neoliberal capitalism and assessing the Left's prospects of addressing the crisis and the possibilities of using this moment as a pivot towards more meaningful social and political change. To accomplish this task, I consulted The Nation's forum, "Reimagining Socialism." (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090323/ehrenreich_fletcher) This forum included twenty articles from an array of activists including Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Michael Albert. I also consulted a response from a member from the independent socialist organization, Solidarity as well as pieces found in the latest issue of the Democratic Socialists of America's publication, Democratic Left, and geographer David Harvey's Counterpunch article, "Is this Really the End of Neoliberalism?" (http://www.counterpunch.org/harvey03132009.html) While I sought to glean the most pressing questions about leftist activism and the state of neoliberal capitalism in these pieces, I do not intend to offer a comprehensive analysis of every question raised, or each piece encountered in my reading.
Leftists Assess the Present and Future
I noticed that this debate among leftists in my reading--radical democrats, socialists, anarchists, left-liberals, etc.--revolved around three interrelated questions: What is the state of the Left? Does the Left have a plan? And how should individuals and organizations act? To the first two questions, Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., acknowledge that socialists had been largely quiet about, as they called it, the "fall of capitalism." They also state that the left does not have a plan to address the crisis of global capitalism. In the lead article of The Nation's "Reimagining Socialism" series, "Rising to the Occasion," Ehrenreich and Fletcher argue, "Do we have a plan, people? [...] Let's just put it right on the table: we don't. [...] We admit: we don't even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism. Yes, we have some notion of how it should work, based on our experiences with the civil rights movement. [...] But we have no precise models of participatory democracy on the scale that is currently called for, involving hundreds of millions, and potentially billions, of participants at a time."
I sympathize with Ehrenreich's and Fletcher's assertion that the Left lacks a coherent plan or vision. And while their analyses of capital flight and globalization are right on, they leave their readers wanting more specifics regarding a potential plan. Ehrenreich and Fletcher also fall into a rhetorical problem that I have noticed in my readings on the Left--they cite examples of revolutionary struggles abroad, which is admirable, but they do less to point us in clear directions as to what facets of foreign struggles could be appropriated. When reading Ehrenreich's and Fletcher's piece, I had to keep asking myself, what exactly is the Brazilian Worker's Party doing? Why should we, as Yale University scholar Immanuel Wallerstein instructs readers in his piece, "Follow Brazil's Example?" If we aspire to break the huddle and build a popular political movement, we will have to use the few opportunities we have when we are in the public sphere to really ponder the connections between organizing here in the US and abroad instead of invoking these examples rhetorically. We will have to take foreign struggles more seriously by examining how particular models of struggle can be applied in local contexts, and that is if they could be used at all.
Harper's Magazine Contributing Editor Rebecca Solnit disagrees with Ehrenreich's and Fletcher's claim that the Left lacks an alternative plan. According to her, the revolution is already occurring and it is going on underneath all of our noses. Solnit confronts Ehrenreich's and Fletcher's question: "'Do we have a plan, people?' Ehrenreich and Fletcher ask. We have thousands of them, being carried out quite spectacularly over the past few decades, for gardens and childcare co-ops and bicycle lanes and farmers' markets and countless ways of doing things differently and better." Thus, instead of focusing on revolutionary political action against the state, Solnit points to a more postmodern struggle pitting guerrilla gardeners and housing advocates in America's urban centers against transnational corporations and local municipalities. Interestingly, at least in the context of my own argument regarding the Left's inability to enter the wider public arena effectively, Solnit insists that these individual struggles enables entrance into the public sphere.
Solnit's article was one of the more contested ones out of the series. I understand her contention that we should not expect radical political action to resemble the old-school documentaries of heroic activism. I agree that we should not be nostalgic for the 1930s or the 1960s. As Mos Def raps on his latest cd, The Ecstatic, "We can't be alive in no time but now." However, Solnit is only describing resistance to neoliberal capitalism, just more post-modern in inclination. As leftists like Adolph Reed, Jr. have argued, resistance is ubiquitous, and it should not be mistaken for a political movement. While it could lead to political and movement organization, resistance alone does little to radically transform economic/cultural/political systems. While Solnit does assume that this type of action may translate directly into political/policy activism eventually, she does not cite one example where that has been the case (hopefully this is due to length of article). I affirm Solnit's analysis critically because we should encourage resistance, everyday struggle, or as James C. Scott calls this form of action, infra-politics. But, of course, infra-politics cannot replace a political agenda or movement.
Many of the contributors to The Nation's forum also advanced policy proposals and more inside-outside approaches to radical democratic leftist politics in addressing the question regarding potential action. Ivy League scholar Immanuel Wallerstein acknowledges the potential of working inside and outside the system in his essay, "Follow Brazil's Example." On one hand, Wallerstein uses the example of the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement to justify continuing to support of the Obama Administration critically despite the political system's limitations. And on the other, he argues that the radical Left should continue pushing the administration to alleviate the immediate suffering of people now. Sociologist and Monthly Review Editor, John Bellamy Foster, The Nation's Contributing Editor, Christian Parenti, and sociologist Saskia Sassen, put the issue of policy on the table in their pieces. Foster, the author of Naked Imperialism, argues for a reincarnation of FDR's 1944 Economic Bill of Rights and for the Left to "pursue socialist and ecological policies in the direction of equality, community, and sustainability. I assume he will elaborate more on this point more in his forthcoming work, The Ecological Revolution.
While Saskia Sassen maintains that a leftist plan for a post-capitalist society is "almost an impossibility," he claims that the Left "have the elements of a map of what's to be done..." These elements, according to Sassen, include policies that would have reconfigured the Democrat's existing plan for recovery. She argues that the most important work in infrastructure, housing, health care, urban agriculture and parks, and conservation of other natural resources, would actually cost billions instead of trillions funneled into the financial sector.
Christian Parenti suggests that the US needs a heavy dose of "rescue socialism" and an eventual fundamental restructuring based upon "environmentally radical" policies. For Parenti, the state would reward green, and greening, industries while penalizing "grey" firms. I am attracted to his point regarding the broad goal of restructuring society. I disagree, however, with his implied assumption that Americans are not engaged politically. While my beliefs diverge from Republicans and Conservatives, I must admit those camps have been engaged politically and culturally in the public sphere. I tend to wonder if we have forgotten that the GOP and conservatives built a popular movement that steamrolled Democrats and leftists over the last forty years. What is needed is an argument and vision that can appeal to more Americans. We also need to step into the public sphere and draw stronger links within our own counter-public sphere. And we should do that, as Parenti put it aptly, by being "more grown-up and less self-righteous."
I am drawn to Parenti's, Sassen's and Foster's policy proposals because what better way to instigate a debate than by creating and advancing concrete policies? However, they only focus on policy proposals and broad-based political engagement, not the building of a mass movement for leftists. I admit, though, not one person can accomplish everything in one piece. But, I not only question who is going to construct these policy proposals, but how will we get them onto the broader political agenda? Should this task be left to individual organizations or a formal movement federation grounded in radical democracy? We have to break our huddle and enter the public sphere in order to address these questions.
Scholar Lisa Duggan introduces the issue of intersectional analysis--the use of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other forms of difference, when analyzing social, political, economic, and cultural relations--into The Nation's forum. While I am sure she, along with Ehrenreich, Fletcher, Wallerstein, Bellamy, and others, was not able to go into details about her arguments on intersectionality due to space, she advances a view seemingly lost on those who only look to class and political economy as the foundation for social relations and thus political resistance and organizing: "People live their economic lives in the intersecting spaces of intimate and public activities--in households and neighborhoods, at workplaces and social service offices, at play, in bed and on the streets. In everyday life, the economic blends into the social and cultural, as the experiences of foreclosure, unemployment, divorce, education, or social-movement organizing occur within complex, overlapping, dynamic social formations."
I appreciate Duggan's contribution as a self-acknowledged anti-racist activist. I have also found myself in friendly debates about issues of race and class where the argument turns into which system of social relations is more fundamental, and which form of analysis is "more proper" than another. I contend that while class and political economy are important lenses of analysis and very serious issues, I maintain that subordinating any lens of analysis or form of difference to another will put the organizer at a disadvantage. How would I look, as a straight man, telling a homosexual man or woman, or a heterosexual woman, or a transsexual that their sexuality and gender are secondary to their class, even when they can point to relevant personal examples and when one can substantiate their claims by looking at the contradictory ways in which the US was organized socially, politically, culturally, and economically? Conversely, however, I would tell my allies who are focused on difference, not that they are too preoccupied, but that they do not adequately integrate analyses of class and political economy into their analyses. We have to learn that the use of a particular analysis or combination of many analyses may depend upon a specific situation and moment.
As historian and activist, Howard Zinn, mentioned towards the end of his first chapter of Passionate Declarations, we are also susceptible to dogma as well. For example, I can only shake my head when I examine the state of "black politics" today. While this admission is by no means profound, many of "our" leaders only represent their own immediate interests--that of the black middle class. While there are "black leaders" who are willing to only organize mass mobilization affairs, we have yet to see black leaders organize sustained local and democratic campaigns. When do I, as a black American, begin to criticize the Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons, and black Congresspeople like Bobby Rush for only relying on hit-and-run political mobilizations, kowtowing to neoliberalism and elite-brokerage politics? As journalist Jon Jeter illustrated in his book, Flat Broke in the Free Market, only what he called "Neoliberal Negroes" seek and boast of corporate sponsorships for their political endeavors. The only way to address the shortcomings in racial politics is to enter the American public, to debate, and most importantly, to integrate class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, and other lenses that accompany the analysis of the global political economy and ecology. We need to examine and reconsider our own thinking and assumptions constantly, so we may, as Zinn put it, "think freshly." And if we are to go to where the people are, that cannot include saying, sometimes condescendingly, "Well your analysis based upon your own personal experience is wrong. It is really about class," when that person may see that as the most important piece of their experience.
The contributors to The Nation's forum on "Reimagining Socialism" have not been the only leftists to "Rise to the Occasion" and comment on the state of the US and global Left. Executive Editor of the online publication, The Black Commentator, Bill Fletcher, Jr., published a solo piece (http://www.dsausa.org/dl/Spring_2009.pdf) in the spring edition of Democratic Left. Consistent with his co-authored essay with Ehrenreich, Fletcher acknowledges that the global Left is "quite weak and very dispersed," and that many of us have become too ensconced in relatively single-issue movements. Fletcher also locates the crisis of the Left in what he called its' "capitulation to neo-liberal thinking" and the post-modernist attack on comprehensive visions and narratives. In addressing the question of what is to be done, Fletcher envisions a project of "left renewal." This project rests on several values and objectives that include building theory through practice and struggle, the institution of a socialist political party, "coordinated work in social movements," and what he calls a "neo-Rainbow approach to electoral work." This neo-Rainbow framework emphasizes independent politics and working in and against the Democratic Party to expand the Left's base.
In his lengthy report on Obama and the state of the Left, Solidarity activist Dan La Botz disagrees with Fletcher's inside/outside approach to political organizing because of his valid concern that the Democratic Party has exhibited a tendency to incorporate and misuse the energy of progressive movements. I tend to support Fletcher's view, albeit critically. On the one hand, while building an independent political movement organization is vital and admirable and could be successful locally, it may be useful to exploit any openings we have within the Democratic coalition. Yet, as I was explaining to an activist friend in a recent conversation, members of an organization and proponents of such views would have to invest time and energy into building a mass of highly capable members, so that organizations would not suffer from any fatal departures. Independent organizations would also have to become exceptionally self-conscious in their execution of such a strategy. I recognize the value of La Botz's critique because Fletcher fails to ponder the potentially negative implications of this approach (Again, maybe he does in his book, Solidarity Divided?). Despite this shortcoming, I agree that we must build independent/parallel political institutions that can help build policy, organize, mobilize people on a mass scale, and push the Democratic Party to help achieve short and mid-term goals. We also need more than just an independent movement unless it includes the development of policy institutes, think tanks, institutions more focused on the interrelated nature of developing information technologies, (critical) literacies, and general political education to complement the array of conferences that leftist political groups painstakingly organize yearly.
Out of the recent analyses of the Left, Dan La Botz's report, "Obama, The Crisis, and the Movements" (http://www.solidarity-us.org/obamaworkingpaper) is the most comprehensive in scope. La Botz and Solidarity separate themselves explicitly from the editors of The Nation (even though he also contributed to their forum on socialism), the Democratic Socialists of America, and Fletcher's views in the recent issue of the Democratic Left by outlining a specific program. Solidarity's platform includes "jobs at a living wage for all who need work," housing, free health care, free public education from "K to Ph.D.," and free public transportation, the end of wars to use the money to fund social projects, and true socialization of US industry, among other goals. La Botz and Solidarity also distinguish themselves from the aforementioned organizations and individuals discussed in this essay with their explicit strategy of rebuilding progressive labor and other social movements "at the grassroots," although I assume that this strategy may be a given for the others. According to La Botz, Solidarity will ground their efforts in "a class struggle perspective." He also hypothesizes that the intersection of movements based on difference and ecology will coalesce around programs that "resemble those of working class parties." However, according to La Botz, we have yet to realize this stage.
Although La Botz provides a heavily thoughtful analysis of the crisis of the Left and prescriptions for action, I continue to be drawn to this question; does the working class as we have come to know it still exist? I am inclined to say that we could almost consider the industrial or unionized working class within the US an endangered species due to the negative ramifications of "free trade" economic globalization, and I am sure those who identify with this working-class perspective would agree. But many activists tend to invoke romantic images of the working class as if it is a unified majority constituency within American political, economic, and cultural life. One recent glaring example was Sharon Smith's romantic depiction of popular mass action in her article, "Building a New Left for a New Era" (http://socialistworker.org/2009/07/13/new-left-for-a-new-era): "Just try to imagine a future moment when a major Fortune 500 company finds its Internet completely shut down, not, this time, by a computer virus, but by a strike of its computer technicians, who are joined on the picket line by a walkout of clerical workers, who then convince the UPS delivery drivers to go out on a sympathy strike--all of them ready to fight to the finish to win their main demand: an end to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan." How will that happen exactly? If we are to engage the world as it is, then we may have a long way to go before we realize Smith's vision. At least her image includes a more trade-diverse vision of a working class.
Also, it appears that some of us tend to overlook the centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans, as well as Fox News's efforts to cultivate the reactionary working class populism to resist Obama's campaign and the reentry of Democrats into the White House. How do we address this type of populism without ostracizing and alienating potential participants? How do we combat the demonization of unions in the United States? How do activists begin to talk about a working class that no longer resembles the ones that were active during much of the 20th Century? How do we export discussions in person, print, online, and television about a working class that may come to be defined more by the computers and technologies they use and the pertinent information they retain, use, and store for particular corporations?
Radical geographer David Harvey also argues that we should alter our views of the working class and vanguardism in his Counterpunch essay on the economic crisis, "Is This Really the End of Neoliberalism." He states that our transition into a finance-based economy has reconfigured class organization in the US. Consequently, one must analyze the positionalities of various groups along what he calls the "state-finance nexus." The "state-finance nexus" represents the US governments and international financial institutions like the IMF's role as protectors of global finance and capital. This relationship has produced disastrous effects on global lower classes and an uneasy domestic alliance among labor, corporate ownership, finance, and the US state. Harvey argues that the working class may not be the vanguard in the US because of their current demobilized position along this nexus. He supposes that the most disgruntled and radical worker could just as easily be the laid off accountant and overall financial worker. While I appreciate the complication of class, I would also ponder how we would translate such insights, if they are correct, to others who do not have the background and the grasp on geography, history, and Marxism that Harvey has demonstrated during his illustrious career?
Conclusion: The Necessary Engagement with People in the General Public Sphere, or How Will We Reach Everyone?
In the spirit of the exceptional activist-intellectuals considered in this essay, I also want to briefly address the question of what is to be done. There is much to be done like the labor of producing short-,mid-, and long-term visions for social change: engaging in more utopian thinking and struggle, instituting more research-based institutions for leftist activists to contribute and draw knowledge from, developing widespread means of political education through the internet, greater cooperation, communication, and coordination among leftist individuals and organizations, and eventually constructing an independent mass movement and local political parties. However, I want to turn my attention to an immediate concern. For the democratic Left to be successful in organizing and mobilizing campaigns for change and challenging President Obama, Democrats, and Republicans, we should, as feminist Charlotte Bunch argued in 1982 and radical activist Jason Del Gandio alluded to in his recent book, "go public with our vision." We need to become even more involved in the public sphere. I am sure there will be many who will respond, "We have already." To that response I will answer, "Really?" We have to go to where the people are. I doubt the broader swath of Americans are watching Democracy Now and frequenting websites such as Socialistworker.org. As much as we may frown, most people are watching CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CNBC, and maybe PBS, they are reading their local newspapers, USA Today, and maybe the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. We need more likeminded leftists appearing on those networks. I only see a few leftists on prominent news networks--Naomi Klein, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and Dave Zirin to name a few. I value their contributions, but the Left is more diverse and vibrant as well.
We leftists need to pay more attention to the reporting from those networks as well. Doing so will provide a better way to connect with people. We will have to demonstrate the ability to entertain questions about the current events and information they receive first hand. We need better answers than, "You know what? We are actually talking about that issue at our next meeting. Why don't you come?" This will let them know that we are paying as much, if not more, attention, instead of appearing aloof and caught up in our own ideological world. People should have more of a say regarding the issues that are important, we should not always dictate what they think should be significant.
Instead of dismissing the "mainstream" media--like many on the Far Right, ironically--we should seek debate through the mediums and programs that people frequently consult. This does not mean that we do not try to direct people to sources that we produce; it means that we will walk and chew gum at the same time. I understand that the "mainstream" media is not the perfect avenue for disseminating our various messages. That is why we will have to learn how to outflank the media and strive to resist easy categorization. And, it becomes more difficult for the Right to define who we are if we are refuting their points and actually presenting an alternative. Although I disagree with neoconservative principles, I am not blind to the fact that the reason why their movement has been successful is because they have been able to control the rhetoric, discourse, and terms for debate over the last twenty-nine years. They also have enjoyed an historical and institutional advantage as well. The right has taken the "mainstream media" seriously despite their concerns, but at times, I am not sure if we have. That is partly the reason why many of us have just sat back helplessly and watched them turn "liberal" and "socialist" into dirty words.
Engaging the public sphere effectively and broaden will require gathering a critical mass to flood local and national newspapers and websites with letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, pamphlets, emails, and anything printed and recorded into the public spaces where other citizens are located. Effectively, we need to take back public space and take over the public sphere. I am not advancing entering the public sphere as a comprehensive plan social change, or assuming that activists are not hard at work doing this work already. However, we need to, to use a football metaphor, break from our huddles and go out and win the damn game if we hope to shape the debate rather than react to demonization. We can no longer afford to, as one of my activist friends said, "box ourselves into our own alternatives." We have to strive to control the broader political discourse. This will allow us to introduce potential alternatives without others dismissing us instantly. Only then we can "rise to the occasion" and take advantage of shifting political attitudes.