The U.S. has been unfortunate in the absence of a truly cathartic crisis. Neither the Iraq War of 2003 nor the financial implosion of 2008 have served that function. Americans are confused and angry that so much seems amiss, but not yet frightened enough to do something about it — or produce a political leader capable of moving them in that direction…
So the choice we face in the next generation in not capitalism versus communism, or the end of history versus the return of history, but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion of society by the politics of fear.
– Tony Judt (1948-2010), Thinking The Twentieth Century
Jeffrey St. Clair has recently given us a bleak assessment of American leftist politics1, and this essay was buttressed by Michael D. Yates, who countered the criticism that St. Clair’s essay was “anti-urban” and thus supposedly useless to 80% of the American population.2
I extract the following seven points from St. Clair’s essay:
1. “Does the Left exist as an oppositional political, cultural or economic force?” No.
2. We have Left commentary [DV, CP, and the like] but no Left politics.
3. Five years of Obama have shown that the Left is politically dead despite the 2008 financial collapse and economic crisis.
4. Neoliberalism has bipartisan consensus without organized political opposition despite the adverse social effects of: joblessness, homelessness, hunger and food insecurity. This governing consensus includes the intent to reduce (eliminate?) public spending for Social Security and Medicare.
5. Liberals uncritically support Obama because of imagery, to the point of defending his every assault on fundamental rights.
6. Leftists are unable to coalesce into a movement that acts politically to stop wars, the erosion of civil liberties, neoliberal fiscal policies and the rapid pace of climate change. Instead, Leftists are politically atomized, alienated, and obsessed with their irrelevance; they isolate themselves by ideological confinement in identity politics.
7. The lack of organized political opposition to neoliberalism means a lack of counterforce to its major consequences of wars and climate change:
- There is no popular anti-war movement, and there are no mass anti-war demonstrations and strikes.
- Because of human biological and industrial activity, climates and environments are changing globally and unfavorably at rates unprecedented during human history. Yet, the US environmental movement seems reduced to an elitist niche activity focused on protesting the building of a Canadian tar sands pipeline whose completion seems assured.
How do we answer St. Clair? The following is one attempt.
The essential missing element here is an ORGANIZED political opposition to neoliberalism. This would mean a politically relevant and sufficiently popular mass movement: a major “green” party and/or “labor” party. What is missing is a popular “union” based on some combination of employment type (labor) and economic class (“consumer”-environmentalist).
The atomization of labor since the end of the post-WW2 social contract and the onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s, spurred technically by automation, electronics and telecommunications, and abetted financially by the lowering of rates of productivity gain and economic growth coincident with rising population-driven costs of social welfare programs, has “globalized” the labor pool. “Skill” has been finely divided into long sequences of small simple operations spread out through as unskilled a workforce as possible, making many eligible for employment and few capable of achieving security by demonstrating superior craftsmanship, accumulated knowledge and facility with intricate and necessary skills.
The consumption half of the national population of laborer-consumers has also been appeased-distracted by being offered increasingly elaborate and increasingly affordable toys to displace reading, thinking, and study, and to more easily diffuse the propaganda of social control (advertising, entertainment, news). We are each being moved away from one another into individual virtual isolation cells, by our mass media and personal electronics. Social media is mainly cognitively soporific physical and political isolation in parallel. St. Clair is after all saying that for all the hundreds of thousands of readers staring at Counterpunch web pages, and others like it, there are no masses of warm bodies throwing up barricaders — together — to gridlock neoliberal traffic.
We no longer know how to work in teams of meshed skills, as on the sailing ships, non-industrial farms, and non-automated factories of previous centuries. We no longer have the social “muscle memory” of working together in an organized fashion, and socializing together in a similarly organized way in what were called unions in 1887 by people like August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Albert Parsons. We are unaccustomed to having a common purpose.
During economic expansion we were taught to WANT individually and to GET those wants competitively; and now during economic contraction many are learning the dark side of this atomized herd life. Each of us is excess ballast and excess drag to those with relatively “more,” and so we are being discarded individually, shaken loose from the foundering overloaded economic life rafts, and we live in dread of the ever-present possibility of being cut loose, without the comfort of company-in-misery alone in our isolated virtual economic-identity cells. Hence, collectively we shrivel civilly, and individually our personal character shrivels morally.
Any future major political organization of the left will necessarily be based on the cooperative efforts of personally organized and morally strong individuals. This is unlikely to occur solely as a result of the reluctant reactivity of individuals stung by their deteriorating economic and social conditions. What is needed is a significant population sufficiently motivated by a positive vision of possible social cohesiveness and interdependent tolerance, to then make the effort now to expand individual awareness (in all areas):
- to stop allowing their bodies being used as toxic waste dumps swallowing inevitable obesity and future ill health for the profitability of the processed food industries;
- to stop their minds from being waste dumps for violent, degrading, anti-intellectual, emotionally manipulative “entertainment” and thinly concealed prejudice, and to instead actually read (books!), study and think;
- and for such individuals to then find each other.
A movement is simply the aggregation of many little circles of shared vision and friendship. “If you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend.” And, to be a good friend, one must first have one’s own life in order. So, to my mind this is the chain of being required: strong personal character and clarity of mind, finding others of like mind and forming enduring friendships, the linking of companies of friends in associations and “unions,” the successful combination of associations and unions — steering between factionalism and dogmatism — into forceful political movements. Today’s lack of a strong democratic-socialist movement in the United States is primarily a reflection of the too-common weaknesses of individual thinking and moral character among the population.
I am sorry if you believe this conclusion is insulting to the public or personally, that is not my intention. Part of our individual mental cloudiness and mushy strength-of-character is unquestionably abetted by the entire arrangement of our military-industrial political economy and its mass media propaganda for social control (“consume, conform, obey,” and be afraid), but we can’t use that excuse for all of it.
Each of us has the power to examine ourselves critically and to improve. When you start on that you will find there is no end, and out of those explorations good things will come. A transformative political movement must come out of a popular surge of humanistic personal fulfillment.