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(DV) Rodgers: The Reactionary American Left and the Law of Diminishing Returns







The Real Left Behind Story
The Reactionary American Left and the Law of Diminishing Returns
by Christy Rodgers
December 31, 2005

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“Well in our country,” said Alice, “you’d generally get to somewhere else, if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.” “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

“Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.”

-- Albert Einstein

Halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, it’s a good time for acknowledging the truly revolutionary nature of events in the US since 2000, and maybe, as that revolution begins its inevitable unraveling, getting past the stage where we are still scratching our heads impotently and saying: “How did this happen?” Or worse yet: “How do we get ‘back’?” To move forward in a meaningful way, however, means looking at some painful truths about the American left, not just the by now well-analyzed rise of the right. Many factors have contributed to the decline of the American left since the heights of its influence in the 1960s, and to focus only on the extrinsic ones does not do justice to the problem. Nor will it help us reverse the situation.


Watching the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave me an overwhelming, gut-level sensation that the wheels of history, which I had always imagined as grinding inevitably forward -- in a qualitative sense, not just as a result of uni-directional temporality -- were screaming into reverse. In an instant of historical time, it was no longer as if Marx had been wrong but as if he had never lived, colonialism had never died, and the incremental human progress of the last century toward universal standards for individual rights and social responsibilities had been rendered utterly moot. At end of the 20th century, industrial civilization had, I thought, been approaching a revelatory moment, when opposition to its destructive hegemonies was growing more universal, and internal dissent was beginning to permeate its power structure. We had learned a lot: there were many fascinating ideas being floated about participatory democracy, local and global sustainability, and decentralization of power. I thought there would be a long struggle against concentrated power, in its new corporate guise, before these ideas could bear fruit. But I had never imagined that in response to a threat to its dominance, the world’s most powerful nation-state would take the essentially radical step of attempting to obliterate historical progress itself.


Now, in a political sphere that reminds me of a Star Trek episode, where the characters are all caught in a time warp which keeps them repeating exactly the same words and actions, potentially forever, I am haunted not so much by the ghoulish rhetoric of the radical right, as by the deer-in-the-headlights response of the self-identified progressive, or left sector, to which I have belonged all of my adult life. In 21st century America, we have entered a kind of Through the Looking Glass world where progressives are the real conservatives: we spend most of our time trying to stop something bad from changing to something worse, rather than potentializing positive social change. It is neo-conservatives who have become the new radicals, the Robespierres of the right-wing revolution. While so-called “conservative” radicalism is now dividing conservatives and showing signs of drowning in its own bloody arrogance, as the French Revolution did, I am more interested in the fact that the traditional American left, or progressive sector, has become so debilitated that it has first of all been unable to prevent our society from reaching this point, and secondly (and more troublingly) has no collective alternative to offer except the absence of what we now see. I thought it might be instructive to turn the gaze inward a little and think about what this situation means and how it came to be. So what are the components of what I’m calling the “reactionary American left?” Let’s look at a few:


The Non-profit Sector 


Let’s begin with what is probably the primary source of organized progressivism in the US today: the national non-profit sector.


But first, a brief mention of the two specters that haunt it: the most insidious debilitators of progressive reform, which are, of course, intimately linked: the Democratic Party and the (now disintegrating) AFL-CIO. It is primarily these two enormously powerful entities that shamefully collaborated in allowing the American center to be dragged to the right, not just in the last 25 years since the Reagan revolution began, but before that during the Cold War (good Democrat Harry Truman’s idea), and, the Vietnam War (stage-managed by two Democratic administrations). Of course in the Democratic Party’s case this association with reaction actually goes as far back as Reconstruction, when the Southern Democrats ran with the Ku Klux Klan, a situation that maintained itself through the modern civil rights era. The trade unions became a full-on reactionary force in the US in the 1960s, and have never recovered from their history of deal cutting, tunnel vision, and graft. This betrayal of progressivism has ultimately forced both the Democratic Party and the trade unions into the logic of diminishing returns they helped impose on the rest of the “progressive” sector, but they are hooked on their losing game: the one by big money, the other by supposed legislative influence. The 2004 election campaign will be a case study for generations of political science students to come: even faced with an unparalleled opportunity to seize the historical moment and present a vision of progressive change that mainstream Americans would be ready to hear, these entities, trapped in their airless time warp, floundered pathetically, failed, and began to fracture. For all the attempts at “reorganization” since the debacle, there seems to be little chance that they will significantly reform themselves without some massive collapse of the US economic system, á la a 1930s-style Depression. And even then… well, it’s better not to speculate about the alternatives.


US progressivism was already weakened by comparison with its European analogues by being forced into alliance and identification with these two profoundly non-progressive but immensely powerful entities. At least partially as a result of seeing efforts to work for reform within these institutions be quickly and sometimes violently suppressed, post-60s progressives dispersed into single-issue-based non-profits. This was encouraged by the liberal philanthropic sector because of its huge benefits to them: there would be no mass organizing to fundamentally reorganize American society and democratize its wealth; non-profits actually helped the system function by acting as watchdogs for its most serious abuses, but with limited resources (kept limited by the niggardly amounts the foundation sector was willing to dole out to these efforts) they were incapable of altering any of the primary conditions that made these abuses and breakdowns recur. Hence diminishing returns: you had to run (work) as hard as you were able to keep any small victory from being rolled back under the ceaseless assault of the much-more liberally funded guardians of the status quo, and work within a set of conditions you were not allowed by your foundation sponsors or your non-profit status to criticize directly, or to propose be replaced with something else. Like the Looking Glass chess game, the rules were someone else’s, set up so you could never really win.


Hence a major problem: without a political party or a trade union movement, the way to stay alive as a progressive cause in America today is by organizing yourself as a corporation, a fundamental and crippling irony of the American left.


As Mark Dowie pointed out back in 1998, in his book Losing Ground, the emphasis within the national non-profit sector, particularly the environmental movement, on legal and legislative strategies as opposed to old-fashioned grassroots organizing is a key example of diminishing returns. In the 1970s, when an organized populace demanded environmental reform, conservative Republican Richard Nixon was forced to respond. To actually credit his administration with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as if they were his idea, is to do a major injustice to the power of grassroots organizing and its mobilization of popular will. Now faced with the complete overhaul and possible loss of these legislative landmarks, the only thing the environmental movement seems to be able to do is keep using more of the same ineffectual strategy to try to preserve some remnants of them, when, had it developed and applied the capability of regularly mobilizing millions of voters in local and state campaigns, it could have set the terms of the debate on environmental concerns even before they reached Congress. The mid-term elections in 2006 are now being talked -- more like whispered -- about as a possible watershed for derailing the Bush anti-environmental agenda, but without a pro-active strategy, without a pool of truly progressive candidates or a mobilized base, the movement is likely to be forced into the same old dirty dancing with do-nothing Democrats.


Non-profits with the capability to monitor federal legislative efforts and try to influence them have done so, but they are continually outgunned by corporate interests that have more money, and thus can buy more time with our representatives, in the one-dollar-one-vote system we’ve allowed to evolve. It should have been realized by environmentalist organizations long ago that the failure to get involved consistently in local electoral races and ballot initiatives (where again most non-profits are limited by their 501c3 status) meant that attempting to affect policy at the federal level was literally like trying to lock the barn door after the corporate-backed horse had galloped out of the stable.


There is an awareness of this crisis now, in the environmental movement as in other progressive non-profit sectors. But guess what? By-laws are by-laws, baby, and the foundations still hold the purse strings and preach “professionalism,” which means you have to show exactly how many band-aids you handed out with their money, “organizing” is too unquantifiable, and you can’t organize support for candidates or specific legislation anyway, or even conduct rights-based litigation in most cases. Anyway, you’ll probably have to spend a good chunk of that grant to hire somebody to check your books, and somebody else to raise even more money for you, rather than to do anything directly related to your mission.


Meanwhile, instead of taking Dowie’s point about grassroots organizing, the “Death of Environmentalism’s” non-profit and foundation-based sponsors have redone his critique of the movement and come up with the conclusion that “bold new policy proposals” are the answer. Their legislation-ready ideas follow the green safe jobs model, which is promising, but they presume a level of buy-in that could only happen with massive grassroots pressure on decision-makers and private companies in thousands of communities nationwide. Otherwise what we’ll get will look a lot like rearranging the deck chairs into a slightly greener configuration on the Titanic of the US economy.  

But maybe that’s as far the Ford Foundation could be expected to go. Feminism (reproductive rights particularly), civil rights, health care: substitute any of those “issue areas” for environmentalism and you’ll find the situation looks the same. Don’t rock the boat, even if it’s sinking.

The Old New Left: Todd Gitlin, MoveOn, et al.

The sermon the Old New Leftists have been preaching from every possible soap box is just “grow up” and vote for the Democrat. It should already be clear from the brief history above why this strategy has equaled diminishing returns, but its adherents remain as entrenched as ever in their political sand pit. It was painful to hear Todd Gitlin chiding Naomi Klein on Pacifica Radio that the planned massive peace demonstration in New York during the 2004 Democratic National Convention was “irresponsible.” He sounded like Bill O’Reilly, going on about the dangers of “anarchist violence” (which never materialized).


A crucial opportunity was missed, after the 60s social movements failed in their bid to reset national priorities. That opportunity was to build local political movements that articulated bedrock moral principles of fairness, sharing, and full participation (as opposed to God, guns and gays), and could develop and run truly progressive candidates of any party affiliation and hold them accountable. If millions of progressives had worked where we lived to get our folks on school boards, and city councils, and college boards and in mayor’s offices, county sheriff’s offices, and in D.A. races, and so forth, if we had organized in working and middle-class communities, all across the US, at a level that most of our fellow citizens could understand because it involved local issues, but more importantly, uncompromising principles, of direct importance to them -- well, we’d have been doing what the radical right was doing all these years, I guess. If we had taken more of an interest in the local focal points for democratic process, problematic as they are -- instead of just going into a self-loathing frenzy once every four years for some oligarch or other, maybe by now we’d have reaped a significant crop of people with integrity in national office -- or even better, a movement with legs that could maintain some control of our local economies and force accountability even if the oligarchs still controlled the national government.


I can understand truly radicalized people being so disenchanted with the electoral system that they wanted no part of it, that’s been my own personal dilemma, and I think it’s been a big part of the national equation. But that’s not been the message of the Old New Left. “Political maturity” means just hold your nose and keep voting for sell-outs every four years. What I’m saying here is that the right actually learned the political lessons of the 60s, and the Old New Left, however much Todd Gitlin lectures us about political maturity, did not.


MoveOn adds to this mix a dangerous adherence to “focus group” politics, which BBC documentarian Adam Curtis so skillfully analyzed in his brilliant documentary series The Century of the Self. This is the muddled idea that, instead of providing leadership and vision, you just keep asking your base “what do YOU want to do?” What Curtis points out is that when we are asked what we want, rather than what is right, we of course come up with irrational answers. I want to eat ice cream every day AND I want to look like Kate Moss. This works great in the business world, because it can make money off your desires either way. In politics this is disastrous: I want gas that’s under $3 a gallon AND I want a clean environment. Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? But there is no political way to give you what you want. Focus group politics, far from being grassroots democracy, is a shameful abdication of leadership and principle in politics. This is not political maturity, it’s political senility. As Curtis demonstrates, for liberals it has been political suicide.


The “Global Justice” Movement 


In the current landscape of progressivism, the US anti-corporate globalization, or “global justice” movement presents some of the most interesting possibilities: it openly says that capitalist economics are the problem, it attempts to posit concrete alternatives to corporate-driven globalization, and to offer a vision that is broad, and based in linking issues rather than tunneling in on a single dysfunctional aspect of society.


But its key weakness, perhaps a natural outcome of its global vision, is that it is rooted nowhere. Its US base is mostly disaffected college-educated white folks, with little direct experience of marginalization or oppression, or even direct experience of the consequences of most of the policies they oppose. It shares this weakness with the anti-interventionist international solidarity movements of the 1980s, from which some of its older activists have migrated, a natural progression. It shows organizing capacity only within that sector, and only on actions focused on gatherings and conferences of the capitalist elites. It thus has developed little power to mobilize large numbers of the US populations most affected by corporate globalist economics, nor can it mobilize them around any kind of binding redress of their issues, as the civil rights movement did for African Americans in the south, for example. And it has also eschewed involvement in local electoral campaigns, although many of its activists are individually involved in local issues. So its primary mass activity is still reactive, not pro-active. No to privatization, no to GMOs, no to the WTO and free trade agreements, etc. The fragile “victories” it claims after multi-year campaigns: a handful of unenforceable agreements with multi-national corporations to pay coffee producers or tomato pickers an extra buck or two a day. The companies reap a PR windfall when the corporate campaigners agree to call off their dogs, and, in the case of Starbucks, for example, what they get in return is that about 2% of Starbucks shelves now hold “Fair Trade” coffee. This is not going to keep Central American children from killing themselves in the coffee plantations any time soon, or get American baristas a living wage either, for that matter. At home, the global justice movement, however eloquently its spokespeople make the connections, has shown zero ability to successfully conduct local campaigns on community economic and social issues, like schools vs. prisons.


And this is a shame, because some of the most suggestive strategies for limiting corporate capitalism’s effects, and thus strengthening its alternatives, are available at the local level, through electoral means. The Living Wage movement now has ordinances passed in over 120 cities, towns and counties, circumventing the frozen floor of the Federal minimum wage. Cities, counties and states have looked at initiatives to limit the operations of corporations within their boundaries, to review corporate personhood, to outlaw genetically engineered products, and to maintain environmental protections that corporations have attempted to override. States could also take up job preservation, “just transition” (eliminating subsidies from declining toxic industries and shifting them to new green, locally-owned, worker-friendly industries) and anti-offshoring legislation, since corporate charters have to be approved by the county and state. But somebody has to be working with local populations in order to get these types of initiatives to the point where they can and will be supported uncompromisingly by large enough numbers of the public to become law.


You also have to be committed enough to the place you live and work to come back year after year, in every relevant public forum, as long as it takes to build a solid base and win your campaign. The process of working on a local initiative is often the most engaging way to involve the previously un-organized in joint action. It is the attachment to a local place and an intimate knowledge of its particular characteristics that offers the most powerful challenge to corporate globalization, but American global justice activists, while they offer plenty of ideas about the alternatives, have not yet shown much ability to have an impact in local communities, perhaps because they are too busy traveling from conference to conference, and demonstration to international demonstration.


Where’s The Peace Movement? 


Finally, I leave the 21st century peace movement out of this discussion, because it is not currently a movement that is guided or shaped by progressive ideals. This could be the subject of an entire article; I’m only going to raise the point here. The dreadful mangling of the aspirations for a national movement by the ANSWER coalition’s sectarian leftism, which is among the most reactionary elements in American politics, does not require dissection now. But I will say that local efforts to question or challenge the Iraq occupation are here again offering the most promise: like the successful ballot initiative to keep military recruiters out of San Francisco schools, or the Vermont town meetings that voted to bring the Vermont National Guard home -- the whole dialogue in local communities has been shifted to the left by even raising these issues in a public forum.


So What Is To Be Done?


The law of diminishing returns by which the American left has allowed itself to be trapped, means that “progressivism” is now basically defined in most people’s minds as reactionary. It means: “STOP! Save that tree, don’t close that school, don’t gut this law.” Progressive organizations have made the crucial error of relying on fear as a motivator, which the right has been much better able to exploit. In America today, your politics can pretty much be determined by whether you are more afraid of global warming or international terrorism. But the radical right has non-negotiable ideals which permeate its every political move. Behind fighting abortion, taxes, and terrorism, stand God, Private Property, Manifest Destiny. The radical right offers followers a starkly defined identity: a perverse but resonant vision. Progressivism, especially since the failure of Marxism, cannot by its nature offer such a monolithic, you-don’t-have-to-think-about-it set of principles to Americans. But progressives can work to cultivate a larger vision, and to make ourselves a more visible part of our local communities by communicating that vision in every space where political and social issues are contested. What the right understood, and the left did not, is that local communities are where all politics really begins. We’ve lost more than 25 years of progress as a result of that crucial failure. 


American progressivism has violated one of its most fundamental truisms, developed in the 1970s; instead of thinking globally and acting locally, it has tried to act globally, or at least nationally, while its thinking has been so localized (not around a geographic area but around a particular issue or campaign) that it has failed to develop a vision of the forest larger than the few remaining trees it is now fearfully guarding. It has to be able to offer coherence, dignity and courage to answer the incoherence, violence and fear that characterize the dominant society. And not just to answer, but to set the terms of future dialogue, and to set a course for ideals that it holds enduringly true.


We can begin to reverse the decline of public discourse and the marginalization of progressive politics in this country at any time, in spite of the enormous concentration of corporate and state power we have allowed on our watch. But to do so we need to make truly progressive ideas -- and ideals -- local and personal. And fast.


Christy Rodgers is the editor and publisher of the very occasional journal What If? Journal of Radical Possibilities, and www.whatifjournal.org, a little magazine and website with big ideas. She can be reached at: whatif@igc.org.

Other Articles by Christy Rodgers

* Triumph of the Shill
* The Republic of Gilead vs. The Prosperity Church
* Mourning Becomes Me, Y'all