Enter the Alter-Left: Reviving Our Revolutionary Nerve

Weary as it is, the still-standing U.S. Left continues to refuse to take no for an answer. However, we face two prominent conundrums: How do we decipher the meaning of “revolution” during a post-socialist and particularly counterrevolutionary period in history? And how do we address an increasingly compromised natural world whose very ability to sustain organic life has been dramatically called into question?

Protest in Seattle

Animal rights activists in Seattle don turtle costumes to protest rulings by the World Trade Organization in 1999. “The celebratory protest culture of Seattle became a wellspring of inspiration for Alter-Leftists to come,” Heller writes. Credit: AP image/Beth Keiser

It’s been a few hundred years since anything resembling a revolutionary tornado has touched down on U.S. soil. Whereas peoples living throughout Latin America and the Middle East are quite fluent in the idiom of revolution, U.S. leftists have relegated the notion to a poetic dustbin dwelling somewhere just to the left of the deep past. Many entertain notions of particularistic “revolutions” in domains of the human spirit, art, technology, and even sexuality, yet they cannot expand the concept to encompass society as a whole. This loss of revolutionary memory and vision is tied, at least in part, to the collapse of revolutionary projects associated with the works of Marx.

At the same time, we are facing a monstrous expression of capitalism: neoliberal tentacles are squeezing the life out of prior attempts by progressives and radicals alike to appease its appetite to devour all things human and nonhuman. In such times, questioning the “need” for a Left in the United States is more than slightly decadent.

Moving any further to the right brings yet more crude liberalization and deregulation—and thus more dispossession and ecological destruction. Surfing the wave of leftist progressive liberalism or social democratic reformism will merely keep us treading water in the very muck we are trying to climb out of.

Leaving the Past Behind

Too often, well-meaning leftists opt for merely turning the capitalist clock backward. Many yearn for a revival of the 1930s-era New Deal, thinking back to a time when “we” enjoyed a kinder, gentler capitalism. In so doing, they romanticize a time when the state did its best to curb corporations’ ravenous demands, subsequently allowing many members of America’s white majority to enter a consumer-driven, car-crazed, working-middle class that enjoyed retirement benefits and Disneyland vacations. Sadly, the second coming of a dreamy New Deal blew up in our faces in 2006 when the bursting of the housing bubble ushered in another Great Depression, which we are still experiencing currently. Who has the time or dough to say, “see you in Disneyland” today?

U.S. leftists who long for more than a revitalized New Deal gaze upward toward Canada or set their hopes on a more European style of social democracy. Our utopian horizons are studded with starry notions of state-subsidized health care and higher education, and lengthy paid-for summer vacations. When the best dreams that leftists can muster are of European welfare states (which are currently being eviscerated by neoliberalism), we have not only lost our revolutionary nerve, but our revolutionary vision as well.

The question is not whether we need a Left, but what kind of a Left do we desire? What kind of Left is capable of moving us from a corrupt republican democracy to a direct democracy? What kind of Left can allow us to shift away from a capitalist system that empties out the meaning of what it means to be human? What kind of Left can create a moral economy in which citizens extend a logic of self-governance to realms of production and distribution, creating a democratized and ecologized economy? And finally, what kind of Left is capable of cultivating a way of thinking ecologically and democratically that can guide a revolutionary process to carry us in the direction we need to go in order to survive?
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One thought on “Enter the Alter-Left: Reviving Our Revolutionary Nerve

  1. I’ve seen no indication of an American left in many years. As our policies show, this generation so strongly believes in the superiority of our hyper-capitalist, deregulated corporate state that we believe all people are able to work, regardless of health or circumstances, and that there are jobs for all who want one, therefore no need for poverty relief. The “left” stands in solidarity to protect the status quo of the better off alone, the middle class. We looked at the progressive programs and policies that were implemented from FDR to Reagan, which took the US to its height of wealth and productivity, and reversed course. The left responded by moving to the right.

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