For a new Left to grow strong, we must rid ourselves of the empirically false notion that unilateral and singular solutions proposed by the Right must be met with isometric plans from a monolithic Left.
I refrain from talking about The Left because I fundamentally disagree that the goals of human flourishing, social justice, and radical equality are met by following a single party line or unified vision. The Right, as Michael Lerner has correctly pointed out, is premised on a shrewd concept of self-interest that pits otherwise like-minded people against each other. I would add that this self-interest is shrouded in quack social science that must be debunked often and rigorously. The tragedy of the commons, the individual’s default to self-interest, and the assumption that markets and competition are somehow natural or universal constants are all myths not based in any sort of historical evidence or systemic observation.
There is another myth that leftists also tell each other that must be trounced once and for all: that there is a universal modern Left and Right that cover the entirety of possible positions on anything having to do with the allocation of resources and the establishment of sociocultural norms.
Abandoning the monolith of “The Left” means embracing the tumultuous and complicated relationships we have with one another. It means having our fights out in public, with each other, and organizing affinity groups across geographical as well as social, economic, and gender lines. It means knitting together as many different kinds of organizations as possible. The Right will portray this as dissonance and fracture. We should embrace both of those charges and hold them up as our most cherished virtues because it is through working out our disagreements that we arrive at more sustainable, effective, and just decisions.
The Role of Technology
At present, the background hum of the decentralized Left can be heard loud and clear thanks, in part, to the connective tissue of smartphones and social media networks. What is needed now is way to translate these connections into organized action outside of watchful eye of the surveillance state and its allied corporations. It is an incredibly difficult task, but bringing to bear the sheer diversity of people and opinions is our best ideological and tactical asset. When the Right proposes their one-size-fits-all policy, and leftists retort with an array of solutions for different people in different places, for different needs, the fascistic tendencies of the right-wing policies will become self-evident.
Short of organizing collective action, digital technology can introduce us to each other. It can connect the girl assigned male at birth to a wide community of people who can understand her and offer comfort in a hostile and intolerant world. This simple yet singularly powerful affordance offered by decentralized computer networks will continue to be a big part of twenty-first-century politics.
That being said, technology does not determine social relations and thus cannot stand in for political action. To be clear, this is not an indictment of political action that takes places on and through the Internet. Rather, I am only warning against thinking there are technical fixes for our social problems. Imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy will not be overthrown with technology, but it might be dismantled by the kinds of human organizations afforded by those technologies’ capacities and features.
Challenging Western Ethnocentrism
A decentralized Left will require a great deal of soul searching for the establishment left. It means conversations like the one I am contributing to right now, and that you are reading, must have lots of different kinds of people in it. In an essay for the New Statesman, author and journalist Laurie Penny used an all white and male panel on the lasting effects of Occupy to criticize the same establishment academic Left that I am a part of and contribute to: “If you can’t think of women, people of colour and young people to talk about your chosen subject, that says more about what you’re reading and who you’re associating with than it does about the participation of people who are not old white professional blokes in any particular sphere.”
Correcting these failures of representation in important conversations like this one must go beyond tokenism. There are crucial perspective and standpoints that must come from a wide variety of people. Wide representation must be consistent because just as I am not asked to speak for all white men, no one should be asked to speak on behalf of an entire subset of humanity. The introspection I’m asking for shouldn’t end in guilt, rather it should foster the kind of thinking that makes exclusionary conversations obvious to audiences and potential participants alike. Having an all white panel should be unthinkable.
The way my fellow essayists in this issue, Eli Zaretsky and James Livingston, talk about the three major leftist movements is telling of their exclusivity and Western ethnocentrism. For example Zaretsky writes of abolitionists: “They cultivated Black leadership, actively incorporated escaped slaves and ex-slaves into their organizations, and developed interracial friendships, sexual relations and marriages.” I added emphasis to highlight the assumed roles and active components of leftist movements in history and how the retelling casts present conditions in a similar light. I am tempted to call Zaretsky’s three major historic moments of the Left, “the times when White America got around to caring about anyone else.”
I get a sense of the same sort of ownership over the cause today: a mainstream, largely white Left is “welcoming” people of color and being astonished about why they don’t trip over each other rushing to join the party. Leftists cannot be saviors; we must be allies for and to one another.
To that end, if we are going to take up Livingston’s call to “retell the story of the founding,” that project cannot justify or make excuses for owning slaves. No amount of letters, laws, or good intentions can make up for the ownership of another human. If we are to tell the story of the founding, it will be in the form of a foil: a recognition followed by a demand that there are still reparations to be made for the genocide, slavery, and rape that provided the bloody bedrock of the young American nation. Anything else is a fairy tale not fit for adult conversation.
The Institutionalization of Fear
Leftists are currently faced with a rising institutionalization of fear coupled with an increasingly elaborate and violent apparatus constructed to guard private property. Militarized borders, gated homes, and swelling incarceration facilities are supported, funded, and legitimized by individuals’ fear of losing their own precarious economic and social positions.
Gallup Polling released a study early last summer that showed an overall decrease in Americans’ confidence in institutions. Everything from public schools and organized labor to banks and newspapers are at new and unprecedented lows. Three institutions that saw gains in the “great deal of confidence” category were: the military (43 percent), the police (26 percent), and the criminal justice system (10 percent). These gains reflect how, in times of uncertainty and perceived danger, authority figures are calming to those that see themselves as on the right side (pun intended) of the thin blue line.
Mass incarceration, zero tolerance policies, and being “tough on crime” are ways of instilling a sense of progress among conservatives toward (or back to) better days. This deadly political pandering has become especially pernicious given that, in small and medium-sized towns all across North America, private prisons are replacing factories as the main employment center. The better off become prison guards, while poor people of color are put to work as prison slaves. As of this writing there are more black men working in factories as prisoners than ever worked the fields in the Antebellum South.
A Call for New Institutions of Science and Technology
The New Deal programs that started life as direct assistance to the poor but have since morphed into command-and-control structures (some privatized) that do more to monitor and sanction people than feed and house them should be left to wither on the vine. Leftists can ill afford to spend the money and effort in reforming these social and technological systems. In their place we must form networks of locally run organizations that treat people with dignity and respect.
The beginning of this process might look like the block grants to state and local governments that were popular under Carter but disappeared under Reagan and never came back. Large sums of money must be remitted directly to communities without unfunded mandates for metrics and sampling. The measure of success should begin and end with the communities that receive the money: it requires a massive amount of trust. The sort of trust that can only come from treating fellow citizens like compassionate and loving whole persons. For this to succeed where it is needed the most, large leftist organizations must identify and federate with organizations doing good work in more conservative regions of the country. This process starts with basic resource assessments and a revitalization of civic institutions in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana; Immokalee, Florida; and countless other towns and cities ravaged by capitalism.
Free education should be available to all, but nothing changes if newly minted experts continue to work for malevolent corporations and/or detached universities. Therefore, in addition to providing no-strings-attached block grants, the government should pay an array of experts to put themselves up for hire by communities to help solve problems in a collaborative and deliberative way. Imagine a clearinghouse of sociologists, water chemists, lawyers, economists, and geologists all fully paid by the federal government and willing work with a community to solve problems identified by its residents.
It may sound counterintuitive to imagine an expensive federal program as a move toward radical localism. The point is not to impose solutions from on high, but to use the federal government as a redistribution mechanism for expertise. The role of experts should be to undo the intricate and sustained disasters propagated by corporate plunder and government violence, not to establish themselves as new masters. Their work should leave an area less dependent on large organizations than when they got there.
I fear that leftists have forgotten how to demand things both from their government and each other. There is still this creeping sense that we are living at the end of history and all of the big decisions have been made; all that is left are some fine adjustments to the grand machine of liberal democracy. This is certainly not the case given our historically high incarceration rates and historically low levels of confidence in institutions. What is needed now is radically new organizational forms that work on a much smaller scale. I don’t profess to know what these organizations will look like or how they will behave. And that is precisely the point. None of us have all of the answers, but collectively we do.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2014 print issue: Does America Need a Left? Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/left2014 to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)