To Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible: Toward a Visionary Left

Despite targeting neoliberalism, movements like Occupy Sandy have unwittingly echoed its philosophy. Credit: Creative Commons/notanalternative.

In the last forty years, the Left has utterly failed to articulate any viable alternative to neoliberalism’s vision of a fully marketized society and natural world. Its logic is so hegemonic that the only thinkable response to neoliberalism’s spectacular collapse in 2008 has been, paradoxically, more neoliberalism.

Neoliberal ideas have even penetrated radical left movements like Occupy Sandy and Rolling Jubilee, which despite targeting neoliberalism, unwittingly echo its philosophy, as when direct action charity replaces universal state programs or purchasing bad debt with crowdsourced funds to cancel it does finance a profitable favor. Thus the Left today suffers not from being overly utopian, but rather not ambitious enough. Indeed, it stands in sharp contrast to its opponent, a global and increasingly illiberal capitalism remaking the world in its image by ruthlessly subjecting all to the iron fist of the invisible hand. Everywhere economy trumps democracy, as bankrupt American cities are put into corporate receivership and the European Central Bank dictates policy to Greece, the birthplace of democracy. Increasingly, the state resembles little more than an armed accountant.

Yet the current crisis has also revealed that politics truly is the art of the possible. When the chips are down on Wall Street and the chaos of the market doubles back on itself, then suddenly nothing is too radical. Old left demands that were dismissed long ago as utopian absurdities can be implemented overnight—yes, nationalize the banks and the automotive industry! Shower with money the very businesses that have shed workers by the thousands or thrown them out of their foreclosed homes!

The Left’s old dream of a planned economy free from toil is an increasingly ironic reality, where the internet and automation allow for efficient, customized production-on-demand that eats away at full-time employment. Credit: Creative Commons/Patrick Herbert.

How easily we can usher in an era of militant internationalism, where borders are abolished for transnational corporations, but not for workers who also try to pursue better conditions abroad.  Witness a cosmopolitan lifestyle of luxury lifted straight from the pages of utopian fiction, but strictly limited to the lucky 1 percent. Even the old dream of a planned economy free from toil is an increasingly ironic reality, where the internet and automation allow for efficient, customized production-on-demand that eats away at full-time year-round employment. In short, we are witnessing a cynical reinterpretation of a veritable left slogan: to each (firm) according to its need—regardless of its (profit)ability. This “communism for capital” reverses the classical left dream of making labor serve humanity, instead arranging the whole of society to serve the interests of capital by privatizing gain and socializing risk, meeting human needs only where expedient, incidentally if at all. This is the paradox of capitalist civilization—astonishing technological development and wealth, from which a growing majority of the planet is restricted, or excluded altogether.

Liberalism, Spiritual Renewal, and the Left

Thus Eli Zaretsky’s book Why America Needs a Left (and his related article in the Spring 2014 issue of Tikkun) launches an important political debate, one given practical urgency by the current interlocking crises and the global movements contesting them. Zaretsky surveys U.S. history to argue that “liberalism, as we see it today, without a Left, is spineless” and therefore “the country desperately needs an ongoing, self-aware Left.” James Livingston responds that an organized Left is unnecessary because America has been listing to port for some time now, offering an oddly rosy narrative of increasing social equality strangely at odds with the misery of the current crisis.

Although America has become more culturally tolerant and diverse, it has also become more tolerant of rampant inequality, economic in particular. This didn’t happen magically, but were the hard won gains of activist struggle against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Yet the resultant “culture wars” happened at the same time as growing economic inequality, obscuring a much deeper neoliberal consensus about capitalism and the role of the state and the absence of a socialist Left. Unsurprisingly then, the only socialism on offer today is aimed at saving an increasingly muticultural but profoundly broken status quo—bailouts for business, austerity and “jobless recovery” for people. A global perspective that includes the rise of China and Russia only further shatters the illusion of the hand-in-hand forward march of capitalism and liberal democracy.

Pop spirituality—such as the corporate feminism of Sheryl Sandberg—has become ubiquitous, applying personal solutions to societal problems. Credit: Creative Commons/KEN8218.

While astutely decrying the alienation inherent to a society geared toward competitive material gain and the potential this holds for the Left, Michael Lerner frames this as primarily a question of values and spirituality.  But this ignores that alongside the rise of neoliberalism, both the Left and American culture have already become less secular and more spiritual. The economistic Old Left railing against opiated masses no longer exists; today young activists are more likely to defend religion in the name of diversity and cultural relativism. Pop spirituality is ubiquitous,  from New Age-tinged advertising and yoga studios marketing calm in a sea of economic and cultural flux, to self-help books and management gurus that justify longer hours and lower wages in the name of deeper fulfillment and meaning. The popularity of the spiritual approach, like the corporate feminism of Lean In, is that it at least offers individual solutions to social problems at a time when collective political remedies are nowhere to be found. The global rise of extreme religious and nationalist movements address the same spiritual and cultural void Lerner identifies, also illustrating its non-emancipatory potential and the absence of Left alternatives.

A rebooted Left can and should offer something better. High-minded calls for spiritual renewal are ultimately doomed to fail unless those values are made actionable by sweeping institutional change. It was no accident that it was primarily the affluent children of the 1960s who rejected its empty paradise of abundance and consumption, just as today relatively privileged hipsters embrace a Thoreauvian pose of authenticity and bohemian asceticism while hip hop culture  dominant among youth presents a utopia of excess they’re unlikely to ever attain. Giving post-material values substance requires the freedom afforded by a post-scarcity reality where this is a viable choice, not just a quirk of privilege.

While their contributions contain insights for a reconstituted left, Livingston and Lerner reflect a uniquely American confusion about the difference between liberalism and leftism. As an increasingly diverse United States slowly honors its constitutional promise of formal equality of opportunity for all, it also reveals its limits—deeper inequalities that transcend the boundaries of liberalism. I wish to instead propose that rather than going too far, Zaretsky’s argument doesn’t go far enough. Today, it is precisely the liberal strand of his historical “double helix” which prevents us from squarely confronting a social crisis that only a left analysis can resolve. Not content to return to the status of perpetual junior partner in a social democratic compromise long-broken, we need a Left that offers a visionary new direction forward.

Beyond Social Democracy

We badly need a Left, but not one restricted to hectoring respectable liberals and social democrats to do the right thing. Such reforms are no longer on the table anywhere; these good liberals and social democrats no longer exist in any meaningful sense, and there’s no reason to believe they’re coming back. And if they did, their musty Keynesianism would be inadequate to the current overlapping social, political, economic, and ecological crises. As the complete failure to rein in a still-shambling zombie neoliberalism dramatically demonstrates, there is no putting the genie of capitalism back into a social democratic bottle.

Tellingly, in locales from Greece to Brazil social democrats have become the responsible handmaidens of austerity. Irreducible to corruption, personal greed, or bad politicians, the current crisis can’t be solved though the usual progressive mantra of jobs, growth, or even a Green New Deal doomed to become the next profit bubble to burst. Today, it is the Golden Age of the postwar era which looks like the exception, while crisis and instability appear almost everywhere as the rule, recalling the punch line to an old joke: A liberal and a Marxist walk by a homeless man. The liberal says, “oh no, the system is broken!” The Marxist replies “no, the system is working just fine.” The long trajectory of capitalism toward its catastrophic crisis in 2008 requires a more radical, indeed left, rethinking of the problem.

Although movements such as the Spanish indignados and Occupy have taken a more radical course in rejecting capitalism, protest in general remains weak and ephemeral. Credit: Creative Commons/calafellvalo.

Contemporary left movements like Occupy and the Spanish indignados intuitively grasp this reality, rejecting both capitalism and the states that slavishly serve it. Yet despite moments of inspiration, protest has remained weak and ephemeral. Although admirable, the democracy such movements “prefigure” in parks and squares across the world has failed to congeal into a viable alternative, not unlike predecessors in the alterglobalization movement of the 1990s or the New Left of the 1960s. In its zeal to avoid the authoritarian pitfalls of the past, the contemporary neoanarchist Left often sounds like it has given up on the very possibility of sweeping social transformation, preferring a defensive vocabulary of resistance, autonomy, and “micropolitics,” suggesting that they primarily want to be left alone, on the hope that left to our own devices and shielded from the shadowy world of power, things might somehow turn out better. To the extent that activists today obscure their own embeddedness in capitalism by attempting an impossible “autonomy” from it, or pine for a return to a presumably more innocent age, they point in the wrong direction.

Reviving the Left

The current global crisis of capitalism has sharpened to a fine point the present contradiction of a civilization directed toward profit accumulation rather than human need. It has done much of the work for us: it is the job of the Left to free capitalists and workers alike from the never-ending competitive rat race of capitalism, in which most people engage in tedious busywork or exploitative toil, enforced by the ever-looming threat of unemployment. We must consciously master capitalism’s own progressive drive toward universality by making its benefits truly ubiquitous, indeed common. Capitalism has socialized only one half of the equation; the task of an emancipatory Left is to realize the other.

What would this require? Crucially, it would entail a meaningful synthesis of the activist and intellectual Lefts, combining the massively creative tactical skills of seasoned organizers informed by critical insights gained from rigorous theoretical scrutiny and historical reflection. Reviving a moribund Left calls for conscious reflection on its own past, rethinking basic assumption and inventing new strategic directions rather than ritualistically repeating familiar mantras and forms that haven’t worked for decades. It needs journals, websites, and public fora to create ongoing political discussion and sense of collective direction and momentum. And it needs stable organizations where people can plug in on the basis of shared political vision, not just issues, tactics, or peer group. Instead of rigidly denying leadership, such organizations must be ready to facilitate uneven levels of commitment and skill while remaining open, democratic, and cultivating an empowered and energized base.

It is the job of the Left to free capitalists and workers alike from the never-ending competitive rat race of capitalism, in which most people engage in tedious busywork or exploitative toil. Credit: Creative Commons/dullhunk.

The Left cannot fetishize either the state or the street but must rather engage in a variety of struggles for power where tactics emerge from a broader strategy that move us toward a clearly articulated vision of a different society. This means symbolic and ideological struggle to change the conversation, while also engaging in direct action to get the goods. It can experiment with alternative institutions, like worker cooperatives, to practice self-management, while also recognizing limits imposed by present realities. It must address existing social inequalities of race, class, and gender both in the movement and society, without becoming paralyzed by their intransigence or individualizing deep-seated social problems. It must be willing to question and go beyond the familiar sacred cows of the left in order to become relevant to ever larger majorities, winning them over with a compelling vision and practical results.

Despite their apparent differences, Zaretsky and Livingston share an implicit realist assumption. For one, the Left is an eternal goad from the margin to wrest pragmatic reform from a reluctant center, while the other argues it should abandon this moral drama entirely and get down to the messy business of politics as usual. Both are wrong, or at least one-sided. While it is historically true that progressive change in America has relied on radicals forging coalitions with liberals willing to get their hands dirty, it is a mistake to restrict the Left to that task alone. Above all the Left represents the struggle of the ought against the is; to surrender this role is capitulation, while refusing to engage the existing world reduces it to mere philosophy. At its best, the Left is neither ineffectual moralist scold nor Machiavellian operator within the established order, but expands our imagination of what is possible, pointing us from protest to social transformation.

It is no accident that the global Left today increasingly takes aim at the cherished twin pillars of liberalism: representative democracy and capitalism. At a moment when the current system is manifestly broken, the Left we need won’t simply beg for a bigger slice of the pie, but offer a better way to run the entire bakery. Even the question, does “America need a Left” is already loaded: by asking what the presumably benign abstract collectivity of the nation-state needs, rather than real people, regardless of passport, this question reinforces a national frame in a postnational world. For liberals, such questions are off the table because they “wouldn’t be taken seriously,” ignoring that for capital, such “utopianism” has long been fait accompli. Tell it to the abolitionists; rather than accepting the deeply entrenched and profoundly wrong social order of slavery, their bold vision fundamentally changed the conversation. We need a Left that does the same.

(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 to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)


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