by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - October 24, 2005) Obviously, it is not a party, on the national level. This is too bad, because in multi-party European countries, the Left sometimes gets its positions included in a coalition agenda, and is considered a respectable political voice.
It is not a movement, either, held together by a charismatic leader, or ideology, or common interest. Labor partly filled this role, once, but was quickly swallowed up (and then disgorged) by management.
It's safe to say the Left is a point of view, held by many -- workers, intellectuals, homemakers -- sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, an honorable if untutored leaning of the personality toward the disadvantaged, toward justice and against privilege and humbug. It goes along with non-conformity, modesty about material success and openness toward different life experiences.
The Left is also a tradition, a history of actions and movements, sustained by a coterie of publications, scholars and personal experience. It exists in a visible sense in some unions, some Congress people, and some permanent activists like Van Jones who write or lead actual groups promoting social change.
At moments of national crisis, such as the present, the Left, in its various forms, is called forth into active associations, which sometimes form alliances, and sometimes don't, which then struggle to fit theory to practice, or practice to theory, trying to act effectively and intelligently at the same time. Like a sleeping giant, at moments of crisis the Left in the U.S. comes awake, rubs its eyes, and strides forth into battle.
But how do we recognize this amorphous creature and distinguish it from similar well-meaning but ad hoc responses to crisis? Three elements seem essential: 1) the presence of critical intelligence and historical memory (Chomsky, Edward Herman, and their readers, for example); 2) active involvement in a specific issue (Israel in Palestine, U.S. in Iraq, Wal*Mart, electoral fraud, living wage, affordable health care, etc.); 3) programmatic opposition to or skepticism about the existing order (Porto Allegre movement, economists and historians studying the dynamics of global capitalism.)
Activity in any one of these areas qualifies as Left activity, even though there is a danger that purely intellectual activity (1 and 3) is easily co-opted, and purely oppositional activity (2) can turn out to be not progressive at all. The administration official quoted by Ron Suskind who said "We are an empire now; we make reality. You [journalists or intellectuals] can study it all you want -- we'll make new realities before you're finished." illustrates the danger of (1). "Anyone But Bush" illustrates the dangers of (2). It's not enough just to read Chomsky; we have to do something with our knowledge. It's also not enough, for a Leftist, to oppose the war; we have to understand and oppose the systemic causes of war.
Ideally, a leftist lives a little bit in all three spheres. Intellectual activity, particularly an interest in history, is vitally important today, as corporate control of media has virtually erased history from public discourse. Common sense and common moral sense told many people that the war in Iraq was wrong from the start, but it was much more wrong, and more deeply understood, when it was recognized as a continuation of the policies of the Clinton years. The current destruction of Iraq is actually a postscript to the much greater destruction of eight years of embargo and bombing under Clinton. And the trumped up humanitarian rational for toppling Saddam was simply a callow repetition of that used for the earlier destruction of Serbia. These linkages and patterns are beyond the competence of contemporary journalists, and so it is up to the Left to provide them.
But information without action is not enough. Practical action, in the form of coalition building, public education and outreach -- even electoral politics -- is necessary to keep understanding from becoming defeatist, or elitist (the Right is right about this!). Only by advancing our ideas in larger groups do we find out how they play in Peoria, what language works, what communities of interests are possible.
Yet action can be self-defeating, too, if we place too much importance on immediate victories (like getting Karl Rove fired, or blocking a Supreme Court nomination). We need to always have the larger picture in mind -- an awareness that democracy, as currently practiced, is a flawed vehicle at best, a shell game at worst. While it may not be essential to read Marx, or advocate revolution, one must at least be able to see that free enterprise capitalism is inherently inimical to justice and equality, and that the state is more the agent of wealth than it is of the people. "Left" is not identical with "Radical," but it shares the view that significant change requires a kind of uprooting.
Yet, political activity can always only be appropriate and possible to the time and place it occurs in. This means that unless we are connected to some agent of opposition with actual leverage (a labor union, for example), we are forgiven for not being able to bring about immediate crisis or change. We should not be worried about being called utopians, as long as we are pushing against something specific with the best force we can muster. This means, for many, working mainly in the areas of public opinion, educating our neighbors, working for little victories at the city council and local school board level. It even includes standing by the highway with "Get Out Now" signs, so long as we don't just return home afterwards for a glass of Chardonnay!
So, where does this leave us? For clarification one might ask, how is the Left different from the anti-war movement? The mainstream message of this movement seems to be "Bring the Troops Home Now!" It's not important how, or what remains in Iraq after we bring them home; just "end the carnage." There's nothing wrong with this demand, per se -- it brings a halt to a process that at any moment could escalate to vastly wider conflicts or reprisals in the homeland -- but it's totally inadequate to understanding the full assault on Iraqi sovereignty and lives set in motion by the Bush and Clinton policies.
Similarly, opposition to the ascendancy of the Right -- the mobilization of fundamentalist religious groups, the militarization of government and society, the attack on civil liberties -- is an urgent task of the moment, but it is not in itself an agenda for meaningful social change. Just as the defeat of McCarthyism prepared the way for the consensual conservatism of Eisenhower, the defeat of Bush/Rove and Cheney is likely simply to lead to a second era of Democratic neo-liberal consolidation.
In the most advanced and sophisticated capitalist state, the agenda of the Left is necessarily complex, emerging, many-faceted, never completed. Its attitude is skeptical, patient and realistic. However remote and powerful the state appears, the Left understands that that very remoteness is itself creating new injustices to fuel new resistance every day.
By way of ending, I'll mention a model of social change, which seems unexceptionable to me. Activist, writer, and former California legislator Tom Hayden describes the cycle of political action in this way: the system throws up an irritant, some injustice, which had previously been invisible (or unarticulated), but now becomes conscious and starts to create active resistance. The process starts at the margins (of society, of awareness, outside the normal political process) but gradually gathers adherents and moves to the center (becomes recognized as "an issue" by the organs of public opinion), where it eventually results in legislation or executive action. The civil rights, anti-nuclear and environmental movements are examples of this. With success in the public sphere, however, activists tend to return to private life, to "enjoy the fruits of their victory." Hayden sees this as a natural human instinct, and it's hard to argue with him. It is hard to argue that any human being, except one in permanent deprivation, can lead a life of permanent revolution.
The phrase, coined in the Sixties, Hayden uses to describe the process is "participatory democracy." It is a spontaneous process the system itself produces, by its malfunctioning -- something like a fever -- that eventually is reincorporated into the system, making it healthier. It is a process of reform, not radical change, but it is one that can be repeated over and over again, as long as the system remains open and democratic in any sense, and as long as the habits of skepticism, non-conformity and opposition are alive in some parts of the citizenry.
What keeps these habits alive? Is it some innate sense of fairness, some thirst for universal liberty divinely instilled? Perhaps so, but it is safer, more empirical, less speculative to say it is the system itself, which inevitably and continually produces unfairness, inequality, lack of liberty. Whatever we are doing, however deeply immersed in private life, we are confronted with the evidence for it every day. Whenever we buy t-shirts at Target, grapes at Costco, Happy Meals at McDonald's, we know there is an exploited worker at the other end, a tract of ravaged land, and more often than not, a crony government of the U.S. The evidence is especially abundant in the heart of Empire, where material well-being is the drug that secures our compliance.
The spirit of the Left and the source of its permanence are rooted in our own self-awareness, our honesty, our need to live a fuller life.