[sixties-l] Why the Left Always Loses: What is to Be Done?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 01/14/01

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    Why the Left Always Loses: What is to Be Done?
    by Jonathan Feldman <JonathanMFeldman@hotmail.com>
    (I originally posted this on Z-net Interactive.  I mean to be polemical,
    not obnoxious!)
    The current problem of the U.S. left can be summarized as follows. A major
    tendency is simply to de-construct or criticize mainstream political and
    economic life without offering any meaningful and operational alternative.
    For example, a recent sampling of coverage in The Nation or Pacifica radio,
    suggests the following sorts of analysis: "Things are Bad," "I know things
    are bad and we know they are," "Clinton is no good and Gore is no good," and
    the occasional, "Nader is better" which is sometimes offset by "Nader is
    better, but don't vote for him." When a war strikes, we get an onslaught of
    commentary telling us that our leaders are frauds, but not much advice as to
    what we ought to do about it, except, "oppose the war" or "stop the
    bombing." Muckraking Left journalists love scandals as much as the corporate
    Nader's candidacy and the recent anti-globalization protests are certainly
    meaningful beginnings for creating a kind of operational response to the
    various problems that plague us. Here we see the beginnings of an organic
    link and networking among radical media, radical politics and grassroots
    mobilization. What would it take for Nader to really win? The problem is
    that Nader's viability depends on the creation of new economic, media and
    political spaces that institutionalize citizen input and crack through the
    established corporate media's hegemony. The anti-globalization protests are
    viewed as anti-corporate, but not anti-militarist and have not left in their
    wake any kind of political accumulation mechanism for change. A continuing
    series of protests doesn't easily transfer into an agenda setting mechanism
    but is dependent on established powers filtering what protestors say. In
    other words, we need a new qualitatively different political accumulation
    mechanism that links ethics and power and creates a basis for accumulating
    power on the scale of the transnational corporations and media. The idea of
    "small is beautiful" and "decentralization" just won't do in this context,
    not because decentralization per se is bad, but because the essential
    problem is to link power and democracy without sacrificing the basis of
    accumulating power.
    Inevitably, some Left critics seem to be cynical about accumulating power or
    even entertaining how to accumulate it on the scale necessary. This is a
    kind of New Left holdover which leads to what the mainstream media dubs
    "anarchism". Even though big labor and large scale environmental groups
    helped organize the anti-globalization protests, this kind of cooperation
    among peak organizations is insufficient if it is not transferred to the
    necessary institutionalization of power. Nader himself has encouraged labor
    unions to start their own television or radio outlets (or perhaps they could
    bolster the Pacifica network for a start). Alternatively, if Nader gets 5%
    of the vote, we would at least have that much more media resources available
    to promote alternative views. The anti-globalization protests have helped
    educate rank and file environmental and labor activists about their
    respective agendas, but have not directly translated into electoral
    alternatives to the Democrats or political spaces that dramatically reach
    into a national audience.
    The larger problem, however, is that our media resources are poorly
    organized. Let us take Pacifica as an example of what is wrong with Left
    organizational practice. We've heard endless commentary on its
    "corporatization" and the factional feud. Yet, beyond taking sides in this
    dispute, the problem remains where will the capital come from to pay for
    advertising that lets us know that Pacifica stations and its programming
    even exist (or lets newcomers know about it, the "uninitiated")? What is
    really needed, as I believe Michael Albert has suggested in the past, is a
    kind of strategic alliance among the Left groups to build up a new media
    space. This is the creation of what I would call "focal points," focal
    points that highlight and profile a political space linked to our values.
    Yet, the Left value system of thinking small and not creating meaningful
    conditions of cooperation and exchange, prohibits such cooperation on
    institutional grounds. Mailing lists are not shared and the idea of creating
    a larger political space is forgotten.
    Let me give you a poignant if dated example. During the anti-Gulf War
    protests, I asked a leading organizer, "Will the coalition be around after
    the War?" Answer: "No." Yet, the Pentagon and the apparatus that
    orchestrates military conflicts continued after the war and gave us Kosovo,
    etc. Here we have the "Left" defeating itself without help from the
    Pentagon. Perhaps this defeat was triggered by worries that the new
    coalition would displace the authority, funding, dues paying members, etc.
    of the original peace groups that comprised it. During that same movement
    against the war, we had a rather significant student meeting of about 850
    students. The meeting descended into speech making and statements of
    solidarity with Third World peoples around the world. That was nice, but
    nobody said much about the corporatization of education and higher
    education's support for the Pentagon. In other words, no logic, tradition or
    habits of transforming a group of people and forming a durable collective
    linked to a radical discourse and practice that challenged domestic
    institutions. Students couldn't manage to challenge organizations where they
    had power. There was not even the notion of "counter-planning."
    Now, we see a student movement speaking to some of these issues, but the
    larger problem is that the university itself is itself another corporate
    entity (cf. Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory, Beacon Press, 2000)
    worthy of organizing and protest. Such protest has led to union organizing
    of graduate students among others. We need more than protest and
    anti-corporate ideology, however. Aronowitz suggests, for example, that we
    should develop new governance systems in the university. These can be of
    critical importance because the university, like the media, is a key power
    accumulation tool in the "informational society." The university itself has
    key technological, media and other resources that could be brought into a
    meaningful communications web and political space that can be used to
    challenge the status quo. Thus, as noted in Dan Georgakas and Marvin
    Surkin's book, Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, student activists associated with
    the rank-and-file labor movement and League of Revolutionary Black Workers
    in the 1970s used a movie production house, the campus newspaper, and other
    university resources directly as social change agents. Universities have
    sound studios, museum spaces, and lecture halls that provide key resources,
    as countless teach-ins of the 1960s and thereafter have shown. Yet, these
    could be systematically linked to create a new political space, always
    available for bolstering alternatives.
    Compare the efforts of students in Detroit in the 1970s with the kind of
    apolitical scholasticism that has often infused university life. The
    anti-corporate protests are clearly a source of great hope, but they exist
    side by side with another kind of politics that leaves the key resources of
    deliberation and media power in the university lost in space. Russell
    Jacoby's critique of multiculturalism and postmodernism in The End of Utopia
    specifies just one mechanism by which the academy and Left dissipate
    potential power.
    It is not that radical scholarship related to multicultural themes are
    unimportant, but that there is a poverty of discourse about democracy,
    democratic organization, and institutional transformation. For example, at a
    recent conference I asked a leading promulgator of multiculturalism about
    its limits of multiculturalism in promoting alternative visions about
    organizing society. The speaker simply said, "All ideologies have their
    limits, do you know of one that doesn't?" This reminded me of the Old Left's
    hanging on to the Soviet model, a kind of no-think answer by someone whose
    book sales and lecture circuit fees reflect a political stock market. While
    Simone Weil once wrote eloquently about militarism and ethics, for the most
    part the discourses associated with multiculturalism and postmodernism and
    "civil society" sidestep the military industrial complex and its dangers.
    New media spaces could grow in a systematic and coordinated fashion if
    bolstered by socially responsible investment and democratic firms and the
    like. The extension of a radical media sphere itself depends on assembling
    complementary economic resources. For this reason, economic democracy is a
    key necessary condition for social change but itself depends on new ways to
    organize the media. The apparent Catch-22 can be overcome by launching a new
    way of organizing and appreciating the value of doing so. Yet, the creation
    of new webs and networks that bring together media, economic and political
    resources is blocked by the various fiefdoms and professional baronies that
    infuse progressive organizations. Perhaps, the barriers are based on a kind
    of generational wall in which the Left generation of the 1960s occupies a
    kind of professional monopoly on discourse, commentary and criticism (what
    proportion of the editorial boards of Pacifica, The New Left Review, The
    Nation, etc. come from persons under 30?). I am not saying that I don't
    appreciate these intellectual resources and their contributions. Rather, I
    argue that they suffer from a kind of generational elitism of the sort that
    was confronted about thirty years ago.
    The New Left has become the Old Left of Old and has adopted the hierarchical
    ideologies that it once refuted. This doesn't mean that professionalism is
    bad or that there may not even be "good" and "bad" hierarchies as some
    social scientists contend. Historians of the New Left say it was great that
    the New Left "grew up," but the New Left never figured out how to
    democratize the economy or transfer its numbers into self-reproducing
    political capital. The Left suffers from the larger societal problems
    created by the division of labor and the related issue of the divide between
    expert knowledge and grassroots participation (The Loka Institute has made
    some important suggestions about how to address this problem). The larger
    issue is that the Left itself has a values crisis and simultaneously lacks
    the kind of "production values" and resources of Hollywood and the
    mainstream parties. The Left can not speak "truth to power" because it often
    is really concerned with neither, i.e. not the truth of its own organization
    or the power to accumulate resources to challenge the status quo. Too much
    of the Left is based on the pedagogy of "let me think for you" and the
    "banking theory of knowledge" Paulo Freire warned about in his book Pedagogy
    of the Oppressed.
    While plagued by sexism and a political division of labor that gave
    preferential rewards only to the most articulate and sometimes Ivy Leaguers,
    the New Left struggled with the problem of democracy in its own
    organization. At the rhetorical level at least, they struggled with the
    problem even if they abdicated the creation of systems that would lead to
    the systematic accumulation of power. The problem is that the New Left
    failed to understand (as does much of the contemporary Left) that democracy
    and power accumulation are not polar opposites, but mutually supporting.
    Political scarcity leads to Stalinization (or bureaucracy) and politics
    defined by reacting to authorities or picking on miniscule symptoms of
    larger concentrations of power, the whole ad hoc community organizing
    approach. Democracy leads to involvement, trust, and sustained commitment of
    resources. Democracy and power accumulation are dialectically linked because
    participation builds both, as economic democracy theorists have explained.
    As a result, we need a broader understanding of how to organize the Left
    itself and make it more democratic. We could begin with industrial
    engineering exercises that evaluated who makes decisions in non-profits and
    the academy and how decisions are made. From the work of Thomas Jefferson to
    books on "job design" or perhaps the early radical feminists we have the
    necessary intellectual tools, e.g. a survey with questions like, "How much
    control would you say you have in your work?: (A) a lot, (B) a little, (C)
    none at all." Or, "After you read the latest article in your favorite
    radical publication, would you say you received any guidance as to what you
    could actually do to gain power to address the problem? (A) Yes, (B) Maybe,
    (C) No, (D) Don't Know."
    I have made mention of accumulating power but have not said enough about it.
    The accumulation of power breaks down because of the absence of democratic
    values and reciprocity. In the Left, groups are often what Sartre called
    "serialized" as they relate in a series; each person is "the other," a kind
    of alienation. My example of the speech mongering during the Gulf War many
    years ago is an example of serialization. Or, more recently, the Left's
    ersatz "Town Meetings" which provide useful information but no grassroots
    involvement or communicative input. The word "grassroots" itself seems
    limited to contexts in which we are talking about "protesting in the street"
    rather than the kind of formalized democratic input we get even in
    "bourgeois" elections. Of course, we need deliberation of the Rousseau
    variety to complement electronic networks, but email discussion lists, study
    groups, and the like could complement Third Party conventions, already
    existing radical media, and new Town Meeting media spaces. Perhaps the
    camaraderie of the anti-globalization movement is not serialized but it is
    not the kind of reciprocity one gets in a cooperative or formalized
    democratic space.
    Another key issue is that the Left has not done enough to organize its own
    consumption power. We hear about "don't invest there" or progressive funds
    to invest in. Yet, if there are even 500,000 persons on the Left who
    invested $500 in an institutionalized radical media space, with a radio,
    posters, and internet link, that would give us $250 million to wage a
    political campaign that would approach the resources of the two main
    parties. The question is do we have such a space to invest in? Do we trust
    our leadership to wisely create such a space? Do we have the kind of
    accountability and democratic controls necessary to organize such a space?
    Do we have a coherent message that we agree upon that could be linked to
    this space? Do we even have a methodology to create a process to link the
    citizenry, non-profits and Third Parties to create it? Too many of the
    answers to these questions is no. Too much of the money that we have already
    invested in was lost to the balkanized baronies that never made democracy or
    power accumulation necessary conditions for their existence. The
    "Sustainable America" program is one potential approach but simply forming
    coalitions of existing groups (quantity) without changing their ideology or
    governance (quality) will not address the problems I have specified here.
    Are we too small or too poor? Are small numbers partly the result of the
    fact that we have not strategically organized the resources that we already
    have? These resources remain at steady state levels. Our poverty is the end
    result of politics and non-profits that manage austerity because they are
    alienated from the culture of entrepreneurship and economic democracy. If we
    always think for the short-term, then we will always be trapped by this
    political culture of scarcity and the status quo. Hierarchy of the kind
    associated with ad hoc protests that fail to institutionalize power itself
    wastes money and recycles political and economic poverty. Again, I would
    argue that the discourse of democracy has been displaced by academic
    rhetoric that celebrates divisions. The discourse and movements associated
    with anti-corporatism are not enough to build an alternative system of
    values and political practice. We need to embrace Utopian thinking and the
    kind of intellectual values which thinkers like Paul Goodman promoted in
    books like Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals. Without such ideas as a
    necessary supplement we are left with the politics of deconstruction and
    critique, a politics without truth and power.
    References for further reading:
    Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate
    University and Creating True Higher Learning, Boston, Beacon Press, 2000.
    Jonathan M. Feldman, "Extending Disarmament Through Economic Democracy,"
    Peace Review, 12:2, 2000, pages 205-210.
    Jonathan M. Feldman, "Towards the Post-University: Centers of Higher
    Learning and Creative Spaces as Economic Development and Social Change
    Agents," Economic and Industrial Democracy, Forthcoming 2001.
    Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Continuum, 1993.
    Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, South End Press,
    Cambridge, MA, 1998.
    Paul Goodman, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, New York, Vintage
    Books, 1964.
    Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy,
    New York, Basic Books, 1999.
    Simone Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George A. Panichas, Moyer
    Bell Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1985.

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