Saturday, February 18, 2017

We don't need a populist left, post-identity politics left or 'alt left' to fight the rise of the far right, we just need a left

Have you heard the news?

The "left" is "out of touch" with the pulse of what is going on in the United States and North America more broadly because insert left academic or commentator/insert left publication says this must be true due to Trump's victory in the US Presidential race.

And why did the "left" lose? Because, according to many of these folks, it is too "identity" focused, too "feminist", too "out of touch" with "white workers" (whatever that means), too unwilling to be "populist" etc, etc., etc., etc., etc.

I could site an endless stream of articles, but why bother? They all say the same thing about the wrong target.

It is a bizarre and regular fallacy on the left to construe what are, in fact, the failings of liberals as having meaning for our struggles and insisting on framing our issues within the context of their electoral successes or downfalls.

This is nowhere more true than in the case of the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in the US.

The fact -- and it is a FACT -- is that the left lost nothing when Clinton lost. Liberals did. While Bernie Sanders may have, at one point, represented a kind of left during the nomination battle,  when he lost the "left" yet again became subsumed in the liberal Democratic Party.

This actually matters. A lot. It also renders most of the critiques of the alleged failings of the "left" irrelevant and facile as well as being entirely captive to American electoral political terms as those politics are structured now.

The left did not lose the American Presidential election. An entity that does not exist in a meaningful sense cannot lose anything and the folks endlessly expounding otherwise are doing so to further an agenda internal to their own politics and viewpoints.

Many of them seem hell bent on blaming women, people of colour and whoever it is easy for some leftists to scapegoat in spite of the historic systemic injustices these groups have faced.

While there are serious and important critiques to be made of the blood drenched imperialism and anti-worker policies that passed for liberalism under Obama and that would have continued under Clinton, these are critiques that should be made of what they are critiquing! I too despise the utter lack of a class analysis on the part of liberals and that their versions of liberation movements like feminism and anti-racist mobilization are, unsurprisingly, liberal and dramatically stunted by this.

But this has nothing at all to do with the left. Nor is it the fault of liberation movements or "identity politics" which is a reactionary line that the left would do best to avoid as it would the grotesque labels of "social justice warrior" and "politically correct" that the right loves to throw around.

It is actually absurd and increasingly derailing to keep insisting that the "left" has to learn the lessons of a politics that it was not engaged in.

Now, I understand that some left intellectuals have expended a lot of "ink" on these theories that seek to assert what they feel should be the discussion, and that what I am writing here might seem almost casual and dismissively short by comparison. Yet it deserves to be.

After all, where is the mass left party that they have worked to construct or build?

There is little easier for some on the left than taking cheap shots at movements like Black Lives Matter or feminism when those doing so are simply envious of what these movements have accomplished. Unlike all those writing endless articles about the need for a new left party while doing nothing to create one, activists in these communities have actually been incredibly effective in achieving goals, mobilizing millions of people and getting attention for their cause.

Something that the electoral socialist "left". however you define this, has not been particularly effective at of late.

That the "left" has failed to electorally combat the rise of neo-liberalism and now the far right in North America is hardly surprising given that in the US it does not exist electorally at all and given that in Canada its incarnation in the NDP is a shallow farce that can barely even claim to be social democratic.

It is a pathetic distraction from our own failure to build a left alternative of any serious kind to try to somehow blame this on women, people of colour and other communities that have mobilized to fight back and demand equality and justice and to act as if their righteous struggles are the real issue that alienated the "white working class" and that is responsible for Trump!

As opposed to the fact that there is no organized mass movement to give voice to a coherent anti-capitalist position and that the left, such as it is, has conceded the field for a generation to liberalism and has allowed it to become the "alternative" to the right.

We don't need a "populist" left, or an anti-identity politics left or an "alt left", we just need a fucking electoral left.

And until we stop theorizing about it and actually take steps to build it, the only people we on the socialist  left have to blame for our electoral failures and the electoral rise of the far right are ourselves.

See also: The wages of liberalism is Trump

See also: Obama, Trudeau & Clinton -- Feeling good about the lies of liberalism


  1. "And until we stop theorizing about it and actually take steps to build it, the only people we on the socialist left have to blame for our electoral failures and the electoral rise of the far right are ourselves."

    Can you now articulate "Why" this situation has occurred?
    Why has "the left" failed? What are the reasons?
    Because in order to change this situation as you describe it the reasons for the failure need to be articulated and understood.

  2. Depends what you mean by "blame" I suppose. Strong leftist movements are currently pretty rare worldwide. Building them is clearly very hard to do. It's like a student who didn't get an "A"--well, sure, they're probably the one "to blame" for that failure, but that doesn't mean they necessarily were doing that bad. You can have a good, sincere bunch of leftists doing many smart things trying to build movements, and they can still fail.
    Unfortunately, the world is a harsh place, and "pretty good but not good enough" impacts no policies. The system is stacked against challengers; to beat it we have to use every strength in our alternative ideas, shore up every weakness, grab every angle, be more inspiring, more truthful, but also sneakier, than the class warriors for the wealthy. It's a tall order.
    So there's no reason to be too down on ourselves for failing thus far; we're trying to do something very difficult. But we do need to keep on doing things better--gaining skill at what we do, and adding new tactics, methods, strategies.

    1. I didn't use the word "blame." I'm not "blaming" anyone. I'm asking an important question which I believe needs to be answered properly.

    2. I get what you mean, although bear with me while I nitpick a moment. The world "blame":
      "And until we stop theorizing about it and actually take steps to build it, the only people we on the socialist left have to blame for our electoral failures and the electoral rise of the far right are ourselves."

      But it is an important question. At the same time, I was proposing what I think is an important answer: Various people have been taking steps to build movements. By and large, they've been failing. Why? Because it's very difficult. You can't half-ass it and succeed. You can't even do a really quite good job and succeed. An attempted left movement which, if successful, would seriously cramp the style of the capitalist class has to be some combination of really amazingly good and pretty lucky in its timing in order to get anywhere.
      And "really amazingly good" is not a simple thing. There is no cureall ingredient, just add and the movement will succeed. Neither is there some spoil-all ingredient, some quietism or false consciousness, which if we could just remove it would allow stalled movements to flourish.

      Rather, it is going to require adding a whole bunch of stuff together. Some elements:
      --Old-school ground-level organizing
      --Really deep democracy, helped out by new networking technologies (this is not only inherently good, but it helps block co-optation by bought-out leaders)
      --Outreach across all the little silos, taking each other's concerns seriously
      --Catchy memes
      --Some thought to making membership in the movement a good thing for the people involved; movements tend to suffer from churn and burnout
      --Alliance between those oriented towards protest and those oriented towards building prefigurative communities and mini-economies
      --Growing alternative media
      --Clever and sneaky moment-to-moment tactics
      --Trying hard to overcome ego and not-invented-here syndrome
      --And many, many more!

      That's a lot of things, and most of them are skills in themselves with a lot of know-how involved, some of which hasn't been invented yet. Building movements that handle all that stuff would be really tough. Look at corporations and conventional political parties--even though their organizational forms have been refined for centuries and are backed by masses of establishment support, with tons of research, training, money sunk into making them as effective as they can be, most of them are still pretty mediocre. How much harder is it for the good guys? Gotta keep plugging away, improving element after element, until it starts to work.

  3. So let me "nitpick" because I quoted you in the original piece where the word "blame" was written by you.
    Nothing about organized labour?

    1. I see what's happening here. My original comment wasn't intended as a reply to you, but a reply to the article itself. Then when you replied to me in a way that seemed like a rejoinder, I falsely assumed it must be the article's author. Now it looks like you may even have made the exact same false assumption about me, and so we've been talking at cross purposes here the whole time.

      Anyway . . . organized labour. I don't know, to be honest. It pains me to say this since I am myself a union guy, but most unions are not remotely radical and not all that democratic. They do try to operate as something of a counterweight to neoliberalism and other "extreme" capitalism, but their track record in recent decades is more about smothering radicalism than being a vehicle for it. Trying to reform at least the bigger unions into a force for radical change at this point is perhaps not so different from trying to reform the Democratic party. So aside from groups like the remnants of the Wobblies, I dunno, man.

  4. I wish there was an edit button. So what I said really sounds like "No, not trade unions", but the problem with that is that unions are historically such a huge and central part of class struggle so I don't want to write them off. But on the third hand, the nature of work has changed; has it changed enough to make unions as we know them less relevant? . . . Yeah, I really don't know.

    1. OK so trade unions are in a very bad condition now. Most are "bureaucratic "business unions" led by class collaborators who are more interested in advancing their careers than the class struggle. But what other effective force will be able to lead the challenge to capitalism? There isn't one.