Fighting for Utopia in Tough Times
We live in dark times. The planet is warming even faster than scientists anticipated, economic inequality is now likely the worst it’s ever been in American history, Wall Street and large corporations have enormous control over our lives and the media system, and mass incarceration and the war on drugs continue to destroy millions of lives and perpetuate structural racism. Capital and the state have fused, and reactionary elements hold the levers of state power. The United States government is now unapologetically a tool for capitalists and corporations to enrich themselves while repressing opposition. Neoliberalism has intensified into neofascism, just as capitalism morphed into fascism in the 1920s and '30s.
We are in a state of emergency, and it’s tempting simply to focus on the immediate threat in the form of Donald Trump and the reactionary Republicans. We will need to focus in the short term on defending basic civil liberties and rights, protecting the remaining shreds of the social welfare state, and guarding against far-right vigilantes’ attacks on society’s most vulnerable. But seeking to return to the pre-Trump status quo, which was itself only a slightly more veiled state of emergency, is neither politically expedient nor ideologically desirable for the American Left. (Defending the status quo is never a good strategy for the Left, since the status quo always falls short of our cherished ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity.) Neoliberalism was exactly what tens of millions of people rejected in voting for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Pretending that America was already great and that everything was essentially hunky-dory (as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama attempted to do) is whistling into the void.
The Left must offer a vision worth fighting for, one that people genuinely believe it will carry out. We must break decisively with neoliberalism. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama dressed neoliberalism up in eloquent platitudes, but genuflecting to Wall Street profiteers and the military-industrial complex can’t be papered over or forgiven. We must no longer mince words about what we are against and what we are for. Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform was an excellent beginning, but it cannot be an end. His promises were essentially the New Deal 2.0, a milquetoast social democracy spiced with perceived “radicalism” only because of how thoroughly debased and retrograde American politics have become.
Reinstating the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, more strictly regulating the banks, overturning Citizens United, and creating a public works program to fix broken infrastructure are all welcome proposals, but they are fundamentally rearguard actions aimed at shoring up the fragments of systems in crisis. Likewise with laws guaranteeing equal pay for women and safeguarding the right to unionize. Calling for a $15/hour minimum wage, expanding Social Security and investing heavily in green energy, banning fracking, and increasing taxes on the rich and large corporations are similarly commendable, but even these policies wouldn’t upend the system as we know it. Bernie’s proposals to eliminate tuition at public universities, abolish private prisons, mandate paid family and sick leave, and establish a single-payer “Medicare for All” system come closer to requiring radical change to the status quo.
But in many cases, European countries have had universal health care for over 80 years now. Most developed countries never had private prisons to begin with. And compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is incredibly backward in terms of guaranteeing free higher education and a minimum amount of vacation time for workers. None of Bernie’s proposals, with the possible exception of Medicare for All, would profoundly challenge a system where a few people have massive power over everyone else’s lives. They are perfectly compatible with business as usual and capitalism’s continued functioning. We see this confirmed in most of Europe, where welfare states are ample compared to the U.S. but capitalism still reigns supreme.
If we genuinely wish to combat global warming, which we know poses an existential threat to humanity, this alone will require us to advocate peaceful revolution. Capitalism will not magically solve global warming. Big Oil, Big Coal, and Wall Street banks heavily invested in fossil fuels will simply double down, as we’re seeing already in Trump’s regime. The Left must commit itself to democratic socialism: a movement that will finally, thoroughly, and irrevocably democratize American economic, political, and social life. Our political system needs to be purged of all its undemocratic elements: gerrymandering, the Electoral College, the private funding of elections, the barriers to third parties, Citizens United and all rulings permitting corporate money to pollute the public sphere, voter ID laws, and much more. Politics and economics are inextricably connected, so this also means destroying large concentrations of economic power. Tinkering around the edges of the capitalist system—increasing the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the rich, and instituting tougher safety regulations—is well and good, but it cannot be our final goal.
Universal human emancipation will only be attained when the corporate stranglehold over our lives is forever broken. It is unjust that a small handful of human beings exercise such grossly disproportionate power over everyone else’s safety, happiness, and wellbeing. The modern corporation is an archaic mode of economic organization, an ill-disguised version of a medieval fiefdom. It deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, and countless other corporations are devouring our futures. The principle of profit Ã¼ber alles gives us the politics and economics of violence and death. It legitimizes the domination of nature. It yields modern-day enslavement in the form of wage labor, which allows capitalists to essentially own human beings. It unleashes a litany of plagues: corporate corner-cutting on worker and consumer safety; tax evasion and avoidance; propaganda and misinformation campaigns; and the ruthless suppression of any regulation or policy which endangers the almighty profit margin.
War, motivated by the basest profit-seeking, is an obvious form of violence. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia are all clear forms of violence: police brutality, mass incarceration, hate crimes, and discrimination do great harm. Poverty, inequality, and being forced to work menial jobs are also forms of violence: they kill people, squander lives, and injure the human spirit. More insidious forms of violence include the corporate media’s suppression of ordinary people’s voices and representations, and corporate campaigns against critical thinking and public education. All these modes of violence are on full display in Trump’s regime.
The Left must oppose the politics of death and violence and promote the politics of life, and we must speak of what we do in those terms. Making a direct connection between social safety net destruction, deregulation, militarization, and fossil fuel boosterism on the one hand and unnecessary injuries and deaths for ordinary people on the other would powerfully highlight a link right-wingers want desperately to avoid. Linking racism, toxic masculinity, and social structures that cause isolation and loneliness to domestic mass shootings would likewise connect issues which are usually kept separate. Connecting the promotion of violence and death abroad (through weapons sales, drone strikes, bombing campaigns, and the funding of various proxy groups) to a boomerang effect here at home would be a far more effective way of explaining foreign policy than the Democrats’ current, largely incoherent strategy. These rhetorical reframings would pave the way for advocating the politics of life.
Our goal must be a country and world where power, political and economic, is publicly accountable and used to eradicate poverty, war, and inequality; end militarism, structural racism and all forms of discrimination; reverse environmental degradation and global warming; and promote joy, pleasure and happiness. All large corporations need to be socialized or dismantled entirely; any major concentration of economic power that isn’t directly accountable to the communities it serves is a threat to human freedom.
More concretely, what would the politics of life look like? What is paramount is zeroing out carbon emissions as soon as possible. Large-scale programs to replace fossil fuels, fully develop green energy, and create an environmentally sustainable society would revolutionize urban architecture, national transportation infrastructure and food systems, and people’s relationship to nature. In an America governed by the politics of life, the things that make life livable—healthy food, safe water, clean air, warm clothing, warm shelter, medical and mental health care—would be universally available, funded by the proceeds from socializing large corporations and terminating various industries that yield death, and in some cases provided by now publicly controlled companies.
Unpleasant but necessary work would be automated as much as possible (and highly paid if unable to be automated); pleasant but necessary work would be distributed through a democratic decision-making process within workers’ cooperatives and local communities. A balance would need to be struck between centralized, national economic activity, which can achieve economies of scale and be easily administered, and decentralized, local economic activity, which would give people more direct control over their lives and limit carbon emissions. The leisure time freed up by all this economic rejiggering would be redistributed throughout the population, enabling everyone to work far less, if at all. People would then be free to pursue the things that make life worth living: loving relationships with family and friends; immersion in nature; freely chosen work (as opposed to busy-work and alienating, degrading jobs); and music, art and learning of all varieties.
I have no illusions about how difficult achieving this utopia will be. It’s no exaggeration to say that this will be the hardest task in recorded human history. In 5,000 years of sedentary societies, there has never been an instance of successful peaceful revolution where all forms of oppression are overthrown at the same time. Depending on the extent to which self-interest, greed and the lust for power, fear of the unknown, and institutional inertia and the failure to completely reimagine politics are fundamental characteristics of humanity, such a peaceful revolution may be impossible.
But even if human nature is fundamentally constant, the aspects of it which are most prominent do vary with social circumstances. There’s no reason to think that the ugly aspects of human nature are more fundamental than the good ones: compassion, empathy, a passion for equality, and solidarity are just as basic, as the primatologist Frans de Waal’s work attests. What’s more, humanity has incredible powers of reason and has devised countless scientific, industrial, and commercial technologies which were unimaginable just centuries and decades ago. To think that the human species is in principle precluded from bringing the full force of its rationality to bear on designing equally ingenious social systems is to surrender to despair.
There are many obstacles to achieving this utopia. There are the abstract, free-standing hurdles: self-interest, avarice, and the desire to maintain and expand personal power on the part of those who benefit from the status quo; fear of change and the desire to gain power and wealth on the part of those who have been ideologically conditioned to support the status quo against their own interests.
Then there are the concrete hurdles that our political circumstances give us. In the wake of 45 years of neoliberalism, even after Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the uptick in social movement organizing in the form of groups like Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, and the current, still somewhat inchoate resistance movement, the Left is highly disorganized. Social solidarity has declined substantially since the middle of the 20th century; an individualistic mentality is far more common nowadays; levels of trust in social institutions have dropped precipitously (and not without good reason). Labor unions, long the backbone of American progressive movements, are moribund. The Republicans have near total dominance at the federal, state, and local levels. They have gerrymandered the House and passed voter disenfranchisement laws in many states. A typhoon of corporate money has deluged our political system.
The Democratic Party, still controlled to a large extent by Clintonite neoliberals, obstinately refuses to reform itself, forcing costly internecine battles which expend activists’ energy. Trumpist faux populism has, at least for the moment, captured the minds of a significant chunk of people who would have otherwise been receptive to left-wing populism. Ordinary people work long hours for low pay, and this means that they have less leisure time to engage in politics. Sympathetic elites are lacking; grassroots morale is low in the face of the onslaught of horrific news; the political system is actively hostile to our agenda...few left-wingers of the past would envy us our current moment.
And yet there are certain possibilities in the present moment. Precisely because of how bad life is for so many people, and because of the Trump administration’s assault on so many groups’ fundamental rights, the Left has the opportunity to politicize many people who were previously apathetic and disengaged. As the immense Women’s Marches and the airport protests against Trump’s Muslim ban demonstrate, grassroots energy is available. Anxiety, rage and resentment are powerful political forces; they are present in large swathes of the U.S. right now and they can be channeled in emancipatory directions, not just reactionary ones. Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success in the Democratic primary and polls which confirm both his nationwide popularity and widespread agreement with his policy stances signal that genuine left-wing populism is latent and ready to be tapped, especially in the event of another Wall Street crash, a calamity which appears increasingly likely now that the big banks are bigger than ever and regulations are being rolled back again. Capitalism was partially discredited by the 2008 collapse; another crash will discredit it even further, if not completely.
We aren’t bereft of models for a theory of change. Sociological research on social movements by Sidney Tarrow, Kim Voss, Doug McAdam, and others identifies numerous elements necessary for successful social movements, among them sympathetic elites, grassroots mobilization (and institutional structures capable of sustaining grassroots energy), cultural receptivity to the movement, and material and logistical resources. Movements need to be capable of recruiting, educating, organizing, and coordinating people locally and nationally. To do this, it’s necessary to have structures in place that create community and foster bonds between members of the movement. These structures need to have a high level of internal democracy, at least on the local level. To efficiently coordinate local chapters of a national movement, some degree of hierarchy is necessary, but hierarchies must be democratically accountable. Social movements often require decades of careful planning; organizing isn’t necessarily something that happens overnight. Nonviolent civil disobedience can be quite effective in exposing the contradiction between a nominally democratic society’s professed values and its reality, but marches, protests, and demonstrations need to be strategic: they must be directed toward specific goals and be planned with police and state repression in mind.
There are precedents in American history when it comes to mobilizing against steep political odds. As Lawrence Goodwyn details, the Populists were able to reach 2 million people through a system of itinerant lecturers, journals and newspapers, farmers’ co-ops, rallies and picnics. They ran up against political obstacles that they were unable to surmount, but they used cultural tactics masterfully. Starting in the late 1800s, the labor movement faced vicious repression from the police, army, and private security forces in its attempts to unionize workers, but it persisted. As Steve Fraser, Nelson Lichtenstein, and James Green write, it created a wide array of social and educational institutions (including soup kitchens, newspapers, food co-ops, choirs, reading groups, libraries, and training programs) to create a common identity for workers, bind them together within a shared culture, and teach workers how to be more assertive and militant in advocating for themselves. That shared culture created a sense of kinship and obligation which empowered workers and fortified them when facing retribution from corporations. The labor movement also formed institutions on a national level and used strikes of various kinds, boycotts, organizing campaigns, and electoral mobilization to achieve its goals.
The civil rights movement used similar organizing strategies. As Charles Payne and Michael Honey chronicle, the civil rights movement engaged in long-term grassroots organizing and used educational programs like the Freedom Schools as a way of instilling a culture of empowerment in the rank-and-file. Many of the chief civil rights organizers disliked bureaucracy and tried to balance participatory democracy with coordination (without subscribing to the simplistic view that hierarchy was always bad). They also used novel activities like Freedom Rides to raise consciousness and appeal to the court of public opinion. Before he died, Martin Luther King was planning a Poor People’s March on Washington, one that would unite Latino farmworkers, Native Americans, poor white Appalachians, women, and all people who suffered deprivation behind a campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights.
We can learn from past American freedom struggles. Politics is a battle of ideas, but it is also a struggle over power, and it requires power to win. It relies on culture, a sense of personal involvement, symbolism, and emotion just as much as on reasoned argumentation. Money is necessary but not sufficient to prevail. Organized people can defeat organized money, but they have to be tremendously disciplined to overcome the many hurdles that confront any movement for significant change. Generally, the path from genesis to fruition for a social movement is measured in decades. The trouble is that we don’t have decades to spare; our environmental, political, and economic systems are all in crisis right now, and we can’t afford to wait for change. Nonetheless, we must thoughtfully organize. We can be sure of very little these days, but one thing we can be certain of is that many more crises loom on the horizon.
I don’t pretend that I have all of the answers to the vexing question of how to translate our loftiest ideals into practice. Such a task requires the combined brainpower and humanpower of millions of people. But the difficulty of fully realizing our ideals doesn’t invalidate them. What I am certain of, however, is that the common assumption of neoliberalism and New Deal liberalism—that a successful accommodation could be reached with capital—must be transcended if we are to convert resistance into something more fruitful. The disastrous consequences Obamacare’s repeal will have underscores something that has always been true, although occasionally forgotten: politics is a matter of life and death. Trump’s policies threaten to kill our present and future. Let us respond by promoting the politics of life.