Thoughts on the Current Debate: A Perspective from the U.S.


[Image courtesy of Zombietime.]

I haven’t found the time to post a response to what Bob, Marko and the Drink Soaked Trots for War have been writing the past week or so. I’ve found the discussion stimulating aside from the occasional juvenile outbursts. I certainly find the West vs. Anti-West perspective to have some utility, especially vis-à-vis the current anti-totalitarian struggle we are facing.

The generic left-right divide does not actually capture the complexity of people’s politics in the U.S. these days. For example, an individual may be considered “conservative” on foreign policy issues and “liberal” on domestic issues. Plus, when you actually start to examine positions on specific issues things get more muddled. I’ve known many working-class individuals who are very “liberal” when it comes to wages, health care, and pensions but very “conservative” when it comes to the environment or matters of concern to the lgbt community.

Why this is the case is an interesting question to ponder. IMHO most Americans have similar ambiguities in their political identities. I suspect that part of it is we don’t have a long history of political parties tied to specific political ideologies like democratic socialism, communism, etc. in the United States. The parties espousing these sorts of ideas were all relatively short-lived, especially compared to those of Europe. This continuous institutional history goes a long way in explaining differences in worldview between American and European workers.

I think the entire issue of reality, cognition, and perception gets overlooked in these discussions and debates. It’s my contention, and I realize it’s a strong claim, that most people involved in radical politics in the United States are not involved for reasons that many would consider political. Instead, involvement in these groups and organizations provides a sense of belonging and identity.

Most of the actions that take place under the rubric of “radical politics” in the U.S. has very little actual political content, at least in relation to domestic or foreign policy. As Kevin Harris has argued, many people who join these marginal political groups are participating in a self-delusional political fantasy:

My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective.

Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not.

They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like “Dungeons and Dragons” carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances — old castles and maidens in distress — but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.

I’ve found that most people on the radical left (whether “authoritarian” or “libertarian”) subscribe to various forms of fantasy ideologies. For them, politics is about validating their own personal political beliefs (like being “anti-state”) rather than accomplishing anything political. That’s not to say that the libertarian left holds uninteresting political beliefs. But let’s be honest, how many of these black-hooded youths actually thinks “the state” is going to collapse anytime soon?

I used to consider myself an anarchist. Anarchism was–key word being was–a thriving political movement in the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because it had a strong foundation in working-class communities. Today it is mostly a fad for middle-class college students, like socialism in general. This, not government repression, explains the movement’s weakness. These ideologies lack any sort of appeal amongst the classes they were once associated with. Historian Ron Radosh refers to this as the “leftover left”.

Marko articulates similar thoughts when he writes:

It may be true, philosophically speaking, that anarchists who support autonomous communes are fundamentally different from statist socialists who support a centrally planned economy, but given the unlikelihood that the ideals of either will ever be realised, I do not consider it particularly worthwhile to discuss such differences. What matters is where one stands on concrete issues relating to struggles that are actually taking place…

And this is the key point: real, meaningful change is possible under the existing liberal-democratic order, whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better. If I have ‘made my peace’ with the existing order, it is not because I think the existing order is perfect, but because it is an existing order that can be improved, whereas the radical-left alternatives do not offer any realistic prospect for successful progressive change.

That’s the clincher. As I’ve written elsewhere, utopian political programs lead to dystopian outcomes. Reform is necessary in any society or system of government, economics, jurisprudence, and so forth. But revolution, at least as dreamed by the radical left in the U.S., is a fantasy.


One response »

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Current Debate: A Perspective from the U.S. (April, 2007) « The New Centrist

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