Why it is Disappointing to be on the Left, While it Remains an Inherent Necessity

I have attended the Left Forum yesterday in New York (http://www.leftforum.org/content/left-forum-2013-june-7th-9th-pace-university-new-york-city). It was a very interesting experience, and I must thank one of my urban studies professors at Penn for having recommended me to go there. It was certainly very thrilling to meet other leftists, progressives, socialists, communists, and liberals, who all share concerns about the nature of our current economic system, which leaves the “bads” to the vast majority of the people, while delivering the “goods” to a few privileged groups, to paraphrase the economist Richard Wolff, whose session I had attended. The sessions, which I attended on the nature of the unfair financial system, worker-owned cooperatives, Greek Syriza party politicians, and Chinese political economy were all engaging and give some hope to the left- that as intellectuals are mostly marginalized.

But aside from the content, I want to focus briefly on the psychology and sociology of the people that attended this event, which never escapes my mind, whenever I attend these forums, regardless of the topics which they seek to address (and which I find similarly important to deal with). First, the leftist is an intellectual. In all of the sessions that I attended, the people all had some specialized knowledge about the structure of the economy. There could be wildly differing views about the specific content (and I will comment on that a little bit later), but overall most leftists are undoubtedly more informed about history, politics, economics and society than the vast majority of the people. And here comes the inherent tension: the left intellectuals have a critical consciousness about what is going wrong in the world, and in their ideal conception they could wrestle the political power into their hands and accomplish changes that supposedly benefit all people equally. There is generally a shared commitment to economic egalitarianism and political equality. The exorbitant inequality, which marks the contemporary world, is enormously unacceptable in the eyes of the leftist. But here he encounters some severe barriers to success: the people that he will benefit with his policy ideas, the common people, are on average not very interested in their political environment, or they may not be as invested or knowledgable about it even if they show some interest. The Left Forum requires some prior knowledge and interest, otherwise it would not become a stimulating experience, and people would not become interested to attend the forum. But if the common people are not integrated in the Left Forum then one can not speak of democracy and equality, which is an essential repertoire of left philosophy. A vanguard at best, and a socialist dictatorship at worst may be created if the Left Forum takes off in a serious political direction (which I don’t think). And unfortunately there is a historically tight connection between the two (i.e. Soviet Union). The comment from Wei Xiaoping, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, that democratic control in the workplace is impossible, because division of labor prevents this, should remind us that the the reality of a workplace democracy by, for and of the people is difficult to accomplish. (Though, my opinion about democracy in the workplace is that it is still possible, even if not to the desirable extent: of course, a janitor can not decide over the appropriate financial regulation of banks, but he can decide over his pay, benefits and working conditions, and that can be accomplished in once-a-week worker assemblies. Democratic participation is also improved by having labor union officials represented in the board of directors in the corporation. Each of those elements are already in place, and may still be corrupted. However, the barriers to uncontrolled capitalist power is thus better limited.)

The leftist is subsequently in a dilemma, which the conservatives and oligarchs simply do not have. The oligarch belongs to a small class of people, who control most of the political, economic and cultural power. The first two are by themselves sufficient to control the society and shape it according to the oligarch’s desires. But the latter is perhaps the natural glue that holds a society together despite enormous inequality. This has been well theorized by Antonio Gramsci, when he wrote about the hegemonic power that the ruling elites display to control and shape the desires of the population. Some examples will be sufficient to illustrate this principle: war on terror, welfare queen, American dream, free markets, hard work=success etc. These are catch-phrases that are so simple to understand for the common person that they may easily be believed if they are often enough reported, and not encountered with alternative input. The hegemony is a distraction making people unable to ask questions about the legitimacy of the system and demand changes to it. As I theorize, more distraction by the powerful is necessary as the objective economic conditions of the population deteriorate, and greater ideological campaigns become less effective as the conditions progress. The oligarch’s interest is not to pose questions about the viability of the whole system. In fact, he is in charge of it, and what can be better for these oligarchs than being able to sit on the top floor of the skyscraper without significant competition from below? Of course, it would be very difficult to maintain the status quo if significant pressure from left intellectuals and a mobilized community and working class would exist, but such difficulty can not be encountered if the left intellectuals with their critical consciousness but their lack of hegemonial power in politics, economy and culture are the only ones clamoring for change. Giving the leftists a small outlet for their views might not even be harmful to the oligarchs, because venting their frustrations does not challenge the class structure fundamentally.

My second thought about these left intellectuals is that while the general, abstract philosophical goals are all commonly agreed upon (economic egalitarianism and political equality- though the words that the left may choose to use might differ) their intellectual status makes it exceedingly difficult to agree on common viewpoints and common policies to address all of the problems. Being a leftist implies being an intellectual, because critical awareness about the society is not a given but only comes through acculturation either in the parental household, family or friends or after lengthy library studies (I was acculturated by the latter). This acculturation entails a habit and practice, which many people never seek to gain, because they are not aware of it or they don’t want to bother with it. Making a tight link between leftists and intellectuals, of course, does not imply that all intellectuals are leftists (there are many conservative intellectuals too), nor do I imply that all leftists are quasi-Talmudic scholars, having read all the radical literature that exists in the world (an impossible endeavor). They are simply more intellectually inclined than the average of the population.

But back to the problem: what is the problem in being a leftist and an intellectual? The goal/principle of the left, as I expressed, is very clear, but the method of accomplishing it is variegated, which is what an intellectual is concerned with. There is, thus, a fundamental conflict between the world that all leftists seek to achieve and the methods of accomplishing their objectives given the many proposals and the many ideas that the left has to offer. Here we have a gap between what could be considered a seminar environment and a political battlefield. In the seminar environment, the goal is to gain new knowledge by discussing points and arguments, and if necessary quarrel to produce new results or to continue with the quarrel without a fully satisfactory response. Often times it is virtually impossible to find a satisfactory response, and the seminar environment produces more questions after the session than there are answers, but that would make the seminar still very much successful. (I participated in many seminars in college and find them very enjoable.) In a political battlefield, some discussion is desirable, but at the end of the day a vote has to be taken to complete a program on which to campaign on. An endless discussion would be unreasonable insofar as the other party (i.e. the oligarchs) is better organized and seek electoral support and confidence. Some measure of authoritarian structure is necessary to produce results. In the ideal case, of course, the political battlefield and the seminar environment are both combined with each other, and this is what many on the left will likely want to proclaim. However, close consideration of the dialectic of the situation make me very pessimistic.

Two anecdotes from my trip to the Left Forum should illustrate this the best: first, I was talking with a left newspaper salesman, who made fun of most progressives, liberals and social democrats, because they are all part of the establishment. He criticized Salvador Allende, the Chilean president in the early-1970s, who was assassinated by the CIA to prevent his socialist reforms from taking shape (plunging the country into extreme neoliberal reforms advocated by Milton Friedman and other Chicago school economists, many of whom worked in general Pinochet’s regime). The criticism is that Allende was not aggressive enough or never intended to abolish the capitalist class, and was too accommodating and reformist rather than revolutionary. In our debate, we got off to the history of the Soviet Union, where I argued that the Leninist vanguard turned into Stalinist totalitarianism, and he argued that Trotzky could have been the viable alternative. But aside from that I disagreed with his negative conception of Allende, who at the time when he took power, was doing the best he could, perhaps not to abolish the ruling bourgeoisie, but at least gradually weaken their power and transform the country’s institutions to more closely serve the needs of most working people. That was already sufficient to raise the ire of the oligarchs in Chile and US policymakers. In the face of US power and the united efforts of the Chilean bourgeoisie, how should Allende have hoped to completely get rid of the bourgeoisie? He was doing the best that was possible in those circumstances. The newspaper salesman aggressively denounced political leaders and movements that are slightly to his right, and this was on the face of it ridiculous, because it is certainly better to get a halfway political deal than to receive no deal at all. Wanting a utopia without taking small steps to get there, is in my eyes enormously short-sighted and irresponsible. But besides that, this intellectual disagreement serves as an illustration of how two leftists can so much disagree on a point, and find it difficult to form a common voice against the capitalist oligarchs.

In the second example, I encountered one left-wing historian, Webster Tarpley. A Wikipedia search immediately identifies him as a conspiracy theorist, who is very interested in linking powerful individuals to a powerful network serving the oligarchy. In his biography on president Barack Obama, for example, he describes that his community organizing activities make him “a poverty pimp, a cynical opportunist, who uses suffering people as a political commodity” (quoted from the Amazon description of his book http://www.amazon.com/Barack-H-Obama-Unauthorized-Biography/dp/0930852818/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237815454&sr=8-1 ). I would not go that far and would be content to take Obama by his word: that he was a community organizer before becoming a politician because he wanted to do good, but did not feel himself to be very efficacious outside of politics. (And when he became a politician, he played the corrupt game and was tied up with Wall Street to the detriment of the public. But that is different than Tarpley’s view, who considered Obama to be hand-picked by Wall Street from early on, even implicating his mother to be part of the power network.) When Tarpley found out that I was a sociology student, he immediately remarked that I should become another C. Wright Mills by studying the power elite network, certainly close to the work that Tarpley himself wrote, though Tarpley wrote with a more grandiose conspirational flair. Even though I enjoyed Mills, I would not pursue this research field as a major field of research, because it is not easy to obtain data on the powerful, though the internet makes it certainly easier. And as he said, the academic profession in the social sciences has become significantly more abstract and less oriented toward addressing contemporary problems. I can actually not disagree with that hypothesis. Historians become enmeshed with cultural history and forget economic and political history. Literature and humanities scholars focus on literary criticism, which bears little connection with the current world. Economists chase abstract mathematical formulas that ignore the underlying class, political and social relations. Political scientists adopt the rational choice perspective of economists, and use them to determine political outcomes, again ignoring the social basis of political behavior. Sociologists fixate themselves on immigration, race, gender, and LGBT studies, adopting microsociological and anthropological approaches without linking them consciously to the larger economic and political struggles. Now, I might be exaggerating somewhat, but trends in the academic world can be very gloomy given that the rate of marketization of the academic labor market have increased. Job tenures are reduced, while more pressure is applied against the faculty to seek foundation grants (read: powerful political interests), which makes them more accepting of the political system and less questioning of the relevant social and political problems. This is certainly a bad environment for the C. Wright Mills of academia. One recent look at the faculty of the Temple economics department displays this intellectual trend very clearly. When I scanned the CV’s of the professors on the faculty (with 20+ years of experience), I noticed that several of them (especially those trained back in the 1960s) were writing articles in academic yet clear English, and about things that a responsible person might want to care about, such as the implication of prison privatizations. Then I scanned the CV’s of the young assistant professors on the faculty (less than 10 years experience), and all of them wrote dry academic papers using the Game theory and other econometric models that bear no resemblance to how humans actually behave. I must be strongly assuming that most economics departments are not even considering the research of heterodox thinkers, or even hire them. The dismantling of the heterodox economics department of Notre Dame University might be an indication of it.

But back to Tarpley: he is a conspiracy theorist, who would not only make charges against the whole of the academic profession (which really ignores some very capable faculty), but also against most of the left-wing intelligenzia, of which he is a part of himself. Amy Goodman is denounced as a servant to corporate power, the illusion of a democratic voice in a pretty authoritarian state. Noam Chomsky, who also spoke on the Left Forum, is also denounced for his too moderate views. I can not disagree more. Goodman may be taking financial support from the government and other wealthy individuals to run her show, but it is also true that she runs a news program that informs the viewers about what is going on in the world, not just sell advertisements and ridiculous images as the mainstream media does. Chomsky is probably one of the rare public intellectuals, who expresses the problems in our world and make us question the ruling propaganda. Since he made a living as professor of linguistics, one of the most non-political fields imaginable, he is certainly beyond reproach when it comes to his personal ties to the powerful. (He even admitted that MIT, his employer, has benefited tremendously from military research grants from the federal government, especially during the Cold War. But Chomsky has always been an ardent critic of the military-industrial complex.) Though Tarpley had some interesting things to say, his conspirational mind makes it impossible to determine what are essentially good policies or good public figures and which are bad ones. It is certainly desirable to constantly have a critical mindset, and for that leftist intellectuals should be praised, but so entrenched opposition against the resources of the left make it difficult to accomplish any larger tasks to create a better world.

These examples show me that leftist intellectuals are struggling to be the vanguards, while maintaining broad-based democratic ideals. On a practical level, they may agree on the political goals, but disagree on the means to get there, and internal denunciations and disputes foster an interesting seminar environment at best, and a bitter argument at worst, rather than a successful political movement, which can more seriously challenge the power structures and the broken capitalist system. Yet, I am reminded again and again after finishing to read the newspaper, absorbing the terrible political news from austerity to unemployment to climate catastrophe to inequality, that a broad-based social movement that articulates a clear agenda is more than ever necessary, and that the leftist intellectuals, who can coherently articulate plans and strategies for change, also play a crucial role in this transformation. I end on a positive note: Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy, gave his lecture on the worker-owned cooperatives, and he generally gave the audience a very hopeful picture about what is already happening that is transforming the communities in this country rather than just hopeful dreams that can be gleaned from the textbook. While I do not think that these cooperatives fundamentally challenge the capitalist system (for that a state takeover with or without force and a dismantling of big, capitalist corporations and banks will remain necessary), they give some hope and some alternatives to the people in communities suffering from high health care costs, high student debt, unaffordable housing, unaffordable child care, poverty and unemployment.

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One Response to Why it is Disappointing to be on the Left, While it Remains an Inherent Necessity

  1. Pingback: Why It Can be Frustrating to be on the Left | Mr Liu's Opinions

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