Is There a Left Here Left?

“Given the growing opposition to the Iraq war and rising inequality, why hasn’t the Left done better at organizing around these key issues, and what needs to be improved in order to do so? Making people aware of how bad things are is clearly necessary, but it is not sufficient for building something new. The real question of course is: Now what? And in particular: How to strategically build power for the long-term.”

The preceding paragraph was from a somewhat irritable note from a member of the audience at a meeting on October 15, hosted by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The meeting featured myself and Alexander Cockburn, addressing the theme, “Is there a Left left?”
‘Why hasn’t the Left done better at organizing around these key issues?’ The question presupposes there is a coherent force in the country that can be called by that name, “the Left”. I don’t think there is, in the sense of any potent organized force, let alone mass movement or even mini-movement that is challenging the fundamental terms of the system and is equal to the moment. And this — the disequilibrium of movement to moment — I think, is the cause for so much despondency (secret and not-so-secret) among American leftists, who certainly are alive even if some identifiable political and ideological home with a clear project, “The Left”, is not. There are many reasons for this, many of thm obvious ones, like the long-term effect of the imploding of the Soviet Union; the long-term effect of a reigning ideology in the West that ‘there is no alternative’; the demobilizing effect of Clintonism on vast sectors of progressive America, disorganization; disarray of the black community as a result of repression / criminalization, deindustrialization and split-level economic conditions (economic catastrophe for part of the community, McMansions for another part); the continuing long slide of organized labor; a generalized sense of insecurity (economic and personal) that lends itself more to caution than to daring, and so on.

I don’t think there is any magic formula, any set of approaches, to ‘fix’ this, and it would have been presumptuous or dishonest or both to say there was. Why, for instance, is the antiwar movement basically nowhere on campuses? I don’t know, and the people on campuses I’ve spoken to don’t have good answers either, but it’s up to them to answer that. They were disappointed when the war wasn’t stopped before it started after the Feb. 15, 2003, worldwide demonstrations. They were disappointed when it wasn’t stopped after that, and after a few more marches. They were disappointed and demoralized when Bush was re-elected. They can never get more than 15 people for a meeting and 5 are pushing a sectarian agenda, 5 want to talk only about Palestine and 5 can’t get past identity politics.

This last, admittedly, I’ve only heard from Columbia students, but the point is the institutionalized leadership of UFPJ and ANSWER isn’t being challenged by a younger generation pushing itself to the lead. And that institutionalized leadership is exhausted. Friends who work for UFPJ every day as volunteers say privately, “It’s hopeless.” Work goes on, the demos get planned, people do their vigils. The only force with any juice, it seems to me, are the military families, the counter-recruiters, the antiwar vets. I don’t believe some tactical adjustment will change this — ditching “Support the Troops”, ditching big demonstrations, embracing the Moratorium idea of doing one small thing every day on the same month in the same place, ditching UFPJ, ditching any engagement at all with electoral politics, throwing all effort into electoral politics, waving the flag of the Mahdi Army or whatever faction one wants to choose of the Iraqi resistance. All of those tactics have been proposed by various people. We can discuss till we’re blue in the face the various merits or demerits of such ideas, but I think it’s foolhardy to think any one or combination of them is going to invigorate the antiwar movement into an edgy potent force.

The antiwar movement is in a weird position: it’s job is not to sway public opinion, since a majority of Americans agree with it; but nothing changes, so people are demoralized. They’re not illogical in their demoralization. And there is neither the wild courage nor the organization to throw a spanner in the works, to disrupt the war machine — not from labor (though some unionists on the West Coast and internationally are trying to see what they might put together toward this end), not from the campuses, and only so far among the soldiers. The latter are the most promising, but are nowhere close to the situation of mass mutiny of drafted armies past. At this point it looks as if the war will end when the Iraqis punish the US beyond endurance or the generals mutiny or both, but I don’t think we should have illusions that that will be a glorious day for the Left.

I don’t think either mere cheerleading — we need the will! we need the courage! another world IS possible! — is much of a solution to anything. There are world historical forces afoot here, and one of the jobs of anyone who considers herself on the left is to try to understand them. I don’t think the Left in the heady days of empire really thought too much about the privileges and distortions being children of the empire conferred on it, except to say, in some quarters, We don’t want any part of it! But opting out only goes so far, and is delusional even if understandable. Now that the empire is exhausted at the top — and we could disagree about that, but I think the signs are more indicative of fundamental weakness than of strength even if the US can still kill everyone in the world many times over and still ‘afford’ billions of dollars a day doing that in one way or another — radicals are feeling what it means to be part of the general decline. How do we deal with it? That’s not an idle question, or one that has an obvious answer. There was a certain amount of chauvinism attached to the American Left in the sixties, a sense of being at the center of the political universe even if people did make their trips to Hanoi or Ghana or Paris.

And part of that was even justified, because America at the time could be said to be “swinging”, to quote Andy Kopkind from 1967. It’s not swinging now, but at the same time it’s awfully narrow to have to think of ‘the Left’ as something that’s bounded by national borders. And if we look beyond our borders, there is clearly a Left, in the sense of powerful movements or currents challenging the fundamental terms of the world economic system.

So if one asks, Is there a Left left? the answer is clearly yes, but not necessarily within our borders. So then how do we engage with that? What does solidarity and internationalism, as opposed to rad-tourism, demand today? What can we learn from those who have set out a task of developing “socialism for the 21st century” or autonomy and freedom from the neoliberal chokehold? And how can we support those efforts, while not abandoning organizing at home that might not rattle the world, at least not this minute, but is still necessary if one has any sense of politics as being a long march?

In Bolivia you have massed organizations of peasants, workers, farmers, indigenous people in Bolivia toppling two governments, facing bullets and suffering casualties to do so, asserting in the most powerful way claims against the force of privatization, deregulation, immiseration, etc. In Mexico You have the Zapatistas arising from seemingly nowhere on the eve of NAFTA’s implementation saying No, everything is not finished; it is still possible to put up a fundamental fight — and changing Mexican politics. These are not movements that can just be ‘imitated’. Nor are they — either in Bolivia or Mexico or Ecuador or Venezuela or Argentina or Cuba or Brazil – movements that are perfectly realized, without contradictions, without setbacks, weaknesses, disappointments ahead. Most of all they are not to be romanticized. But Latin America, I believe, where the center of political energy has shifted. It is where what Eqbal Ahmad called “the logic of daring” is at work. And it is the original homeland of millions of people now in this country whose movements and organizing here may be uneven, may not conform strictly to some notion of the Left but do bear attention and support from the rest of us. Certainly in the realm of labor, organizing by immigrants is where most of the action is. I think one can with justice say that the immigrant rights marches of May 1, 2006, were the closest thing to a general strike that the US has seen in a long time, to take the most obvious example. Now that movement is fractured too, and has its contradictions, and has come under severe repression.

That there has been no wider Left in the US to defend immigrants, to articulate the rights of people not only to move across borders (mobility of labor) but also to stay in their homelands and survive — and to link the international experience with the domestic experience of dispossession on any number of fronts (the most glaring being Katrina) — indicates that there is a task at hand considerably more robust than blogging in the fight for a world fit to live in.

There are people and groups chipping away at a piece of this here and there, but I’m certain they don’t think it will be realized off a breezy checklist of ‘things to do’.There’s a pretty major hurdle, and that, as I see it, is how to counter the dominant reality of our lives, which is that capitalism is increasingly organizing society for alienation.

When you talk to old labor strategists they often make the point that labor organizing follows corporate organizing, and the way a job organizes crews or teams or distribution systems or whatever helps point a direction for how labor can most effectively organize. (Because those crews or whatever already work together, trust each other, rely on each other, are sometimes intimate socially.) So on one level we could say capitalism organizes production globally, so labor needs to organize globally, though that presents a tougher set of problems from the organization of one workplace; plus not all work is globalized, But if you think about capitalism as a system that implicates us beyond a particular job, then its global organization is something that affects us all, because it is a worldwide system of lowered living standards, increasing insecurity, deregulation, evisceration of the social contract/social safety net, privatization and dispossession. So one question that arises is, How do societies, at a minimum, put capitalism back on a leash? Because it’s unleashed now and that fact makes almost every action for a more just or equitable society impossible. So that’s a major question. What the strategy is for doing that, in real terms, with real people on the ground, I don’t know. But that curls back to the other problem mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. If you think about how disconnected people are — from their co-workers (the rise of consultancies, independent contract work, telecommuting, call centers, temp work, personal service work), from their neighbors, this is a pretty profound problem. And you can extend that out, to alienation within a workplace via two-tier union contracts, temporary vs permanent employees, domestic vs native-born employees; within a community, witness the crazy obsession with homosexuals in the black community, the crazy persistent racism in the white community, the crazy bugaboo of undocumented immigrants across many communities, including those of documented immigrants. A lot of this is not new, obviously, but the disorganization of so much of society feels new (and I’m talking over the past maybe 15 years). Sometimes I think that at a minimum we ought to be encouraging people to join — anything. The PTA, the Kiwanis Club, the local pathetic chapter of the NAACP, the local tenants group, the freelancers union, the local Democratic club or libertarian club, whatever, just to start remembering how to think together. And even if it prompted people to see what they don’t want to be part of, maybe it would encourage them to create something that they do. This sounds pretty lame, I know. But the situation is pretty lame, or so it seems. The whole reason the church has been so effective in politics, I think, is because it’s one of the last stands in society where people aren’t alienated: they meet every week, share a set of ideas and values, engage in something that is practical and enchanted at the same time. And what does the left have? Virtual communities, virtual organizing, virtual communication. I don’t think it’s all that helpful. You can get a hundred thousand people to a demo, or to sign a letter or call their Congress people or donate to some candidate or cause (send money for an ad in the NYTimes!), but they’re pretty much alone.

So, it seems to me the first step has to involve a reorganization of society, people getting together. I work with a housing group in New York. We do a lot of great work, organizing in private and public housing. But it’s a lot harder than it was in the 70s. The neighborhood has changed, people are less solidaristic, the economic structure of buildings makes them less solidaristic, since obviously the last rent controlled tenant and next to last rent stabilized tenant have nothing in common with the high-flying market-rate tenants, and in public housing there’s so much pressure and so much bad blood and people are so tired just trying to live. And our organization gets so tired just trying to survive, get the grants, etc. So it’s like rolling the rock up the hill. I have a little hope that the public housing work could gather more steam. There’s a summit of groups doing this kind of work around the country coming up in January, hoping to figure out how everyone’s disjointed work could be strengthened and combined, and trying, maybe, to think about it all in larger terms re public resources, public good, some reinvigorated social contract. Baby steps.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at




JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.