Our Missing Left Opposition

From the time of the French Revolution, when the more radical delegates to the National Assembly seated themselves to the left of the presiding officer, Left and Right have designated relatively stable, though evolving and multi-faceted, political orientations.

These poles constitute a spectrum along which policies, programs, political parties, and individuals too can be arrayed.

What that spectrum represents — what left and right signify — is impossible to say precisely, though the differences are generally recognizable and well understood.

The Left is dedicated to continuing, and deepening, the commitment to “liberty, equality, and fraternity (solidarity)” put forward in the French Revolution.  Tradition, authority and order are core values for the Right.

There is overlap of course; the Right, especially lately and especially in the United States and other neoliberal bastions, has taken a keen interest in “liberty” or “freedom” (the words are interchangeable).   But its purchase on that concept differs from the Left’s.

Historically, the Right has not cared as much about civil liberties as the Left has.  What nowadays obsesses the Right is state interference with capitalist market relations.  They want it diminished or, in the extreme, eliminated altogether — for the sake, they claim, of economic freedom.

Even in times and places where feudal vestiges survived and where liberalism was a pole of attraction, the Left never enthused over that kind of freedom.  Its anti-capitalist component was, of course, hostile towards it.

It is worth reflecting on why the usual political understandings seem not to hold any longer in the American case, insofar as we identify our Left and Right with the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Some (right-wing) libertarians, Republicans (indeed, Tea Partiers) all, have been remarkably decent on civil liberties, while many liberal (ostensibly “leftish”) mainstream Democrats have been fair to awful.

And when it comes to promoting policies capitalists favor, the Democrats are second to none, Republicans included.  Barack Obama’s grand bargaining is just the latest egregious episode.

A “left” that panders to capitalists’ interests is no longer as rare as it used to be; it has become a worldwide phenomenon, explained in part by the failures of the last century’s boldest anti-capitalist ventures.  The historic defeat of Communism weighs especially heavily on the contemporary scene.

Our “left’s” take on civil liberties is more conjunctural.  Deference to Obama’s and Attorney General Eric Holder’s assaults on due process and other longstanding rights and liberties accounts, at least in part, for this improbable and unfortunate turn of events.

The more resolute stand of a few Republican legislators seems ideologically driven, though
there is plainly an opportunistic component to it as well.  Besting Democrats on civil liberties is yet another way, as if more were needed, to make Obama look bad.

There are other differences between Left and Right understandings of liberty.

The Left’s interest has always had more to do with how able individuals are to do what they want than with how much state or non-state actors impede individuals’ activities.  The Right has generally been concerned with little else.

An interest in autonomy, in being the author of one’s own ends, has also been more a concern of the Left than the Right.

But what this has to do with Democrats and Republicans is not as obvious as may appear because the terms “left” and “right” can be – and in this case are – used in ways that diverge from the usual historical understandings.

Being spatial metaphors, “left” and “right” are relational concepts, defined in contrast to one another.  This introduces a certain ambiguity into descriptions of political orientations.

Political parties and social movements that everyone understands to be on the Left have left and right wings, as do movements and parties of the Right.  As with any continuum, there are also finer gradations.  How many there are, and how they should be described, depends on the context.

And what is true of its component parts is also true of the political culture at large.  This is how it is possible – natural even – to identify the Democratic Party with the Left.  It is not where it fits on the notional left/right spectrum that warrants this description, but how it stands in comparison to the GOP.

Where there is a left and a right, there is also a center.  In politics, the center is almost never a midpoint.  Neither is it what Aristotle called an “intermediary” or “mean.” Those terms denote positions that are appropriate to prevailing circumstances.  There is no reason to think that centrist positions are always or, for that matter, ever appropriate in this sense.

Rather, what counts as centrist depends on the nature of the political mainstream at particular times and places.  “Center” is therefore even less amenable to a general characterization than “Left” or “Right”.  Typically, the Center leans towards one or another pole on the spectrum, though it is almost always at some remove from each of them.

In  crises, centers sometimes fail to hold; centrists then fall into one or the other extreme.
However, in normal times, most individuals and parties cluster around the center.

Both Democrats and Republicans have always been parties of the center-right – both in reference to the idealized political spectrum that still governs political thinking, and in comparison to the norm in other developed capitalist countries.  Because Democrats are more dependent than Republicans on votes from working-class and other poorly off constituencies, they are and long have been the less rightist, and therefore more centrist, of the two.

Political organizations don’t just reflect views already present in the ambient political culture; they also help shape them.

Being a non-ideological, “catch-all” party, more interested in garnering votes than promoting ideas or policies, the Democrats are outliers in this respect too in comparison with the left-most mainstream political formations of other countries.  Their efforts on behalf of liberty, equality and fraternity, though significant in the middle decades of the twentieth century, pale in comparison with the achievements of the others.

Indeed, Democrats have always been more interested in tamping down working class expectations than in representing them.  And, though better than their rivals, especially in recent decades, they have dealt with African Americans, Latinos, and other socially excluded “minorities” in much the same way.

In recent years, for a variety of interrelated institutional, regional and historical reasons, our electoral system has forced the Democratic Party to move so far to the right in recent decades that it bears hardly any resemblance to the center-right party of the pre-Clinton era.

This was true even before the last, fragile barriers that somewhat insulated the political sphere from the predations of “malefactors of great wealth” fell; it is more true now that ever.

But since there is nowhere else in the mainstream where even a pale leftist presence can be expressed, the Democratic Party is still a home for the handful of legislators who stand to the left of their party’s – and their country’s — center.

The Obama administration takes them for granted in much the way that it takes the labor movement for granted and, more generally, in the way that it ignores the aspirations of the ample, increasingly left-leaning segment of the electorate from which Democrats draw most of their votes.

And why not?  If you demand nothing, that is exactly what you get.  It is also what you deserve.

The party’s right turn took off at full steam in the 1980s. The Clintons and the forces around them sealed the deal in the following decade.

And so, we now find ourselves in a situation where the only effective opposition to the Obama perpetual war regime, and to his War on Progress in what we now call the “homeland,” comes from the Republican side.  That is to say, it comes from the Right in both the notional and comparative sense.

If Obama’s assault on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid fails, we will only have Republican obstinacy to thank.  Over the past four and a half years, that obstinacy has been a mixed blessing.  It is too soon to tell whether it has done more harm than good, but it has kept Obama from doing more harm than he otherwise would.

It is sometimes said that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are  “philosophical.”   This is a mistake, and not just because the word is too grandiose to describe Republican thinking.  “Ideological” overstates the case too, for much the same reason.

The overriding fact is that Democrats and Republicans are too much on the same page to have genuinely principled differences.  They feed from the same trough, they obey the same masters, and their deeper political inclinations are of a piece.

And yet those two parties are as polarized as can be.  This is because they are each concerned with one thing only: jockeying for electoral advantage – an objective they pursue with single-minded diligence and, in the Republican case, with tactical aplomb.

On the Republican side too, there is a Tea Party constituency that insists on being placated.  Their representatives entered Congress en masse in 2010, and they have as little patience with tactical opportunism as they do with reasoned arguments.

But because there is nothing in their heads beyond confusion and mean-spirited passion, what they are for seldom exceeds a brute determination to block the Obama administration at every turn.

And since they will not acquiesce, the way the Democratic “left” habitually does, it has become all but impossible for the GOP leadership to coordinate its activities on behalf of economic elites with the Administration’s.

The resulting gridlock makes Republicans look ridiculous but, at a deeper level, it suits their purposes.  Not unreasonably, they think that obstinacy has worked for them so far, notwithstanding the 2012 election.   Why should they become reasonable now?

How did it come to this?  How did jockeying for electoral advantage become the be all and end all of American politics, at the expense of anything resembling a public interest or even an enlightened (ruling) class interest?

The short answer is money.   For Democrats and Republicans, it is all that matters; it is what makes their world turn round.

These days, it is indispensable for getting elected; more important, by far, than eloquence or charm or even that elusive factor, charisma – and vastly more important than ideas.

Political scientists used to talk about how the poles on the left/right spectrum go after the median voter.   It was argued that this is why the center generally prevails.   But that was then – before the median voter gave way to the median dollar.

Elections turn on money, but so does what happens to politicians after their “last hurrah” – when the time comes to cash in their chips.  That is when political opportunism gives way to outright cupidity.

Graft in office is rare on our shores.  But cashing in afterwards is commonplace and easy.  What used to be called “public service” is now, for many, little more than a royal road to riches.  In this too, that dreadful Clinton family is emblematic – as both a symptom and a cause.

The situation has become so awful that it is hard to resist despair.  At election time especially, illusions are all that is left.  It is not for nothing that the most meretricious – and successful – politician of our time got to where he is with vain promises of “change” and “hope.”

This is, on balance, a welcome sign; it shows that cynicism has not yet completely won.  But it also reveals the hopelessness upon which cynicism feeds.  That hopelessness is inherent in the constraints we now confront.

On the one hand, there is, it seems, no getting beyond the hold of our duopoly party system.  “Third” parties have been trying from time immemorial and gotten exactly nowhere.

In the last election, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala ran a spirited and principled campaign on the Green ticket.  At great cost and effort, they succeeded in getting on the ballot in thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia, enough to count, by any reckoning, as serious candidates.  They took positions many, perhaps most, voters favor.  But not only did they receive only a handful of votes; hardly anyone even knew they were running.

It would be tedious to resume the reasons why.  It is enough to recall that in the 2000 election, before the onset of the moral and political rot we have brought upon ourselves in the aftermath of 9/11, even such a figure as Ralph Nader, running against the likes of Al Gore and George W. Bush could only garner 2.74% of the vote.

Needless to say, third party and independent candidacies do good by spreading the word, to the extent that they can make themselves heard.  But for breaking through the duopoly’s stranglehold, the third party route is a non-starter.

Reforming the rot from within seems, if anything, even more hopeless.  Today, that fight is led by the PDA, the Progressive Democrats of America.  They are the latest in a long line that, not too many years ago, even included proponents of (small-d) democratic socialism.  We all know how that worked out.

Still, try as it might, the Democratic Party leadership cannot rid itself entirely of the remnants of the party’s formerly robust left wing.  Therefore, they tolerate an opposition they cannot expel or otherwise extinguish.

From their point of view, a Left opposition, a pale one especially, may be annoying, but it has its uses.  If nothing else, it helps keep voters on board.

Moreover, the party bigwigs know the importance of keeping their friends close, and their enemies closer.  Meanwhile, Obama is so busy wooing plutocrats away from the GOP that, on matters of such unimportance (to him), he lets them have their way.

This is a later-day example of the phenomenon Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.”   Decades ago, when the political landscape was situated many notches further to the (notional) left than it now is, Marcuse realized that in generally liberal societies the best way to neuter opposition is just to let dissenters blow off steam.   For quashing effective resistance, tolerance can be more effective than overt repression.

The idea, then, is not to eliminate opposition but to marginalize it — or rather to eliminate it by marginalizing it.   In this, if nothing else, Democrats are more adept than Republicans.

But not even Marcuse in his most pessimistic moments would have denied that the truth can still set us free – if only ways can be found to accord it its due.

The problem is organizational, not intellectual.  The situations we confront are well understood; what’s wrong and what’s right is not a mystery.  There is no need to collect more evidence or to await a conceptual breakthrough.

Readers of CounterPunch know what is wrong in a thousand and one ways, and each day’s news brings yet more reasons.  CounterPunch readers are not alone; not by any means.

Indeed, there is a critical mass out there that understands the situation well.   But there is nothing that comes of it because no one, in our time and place, has figured out how to translate ideas into action.

This is why we have no effective Left opposition; why the only real opposition to Obama’s courtship of Wall Street and his stewardship of the empire and its national security state comes from the Right – for all the wrong reasons.

Must we then learn to live with despair?  That is not an unreasonable conclusion.  But it is not an inevitable one.

If we have learned anything from the past, it is that change comes suddenly and when it is least expected, and it comes for reasons that become evident only in retrospect.  On this, Hegel was right: the owl of Minerva takes flight at the setting of the sun.

Nobody expected Occupy Wall Street; it was a beacon of hope — suggesting, for the first time in a long while, that anything is possible.

To be sure, it turned out to be a flash in the pan. Looking back on those heady days, this should have been obvious.

Everyone knows that movements without a political direction and structure are bound to fizzle.  Anarchic spontaneity was Occupy’s strength, but it was also its downfall.

Occupy was weak on “theory” too; it was good on inequality, but vague about its causes.  It never clarified its attitude towards capitalism; and, to its detriment, it abstained from party politics and from criticizing Obama, even as Obama and his minions saw to it that what might have become a serious problem for the plutocracy would, in short order, fade away.

But the Occupy movement laid the groundwork for the next time, and the next.  So do the critiques and analyses that the Left has gotten right.  It may all just be sound and fury.  More likely, though, it is a way of building a foundation — for something we can now only scarcely imagine.

Perhaps even such exercises in futility as working for progressive third parties or trying to change the Democratic Party from within can be helpful too.  It is hard to see how, but one never knows.

What is sure is just that everything changes and that what human beings have made human beings can unmake and reconstruct.  A watchword of the not too distant past, when there still was a large and growing Left opposition, is relevant now: “a single spark can start a prairie fire.”  So too is the contemporaneous advice that when opportunities present themselves, the first order of business is to “seize the time.”

The first order of business now, while the villains still ride high, is to prepare the way.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).