“This is the politics of exhaustion. We have become a generation of leftovers”
“We remain strangely impassive in the face of our own extinction”
— Jeffrey St. Clair, “The Silent Death of the American Left“
In inter-war Europe, the most important social group for the left and right was the industrial working class. Industrialization was crucial to pulling European economies out of economic stagnation. The wealth of these countries depended on the industries and industrial production depended on the workers of those industries. Those on the Left organized workers in order to ensure that this wealth would be shared. Indeed, factories and industries were taken over and run by the workers across Europe. On the right, capitalists worked to ensure that the workforce would be obedient in order to grow the capitalist economies. These conditions resulted in the rise of potent social forces on the Left and Right.
Mussolini himself gained his political stripes by roughing up striking workers. Later, a plank of his National Fascist Party’s political platform was hyper-industrialization. In Spain, Franco’s coup was supported by his Fascist allies in Italy and Germany. The Spanish Republic, the Socialist and Anarchist worker organizations, and hope for a life of dignity for the Spanish working class was killed with the victory of Franco. However, it was obvious that throughout Europe, the workers had the power to determine the destiny of the country. Not only did they have the power to shape the economy, but the ability to fight wars depended on their obedience as workers and soldiers.
Enough with history. I hope the point has been made and accepted that in industrial economies the workers that manufacture goods or mine raw materials are the most important social group for any type of progress- left or right. In an industrial economy, workers are listened to because economies depend on their labor.
In the US today, these circumstances no longer exist. Manufacturing has been outsourced and most of the working class is employed in the service sector. Wars are no longer fought by the working class, and their continuance does not depend on the obedience of the workers. Modern technology has made human power less important in warfare and production. Furthermore, industrial society has given us the poison of environmental destruction. Therefore, we would be naïve to ignore these realities and continue to use outdated tactics to achieve a bigger piece of the industrial society’s pie. We find ourselves lost and directionless. In a position without precedent.
In the US, the left has not adapted to these new situations. With these new conditions, the working class simply has little or no power using the same tactics that were used in the past. Strikes in the service sector typically result in nothing due to the ability of technology to supplant human labor or because of the low-skill nature of service sector jobs. Marches or rallies without the threat of affecting profits are without potency.
To a great extent, the demands of the working class have been funneled into the political process where, as always, they are watered down and co-opted. The political process is controlled by the rich who no longer have to answer to the demands of the workers that create their wealth, because those workers are either outside of our borders or are Wall Street gamblers.
Other demands of the working class are channeled into social movements that adopt the same tactics of the bygone era. Numbers of people in the streets are no longer a threat because profits still roll into the bank accounts of the rich. Picket signs and organized marches with police escorts do not have the power to make change. The Occupy movement serves as the most glaring example.
Another factor that must be taken into account in examining our new situation is the growth of the non-profit industrial complex. Social movements are frequently co-opted by the paid community organizers of non-profit organizations. Non-profit organizations cannot be expected to make meaningful change due to their very structure. The budgets of the organizations and the paychecks of the organizers depend on grants from government agencies and endowments. These funds exist -in theory- to combat social problems. So, if these social problems disappear, the funding will disappear. The existence of these organizations and the jobs of the organizers, depend on the existence of social problems. Non-profit organizations do not want to put themselves out of business, therefore they can not be expected to make change.
An analogy may be useful: An industrial capitalists exists to make profit. He will not share his profits because doing this threatens his existence. A non-profit organization will not eliminate social problems because doing so threatens their existence.
Certainly there are non-profit organizations that are funded by donations from rich people, but this shouldn’t require an explanation of why these will not alleviate the plight of the working class.
Not every sector of the working class has been stripped of their labor power. The massive population of farm workers have an immense about of labor power. The profits of the agriculture industry depend on their labor. However the plight of the farm workers has also been co-opted by the political pimps of the unions and the non-profits. Since most of these workers are immigrants, and a sizeable portion is undocumented, the labor power of this group has been diluted into demands for new immigration legislation. Unfortunately, the American elite doesn’t care about the horrendous stories of inhumane treatment of migrant workers, deportations and separation of families, and deaths on the border. They care about their profits.
But “immigration reform” movement continues trying to tap into the non-existent consciousness of political elites by begging for crumbs in the immigration debate. If the labor power of this group was not ignored and the crops went unpicked, the elite would be forced to listen. Instead, the watered-down “immigration reform” movement remains as a movement of annual marches and lobby days organized by non-profit community organizers.
Further complicating the issue is the impending environmental disaster. Industrial economies, whether their workforce is outsourced or not, will result in the destruction of the planet. It should be noted that industrial agriculture is equally part of this problem. We must recognize this. Clinging to old traditional leftist ideologies of proletarian organization in industrial economies will almost certainly result in the extinction of species.
The old tactics of the traditional Left are obsolete. We live in a new world. If the modern working class adopts the tactics of the past, we cannot expect any meaningful change. A new working class must adopt new tactics. A working class facing ecological disaster must address the cause of that disaster (ie: industrial civilization). Technology has isolated us and controls us through distraction and surveillance. Outsourcing has made us powerless and our demands fall on deaf ears because we no longer pose a threat to those who pull the levers of power. History shows us that “progress” has limits and the evidence shows us that the planet has reached its limit.
As Jeffrey St. Clair has noted, the Left is dead. It had no choice but to die. It grew from a world that no longer exists.
Matt Ford lives in Fresno, California. He is a history teacher, traveler, and writes poetry to stay sane.