The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?

The Sanders campaign has proven a couple of important things about today’s political reality in the United States.

1)    A substantial number of Americans are interested in redistributing wealth and making government work for the 99 percent

2.)   That is impossible within the current electoral system in the United States.

The only way a genuine redistribution of wealth will occur in the United States is when there is a Left broad enough and grand enough to force the hand of the capitalists who run this land. Neoliberal capitalism–capitalism’s latest, most insidious and most pervasive manifestation–is a difficult beast to control and an even greater challenge to defeat. Its ability to invade every aspect of the community and the communal mind means that every single issue-oriented movement, from those against police murder of African-American and other working class youth to issues of gender and sexual equality and identity; from opposition to fossil fuel exploitation of the earth to indigenous rights; from national liberation to imperial war–all of these issues can and have been manipulated by those who would make a buck or gain a neoliberal vote. Why is this so? If one looks beyond the obvious–the white supremacists and sexist right wingers lining up behind Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and their ilk–if one looks beyond that they can see that the liberal side of the political show, from the Clintons to the Obamas, from MoveOn to ActBlue, from Al Sharpton to Beyonce, from the mainstream marriage equality movement to the opposition to the reprehensible and just plain wrong discriminatory laws against non-CIS gender identities–all of these issue oriented movements are populated and often eventually dominated by folks who have an investment or have been invested in by the neoliberal infrastructure.

Let me take a local example. I live in Winooski, VT. It is literally across the river from Burlington, which I’m sure most of you have heard of. The city government in Burlington has been run for much of the last 37 years by the Progressive Coalition. Yes, that’s the coalition that put Bernie Sanders into the mayor’s office. This reign has seen some positives, but as one looks over those decades, one trend becomes clear: the capitalist class will do its damnedest to get its thirty pieces of silver from every public endeavor the electorate desires.

Let me provide an example of one such instance. About twenty five years ago the City Council set into motion an endeavor to create affordable and publicly owned internet and cable TV. The idea was that the system would be a public utility like the Burlington Electric Department—no profit involved. To this end, Burlington Electric began running optic cable throughout the town. Before the system could go online, however, some of the funds had to be approved by the state legislature—run by Democrats and Republicans. Once the mainDaydreamSunsetCoverfix-291x450 cable and internet corporate monolith in Vermont heard about this (it was Adelphia at the time), they began to cry unfair competition—as if they actually cared about fairness or wanted any competition. This resulted in the Burlington endeavor becoming a mostly private one with limitations as to how far it could run its cable and offer services. When it became time to finance the final stages, the Progressive-led city government in Burlington took a loan of thirty million from Citibank. This turned out to be a big mistake. Burlington could not pay back the loan or the interest and now the once public telecom endeavor is being offered to various private bidders, with Adelphia’s successor Comcast now controlling more than half of all connections in the area. Also, developers just convinced the city to sponsor a bond paid by taxpayers to redevelop the downtown mall; in other words putting public monies into private wealth. These are but two examples of the reach of neoliberal capitalism.

Why does this happen? Because the progressives and others on the so-called cannot imagine a world where profit does not rule, a world where goods are created according to need and not according to potential sales figures. A world that is not based on the exploitation of labor for the profits of a few; where the accumulation of wealth has no meaning.

Who’s to blame for this lack of vision? I include myself when I say it is us, the anti-capitalist left. The radical left. It is our task to provide a vision of world without capitalism. In order to do so, I feel it is necessary to have an analysis that not only imagines such a world, but proves it is possible. I also feel that the fundamentals of that analysis exist and have existed for the broader public ever since the day the Communist Manifesto was first published. Before the anarchists among you get your hackles up about communism and before those closer to the Greens close your minds to this possibility, let’s look at just a few excerpts from that handy little tract. Keep in mind, I am talking about analysis here, not strategy. So…those excerpts:

1) “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

This is as true in 2016 as it was in 1865. It will remain true until that day when there are no classes. This day will not come through elections set up by those in power.

2) “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”

This is even more true now than at any other point in history. Simultaneous with this truth is that capitalists not only need to expand their markets, they also need to find means to continually exploit labor.

3) “No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.”

Indeed, in today’s world, not only is the laborer set upon by these elements of capitalist society, the laborer’s perpetual debt to the finance industry for school, cars, goods and housing means much of the worker’s relationship to the economy is like that relationship with a pawnbroker.

4) “A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.”

This is the meaning of Bernie Sanders and much of the so-called Left in the US, Europe and Latin America. While this approach hopes to make living in the world we exist in bearable, it also perpetuates the very system that is destroying the world. Consequently, it cannot stop the certain destruction of capital and its servants.

I want to jump here to the recent past/present. There have been and are important movements in recent years. Among these movements I would include Black Lives Matter, Occupy, the movement around climate change, the movement against austerity, and various gender and sexual identity movements for equality. Of these, the movement against austerity has taken a few different forms. Here in the US, it is probably best represented by the 2006 movement by and in support of immigrants and the uprising in Wisconsin against the governor’s attack on the unions–a model that has appeared in other states as well. In Europe, that movement has manifested in the rebellions in Greece, the nuit debout protests in France, the various strikes and protests by workers and students in Britain, the anti-DeutscheBank protests in Germany and the street protests in Spain and Portugal. All of these manifestations are important in that they have attacked the collusion between finance capital and the State. Yet, all of them have pretty much failed to stop the continuing accumulation of wealth by the very few and the consequent loss of work and increase in debt of the majority. In addition, we have seen growing right wing populist movements that blame immigrants, Muslims, women and (in the US) also African Americans for the situation at hand. The popularity of these racist sentiments can best be seen in the political campaigns of men like Donald Trump and women like Marie LePen. Their danger is most obvious in the ongoing attacks by right-wingers and nazis against refugees and their shelters in Germany, where numerous shelters have been torched.

So, what the hell can we do? We must necessarily join the fight against the racists and those in and out of government who would deny the right of immigrants, women, Muslims, lesbians, gays and the differently gendered. Likewise, we must necessarily join those who battle for better wages and the right of workers to organize. The same goes for the struggle for free public education at all levels and genuinely affordable housing, etc.

But we must also oppose imperial war and the ever-increasing militarization of our society. The acceptance of the military and its martialism is a sickness. It is a sickness that infects our schools, our culture, our worship, and our work. Its pervasiveness is so great we accept it as if it was a natural given. It is not. Those current Left movements that deemphasize these aspects of US capitalism do so at their own risk. As always, the ultimate expression of imperial power is war. When we don’t oppose or even address its omnipresence in today’s world we provide tacit acceptance of it. Yet, the existence of war and militarism is directly related to most of the fundamental issues we face: immigration, racism, and the battle against neoliberal capitalism.

All of our organizing should be done with this in mind. The connections between war and capitalism have rarely been clearer than they are in this neoliberal era, yet none of the current movements in the US clearly address this reality. Instead of cheering LBGT troops, and women Green Berets, we should be challenging the entire construct of the military as a means to achieve equality. Instead of demanding more African-American police, we should be demanding an end to the militarization of police and genuine community control of those police. In short, we need to make it radical and keep it radical.

We must organize with the understanding that capitalism is the culprit and the reason we see such racism, discrimination and inequality.

We must organize with the understanding that imperialism is capitalism on an international scale and that this is why war is the primary constant in the history of the US empire.

Therefore we must organize with the understanding that capitalism must ultimately be defeated.

There are those who say we can’t build a radical movement because there are not enough radicals. To me, the answer to that is simple: we must create more radicals. As leftists and left-anarchists, that is our job.

How do we do this? That is our task. To determine how this might be accomplished.

Prepared text of a talk given May 28, 2016.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: