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The Atomized and Siloed U.S. Left

Photo by Randy | CC BY 2.0

Walking past a farm on Martin Luther King Day in 2018, it’s hard to miss the huge dark blue silo that sits empty by this rural roadway. Small farms have been literally eaten up by agribusiness. These days, when fascism is on the move globally, it is hard to find much hope in any quarter and often even the natural beauty that this natural setting provides doesn’t do it either.

On Saturday, I’ll march with members of my family for the second time in a year in the Women’s March. Looking back at the past year, the catastrophe that faces us all is also obvious from a feminist perspective. The sense of dread is literally everywhere. The economy “grows” with mostly marginal jobs, while income inequality is at astronomical levels, the environment continues to deteriorate, wars go unchecked, and vulnerable communities are attacked along with immigrants.

And like the silo by the roadside, we are cut off, or siloed from one another on the political left in the U.S. This silo effect is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the legions of students that came out for Bernie Sanders (Whether Sanders is the mechanism for change in this society or not is the subject for another debate, as is any prospect of change coming from the Democratic Party.) and who now are pretty much silent and marginalized on their campuses.

Perhaps the greatest personal disappointment is the lack of a vibrant antiwar movement in the U.S. In the 1960s and the early 1970s, the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War was not only massive, but it was the natural benefactor of the civil rights movement. Indeed, Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at Riverside Church in April 1967,  was a melding of the antiwar and civil right movements, and provided the haters a vehicle for attacking King’s analysis of the connections between war, militarism, capitalism, and poverty. Both the nascent women’s movement and the environmental movement would grow with and from those movements and give the very early 1970s the feel of a national and global movement and moment. Today, trillions of dollars are spent on wars and besides small circles of protesters, nobody seems to give a damn. The attacks of September 2001 seem to have put a nail in the coffin of protest against war and the mass media did a “phenomenal” job in that respect.

We’re increasingly siloed as organizers and protesters. The environment literally decays as we watch, and the Trump administration is hard at work dismantling what environmental regulations there are.

The sociologist Charles Derber (interviewed by Chris Hedges) makes an excellent argument, laying out the case of a “mass-based American left” in “The Failings of the American Left,” (On Contact, January 11, 2108). The economic system separates those on the left in all sorts of ways while providing unending wars and justifying those wars in the endless War on Terror. The latter is a great money maker and a means of mobilizing and silencing the general population. If the single issue of the military-industrial complex is such a successful part of the economic system, then why can’t even one war be won and why do new wars follow on the heels of the old wars that have not been won in the first place? We’re not only fighting Orwell’s (1984) Eurasia, but also Eastasia at the same time. Try to imagine a world in which the Second World War was still going on today? These wars are waged on multiple fronts while the domestic scene is left to rot on the vine, except for a minority of people, who either control the state, or benefit from the state in ways that keep them silent in the face of the gifts that the state has to distribute or throw at them.

Every single movement that I have been involved in since the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War has been highly atomized. Sometimes movements were somewhat effective, or at least temporarily effective, such as the anti-interventionist movement for Central America in the 1980s, or completely ineffective as the Nuclear Freeze Movement of the 1980s. The progress made by the left was ultimately rolled back by the forces on the right. Even the victories won by the women’s movement and civil rights movement have been broken upon the rocky shoals of reaction. Police violence against black people and mass incarceration are but two examples of how effective the economic, social, and political system is at rolling back gains.

Identity politics may benefit a special or threatened group, but victories not shared across a broad spectrum of interests for positive social change are Pyrrhic or temporary victories at best.

A social worker, who lives and works in New York City, will march along with us again at the Women’s March. She remained connected to the growing movements for change in NYC over the past year, until organizational meetings devolved into politically correct fests in which people were coerced into introducing themselves using a pronoun that would offend no one. Is that where we are as a movement today. Has protest become just a matter of pronouns?

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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