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Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition

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The time to resume using words like “resistance” and “revolution” in philosophically sound and historically accurate ways was long ago.

And while the Sanders campaign deserves praise for bringing the word “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse, for reasons other than to disparage it, some precision would be welcome in that domain as well.

For most of the past two centuries, that term has been used to denote any of an array of social and economic institutional arrangements that bear at most only a family resemblance to one another.

Also, for the most part, they share a common ancestor, the labor movement, but that connection has been on the wane for a very long time.

Competing views about what socialism involves need not be disabling, especially in times like the present when the historical Left has gone missing. Even so, care should be taken not to conflate socialism with Social Democracy or, worse, with its close cousin, New Deal – Great Society liberalism.

For socialists, including Marxists of all types and of course for Marx himself, socialism involves one or another form of social, as distinct from private, ownership of major means of production. Private ownership is a defining feature of capitalism.

Social democrats promote left alternatives to existing social and economic arrangements within capitalist societies – sometimes from pro-capitalist conviction, and sometimes because they believe that socialist alternatives to capitalist economic structures are unfeasible and therefore out of the question.

The situation is especially confusing because, for many decades now, most self-declared socialists have been social democrats under the skin. The ideas are distinct, however, even when the words are used in loose and misleading ways.

From a more scrupulous standpoint, it would be fair to say that socialists and social democrats have been on different tracks at least since the Second (Socialist) International split in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution.

From then on, social democracy, no matter how named, has functioned as an alternative to the Communism of the Soviet Union and its allies.

Communists were socialists, not social democrats and, as political heirs of militants who actually made a socialist revolution, they enjoyed uncommon levels of prestige. Moreover, because their achievement was, or seemed to be, so monumental, their purchase on socialism, however flawed it might be, swamped all others.

It was therefore natural for opponents of Bolshevism to drift over into the social democratic camp. There was, it seemed, nowhere else to go.

To be sure, many social democrats did envision a distant socialist future; others did not. It was more difficult for New Dealers to imagine that they were working to build a society of a radically different kind, even in the long run; saving capitalism was a more or less explicit objective of the New Deal.

The Trumpian turn would have to persist for a lot longer than is likely, and its vileness would have to become deeper and more broadly pervasive than it currently is, before any genuine resistance to Trumpism is likely to develop.

Needless to say, it is almost inconceivable in today’s world that talk of “revolution” could amount to anything more than fatuous, self-indulgent hyperbole.

The prospects are better for some version of true socialism to come onto the agenda in the foreseeable future. But even that would require protracted organizing and new and creative departures from past practices at both a practical and theoretical level.

On the other hand, one or another updated version of social democracy surely is feasible. Were today’s anti-Trump opposition to go on in that direction, it would undoubtedly be a positive development, even if, throughout most of socialism’s long history, socialists wanted a good deal more. A social democratic turn is doable too. People need only put their heads together to figure out how to make it happen.

However, the Democratic Party in its present form is an obstacle in the way; and thanks to America’s exceptionally un- and even anti-democratic electoral institutions, third party politics is basically a non-starter.

It is not impossible, though, that the combined efforts of the post-midterm batch of Democratic legislators in the House of Representatives, working with more seasoned House progressives previously held back by the Democratic Party leadership, could overcome that obstacle.

Congress used to be a place where progressive ventures would go to die or else be neutered and then forgotten. This could soon change. The leadership seems already to have realized that to stay the same, some things will have to change.

With any luck, the course the party takes will eventually paas beyond their control.

The kerfuffle over Nancy Pelosi’s election to the House Speakership sheds some light on that prospect.

To the Right, and even to some “moderates” in the Democratic fold, Pelosi is a radical, a symbol of all they detest. However, the sad truth is that her politics falls very much in the neoliberal, liberal imperialist, Democratic Party mainstream. The most that can be said for her is that she is a left Clintonite, a corporate liberal, slightly more disposed to acting on progressive values than, say, Hillary or Bill.

She is good at political maneuvering, however, and skilled in the ways of Congress. She is also a bellwether who reliably tracks where the center of gravity in the Democratic Party lies. This has proven useful in the past for keeping progressives in line.

Thus in 2006, when she was elected Speaker the last time Democrats ripped through the GOP in midterm elections, she cooperated with Congressional Republicans and with George W. Bush to an unseemly extent.

Back then, no one would have had the gall to call the opposition to Bush a “resistance,” but the level of contempt for the second worst president in modern times was not a whole lot less fervent than the kind that the worst president ever inspires today.

Had she wanted to, Pelosi could have done a lot to hobble Bush’s efforts, substantially reducing the level of murder and mayhem the United States was causing throughout the Greater Middle East. But then as now, “bipartisanship” was the Holy Grail in American politics.

However, Pelosi’s goal in 2006 was to get Hillary Clinton elected president in 2008, and she didn’t want to do anything that might put that prospect in jeopardy. When it became clear that Clinton would lose to Barack Obama, she reluctantly, but dutifully, worked just as tirelessly for him.

Why not? Obama was enthusing large swathes of the population, while Clinton could only barely excite second wave feminists determined to see a woman in the White House in their lifetimes. And despite all that the Clintons had done over the years to curry favors from civil rights “icons” and with the bosses of African-American political machines, Obama prevailed over her in their hearts and minds just by being there. Moreover, he was no less a corporate liberal than she.

The rest is history. Obama won, made Hillary his first Secretary of State, and unremitting chaos ensued – mainly, but by no means only, in Honduras, Libya, and Syria. The refugee crises that followed are not all on her and neither are all the many setbacks and flubs of American diplomacy in those years, but, in virtue of the office she held and her seemingly limitless ineptitude, her level of culpability is second to none.

However, this time around, the stars are differently aligned Pelosi has representatives more leftwing than she to appease, not just Clintonites. In the circumstances, a slight left turn might be just the thing.

There is reason to think that she has gotten the message. In the aftermath of an effort by unreconstructed Clintonites to make Hakeem Jeffries, not Barbara Lee, House Democratic Caucus Chair, Pelosi created a position in the leadership for her. Supposedly, she did it because otherwise there would be no women of color in the leadership. No doubt, that consideration was on her mind. The more important point, though, is that, as James Carville might say, “it’s the politics stupid,” and Lee’s politics is as good as it gets in “the peoples’ House.”

No other Senator or Representative voted against authorizing the first phase of what would become George W’s “global war on terror,” his never-ending, revenge-driven Afghanistan war.

Putting Lee in the leadership is a good move. It is also reason to think that, unlike before, Pelosi won’t work quite as hard as in the past to impede the emergence of a strong, principled opposition to America’s bipartisan status quo. From time to time, she may even help the cause along.

The sad truth, though, for now anyway, is that the cause is unlikely to extend much beyond the domestic scene. This is because, to most Americans, the burdens of empire still seem like more of a blessing than a curse.

It was different in Britain and France for decades before the British and French empires disintegrated. The perceived problems were moral of course, and there were geopolitical considerations involved as well, but the financial costs were what finally did the British and French imperial spirit in.

The costs of Empire had been evident for a long time before the end, and so, when the time came to quit, public opinion was prepared. It is also relevant that the United States was available to take over, assuring a kind of continuity for the capitalists who were the principal beneficiaries of the old regime.

Maintaining the empire is a burden for the United States too, but, so far, that thought is not part of the collective consciousness. One reason why is that the American way of dominating the world does not involve formal colonies; another is that it is widely, and correctly believed that military-industrial complex spending is what keeps the American economy going.

Another is that, since World War II, “isolationism” has been nearly universally disparaged. Libertarian ideologues could not change this and neither has Trump; quite to the contrary, both have been largely co-opted into the imperialist fold.

The “progressive except for Palestine” phenomenon is sadly familiar in Democratic Party circles; it is, for the most part, sustained by historical factors peculiar to the Nazi Judeocide of eighty years ago, and by relentless lobbying on Israel’s behalf by Jewish and evangelical Christian Zionists. But something very like it, writ large, afflicts progressive politics in the United States to a degree that is “exceptional” among developed capitalist countries.

This is why we have no real internationalist opposition within the Democratic Party. There is plenty of anti-imperialism in the United States, but, thanks to our debilitating party system, it is politically inert.

Bernie Sanders and a few others, perhaps even Elizabeth Warren, may hold kinder and gentler views of the world outside our borders than most, but, in the final analysis, they too, so far at least, are for the empire, not against it.

The jury is still out on the class of 2018, but it will be under enormous pressure to toe the line – not just on the Palestine Question, but also on American imperial policy generally.

This is the bad news; the good news is that progressive attitudes tend to spill over from one domain to another. Therefore, even when there are structural reasons that put the Democratic Party on the wrong side of foreign policy issues, the harm can be mitigated to some extent by pushing ahead on the domestic front.

***

Job Number One therefore is to harness the rage that made “the blue wave” possible if not inevitable by casting aside the “make nice” advice of Democratic Party leaders and their media flacks. In the weeks and months ahead, Democrats should be more, not less, obstinate and aggressive than Tea Party – Freedom Caucus Republicans at their worst.

However, because the idea ultimately is to advance (small-d) democracy, this advice calls for an important caveat: obduracy must not be allowed to shade over into blatant skullduggery of the kind that defeated Republican miscreants like Scott Walker and his co-thinkers in the Wisconsin legislature and their counterparts in Michigan are currently deploying in the final days before newly elected Democrats take office, to nullify, as best they can, the results of the election they lost.

Without sinking to those depths, however, newly minted and more seasoned progressives alike should put all they’ve got into hobbling Trump and Pence and their minions, and then hobbling them some more.

With Republicans running the Senate, and in the absence of one or more scandals egregious enough to penetrate the seemingly impervious skulls of willfully blind Trump supporters, there is little to no chance of removing Trump from office in the Constitutionally prescribed way: by voting for articles of impeachment in the House and then convicting the bastard in a Senate trial.

However, impeachment alone, if done right, could be extremely disabling and would therefore be eminently worth the effort.

So would investigating even a tiny fraction of all that Trump and his minions have done in apparent violation of well-established rules, regulations, moral precepts, legal principles, and Constitutional prohibitions.

There is mounting concern, however, that too much of this could backfire, either by adding to already monumental levels of Trump fatigue within the general population or by turning Trump into a seemingly persecuted and therefore sympathetic figure.

There are also calls to prioritize for efficacy’s and efficiency’s sake – if only because there is not world enough and time to investigate all that calls out for investigating.

It is easy to overstate the gravity of these problems, but there is no denying that the arguments of those who counsel caution do need to be taken seriously.

The goal should therefore be to go after Trump in ways that will do the most good, leaving more thorough reckonings for historians and journalists later on. What will do the most good is whatever would disturb and therefore disable Trump the most.

Since his deepest concerns stem from cupidity and narcissism, and since he does seem also to care about keeping his children rich and out of prison, it would seem to follow that investigating some of Trump’s sleaziest business dealings, along with those of Don Jr., Eric, and “Jarvanka,” especially ones that raise national security concerns, would be well worth the time and effort.

The Jared in “Jarvanka” seems especially vulnerable. He should be shown no mercy, and every effort should be made too to bring Ivanka, the apple of her father’s eye, down with him.

Also, looking forward to a world in which Trump is gone, the next Congress should be starting now to prepare for future legislative initiatives far-reaching enough to turn the Trumpian world around.

With Trump in the White House and the Senate in Mitch McConnell’s hands, the chances of enacting worthwhile legislation in the next two years are nil. But in two year’s time, the situation will be different, and, in anticipation of changes to come, there is prep work that needs doing now.

There are also positive programs for which groundwork can now be laid, even with Trump and Pence and Senate Republicans still calling the shots.

For one, an authentic left opposition, committed to “the art of the possible,” should be exploring ways to promote significant new, not just remedial, infrastructure development. For some time now, the Chinese have been showing the way.

In the United States these days, infrastructure is like the weather, according to Mark Twain: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

One reason why good intentions stall is that acting on them requires serious money, and with the military soaking up nearly all available discretionary funds – everything not already committed to funding obligatory interest payments and so-called “entitlements” — there isn’t a lot left. Trump’s tax cuts for the rich have only exacerbated the problem.

Finally, there is the widespread but utterly fallacious notion that the way to get things done efficiently (or at all) is to rely on “the private sector” – in other words, to profit-maximizing capitalists.

The Chinese example gives the lie to that foolishness.

The Chinese state is not immune from the factors that led Russia and other former Soviet republics to turn high-ranking bureaucrats and Party apparatchiks into oligarchs. But with the old Communist state and party structures still largely intact, they have been able to keep the problem more or less in bounds.

Corruption happens in China as it does everywhere else, but the state is still able to use its direct and indirect control over public investment in ways that, as per the old Maoist slogan, “serve the people” tolerably well.

The Russian state serves the Russian people less well. And the American state, from the Reagan era on, views the very idea with contempt, and therefore doesn’t even try. It serves private capital.

When forced to justify themselves, America’s leaders and ideologues claim that this is, in fact, how the people are best served; failing to mention, as they peddle their snake oil, that this is also how the little democracy we have gets corrupted.

And so, what we get is enough military spending to destroy life on earth “as we know it” many times over, along with decaying and desperately underfunded transportation systems, roads, and bridges, and precious few of the amenities that make life livable.

Were we following the Chinese model instead, investing in infrastructure on a vast scale, we might now actually be “making America great again” by generating revenues that could be put to all kinds of socially useful purposes.

Instead, we are rapidly falling behind world standards achieved elsewhere decades ago.

A high priority for an authentic left opposition should be to figure out creative ways to turn this sorry state of affairs around.

For years, the Green Party in the United States has been calling for a “Green New Deal.” Lately, some Democrats have taken up the slogan as well, conveying the impression that it somehow belongs to them.

Needless to say, it hardly matters whom it belongs to or if it belongs to anyone at all. It is the idea that counts and, if Democrats want to claim it along with Greens or others, then more power to them.

The New Deal was experimental, pragmatic, and open-ended; its unstated, but governing, principle was to go with whatever works and to dismiss what does not.

What this would involve here and now is necessarily vague. The slogan suggests an attitude more than a set of principles.

Notwithstanding the Green Party’s role in the evolution of the idea, the word “green” in this context has no direct partisan implications; “green” just means environmentally friendly. “New Deal” suggests government programs aimed at securing employment, including, but not limited to employment by the state. In the original New Deal, the state often functioned as an employer of last resort.

It is important, however, not to become stuck on ideas that were fresh eight or nine decades ago.

The idea back then, a time of mass unemployment and comparatively low levels of technological development and therefore labor productivity, was for the government to foot the bill for putting otherwise idle hands to work addressing unmet social needs. This led, for example, to such canonical New Deal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, which served as lifelines for unskilled, out of work laborers.

The idea nowadays would be to involve working people, skilled and unskilled alike, in projects intended to thwart and, as far as possible, reverse anthropogenic environmental harms, and to conserve and, where possible, improve the natural environment, in ways that accord with current economic and technological exigencies.

CCC jobs were sometimes derided, more often than not unfairly, as make-work. In a Green New Deal, efforts should be made to make charges of that kind preposterous on their face. Opportunities for creative and meaningful employment, integrated into the larger economy, should, as a matter of public policy, abound.

Faith in the beneficence of the invisible hand of the market, and hostility towards the visible hand of the state, is as American as apple pie. Nevertheless, I would venture that popular support for Green New Deal programs would be considerable in post-Trump America, notwithstanding the efforts of well-funded libertarian ideologues and politicians to encourage Americans’ culturally distinctive, deeply engrained, and therefore all but instinctive pro-market, anti-state inclinations.

There is ample work to be done, starting now, figuring out how best to bring this about.

Where is the money for infrastructure and a Green New Deal to come from?

An obvious answer is that some, maybe most, could come out of the “defense” budget. But, at this point in time, that is an even more unlikely prospect than, say, making the United States less of a deleterious presence around the world or getting it to use its considerable influence over Israel to force that self-described “nation state of the Jewish people” the world over to transform itself from the Herrenvolk democracy it has been since its inception into a liberal, secular and democratic state of, by, and for the people who actually live there, Jewish and Palestinian alike.

There is so much more that needs to be done and that is eminently doable, but for oppositional forces to make the most of the opportunities they confront, they need to pick their battles. The most winnable ones nowadays revolve around the evils, moral and practical, of rising income and wealth inequality, and the role of the tax system in bringing about and sustaining that sorry state of affairs.

Therefore a third fundamental strategic objective of the anti-Trump opposition should be to develop plans for restoring a measure of progressivity to the tax system – perhaps even up to and including the level that Eisenhower Republicans put in place in the 1950s.

This would, of course, entail reversing the Republican tax scam enacted under Trump, and perhaps also transforming some of the legal structures that enabled and incentivized the kinds of financial shenanigans that made Trump and others like him obscenely rich.

It is impossible to say, at this point, exactly what that would entail, but now is a time to think about how we will begin to find out – once Trump and Pence are hobbled and then gone, and efforts to salvage what is left after four years of Trumpist rule are able finally to get underway.

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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).

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