In no way is this essay attempting to “situate” or “articulate” the vast complexity that is Los Angeles through the question the title poses. Instead, it is a public engagement with humanist social movements in LA, focused on human recognition and human value, and their inability to be institutionalized as government, especially as city commissions. Like many other cities in the US, Los Angeles suffers from what Alex Honneth terms “a failing sociality” or “a failure in the power of civic imagination, political will, and open democracy”. Henri Giroux elaborates on the idea in The Terror of The Unforeseen, his masterpiece of a takedown of American fascism and its complexity and complicities. Like many other cities, this failing sociality has come with late capitalism, as an urbacide of community, personality, and life in general. Like many other cities, large parts of Los Angeles refuse to die, despite the failing sociality.
A crucial aspect of the American political process is that there is no demobilization of justice movements, though leaders are certainly targeted. What this means is that unlike after anti-colonial mass movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, there were no Generals and no church-elite-government counter revolutionary forces killing politics and ethics with guns. in the US, there is betrayal by mass movement leaders who join organizations, parties, etc, and become “adults”. This “adulthood”, a synonym for civility according to some, is often just betrayal of principles for varying reasons.
What no demobilization also means is that we’ve been carrying the same signs, celebrating the same wins, writing the same reports for generation after generation really, where generations have passed down movements to other generations by passing on the organizing to new generations. No demobilization has meant persistence but a kind of persistence that seems to get some in power and then persist some more. Who can forget that third way political democrat Bill Clinton was a product of organizing against the fundamentalist state that Reagan imposed? Who can also forget that Obama emerged out of a confluence of many 90’s and 00’s movements such as those against the Iraq war, those against patriarchy, those for black lives, those for a new environment, the same ones that Democratic candidates today purport to support.
This brings us back to the city of Los Angeles, and the fact that despite a proliferation of community groups, social movements, and this from this city’s earliest days, in a city where ⅓ of the population is poor, there is no leftist elected official. So, despite the 1992 riots / rebellion, despite the marches against prop 187, despite LA have been the breeding ground of the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the power of unions in LA, despite the activism of citizens, no city council member is on the left, the mayor certainly is not, and communities are facing existential threats as targets of real estate capital. Why? How have we not achieved what Chicago, Berkeley and other cities have achieved?
It would be too simplistic to say that capitalism is the problem. Yes, capitalism is the problem, and also one of many problems that existed before capitalism that we deal with today. However, the “location” of this problem, or the site of this crisis is in the fact that Los Angeles is a city of very poor human relations and a very small public sphere, which means that Los Angeles’s democracy is fractured, coopted, and often inexistent, enough to not be able to, yet, support a leftist insurgency into office and for that left to begun to shape institutions. It has been tried and continues to be, the efforts of Ground Game LA being the most recently notable, but the truth is that the city is split into several districts that are their own cities in truth, and really one daily well financed popular paper purporting to speak for the “city”, the LA Times, but doesn’t really speak for the city in its political complexity. Two public spheres exist in LA, one in English and one in Spanish, to the point where unions in LA have become masters in fishing for votes in the Spanish language public sphere to edge out a win. The english language left and the spanish language left overlap but are separated by language. The left in LA today is an English language phenomenon, though it has historically been strongly a spanish language phenomenon with the organizing that happened in Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, and other traditionally chicano but very importantly central american communities who were on display as striking janitors in the 90s.
In other words, a common horizon has not been spelled out by both english language leftists (those with resources) and spanish language leftists (some resources but mostly numbers), though political correctness would lead one to believe so. What this means is that the left remains unarticulated because it is fragmented, and so when the center comes around and articulates some thing that resembles some of one’s convictions, the vacuum remains and one’s vote goes to the center.
What this means is that one left has to emerge in LA, one dialogue, one sphere, and especially one pedagogy as this sphere’s engine. That way solidarity trumps identity, identity being the bread and butter of both spanish language and english language black and brown centrist politics. This sphere has to discuss housing, justice, human rights, etc, together in order to create an audience for leftism as an alternative. This sphere has to reinvigorate schools and literature as the engine of itself, and not protest and adherence. Or else manipulation of kind hearted activists will continue as the inside outside strategies of career oriented organizers posing as prophets of justice and right. Where do we begin? Good public schools. Books written and immediately translated. The discussion of commitments and convictions, and the articulation of a multilingual horizon.