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Reflections On The Costs Of Being Left…and How To Reduce Them


Don’t let the title of this essay throw you. I’m happy to have been a person of the left since for the last two and half decades or so. I’ve derived considerable personal satisfaction and no small sense of community from being part of that sizeable slice of humanity that is passionately and intractably dissatisfied with institutions and ideas that generate and/or sustain social inequality and hierarchy.

I feel privileged to wear the demystifying visors of the radical-democratic moral and intellectual paradigm, which help me and others to see through the constant justifications for injustice that are propounded by rulers and their intellectual servants.

We are lucky on the left to possess a world view that permits us to grasp things for something close to what they really are and not for what the elitist masters of policy and opinion say they are: to see an illegal and murderous imperial conquest in what the masters call a war against terrorism and for democracy; to see the transparent rule of the heavily state-subsidized corporation (designed precisely to master and internalize market processes and forces) in what the masters call the glorious reign of “the free market;” to see the advancement of concentrated investor rights in what the “elite” calls “free trade;” to see business class plutocracy in what the rulers call “democracy;” to see authoritarian thought-control and propagandistic power-worship in what they call a “free press,” “independent media,” “educational standards,” and “popular culture;” to see labor exploitation and capitalist profit in what they call a reasonable exchange of equivalents – money for labor (really labor power); to see ecocide, disease, and widening social disparity in what they praise as “economic growth;” to see racial, ethnic, and gender disparity beneath what they call color- and sex-blind multicultural diversity; to see noble democratic dissent in what they call subversion and even “anti-Americanism;” to see nihilistic oppression in what they call “faith;” to see fatalism behind what they call “realism;” to see exhausting over-work behind what they call “productivity;” to see deepening corporate control behind what they call “efficiency;” to see authoritarian distortion behind their definition of “human nature.” The list of corrected meanings goes on and on.

And we are also unlucky to see through their lies and behind their masks. Who on the left has not at least once cursed his or her possession of the ability to immediately take apart the latest tragic absurdity playing itself out – between the endless stream of commodity-fetishising advertisements – on The Corporation’s glowing telescreens and ubiquitous newssheets? Who amongst us has not once wondered if we would not be better off NOT knowing that so incredibly much of what we and our fellow citizens are routinely told by the authorities is complete unadulterated bullshit.

It is sheer Orwellian brain torture to hear over and over again that 2+2= 5, that War is Peace, that Love is Hate, and (for one among many examples) that hyper-regressive tax cuts for the opulent few are designed to help the middle class and the poor.

It’s horrifying to see and hear masses of ordinary enfranchised people, purported citizens in a supposed democracy, apparently believing – and acting in accord with – such miserable totalitarian doublespeak.

It messes with your mind and your heart. It attacks your faith in humanity.

Cursed with my basic knowledge (nothing brilliant here, I just pay attention to current events and read a little bit of what comes out on the topic) of the special role that The Corporation plays in the subversion of democracy at home and abroad, I am one of few people at the supposed civil rights agency where I work who loses sleep over the fact that my employing organization receives significant institutional income from tyrannical union-busting corporations, with terrible consequences for the policy orientation of that institution.

People who don’t know or care that something’s “rotten in the state of Denmark” don’t have to worry about changing Denmark.

They also don’t have to constantly reproach themselves for not doing more to make Denmark right.

Of course, one of the reasons people prefer not to give a decent hearing to radical ideas is their fear that the knowledge possessed by leftists will make them want to challenge structures and authorities they don’t feel powerful enough and/or worthy to fight.

In a world of savage inequality and entrenched hierarchy, after all, acting on egalitarian and democratic knowledge and principles can get you in a lot of trouble. It can get you ostracized, demoted, ridiculed, fired, and even in some cases killed. It’s certainly no way to attain the comforts and securities that are granted to some of those who keep their mouths shut and their eyes on the individualistic prize dangled at the end the masters’ stick.

The system is tilted and built to punish those who reject — and reward those who at least outwardly accept — the victory of individualistic and self-interested pursuits over social and democratic aspiration.

At the same time, some of the pain and alienation experienced by people on the left seems rather self-imposed. Too many of us, in my experience, fail to grasp that most citizens (including many radicals, truth be told) have some very real material reasons to fear the dissolution of the existing social order. It’s a dangerous leftist illusion that “the people” have “nothing to lose but their chains” under the existing system.

After all, the people of “advanced” industrial societies were removed a very long time ago from direct connection to the land and the ability to maintain a decent self-sufficient living without assistance from “complex social institutions” (collective human organization).

Talking about smashing the complex old order with no viable plan for the new order (which will have its own complexities) is a way to trigger peoples’ already widely cultivated sense of insecurity.

For some radicals, the overpowering evil of the system and its rulers can become something of an excuse for failing to embrace reasonable measures of personal responsibility and basic self-caretaking. It can also lead them to conflate nearly every single negative aspect of human existence with the socially constructed evils of the powers that be.

Portside people can deal with the costs (both externally and internally imposed) of being left in various ways. They can make sure to balance their knowledge of outrageous evil and injustice with a determination to regularly clear and slow their ever-racing (and often rage-consumed) minds.

In my experience, radicals burn out a lot. Refusing to cede the imperatives of self-help and personal and spiritual balance to Oprah, Dr. Phil, the local minister or priest and other corporate New Age lifestyle authorities, they can balance their sometimes overdeveloped mind energy with a commitment to cultivating their physical and emotional well-being and to realizing that their heart is going to be as important as their mind in the creation of a more just and democratic world.

They can seek to reduce their vulnerability to economic punishment and insulate their dependence on the energy-stealing/life-sucking employer class by working to minimize unnecessary expenditures and debt.

They can reduce their sense of isolation by keeping themselves regularly in touch with fellow leftists and also by looking for the often impressively progressive sentiments that are held and expressed by people who are not openly on the left.

Remembering the basic empathetic wisdom of the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I,” we can remember that our own personal historical circumstances — not some special spiritual or genetic endowment — brought us to left conclusions and that me might have an entirely different, more “mainstream” or even far right perspective if we had been born and socialized into different circumstances.

We can work to rescue the basic notion of personal moral responsibility from the clutches of the right, remembering that we possess a significant capacity to improve personal and social experience short of the many-sided social revolution that remains highly desirable ….and probably necessary for long-term human survival.

We can remember that not all human dilemmas are caused by “the man” and his vicious interlocking systems of hierarchy and inequality. Radical social theory is about disentangling historically specific, particular, and socially constructed oppression structures from universal human difficulties and existential conundrums.

Thinking perhaps about the distinct personal-historical circumstances that led to our own awakening as radicals, we can commit ourselves (on the model of the civil rights movement at its best) to communicating our ideas in ways that show respect and understanding for the related difficulties many people face in accepting and acting on our ideas.

We can and must combine our criticism of the existing order with a practical and actionable vision of an alternative democratic, egalitarian, and participatory social order that would meet peoples’ basic material needs without replicating the evils of class inequality, racism, sexism, and empire, etc.

We can lift the burden of world history from our merely individual shoulders, remembering that none of us will set the world rightly upside down alone and once and for all in our own lifetimes. We can graciously accept in advance the certainty of numerous defeats and frustrations.

We can and will do our best – and often quite a great deal – to advance humanity towards a more just and glorious world: the beloved egalitarian community of the freely associated producers, citizens, artists, poets, scientists, and others.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004); Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge,2005); and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, April 2005).

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