The “Marginalized Left” – Some Preliminary Remarks

This essay is based on a talk Street gave at a panel on “The Marginalized Left” at the Left Forum in New York City last June. The final section of his talk (deleted here for reasons of length and because the author has addressed the section’s topic numerous times on ZNet and elsewhere) focused on various ways in which the nation’s dominant mass media (including its richly ideological and propagandistic entertainment wing no less than its more officially propagandistic news and public affairs dimension) work to marginalize left politics, values, and activists in the U.S. What follows below is a write-up of Street’s “preliminary remarks” on “left marginalization” in the U.S. past and present – comments that turned out to be less, or more, than introductory, somewhat to the amusement of his audience. Street has added some supporting material in three endnotes written on Sunday, August 18th, 2013. 


Thank you all for coming out today. In a bit I’m going to say a few things about what I’ve observed in regard to the media’s pivotal role in the marginalization of the left over the last couple of decades or so. Before I do that, however, I want to sketch out some broader context and meaning for those observations with some preliminary remarks – I really should say not-so preliminary remarks ….nine to be exact. 


Socialism or Barbarism if We’re Lucky 

My first preliminary remark is that if you agree with Noam Chomsky’s talk this afternoon that an inherently eco-cidal U.S. and global state capitalism poses an ever more imminent threat to human survival and that we are going to have to undertake a radical reconstruction of society in order to avert environmental catastrophe…if you share that opinion, then this problem of the marginalization of the left in the world’s richest and most powerful nation is no small or merely academic question. The great Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros was right in 2001 to update Rosa Luxembourg by saying that “it’s socialism or barbarism if ‘we’re lucky….The uncomfortable truth,” Meszaros rightly added, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”


Radical Republicans 

My second preliminary remark is that we live today in a depressingly debased political culture where the meaning of key political designations often gets badly muddled. Take, for example, the word “conservative.”  The designation “conservative” is routinely used to describe a Republican Party that is militantly dedicated to the elimination of the last remnants of the welfare state, to the final liquidation of collective bargaining rights and unions, to the eco-exterminist shredding of environmental protections that might conserve a small part of the earth’s natural resources and ecological integrity, and to other terrible things consistent with the extreme selfish and capitalist doctrines of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan. There’s nothing conservative about the Radical[ly Regressive] Republicans.


What is “the Left?” 

Another example of the debasement of key terms in mainstream political discourse is the deceptive – and excessive – use of the phrase “the Left.” Especially but not exclusively on the right, this term, “the Left” is regularly tossed around to mean just about anything that angry white and reactionary Middle Americans don’t like from organic foods to Michael Bloomberg’s transfat regulations to healing crystals to hot yoga to urban gangs to affirmative action to the former Soviet Union to The New York Times to Michael Moore to Madonna and MSNBC to Hugo Chavez to Oprah Winfrey to gay marriage to women in combat to abortion  to “illegal immigrants” to taxes to supposedly big labor to the supposedly liberal and even leftist Barack Obama and the Democrats. 

In partisan terms, of course, “the left” is supposed to refer to the Democrats, the slightly less reactionary and regressive wing of the dominant state capitalist party duopoly. As anyone with any elementary historical understanding of what the real historical left has been about since at least the French Revolution, it is preposterous to describe the richly corporatist party of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, NAFTA, welfare elimination, TARP, as part of the left. The Democrats are deeply conservative in the neoliberal era, standing well to the right of the populace on numerous key issues and routinely embracing policies well to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon during the long New Deal era.

Just so we’re clear on our terms, the real left for me is made up of those who seriously question and challenge the core and interrelated prerogatives of empire and inequality at home and abroad.  It’s the people who agree with Dr, Martin Luther King that the great problems of our time “are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society,” revealing “systemic rather than superficial flaws” and showing “that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."(Martin Luther king Jr., “A Testament of Hope," published posthumously in January 1969)

High Stakes 

My third preliminary remark is that one should never forget that powerful forces in the United States have long invested massive resources in the defeat and marginalization of the Left for a very good reason. This has been the world’s richest and most powerful capitalist state since at least the turn of the 20th century. As a result, it has long been home to extremely rich and powerful people who have had a great deal to lose were a strong and vibrant left to emerge in this country.  There’s a lot at stake in the United States as far as capital (foreign as well as national capital) is concerned. And of course the more wealth concentrates in the hand of the few – as has occurred in the long New Gilded Age we have been living through since the late 1970s – the more incentive the wealthy and their giant, powerful corporations have to keep progressive forces divided, poor, exhausted, demonized, and marginalized. [1]


Public Support for Radical Transformation 

My fourth preliminary remark is that the left is not marginal in the United States because it has no potential mass constituency. Polling data has shown for many years that most U.S. citizens – most members of the American working class majority – repudiate big money corporate and financial dominance of U.S. politics. Most Americans reject harsh socioeconomic disparity and the ruination of social and ecological health in service to the rich and powerful. The vast majority prefer a roughly egalitarian society where wealth and power are well distributed and the government is run by and for the populace in pursuit of the common good. “Taken literally,” the survey data illustrating these and other progressive majority views demonstrate what Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels calls “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including the outlawing of inherited wealth and of social and economic advantages based on race, gender, ethnicity, and intelligence.

Last year, the nation’s leading survey shop the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 responded favorably to the term “socialism” compared to 43 percent who responded favorably to the word capitalism. 

“We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1941: “we may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”  I’d love to see a Pew survey which Americans were asked to either disagree or agree with that statement. I guarantee you that two-thirds would agree. 

It’s not for nothing that the deeply conservative Barack Obama gave significant if carefully hedged voice to progressive, populist-sounding values in 2008 and 2012, even while his campaign teams and administration were loaded with operatives from and for famous 1 percent (really more like the .1 and .01 percent). Occupy Wall Street’s key issue – the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the hand of an opulent few – resonated very strongly with a majority of Americans in the fall of 2011, right before the Occupy movement was dismantled. Which is why the Democrats did everything they could to steal Occupy’ rhetoric in running their fake-populist campaign against “Mr. 1%” Mitt Romney and the Republicans last fall.


Repression Lives 

My fifth remark is that no comprehensive account of what has tended to make the left marginal in United States history past or present can be limited to the role played by the media. Endless volumes and essays by generations of historians, political scientists, sociologists and others have been dedicated to examining the different factors that have come together to bring about that result. The factors mentioned include repression, of course, but also the distinctive ethno-cultural diversity and racial fragmentation of the American working class, the remarkable advantaged position of American capitalism in the world economic system, the absence of a feudal and absolutist past prior to the rise of capitalism and giant corporations in America, the vast size and spread of the North American continent, the role of the frontier and later global empire in diluting class consciousness, and the distinctive and hostility of the non-proportional American winner take all elections and party systems to independent left politics. I could go on. 

My sixth preliminary remark is that nobody here should think that repression has been a factor in left marginalization only in the bad old days – in the past. The state repression factor is alive and well, as anybody who participated to a significant degree in the Occupy Wall Street movement or in last year’s mass demonstrations against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Chicago can tell you. We know that the multiple metropolitan repressions and evictions of Occupy across the country were coordinated with assistance and advice from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and that in coordinating this repression federal agencies including the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service worked with the Federal Reserve and numerous private banks and businesses including the “corporate security business” to function as what the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund call “a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and corporate America.” 

The nation’s ever more militarized police departments are today and have for years been loading up with an array of so-called “nonlethal crowd-control technologies” designed to pretty much abolish the right of public assembly – terrible things like the “Long Range Acoustic Device,” a sonic cannon that can cause total hearing loss for protesters who refuse to disperse at authorities’ command. They’ve got tools and technologies worse than that and it seems likely that small drones have already been deployed against protestors inside the U.S.    

On repression, I want to quote the progressive economist and journalist Jeff Madrick in Harper’s Magazine last March. “It has become increasingly clear,” Madrick wrote, “that Occupy Wall Street didn’t fizzle because its objectives were muddled or its talk too abstract or its organization too chaotic. In fact, the movement was undone by a concerted [multi-jurisdictional] government effort to undo it….Taken together,” Madrick concludes, “the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which Occupy might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter.” (J. Madrick, “The Fall and Rise of Occupy Wall Street,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2013).[2]


The Media is Part of the Establishment 

My seventh not-so preliminary remark is that the corporate mass media is doing its job – playing its basic institutional role within modern capitalism – when it works to marginalize the left. That media isn’t simply beholden to the corporate-capitalist establishment through advertising contracts. It is itself a very significant and powerful of that establishment. (It might actually be the most powerful section of that establishment, given its awesome capacity to shape popular perceptions.). Here I always like to mention what Noam Chomsky tells that college kid from a student newspaper in the documentary film “Manufacturing Consent.” Expecting the dominant corporate mass media to tell the real and full truth on current realities is like expecting General Motors’ company newspaper to give all the facts on its exploitive labor practices or on its plants or on its environmentally disastrous practices or on its attempts to bribe politicians or avoid taxes  at home and abroad.


Not Over 

(The last two “preliminary remarks” were deleted from the original talk for reasons of time) My eighth remark is that not all the forces and factors that tend to make the left marginal are external to the left. Some are internal, something I’d be happy to talk about more in the Q&A. 

My ninth remark is that there are many moments in U.S. history when left values, organizations, and activists have transcended marginalization to impact and even shape national and world history in significant and positive ways. (I think most particularly but not exclusively of the 1930s and the 1960s). I think that (mostly young) people of the actual Left started to do that to some extent in the late summer and early fall of 2011, through the Occupy Movement (perhaps I should say the Occupy moment). I am convinced that that story is far from over – thanks in large to the ongoing deep failures and crises of capitalism and the fading of its capacity to offer outwardly progressive ameliorations[3] – and that the real and serious left will make more and more powerful interventions in the historical process in coming years and decades.  I also believe that it is essential for them to do so, for reasons stated in my first “preliminary” comment…. 

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).  Street’s many essays on corporate media include “Imagine a People’s Media in Chicago,” ZNet  (May 24, 2013), http://www.zcomm.org/imagine-a-people-s-media-in-chicago-by-paul-street;  “’The People are Unfit to Rule': the Ideological Meaning of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer,” ZNet Magazine (January 3, 2006); “Thought Control,” ZNet Magazine (April 27, 2004); “Killing Us Softly: Politics and Entertainment,” ZNet Magazine (April 21, 2004); “More Than Entertainment: Neal Gabler and the Illusions of Post-Ideological Society,” Monthly Review (February 2000): 58-62..   



1. The richer the rich get, the more the wealthy corporate and financial few are incentivized to squelch those who question and challenge inequality, as any real left does. As the radical U.S. economist Richard Wolff explains: “Rising economic inequalities are always a concern to those at the top because of the risks of envy, resentment, and opposition.  There is always the possibility that the economically disadvantaged will seek to use political means to recoup their losses in the economy.  The 99 percent might turn to politics to negate the economic gains of the 1 percent.  Thus it became – and remains – more important than ever for the 1 percent to use their money to shape and control politics.” Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 95-96. 

2. “Government repression,” Madrick argues, was “the real cause of Occupy’s decline.” Actually, there were multiple causes, including problems within Occupy.  Still, the subsequent statement from Chris Hedges strikes me as shrewd and accurate: “Let's remember that whatever the internal faults of the Occupy movement – and they were there – the Occupy movement was destroyed. The state was quite rattled by the Occupy movement and is determined not to allow a movement, a mass movement like that to rise up again.” Chris Hedges, “America is a Tinderbox,” The Real News Network (July 24,2013), http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=10461 For post-OWS episodes indicating the police state’s determination that nothing like Occupy ever emerge again in New York City, see David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Speigel & Grau, 2012), xi-xii, and Hedges’ account (in “America is a Tinderbox”) of military veterans’ attempt to assemble at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York City in October of 2012. “Look, we're vets, we don't want to arrest you,” NYPD officers told the protestors, “but the Occupy movement messed it up for you because we can't allow another one.” 

3. The progressive economist and historian Gar Alperovitz finds polling data on young Americans’ growing attraction to the word “socialism” (and their related alienation from “capitalism”) unsurprising thanks to the stark economic failures, inequality, austerity, and authoritarianism imposed by the contemporary U.S. profits system and the fading capacity of liberal and progressive policy and institutions to mitigate capitalism’s negative impact on society, popular governance, and livable ecology: “As economic failure continues to create massive social and economic pain and a stalemated Washington dickers, search for some alternative to the current ‘system’ is likely to continue to grow. It is clearly time to get serious about a different vision of the future….Classically, the central idea undergirding various forms of socialism….is democratic ownership of ‘the means of production,’ or ‘capital,’ or, more simply, ‘productive wealth’….the core idea is simple and straightforward: Those who own wealth – and the corporations who control it – have far more power to control any system than those who don’t….In a nation in which 400 people own more wealth than the bottom 180 million together, the point should be obvious.  What is new in our time in history is that the traditional compromise position – namely progressive, or social democratic or liberal politics – has lost its capacity to offset such power even in the modest (compared, for instance to many European states) ways the American welfare state once represented.  Indeed, the emerging direction is to cut back previous gains in many areas – not to sustain or enlarge them.  Even Social Security is now on the table for cuts….Union membership has steadily decreased from roughly 35 percent of the workforce in 1954, to 11.3 percent now – a more 6.6 percent in the private sector….Along with the decay, and give or take an exception here and there, major trends in income and wealth, in civil liberties, in ecological devastation….in poverty and many other important indicators have been ‘going South’ for several decades” (emphasis added). Gar Alperovitz, “The Question of Socialism Is About to Open Up in These United States,” Truthout (April 12, 2013), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/15680-the-question-of-socialism-and-beyond-is-about-to-open-up-in-these-united-states.It helps “socialism’s” favorability rating, no doubt, that we are now more than two decades past the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes and the end of the Cold War.  This makes it more difficult for the U.S. capitalist elite and its supporters to automatically identify the democratic and egalitarian project of socialism – workers’ control and “people over profits” – with the arch-authoritarian state-capitalist and/or bureaucratic-collectivist nightmare of Stalinist Russia, the Soviet bloc, and the so-called People’s Republic of China. , 

The openly socialist candidate Kshama Sawant (affiliated with the left group Socialist Alternative) has recently won a primary race and advanced to the general election ballot for the City Council in Seattle, Washington.  She has a very real chance of defeating four-term council incumbent Richard Conlin, who will out-fundraiser her by a wide margin.  A 40-year-old community college economics professor, Sawant is running primarily against the growing concentration of wealth and income, noting that “The vast majority of Seattle people are facing a city that is becoming increasingly unaffordable for them.” See Lewis Kamb, “Growing Wealth Gap Spurs on Socialist in Seattle Council Race,” Seattle Times, August 11, 2013, http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021593643_kshamasawantxml.html 

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