Let us face this awkward question: Why is it that, being the Left a better option for humankind, we almost never succeed in getting support of the people? Moreover, Why is it that people often vote for obviously pro-capitalist options –sometimes even very Right-wing candidates– instead? Let us avoid simplistic and patronizing answers such as “the people don’t understandâ€¦”, “the pervasive power of the mediaâ€¦”, and so on. These sort of explanations give us an implicit sense of superiority that we neither deserve, nor to they help us politically speaking. Of course, the system has a formidable power to control culture so to counter radical appeals. But we cannot look for an answer just there.
Leaving aside circumstantial factors, the perennial appeal of the Right lies in that it presents itself (and to some extent really is) a force of order. But why would order be so appealing for those who do not belong to the ruling class? We live in a type of society that rests upon (and strengthens) a constitutive, paradoxical tension. Each day we become more “de-collectivized”, that is, more atomized, increasingly isolated individuals without strong bonds with each other. But, at the same time, never in the history of humankind was there such an inter-dependence when it comes to producing social life. Today, the division of labor is so deep, that each minute, even without realizing it, each of us is relying on the labor of millions of people from all over the world. In the capitalist system, paradoxically enough, the institutions that enable and organize such a high level of social co-operation are the very same that separate us from the other, and make us isolated individuals without responsibility with regards to other people. Yes, I am talking about the market and the (its) state. Buying and consuming products, and voting for candidates in an election, involves no answerability. These are actions performed by isolated individuals in solitude.
Such is our current inter-dependence, that (global) society requires, like never before, that each person does not behave as he or she is not supposed to behave. Yes, we have the freedom to dress like a clown if we want to, but we can’t do anything that may affect the ‘normal’ course of society. Because today, a small group of people or even one person has bigger chances than ever to affect that normal course if they/he wants to. Like never before, a single person has the chance to affect the lives of millions and to cause chaos. Why is this the case today more than in the past? Let us consider an example: if a peasant in 17th century France decided not to farm his land, he would not be putting his neighbors’ lives in jeopardy, but only his own. Imagine that he was angry or mad, and set out to impede his neighbors to harvest. In that case, the community would deal with him very soon; in the worst scenario, he might affect one or two of his neighbors. Fast forward to any country in the 21st century. If the three operators of the subway security system decide not to work (or to mess with the system just for fun), or if this important guy from the stock exchange lies about the prospects of AOL, they would be affecting the lives and labors of thousands of people, without those people even knowing the reason for the accident they had, or the loss of their job. The paradox is that the ever increasing individualism and lack of answerability before the other makes it more likely than ever before that, in fact, there will be people who will be ready to cause trouble or harm other people’s lives and interests, even without good reasons. Ask the students of Columbine about that. Our mutual dependence in some respects paradoxically contrasts with our subjectivity of isolated, non-answerable individuals.
As people who live in this constitutive tension, we all feel to some extent the anxiety for the continuity of social order and of our own lives, in view of the vulnerability of both. We unconsciously know that we depend on other individuals doing the right thing; but we don’t know who they are, or how to communicate with them. They are close but alien at the same time. This is the same anxiety that popular movies enact once and again in hundreds of films whose narrative structure and themes are almost the same. A person or a small group of people puts society or other people’s lives in jeopardy -be it because of evilness, criminal orientation, madness, strange political reasons, you name it- until some powerful intervention restores order -a caring father, Superman, the police, the President, Charles Bronson, etc. As a movie-goer we come out with our anxiety sedated, but that comfort only lasts for some minutesâ€¦
Just like those films, the political appeal of Right-wing calls to order comes from society’s anxiety for the ever-increasing possibility of catastrophic disorder. From the viewpoint of an isolated individual, it makes no difference if disorder is produced by another individual for random reasons, or by a progressive collective that does it as part of a political action. It does not matter if it is a criminal, a madman, a union striking, or an anti-capitalist group doing direct action: whenever there is fear of catastrophic disorder and of the dissolution of social bonds, Right-wing calls to order find a fertile soil.
There is no point in complaining about that situation: that fear is part of the society we live in. And it is not a matter of attitude: popular support for right-wing options is not due to ‘lack of political education’ –something that could be remedied by simply telling the people what to think in a more persuasive way. There is no ‘error’ in popular support for the right: if there are reasons to believe that social life is in danger (and there usually are), the choice for more (right-wing) ‘order’ is a perfectly rational option in the absence of other feasible and more desirable options.
What I am trying to argue is that there is a valuable truth to be learnt in the perennial appeal of the calls for more ‘order’. It is time that we consider that, perhaps, what we (the radical Left) are offering is not perceived as a feasible or better option simply because, well, it isn’t. The Left has indeed the best diagnosis of what’s wrong with society. We now also have a fairly decent offer of visions of what a better society would look like. But what about the question of how to get there? When it comes to that, we either have the option of traditional Leninist parties taking power (sorry, neither desirable nor better for me), or vague and sometimes utterly non-realistic generalizations. In any case, we invite people to destroy the current social order (which is obviously necessary) so that we can then build something better. Our political culture so far has been more about destroying, criticizing, attacking the present for the sake of the future, than about building and creating new and effective forms of co-operation and solidarity here and now. As we live in the future and despise the present, and as we do not bother to explain how we will protect people’s lives from catastrophic social disorder while we try to build a new society, it is normal that the people perceive (rightly) that ours are nothing but vague, unreliable promises. My bet is that people already know that capitalism stinks, and that most of them would gladly join efforts to change it if we only knew how to do it. But so far, we are asking them to jump into the abyss of the unknown. We are demanding that they drop their current lives, so that they can then live different ones. And they are right in that, for the moment, we are not prepared to honor such a risk. Why would they?
It is time the radical Left seriously rethinks strategy, taking into account the perfectly reasonable feeling that society and life need to be protected in the process of getting rid of capitalism. There is no feasible emancipatory politics if we don’t think and explore alternative ways and commit ourselves to politically (self) manage society not only in the future, but also here and now, while we struggle to change it.