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We need to get it together. And fast. If anyone’s looking at us on far-off planets they may be having themselves a heck of a laugh. Or pitying us to the point of embarrassment.
Living in the modern period, opportunities have been afforded us – at least to those privileged sectors of us in the global north in particular – which had scarcely existed before in human society. Past so-called “radicals,” progressives, inquisitive types and challengers of power gave us an enlightenment, scientific and political revolutions (the latter at least for privileged members of society). The working classes and marginalized sectors, through long struggles with and without elements of the upper classes, were instrumental in bequeathing to us parliamentary representative democracy, welfare states, civil, labor, gender and environmental rights, and not only. Out of these struggles came further notions and visions of liberty, equality, justice and possibility itself.
What’s followed during and subsequent to these changes has been a material affluency and comfort, at least for the privileged, which had been unseen and unimagined previously in human history – thanks to slavery, genocide of indigenous populations, and on the backs of those colonized and exploited in the global south, let alone those among working populations in the north. An enormous surge of wealth gained, though certainly concentrated in a tiny proportion of hands thereby eroding the popular efficacy of political systems, has nonetheless spread just enough to keep populations for the most part and in most places and periods in line, sufficiently pacified and unwilling to look for systemic change (along with deep-seated problems with left popular movements themselves – more on that later). Power systems and their centers in state capitalism – multi-nationals, commercial investment banks, hedge funds, the market itself plus top-down state power and military might – play a critical role in keeping their populations atomized, with the help of marketing and corporate media, appealing to the worst aspects of the human condition. The soliciting of self-interest, materialism, greed, racism, sexism, individual opportunism, wealth and power largely define marketing, markets per se as well as pop culture in general, and helps to keep the system afloat.
Add to this that in 2021, we are on the back-end of over 4 decades of a neo-liberal assault – capitalism itself seeking to return to its intrinsic roots – whereby huge swaths of populations in privileged parts of the world, particulary in the global north and to an even greater extent in the USA, must purchase on credit the comforts, security and even class positions that they had expected to be handed, or that their parents and grandparents had taken for granted. Rising standards of living and increasing wealth for many – arrived at substantially in spite of the state capitalist system itself and thanks to challenges to it – have ceased, stagnated or declined. That goes for real wages, salaries, pensions, benefits, security. Jobs and whole sectors, despite rising productivity, have disappeared or been sent abroad to exploit others more intensely, while job security and legal challenges to workplace organizing have increased. So-called free trade deals instituted across the world over this period have something to do with this, indeed ever since the Bretton Woods post-war capital controls system was dismantled in the early 1970s. Corporate and political elites, fearing for loss of control of society following popular movements of the 1960s, institute life-long student debt for the young. Have to keep ‘em in line. Debt on all levels shoots up – student, household, municipal, state etc.
Trust and support of mainstream political parties across the west are at an all time low, and have been for some time. Parties which have become synonymous almost with the states themselves after having been in power in many cases since the second world war, are sent home. Even more, much more than those voters sending these parties home are those not participating, having turned off of even electoral politics long ago by cynical, unresponsive, power-hungry and even oppressive political systems.
Indeed, trust in all mainstream institutions too has also been near rock bottom for some years now. Not just the political system, but academic, scientific, media, legal and religious institutions among others. Politically disengaged sectors of populations don’t need intellectuals of any stripe to tell them something is very wrong. Their lives are increasingly more insecure, prospects dashed, hopes dampened. Wealth increasing but for precious few. Tax increasing on their meager to modest incomes but decreasing or not existing for the rich. Their attitudes and views not taken into consideration. Opportunities killed off. A growing divide between public policy and public opinion.
I think most of the public anywhere know what’s happened, what caused all this, as has been alluded to here. They know it either consciously or it’s just below the surface.
The reactions to our current realities are another story, and span the spectrum. They are telling.
In our largely atomized societies, with a vast democratic deficit on the ground, many react with any form of psychosis out there – predominately denialism, but also apathy, retreat into national, cultural or racial “pride”(read, “insecurity” and “suffering”), delusion, conspiracy theory – how else to explain confounding “liberty” with an individual’s “freedom” to put others’ life at risk by not donning a mask? Or putting countless others’ lives in jeopardy by refusing to accept socially beneficial and modest lockdown measures? Or better, with confusing a vaccine with government oppression? And finally, protesting a green health pass required for crowded public spaces as again a measure of government oppression, equating it with fascism?
What perhaps is more interesting is what’s in fact happened in spite of the atomization and alienation in society, despite the sinking living standards, the violence, the poverty, the hunger, the exploitation. The killed hopes. The mangled talents. The collective possibilities.
A very considerable swath of the young, particularly but not only, look at the current current political economic system and simply don’t pay fealty to it. Polling over the last decade has shown this consistently. They know not only that something is deeply wrong with it in their day-to-day lives but that something better can and must be built in its place over the long haul. Hegemonic common sense shows cracks in its staying power. It’s about time.
This is nothing slight. An enormous century-long, unrelenting battle to keep people pacified, apathetic and divided – especially on the part of the advertising industry and bolstered recently by the neoliberal era – has had a huge and deadly impact. Yet at the same time its effects can be reversed at a moment’s notice. In the long run, despite the assaults attempting to marginalize people, in the post-war era public opinion has remained pretty consistent in favoring strong welfare state measures, ending wars, taxing the wealthy, workers’ protections etc. Now, younger generations born during this neoliberal period, without the spectre of the cold war and thanks in large part to consciouness raised by movements in the 60s, faced with few prospects, can perhaps see the system finally for what it is.
What’s missing here however in explaining this? Was it the wars – whose millions murdered and displaced we can’t see in normal corporate news cycles or in academia (except when it befits power)– and insane offensive military and intelligence budgets dominating governmental spending? The nearly unprecedented worldwide economic crashes and crises they’ve grown up in? The student, medical and housing debt? Yes indeed, but not only.
The political economy as constituted was, perhaps inevitably, unsustainable long before the increasingly intense crises of recent decades have further demonstrated it to be. More on that in another piece.
However, now a fly in the ointment.
Climate catastrophe. Related worldwide pandemic, unseen in a century and an end scarcely in sight. Outside of outright and committed denialists, these two phenomena on full display have eroded to an unparalleled degree among more and more sectors of the population any faith they had left in the current system.
The WTO, along with corporately-captured governments in the rich countries insufficiently held to account by popular movements, have demonstrably and effectively held the world hostage in refusing to remove so-called intellectual property rights from vaccines. Which begs a question: why should a few profit-fueled mega corporations hold these so-called rights? Shouldn’t medicine and public health be in the public domain, especially when they’re almost entriely publicly funded in the first place? Should a pharmaceutical company even be allowed to exist on the basis of private profit for the few (which by the way currently raises costs of the vaccines five-fold)? If public health investment and application can’t be publicly decided upon then what can? What’s more, if the current “public” system which exists in many countries couldn’t keep these patents and medical investments under real public supervision, then shouldn’t we question what it means for investments and decisions to be truly public? Furthermore why weren’t these vaccines already created and available 2 years ago? After all, the scientific community worldwide had been warning of new and unprecedented coronaviruses for 20 years. In the current structure of the state-capitalist system and in line with inherent market tendencies, investment in prevention was not profitable.
Why the pandemic in the first place? Why now? Is it possible human-induced climate destruction , environmental degradation and ecosystem disruption had something fundamental to do with it? Yes, pandemics of course preceded the current poltical economic reality, yet surely with the phenomenal wealth and technology surge over the last century, particulary in medicine, we could have prevented another global pandemic. At the very least, is it really the case in the 21st century that we need – at this point at best, and unassured – two years to end a pandemic, the same period of time it took humanity with the technology and knowledge of the 19-teens to end a pandemic? In addition to the obvious role of ecological destruction, could perhaps the continuing and increasingly severe 40-plus year neoliberal business attack on public infrastructure and austerity in public health spending have weakened our already insufficient health systems, leaving them ever more vulnerable to such an event?
The ICPP has just released this month, August 2021, its 6th Assessment Report on the climate catastrophe. Apart from its further affirmation of unequivocal human induced climate change, has it left any doubt that movements for peace, movements for environmental, political, economic, social, racial and gender justice – any and all campaigns and organizations, single issue or not – must conduct differently the way and the expanse with which they carry out their programs? Differently in terms of internal dynamics as well as scope, scale and objectives.
As said, consciousness has been fundamentally and crucially raised thanks to these movements over the last 50-odd years. But can anyone doubt at this point that this simply hasn’t been enough? We’re not talking about attaining an ideal, or even simply furthering gains or maintaining past victories. We’re talking about the most existential of all existential issues – the literal saving of organized human society this century, possibly in the coming decades. This is the most severe threat we’ve ever faced, and it takes it place alongside the ongoing and increasing threat of terminal nuclear war.
All reasonable forecasts, from mainstream institutions, tell us that we have approximately the next decade to reverse course on the climate question. Some kind of fundamental poltical-economic shift in investment decisions and commitment to public welfare on an international scale, through the mainstream insitutions and almost assuredly inside the existing state-capitalist system, must be achieved over this time. Some kind of green new deal with real teeth. Ending fossil fuel use amongst much else. All hands must be on deck to make this happen. Are movements up to the task?
To the extent that this new deal is effective, successful or at least sufficiently mitigating over the coming few years will likely in my view depend on the extent to which working populations are able to coelesce into their own movements to pressure this to happen. Yet in order for these popular movements to actually have sufficient influence over power systems they will need to operate differently than they predominately have. This means broadly, flexibly, on a non sectarian basis, with reformist goals in mind as a step toward much more crucial medium and longer-term achievable objectives and visions, willing to form united fronts and with as little internall domineering hierarchy as possible. The latter, especially, is not a search for the ideal. On the contrary, it’s a search for the pragmatic. For this description has unfortunately not defined most of the left over recent decades, and maybe since forever. Now that we are in the state we are in, due in no small part to the way in which movements and popular pressures on power have been carried out, perhaps a new approach is not only wise but necessary.
Environmental movements can no longer be siloed and must take something from movements focusing on the economy and labor. In turn those movements for economic justice, labor rights, workplace democracy must learn from the immediacy and skills of the environmental movements as well as the popular breadth of movements for racial, gender and LGBTQ justice. Organizations working on debt, public education and healthcare must work together with broader economic movements in order to connect the dots. Popular alternative media organizations should work with all movements in order to put out a broader more solid and accessible message. Movements for peace and against war and military spending must take something from all of these movements and vice versa.
Does it not reveal itself to be the case that by now, in 2021, if all of these movements are fractured, polarized and functioning for the movement and not for the objectives in society,then they have little chance in achieving those real world goals unless they change their internal dynamics and make some kind of unified front? Crisis breeds opportunity and colossal crises breed colossal opportunities. Viable forms of green new deals, forced through existing institutions and existing opportunists in power on a worldwide level by popular pressure, are opportunities without precedence for the goals of not only the environmental movement but also large agendas of labor, peace, 3rd world solidarity, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-“free trade” agreements and many other political movements. In the case of even partial success, much of their agendas – finally -will at the very least be seriously dealt with and initiated through the economic measures which must be taken to stave off irreversible tipping points in the climate over the next decade or two.
However, if popular movements and organizations indeed continue to operate at all costs on the basis of the furtherance and preservation of the movement itself, and not for the furtherance of the short-term goals in the pursuit of real collective longer-term goals for the broader society, then I’m afraid the future doesn’t look pretty. For if this is indeed the case with popular movements, they will be unlikely to have adequate popular effect on the power centers who, in the context of the crisis coming to a head in the next few years, will be those inevitably making monumental decisions.
But, as regards the relationship of centralized internal hierarchy to the furtherance of an organization at all costs, let’s not kid ourselves. This almost invariably means, in essence, a furtherance of internally centralized and hierarchical decision making right to the very detriment of diffusing participation, power, scope, decisions, and influence inside the organization. And if this is the case internal to the organization, then it soon follows crucially that the organization or movement is also operating without regard for actually diffusing power, participation, influence and decision-making into the broader public. Despite what the rhetoric of the organization may claim. Hence, possibly sympathetic sectors of the broad public are turned off to participating just as they are turned off to taking part in electoral politics. They end up seeing left movements, perhaps rightly, as a struggle for power, identity and opportunism instead of as day to day, collective, educational and organizational initiatives for the betterment of all of society. Initiatives which have real objectives and collective vision. Much of the public doesn’t distinguish between these movements and big parties. It’s “politics” as usual.
The general population in increasing numbers of nation-states, as stated above, continue to punish mainstream political parties, particularly and rightly those purporting to be of a center-left persuasion, so-called “democratic,” “social-democratic” or even “socialist” parties which have fallen off the face of the map across Europe in particular. Understandly. If not overtly then at least in the backs of their minds much of the public understands that these are the electoral political formations which are in theory supposed to be standing up for popular constituencies without power. On instead what should be the popular activist left in organizations across the spectrum of issues and movements, despite their gains made – particularly huge gains as of late with BLM and MeToo – the left in most cases simply doesn’t exist as a day to day, on the ground reality. A reality which comes together on a participatory level to support, defend and further the interests of its own working populations around a broad-based agenda, but especially with labor and class as the glue connecting all of the movements. That enormous chasm between casting a ballot in an election and mobilizing for a one-off demonstration is where the real work must be done on a popular and genuinely participatory level. Instead, until now it has been a prodigious vacuum left by popular left formations and is filled by demagogues who appeal to the darker aspects of our nature. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, an orwellian usurping of classism where working populations screwed over for decades end up praising and supporting their very enemies and associated parties – Trump, Salvini, Modi, Erdogan, Bolsanaro, Johnson, Farage, Orban, Le Pen, Duda etc.
A pity the left isn’t currently filling this void.
With the pandemic, clear, absurb inequities, injustices and unsustainability of the current system are putting themselves on full display, maybe as never before. The disgusting and highly revealing desperation of employers and business associations pleading with employees to return to jobs without dignity or living wages. Many workers refusing across the global north. What does this say about the workplaces themselves? What does it say about the lack of participatory labor unionization or councils? A universal basic income? The nature of real existing “work?” Wage labor in itself as an institution? Also revealing the unsustainability of the political economy AND the current functioning of existing left formations are evictions. Can land rents be left to unaccountable private entities? Can the last word on ending evictions be left to unresponsive federal governments? And who are being evicted? In many cases they are those most vital to the daily functioning of society and the survival of many, as revealed most poignantly in the pandemic – nurses, care givers, service industry workers, supermarket employees.
Have existing left formations seized the uncommon opportunities left to us by previous generations and collaborated on a participatory level to provide a popular and unified response to a pandemic and climate catastrophe? The nuclear threat?
In order to get things done, can popular left organizations and movements finally get pragmatic and actually operate on a democratic, participatory level internally and externally with short-term concerns won as step to collective longer-term vision? If this is not done, will it be possible to extend their reach into much larger sectors of populations in order to gain real relevancy and significantly increase popular influence on power? Without this influence, is it possible that power centers in governments and the corporate world will act in time and with enough breadth to prevent imminent catastrophe?
There is a huge swath of the population not in denial of our current realities, the young in particular who understand, without doctrine and dogma, the need for fundamental changes, equity, solidarity. More importantly they’d like to survive in the immediate future. Unlike many of us, they are supposed to have most of their lives ahead of them, and the real imminent risks to having long lives with security and dignity are unlike any ever seen in the long history of our species.
Perhaps a revived direction and urgency is in need, one actually carried out and not just talked about.