Here’s what we know: Donald Trump – incredibly, horribly, actually – is President of the United States. Corporate power has never been more entrenched or more reckless. The very survival of the human species is in jeopardy as never before. Global warming is an imminent threat to us all, while our new Secretary of State, an oil-company robber baron, is a climate change revisionist. The flames of war, stoked for decades by U.S. imperial ventures, are being fanned more vigorously than ever. Even the rudimentary government services now offered to the poor are under attack. So is basic health care protection, in a country where health standards are already scandalously low. Irreplaceable natural resources are being depleted ever more rapidly. And if those now in power have their way, all this will only get worse.
And here’s what we don’t know: What are those on the Left, the standard-bearers of resistance, the champions of a better way of life, going to do about it?
Do you know? I don’t.
For decades the Left has been warning of exactly this future: runaway corporate greed; the breakdown of liberal democracy by concentrated wealth; the rollback of labor rights; the erosion of civil liberties; the growing devastation of imperial wars. Now that future has arrived. So what’s our plan?
This year, ZNet has been running a remarkable series of fictitious interviews, purportedly dating from 2042. The interviews chart the genesis of a “Revolutionary Participatory Society” through the histories of a handful of activists (eighteen altogether) who, beginning in 2017, began to contribute – from different classes and different professions, often with different specific goals at first – to the emergence of a powerful movement that 25 years later was making, or beginning to make, revolutionary changes in contemporary life.
A newcomer to Left politics, I confess that at first I was too dense to grasp the purpose of these fictional pieces. But repetition gradually drove home the point. In every imagined interview, the activist who is the subject of the piece describes the first steps into radical action, the first struggles, the first victories, the way he or she began to move toward the larger goals of the Revolutionary Participatory Society – starting 25 years before the interview supposedly took place. In other words: starting today.
I sincerely hope I’m not the only one reading these articles, which (as even I now comprehend) constitute an immediate proposal for building the underpinnings of a new revolution – a guide as detailed and imaginative as any I’ve ever seen. It’s not that the author (who calls himself Miguel Guevara) necessarily has all the answers. I don’t know if he does. I don’t know whether he knows. But if, in the throes of a crisis as deep and as obvious as the one in which we find ourselves, we’re not thinking about how to set about a plan of action – starting now – what on earth are we doing? If all we can do is to remind each other how awful times are, do we have a political purpose at all?
I said a moment ago that I’m a newcomer to Left politics, and I may as well add that I’m as flummoxed as the next person when it comes to revolutionary strategies. So I’m hardly in a position to lecture anyone on this point. But I do arrive here with some experience that I think is relevant.
For years, I’ve contributed both legal work and journalistic writing to the problems faced by sexually abused children, and the parents who try to protect them, in the American court system. I’m certainly not ashamed of the work I’ve done: I’ve published two books exposing the extent of the problems (From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts – and What Can Be Done about It, co-authored with Dr. Amy Neustein, and Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities); I briefed and argued an equal-protection case before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for the right of children raped by their fathers (as opposed to strangers) for fair treatment by state prosecutors; I pursued a state law Freedom of Information request to New York’s highest court in order to uncover how a Brooklyn District Attorney helped an accused serial child molester escape justice.
But I’ve come away from these experiences deeply dissatisfied with what, in those circles, calls itself a “movement.” Yes, there are dues-collecting organizations that claim to stand for the interests of “protective parents,” that is, those parents – usually mothers – who are too often stigmatized in domestic litigation because they raise or support an allegation that a child was sexually abused by the other parent. I’ve been invited to speak at conferences sponsored by the “movement,” and I’ve always been cordially received.
But whenever I proposed a practical measure to promote more effective means of battling the problems, I was met with bewilderment. Raise money for litigation? Pick and choose the cases most likely to win important precedents and focus our resources there? Lobby legislators with specific proposals for reform? Organize large-scale protests of particularly outrageous results? All these things and more were suggested. Nothing happened.
Eventually, I concluded that the “movement” was a kind of echo chamber: its members were content to hear each other complain about the evils of the system; they weren’t really eager to do anything to change it. Of course they talked about change. But practical suggestions were routinely marginalized as factions attacked each other (this one was too willing to work with people inside the system; that one didn’t endorse this or that specific case), as individuals vied with one another over who had the worst experience of all, and as the same people who clamored at meetings for more action would, whenever anything was actually proposed, pronounce the system so thoroughly corrupt that no reform could possibly succeed anyway.
Beyond the dysfunction I observed in the “movement” was something even worse: a kind of built-in bias in favor of inaction, an institutional preference for helplessness. After all, if you use the evils of a system as a fundraising tool, you may collect less if you try to cure those evils. And if you do try something, and it doesn’t succeed, you have a failure on your hands; whereas if you only complain, you never have anything to apologize for. Under these circumstances, doing nothing may actually start to seem like a reasonable approach. It was certainly popular within the “movement.”
I share this now because I’m concerned that I may be seeing similar tendencies on the political Left. To avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress that I do not minimize the importance of analysis, of education, of consciousness-raising. But I do wonder how many of us – even now, in the dire straits we’re clearly in, in the Age of Trump – are really contemplating any sort of practical action along the lines set forth in the Miguel Guevara interviews. As I said, the strategies suggested there may not be the right ones. But I’m surprised that there isn’t a wider, vigorous discussion right now in Left circles about what to do – starting now – not to mention a real effort to set those ideas in motion.
“All beginnings are difficult,” says the Talmud. True enough. But nothing happens without a beginning; nothing changes without effort; entrenched power will not yield because dissatisfied intellectuals complain to each other about it. If we really want to see a better world in 25 years, today is the time to start working for it, many of us no doubt from different corners of experience, but all of us with shared goals to be realized in a different kind of society. Do we want that change to happen? Or do we just want to watch disaster follow disaster? To win or to whine? To quote the Talmud again: “If not now, when?”