Why Do We Lose, 2

Not long ago I published an article titled Why Do We Lose. The “we” referred to people trying to create new societies. The “lose”” referred to our not yet accomplishing that overall goal.

I have been trying to contribute to that end for about 50 years. Much has happened, but one thing that has not happened, anywhere, is to transform a society away from past defining structures and to new, liberating ones. So I wondered why, and I offered 20 possible answers, each with a very brief comment, and each pinpointing things “we” do or don’t do, rather than factors outside ourselves. Things which, if they are correct, we can ourselves address.

With the list of possible factors I hoped to provoke discussion, debate, exploration and ultimately collective attempts to correct past mistakes and absences that have contributed to our not yet succeeding.

A number of people wrote back in response. Their comments follow.


Bill Fletcher Responds

I welcomed Michael Albert’s “Why do we lose?” not simply because of its willingness to confront the various demons in the ‘living room’ of the political Left, but because it provides an opportunity for the Left to think about what it does well and where it fails.

To the question of “why do we lose?” I begin with a fundamental point: most social experiments, and indeed, most experiments in general initially fail. The assumption that progress is linear is not informed by any historical reality.

The second point, which Michael addresses, is that the oppressor is better armed, equipped, financed than the Left, but in addition, through its hegemony over society, has the passive support of the majority of the population except under very specific circumstances.

The question I have kept asking has been not so much why does the Left lose, but do we actually wish to win? This question may be specific to conditions in the USA, but in the context of the long-running global crisis of socialism and the growth of post-modernism, it can be argued that much of the Left (with the Left being defined as a broad, anti-monopoly capitalist/anti-imperialist movement seeking a progressive, humane alternative), has given up on the possibility of winning.

To seek to win in the struggle against capitalism necessitates that someone can count. To put it another way, a force that seeks to “win” must distinguish between politics and ideology. While both are essential, ideology serves as the guide or the prism through which one looks at the world in order to change it. Politics involves the act of strategizing towards victory with a special emphasis on identifying who are one’s friends; who are one’s opponents; and who are the neutrals. Politics, defined broadly, is always messy and complicated. The building of alliances necessitates compromises. And fighting for immediate changes—reforms under capitalism—necessitates a willingness to accept that what one demands/wants may not be what one wins at a specific moment. The question is whether the victory, irrespective of how small, positions a movement to win even greater victories.

For much of the Left this is all too convoluted. Their assumption is that if one holds up one’s flag that that should be enough to win over the broad masses, if not immediately then eventually. The magical thinking is fascinating in that the built-in supposition is that on some unspecified day the masses will awaken—perhaps to the sound of trumpets?—and recognize that what we on the Left have been saying all along is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. At that point they will be ready to go into action.

This is called philosophical idealism and while it may work in cinema, it does not work in reality. The act of seeking to win necessitates a recognition that alliances will need to be built that will be, at times, fragile, sometimes temporary, but in every case in need of conscious and conscientious attention. It is the act of helping a disparate mass of people become a self-aware bloc.  It is this which will make the Left relevant and help us to evaluate wins and losses in an entirely different context.


Mark Evans Responds

Whilst it is true that “no PhD is required” this is still a big question and a complex topic. It seems to me, therefore, that it might make sense, if we are to have an extended discussion about this, to break this question down into a number of sub-questions, each of which dealing with an important component of the whole. One way of doing this might be to think in terms of internal and external issues, where the internal category focuses on the question – why isn’t there more solidarity inside the existing Left? – and the external category focuses on the question – why is the Left unable to undertake effective outreach with the general public?

So the above is just a suggested framework for thinking about the big and complex topic raised by Michael Albert’s question that some people might find helpful. With that general point aside, I will now comment on some of the specific points raised by Michael and make some additional ones along the way.

As for point (1) I totally agree.  Left-wing meetings that I have attended can often feel like the first Left-wing meeting in history. It is like the Left, as a whole, have never really bothered to get its act together in establishing the basics. This, I suspect, has something to do with many on the Left rejecting money along with capitalism – as if they are inseparable or the same thing. Furthermore, I also suspect that this is connected to points (9) and (10) regarding not agreeing on what the seeds of the future contain and therefore having no shared vision.  This means that Left-wing strategy is typically informed by reactions against Right-wing policy (for example – Stop the War, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, etc.) which leads on to the important insight highlighted in point (11).

I strongly agree with the point made regarding classism in point (17). I often joke with Leftists that I feel more at home shopping in TK Max than attending Left-wing meetings. This, I think, is for two main reasons. One reason is that, when I enter TK Maxx, I do not expect to find classlessness. So I get what I expect, even though I don’t like it. On the other hand, when I attend a Left-wing meeting I do expect to find classlessness – but I never do. That is soul destroying and alienating. Not because of the classism, exactly, but because of the hypocrisy. Living in a classist society is like having an open wound that stings and throbs all the time. Attending a Left-wing meeting can be like having salt rubbed into that wound.

Point (18) made me laugh (out loud) and I think it raises some important points. In particular, I identify with the point about the Left and religious people. I raise this because (although I don’t think that this is what Michael was trying to get at) it seems to me that many people who call themselves religious or spiritual are in fact much more radical and progressive (by which I mean that they try to find a solution to a problem by getting to the root cause) than many who think of themselves as radical-progressives or revolutionaries – which, of course, many on the Left do. For example, if we ask a typical contemporary revolutionary what they think the fundamental problem is in society they will likely say something like capitalism or the state. The solution, therefore, is to dismantle capitalism / the state. However, if we ask the same question to some spiritual teachers they are much more likely to point to the ego (the assumed belief that “I” am separate, which in turn establishes a psychology of manipulation and control that is fuelled by fear caused by the sense of separation) as the fundamental problem. Furthermore, they may also point out that we are unlikely to be successful in dismantling capitalism and the state until and unless we first address the ego. From this point of view – where the ego is the root and the capitalist state system the branches – it could be argued that the analysis of the spiritual teachers is much more radical and progressive than that of the Left. If correct, the Left may not only have to learn to tolerate religious folk (as Michael seems to be suggesting) but may also have something to actually learn from them. Again, if correct, this could help the Left address some of the issues that are raised in points (2), (4), (8), (12) and (13). This is particularly the case given that many of the lessons taught by spiritual teachers are easily secularised – a point highlighted by, amongst others, the late great revolutionary thinker, Erich Fromm.

As for point (19) I can only say that this brings back memories of IOPS and how frustrating it was to have had all of those great people on the ICC and only a handful of them bothering to engage with the broader membership – by my reckoning, a crucial factor in the slow death of that important effort. In line with Michael’s point, from where I was sitting it honestly felt like most of the ICC expected IOPS to fail, so chose not to make it a priority. This conviction to fail may well be the main reason why the Left continue to lose.

To finish on a more optimistic note, I do not feel that we are “totally fucked” for the simple reason that we have a natural capacity to reflect – which I see as a fundamental driving force for human progress. However, reflection (which is what I think Michael is encouraging us to do here) only really works if we are honest with ourselves, and that takes courage. That said, courage is not something that we all need to work hard to muster. Rather, the key is to address the fear that blocks our natural capacity to act constructively – so we are back to the ego!


Kathy Kelly Responds

Michael Albert’s essay highlights an acute need for new approaches, and more unified ones, to the stalemates we encounter in so many of our efforts to counter the military/industrial/Congressional/media complex. Successful popular movements have tended to arise opposing active wars and easily perceived personal threats to the lives or health of ordinary people and their families. How do these popular movements translate into a mass popular demand to curtail the overall military/ imperial posture and into a mass popular understanding that militarism bars our way to solving vital environmental, economic, and social justice problems?

Antiwar work is work for the poor. Poor nations don’t seek out wars of choice with imperial powers, whatever propaganda statements circulated in the heart of empire may suggest. And our other issues, when legitimately pursued, involve work not for equality among the comfortable but for unity among the poor and the defense of their most vulnerable members. I’m convinced that when movement groups accept, as their top priority, the cares and concerns of the world’s most impoverished people, grounds for true movement unity become apparent.

It’s important to offer strength and warmth to each other in what, for citizens of an affluent society attempting to stop ravaging weaker ones, must of necessity be selfless work. We need not expect the desperate to support us except in campaigns directly easing their burdens, and as for the rich lives of the comfortable, their decision to join us will always involve sacrifice we cannot hope to make convenient. It’s helpful, I think, if various movement groups can encourage constituents not to let inconvenience get in the way of acting in accord with deeply held beliefs.

The School of the Americas Watch campaign drew together broad constituencies from universities, human rights groups, anti-intervention groups and faith-based groups. The SOAW survived being torn apart by factionalism in part, I think, because it was so inconvenient: because the risks inherent in the activism were relatively high, and in this case, I think, because the faith-based liturgical practices were, for some groups, somewhat alienating.

I wonder if groups working for social change could benefit from the experience of their combined strength in agreeing upon some common “Achilles heel” of the military-industrial-media-Congressional complex and challenging it together. Each group could work on their own “airtight case” against the corporation or other globalized entity relevant to their separate issue but targeted by all for redress of grievance. Each group could enhance their individual work with an educational campaign highlighting the specific concerns putting their constituents in the company of  many others affected by this entity. Policies of any number of globalized corporations affect incarcerated people and their families; environmentalists; anti-war efforts, human rights efforts, anti-interventionists and people working to reduce income inequities.

Would it be possible for representatives of a wide range of groups to agree that for a limited time frame they would experiment with building a broad-based campaign, intent on achieving elements of education and nonviolent resistance necessary for success, leading to a hoped-for agreement that their proposals for social change would be met?


Vincent Emanuele Responds

I would break down Michael’s points into several segments. The first would be fundraising and finances. Without question, the Left is constantly dealing with the fact that we simply don’t have money. My experience working with NGOs has been frustrating at best, and terrible at worst. I sat on the board of directors of an antiwar organization for over a year and we spent the majority of our time seeking funds. In short, we had little time to organize people or develop values, vision, strategy and tactics because we were constantly concerned with pleasing the donors. In order to please the donors, we would sometimes exaggerate what the organization was accomplishing as we wanted the donors to think we were being productive, when, in all reality, we were barely holding on. It’s a terrible cycle. Never once did anyone ask, “Should we reach out to our allies, inform them of our struggles, and ask that they help fund the organization?” If certain groups are prosperous, maybe their funds can be allocated differently, so as to help groups without much money. In short, can we share our limited funds? Are there groups who already do this? If so, how have they been effective in their efforts? If not, why?

The next section I would call “Ideological Struggles.” In other words, leftist groups lack coherent values, vision, strategy and tactics. Here, the Left needs serious help. The antiwar movement never had a strategy, let alone a vision for the future. Some antiwar activists wanted liberal reforms; others wanted to dismantle the empire. Some antiwar activists were okay with standing armies while others hoped to dismantle the entire structure of the military. The environmental movement is similar: some environmental activists want to dismantle industrial civilization (whatever that means), while others hope to create a Green Technotopia. These groups have diametrically opposed ideologies, yet probably agree on 90% of what’s wrong with current environmental policies. Again, leftist political movements are lacking ideological cohesion, not only externally, but also internally.

Moving along, Michael alludes to a longstanding schism between leftists on the one hand, and liberals on the other. Historically, this has played out in different ways, depending on context and so forth. In the US, liberal groups have the money, power and community support to enact meaningful reforms. Leftist groups do not have this power. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the recent Chicago mayoral elections, where liberal groups (unions, healthcare organizations, housing rights activists, Democratic organizations) had sway in the electoral process while leftists sat on the sideline, writing scathing articles about how terrible elections are for people. Leftist groups didn’t use the opportunity to grow or gain new members. Liberal groups did, and they’re moving forward with new campaigns, projects, actions, etc. The living wage (Fight for $15) campaigns are dependent upon liberal groups, such as SEIU. Without their help, Fight for $15 would be a marginal effort. The same is true for the environmental movement. Without funding from GreenPeace, Friends of the Earth or 350.org, campaigns fighting against fracking, arctic drilling and so forth would be nonexistent. We shouldn’t ignore this dynamic, we should seek to change it.

The last section I would call “How Leftists Deal with People.” Or, “How Leftists Educate and Organize.” Here, Michael raises some great points. My friends, family and coworkers who are not full time leftists, artists, activists or writers constantly complain that they simply cannot understand what many leftists are saying/writing. We take it for granted that people know what neoliberalism means, for instance. Most Americans don’t even know what “activism” means, let alone what the work entails or how they can get involved. We need to take several steps back and put things in their proper perspective. Most of the people in my small Rust Belt town had no idea what Occupy was, or how to plug into it. They didn’t know about the Right to Work union struggles in 2011, and even if they did, they didn’t understand how those issues would affect them. We need popular education on a massive scale. But in order to do so, leftists will need to curtail their self-righteousness and cynicism. Yes, the environment is bad. However, scaring people isn’t working. It doesn’t’ matter how bad the evidence gets, or how terribly conservative the latest IPCC report is, people will not be motivated by these emotional ploys. Furthermore, we don’t want to fall into a “politics of fear” game, where we’re doing the same thing Fox News does, but from a left wing angle. To put differently, we don’t want people emotionally reacting to climate change, or operating out of a sense of fear (people don’t make rational and logical decisions when they’re scared), we want people to soberly and critically approach topics and issues.

As far as challenging people is concerned, I look for balance. I encourage my non-activist friends not to watch 35 hours of TV per week, but I also encourage my leftist friends to do normal stuff every now and then, to hang out with non-activists and to understand why people do what they do. It makes no sense to beat up on folks because of their cultural entertainment choices, yet it’s common on the Left. To put this differently, we can be critical while remaining effective. Moreover, the Left is so wrapped up in identity/lifestyle politics that it’s turning more people off than it’s turning on, myself included. I shouldn’t walk into a college classroom to give a speech and automatically know which students are activists and which are not based on how they dress and talk. That part of modern activism is absurd and must be rejected. When I bring my working-class and poor friends to political events, they are constantly amazed at how “out of the loop” they feel, or how detached they perceive themselves from what’s happening in the activist world.

In the end, activism is a subculture in the US, and that must change. Being politically active should be the norm, not the exception. But we’re a long way off from that. Right now, the limited people who are involved are largely liberals and progressives, not radicals or leftists. We must keep this in mind. As Lierre Keith says, “We must meet people where they are, but never leave them there.” I think that’s a good saying to live by as an activist. We have to meet people where they are for many Americans have primary concerns, primary emergencies that must be dealt with. However, the question is: How can we simultaneously address the immediate concerns of ordinary Americans while also laying the groundwork for more radical actions and movements in the future? As Michael mentioned in his comments, we must find ways to keep people committed. Without longterm visions and strategies, this will never happen.

The most common question I get from my friends, family and coworkers is: “What do you folks actually want?” And, “How are you going to get it?”

On a side note, I think Kathy’s idea is a useful starting point. can leftists agree to work on a specific campaign? Can we coordinate efforts? In other words, what would it look like if the entire US Left, or as much of it as humanly possible, was working on the same project for 12 months? What would the results be? In the end, I think such a project (successful or unsuccessful) would be absolutely productive and worthwhile. It would be nice to see just how large the Left is, and whether or not it has the capacity to win meaningful reforms, let alone fundamentally change society.

I apologize for the lengthy response, but I think these issues are extremely important so I wanted to elaborate a bit. Hopefully, we can make this an ongoing discussion.


Joe Emersberger Responds

I’d like to focus on this part of your question: “Why do our victories so often fail to produce enhanced efforts to win yet more?”

Throughout South America very important victories have been won, victories that if won in the USA or Canada would make the kind of people who read ZNet euphoric. Many of the negative characteristics you list apply, it seems to me, in places in like Canada, the USA or the UK, where the odds of South American-style victories over the establishment seem remote. We’re like the sports team that is accustomed to losing, and takes to the field (or to the ice as people would more likely put it where I live) expecting to lose, perhaps even taking a vague unhealthy comfort in losing (thinking it is a sign of integrity or something). Victories solve a lot of those problems and that makes more victories possible.

That said, even in South America, some of those defects you list still apply (for example the attitude that nothing short of total revolution is worth doing; finding it easier to harshly critique and demoralize rather than constructively criticize and encourage) but they tend to exist in marginal segments of the left who make themselves irrelevant.

Nevertheless, in South America future gains are threatened. Brazil and Venezuela are struggling, and they are struggling mainly because of self-inflicted wounds. Errors in macroeconomic management have kept the door open for the right, and that endangers all of South America.

In Greece, Tsipras and key people around him (not Varoufakis at the very end) blew a really historic opportunity. As Paul Krugman put it, Tsipras allowed himself to be convinced that ditching the Euro would be cataclysmic. It was a disastrous technical assumption. It’s not over in Greece, but even if trends become very positive again, it doesn’t change the fact that a huge opportunity was lost because of a very bad macroeconomic assumption.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa isn’t perfect, but his government has done a superb job of managing the economy through far less than ideal conditions. He took office shortly before the financial crisis hit. The same basically applies to Evo Morales in Bolivia. In an interview Correa once said that while he strongly agrees that a great deal of right wing ideology gets dressed up as science in the field of economics, the left often loses sight of the fact that not everything is political.  The technicalities matter greatly.

Suppose we don’t screw up the technical details of public policy in the short or medium term. We thereby give people ample incentive to keep us around. What about long term vision? It’s extremely important to prevent backsliding, but it must be fleshed out through fair and open public debate the same way people must be kept informed about what the government is doing in the short term. Progressive governments in Latin America quickly developed state media as a counterweight to the corporate media.

Correa (like Chavez did) has a weekly show that goes on for 3 or 4 hours. He has his ministers there answering questions. It does wonders for raising the level of public debate. I think that was extremely positive and necessary but I feel we should find ways to ensure that public media outlets are made more directly accountable to the audience than government run media as it exists in Latin America – never mind the UK or Canada.

Am I putting the cart way before the horse assuming you meant to address the problems with left in countries like Canada, the USA and the UK? I don’t think so. In the UK, apparently out of nowhere, Jeremy Corbyn could become Labour party leader. The entire establishment is frantic. If he wins they will become even more so. You simply never know when we are going to be in a position to govern (or seriously threaten to govern) because the right refuses, out of its limitless arrogance, to solve problems.

We’d better prepare for victory – and by that I mean have very good idea what we would need to do within the first months or year of taking power.  How would we give the public and immediate stake in supporting us? Moreover, the attitude that says prepares for victory is a healthy one and therefore more likely to lead to victory.


Milan Rai Responds

There’s an exercise someone once led where we were asked to figure out as a group what we most wanted to achieve, and then identify what was blocking us from getting there.

The trick was that we were asked to rephrase every block as something that we ourselves were doing. So we weren’t allowed to say ‘lack of money’ was stopping us. We had to describe it as ‘inadequate fundraising’.

I was very intrigued by this move, and I’ve tried supporting strategy-making and planning in different groups using this suggestion. It has always, always been a massive struggle for people to try to reframe problems ‘Out There’ as issues ‘In Here’. It’s been pretty much impossible, in fact.

I’ve persisted nonetheless because I’ve seen some logic in there; that if we figure out what we’re not doing well enough, we should be able to think of ways to fix it, and get better, and become more successful. In the end, however, I have had to just give up and accept that there is something about this very logical path that doesn’t fit with people – at least with the people who I have worked with. Somehow, the logic involved is not a humanly-workable or -useful logic.

I see a lot of points in Michael Albert’s essay, ‘Why Do We Lose’, that chime with my experience and my frustrations. Pretty much everything in the essay, in fact.

At the same time, I think there is an analogy between the essay and the ‘identify our shortcomings’ approach to group improvement that somehow hasn’t helped the groups I’ve been in to make positive changes.

I’m sure there are many ways of using ‘Why Do We Lose’ to promote useful conversations. One option might be to identify, in each of the categories listed in the essay, examples of where ‘we’ are doing well, and to hold those out as models to be imitated, extended, scaled-up and networked.

There is an approach to organisational change called ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ which focuses on ‘what is being done well’. Yes, Appreciative Inquiry does come out of management studies, but I don’t think that invalidates the insight that people gain energy and become more capable of constructive action when we focus on what we have succeeded at, what we are doing well.

I share Michael Albert’s deep desire for concrete gains that ‘accumulate into larger and larger movements, activism, commitment, and then a changed world’. I share his analysis of many of the ways in which ‘we’ are falling short – ways I am falling short.

This painful list of our defects is really a characteristically passionate manifesto for a very different, a much more ambitious way of conducting radical politics. I can’t help seeing it as an invitation and a call to collect together inspiring examples of excellent work in different areas, to celebrate gains won that are making a lasting difference, to identify and to nurture ‘the seeds of the future’.


Eugene Nulman Responds

Michael’s essay is very important for pointing out significant flaws among the left, including flaws that I see in myself and my own political work. I believe that some of the problems mentioned lead to additional problems down the road to the point where we are today and have many compounding problems.

Without a vision – perhaps even within the context of a particular campaign or a particular goal let alone what a model for a better world would look like – ordinary people who otherwise support the cause will not join in the struggle. Unless we are so desperate that we see any potential alternative as better than our present reality we need a vision. For some struggles this vision is easier to provide. For example, equality in the eyes of the law seems like an easier vision to grasp than equality in the eyes of each other.

Even with a vision in place, a plausible strategy should be available that allows individuals to feel that their participation is an important contribution to the struggle and that their efforts are part of a plan rather than simply a collective release of anger with no other aim. We can get people in the streets when they feel passionate about something and see that others are feeling the same way. They may stay on the streets for days because of the atmosphere or the sense of making history. But what happens after those few days? Business as usual?

Without vision and strategy the people that retain commitment to our movements are getting something else out of it. We may be die-hards that like the fight without any ever needing to win. We may be locked into habits of participation that maintain our sense of self. We may be there seeking distinction by being rebels, or by being the most well-read on the revolution of X or the most up-to-date on the political events in Y. None of these reasons for participating relate to the objective of social and political change anymore, and by not focusing on objectives we create additional problems in our movements.

If I’m a die-hard activist as described above I may participate in everything and anything without showing others the connection between the issues. New participants may be put off. They came to stop the war but now we are talking about the right to an abortion and handing out leaflets about a lecture on the Russian Revolution. Stuck in their habits, everyone at the lecture is throwing around the word ‘comrade’ and the few people who attended seem to be continuing a debate they have had for years – seemingly disconnected from anything happening in the present and out of touch with people who aren’t like themselves. The new participant goes to a more relevant lecture on a current affair and sees the same thing.

Those engaged in the movement seeking distinction can wind up unintentionally creating processes that stifle the movement. We want our organizations to be small so we don’t lose our sense of importance within it. If it gets too big we split off and form something else. We ridicule people who don’t see things our way – which we always view as ‘the right way’. We brand people with all sorts of labels that conveniently keep them at arms-length to make sure we maintain our purity. We call them reformists, Trots, bourgie, narcs, champagne socialists, hippies, manarchists, etc… If we truly believed we had the right political ideas, why are our actions to alienate everyone who doesn’t already agree with us? Surely we didn’t start out having the ‘right’ ideas. Or do we really think ridicule is the best way to get people to see things our way?

If it is true that a large proportion of our movements are people who are looking to get something else out of the movement other than real victories and that these problems result, then creating vision and strategy may no longer be enough. By creating vision and strategy we may bring people into the movement but without leadership that works to manage these problems we may again end up with a small movement of people who are not necessarily in it to win it. In meetings arguments may arise and ridicule may ensue. It may reach a point where people who accept the vision and see their efforts as meaningful contributions leave the movement because it is too personally taxing.

For such a bad result to happen, no one needs to have bad intentions. Everyone is acting in ways that makes sense to them and we even work to try and resolve problems to the extent that it meets the ends we desire. Someone who really feels empowered by being in an organization will work to help keep it together and solve disputes. If we seek to change aspects of the organization that fall in line with our political beliefs we may do so gently, patiently, and politely. But none of these differences will necessarily lead to mobilizing more people or getting us anywhere closer to achieving any wider social or political changes.

It is hard enough to come up with a good strategy and a good set of tactics that is directed at achieving some wider change. It takes a long time of testing and tinkering to see if it is effective with the resources available and the right external conditions. But lots of effort is being spent on achieving more personal goals, and for reasons we can understand.

How do we overcome these challenges?

Perhaps we need leadership that is aware of these concerns, the needs of individuals of the movements and the goals of the movement itself. This leadership would need to make sure it can effectively channel our energies in a positive direction – without being authoritarian and within a context that develops and promotes self-management.

Perhaps we can acknowledge some of our own flaws and remember to keep our eyes on the prize while being cognizant of the fact that the one thing we can really know for certain is that there is nothing we can really know for certain. Our ideas about what the right strategies are may be wrong. Our ideas about tactics may be flawed. Maybe we try one strategy and another organization tries another strategy. Maybe we attempt one tactic for a year and switch to another if it doesn’t work. We can have these discussions if we have a vision that – at least in part – is shared and we are putting our focus on working towards it. We can also make sure we implement this logic into organizations that we build to prevent them from being dogmatic but setting enough structure to remain goal-oriented.


Patrick Bond Responds

Very very useful list. They remind me so much of what can be a highly sectarian left in the US, one with such privileges but such social alienation. So small in relation to the society yet so sophisticated and demanding. And at its worst, politically correct without humility and self-consciousness.

On the other hand, your essay on progress gained by the left – was it about 20 years ago in Killing Train – was really empowering. Maybe time for a reprint and update of that?

I think these particular movement-hygiene problems apply most in South Africa:

>>     We are too fragmented into too many righteous efforts each of which, however, has too few people involved.

One example is in climate, energy and mining work, where there are dot disconnections.

>>     We too often create movements and political processes and spaces that do not make their members happier, more confident, more hopeful, and more fulfilled and empowered.

We had social movements like Treatment Action Campaign (winning free AIDS medicines and raising life expectancy from 52-62 the last decade) and anti-privatisation (e.g. in Soweto and Durban) that did offer hope but they ran out of steam (the latter) or won their campaigns (TAC) without having ‘non-reformist reform’ strategies to proceed with.

>>     We rightly fear authoritarianism but we don’t understand its opposite, self management.

Our best hope is steady expansion of this team’s efforts.

>>     We talk about our movements serving the oppressed but instead our choices often internally replicate the oppressions around us.

>>     We denigrate a great many choices as compromised or less than our standards require, other than the choices we make.


Here are ways we try to deal with reforms worth fighting for versus those that empower the enemy…

two contrary directions for framing campaign strategies:

1) ‘reformist reforms’:

strengthen the internal logic of the system, by smoothing rough edges

allow the system to relegitimise

give confidence to status quo ideas and forces

leave activists disempowered or coopted

confirm society’s fear of power, apathy and cynicism about activism

2) ‘non-reformist reforms’:

counteract the internal logic of the system, by confronting core dynamics

continue system delegitimisation

give confidence to critical ideas and social forces

leave activists empowered with momentum for next struggle

replace social apathy with confidence in activist integrity and leadership

(for these distinctions, thanks to Andre Gorz, John Saul, Boris Kagarlitsky, Gosta Esping-Andersen)


Justin Podur Responds

Why do we lose: is there a “we”?

Radicals I talk to share stories of trying to convince people of the need for change. If I can’t convince my friends or family, one recently told me, then what hope is there for massive numbers of people to come around? It’s not so easy to sit and talk to someone and change their mind about something. I have found that it doesn’t work that way. People look for things when they’re ready. People look for answers to questions that are on their minds. People might be receptive in a certain environment, or context, and completely uninterested in another.

We are convinced that our beliefs are fundamentally correct. But we are in a world filled with people who are convinced of that, including people who hold beliefs completely opposed to our own. How certain are we of our correctness? It probably varies by belief. Leftists all believe in equality, and solidarity, and liberty, and roughly mean the same things when we say these words. But that doesn’t translate into the same prescriptions for the specific kind of society we want, or the specific changes we need, and in what order, or the specific actions we should take to bring about changes, and when, and what to do about opposition. Dividing on these differences produces smaller and smaller “we”s.

I am not just saying that “we lose because we are divided”. I am saying that the differences between us are so significant that there is no “we” that can make a common decision or take a common action. And these differences are dividing up a portion of society (politically active leftists) that is already tiny.

How could this be overcome? It would be good to find out how many of us there are, and what we believe, and what unites and what divides those of us who are united on some set of values. Find out how many “we”s there are and what kind of rough unity of action could be formed out of them.



I appreciate those who replied. While one can obviously pursue these issues totally independently of this piece, that we ought to pursue these issues, in public, collectively, and with real vigor seems without doubt. Our aim should be determining why we have yet to create a new society, and, in particular, things that we have done or not done that have impeded success – not to assess blame, not to establish reasons as some kind of intellectual exercise, but to determine where we need to change our approaches to do better. The above reactions seem to me to raise points, some echoing the initial article, some refining it, some raising new matters, but all having a focus and forthrightness about ourselves all too rare in left writing. I hope they provoke more.


  1. TylerFromVA September 21, 2015 1:50 pm 

    The Left loses because we are disorganized. Dr. King was an organizer. He planned to bring 500,000 people to occupy Washington and demand anti-poverty legislation. This is the primary reason he was assassinated. No current lefty is in danger of assassination because the oligarchs can see how disorganized we are. Lefties need to stop talking about problems and start organizing solutions.

  2. avatar
    James September 20, 2015 2:07 pm 

    And where will this dialogue continue? What forum? One that can be accessed by “readers” like myself to see how this kind of “prodding” develops? Here?

    What sort of shit can be done so “readers”, as opposed to those who may be considered “writers” and “thinkers”, can interact, contribute or even, as Vincent suggests is necessary, begin to understand completely what the hell everyone is talking about? Demand clarity. Most of us “readers” haven’t been activists for fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, ten, five, four, three, two, or one year. Maybe not even one day.And most haven’t, funnily enough, even read Marx, nor want to. So complicated stuff is really not gonna cut it.

    Where are us readers to go now after reading the above? What are “we” to do now? Do “we” wait for more? Part 3?

    Why not publish this bloody thing at IOPS and see if it gets something back up and running? Where was this sort of thing when IOPS was falling apart?

    Because, from my end, as a pathetic little reader with absolutely no idea what to do, or with time to do it, the above may or in fact will, just be another piece of writing whose information just disappears into the ether like the wake from a boat dissipates into the sea.

    PS: Just out of interest as this is a bit of a beef with me. This notion of “spiritual” and these ideas of some perceived problems with “ego”, are actually, for me, and I have to say it, more problematic than helpful because one is dealing with very very very vague concepts. Secularising “spiritual” concepts, ideas, notions, or practices is really just hit and miss stuff. A kind of flirting with vague philosophical notions purportedly to have some sort of deeper personal relevance. Plus they kind of sound nice. If one takes the karma and notion of rebirth and reincarnation (two different things to a Tibetan Buddhist) out of Buddhism (a kind of secularising), you no longer have Buddhism (no “spiritualism”) and you no longer have the necessary time to do what Buddhist practice is meant to do, to realise our true nature, to free oneself from suffering. Further, any focus on such things, to my mind (one that has spent much time in the past actually seriously practicing and studying this shit) takes one’s eye of the revolutionary ball. Things that can be clearly seen and understood (like structural things) by most are kind of entangled with vague and amorphous notions and ideas. Further, suggesting that people (not all remember, some. Or perhaps it is all, then “who” knows?) or some vague “we’, need to fix themselves by dealing with something called the “ego” is problematic. Maybe it can be done in an ordinary chatty kind of way, you know like, calm down dickhead you really need to get a grip, but leave the “guru” “spiritual master” master stuff out of it.

    Maybe there is no “I”. I can’t find it when I look for it. It’s only a dependent origination. Maybe once that notion is “grasped” clearly, one can through practice ( the long hard road to the little red cushion) focus on letting go of the “grasping” onto the realisation of dependent origination and notion of the “non-self”, and strive for the end goal, otherwise known as the “emptiness of emptiness”. Maybe one could become a student of Buddhism, get a Guru, which is integral to it, and ask him (because they are predominantly male) why the “Buddha”, if he ( because he is usually referred to as male) is all knowing and therefore all powerful, doesn’t wake everyone up from the sleep of delusion? And if you practice enough, which involves inordinate amounts of time, you may be able to understand when the master answers, “who’s asleep”, what the hell “he” means!

    I have no problems with the above. As long as it’s kept as a private matter. And if it is to become a public one, there had better be a bit more than just testimony as the sum total of evidence that this thing called the “ego” can be obliterated, or even dealt with to some degree.

    • avatar
      David Jones September 21, 2015 4:42 pm 

      There you are James! Its a reunion of old IOPS survivors, limping in for another go at The System. Anyway, I think a little Freudian /Lacanian dip into the old psyche might not be a bad thing for the Left. Not that sending everyone to a shrink (or meditating for a week) is the Revolution, but to think about identity or demand self-determination we need to know a little about this “self”. And understand the trauma and resulting damage from both capitalism AND our mothers. And hey, Marx gave us some invaluable poetry: “All that is solid, melts into air.” Says it all!

      • avatar
        Mark Evans September 21, 2015 7:07 pm 

        Hi David,

        Nice quote from Marx! Just to be clear though, when I talk about the ego I am referring to what some people see as the core teachings of the world religions, and not Freud. Unlike Freud, these teachings are very simple and easy to understand. It seems that they can also be faith or experience based – which is nice because that includes everyone.

        Perhaps most importantly, however, these teachings may go to the root cause of the problem – namely, excessive ego identification, which of course is encouraged in highly individualised societies run along neo-liberal lines within the capitalist-state system.

      • avatar
        James September 21, 2015 9:00 pm 

        Hey Dave. Yep IOPS, what a lark! Nah, you can leave the Lacan and even Freud for those with the temperament. Not helpful to me. Yeah, maybe Marx would have made a good Buddhist, I don’t know, but Do Kyentse probably just would of hurled abuse at him, thrown some stones at him, then saud to him, “you intellectuals are full of shit”. Of course he would have done that as an introduction to the nature of his mind, you understand. You know, with every bit of abuse and stone that hit him, all those concepts that Marxy pooh was holding onto would have falken away. That is if he too, had reached a certain level of realisation and understanding. So I doubt Do Kyentse would have bern successful. Marx’s “ego” was set in stone as Bakunin learnt.

        Psychology is equally grey and amorohous like “spiritual” notions.

    • avatar
      Mark Evans September 21, 2015 5:37 pm 

      Hi James,

      Most of what you have written in your rant (Guru’s, Buddhism, etc) does not really relate to what I have said. Nevertheless, I will try to make a couple of clarifications.

      One of your criticisms is that exploring the ego leads to taking “one’s eye of the revolutionary ball”. Now even if this is correct – which I don’t think it is – we have to remember that I am replying to a specific question raised by Michael, namely: Why do we lose? So, our analysis here is focused on us – the Left – for a change.

      Such analysis could include what you refer to as “structural things” – which is why I also included classism and vision – but might also include exploring possible psychological issues. Furthermore, as I argue, it is my opinion that religious and spiritual teachers might have something important to teach us – the Left – here. In fact, it seems to me that their analysis can go much deeper than the average anti-capitalist, for example. I would suggest that, for those on the Left who have a strong aversion to religion, the thing to do is to not throw the baby out with the bath water.

      Another criticism you make is that I am dealing with “very very very vague concepts”. So let me ask you this – is veryx3 a precise measure? Does your criticism increase in clarity and validity with every additional “very”? The answer, of course, is no. So, outside of the hard sciences, we are all operating in the same vague world and it is within this context that the revolution will have to take place. That said, I can’t see the Left – with it excessive ego identification, fear and subsequent dysfunctional behaviour – pulling off a successful revolution – hence my including this stuff in my reply to Michael’s post.

      • avatar
        James September 21, 2015 9:19 pm 

        Hey Mark,

        I know my bit, not quite a rant, about “spiritual” stuff was a little off topic and I understand what you were doing. Nevertheless, and even beside your point that three “verys” is vague guess work and outside the hard sciences, I still believe and hold that such stuff, “spiritual” stuff is a personal matter and can be problematic if introduced into the revolutionary process. Particularly if people are all of a sudden going to pick out isolated little morsels from eastern mysticism. I focused on Buddhism because I know it. Maybe it’s personal with me. That I practiced for considerable time, and studied, only to notice nothing working (of course because I wasn’t doing it right or my karma was wrong – convenient) and only to find out later that Sogyal Rinpoche was dilly dallying with a few of his female students . Sometimes getting pissed first. Just like the great Chogyam Trungpa. Well, I guess they were just not “authentic” masters, OR perhaps that is the way of the “crazy wisdom master”. Maybe they were just two who went of the rails or beyond, but shit, that’s enough for me to realise it is merely some personal belief system not some universal truth and that they were both actually just a couple of guys like me with a vocation – they were Buddhist masters, that was their JOB.

        Loke I said, it’s a personal thing of which I have no problem with. But to introduce such stuff to the “left”, like in a collective way, is not just weird to me but really problematic. Eastern “spiritual” stuff is about study and practice. It isn’t just some philosophy or idea that can be isolated from the rest of it and kind of just applied to a bunch of disparate and crazy personalities that show up at some radical meeting or action. That is why Brand could have done better by removing all that stuff from his book.

        Again, maybe it’s personal with me because I’m pissed at Sogyal Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa because they scammed some innocent people. But I don’t care. I am becoming more materialist as the years where on.

        However, I will say that I still kinda like reading about the philosophy of emptiness, and dependent origination at times. And I don’t mind a bit of Zen now and then. It’s kind of clean, like a Zen garden. But that’s about it. I agree with Zappa that Guru’s can bite it.

      • avatar
        James September 22, 2015 8:35 am 

        Thought I might clarify as my first response was quick and done early in the morning upon waking. Rushed.

        You mention I thought exploring the “ego” would take one’s eye off the ball. I meant exploring “spiritual” things in general. Some of which may entail exploring the “ego”.

        If you are talking about some sort of collective “ego”, you will need to explain what that is. I certainly do mot understand the notion of a collective “I”. No such thing exists as far as I can tell.

        If it involves things like fear and dysfunctional behaviour, I do not think it necessary to to “secularise” spiritual ideas to address them. Just talk to people. But if you are going to smuggle in some kind of notion of the “non-self”, anatman, separate from the “spiritual” practice from which it arose, then you’ve just got some sort of philosophical concept on your hands. And how are you going to apply such a concept of the “ego”, if by which you mean a non-self, to a collection of people as amorphous and disparate as the “Left”?

        I just think you are talking about common sense, common decency, being open minded, caring rather than dehumanising. That’s ok. You can do that without any reference to “spiritual” practice or religion, because really when you come down to it, that’s all these things really are. The ideas of normal everyday run of the mill people. Nothing more. Not special people with some insight into some special realm or part of ourselves that “we” are apparently neglecting.

        Further I do NOT think religious or spiritual “teachers” go deeper than the “average” anti-capitalist. In fact I think most miss the boat completely. The most radical thing I have read is Participatory Economics. Nothing I have read pertaining to Buddhism gets remotely close to it. Secularising “spiritual” ideas leaves you with just ideas. The notion of anatman, the non-self is totally inseparable from the practice of meditation and it is only through study AND practice that this notion can be realise (if you believe that stuff).

        If the “left” is losing because there are pockets of it or certain people in it that can’t open their minds up, or behave badly or “egotistically” etc., then point it out and ask them nicely to desist or whatever. Communicate somehow. Talk to ’em. Understand them. Whatever. No need for the word “spiritual” to be brought in.

        I think what Dave is getting at is better, more helpful, but without the Lacan (unless you paraphrase him Dave and make it comprehensible)!

        • avatar
          James September 22, 2015 8:38 am 

          I meant, “if by which you mean a self”, in relation to ego.

        • avatar
          Mark Evans September 22, 2015 10:47 am 

          Thanks for trying to clarify James.

          I think it is true that exploring the spiritual teachings can be a distraction away from what is important. However, I think that is also true of football as well as most other things. That said, developing an understanding of the workings of the ego, based on these teachings, might prove helpful for the Left in that groups of people who have less ego identification tend to function better.

          There is also the issue of fear that is generated by the ego. For me fear is the fuel that drives Rightwing ideology. However, the Left also seems to be riddled with fear which can lead us to think and behave in ways that is not that different to the Right. If the Left are to represent a genuine alternative – which is what the world is crying out for – then it seems to me that this will need to be addressed.

          When I say that these teachings go deeper I am not claiming that the Buddha, for example, had better economic vision than say Michael Albert. Participatory economics helps us to understand and address classism as a form of social discrimination, but it does not answer the more fundamental question of why people engage in manipulative and controlling behaviour in the first place – whereas these teachings do, or at least try to. In that sense, it could be argued that these teachings are more radical than what the anti-capitalist teach and that the Left just might have something to learn from them.

          However, if you think that you can work all of this stuff out yourself, then fine. But I have to say that I have not seen much evidence of this in my engagement with the Left – including IOPS – which is why I am highlighting it in my reply to Michael’s question. In response to your general position I would suggest that you read (or more likely reread) the addendum to chapter 4 of Michael’s Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism.

          • avatar
            James September 22, 2015 1:39 pm 

            And thankyou for your reply Mark.

            I am not sure what you mean by ” if you think you can work all this out by yourself”. I am also a little unsure what you mean when you say that you haven’t or didn’t see much evidence of “this” in your engagement at IOPS. What’s the “this”? Is it this notion of “ego” related to fear?

            There is a real problem here. I only know of individual egos, ego being a sense of self, or a sense of a solid “I”, not collective ones. So these kinds of discussions can tend to eventually get personal. What the hell is a group ego? Is this group think? Just a matter of a bunch of people holding similar views and not budging?

            Yes, football can be a distraction but I haven’t really heard of anyone wanting to introduce the insights of football coaches into Left groups. Well, not so far.

            And as far as people practicing whatever they want to, religion or whatever, that’s their decision. I won’t denigrate them. It’s a personal decision. But I will talk matter of factly when it comes to such things if they are brought up in conversation. Demanding definitions, clarification and explanations. If things like “spiritual” or “ego” or “collective ego” have clear definitions I can work with, fine. We can start from there. But usually what I find when definitions are given we are deling with commonsensical things.

            I knew what you meant re teachers going deeper and I still disagree.

            I’m not going to argue with you about your idea that fear drives the right and at times the left or that this fear is generated by the ego because I’m not so certain these things are all that simple. You may be right, you may be only kind of right or you may not be right at all.

Leave a comment