Leftist rhetoric, leftist despair

From Freedom News (28/04/2024) …

If a contest were held for who publishes the most effective posters in my city, it would undoubtedly go to the Trotskyites because whatever is in the news that week they engage with and their message discipline is characteristically iron. At the top of their posters is the problem, and below that is the cause. They go like this:

Problem: War.
Cause: Capitalism!
Problem: Patriarchy.
Cause: Capitalism!
Problem: Deportations.
Cause: Capitalism!
Problem: Homelessness.
Cause: Capitalism!

Today, there is a proliferation of ‘doomerism,’ exhaustion, burnout, uptightness, depression, and anxiety on the left. Terrible things seem to happen all the time, and our ability to contest them looks weak. But I don’t think this is actually the case. The problem is that the left talks the left out of using its power: it tells itself it cannot make a difference. Weakness begets weakness. People from the outside listen in and hear our misery and can hardly be blamed for avoiding activism. “Don’t want to be like those miserable weirdos”, they probably think. Well, me neither! So, how do we undermine our own fighting spirit, and how can we regain it?

Let’s think about how political issues look to the majority of people. Take increasing police accountability. For moderates, this is a specific problem against which tangible policy goals can be implemented, like increasing diversity hires or a better complaints system. There are also measurable outcomes to judge its success, such as more complaints leading to disciplinary action. In other words, not only can they see the problem but also measure its proportions, study the solutions against it, and watch in real time as it shrinks and disappears.

The radical has no such luck. Our problems are strangely intangible: they are the vagaries of capital accumulation, imperialism, and authority. We do not carefully segment each issue but instead pride ourselves on seeing all of them as interlocking, part of a vast system. In short, these systems become responsible for everything. “Capitalism” is the monster under the bed – the danger around every corner – it dogs us everywhere. From sex scandals and wars to reality TV and fast food, under slogans like ‘You don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism,’ there is nothing the left cannot blame on the capitalist system. This is something my local Trots demonstrate weekly.

And it is an exhausting worldview. Lynne Farrow once criticised this leftist tendency since, logically, if tackling one instance of oppression does not fell the whole system, any political victory is seen as inherently illusionary. As David Graeber sighed, whenever a progressive idea gains traction or the interests of capital retreat in favour of the interests of workers, “some leftist journal will start explaining to us that really, this is all part of their plan – or maybe, an effect of the inexorable working out of the internal contradictions of capital, but certainly, nothing for which we ourselves are in any way responsible”.

That’s the academic version. Outside those polite halls, bitching and shaming within the far-left towards narrow, immediate goals is a hallmark of its discourse. Whenever our moderate kin have a successful campaign, what do they get? They are accused of splitting the movement, of being ineffectual, or morally accepting the system and being just as bad as its most ardent defenders. Even it is darkly muttered, allowing themselves to be co-opted – reinforcing the very thing they set out to curtail!

This way of thinking can seem very intellectually appealing. It is supposed to unite various, diverse movements behind one goal (or, depending on your perspective, to co-opt various movements for one goal). It is also certainly cool and radical to never compromise in your critique. But it’s a defeatist attitude par excellence for me, most obviously because it judges every action by what it failed to do rather than its successes. (“Ah, you might have unionised this workplace, but in doing so, you have merely strengthened the labour aristocracy!”) And because it posits there are only wholly successful or wholly ineffectual kinds of activism, and a lot more of the latter than the former, it provokes thoughtless and arrogant kinds of criticism and, from there, infighting.

But I think what is most important here is that the systematising framework leaves individuals with no role in activism. Everything ends up being about “capitalism”, or perhaps “hierarchy” or “colonialism” or “patriarchy” or “semiotics”. But no individual makes the decision to end a system. When their personal contributions to the fight against it are continually derided, can we be surprised by leftist despair, paralysis, and, ultimately, passivity?

Yet I think that these are feelings which many leftist groups would like to take advantage of, including our Trotskyites from earlier. When you feel powerless, they nudge you and confirm, “Yes. Yes, you are. You can’t fight the system. Everyone else who tried only aided it. Only we, the party, can make a difference. But (they go on to say) capitalism is everywhere. It has captured the economy, the family, the press, and culture high and low; there are no centres of resistance left. If we are to root it out, the party will need control over the state and all aspects of society through the state”. And the poor leftist! So sure that they individually are worthless and desire so much the total, simultaneous end of the system, they agree. Is it any surprise that the local Trots are so keen to create this kind of “revolutionary” consciousness?

But the various direct action movements are the perfect vehicle to fight this despair. Our philosophy is that every societal problem is worthy of being tackled, from filling potholes to feeding the hungry. Even if the problems we organise around individually carry no “revolutionary significance”, tackling them with direct action develops the habit of self-organisation, which is the most revolutionary and significant kind. Our activists have undermined the system’s authority and discovered their own power and esteem in both the everyday and extraordinary crises we face. They have demonstrated that the system has failed on the issues by providing concrete, immediate, practical solutions, and they create the springboard for further anti-capitalist action—a project which achieves what the system cannot prove its potential to supersede. During Hurricane Katrina and Covid-19, we have seen mutual aid networks formed in normal times springing into action in a crisis, filling the void left by the state. The various revolutionary parties and sects could, by contrast, do nothing but admit their own helplessness by demanding a response from the class enemy – the hated capitalist state.

Everywhere, direct action means a fighting force, a force that aims for victory, not one that accepts the inevitability of defeat. Those involved have gone from dreamers to doers: they have proven the worth of their ideas and are proud of their role in transforming society—as they should be!

When we make every problem about the unassailable system, we give it too much credit. The important thing isn’t the system; it is us and our response to it. Let us not agree with the right that capitalism cannot be cowed. A problem is a problem is a problem. We can fix it.

My message with this article is that there are leftist vampires and radical ghouls who will drain you because you pursued a better world instead of just dreaming it. If they had their way, you would stay home, being as miserable as they are. There are maybe one or two issues you can fix, and probably 968 you can’t. Leftist despair is wallowing in the latter and not pursuing the former; leftist empowerment is smashing the former and planning your conquest of the latter. I do not believe that your problems, my problems, are irrelevant if solving them will not destroy capitalism. I do not think the best we can hope for is being co-opted and having our slogans appear next to all the usual suspects – wait until after the capital-R Revolution for solutions, “comrade”. If we aspire to another world, we have to build it: you and me, here and now.


This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.