Left of What? Toward a Platform for Change By William Bowles

23 June 2004

This is the 250th essay (give or take a few) that I’ve written since initiating I‘n’I in August 2003 and I’ve written well over a quarter of a million words. Buckminster Fuller said the he believed that the human race was a success as long as it continued to exist and although something of a tautology, the phrase embodies an attitude toward life that is wholy commendable. I too, remain an eternal optimist (even if I do have the occasional lapse) but it is clear that we have reached some kind of watershed. Something has to give and I’m damned if it’s going to be me!

Progressives in both the UK and the US face a real dilemma when it comes to electoral politics because we both must deal with the question of what political party to vote for (or against) under conditions where our options are severely limited. And whilst the situations in the US and the UK are not the same, they do bear comparing.

On one level, it comes down to principle; does one vote the way our conscience dictates or for the lesser of two (or more) evils, a position that is driven by a perceived necessity of keeping out an extreme right wing government?

This is not a new debate and goes back as far as the German National Socialist Party and the rise of Fascism, where the Left accused Social Democrats of siding with Fascism and lumped them together with the Nazis, thus creating the conditions that allowed Hitler to come to power.

In the US the debate has taken on a real urgency by Ralph Nader’s decision to contest the November presidential election (on what appears to be the Ralph Nader Party ticket). Progressives of various hues contend that a vote for Nader is essentially a vote for Bush as the votes will come from Kerry supporters, which may well be true.

However, the argument to vote for Kerry rests on whether Kerry as prez will be ‘better’ than Bush, with a number of ‘leading’ progressives contending that with Kerry and the Democrats in power it will be easier to fight against than a Bush-led administration.

Liberals such as Chomsky assert that the Bush Gang is so dangerous and extreme that should he be reelected it would be a disaster and further reinforce the control of the extreme rightwing ‘cabal’ led by Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith et al. But is this an accurate reflection of US politics?

Chomsky put it this way:

“The current incumbents may do severe, perhaps irreparable, damage if given another hold on power-a very slim hold, but one they will use to achieve very ugly and dangerous ends. In a very powerful state, small differences may translate into very substantial effects on the victims, at home and abroad. It is no favor to those who are suffering, and may face much worse ahead, to overlook these facts. Keeping the Bush circle out means holding one’s nose and voting for some Democrat, but that’s not the end of the story. The basic culture and institutions of a democratic society have to be constructed, in part reconstructed, and defeat of an extremely dangerous clique in the presidential race is only one very small component of that.”

The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that there is an effective left (or progressive) opposition to Kerry, let alone Bush, an opposition that unfortunately doesn’t yet exist. Moreover, it also assumes that with Kerry in power, things would be substantially different, but how true is this? Most important of all, what are the chances of a progressive alternative being constructed?

Firstly, the likely centre of real power resides with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld not with Bush, long time Washington/Big Business figures, whose power base extends back several decades and is rooted in the oil/arms oligarchy. Is it likely for example that Kerry would repeal the Patriot Act or halt the ‘war on terror’? Dream on comrades! And assuming that he did, how would the military/oil axis respond to such an action?

An analysis of Kerry’s financial backers and the Democratic National Committee answers this question, pointing toward a continuation of the same policies, perhaps with some moderation of the rhetoric but one that essentially plows the same furrow. We need look no further than the Carter administration to see that it was Carter who instigated a renewed arms race, thus opening the door for Reagan. And it was Clinton’s administration that created the conditions for the invasion of Iraq by sanctioning the idea of ‘pre-emptive’ war through the invasion and occupation of the former Yugoslavia.

Moreover, the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist economy are not going to go away just because Kerry gets elected. Contradictions that grow more extreme with every passing day. The question we must ask ourselves is quite simple: will Kerry abandon the so-called neo-liberal economic policies of the last twenty or so years? Will he take steps to alter the relationship between the US and the poor countries of the world? Will he rein in the stranglehold the military/political elite has on the country and can he be persuaded/convinced that this needs to be done?

Any analysis of individual governments must take into account the larger issue of a continuum of imperialist policies that carry on regardless unless blocked, for example by defeat as in Vietnam. I fear that the idea of being able to exert more control over a Kerry administration is based more on wishful thinking than reality for it depends on an organised progressive movement that has yet to show itself.

The danger of the Chomsky approach is that it isolates Bush from the history of US imperialism, viewing Bush’s policies as something exclusive to the current administration. The real failure I contend, lies with the Left.

Finally, accusations of an impending Fascism are, I think, extremely dangerous, for they blind us to a constant theme of capitalism, namely its ability to coopt and our acceptance of the basic status quo.

In the US, the ‘left’, largely based in academia and the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement is cut off from the vast swathes of Americans composed of poor whites, African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities who have borne the brunt of Bush’s ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’ policies. Without roots in these communities, how is a fragmented Left to effectively mount organised opposition to any government?

On the other hand, if voting for a candidate such as Nader is a wasted vote, how are we to break the endless reproduction of a two-party system and one where the two main parties are increasingly difficult to differentiate?

In the meantime, the electorate has voiced its opinions by deserting the polling booth in droves, driving home the argument that what they are really looking for is a viable alternative to the current political impasse.

The Left, by ignoring such fundamentals such as the role of racist ideology in maintaining the power of capital has effectively absented itself from the key issues, only to ‘wake up’ when the shit hits the proverbial fan.

It’s worth looking at the history of ‘revolving door’ politics in this regard, where there are direct parallels between the US and the UK, each with two major political parties, with little to chose between them. In the UK the Labour Party when in power has invariably ‘opened the door’ for right wing policies of the Tories through two, interconnected processes:

1. By exploiting its progressive base to push through policies that a right wing Tory Party couldn’t get away with (often by blackmailing supporters that by not supporting Labour would allow a right wing Tory government to get elected).

2. That a right wing government would be much worse (clearly no longer so easy to sell). In the new situation created by New Labour’s appropriation of much of the Tory Party’s policies, it’s not inconceivable to view the Tories as a spent force, increasingly reliant on old, white men who live in a pre-Thatcherite age. The rise of the UK Independence Party is indicative of this shifting of ‘middle England’ support to more extreme political voices who have usurped yet another section of traditional Tory support.

The current Blair government has used this tactic most effectively. But previous Labour governments have done exactly the same thing. For example, during the 1970s, a Labour government not only passed reactionary and racist immigration laws but in turn, these opened the door for subsequent racist Tory government policies.

In the US, a ‘left’ Democratic government has acted as an ‘interregnum’ between a continuous right wing Republican agenda, often acting as a ‘breathing space’, enabling the populace to ‘forget’ the disastrous policies of previous administrations eg, Carter after Nixon and Clinton after Bush, before returning once more to an openly imperialist agenda.

For liberals and many progressives then, the argument for not voting for an unelectable candidate is two-fold:

1. They’re unelectable
2. Their vote is wasted when it could have kept out the (possibly) more right wing of the two parties.

But one has to ask the question whether the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument doesn’t directly contribute to the creation of a political space conducive to the ascendancy of something like the Bush Gang simply by not challenging the basic assumptions of the imperialist state?

In the UK the situation is somewhat different but come the election in 2005, the Labour Party will fight along similar lines, arguing that a vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens will be a vote for the Tories.

It may seem that I am painting an entirely defeatist picture of events but much depends on whether one takes a long or short-term view of events.

The theme that emerges then is the lack of a truly progressive alternative, not something that one dreams up just for an election, all of which points toward the need for a principled progressive party of the left that can offer a realistic programme that make meaningful structural change to ‘overdue’ capitalism. Not necessarily offering a socialist alternative in the short term but one that identifies the suicidal direction of imperialism. One that advocates a complete transformation of our relations with the poor of the planet; a sustainable energy policy; a transformed education programme that teaches people how to think in our alleged ‘age of information’; redirecting investment toward housing, health and public transportation; one that advocates completely open borders (no more pandering to and encouragement of xenophobia and racism).

Sound familiar? Yes of course it does, it’s not rocket science. Do you call it socialism? You can call it whatever you like. The point is we’re running out of time. The planet is heating up. Unbridled capitalism impacts first and foremost on the poor of the planet but inexorably it will catch up with the rest of us.

I also think that one of the key elements missing from virtually all progressive programmes is that of ‘spirituality’, of meaning and value of life – all life – itself, something that is entirely missing from capitalism. As the drug of things loses its grip on us, unhappiness and dissatisfaction is emerging as the major dis-ease of life under capitalism. The signs are all around us, with an increasing nostalgia for the past and the fragmenting of social life into an almost ‘tribal’ existence of narrow allegiances.

Opponents will argue that millions depend on the production of a junk, consumer culture and this is true. But just as programmes were developed following the end of the Cold War and the Arms Race for Defence Conversion, we need one for Consumer Conversion that will, over time, redirect production toward more socially and spiritually useful pursuits.

This is not an overnight process, it is one that needs to be approached programmatically over time, with clear objectives and stages.

Are people ready for it? I believe that a core percentage already are. One doesn’t need a majority merely a significant minority, perhaps 20% upon which to build a long term strategy. These are:

  1. Peace and Social Justice for the poor of the planet, everywhere
  2. Meaning and value to life itself
  3. Purpose beyond mere acquisition
  4. Communality of interests
  5. An economic programme for a viable and sustainable future
  6. A revolution in education

In concretising these objectives, it becomes apparent (if not downright obvious) that in dealing with each of these objectives, we will expose the deep malaise and contradictions of capitalism. This is no ‘overnight sensation’, each element has to be thought out and has to be rooted in our individual and collective realities.

It is not merely poverty of the body but poverty of the ‘soul’ that is at stake perhaps even the future of our species.

For the Left, it means opening up our minds to ideas that could come from almost any source but that make sense. This may sound obvious but after a century of sectarian rivalries, such divisions have been (and continue to be) a major impediment to change.

I contend that this is a two-fold process. On the one hand, it means dumping the baggage of the past that weighs us down but equally important, a reevalution of the past that can assist us in reestablishing a way forward.

It means the forging of a genuine alliance of progressive forces somewhat akin to a United Front such as we saw in the 1930s or perhaps the alliance that successfully fought the Apartheid regime.

In the short term, it means setting aside specific differences and disagreements eg, the interminable battles over the meaning of ‘real socialism’. What are the chances of this happening? One must ask the question that in defeating Bush (or for that matter, Blair) what will the alternative be? Will it be more of the same, or point toward genuine structural change? For the alternative is a continuation of the status quo and the inevitable increase in alienation and degradation of the global commons until we reach a point of no return (and conceivably it may already be too late).

Am I being utterly unrealistic and advocating a utopian position? The issue comes down simply to the following:

Either, a future of continued capitalist exploitation that threatens the future viability of the planet itself, or a programme of socialist renewal, it’s as simple as that.

Okay, I can already hear the clacking of keyboards as my critics assemble their salvos.

‘I’m not saying anything new, doesn’t every left formation advocate something quite similar?’

Perhaps so, but if this is the case, where are they? Why are we not hearing their clarion call loud and clear? Why do they continue to squabble like so many children? Above all else, why do they not confront the fundamental issues and instead skirt around the ‘difficult’ questions that require adopting positions of principle over and above the immediate challenges, if they do indeed recognise the interconnectedness of events?

Pragmatism is based upon an understanding of how to reach objectives not how to compromise them. Recognising the difference is the bread and butter of political understanding. Knowing what to compromise over, requires that it’s the overall objective that is important. If the compromise puts that objective out of reach, then it’s not a compromise but merely opportunism.

For more on the issue of electoral politics see:

Nader getting support from unlikely voters Conservative groups hope to draw votes from Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerryby Jeff Mapes

The Judgment of Solomon by Gary Corseri

The Anti-war Vote: What is it? Where is it? by Kevin Spidel

Want to Get Rid of Bush and Grow the Greens? Support David Cobb By Medea Benjamin

Green Follies by Joel Kovel 23/06/04

Presidential Campaigns and Media Charades By Norman Solomon


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