I Want a Political Movement That's...
In 2015, looking ahead to the 2016 election and the post-Obama world, I wrote down what my dream movement would look like. This is 2022’s version, which is much the same and yet in certain core ways different. It should go without saying that this list is not exhaustive. As someone who people of the left often try to throw out of the movement, this kind of exercise can be cathartic.
Materialist. This should come as no surprise. Any functional and healthy left political movement must be concerned with the material reality of the present world. My ideal movement would recognize that science exists within human power relations, and that scientific arguments are often used to marginalize other points of view, but it would also recognize that science is key to human flourishing and would engender respect for science even as it permitted skepticism towards the claims of particular scientists. This movement would not place undue emphasis on language as the shaper of reality, and would instead recognize the material, economic foundations of most human relations, including the relations that create injustice. It would avoid statements like “reality is socially constructed,” as they are unhelpful and misleading, but we would acknowledge that the limits of human understanding shape our apprehension of reality. We would reject all forms of supernaturalism, the occult, and vague spiritualism. (Yes, religious supporters are welcome, so long as they don’t try to use religious arguments to settle human debates.)
We would be concerned first and foremost with reality, and we would therefore privilege “is” statements over “ought to be” statements. My ideal movement would recognize that the obsession with the symbolic has become a road to nowhere for the left-of-center. Our relentless habit will be to say, what does this do for actually-existing poor people? What does this do for actually-existing Black people? What does this do for actually-existing women or gay or trans people? What does this policy, argument, or claim do in fact, for real human beings, in material terms? Put another way, if we got our way, could we see the effects of that with our own two eyes? I can see hungry Black kids getting food. I can’t see white liberals “holding space” for Black people. We must return to the real. It’s past time.
All of the preceding, for the record, is in keeping with basic Marxist epistemology, despite the claims of many who think of themselves as Marxists.
Democratic. An effective left movement would identify building a mass movement by appealing to the unconvinced as its most central, most essential goal. All strategies and messaging would be bent towards the goal of rational appeal to potential supporters. We would identify obscurantism, factionalism, purity signaling, and other behaviors that limit the potential numbers of the movement as counterproductive. We would limit the use of specialized vocabulary and other forms of in-group signaling. We would constantly consider how our practices and discourses actually grow or fail to grow the ranks of the movement.
We would not abandon principle in the name of popularity, but we would insist that principles that inherently exclude large swaths of the human population cannot be the basis for a successful movement. We would seek to welcome, not alienate, those not already convinced. We would utilize traditional democratic principles such as voting and representation for decision-making. We would recognize that all “flat” movement structures, leaderlessness, and other anti-hierarchical systems of decision-making have repeatedly failed as means of governance in past left-wing movements. We would affirm and defend the rights of minority voices and dissent within the decision-making process. We would recognize the basic, beautiful radicalism of voting and democracy and defend them against the tyranny of structurelessness.
Postcapitalist. A functioning, healthy left political movement would recognize that the moral and practical problems of capitalism cannot be reformed away from within the system, that the only way to achieve a moral social system is through building a post-capitalist world.
We would, however, give the devil his due and recognize capitalism’s power. The new world we want to build would take advantage of the incredible productive capacity that capitalism has unleashed on the world and use it to spread material goods through a system of collective ownership. We would not take as a goal the total elimination of private property, but rather would pursue universal joint ownership and control of the productive apparatus of society. (You don’t have to share your pants.) We would reject the notion that material security and comfort must be earned through behavior or aptitude and recognize that these are the fundamental right of all humans. Our movement would acknowledge that we’ve moved from an age defined by scarcity to one defined by abundance, even while it acknowledged that there are certain resource limits on the planet. We would achieve material egalitarianism while preserving aesthetic, philosophical, social, and personal diversity. We would operate under the assumption that removing human beings from the immediate need to work to live would not result in mass apathy and listlessness, but rather unleash a massive flourishing of creativity, productivity, and inspiration.
Our movement would, however, recognize that the post-capitalist world is probably not coming anytime soon.
Civil libertarian. My ideal left political movement would recognize that guaranteeing certain individual rights is not at all contrary to the pursuit of social equality and social justice but rather an essential element of that pursuit. It would understand that basic political and human rights are immensely popular across the vast swath of the human population, and that political movements that are antagonistic to those rights are doomed to failure. We would not concede the language of personal freedom and political liberty to conservatives and libertarians, but would insist that only economic egalitarianism can truly result in real freedom, and would work to achieve that freedom for all people in all places.
We would recognize that left movements have traditionally suffered terribly from assaults on individual rights, such as in anti-Communist purges, redbaiting, and anti-left eliminationism. We would acknowledge that the illiberalism and rights-trampling of several so-called Communist governments in the 20th century prompted an enormous backlash to left anti-capitalism. We would understand that a robust, functional left social movement would be strong enough to live alongside those who disagree with it, and would have no need of silencing them. We would move confidently in the knowledge that our core beliefs will eventually win because they are correct, and so feel no particular desire to silence those who dissent from those beliefs.
Racially just. Our movement would recognize that racial discrimination is a unique form of injustice that has been ever-present in modern society. It would take the elimination of this discrimination as one of its most important tasks. We would understand racism as both material oppression and emotional insult, but would further understand that combating racism must begin with addressing economic inequality and material injustice. We would never mistake racism as merely a function of economic inequality, but would recognize it as a unique (and uniquely pernicious) phenomenon. We would acknowledge that the history of the modern world is the history of the domination of non-white races by white races. Our movement would understand the role of state violence in the oppression of peoples of color and would establish procedural checks on racist discrimination in police and judicial conduct. We would assertively pursue a society of equal rights, equal power, and equal dignity for all races.
Feminist. My ideal left political movement would recognize that gender discrimination is a unique form of injustice that has been ubiquitous throughout human history. We would take fighting sexism as one of our most central moral and political responsibilities. It would understand sexism as both material oppression and emotional insult, but would further understand that combatting sexism must begin with addressing material inequality and material injustice. We would not reduce sexism to an epiphenomenon of other forms of oppression but as a specific and historically destructive injustice. We would acknowledge that the history of the world is a history of the domination of women by men. The movement would understand the unique role of sexual violence in the oppression of women and work diligently to reduce that sexual violence. We would address sexism through the economic, political, and social empowerment of women. We would assertively pursue a society of equal rights, equal power, and equal dignity for all sexes and gender identities.
Anti-nationalist. A functioning, healthy left political movement would recognize the fundamental illegitimacy of the nation-state. We would see that structure as the product of capitalism and imperialism. We would recognize the nation-state as a recent invention, made for the express purpose of enabling war. (Read Napoleon’s letters sometime.) We would acknowledge the history of imperialism as being an inevitable outcome of nationalism. We would work to eliminate borders and see them as structures designed explicitly to separate different classes of worker and thus prevent solidarity.
We would however acknowledge that in the short term the state is a necessary structure for establishing economic and social justice, while also taking the elimination of the illegitimate structure that is the state as a paramount long-term goal. And we would understand that patriotism is a third rail in actually-existing American politics, and would take that into account as we work for a better long-term future. Everyone who wants change works on multiple timelines, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just politics.
Pacifist. My ideal political movement would recognize that violence is the tool of establishment power. We would admit that left movements will never match reactionary power’s capacity to inflict violence. (We would know that the idea of fighting the state, physically, is a childish fantasy in the 21st century.) We would acknowledge that left machismo and revolutionary fantasies have stunted our movements and directed energy and attention into useless posturing. We would insist that narratives of righteous violence are the tools of imperialism and militarism. We would acknowledge that traditional powers like the United States have waged a ceaseless campaign of violence against less powerful nations. We would pursue a world of diplomacy, non-aggression between disparate peoples, and resistance to coercion through threat or violence between different places and groups. We would understand that we cannot build a just society or a just world through the tool of violence, the tool through which injustice has been committed and maintained.
Realistic. American politics is not binaristic only in terms of good and bad but also in terms of failure and success. Our political movement would avoid both triumphalism and fatalism. We would recognize the inherent and deep conservatism of existing power relations. We would be straightforward in acknowledging the deep, inherent difficulties any left movement faces. We would avoid optimistic fantasy and admit that lasting victory will not be achieved in the short term. At the same time, we would recognize that fatalism is a luxury of the privileged, draw from the history of labor and socialist victory, and move confidently in the knowledge that progress is possible, even likely. We would neither make a fetish of incrementalism nor deride small improvements. We would be skeptical of the value of symbolic or linguistic achievements. We would place little political importance on altering vocabulary, communication, and similarly symbolic goals. Our movement would not treat popular culture or celebrity as meaningful sites of left-wing practice. We would always define success in material terms, not in representational or symbolic terms.
Pessimistic. A healthy left political movement would understand the fundamental limits on human flourishing. We would acknowledge that tragedy and despair are unalterable aspects of the human condition. We would not posit political struggle as an attempt to create an ideal world but as an attempt to make a broken world a little less broken. We would concede that alienation, loneliness, heartbreak, dissatisfaction, ennui, depression, boredom, anguish, and disappointment can sometimes be ameliorated through political action, but can never be eliminated. We would identify utopia as a dangerous idea, a vaguely totalitarian one. We would know that not getting what you want is something like the default condition of human life. By god, we would always remember that “should” implies “can.” We would face up to the fact that human life is not fair and will never be fair.
Optimistic. But! We would not fall into the casual, cheap trend of pessimism and nihilism that have become so common among liberals and leftists. We will insist that the core belief of radical left politics, before all others, is a belief in the radical potential of our own, real world. We would also understand that you can never rally people to your cause by complaining that life’s not fair and everything is broken. Instead, we would grow our movement by reminding people of the most basic appeal the left has: a better world is possible. We would draw strength from the history of social movements, learning from the ways in which left parties have built mass movements and orchestrated real change. We would understand that political change seems impossible until it suddenly seems inevitable.
Human. My ideal movement would leave behind both the dehumanizing system of capitalism and the dehumanizing replacements that too many left movements have invented. We would empower individuals to direct their productive energies towards tasks that give them meaning and satisfaction. We would dissolve the grinding alienation and pointlessness of the capitalist workplace. We would reject the crude oligarchy and statism that Maoism and Stalinism have attempted to impose on Marxism. We would reject the anti-individuality of identity politics. We would reject the bizarre vocabulary, stultifying language policing, and obscure codes of in-group signaling that prevent the left from engaging with those who remain unconvinced. Instead, we would foreground plain language and simple, direct, emotional, unapologetically human connection. We would recognize that cruelty, shaming, and petty insults are among the master’s tools. We would remember that compassion is the most basic of left-wing virtues. We would forgive. Our members would treat our enemies better than we have been treated by them. We would tear down the walls the left has erected to prevent us from viewing the moral challenge in the face of the other, even when the other is awful, or especially when the other is awful. We would have the courage to be human even as everyone and everything else demands that we be otherwise.
Is that so much to ask?