Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is There a Left Left?

This was the title of an event I attended yesterday evening, October 15, 2007, at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is part of a tour they recently participated in. Alexander Cockburn, columnist at The Nation and co-editor of CounterPunch, and JoAnn Wypijewski, former editor of The Nation and now contributing writer to Harper's and Mother Jones, talked about the current state of the Left in historical perspective. They did a similar tour back in 1995, called Left Alive.

I was initially attracted by the catchy title, which reminded me of all the debates about what was left of the Left after the end of the Cold War, and expected to learn something new about why the Left in the US has been so weak for such a long time, and how best to rebuild its strength and power. The waY PERI framed the debate on its website made sense: Given the growing opposition to the Iraq war and rising inequality, why hasn't the Left done better at organizing around these key issues, and what needs to be improved in order to do so? Instead, I heard mostly a string of anecdotes, with very little analysis. Is this symptomatic of one of the many problems of the Left, i.e. the fact that there is an overabundance of criticism and lament, coupled with a shortage of feasible alternatives? Making people aware of how bad things are is clearly necessary, but it is not sufficient for building something new.

Cockburn's main message was that there was much more optimism on the Left back in the 1960s and 1970s, compared to today, where many seem to be 'shell-shocked by history.' Back then, many leftists actually believed that a better society was not only possible but that they would soon achieve the positions of power necessary to bring it about. Why didn't it happen and what can we learn from this for efforts at rebuilding the Left today? Unfortunately, he did not address this question. Instead, he illustrated his historical overview with lots of examples and anecdotes, ranging from all the initiatives and projects (decolonization, banning the bomb, the nuclear freeze 'movement' and Randy Forsberg, the New World Economic Order, etc.) to the many disappointments and countervailing trends (the rise of the 'catastrophe' of neoliberalism, the disenfranchisement of voters ... up to the demobilization of the Left in the Clinton 1990s). In short, 'a lot went on,' and leftists back then had much more 'zap.' Again, why did all that energy dissipate, and where did it all go?

Today, Cockburn concluded with a 'downbeat message,' the Left is merely 'around.' How to reinvigorate it? Cockburn emphasized that the Left needs 'bigger and better ideas,' needs to articulate 'coherent restatements' of the big questions, such as who owns what, the role of the banks and industries, etc., and to link local struggles to the larger picture. Again, regrettably he did not elaborate on what precisely this means and how to go about putting it into practice.

After sharing her pessimism about the prospects for change coming of age in the 1970s, JoAnn Wypijewski came to a similar conclusion, but in addition highlighted the 'new energy' coming primarily from immigrants, related to the need to regain the awareness of the Left as an internationalist phenomenon. Here she joined Cockburn in emphasizing all the important developments in Latin America, particularly in Bolivia. At least, 'the people in Latin America are asking the big questions, challenging neoliberalism.' Is that what the American Left should imitate? Isn't it doing it already, in fact on a daily basis, in publications such as The Nation, TomPaine, AlterNet, many 'progressive' blogs, etc.? But apparently to not much avail.

Her overall assessment, however, was equally pessimistic as Cockburn's. 'There hasn't been a Left in this country for a very long time,' she said. Her main thesis was that because the American empire is increasingly exhausted, so is the American Left. Hence the need to redefine what the Left is, especially in today's more global context. Here, she emphasized the need to not loose hope and to keep on fighting ...

During the discussion, however, Wypijewski very candidly acknowledged: 'Let's not fool ourselves: Who really cares about what we have to say? Nobody! It's infinitessimal!' Unfortunately, I couldn't agree more, especially if you don't have that much to say to begin with. That's what this event, like so many similar ones, felt like: Preaching to the choir. So what? What else is new? The real question of course is: Now what? And in particular: How to strategically build power for the long-term.

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