The first few weeks of the Trump administration have made reflection almost impossible. The rapidfire barbarities have been mesmerizing. We watch, we read, we protest, and we watch some more. But, hard as it is to do, we have to tear our gaze away from Trump’s horror show. If we ever want to be anything more than observers, we have to acknowledge the painful and brutal truth that we on the Left, whoever we are, are in no position to seriously contest for political power and we suffer from a serious deficit of ideas.
Consider a few central events from the recent past: The massive antiwar marches in the early 2000s had no discernible effect on George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike Vietnam protests thirty years earlier, they became less politically significant as time went on.
Under Obama, Occupy squandered the initial hopefulness and general appeal when it let procedural squabbles sap its energy and undermine its potential for a real political intervention. No wonder there was little public support when the police showed up. The resurgence of activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement marked another significant moment for the American left but, despite three years of protest and consciousness-raising, public attitudes towards the police have improved and there are few balancing accomplishments to point to.
Similar weakness is seen on the international stage. The Arab Spring has been crushed, with Egypt a dictatorship, the Gulf States where they were, and Syria a killing field. In Europe, Syriza lacked the courage of its democratic convictions; it led the Greeks up the European mountain only to be frog marched back down. In Spain, Podemos has stalled, backing away from its most radical promises to challenge the sadomonetarist consensus of euro austerity, and majorly under-performing in recent elections.
While there was some legitimate schadenfreuede in watching the Blairites self-immolate in their battle with Corbyn, Labour remains an empty vessel, with no live alternative to offer British voters and even less of an electoral future. Hamon has brought a little jolt of life to the French left with a few utopian proposals, but it is the French Trump, Marine Le Pen, who leads the polls, and the centrist Macron trailing her. In Europe’s most powerful country, Chancellor Merkel is much more worried about challenges from the centrist SPD and the new, right-wing AfD party than she is about political challenges from the left.
Back in the United States some might be inclined to point to Sanders as the sign of something more promising. It was certainly enjoyable to watch the Clinton camp squirm during the primary, but the contradictions of the Sanders campaign were also enormous. Day one of a Sanders presidency would have made our disorganization and lack of direction painfully obvious. Not only would he have faced massive resistance from Republicans in Congress, but many of Sanders’s own party did not want him and were not signed up to much of his program. Sanders would have needed a massive, well-organized, politically powerful movement outside the party to sustain anything. That kind of movement simply does not exist.
In retrospect we have to acknowledge that we face less the explosive resurgence of the Right than the persistent weakness of the Left. It is true that the recent protests are heartening, especially when compared to what it was like to do politics even just a decade ago. The airport protests put Trump on the back foot, the mass protests forced some complacent Democrats to take notice, and Republicans have backtracked on a number of initiatives. But those minor successes can be seriously misleading about our actual strength and capacity.
The point here isn’t to bash the Left; it’s to take a sober look at the opportunities and limits we face. The truth is, this should be our moment. The Trump administration and Republican Congress are a fragile entity, whose control of the state rests less on mass support and more on the undemocratic features of our institutions.
Trump received a minority of the popular vote, the fifty-two Republican senators in Congress represent 44 percent of the population, and the eight-soon-to-be-nine ghouls in Supreme Court robes are even more insulated from actual majorities. Moreover, there are all kinds of internal divisions among Republicans on how to handle everything from health care to immigration. To the degree that Trump and the Republicans look like an unflinching, reactionary juggernaut it is because there is so little organized power to stand in their way.
This should be our moment for another reason as well. This election dealt a serious blow not only to the New Democrats’ control over the party but also to its lesser-evil ideology. Hillary should have done more than just beat Trump — she should have destroyed him. He was one of the worst Republican candidates in decades. He was and remains unpopular. Yet Hillary stood for and campaigned on nothing but fear; her primary selling point was “I’m not the other one.” That was just enough for a bare majority of the popular vote, not a decisive victory.
Toeing the lesser-evil line, the Democrats not only failed to offer an ideal — they also disciplined anyone who thought there should be one. Over and over we heard some version of, “Don’t criticize the Democratic candidate, don’t open a second front, because doing so will just help the enemy.” This has always been the true meaning of lesser evilism: an ideological cudgel with which to bludgeon the Left and lower expectations.
Yet lesser evilism failed even on its own terms. It couldn’t beat Donald Trump. It couldn’t even take back the Senate, let alone the House, nevermind the enormous down-ticket failures in state houses. The ideological emptiness of the presidential campaign reflected a deeper rot in the Democratic Party.
All this should be emancipating. When it’s clear that we aren’t the spoilers because the brew is already spoiled, we should be freer to argue for our own position and fill the political vacuum within mainstream politics.
But we’re not. Despite the fact that everyone is ready to gird for battle, organize marches, and protest the latest atrocity, in the present moment we remain ill-equipped to mount an effective opposition. Even when it comes to the big marches, we show up, but we don’t lead. Even when those protests succeed, we don’t define the terms of those victories.
The sad reality is that whether the Republicans ram through a wave of reactionary legislation and lay waste to the global order, or collapse under the weight of infighting and mutual recrimination, will depend primarily on their ability to manage their own affairs. The Left won’t factor much into the equation.
Instead of taking stock of this political moment, the overriding impulse seems to be to just get out in the streets, to march and protest. There is no time to think, to reflect on first principles and basic strategy, because now, we’re told, is the time for action. In what can only be seen as a left version of lesser evilism, taking a step back, pointing out the limits of mass protest, and examining our own weakness is derided as giving succor to our enemies. Raising doubts and questions, even from within, is taken as momentum-killing criticism that we just can’t afford.
How did we get to this point of being merely resisters, who fall back on our own politics of fear?
From Direct Action to Resistance
The Left’s difficulty carving out a distinct place for itself in US politics has a long history. It is rooted partly in the identification of left politics with non-electoral, social movements. These social movements have been fertile ground for direct action. Though anarcho-syndicalist groups like the Industrial Workers of the World provided its starkest ideological expression, something like direct action has always had a deep appeal given the sectional, corrupt, and opportunistic character of major American political parties.
Georges Sorel, the early twentieth-century, quasi-reactionary French theorist of anarcho-syndicalism, gave the clearest expression of how anti-state, direct action was a response to the decay and corruption of mainstream left parties. “It is impossible that there should be the slightest understanding between the syndicalists and the official socialists; the latter . . . hope to possess the force of the State.”
For Sorel the attempt to seize political power was the corrupting act: “Against this noisy, garrulous and lying socialism which is exploited by ambitious people of every description, which amuses a few buffoons and is admired by decadents, stands revolutionary syndicalism.”
Sorel’s target was Jean Jaures’s Socialist Party in turn-of-the-last-century France. But his view was even more suited to the United States, where mainstream parties since the Civil War have always been non-ideological catch-all parties, with the capitalist class split across the two organizations, and which have used every legal and non-legal tool at their means to suppress third-party challenges.
There was a long period during which certain kinds of direct action really were socially and politically powerful forms of collective action, including Sorel’s favored general strike. To name a few: the general strikes of 1919 and 1934, the strike wave of 1947, the wildcat strikes of the late 1960s and 70s, not to mention the anti-Vietnam protests and the civil rights sit-ins and boycotts.
Standing behind these movements was the idea that those who demand freedom win it through their own efforts. Power and principle were related. Mass actions of the time had the capacity to paralyze industries, cities, even whole states, forcing major political issues on to the national table. These acts were powerful because they were disruptive. There was no Civil Rights Act of 1964 without Birmingham 1963.
But the downside of direct action is that it has often served as a tacit admission of the Left’s inability to translate social power into political control. The Left has generally been on the outside looking in and its celebration of direct action put it in static rather than dynamic opposition to the corruption and opportunism of existing parties.
There have certainly been moments when the Left challenged the political hegemony of the Republicans and Democrats. The most notable were the electoral successes of the Socialist Party in the early 1900s. But after the Socialist Party’s fortunes declined during the 1920s, the American left backed away from major attempts at acquiring control of the state.
Two other moments of real possibility were the 1930s and 1960s. In the thirties, with the growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the rise of independent left leadership, such as the Trotskyists organizing the general strike of Minneapolis, there was a real social basis for challenging the political hegemony of the Democrats. But under the constraints of Stalinism and Popular Front politics, the step to national politics was never taken. Too many radical leaders agreed or acquiesced to exercising their power in labor movements, strikes, boycotts, rather than through a political party that had a chance of controlling the state.
As the moment passed and WWII dominated the horizon, the Left continued to fragment and fracture. The major unions, facing Red Scare purges of their most militant members, themselves became junior partners in the governing apparatus.
The upshot of all this was that that the return of labor militancy, anti-imperial protest, and racial egalitarianism in the 1960s included a turn against all institutionalized authority. Established parties faced real challenges, but so did unions and even the semi-organized left alternatives. Direct action found its justification in resistance to organized authority. Jeremy Brecher, a New Left historian of mass strikes, expressed this sentiment in the 1974 edition of his book Strike!:
Increasingly, people today experience the institutions that have been set up to “help” them — the unions, the schools, the welfare agencies, and the like to be — as alien and even hostile forces . . . instead of trying again to create such a structure, younger workers today use direct action to force immediate solutions to their own problems.
This was the last period during which mass direct action seriously threatened to transform political life or have a significant influence on the character of the state. And even then, the effects were indirect. As Brecher rightly observed, direct actions started to look less like means for achieving political ends and more like self-contained exercises.
No wonder that even some of the era’s most famous proponents of direct action raised concerns about whether marches and protests had lost their strategic character. Martin Luther King, evaluating the need to change tactics in 1967, observed that what was needed was “more than a statement to the larger society; there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.”
The problem according to King was that, “the effectiveness of street marches in cities is limited because the normal turbulence of city life absorbs them as mere transitory drama quite common in the ordinary movement of masses. In the South, a march was a social earthquake; in the North, it is a faint, brief exclamation of protest.” Worse yet, it seemed like many protesters failed to see any distinction between effective marches and “transitory dramas.”
The movements of King’s day were still able to shake the political establishment. They were oriented toward a vision of a society of equal freedom and had formal organizations that bore that vision. This ideal gave some strategic orientation to the movements and generated the commitments that made them powerful.
But over time, being out in the streets started to become a kind of end in itself. A calibrated form of disruptive collective action was slowly transformed into a kind of political theater. By the end of the Cold War, with the global defeat of Marxism, the Left reached its nadir. Its main public presence was the practice of oppositional, street theater. But this kind of temporary mass demonstration had become something closer to a carnival: a ritualized activity that helped reproduce the social order by temporarily suspending its norms.
We can field thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, even occasionally hundreds of thousands, and then be safely ignored. We call it resistance, but any exercise of our agency that isn’t total cooperation with the status quo looks like resistance. It contains no internal measure of success or failure, which is why it is compatible with retreat or even resignation. And while it is “mass” politics in the sense of many people, protests do not require anything like the ongoing commitment to principle and organization that something like party politics does.
Our unwillingness to admit our own weakness is the flip side of not having a clear set of principles that can serve as the basis for a mass movement. Instead, we give ourselves the appearance of unity and purpose by resisting evil and by taking our collective “No” out into the streets. We find comfort in knowing that we are not them, that at least we are doing something. Trump is immediate and present, the evils are right in front of us, numerous, and ready-to-hand.
There is no doubt that some protests have a marginal and valuable effect, most visibly in the case of the partial reversal of the immigration ban. And all protest provides the frisson of doing something against policies that are inarguably wrong. But that sense of purpose is not the same as a positive principle or an organization that you are winning people towards. It is, instead, an appeal based on fear, on resisting evil.
From Fear to Freedom
Of course, there is still the temptation to think fear is enough. There are real threats and we have managed to win some small, interim gains using the standard tactics for resisting evil. We felt justified joy at beating back the worst bits of Trump’s immigration order. But there are multiple problems with trying to found our politics on fear.
For one, the politics of fear works by the continuous mobilization of outrage — a motivating, but exhausting process. There is no way to sustain that level of intensity for the length of time it will take to rebuild left politics.
Outrage is also purely reactive. Protesting outrages means that you are a slave to the evil of the moment. With so many wrongs, and in daily succession — which is more or less what this administration is going to be — we will end up scattered across the evils that matter to each individual or group the most, led by the news cycle and whatever our opponents are doing. Our politics will end up being short-term and fragmented.
Worse yet, organizing around fear threatens the very idea that politics can be about anything other than the deep, dark fact of oppression. As Corey Robin observes, for those driven by fear, “those of us who insist that the horribles of the world should not and cannot have the last word, are somehow naifs, with our silly faith in the Enlightenment, in politics, in the possibility that we can change these things, that politics can be about something else, something better.” Obviously there are threats, many of them. But fear of those threats is not a foundation for our politics. The unity and purpose that fear does provide is too shallow and conservative to serve as a basis for anything distinctively left wing.
The better principle is freedom. It is the interest everyone has in being free from the myriad forms of domination and oppression that most people face, and it is expressed by being part of a movement that seeks to transform society. Freedom is something everyone wants, but can only be achieved if we demand it and pursue it jointly. It is a principle that naturally bridges all those aspects of left politics that otherwise separate us. We are divided by the varieties of oppression and the proliferation of identities that are born out of that oppression, but we can be united by the desire for freedom.
Less abstractly, freedom is the principle that explains and unifies what we are for. We are more than being against Trump, racism, sexism, inequality, etc. We are also more than a list of demands, like universal health care, cheap and legal abortion, open immigration. We are only for those things to the degree that they are all the same thing: freedoms that everyone ought to enjoy.
Universal health care would free all from the unnecessary fear of disease, from their dependence on employer-provided insurance, from the waste of precious time negotiating with their insurers and choosing policies nobody can understand. Cheap and legal abortion frees women from others’ attempts to control their bodies and to decide whether and when they should have babies. Open immigration doesn’t just eliminate the oppressions of second-class citizenship and border control, it welcomes all in as productive members of a cooperative commonwealth.
We know all this, and yet it never quite gets said. Somehow, it is not the positive principle of freedom, but the negative fear of oppression that drives us forward. And that is central to why we’re so weak, reproducing our marginal place rather than pushing past the constraints we have inherited.
It can look callous and unreasonable to direct attention from the immediate threats of our rulers to our own limitations. Some might think it utopian and irresponsible. After all, so many people will suffer — deportation, abuse, persecution, repression, exploitation, poverty. It will be present and visible and therefore seem like the most pressing thing to respond to. And obviously, we should respond.
But to say we have no time to contemplate the past and envision the future because we must resist the very worst of the present is not just a fearful response, it is false politics. For what can we do, at the moment, to prevent much of this from happening? And which of those few victories can we honestly take credit for? At the moment, the most likely effect of any real damage to the Trump-Ryan agenda and the Republican Party is the reaffirmation of the authority of the Democratic Party.
After all, at some point, the newly activated masses aren’t just going to want to protest against things, they will also want to be for something. As they start looking around for concrete alternatives, the Democrats are the only thing on offer. All the energy and effort of the Bush era gave us the neoliberal stagnation of Obama.
It is not hard to see the current mobilizations doing much the same. They become the force that throws one chamber of Congress to the Democrats in 2018 and puts a Democrat in the presidency in 2020, after which the majority more or less goes home. Until we have something more to offer than outrage and localized resistance, something to win people to, we will be nothing but participants in somebody else’s politics. Democratic rule by leftist means.
A moment like this, when there is more political energy for something new than we have seen in a long time, is precisely when we need to be find ways to connect immediate action to questions about principle and organization. Otherwise, our biggest constraint won’t be Trump, the alt-right, the Republicans, or the Democrats. It will be ourselves.