What’s Left of the Left?

2011 April 7
by Carl Watson

I went to a lecture the other night entitled “What’s Left of the Left?” I get dragged around to a lot of these leftist events and constantly have to wonder why no one is there, because usually there is no one there—a sparse crowd of old people, perhaps, a group of sad sacks, 60s radicals that the younger generation likes to mock. And who can blame them? The last bastion of Leftism in America is Academia, and in academia Leftist conversation tends to focus on theory—you know, that kind of obscure and arcane Post-Modern, Deconstructive, Frankfurt School, Derridian-ism that leaves even its pontificate practitioners dumbfounded as to its true meaning, not to mention the working class who cry in pain every time they have to hear it. Interestingly enough, as many of these Leftists at the “What’s left of the Left?” panel realized, it is exactly such theory that has destroyed the Left, leaving the working class out of the conversation and therefore open to the influence of the Right or Far Right who operate not intellectually but emotionally.  Indeed, one panelist even claimed that the “Academic Industry” that arose around critical theory was really a form of Bourgeoisie Entertainment, and everyone chuckled, knowing it to be true.  The bons mots flew.  “Postcolonialism is Parasitic” shouted one wag. “Subjectivity through Consumption,” cried another. Still, the Left was not being found.

Maybe looking for the Left is like Desperately Seeking Susan, where the Hipster and Artist are supposedly the Left but “she” is really just another Consumer, like the people in suburbia that they hate. Or maybe looking for the Left is like that video of George W. looking for the nuclear weapons in Iraq. He’s looking under the table. He’s looking in the closet. He is making fun of the people who want to know. Because he know there’s nothing there. Colin Powell shows us an empty canister in the desert and claims that there were once Leftists there. The Rightists are pretending to be afraid of the secret “Left,” so they go looking for it. In these last couple of elections you would have got the idea that the Left was everywhere. Maybe Obama is the left. Well, no one believes that anymore. Maybe it’s the lefty Jews, teaching our kids in the colleges. Well, that doesn’t work either. It could be those revolutionaries in the Middle East, but then again maybe they are Al-Qaida. Is al-Qaida the Left?  Some say it is.  But then some say that Hollywood is the Left.  But Hollywood is not the left, Hollywood steals the money of the poor and promotes false ideals. Maybe the left is in the working class, you know the people that now live in other countries. Well that’s hard to say since the working class is gone, gone, gone. The joke here is that the Left (and the Right) are trying to pretend that there is a Left when even the Left, knows that there is not.

Another topic that came up at the “What’s Left of the Left” panel is why Americans don’t demonstrate like they used to do: why do they let their money be stolen and the property be stolen and their elections be stolen, etc.?  Why do they vote for the rights of the rich, even at the cost of their own rights? Why do they let this stuff happen?  No one said this but I think that Americans are basically afraid of what revolution might bring. They are afraid to lose their privileged nation status (even though they are going to lose it anyway). You couldn’t get Americans to strike these days because they are so indebted that they would starve.  That’s how privileged we are. Besides if you stand in the picket line at one job demanding your rights, how are you going to get to the other two jobs that you have to work so you can pay your bills? Besides who wants to hurt the capitalist bosses that are so kind as to give us these jobs anyway? We might have to simply face the fact that America is really a Rightist nation of people who don’t believe in evolution or dinosaurs, and who also believe that the earth was put here for us to use as we like, put here by “god,” for our pleasure, and that there is an endless amount of fossil fuel to provide those pleasures.  That’s what good American believe.  It’s a fact.  As they used to say love it or leave it. But  I can’t leave–I don’t have enough money to go anywhere, and no country wants Americans anymore, anyway.

Another topic that came up is “Why Doesn’t the Left have a Party” anymore. Even if you wanted to vote for the Left, there is no real Left to vote for, except maybe the Green Party. Maybe the Green Party is the answer to the Tea Party, but the Green Party will never get as many votes as the Tea Party, because the people who might vote for the Green Party secretly, or quite openly, make their money off some aspect of the status quo, and so they are not going to cut their own income, much less their own throat. The Green Party is a good idea to talk about at a cocktail party but nobody really wants them running things. How would any of us get rich? Besides I like my car.

Another topic that came up was the difference between Leftists and Liberals. Most people think they are the same thing. But if even the Leftists aren’t Leftists anymore then what are the Liberals? There are a lot of self-defined Liberals these days, no doubt, especially in certain neighborhoods of New York and other urban areas. And most these liberals are merely social liberals and not socialists. Most liberals hate socialism because, as we all know, most liberals are also mostly well-to-do. In fact this is one of the subjects that came up in “What’s Left of the Left?” that too many liberals are too well off, so they have no skin in the game. Many liberals don’t want to live near poor people or in fact near any people who do not think like themselves. But in New York you have too, because it’s hard to get an apt. This necessity of living next to people you don’t like is then passed off as ”tolerance.” Thus an unfortunate circumstance is made to seem an enlightened choice. And this is the new Liberalism: upwardly mobile, exclusionary, well-to-do, and “enlightened” by location. Liberal real estate is all about it: location, location, location. We care, and you can tell by our zip code.

I, of course, often make the same mistake, confusing Leftist and Liberal. The former being for the rights of workers against property owners, the latter often being the property owners, who, though they may be for gay marriage or animal rights, are definitely not for hanging around with people unlike themselves—what employers like to call diversity, in the workplace. But that’s assuming that liberals actually work somewhere. (After all, if you tell everyone they are or should be an entrepreneur they will start to believe it.) Most of my “liberal” friends hate working people and don’t like being around them. They don’t particularly like people of other socio-economic backgrounds, either, or for that matter people of other races. It causes too much debate as to who is authentic, especially who is the authentic liberal. Indeed, one thing I have always noticed while hanging out with liberals is that they are always trying to “out liberal” each other, or out-left each other. With the sanctimonious: I am more “PC,” more “concerned” more “green” than you. I have more “ethnic friends” on Facebook. This kind of competition is precisely the same as the suburban keeping-up-with-the-Jones style, “I have a better house or car than you,” or the hip hop “I have more bling than you,” or neighborhood artist’s, I am more “street” than you. Meanwhile, while this argument ensues, the Chinese, who make no claim to being liberal at all, have not only taken all our manufacturing jobs, they have quietly bought up all the world’s natural resources, and they have bought up the American debt, which gives them the power to destroy our currency when the time comes, and they are investing heavily in Africa, which America simply won’t do. (Not to seem to “masculine” or “macho here, but its time to pay attention to the fact that jacked up on Capitalist Viagra, the world is getting an erection:  so bend over America, learn to love it.)

Leftists(or do I mean liberals) are busy, busy trying one-up each other or trying to take each other down, as they cruise on the backs of dead theorists, or lose themselves in third world sympathies where they claim some kind of identity-politics credentials as “other”. In other words, I am part this or that so I know what it’s like to be oppressed. As professors, I guess the speakers do know what it is like to be oppressed. You could tell by the way they were dressed. Still they managed to make some salient points. Stanley Aronowitz said we had to leave post-modern theory behind us. Susan Buck-Morss kept coming back to Adorno and Feminism, not that the two are related. Jerry Gafio Watts said, “The black agenda, is the only real leftist agenda. After throwing an Egyptian anarchist/feminist out of the room for talking out of turn, the discussion broke up into yet more factionalism and patronizing commentary. Buck-Morss was claiming the left had to be global. Aronowitz and Watts were interested in the USA-based left, not out of any “rah rah” nationalism, but out something rooted in our own actual history. Somebody asked a question about the Internet.

I felt like we were a bunch of bums at a Salvation Army lecture, waiting for the God-talk to end so we could get some dinner. Apparently a lot of my fellow Leftists felt the same way. At the end everybody poured into the reception room, cleared off the reception plates and drank all the wine.  Then we went home.  I can guarantee nobody probably did nothing, but try to protect their jobs. I couldn’t help thinking if this was a meeting of the Right, you would have had a room full of young entrepreneurs, and hard-charging power-walking people. They would have left with an agenda, would have been on the phone before morning, and would have organized something, some way of getting more votes or more money, or more air-time. But this Leftist ended with no agenda, no plans, no place to go, just a bunch of Leftists looking for themselves. Maybe we were over there, under the table, or in the closet.  Maybe we were never there to begin with.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2011 April 9
    Ando Arike permalink

    Two weeks ago, at the Left Forum, an annual NY conference of mostly academic lefties, I too wondered about the questions that engage Carl Watson in “What’s Left of the Left?” Of course, this year’s Left Forum took place on the heels of the massive protests in Wisconsin and the even more consequential uprisings in the Middle East. So hopes were high… Nevertheless, despite the impressive credentials of the the attendees, an air of irrelevance permeated the Forum — this is a bunch of “has-beens,” I could not help thinking, scheming to make a “comeback.” It was an impression heightened by the grey-haired radicals on the sidewalk outside, hawking newspapers and flyers for the Revolutionary Communist Party…

    In a 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling, Orwell hits at the essential contradiction in the American left today:

    “All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of use who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment,’ demands that the robbery shall continue.”

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