We Need a Radical Left

by Ellen Willis

The Nation magazine, June 29, 1998


The Nation's introduction to its "First Principles" series convey a revealing double message. On the one hand we are called on to think about "fundamental questions," to ask what we believe, what kind of society we want and how we can build it. Yet at the same time we are informed that the left has contributed to its current weakness by "failing to unite around economic issues of fairness that join together the interests of all but the wealthiest Americans." In other words, we believe in economic fairness, and the way to achieve it is through appealing to the majority's economic interests while (it is implied) avoiding other issues that are potentially divisive. But why bother to ask fundamental questions if we already know the answers? What's left to discuss except details? In my view it's exactly this kind of thinking that needs to be challenged if the left is to revive. While I regard economic inequality as a national emergency and a priority on any serious left agenda, I don't agree that "fairness," in itself, is a principle that can successfully combat right-wing ideology and mobilize an effective movement for change. Nor do I think the way to build such a movement is to look for issues that "unite" people. By definition, the project of organizing a democratic political movement entails the hope that one's ideas and beliefs are not merely idiosyncratic but speak to vital human needs, interests and desires, end therefore will be persuasive to many and ultimately most people. But this is a very different matter from deciding to put forward only those ideas presumed (accurately or not) to be compatible with what most people already believe.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a wide assortment of liberals and leftists called for unity around a campaign for economic justice. Since then, as the country has moved steadily rightward, I have heard this call repeated countless times, along with many hopeful announcements of projects designed to put it into practice. Each time the right wins an egregious victory (as in the Congressional elections of 1994), dozens of lefty commentators rush into print with some version of this proposal as if it were a daring new idea. You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past eighteen years it would have caught on, at least a little. Why has it had no effect whatsoever? Are people stupid, or what?

The culprit the majoritarians seem to have settled on is cultural politics. The cultural left, they argue, has given left politics a bad name because of its divisive obsession with race and sex, its arcane "elitist" battles over curriculum, its penchant for pointy-headed social theory and its aversion to the socially and sexually conservative values most Americana uphold. As a result, the right has been able to distract American workers with the culture war, while pursuing class war with impunity. Some anti-culturalists further claim that cultural radicalism is the politics of an economic elite that itself has a stake in diverting the public from the subject of class to, as Michael Lind put it, "inflammatory but marginal issues like abortion." But note the elitist, condescending assumptions embodied in these very arguments : that for two decades most Americans have been manipulated into abandoning their true interests for a cultural sideshow; that they don't have the brains to tell one kind of leftist from another, let alone come up with their own ideas about what kind of politics might improve their condition.

I 'd suggest a different explanation for the majoritarians' failure: Their conception of how movements work and their view of the left as a zero-sum game-we can do class or culture, but not both-are simply wrong. People's working lives, their sexual and domestic lives, their moral values, are intertwined. If they are not ready to defend their right to freedom and equality in their personal relations, they will not fight consistently for their economic interests, either.

In any case, class is itself a cultural as well as an economic issue. The idea that a heterogeneous population is naturally inclined to band together on the basis of its declining share of income relative to the rich makes sense only on the same bonehead premise advanced by the right's "rational choice" theorists: that human beings are economic calculating machines. In fact, a powerful ideology of meritocracy divides people of different socioeconomic strata as effectively as (and usually in combination with) racism or sexism. While large percentages of the working and middle classes may tell pollsters they think CEOs make too much, on a deeper level most people tend to admire the rich, to see them as somehow smarter or better, just as they tend to despise the very poor. Nor is class politics less susceptible than racial or sexual politics to the temptations of cultural nationalism, which is why blue-collar unions have been reluctant to organize white-collar workers, and why in certain circles preference for beer and pretzels over wine and cheese is elevated to a political badge of honor. To argue for a solidarity that transcends these divisions is to challenge deeply ingrained cultural patterns.

No mass left-wing movement has ever been built on a majoritarian strategy. On the contrary, every such movement- socialism, populism, labor, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, ecology-has begun with a visionary minority whose ideas were at first decried as impractical, ridiculous, crazy, dangerous and/or immoral. By definition, the conventional wisdom of the day is widely accepted, continually reiterated and regarded not as ideology but as reality itself. Rebelling against "reality," even when its limitations are clearly perceived, is always difficult. It means deciding things can be different and ought to be different; that your own perceptions are right and the experts and authorities wrong; that your discontent is legitimate and not merely evidence of selfishness, failure or refusal to grow up. Recognizing that "reality" is not inevitable makes it more painful; subversive thoughts provoke the urge to subversive action. But such action has consequences-rebels risk losing their jobs, failing in

school, incurring the wrath of parents and spouses, suffering social ostracism. Often vociferous conservatism is sheer defensiveness: People are afraid to be suckers, to get their hopes up, to rethink their hard-won adjustments, to be branded bad or crazy.

It's not surprising, then, that those who stick their necks out to start social movements tend to be in certain respects atypical. Paradoxically, they are likely to have economic and social privileges that free them from an overwhelming preoccupation with survival, that make them feel less vulnerable and more entitled. Or, conversely, they may already be social outcasts or misfits in one way or another and so feel they have little to lose. Often they have been exposed to alternative worldviews through a radical parent or an education that encouraged critical thinking. Such differences are always invoked to attack radicals on the grounds that they are not "ordinary people" but middle-class intellectuals, cultural elitists, narcissists, weirdos, outside agitators. Yet rebellious minorities are really just canaries in the mine. When their complaints speak to widespread, if unadmitted, disappointments and desires, it's amazing how fast "ordinary people's" minds and the whole social atmosphere can change, as happened between the fifties and the sixties.

My experience as an early women's liberation activist was dramatic in this regard. At first we were a small and lonely bunch; our claim that heterosexual relations were unequal everywhere from the office to the kitchen to the bedroom was greeted with incredulity, laughter and blunt aspersions on our sexual and emotional balance. I had many passionate arguments with women who insisted they loved to cook and cater to men. What was I doing, they demanded-trying to destroy sex and love? Two years later feminist groups were erupting all over the country, and it was not unusual to see women turn up at demonstrations who had once denounced the whole enterprise in the most withering terms. Suppose we had reacted to that first wave of hostility (as of course many liberal feminists urged us to do, and many liberal men no doubt wish we had) by concluding, "This will never fly-let's stick to 'equal pay for equal work"'?

It's not necessary, as many leftists imagine, to round up popular support before anything can be done; on the contrary, the actions of a relatively few troublemakers can lead to popular support. The history of movements is crowded with acts of defiance by individuals and small groups-from the 1937 sit-in of workers in a Flint, Michigan, auto plant to Rosa Parks's refusal to get up to radical feminists' disrupting an "expert hearing" on abortion reform-that inspired a wave of similar actions and a broader revolt. When militant minorities also have radical ideas, they capture people's imaginations by presenting another possible world that appeals to the secret hopes of even the resigned and cynical. They mobilize people by providing the context in which winning small changes is worth the time and effort because it is part of a larger project. They attract publicity and make it difficult for the authorities to keep on telling the lies whose credibility depends on uncontradicted repetition. The people in power know all this and are quite wary of the potential threat posed by an organized minority; their impulse is to make concessions (albeit as few as they can get away with). As a result, radical movements that articulate a compelling vision have an impact far beyond their core of committed activists.

American left politics generally works this way: As radical ideas gain currency beyond their original advocates, they mutate into multiple forms. Groups representing different class, racial, ethnic, political and cultural constituencies respond to the new movement with varying degrees of support or criticism and end up adapting its ideas to their own agendas. With these modifications the movement's popularity spreads, putting pressure on existing power relations; liberal reformers then mediate the process of dilution, containment and "co-optation" whereby radical ideas that won't go away are incorporated into the system through new laws, policies and court decisions. The essential dynamic here is a good cop/bad cop routine in which the liberals dismiss the radicals as impractical sectarian extremists, promote their own "responsible" proposals as an alternative and take the credit for whatever change results.

The good news is that this process does bring about significant change. The bad news is that by denying the legitimacy of radicalism it misleads people about how change takes place, rewrites history and obliterates memory. It also leaves people sadly unprepared for the inevitable backlash. Once the radicals who were a real threat to the existing order have been marginalized, the right sees its opportunity to fight back. Conservatives in their turn become the insurgent minority, winning support by appealing to the still-potent influence of the old "reality," decrying the tensions and disruptions that accompany social change and promoting their own vision of prosperity and social order. Instead of seriously contesting their ideas, liberals try to placate them and cut deals, which only incites them to push further. Desperate to avoid isolation, the liberal left keeps retreating, moving its goal post toward the center, where "ordinary people" supposedly reside; but as yesterday's center becomes today's left, the entire debate shifts to the right. And in the end/ despite all their efforts to stay "relevant," the liberals are themselves hopelessly marginalized. This is the sorry situation we are in right now.

Yet despite defeat after defeat, liberals retain a touching faith in their modus operandi. In the thrall of historical amnesia, they seem to have the impression that both the post-New Deal welfare state and the post-World War II era of high wages, job security and an expanding middle class came about because voters elected liberal Democrats who enacted government social pro. grams, union organizing rights and so on. In fact, the corporate elite actively collaborated in the creation of welfare state liberalism and mass prosperity in order to stave off the threat to its very existence posed by the crisis of the Depression, the strength of the labor movement and of radical movements domestic and foreign and, crucially, the Soviet Union. (I don't want to be misunderstood as defending the gulag, but there is no denying the irony: By showing that another system was not only possible but able to compete for world dominance, the Soviet regime forced Western capitalists to adopt more humane policies.)

At present, capital faces no significant left opposition to its I expansion and consolidation all ova the world, and so has no incentive to embrace liberal constraints. With their enormous resources and their power to invest or disinvest, give or withhold credit, transnational corporations are more powerful than any national government and have shown their readiness to retaliate against any government that defies them. The states of Western Europe, which have much more developed social democratic traditions than ours, are still under relentless pressure to reduce their social benefits and worker protections. American leftists who imagine that we can reverse growing income inequality simply by passing laws that we can somehow force the corporations to be "fair" in the absence of any broader attack on their power-are suffering from a serious confusion between tail and dog.

Instead, we need to think about how we can confront the power of capital at a time when state socialism in all its versions has proved a dead and. The way to start, I believe, is by forming a radical labor movement that claims as its constituency everyone subjected to corporate domination-from "workfare" recipients to well-paid but regimented professionals-and organizes wherever possible across national boundaries. Such a movement would demand an active role for workers in all corporate decisions that affect our daily working lives and the entire social landscape, including decisions about investment, trade, technology, production, hiring, the structure and conditions of work. It would challenge not only low wages and insecurity but the repressiveness of long hours, authoritarian work rules, hierarchical management and women's "double shift." In short, it would be a movement not merely about fairness but about democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. As such it would transcend the majoritarians' untenable distinction between economics and culture and regard movements for black, women's and gay liberation as its natural allies rather than competitors and antagonists.

The real political function of majoritarianism is maintaining that distinction without having to defend it on its merits. Some majoritarians are cultural conservatives who are sympathetic to much of the right's pro-family, nose-to-the-grindstone program but don't want to be attacked for saying so. Others are satisfied with the cultural status quo-OK, it's not perfect, but hey, what is?-and are baffled and irritated that these "marginal issues' should steal attention from what matters to them. (In this vein Richard Rorty lectures Nation readers, "We need to stop airing these doubts about our country and our culture"-in other words have your damn doubts, but don't frighten the horses. Apparently, he has decided, like former Speaker of the House Tom Foley on the occasion of the 1989 invasion of Panama, that "this is not the time for a lot of complicated debate.") Still others have concluded that in light of past crimes committed in the name of utopia, raising the possibility of social transformation is out of the question. I can't help detecting in this cluster of stances something that might be called a comfortable-white-male syndrome. Who else, after all, would project their own straitened worldview onto "the American people," instead of simply speaking for themselves?


Ellen Willis directs the cultural reporting and criticism program in the department of journalism at New York University.

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