The reason this blog’s cod-philosophical standpoint is called ‘Left-Wing Least-Worstism’ is because of a very un-leftish pessimism. The situation we’re in is abjectly bad.
That might sound extreme – the consensus seems to be that things might be tentatively improving on the political front. Certainly, Occupy and the boisterous anti-cuts movement have provided some much-needed reasons to be almost cheerful. But we need to be brutally realistic – they come after a quarter-century of decline. More tellingly, they had little to do with the ‘established’ Left, instead riding on the free-thinking and initiative of passionate individuals largely operating outside official groups.
And even if the upsurge in activism we’ve seen since the financial crash marks the beginning of a kind of left-wing turnaround, it’s one that’s managed to pass the majority of society by so far. For political activists, who spend much of their time with other political activists, it’s easy to get a distorted view of the wider, societal state of play. In Britain, and presumably much of the rest of the Western world, a huge proportion of the population is passionately apolitical, if not furiously against politics altogether. The reasons behind this could probably fill several hundred political science textbooks, but there’s little doubt that millions of people are completely cut off from the system that claims to represent them.
This is not some seething multitude ripe for recruitment and radicalisation. Elsewhere on this blog, there’s been lengthy blathering about how a skewed, neoliberal vision of the world has leaked out of high politics and the media to become a central part of everyday life. Any suggestion that the world could be significantly different to how it is today has been zapped off the cultural radar, and people are discouraged from criticising the status quo. Those that do, and those who go further, who strike or protest, are painted as enemies of the hard-working respectable wage-earners of Britain.
Instead, we’re taught that our lives will always be the same. For most people, life gets harder, but all you can do is shut up and put up with it. Suffering and injustice outside your front door, meanwhile, just aren’t your problem, because it’s a hard world, and people have to look after themselves. These dismal conclusions are cemented by the endless distractions modern life gleefully provides, including enough lowest-common denominator warm-bath entertainment and buy-yourself-to-happiness super-consumerism to keep the majority passively satisfied and prevent them from kicking off.
Suffice to say, callousness and selfish individualism, as deeply ingrained as they are horribly widespread, are massive obstacles to positive change. Between us and any kind of left-wing advances lies a formidable wall of compacted lies, distractions, twisted beliefs, skewed perception and decades of harsh neoliberal rhetoric, barely challenged in the broadcasted political mainstream. And, to further torture a dubious metaphor, in that wall’s shadow the traditional Left has withered out of the picture.
For thirty years, the Left’s prospects have got progressively worse. Radical capitalism has steamrollered through societies, and resistance has been made harder than ever. But while the Left is very good at banging on about the external factors that have left it in a generational pickle, it’s less willing to look at how it has contributed to its own predicament.
Purism, for one, has been unavoidably massive problem. Parts of the Left remain stiflingly obsessed with the same scraps of political theory, the same historical events and the same people and places.
Mouldering ex-leftists from centuries past are still slavishly adored, while an unshakeable fixation with models and ideas intended for semi-feudal Tsarist Russia keeps anything approaching contemporary relevance at bay.
We’re living in a world where relying one or other Great Thinker as your intellectual trump card – “and the answer is… Marx!” – has long ceased to cut the mustard. People calling themselves Marxists have offered us profound insights into how the modern world works, or doesn’t work, as is all too often the case.
But rather than taking those nuggets of wisdom, making them accessible and using them to build a clear, incisive, widely understandable political alternative, aspects of the Left turn ‘theory’ into a rigid theology, narrowly preoccupied with the Russian Revolution.
Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse and co might as well be brands of ice cream as far as the general population are concerned. But the ideas – that the powerful use their influence to twist social values in their own interest, that dumbed-down pop culture discourages people from questioning the world around them and that a combination of the above risks wiping out the very notion that status quo can be changed – are vitally important to understanding how the world is kept wrenchingly unjust.
And yet the die-hard purists of the Left stick to century-old dogma. The only viable way of looking at the world is a ‘Marxist’ one – deviate from it, and you’re doomed to turn into Peter Mandelson overnight. Left Purism says that we don’t want people who aren’t interested in Marx – or, if they’re not, they have to be evangelised into submission before they’re admitted. That’s bad enough. But then there’s the tendency to batter anyone whose ideological perspective is not within a millimetre either side of yours – to cast your own precise political position as the only one that can be authentically ‘Left’. Both are excellent way of excluding the vast majority of the human population, and consigning yourself to history’s waste paper basket.
Even a pragmatic, united, inclusive Left would struggle to make an impact given the situation we’re lumped with circa 2013. Paralysing mass apathy, unquestioning consumerism and the all-pervading dominance of big money provide enough hulking obstacles in the way of progress to dishearten the most sunnily optimistic left-winger. That’s without acknowledging the nauseatingly right-wing, horribly widespread ‘common sense’ ideas about everything from benefits to immigration to government spending.
When all the above is against you, and your only realistic stab at power is via a ludicrously unfair electoral system, you have to pool your resources, chuck aside your piffling differences and maximise your political effectiveness.
Bickering purism is a dead end. There’s nothing that says there must always be a Left. Dumb conformism is getting more difficult to evade. It’s becoming harder and harder to have a particularly original thought, let alone a radical one. Against that dispiriting backdrop, it’s only with colossal dollops of pragmatism, tolerance and savvy communication that there’s any hope for the Left’s long-term survival.