The Bankruptcy of the American Left
There will be no economic or political justice for the poor, people of color, women or workers within the framework of global, corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism, which uses identity politics, multiculturalism and racial justice to masquerade as politics, will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance. Corporate capitalism cannot be reformed, despite its continually rebranding itself. The longer the self-identified left and liberal class seek to work within a system that the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” the more the noose will be tightened around our necks. If we do not rise up to bring government and financial systems under public control—which includes nationalizing banks, the fossil fuel industry and the arms industry—we will continue to be victims.
Corporate capitalism is supranational. It owes no loyalty to any nation-state. It uses the projection of military power by the United States to protect and advance its economic interests but at the same time cannibalizes the U.S., dismantling its democratic institutions, allowing its infrastructure to decay and deindustrializing its factory centers to ship manufacturing abroad to regions where workers are treated as serfs.
Resistance to this global cabal of corporate oligarchs must also be supranational. It must build alliances with workers around the globe. It must defy the liberal institutions, including the Democratic Party, which betray workers. It is this betrayal that has given rise to fascist and protofascist movements in Europe and other countries. Donald Trump would never have been elected but for this betrayal. We will build a global movement powerful enough to bring down corporate capitalism or witness the rise of a new, supranational totalitarianism.
The left, seduced by the culture wars and identity politics, largely ignores the primacy of capitalism and the class struggle. As long as unregulated capitalism reigns supreme, all social, economic, cultural and political change will be cosmetic. Capitalism, at its core, is about the commodification of human beings and the natural world for exploitation and profit. To increase profit, it constantly seeks to reduce the cost of labor and demolish the regulations and laws that protect the common good. But as capitalism ravages the social fabric, it damages, like any parasite, the host that allows it to exist. It unleashes dark, uncontrollable yearnings among an enraged population that threaten capitalism itself.
“This is a crisis of global dimensions,” David North, the national chairman of the Socialist Equality Party in the United States, told me when we spoke in New York. “It is a crisis that dominates every element of American politics. The response that we’re seeing, the astonishing changes in the state of the government, in the decay of political life, the astonishingly low level of political and intellectual discourse, is in a certain sense an expression of the bewilderment of the ruling elite to what it’s going through.”
“We can expect a monumental explosion of class struggle in the United States,” he said. “I think this country is a social powder keg. There is an anger that exists over working conditions and social inequality. However [much] they may be confused on many questions, workers in this country have a deep belief in democratic rights. We totally reject the narrative that the working class is racist. I think this has been the narrative pushed by the pseudo-left, middle-class groups who are drunk on identity politics, which have a vested interest in constantly distracting people from the essential class differences that exist in the society. Dividing everyone up on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference fails to address the major problem.”
North argues, correctly, that capitalism by its nature lurches from crisis to crisis. This makes our current predicament similar to past crises.
“All the unanswered questions of the 20th century—the basic problem of the nation-state system, the reactionary character of private ownership with the means of production, corporate power, all of these issues which led to the first and Second world wars—are with us again, and add to that fascism,” he said.
“We live in a global economy, highly interconnected,” North went on. “A globalized process of production, financial system. The ruling class has an international policy. They organize themselves on an international scale. The labor movement has remained organized on a national basis. It has been completely incapable of answering this [ruling-class policy]. Therefore, it falls behind various national protectionist programs. The trade unions support Trump.”
The sociologist Charles Derber, whom I also spoke with in New York, agrees.
“We don’t really have a left because we don’t have conversations about capitalism,” Derber said. “How many times can you turn on a mainstream news like CNN and expect to hear the word ‘capitalism’ discussed? Bernie [Sanders] did one thing. He called himself a democratic socialist, which was a bit transformational simply in terms of rhetoric. He’s saying there’s something other than capitalism that we ought to be talking about.”
“As the [capitalist] system universalizes and becomes more and more intersectional, we need intersectional resistance,” Derber said. “At the end of the 1960s, when I was getting my own political education, the universalizing dimensions of the left, which was growing in the ’60s, fell apart. The women began to feel their issues were not being addressed. They were treated badly by white males, student leaders. Blacks, Panthers, began to feel the whites could not speak for race issues. They developed separate organizations. The upshot was the left lost its universalizing character. It no longer dealt with the intersection of all these issues within the context of a militarized, capitalist, hegemonic American empire. It treated politics as siloed group identity problems. Women had glass ceilings. Same with blacks. Same with gays.”
The loss of this intersectionality was deadly. Instead of focusing on the plight of all of the oppressed, oppressed groups began to seek representation for their own members within capitalist structures.
“Let’s take a modern version of this,” Derber said. “Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, she did a third-wave feminism thing. She said ‘lean in.’ It captures this identity politics that has become toxic on the left. What does ‘lean in’ mean? It means women should lean in and go as far as they can in the corporation. They should become, as she has, a major, wealthy executive of a leading corporation. When feminism was turned into that kind of leaning in, it created an identity politics that legitimizes the very system that needs to be critiqued. The early feminists were overtly socialists. As was [Martin Luther] King. But all that got erased.”
“The left became a kind of grab bag of discrete, siloed identity movements,” Derber said. “This is very connected to moral purity. You’re concerned about your advancement within the existing system. You’re competing against others within the existing system. Everyone else has privilege. You’re just concerned about getting your fair share.”
“People in movements are products of the system they’re fighting,” he continued. “We’re all raised in a capitalistic, individualistic, egoistic culture, so it’s not surprising. And it has to be consciously recognized and struggled against. Everybody in movements has been brought up in systems they’re repulsed by. This has created a structural transformation of the left. The left offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It’s largely an identity-politics party. It focuses on reforms for blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism.”
Derber, like North, argues that the left’s myopic, siloed politics paved the way for right-wing, nativist, protofascist movements around the globe as well as the ascendancy of Trump.
“When you bring politics down to simply about helping your group get a piece of the pie, you lose that systemic analysis,” he said. “You’re fragmented. You don’t have natural connections or solidarity with other groups. You don’t see the larger systemic context. By saying I want, as a gay person, to fight in the military, in a funny way you’re legitimating the American empire. If you were living in Nazi Germany, would you say I want the right of a gay person to fight in combat with the Nazi soldiers?”
“I don’t want to say we should eliminate all identity politics,” he said. “But any identity politics has to be done within the framework of understanding the larger political economy. That’s been stripped away and erased. Even on the left, you cannot find a deep conversation about capitalism and militarized capitalism. It’s just been erased. That’s why Trump came in. He unified a kind of very powerful right-wing identity politics built around nationalism, militarism and the exceptionalism of the American empire.”
“Identity politics is to a large degree a right-wing discourse,” Derber said. “It focuses on tribalism tied in modern times to nationalism, which is always militaristic. When you break the left into these siloed identity politics, which are not contextualized, you easily get into this dogmatic fundamentalism. The identity politics of the left reproduces the worse sociopathic features of the system as a whole. It’s scary.”
“How much of the left,” he asked, “is reproducing what we are seeing in the society that we’re fighting?”