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Activism in America: We need a new ideology

It’s one of my most deeply held beliefs: nothing has undermined the left more since the fall of the Soviet Union than the inability to coalesce around an ideological structure to help us fight global capitalism.

In the February 25, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books Nicholas Kristof wrote a paean to Isaiah Berlin. Kristof lauded Berlin as the single most useful thinker in “wrestling with the moral obligations of twenty-first century life.” Berlin rejected the totalitarian ideologies of the mid-twentieth century attractive to so many intellectuals living through the uncertainties of the time.

But this article was much more about Kristof’s brand of pragmatic liberalism than Berlin himself. Kristof believes ideology is unnecessary in today’s world. Like many post-socialist intellectuals, Kristof rejects ideology as a guiding force, blaming it for the terrible 20th century’s twin evils of fascism and communism.

Intellectuals’ rejection of ideology comes in two basic forms. One is the almost apologetic tone taken by many left-of-center writers. Still feeling guilty for their predecessors support of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and flirtation with revolutionary Marxism in the 1960s, they reject ideology in all its forms. Seeing the soft socialism of western Europe as a model, they talk of specific policy reforms rather than articulating a vision for changing society.

Conservatives have also publicly rejected ideology. Most notoriously laid out in Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay, “The End of History?” conservative writers in the post-Soviet world claimed ideology had died and saw a capitalist utopia blooming. These claims of these capitalist intellectuals completely belied the fact that they simply declared their own ideology of free-market capitalism normative and victorious. They pushed these policies around the world through the disaster capitalism Naomi Klein has articulated; through free trade agreements, aggressive globalization and outsourcing, and through undermining social safety nets to promote maximum profit.

We do not live in a post-ideological world. Communism is dead. Fascism rears its ugly head from time to time but the days of Hitler and Mussolini are over. But we still have one extraordinarily powerful ideology in the 21st century—fundamentalist capitalism. Ideology drives the followers of its high priests, such as Milton Friedman, as much as those of Karl Marx.

Capitalism Isn't Working
Capitalism Isn't Working

Discussions like Kristof’s on Berlin completely ignore the reality of ideologically driven capitalism. Berlin’s complex moral compass makes a lot of sense for the individual, but does it provide any basis for a critique of Friedman-esque capitalism? Does it provide a single organizing principle to fight against the exploitation of the developing world, the export of millions of American jobs, environmental degradation, or destructive anti-tax mentalities that threaten to bankrupt the United States?

The triumphalist rhetoric in the aftermath of communism’s collapse created a climate allowing capitalism to become so ingrained in our lives that we hardly recognize it as an ideology anymore. It’s become more a basic element of our life like water and food than an economic system that nations have accepted or rejected. To even mention the word “capitalism” today almost marks you as suspect or an anachronism because so few people seriously critique it today.

This is a very bad thing.

Without some kind of ideological framework to fight capitalism, the left cedes the intellectual field to conservatives. Even many young progressive bloggers and writers openly disdain ideology, preferring to focus on policy and winning elections. This allows conservative extremists to set the rhetorical and political agenda.

Terms like “tax relief,” “border security,” “the war on terror,” “illegal immigrants,” and “government waste,” are part of a successful right-wing agenda to roll back the progressive gains of the last century. The more we buy into their language and to the idea that capitalism is inherently good, but just needs some reform around the edges, the more capitalism becomes ingrained in our souls as an immovable force.

To retake the political momentum and to roll back the evils of untrammeled capitalism, we need more than to just reform tax policy to ensure some semblance of a welfare state. We need an ideological framework that rejects fundamentalist free-market capitalism in favor of a more just world. We need a new generation of intellectuals to build on the great thinkers of the past and create a new, post-Soviet socialism to fight the ravages of free market capitalism.

I am not lamenting the fall of Soviet-style communism. I am quite aware of the failings of the Eastern Bloc. However, the failures of communist states in no way blunt the power of Marx’s class analysis. Marxism still provides much value in critiquing capitalism and in crafting responses to its degradation of people and nature.

What’s more, those movements that do have an ideological structure to provide an architecture of activism are the same movements that have the most success today. The conservative movement is one example, as are ethnic-based movements. The doctrine of worldwide revolution and anticolonial solidarity still holds water with many Latino activists for instance; not surprisingly, they have fiercely resisted the nativist resurgence of recent years.

It’s not as if everyone accepts global capitalism as utopia. The World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 2000 showed both the dissatisfaction with fundamentalist capitalism and the difficulties of organizing around the issue without an architecture of activism uniting people. Environmentalists, labor unions, indigenous activists, food activists, and many other groups came to Seattle. They agreed that the current system needed fixing. And that’s about it. No one knew what to do next. No one agreed on what could replace globalization.

Into this ideological vacuum stepped the anarchists. Focusing not solely on one issue, but claiming to reject the entire system of global capitalism, young people took over the protests by throwing rocks through corporate windows and battling with police. While anarchism has always had an appeal, the success the anarchists had in recruiting young people strongly suggests that the lack of any alternative ideology to attract them. That situation hasn’t improved in the past decade.

My students are intelligent and inspiring 18 to 22-year-olds. They impress me with their commitment to change. They do whatever they can to create a better world. But they don’t see a path to guide them in their change. Their activism lacks focus. They move from cause to cause, trying to find the ticket to a better world. Some believe in localism, focusing on food systems. Others flirt with anarchism. Some even embrace dumpster diving as a way to reject consumer capitalism. None of this really solves anything.

Last spring, I showed some students a documentary on the Narmada Dam project in India. Over the wishes of local indigenous people, the Indian state has constructed a dam that floods out their lands. My students felt almost despondent after watching this film. They wanted to know what to do—not just about the dam but about the horrors of global capitalism. I responded that we used to have answers for these problems, but since Marxism became discredited, we’ve been lost. They asked what I suggested.

The problem of course is that I have no answer either. I feel the desperate need to give some advice to my students. I have fallen short in this task. But so has everyone else. The greatest failing of my generation of leftists is the inability to articulate a response to capitalism. We must either replace or rehabilitate Marxism. Until we do, global capitalism will run roughshod over the world.

3 thoughts on “Activism in America: We need a new ideology

  1. Good-bye, comrades!

    To begin, I can speak only to my own experience of the canadian left:
    To coalitions and committees.
    To family-friendly demonstrations and “direct action” media stunts.
    To a $15/h job for an environmentalist NGO.

    Every new disaster is a job opportunity. The opening up of a new market for professional Activism.
    Every heroic defeat is a vindication, and another testimonial for the advertising campaigns.

    The victories are little better.
    Meetings with politicians.
    Demands being negotiated.
    In the end, if we’ve been “successful,” we’ve closed an avenue for autonomous activity, and handed control back over to the state, to management.
    “I noticed you left your car lights on,” when we should be slashing the tires.

    The leftist activist declares, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
    To begin with, this is obvious.
    Further, it fails to address the problem of empire.
    At best, the emperor covers up, and business continues as usual.
    Likely, the activist goes to jail.

    The left articulate conflict in the language of politics.
    Politics is the management of capital.

    This is the essence of the social consensus.
    The problem is not that those in power don’t listen – it’s that they do.
    This is the essence of control.
    Information and feedback. Catagorization and organization. Mobilization and management.

    This is the law.
    In this sense, is not simply the literal law, but the whole of the practice of the state and capitalism.

    For those within the law, the cages and chains have disappeared.
    On the surface, this appears to be a victory, but, now, the cameras are everywhere.
    More and more, the law is more and more in our daily lives, and more and more we are against the law.

    To be against the law, understood as such, is to be against the state.
    The state is a machine which wages war.

    The left understands war, to borrow from Mao, in turn borrowing from Clauswitz, as “The continuation of politics by other means.” In other words, war is simply the management of capital, extended to its inevitable conclsion.

    Defeat or victory is, again, irrelevant. Either retreating, suing for peace on the terms of the existing state, or advancing, by acts of increasing militancy (and implicitly, increasing militarization) until becoming the state.
    The war machine remains, new managers or old.
    This process is not distant or yet-to-exist.
    The left are elected or jailed, appointed or killed, included or ignored within our immediate experience. The activity of the left is indististinguishable and inseperable from existing capitalism.

    Neither right, nor left, and not, “Forward!” – what we need is a way out.
    Not another politics, but a refusal to be managed.
    Not a state, but a refusal of war.
    Not a revolution in the future, but an immediate tension toward communism.

    So, “Good-bye, comrades!”
    I won’t see you at the demo, and you won’t catch me at the riot.

    If you ever change your mind, give me a call, and I’ll watch your kids while you set fire to warehouses.
    Drop me a line if you’re tired of biting the hand that’s feeding you, and we can plant a garden.
    Let me know if you’re tired of trying to live well in prison, and we can plot an escape.

    Once we’re out, we can start making plans to come back and burn the motherfucker down.

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