NOTES FROM A DISCRETE CONTINENT

Ah, dejame entrar, dejame ver algún día como ven tus ojos

René Christian Moya

René Christian Moya
Location
Los Angeles, California, United States of America
Birthday
December 31
Bio
Socialist, pur et dur. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but have spent the majority of my adult life elsewhere. I spent the first half of the noughties living in New Hampshire, Edinburgh, Montevideo & (very briefly) New York. I spent the better part of the next six and a half years in London. Trying to find my way back in Los Angeles since 2013.

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JANUARY 25, 2012 9:50PM

‘I am NOT SOCIALIST’: Liberals, Obama and Socialism

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[Originally posted at my Wordpress blog]

What is socialism in the 21st century? I owe it to myself one day to provide an answer to that question. As Owen Jones has argued over at his blog:

There are issues that the left must be at the forefront of championing: like equality for women and gays, or opposing war, for example. But these issues by themselves do not define us as ‘left-wing’, even if we have a left-wing take on them. A good liberal will support gay rights, and a maverick Tory like Simon Jenkins can oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the fight for working-class representation and emancipation that makes us ‘the left’.

I agree with the general thrust of that argument. Defining oneself as a (wo)man of the left is next-to-useless, or at least incomplete, without an element of class consciousness—without an understanding and concern for the severe dislocations caused by modern capitalism. (This applies to capitalism’s effects on all oppressed and unprivileged elements of society.) And Owen is equally right in pointing out that a social liberal (and here I take the classical meaning of the term) of any political stripe can support causes close to the left’s heart: you can support gay marriage and racial equality, while supporting across-the-board regressive economic policies.

On a personal level, this is one of those unpalatable truths I have had to come to terms with regarding my American friends in particular. They are mostly liberals or even libertarians; they are not leftists. Their politics is encapsulated in that nauseatingly conformist formulation: ‘I am a social liberal but a fiscal conservatism.’ Cue the sober, knowing nod.

***

I stumbled upon this image on Facebook today, shared by friends who—perhaps—I’d call fellow travellers on a good day. The image proudly defends the president from what are implicitly defamatory labels, and is meant to stir the spirits of the Democratic Party’s base. I, unfortunately, find less to be impressed by—whether in the image above or in the president’s record. Sure, Barack Obama’s personal story remains inspiring on some level, but his presidency cannot be judged on his upbringing alone. His actual record is pretty patchy. His administration’s under-powered fiscal stimulus; its unwillingness to admit that the stimulus didn’t pass muster; its refusal to contemplate a follow-up despite mass unemployment; its capitulation to lobbies on healthcare reform, refusing even to consider a single-payer system; its continuation, and indeed expansion, of inhumane policies vis-à-vis terrorism—all of these policies should give those of us sympathetic to the left pause. Of course, one of this is surprising—Obama was, and remains a president of the establishment, seeking from the beginning not to rock the boat too much.

So far, so predictable.

The real trouble comes in explaining how and why American liberals continue to believe the president deserves sympathy. And a large part of this leeway is explained by America’s shockingly staid conventions—in the ceaseless conformism of the vast majority. Take that poster: It goes out of its way not to label its man a ‘socialist’ or a ‘radical’. The trouble, of course, is that many of us (36% of all Americans, a majority of Democrats, and an even healthier majority of ‘liberals’) view ‘socialism’ positively. But the Obamanauts live on a planet where socialism is, by definition, evil. That the majority of Americans view socialism negatively is neither here nor there—what else do you expect in a country where socialism was cut down early, where Cold Warriors on both sides of the aisle routinely lambasted the very concept? Yet, despite this ignorance, a good part of Obama’s base—and this image is clearly aimed at young supporters of the president—would give ‘socialist’ proposals (widely understood, admittedly) a fair hearing.

In failing even to acknowledge this reserve army of the left, the mainstream American progressive movement as currently constituted will remain an arm of the status quo. A pathological fear of radical solutions handicaps those purportedly most sympathetic to substantive change. Insofar as mainstream American politicians largely refrain from making the case—yes, for socialism, and yes,on unabashedly ideological grounds—’progressive’ Americans aren’t wrong to think that ‘change’ is nothing but a largely vacuous term with no bearing on their day to day life.

This lack of any hint of radicalism—which Obama’s dedicated supporters, the president and his administration wear as a badge of honour—makes the Democratic Party perhaps the most unappealing major party of the left in the Western world. (This says a lot in the age of the Third Way.) Its ‘progressivism’ (a repugnant, watered-down term explicitly avoiding any Marxist baggage) is only fitfully propelled forward by platitudes; more often, it is bogged down by its allegiance to a cumbersome and archaic constitutional order. Compare today’s mainstream political demands to Franklin Roosevelt’s proposals for a second bill of rights, and the disparities in imagination, daring and tone become stark.

So excuse me while I refrain from being inspired by our not-socialist, not-radical president. If only he dared be a bit of both.

***

Historical Post-Script

In 1999, the Democratic Leadership Council hosted the leaders of centre or centre-left political parties then in power in every major Western country—including the United States (Bill Clinton), Germany (Gerhard Schröder), France (Lionel Jospin, who did not attend), Britain (Tony Blair) and Italy (Massimo D’Alema). The context matters: this was the heyday of the long 1990s boom, the summit of post-Cold War triumphalism, the ‘end of history.’ Whatever their nominal ‘leftism’, these leaders were mostly post-left—these were the adherents of the ‘Third Way’, reconciling capitalism with ‘social solidarity’. It fell to Italy’s Massimo D’Alema to remind the assembled leaders that the European centre-left owed its traditions to socialism. Admitting that the five leaders shared a reformist agenda, D’Alema nonetheless suggested they also shared a ‘big problem’:

There are words that in your civilization, in your history, sound difficult to understand or to accept…For example, we belong to the Socialist International, and I’m aware that this word is somewhat sensitive here…[at this moment, the crowd cracked up in laughter]…and I can see that we have avoided pronouncing this word here. But we should prevail over this fear of words.

D’Alema was decidedly right–and his words have greater potency now, as capitalism suffers its greatest crisis since the 1930s. Bill Clinton’s jarring response was equally as incisive as D’Alema’s comments: ‘I’m not sure I would have you here, Massimo, if I were running for reelection.’ Barack Obama would hardly disagree.

Post-Post Script (1:40 AM)

I’m reminded of two articles I’ve read in the last year in the London Review of Books with some connection to what I’ve written above:

On Obama, the ‘establishment president’‘Obama is choosing to leave behind the popular base of the Democratic Party and build an ecumenical consensus which starts in his head. The process seems to be intuitive, and to explain it one can only fall back on psychology. Obama sees himself as the establishment president. If a populist insurgency on the right presses hard against his legitimacy, if disappointed supporters stop giving money or knocking on doors, still he has the confidence of a leader whose standing is buoyed up by corporate leaders, by a famous general and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, by a decent preponderance of Wall Street, and by the mainstream media, whose resources he deploys and channels with a relentlessness no other president has approached.’ [LRB, Vol. 32 No. 9 · 13 May 2010, pp 39-40]

On the natural sympathies of socialists: ‘The fundamental perception of British socialism, and Scottish socialism especially, is about wasted lives, the strangled destinies of ordinary people. Last summer, I went to Jimmy Reid’s funeral in Govan. Billy Connolly, once an apprentice in the same shipyard, told a story about going for walks with Reid in Glasgow. “He’d point to a tower block and say: ‘Behind that window is a guy who could win Formula One. And behind that one there’s a winner of the round-the-world yacht race. And behind the next one … And none of them will ever get the chance to sit at the wheel of a racing car or in the cockpit of a yacht.’”‘ [LRB, Vol. 33 No. 11 · 2 June 2011, pp 8-9]

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