Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Charles K.

The Ghettoization of the U.S. Left: Living in the Material World of the 1980s

Written: n.d.[1985?].
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The absence of a viable socialist movement in the U.S. today is an indisputable (and depressing) fact. Admittedly, this is hardly a profound observation. It has been noted by many others, although some underestimate the severity of the Left’s malaise. Those who do acknowledge the crisis have offered differing explanations to account for our marginal status. Some argue that the problem is theoretical in character; many blame sectarianism; and others cite the unique historical development of capitalism in the U.S. Dozens of other explanations abound. In the meantime, socialists remain in disarray, politically ghettoized and ineffective.

The purpose of this essay is to explore some of the dynamics of this malaise. It is not an attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the issue nor will it provide a definitive explanation or solution. In fact, it is my belief that there is no ready cure for our woes. Nevertheless, this essay is intended as a commentary to spark a collective soul-searching and a contemplative reevaluation of the situation before us with the hope that there is still time to halt and reverse the process of human degradation brought on by the ravages of capitalism.

Many of the observations, evaluations, and assessments presented here may strike some as heretical, i.e., contrary to the many orthodoxies prevailing among socialists, particularly doctrinaire Marxists. It is the opinion of this author that the Left can ill afford to bandy about the charge of heresy–unless it is content to remain a mere subculture in the U.S. If the task is to overcome our isolation and frustration, i.e., to confront and hopefully transform the “actually existing” political, economic and social life of this country, then socialists must soberly examine the situation we presently face and ask the tough and seemingly unanswerable questions. While perhaps a disheartening endeavor, it is absolutely necessary nonetheless.

Depoliticization and the “Forces of Indoctrination”

It is impossible to understand or explain the isolated and marginal status of socialists in the U.S. apart from or independent of the social reality in which we are situated. Because this reality is not a particularly propitious one from a socialist standpoint, it is often denied or wished away. While perhaps comforting to do so in the short run, such thinking ultimately is self-defeating. Relying upon so-called “universal laws of development,” traced from feudalism through capitalism and leading inexorably to socialism, is an illusory comfort indeed. This type of evolutionary, teleological analysis, often articulated under the guise of “scientific socialism,” is a pernicious misconception that has more in common with religious belief than historical materialism. A quasi-religious faith in a millennial “rendezvous with destiny” inhibits the empirical evaluation of theory and practice. When empirical evaluation is absent, or when historical observations are hopelessly falsified in order to coincide with a priori conceptions, reality ceases to be our reference point.

A sober analysis of our reality reveals a society that is, by and large, narrow-minded and depoliticized. Since the relative affluence of the U.S. allows the majority of the population to lead a more than tolerable life, at least in a material sense (especially when compared with the majority of other human beings on this planet), “reality” increasingly consists of one’s immediate and narrow personal existence. The majority of citizens are absorbed in their own job, family, friends and material possessions and are incredibly unaware, misinformed, or downright uninterested in many aspects of social life. And for many, including some members of the traditional working class (particularly those in highly skilled unionized jobs), the fruits of the “consumer society” are readily attainable.

This state of relative affluence is a crucial factor contributing to our inability to build a socialist movement. The U.S. Left generally has failed to realize that the primary motivating force behind the successful socialist revolutions of the 20th century has been the struggle for survival, not some messianic vision of socialism. The revolutions in the “actually existing socialist countries” arose during periods of economic and political devastation. Such revolutions occurred when people literally had nothing to lose, i.e., under conditions of widespread hunger, disease, war, illiteracy, poverty, etc. Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, China, Nicaragua and others were not the advanced capitalist countries that Marx envisioned as having created the conditions to construct socialism. Lenin himself only advocated revolution in Russia based on the incorrect prediction that the world was on the brink of socialist revolution, i.e., that the advanced industrialized countries of the West would quickly follow Russia’s lead.

Obviously, history has not unfolded as Marx of Lenin envisioned.

And while the conditions under which previous socialist revolutions have occurred reflect specific historical and social realities, understanding the actual conditions during these revolutionary upsurges can help us comprehend what has motivated people to struggle against injustice, exploitation and oppression. Based on the historical legacy and given the relative affluence of U.S. society, there is little reason to believe that people in this country would be inclined to challenge the status quo and risk everything for “Godless communism.”

This is not to argue (as do some mechanistic Marxists) that an economic catastrophe will create the necessary “objective conditions” for a revolutionary upheaval. In the first place, banking on such an imperiling crisis may prove quite time-consuming. While some on the Left naively view each new economic downturn as evidence of an impending collapse, the capitalist system has proved to be extremely resilient to economic crises–far more than anyone (including most Left economists) ever dreamed imaginable. Secondly, while an economic crisis may arguably be necessary, it is not sufficient to create auspicious conditions for socialists. Such conditions require a legitimation crisis in all facets of social life–economic, political and ideological. In fact, unless political and ideological institutions are also discredited, an economic crisis by itself may not be advantageous at all. If such a crisis were to occur under present circumstances–given the political marginalization of the Left and the absence of socialist consciousness in the ideological life of this country–the odds are that the “masses” would be prone to move further to the right, not left. There is no innate leftward disposition to human nature or human destiny, nor is there a “historic mission” for the proletariat or any other social group(s).

Once such millennial thinking is discarded, it becomes possible to further analyze the “actually existing” political and ideological life of this country. As noted earlier, social life in the U.S. is essentially depoliticized, certainly more than any other industrialized country. Politics is perceived, at best, as the annual, ritualistic act of voting. The overwhelming majority of citizens are incredibly apathetic and “do not want to get involved in politics.” This politically “brain-dead” condition exists largely because the U.S. has the unique and unenviable distinction of being without either a viable left-wing political party or labor organization. This situation contrasts sharply with that of virtually all other industrialized countries which have active, albeit struggling, communist and/or socialist parties and trade unions.

The absence of a viable left-wing or even social-democratic political party in the U.S. is deplorable. So deplorable, in fact, that some socialists have been driven to delude themselves into pursuing a strategy that envisions capturing the Democratic Party and transforming it into a legitimate Left party. A full-blown analysis of this folly is beyond the scope of this commentary. Suffice it to say, those who advocate such a strategy are hard-pressed to provide one shred of evidence of the Party’s receptivity to a socialist agenda. Such a strategy is an exercise in futility. The bulk of the Democratic Party does not even seem willing to defend what’s left of the welfare state or capable of restraining the Pentagon’s imperialist impulses. To say this is not to argue that all work within the Democratic Party should be abandoned forthwith. At the same time, it is irrefutable that the “differences” between the two major parties are rapidly disappearing as the Democratic leadership hastefully shifts the party further to the right.

The organized trade union movement in this country is also an embarrassment. The AFL-CIO and most other labor organizations are completely integrated into the State bureaucracy. They slavishly accept the capitalist labor laws that severely constrain and restrict overall labor activity. In the face of the Reagan onslaught, they have adopted a thoroughly defeatist strategy, thereby allowing the trade union movement to be picked apart piecemeal through concessions, lock-outs, and decertification votes. They have essentially capitulated and proved themselves to be incapable of defending the interests of working people. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO has proved quite capable of collusion with U.S. imperialism. The international division of the AFL-CIO, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), has a long and sordid history of complicity with CIA counterinsurgency programs in the Third World, among other things. In spite of this shameful record, many socialists continue to be hopelessly romantic about the existing labor organizations and harbor far-fetched illusions about transforming them into “class struggle” organizations. It is time to face up to the fact that the present trade union organizations .have degenerated largely into co-opted apologists for the status quo and represent a precious few of the working class. Building a politically progressive labor movement in this country will require the formation of new labor organizations. A fresh start is as necessary today as it was in the 1930s when the CIO was formed originally as an alternative to the politically bankrupt AFL. While it is difficult to state precisely how such new organizations will arise, the need is undeniable.

An understanding of the depoliticization of the U.S. would not be complete without an analysis of the ideological institutions of this country or what I like to call the “forces of indoctrination.” Without contention from an alternative political party or labor organization, ideological manipulation and indoctrination become increasingly totalizing and omnipresent. The absence of a countervailing ideology has resulted in the virtual elimination of class and/or revolutionary consciousness in U.S. social life. The notion of class itself has been excised, practically speaking, from the ideological discourse–everyone is “middle class.” No other advanced capitalist country has so successfully integrated and co-opted its working class both politically and ideologically.

The main pillar of ideological indoctrination is clearly anti-communism/anti-Sovietism. This is such an effective stranglehold that any political position or movement challenging the status quo can be easily discredited to some degree with even the mildest accusation of being “left-of-center.” Even the nuclear freeze movement is susceptible to charges of communist infiltration or being dupes of Soviet manipulation. In a nutshell, to be anti-capitalist is to be un-American. Building a viable socialist movement will remain a pipe dream as long as U.S. culture is saturated with anti-communism. Presently, the Left is impotent in combating this seemingly impregnable barrier. How to do so remains an enigma.

The institutions responsible for the ideological indoctrination of the population pervade U.S. society. They include the family, the educational system, the media (both electronic and print), the church, cultural and labor organizations, etc. Television, the primary source of indoctrination, has become an increasingly effective tool as more and more people spend more and more of their lives in an atomized and privatized existence. “Information” and social contact in general are mediated now more than ever by TV. “News” of famine, war and human suffering is presented in the same breath with sports, weather, and traffic reports. Fear, suspicion and hysteria are spread throughout the national psyche by sensationalist news stories about murder, “terrorism” and sexually transmitted diseases and by television series such as Miami Vice and The A-Team that glorify violence and mayhem. Furthermore, thanks to the “liberating” inventions of VCRs and cable and satellite TV, reading anything, much less something critical of the status quo, is a rare activity for many people. (Unbelievably, of the approximately 150 nations in the U.N., the U.S. ranks 49th in literacy!) As people are transformed into mere receptacles, their understanding and knowledge of history and politics becomes correspondingly sparse–a frightening sort of “social amnesia” increasingly prevails.

The result of all this is that the worst of bourgeois ideology–consumerism, rampant individualism, jingoism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, etc.–is well entrenched and permeates all facets of U.S. cultural life. Reagan’s victories are not aberrations but instead represent the electoral manifestation of this reified consciousness, i.e., he won two elections because a majority of citizens embrace bourgeois ideology, at least tacitly, and Reagan is its best spokesperson. True, some people voted for him in 1984 because they identified the “economic recovery” with his policies. However, to reduce the Reagan phenomenon to this one electoral moment seriously underestimates the extent of ideological indoctrination and consensus.

He is consolidating and institutionalizing this consensus by redefining the parameters of “legitimate” political and social discourse. Not only is anti-communism demagogically exhorted with a vengeance but a new Social Darwinism is promulgated throughout the society. Commercialism is penetrating all aspects of social life. Relations among people are increasingly evaluated in terms of “means/ends” and cost benefit analyses. A “free-market mentality,” a “cult of entrepreneurship,” and a “commodity mindset” are all elements of the ideological offensive being waged by Reagan and his ilk.

Thus far, “Reaganism” has been quite successful in instituting what Bertram Gross has aptly termed “friendly fascism,” i.e., a technocratic, authoritarian partnership between the transnational corporations, and the government bureaucracy at the expense of the majority of the population–certainly the increasing “underclass” and Blacks, in particular. This process, insidiously couched in an “anti-State,” populist ideology, is aided by a sophisticated and elaborate scheme of Orwellian-like perception manipulation such that reality itself is subtly managed by public relations. Yesterday’s 7% unemployment rate, which was evidence of a recession, has been transformed into proof of today’s economic recovery- Those struggling for national liberation are condemned as terrorists while those who oppress and torture on behalf of the U.S. are proclaimed “freedom fighters.” Women, minorities and organized labor are labeled “special interests” while the corporate aristocracy reaps, the benefits of wanton deregulation and obscene-tax cuts. “Democracy” itself has been narrowly redefined to mean little more than the right to vote, there, allowing Reagan and Co. to further centralize and control the political decision-making process. And the MX missile, a potential first-strike nuclear weapon, is hypocritically and perilously dubbed the “Peacekeeper.”

A revitalized patriotism and a new respect for the U.S. military, as well as a general remilitarization of cultural life, are particularly pernicious components of the Reagan revolution. If there were any lingering doubts about the extent of this, the “Rambomania” phenomenon should quell those that remain. This revitalization has breathed new life into the technologically sophisticated network of repressive/coercive control which includes the police, the legal system, the National Guard, the Pentagon, the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. It is increasingly difficult to envision the conditions under which this apparatus of surveillance and control would weaken or break down. At the same time, it is equally difficult to envision building a viable socialist movement without this occurring.

The issue of remilitarization takes on even more monumental significance when we acknowledge the fact that we are confronting an empire which has the capacity to destroy most, if not all, of humankind. Previous empires may have thought they were able to control the destiny of human existence–this one really does have such power. Given Reagan’s refusal to renounce the “first use” of nuclear weapons or even agree to a moratorium of further testing, it appears that, should this empire feel sufficiently threatened, it would not hesitate to use these weapons. While the present political rulers may not foolishly want to destroy the world, they are equally unwilling to relinquish control of it. And, regrettably, moral and ethical appeals for human decency and compassion are clearly inadequate to rely upon as a last resort. Understandably, people feel increasingly alienated and disempowered in the face of this stark reality. It is no wonder that they choose to find solace, however illusory, in a retreat into alcohol, escapist movies, and family life.

Is There A Way Out of the “Ghetto?”

Socialists in the U.S. face a most difficult situation as we enter the second half of the 1980s. The problems are many and the solutions unknown. Unable to chart a path out of isolation, socialists expend much of their time and energy in various tried and true activities. Unfortunately, this is further evidence of the defensive and impotent state of the Left rather than its vitality.

For example, every year new coalitions form to plan “mass” demonstrations and rallies. While such activities have some worth, they usually attract only the “faithful” and have become little more than media events. Moreover, such “demonstrationism,” incorporated into the legal bureaucracy with the use of police permits and the like, has become an almost institutionalized form of protest.

Likewise, each year assorted socialists organize numerous conferences to discuss a myriad of issues. While such debate and discussion is healthy and important, it is seriously circumscribed since these conferences are usually attended by like-minded activists and/or intellectuals. Additionally, new journals and newspapers appear, each claiming a contribution to the growth of a socialist movement. One would think that the proliferation of such publications indicates the existence of a receptive audience. However, since many citizens are unaware of these publications (which, in some cases, is fortunate circumstance), the proliferation is more an indication of disunity and the Left’s penchant for sectarianism and internecine feuding.

The lack of socialist unity has prompted the establishment of numerous organizations of varying forms – loose federations, parties, networks, etc.– without any clear-cut solution to the problem. And while the recent Leninist party building mania and rabid sectarianism of the 1970s thankfully died off (and a sorry death it was!), socialist unity remains elusive.

In spite of this rather bleak assessment, this commentary is not intended to lead one to conclude that the situation is hopeless, nor to debilitate people in the face of a seemingly overwhelming predicament – although it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed. Rather, it is to emphasize that, good intentions aside, there are no ready-made answers to the complex questions facing socialists today. At the same time, the lack of such answers is no excuse to throw in the towel and move on to procure vocational and financial security, and/or retreat into family life, although some on the Left have felt justified to do so.

Granted, these are frustrating times. While most socialists do have some general agreement and understanding about what needs to be done, there is no clear sense of how to go about doing it. I share this quandary with others and, therefore, find it difficult to offer any new revelations or breakthroughs by way of conclusion. I could, of course, list many of the obvious things that need to happen–e.g., uniting the disparate single issue organizations into a unified, multi-racial political movement; combating racism, sexism, sectarianism; rebuilding the labor movement, etc.–but doing so seems very perfunctory and not much of a contribution. It should be obvious by now that all of these are components of a program for social transformation. In addition, the creation of a “counter-hegemony” to capitalist civil society–the media, educational institutions, social and cultural organizations–is necessary to fight a Gramscian “war of position” for the hearts and minds of the people. But restating this provides little, if any, solace either.

The question is, “what are the conditions that will provide an opening–a political space–for socialists in this country?” It is my belief that, as in the 1960s, favorable conditions most likely will arise spontaneously, i.e., the result of some unpredictable combination of events, perhaps the outbreak of general war in Central America or a global ecological disaster. Whether socialists will be able to successfully take advantage of such events is of course impossible to tell. Admittedly, recent history is no cause for unbridled optimism. The New Left’s inability to build an enduring anti-capitalist movement out of the spontaneous uprisings of the 1960s is certainly a contributing factor for the dismal state of the Left in the 1980s.

In any event, the day-to-day struggle continues, whether it be in anti-apartheid or anti-nuclear work, women’s and labor organizations, civil disobedience groups or what have you. At the same time, socialists must look beyond the immediate situation and be willing to outline a vision of a future society. It is increasingly apparent that conventional and canonical critiques of capitalist society will not do. The issue is not simply how goods are produce and distributed or who owns the means of production or how work is organized and administered. It is a far larger and more complex issue, one which questions the very way we spend our lives in a never ending and deadly process of expanding production and consumption. Overcoming scarcity, i.e., meeting people’s elementary material needs for food, clothing, shelter, etc., is obviously necessary. A more insidious problem, however, is the mindless consumerism and the ever-expanding creation of “needs”–Sony Walkmen, Cuisinarts, VCRs, microwave ovens, TV satellite dishes, Winnebagos, ad nauseam–that is foisted upon us by the ubiquitous advertising apparatus.

It is not only the fact that the planet cannot possibly sustain this wasteful, toxic-ridden lifestyle on a global scale. Besides being ecologically infeasible, the unrelenting drive for increased growth and production is threatening to permanently subvert the struggle for human liberation itself. A technocratic and scientistic faith in expanding production has become synonymous with “progress.” “Freedom” is equated with the right to consume. And, in turn, people themselves have become commodities, reduced to little more than another expendable raw material.

The ideas of progress and human freedom must be envisioned within an entirely new paradigm. We must not only transform the “relations of production,” but must transcend the growth/productionist model of capitalism itself. We must adopt what Raymond Williams has called a “new orientation of livelihood,” i.e., a model of socialism based not on ever-expanding production’ and consumption but one that establishes a new ecological relationship between human needs and the environment. In other words, a socialism that is not only democratic, non-exploitative, egalitarian, and internationalist but one that thoroughly replaces the growth/productionist model of capitalism in toto. Without such an unequivocal rejection, any future socialist transformation will be a hollow one indeed.

The struggle for socialism in this country and worldwide is a formidable task, to say the least. Moreover, there are no guarantees of success. Nevertheless, we must keep the ideal alive and struggle to make it a reality. Triumph over the present-day “social madness,” spreading ever more quickly like a cancer, is imperative if humankind is to avoid the path of barbarism or collective self-annihilation.