Thursday, August 13, 2020

What Should the Left Do?

I just read an article by Jan Sowa, titled “After Populism.” The gist of it is a certain ambivalence about “populism.”

Populism is the growing right-wing, anti-elitist movement currently under way in many countries. It expresses itself in support for strongmen and politicians  such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, most prominently Donald Trump in the US, and several others.

Populism shares some of its conservative values with Fascism. These include nationalism, authoritarianism, the veneration of the military, a love of fire arms, traditional patriarchal family values, homophobia, denying women their reproductive choice, Christian religiosity, hostility towards intellectual and media elites, and a racist and xenophobic attitude that favors the white race over people of color, Jews, Muslims, other non-white people and all foreigners and immigrants.

 Sowa’s article is good. Unfortunately, he treats populism with velvet gloves. He equivocates, because he sees (correctly) that dozens of millions of white men have been taking it on the chin for several decades, certainly in the US. Year after year, inequality and poverty have been rising, affecting not only people of color but the entire population. Life expectancy of white American men is now declining, and their death and homelessness rates are skyrocketing. Sowa therefore feels that the resulting rage and the growth of populism are understandable. He does not claim that Populism is a desirable response to white suffering, but he urges us to understand it.

I have difficulty with this. Populism today is no more acceptable than Fascism was in Germany in the 1930s - morally as well as pragmatically: Such movements lead to war and genocide, and they do not solve poverty and inequality. They make things worse, not better. The reason for this is that they are based on ignorance and false consciousness. Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” If the government was a swamp when he acceded to power, today it is surely an unfathomable cesspool of crime and corruption, is it not? Trump’s base is far worse off today than it was four years ago.
They vote against their self-interest because they are blinded by rage.

* * * * * * *

The Left is in a conundrum: It attacks populism’s repugnant values, and thereby fortifies populist rage. However, “understanding” racism and other populist values is no solution. The Left’s response to populism should be educational and pragmatic. We must replace populist values with  good values and progressive policies.

Sowa notes that populism is a reaction to neo-liberalism’s failure to redistribute wealth and adequately represent the people.

Agreed. Over the past forty years, the growth of the plutocracy has been relentless. Even during the Clinton and Obama years, the federal government has remained subservient to Wall Street. To be sure, everything in life is a matter of degree: the acceleration of inequality and poverty has been far steeper during Republican administrations than under Democratic ones. To switch from a Democratic to a Republican regime because the former’s performance only receives a “C” grade is surely to jump from the frying pan into the fire. As Voltaire said, one shouldn’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Unfortunately, progressive efforts have consisted largely of identity politics and symbolic gestures. Token numbers of women, people of color and gays have been admitted to the elite, cultural and linguistic battles have been fought. We have Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, Don Lemon. Twitter and Facebook clean up some offensive messaging. A few confederate statues are removed. Walmart, Target and Nike fire employees who engage in “Amy Cooper” like behavior or harass women, etc. 

However, the real problem continues to fester: The growing misery of the working class, increasing inequality, the deterioration of public services, a still inferior system of health insurance, an underfunded and mediocre educational system, starving the entire public sector. It’s simple: America doesn’t have enough socialism.

American liberals refuse to admit that the real problem is the class struggle. It is gross economic inequality. We only need to re-read Marx. Fighting over confederate flags and offensive speech may feel good, but it accomplishes little. The unit of analysis which matters the most is SOCIAL CLASS. 

There are a couple of reasons for de-emphasizing identity politics and focusing on social class: For one thing, facts demand it: Inequality and injustice are conditions which  affect and differentiate social classes much more than races, genders, gays, or other categories of people. We understood this from the 1930s through the latter part of the 20th century, when unions thrived and there was working-class solidarity.

Furthermore, it is pragmatic: Identity politics will not win us elections. I am very happy with Kamala Harris running for vice president, but not because she was a judicious demographic choice. Black women may be the backbone of the Democratic party, but they only make up 6% of the electorate. Biden will need many multiples of that number to become president. The drumbeat of identity politics is like waving a red flag at a bull. Are democrats not tired of losing?

The problem with American populism is twofold: 
1. It is an immoral social Darwinistic ideology based on hatred for outgroups and jingoistic nationalism.
2. It rejects the social contract and an appreciation of government. Ronald Reagan’s poisonous words encapsulate this aberration: “The Government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

We should not dignify populism by taking its beliefs seriously. They are a variant of fascism. There are no excuses for racism, there were NOT fine people on both sides at Charlottesville. There is no justification for the annual murder of several hundred unarmed African-Americans by the police. 

Nor should we react to “Black Lives Matter” by saying that “All lives Matter.” While the latter is obviously true, as a debating argument it is code for “white lives matter,” which in turn is code for “white power.” As a category white men have always and continue today to hoard a disproportionate share of society’s wealth and power, which renders any such social movement absurd. That many white men suffer hardship as individuals is a different issue. The common denominator is social class.

The Left must educate millions of struggling (white) Americans on two issues: (1) to understand their condition, which is rooted in their social class. (2) to understand that the solution is a good government, a government by and for all the people. We must educate, not dignify or debate populism. Nor should we focus so much on identity politics. This ends up either aggravating or boring millions of people, driving some into right-wing reaction, Trumpism and false consciousness. The Left must focus on economic injustice and transform America into a SOCIAL democracy.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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