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Why America Needs the Left (cont’d)

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Going forward, back to the ’60s

Today’s Left, such as it is, grew out of the New Left – the third American Left – and for it to become a fourth Left and confront the present crisis it must look back to the 1960s.

The crisis that the New Left faced was decolonization and the beginning of the end of U.S. global hegemony; the United States was evolving into the de-industrialized, finance-centered state it became in the 1970s. The question facing the country was what these changes would mean.

The answer proposed by the New Left was a deepened, extended, radicalized sense of equality, tantamount to a third re-founding. Thus Leftists struggled, in the three movements in which they played a critical role (civil rights, antiwar and feminism), to bend the arc of capitalism toward equality.

It is important to distinguish the New Left from “the sixties.” It is likely that there would have been a cultural revolution had there never been a New Left. One did not need a Left to understand that Cold War liberalism had produced a “democratic faith lacking in the profounder emotional resources.” One did not need a Left to see that this lack might encourage a religious awakening, shown not only in the importance of prophetic religion to the civil rights movement, but also in Zen, Indian music, meditation, the Christian search for existential authenticity and “altered states of consciousness,” based on the use of drugs. Without the New Left, one would likely still have had the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Hair, Pop Art, Jimi Hendrix, John F. Kennedy, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Quant, color TV, jet travel, transistors and the birth control pill.

•What the America of the 1960s needed the Left for was to:

•break through the iron vise of Cold War thinking.

•expose the alliance between Democratic Party liberals and Mississippi segregationists.

•confront the corporate and military control of the universities.

•challenge the shocking sycophancy of American intellectuals in the face of power.

•explain the almost incalculable extent to which the government lied to its people, especially concerning war.

•grasp the continuity between racism, colonialism and the war in Vietnam.

•realize that schools, prisons and doctors’ offices were sites of power.

•develop critical subfields in every academic discipline.

•understand sexism as a deep structure of human history, not simply a form of discrimination.

•build ties of solidarity with the planet’s poor and other marginalized people, including homosexuals, women and people of color.

The New Left gave the cultural transformation of the 1960s its political meaning: a radical deepening in the promise of equality, in terms both of new subjects, such as sexual orientation, and new sites, such as the family. These egalitarian aspirations found charismatic expression in iconic figures of the 1960s: Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Albert Camus.

The New Left constitutes the third great Left in American history, but it differs from the previous two in that it did not provoke a successful transformation of liberalism. On the contrary, what followed was a turn away from the great American theme of equality in favor of neoliberal “competitiveness,” meritocratic “achievement” and “postpartisan” pragmatism.

Equality was morphed into meritocracy, freedom was reunderstood as choice, and the critique of bureaucracy gave way to the romance of the market.

America needs a Left if it is to pull itself out of its much-touted “long-term decline.” By decline I do not mean the shift in economic power associated with the rise of China and India. I do mean the country’s moral decline implicit in its abandonment of the project of equality, as witnessed by the pampering of elites and the demonization of the poor. The only way to reverse this decline is by a revival of the egalitarian traditions – racial equality, social equality, cultural and sexual equality, and equality among the peoples of the world – that have proven indispensable to this country in previous eras of turmoil and difficulty. The possibilities of such a revival, and the hope that is the inevitable forerunner of the Left, were palpable in 2008, when Barack Obama emerged as the anti-Bush, anti-establishment and antiwar candidate, and as the person who at the level of image, rhetoric and resonance positioned himself as signaling a revival of the Left, albeit one appropriate to a new world.

The sense of malaise that has pervaded the legions of volunteers and supporters who made Obama’s victory possible reflects the failure of that image to correspond with reality. It is a depression born from a longing for a Left.

Redefining American identity

Can another Left intervene in the present crisis to help redefine American identity once again, and thereby make a resolution of the crisis possible?

The key to answering this question is the realization that the New Left was never fully absorbed by the rise of neoliberalism. Like earlier Lefts, its legacy has been a remainder, a “promissory note” for “future use,” for an expanded sense of equality. Only when liberals and progressives return to the core egalitarianism that the Left stands for can we reclaim the mantle of freedom – not the shallow freedom of personal choice upheld by neoliberalism but a critical conception of freedom rooted in equality.

For the New Left, it was axiomatic that one could not be free so long as blacks were subjected to racism in Mississippi, so long as peasants were being napalmed in Vietnam, or so long as women were dying from illegal abortions.

With that as our heritage, today we who belong to the Left must reject liberals who counterpose equality to freedom. And we must insist on a deeper conception of freedom than that provided by the market.

That the tradition of the Left never died in America was apparent during the 2008 Democratic primary. Hope invariably springs eternal for the Left, and “hope” was the tagline of Obama’s campaign. Had Obama moved in the direction that his campaign implied, we would today be witnessing the characteristic conflict between liberalism and the Left that marks the great eras of reform. That has not happened. Instead Obama chose to occupy a vacuous “bipartisan center,” which inevitably let the Right and its corporate allies hold the country hostage, deepening our current crisis.

Occupy Wall Street represents a stark contrast to the missed opportunities of the Obama presidency. The protests on behalf of the 99% bear witness to the irrepressible American commitment to equality and speak to the impossibility of a successful resolution of the current crisis without a robust, independent Left. Given the fact that Occupy Wall Street has already changed the discourse of American politics, nothing could be more harmful than for the movement to be absorbed into the neoliberal, corporate-dominated Democratic Party. Instead, its goal should be to recreate a permanent radical presence in American life. For that to happen, progressives, liberals, feminists, ecology activists, gay liberationists, pacifists, antiwar activists as well as the Occupiers must reaffirm their common identity as a Left.

The consolidation and clarification of identity is central to every founding. It is what the abolitionists did when they got started, what the socialists did when they got started and what the New Left did when it got started.

Like our predecessors, today’s activists need to know themselves as a Left, as part of an indispensable tradition. To be sure, no one can know exactly what programs today’s Left should espouse. What balance should we strike between: government and markets; efficiency and distributive justice; and global, national and local frameworks. But that does not mean that we do not know the difference between a Left that is committed to the nation’s core egalitarian values, and a technocratic, “problem-solving” establishment committed to corporate power.

Almost every public voice in America is in thrall to the rich, the banks, the military and the technology companies; to celebrity culture and to the academic elites. Only a Left can develop the commitment and capacity to go deeper and to think independently on the basis of the country’s core values. To be sure, our history as a Left has been fraught, just as the country’s history has been fraught. We lost our way in the 1970s, just as our predecessors did. But what was lost in those moments was not lost forever. On the contrary, the history of the American Left constitutes a living legacy, one that now includes Occupy Wall Street. It remains for us to reclaim and extend that legacy.

The times demand nothing less.

This essay was adapted from Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument (Polity, March 2012)

Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York City, writes about 20th-century cultural history, capitalism and the history of the family. His latest book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, was published in 2012.

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