As Recession Deepens, the American Left Must Exercise Imagination

Andrew Lehman

Consider that the American and world economy are just beginning to work their way into a depression. This is not too farfetched considering that in the blogs and mainstream media, the 1930s are becoming a common theme. It is becoming conventional wisdom that we're headed for depression. Just as dust bowl winds destroyed our farmlands, this hurricane of financial abuse is deconstructing the modern economy. It is not unreasonable to expect that the federal government cannot manufacture jobs quickly enough to breathe life into a dying consumer economy gasping for breath. It's time for the American Left to start exercising some imagination. Let's assume that eighteen months from now it will have become clear that Federal interventions displayed only moderate success. Big box and specialty chains will be closing doors. Flea markets and street vendors will spring up like mushrooms around an old tree trunk as the abandoned old structures house numerous spontaneous eruptions of minicommerce. Deep resentments will emerge, focusing on those perceived as wealthy. Demands will be made that resources be redistributed that allow the disadvantaged to have access to health, education and a job. The American Left has been split for years between those that concentrate on heinous U. S. actions overseas (Palestinian rights, anti-war groups, anarchists, fair trade advocates, global environmentalists) and the moderate Left, which emphasizes what is happening within the confines of the U.S. borders (unions, African-Americans, Left Democrats, church groups, local environmentalists). Right now, on one side, is the African-American and union population feeling empowered by an Obama Administration, with left-leaning Obama supporters seeking to give the president a chance. On the other side are organizers and activists wanting to make sure an Obama Administration follows through on its promises to serve those most disenfranchised within U.S. borders and overseas. This side uses strategies that exert pressure in the form of protests, letters, actions, campaigns, etc., which will provide clear guidance to policymakers. Right now, the soft Left and hard Left is split even further than is usually the case. These differences between the soft and hard Left polarities are about to disappear. Three forces are combining to unite the Left and integrate Left impulses with the status quo. First, economic inequalities and the economy will become by far the gravest concern of both the Left and mainstream America. Media will plaster hard time stories across screens, airwaves and print from dawn to dawn. It is a story that unites and compels people to tune in. People will feel part of something larger than themselves. Not just for a few months, as in 9/11, but for years. And, it won't be just Americans. It will be the world. In this struggle, corporations and the wealthy will often be seen as the opponent. Second, the stories we will be exposed to will come from across the world. Video will be provided of these events. In the way that video made the 2005 tsunami a major television and Internet story, video from around the world will make the depression an experience shared by people everywhere. Feeling part of something larger than ourselves, we'll have an opportunity to shift identity to experiencing ourselves as members of the world. The split between the domestic and foreign affairs Left will begin to fade as our boundaries become fuzzy, with constant exposure to the duress that non-Americans are feeling. Third, continuing integration between the Internet and its users will lead to a long succession of spontaneous, seamless, focused, date-based, single-event political actions. The Internet is changing the way we feel about ourselves. We are becoming empowered. We are becoming empowered by the re-emergence of the commons at a time when cooperation, sacrifice and interconnection are becoming the new world view. As brutal as the economy will be, individuals will feel entitled and empowered by the new communication tools focusing on cell phone technologies and the web. Our feeling good about ourselves will be all about what we can do together. What are the Left's priorities and strategies for achieving those priorities? The answer to this question seems integrally tied to the Left's ability to integrate its strategies into new technologies. How do you strategize spontaneity? A deep understanding of social networking applications and cell phone technologies seems essential to being able to achieve long-term goals using these horizontal tools. With American and world society moving quickly in the Left's direction, it will be difficult for the Left to clearly articulate its goals. Winds will keep resculpting the economic landscape. In the context of massive, integrated, horizontal, headless communication, there will be few movement spokespeople articulating an overall vision. There will be visions expressed by individuals representing specific groups and particular crises. Stitching those visions together will be a challenge. The Left has an opportunity to exercise imagination. To do so, it will have to take a leap. The implication of all this change is staggering. What we are looking at is a possibility of world peace in our lifetime. Intuiting that as a possibility during the difficult times to come takes an ability to grasp the larger pattern of integration and empowerment engaged below the surface of the media story of deep distress and helplessness. I'm not talking about seeing silver linings. The storm itself is indication of good things to come. Just as there has been blow-back for the heinous actions America has committed over time, there is blow-forward for the suffering the world is about to go through. Winds of change are blowing a brand new melody. This time it will be music we all can hear.

Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Andrew Lehman, a member of In These Times’ Board of Directors and Board of Editors, is a co-director of the Peace, Justice and Environment Project (PJEP​.org), which serves more than 1000 organizations nationwide. He owns and operates an Evanston, Il.-based Web development firm specializing in applications that encourage networking between grassroots organizations.

Lehman writes about biological evolution and social transformation at www​.neote​ny​.org.

Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.