Thursday, March 30, 2017

In the end, liberalism must lose

The US's socialist movement is still too small and marginalized to take power. We typically can't even win local elections, let alone national ones; we just don't have the votes. Outside of the electoral arena, we can only win limited, temporary victories within the narrow political spaces of resistance and dissent that the powerful haven't decided to crack down on. Protest and discourse activism remains trapped in symbolism. Consumer activism is almost always futile. The labor movement is on its knees, and it's going to stay there until enough workers develop class consciousness.

What all of this means is that if socialists want to at least slow down industrial civilization's descent into the horrors of late capitalism - at least enough to buy us some time - we have to make tactical alliances with non-socialists.

Plenty of people who are far more intelligent and eloquent than I am have made this case at length, so I'm not going to go into it here. If you want to know why Marxists should do things like "make deals" and "negotiate", read what Marx had to say about what is "achievable within the framework of capitalism". If you want to know why Marxists should form alliances with other people, read some Gramsci or whatever. The case for coalition and compromise has been laid out so exhaustively that there's really no need to relitigate it here.

Liberalism: not a good look

Here, I simply want to point out that for the socialist, cooperation with liberalism is a compromise. It is a terrible compromise. Liberalism is not some off-brand version of socialism or some kind of Diet Socialism: it is a distinct, hideous, antiquated ideology that is responsible for tremendous oppression and suffering all over the world. The great hope of the socialist is not to make peace with liberalism or to seek some kind of accomodation with it: we must annihilate liberalism, root and branch.

At a bare minimum, liberals are definitionally capitalists. They do not ultimately believe in the absolute democratic sovereignty of the people over the commonwealth; they believe that there are cases where individuals have a "right" to do whatever they want with property, whether everyone else agrees with it or not. For the reasons so persuasively laid out by Marx, this kind of economic system inevitably leads to massive and increasing oppression, immiseration and exploitation. No matter what technocratic fixes and policy band-aids liberals invent to get around this, their ideological committment to private property functions as a guarantee of endless, escalating destruction. Their gross, primitive ideas destroy lives and destroy the earth.

If you take Marx seriously, you should find liberalism horrifying and repulsive. Did a liberal just bring up meritocracy? Think of sweatshops. Is a liberal red-baiting? Think of US bombings in Southeast Asia. Is a liberal fetishizing entrepreneurs? Think Ron Paul berating the poor for not bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. Is a liberal fetishizing science and technology as solutions to political problems? Think polar bears starving to death and decomposing as climate change evaporates our sea ice while we wait for our green-energy-deus-ex-machina.

Compassion for the victims

None of this is to argue against the need for popular-front coalition building with liberals when necessary - but it should go far in explaining why a socialist would meet such alliances with skepticism and suspicion. A socialist with any minimal sense of decency and integrity will find the beliefs of their liberal allies absolutely monstrous, just as she would find disagreeable an alliance with any other bigot or reactionary.

Socialists should also recognize that the distinct ideology of liberalism implies distinct goals and thus distinct political incentives and priorities. In 2016, for example, faced with the dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump, liberals insisted on running an unusually weak and vulnerable opponent rather than one who was much more popular. One can, of course, always explain this as a kind of mass error, but that misses the fact that liberals had an incentive to make this kind of mistake. If you are a liberal, you have a personal interest in risking defeat for the sake of putting a liberal in office. Socialists, of course, have a symetrical set of incentives, but that just affirms the point: liberals and socialists are not necessarily reliable allies.

And what that means is that among other things, liberals may be willing at any moment to break the terms of the popular front alliance if they think they can gain from it. Substantively, for the liberal, this will necessarily mean a betrayal right at the fracture-point of the liberal-left coalition: their commitment to capitalism.

Again: there are times when socialists will have to risk that betrayal anyway, particularly for the sake of building a popular front to defeat fascism. But this is a terrible risk to take, and an extremely hard one if you care about the victims of capitalism and want to end its oppression once and for all. Instead of hectoring each other for our lack of tactical savvy and our occasional failures to bite the bullet, comrades should be understanding about this. For the socialist, hostility to liberalism comes not from a place of factionalism or piousness or short-sightedness - it comes from compassion for the lives and the world that capitalism is destroying every day. And if you can't understand the contempt your comrades have for liberalism, it's possible that you are, yourself, a liberal.