Unfortunately what’s happened within the left and among progressives is sort of an unwillingness to grapple with the dynamics of this period. Some level of denial, some level of lack of urgency. I’d say that’s what makes this particular period unusual and that necessitates a deeper level of analysis and thinking and urgency at the level of action and organization.
J: I want to come back to that urgency and even that denial of opportunities within the left. But you said that in the convergence of these crises, there are danger and possibilities; could talk more about the dangers that we’re facing in this time.
B: The dangers exist at a number of different levels.
We are faced with a very serious threat to the future of humanity. Not to be melodramatic. Any numbers of things that could happen. During the Cold War the big worry was a nuclear exchange. That remains a real possibility, especially with these nutcases in Pakistan and India who posses nuclear weapons. They could end up using them against one another. In another part of the world, Israel could end up using nuclear weapons against one of its opponents. Nuclear war is always a possibility.
But the big worry regarding the future of humans as a species is the shift in the environment. Will these shifts make the planet inhospitable? Will we be able to stop or reverse the damage down to the environment? These are real worries and part of the three crises. So we are operating at that level of analysis and action.
We’re also operating on the level of political dangers. One of the biggest political dangers in the Global North and the Global South are variants on right-wing populism. Populism’s proponents often steal arguments from the left; morph them into almost their opposite and use them to touch a sentiment in the masses of people who are feeling constrained, oppressed, dispossessed. Right-wing populism looks for scapegoats. Those scapegoats are another ethnic group or a racial group, women, gays and lesbians…it can be any number of things. We must expect right wing populism to become stronger unless we thoroughly defeat it [ed. Note – As we have seen with the successful targeting of Van Jones and the 9/12 movement].
Given the competition for resources on a planet where resources are limited by the ecology of the planet and the economic system that we live under there is a constant danger of a war of “…all against all…”. When you have limited resources people have two options. One, they fight the system that handles the resources in an undemocratic way, and that’s generally the way that the Left wants to go. Two, they identify a particular “other” ,another grouping that is perceived to be the grouping that is suppressing everyone else and is hoarding resources. So right wing populism can – under those circumstances – be very persuasive. We on the left need to better understand it and take issue with it.
J: You just identified the big global impacts on the environment and the political levels. You also identified, earlier, the crisis of state legitimacy. In all three of these there seems to be an opening for a left response.
B: There’s actually an opening for both: an opening for a left and a right-wing response.
When I talk about state legitimacy, I’m referring to the changes in that the state has gone through in the Global North and South under neoliberal globalization. When you start thinking about the philosophy and ideology that accompanied the development of the modern capitalist state, it is important to keep in mind that it was shaped – first of all – with the idea of a nation-state, even though capitalism has always been global. The myth of the nation state is that the state would protect the population and that protection takes various forms. It can mean social services or it can mean military protection or whatever the case may be. That’s the role of the state.
With neoliberal globalization and the global reorganization of capitalism, what’s happened is a slow transformation of the role of the state. In the Global South, it’s very apparent that the nation-state has been significantly weakened, particularly with regard to multinational corporations and the transfer of wealth. The capitalist state in the Global South finds itself at wits end trying to find resources to conduct services for the population.
As the state weakens, and as the state’s ability to distribute wealth in a more equitable way weakens, you then see again the rise of left and right wing alternatives. The right wing alternative in an extreme is “war-lordism.” That’s an extreme right-wing solution to the crisis of the state, and it can be justified in terms of xenophobia, etc.
A left-wing response to neoliberal globalization can be found in things like the global justice movement, which has been challenging neoliberal globalization for years and has been raising this question about the unequal distribution of wealth on this planet: who controls it and what must be done about that. And it rises that while the capitalist state in the Global North is not weakening in the same way that the state in the Global South is weakening, it is weakening in a different way.
In the North we see that the state is delivering fewer resources to the people because of policies that have been voluntarily engaged the political elite. This weakening, so to speak, is taking place at the same time that the state is becoming stronger in other ways, most especially at the level of repression. Nevertheless, these diminishing resources combined with the ideology of neoliberalism that encouraged the privatization of services has resulted in a changing state.
When you have a situation where the state is not delivering what it once was delivering, you can have a right and a left wing response. The left wing response, as I mentioned before, includes the global justice movement, but it’s not limited to that because it also raises the question of whether or not we need something different, and that’s where the opening exists for the left. The Right, depending on which Right one is talking about at any one moment, may advocate a stronger, authoritarian state—even if it advances neo-liberal globalization—or it might advocate more of a balkanization along regional and/or ethnic grounds.
J: We just talked about the crisis of state legitimacy. And when you’re talking about the global justice movement, you’re identifying them as people who are raising questions around the global distribution of wealth and so on. But you’re also saying that we can push beyond a broad global justice movement and start to demand more specific changes.
B: That’s right. Absolutely. And that exists on a couple of different levels. One is that the global justice movement is a very broad movement; it that includes anarchists, socialists, progressives, i.e., a variety of forces that do not necessarily have a coherent alternative to capitalism. And that’s OK because it’s done a great job, and it’s supposed to be broad. That said, what we need is to have an organized radical left that is in fact posing the question of an alternative, and in my opinion specifically socialism. We need to flesh out how that socialism will look different than the socialism of the twentieth century, which was a mixed bag. So that’s one of our theoretical challenges right now. If we don’t advance alternatives, we can only continue resisting for so long till the point comes when we’re weakened and we’re tired. In that situation, the right will take advantage.
J: Within this need for a more organized left I’m curious about the danger and possibilities that you identified with the left having a lack of urgency. I’m wondering where you see that playing out, even within the broad global justice movement and where do you see that playing out in the existing radical left. In this moment, what are the opportunities for the radical left..
B: Part of the problem at the level of the radical left is that it is content for the most part to engage in resistance struggles within the confines of existing social movements. Part of the damage that’s been done to the left over the last 25 years has been (in addition to repression in certain places) is ideological; the growth of postmodernism and post-structuralism which basically suggested that there really is no alternative. It’s a very subjective ideology: there is no alternative; there is no overarching theory or project that can link together the various progressive social movements other than some vague resistance. This ideology fits nicely in the position of resistance.
If all you’re doing is resisting, then you don’t need any higher forms of organization; you just coordinate every so often, go to joint conferences and things like that and then go back into your bunker. The problem is that people do not operate by and large only within a particular social movement. They operate multi-dimensionally. There are a lot of struggles going on, and these struggles are interconnected. At certain moments, particular struggles become primary, but that doesn’t mean that other struggles ever disappear. So you need some sort of overarching theory that is able to help link these together. You also need organization that can link these various movements and can bring together the leaders (with a small “l”) of these movements towards the development of a coherent collective vision.
There is a comfort in networks and there is a comfort in coalitions, but there is a fear of organization. Part of that comes out of a legitimate criticism of many of the organizational experiences of the twentieth century. Part of it comes out of anti-communism and the impact that anti-communism has had over the years in promoting the notion that all organization is dangerous and that all organization contains within it the seeds of authoritarianism and that therefore the best route is not to promote organization at all, but to remain within loose networks.
There’s a role for networks; that relates to my earlier point about the global justice movement. There is a role for networks, and there’s a role for that level of interconnection. But in order to advance mass movements, to really challenge for power, you need a much more cohesive organization and vision.
I think that many people on the radical left don’t see that. At the same time, you have people on the radical left that do have organizations, but in many cases, those organizations are small and relatively weak. They may have good politics or they may not, but there is what Mao Tse-tung referred to as “mountain stronghold mentality”. It was a metaphor that came out of the Chinese Revolution where you would have a guerrilla band that would be literally on top of a mountain. They would secure the top of the mountain; they could keep the enemy away but that was all they could do. Every so often, they would come out and attack. At a point when the struggle necessitated a different form of combat, these guerrilla bands would not want to come down from the mountain and form new forms of organization. Part of what I’m arguing is that we need different forms of organization if we’re really going to struggle for power.
J: With that, we’re in this place with these three converging crises: economic, ecological and the crisis of the legitimacy of the state, there is an international global justice movement. Particularly in the United Sates, what do you see as the role of left organizers? And to be specific by what I mean by left organizers, I mean people who are engaged in practical organizing work on the ground who are probably engaged in social movement work.
B: I would say that the role of left organizers in this period is primarily involves three things.
The first is identifying the real leaders of the oppressed. That doesn’t mean that the left organizers may not be themselves leaders, but the idea is to always be looking for the new emerging struggle and emerging leaders and again, I mean leaders with a small “l,” that is, people who have followers.
The second piece is conducting educational work and engaging those leaders in a combination of struggle but also political education, helping them to develop an ideological framework to be able to look at the world and be able to analyze it from a progressive if not radical standpoint. The objective here is that such an analysis leads to transformative action.
The third thing is the building of organization.We on the left must always be thinking about building and strengthening organizations of the oppressed; whether we’re talking about labor unions, whether we’re talking about community-based organizations, whether we’re talking about networks and whether or not we’re talking about a left political party, a party for socialism. We’ve got to be the ones that are building and supporting the building of institutions of the oppressed. When we’re in the labor unions, for example, we need to be the ones that are fighting for their democratization, for their vigilance, for their outreach to other segments of the oppressed, etc. We have to fight for organizations to have breadth, that is, they really need to represent different segments of the working class and the oppressed. But we also have to be the ones that are asking the questions like “How do we get to an alternative society? What does that mean at the level of organization? Therefore, why is it necessary to build a party of the left or parties of the left?”
So I think that we have those tasks: identifying the leaders, linking real education with progressive action, and the third is promoting the development of organizations among the oppressed.
J: So these are the three things you’re seeing as the primary opportunities in this moment. We’ve talked about the denial about what needs to happen on the left, so now let’s talk about the urgency. I’m hoping you can relate it to the three things you just laid out. Where is the left faulting on the urgency? What are some practical things that leftists should be doing? Can you give some real-world examples of things that you’re seeing or things you would like to see?
B: Well, much of the left is trapped in what the old man, Lenin, referred to as “spontaneism.” Unfortunately when people read Lenin and look at the issue of spontaneity, they often look at it very narrowly.
There’s a spontaneism that exists within sections of the left when it comes to issues of organization. I would argue that it t