For a life worth living.
We are a year into the death, the real death, of liberalism. Or maybe two years? It was never more than our fair-weather friend, an often treacherous ally to the radicals who did the heavy lifting for social change it claimed for itself, in the labor and women’s movements, in struggles for civil rights that were for much more than rights, and struggles against the war that were against much more than war. Though liberalism’s death warrant was sealed long ago, when the capitalism for which it has long served as management team ceased to expand, we were surprised by the rapid progress of the disease. In any case, the shameful circumstances of its demise underscore how little we should mourn.
Examining the corpse, we can discover neither the exact moment when it expired, nor the precise cause of death. Donald Trump is one name for it, unsurprisingly. Ripping the mask off, Trump exposed the right as a bundle of impulses: resentment, fear, acquisitiveness. But liberals cannot remove the mask, they are all mask, nothing beneath. As Trump grew stronger, they grew weaker and more bewildered. The discourse of civil rights, in some regard the crown jewels of American liberalism, became the property of Nazis and assorted white nationalists, who took the streets in ever-larger numbers under the banner of diversity, free speech, and tolerance for difference, a white rainbow of would-be school shooters, frustrated rapists, internet trolls, and other all-too-human monsters. Comparing Hillary’s deployment of feminism to Obama’s antiracism shows the diminishing returns that liberalism has been receiving from its claim to the legacy of the left. What choice then but to depart into fantasies about Russian bots, to hope for deliverance by the CIA? Liberalism died, we might say, having seen its own shadow in an administration ready to use the detention centers and police machinery it had been happy to build. Good riddance.
We speak of the United States as we write from there, most of us. The scenario we describe is not limited to that wheezing empire, however. Centrisms die across the globe. The collapse of liberal, of Keynesian, of “progressive” social compacts is a feature of our age. Even the social democratic redoubt of Scandinavia now drifts and lurches rightward, ethnic and economic nationalisms calling like twin magnets. In the wealthy nations, the course is common enough. Without economic development, there are no possibilities for the social progress that we once found routine. The appeals to liberalisms left and right, to the norms and conventions of a century’s official politics, grow all the more desperate as the possibilities of such politics vanish. Everywhere morbid symptoms bloom. In the place of conservatism, we witness the rise of a white revanchism bent on rolling back the reforms of eras past until Jim Crow walks a landscape devoid of labor unions, until women are driven back to the kitchen, queer people back to the closet, trans people out of restrooms. On the left, we must admit, congruent nostalgias dominate. The politics of the thirties and sixties, a workers’ movement and a technocratic social democracy, rise up like phantoms. They rise up into a world which lacks the affordances of those moments almost entirely; they feel solid and familiar to the exact extent that they are airy impossibilities.
“In the place of conservatism, we witness the rise of a white revanchism bent on rolling back the reforms of eras past until Jim Crow walks a landscape devoid of labor unions, until women are driven back to the kitchen, queer people back to the closet, trans people out of restrooms.”
What then might we expect from conventional politics? Wider swings, ever more volatile, as the center which has already ceased to hold now ceases to exist. We will not be surprised if the next Democratic candidate is to the left of any in our lifetimes, the next Republican after that a contender who makes Trump seem mild. Neither will prove victorious in the sense of providing a political direction. Volatility itself will hold sway, and will not be seized at the ballot box. There is a reason that nearly one hundred million people did not vote in the last US presidential election. One might take that as a sign of ruin, apathy, political defeat. We take it as the opposite. It is a political truth of the moment. All the data agree: non-voters are poorer, younger, less white than their voting peers. In main they are less likely to own homes and tend to lack other forms of investment in the value of property, of stability, of the status quo. This situation can only intensify; our world produces such alienations as if it cannot wait to end.
In the interim, there is much to be hopeful about. Ours is the most rebellious era since the sixties, arguably more so if that era could be weighed separately from its mythologies. These rebellions have at their center, as ever, youth: not only unbound from the dream of the good life past eras might have offered, but vehement, deservedly angry, and smarter in all the ways it is necessary to be smart. They have proved wrong the hand-wringing thinkpieces trumpeting their indifference, their technology-induced illiteracy, their narcissism. There is indeed much to understand about the sensibilities and sensitivities of our time, but none of it can get anywhere by beginning with open or implicit paternalism. These would-be teachers and generational worriers should instead make themselves students of the world, since they seem incapable of registering what many of those who actually resist already have correctly recognized: capitalism can’t be made more tolerable under present conditions, couldn’t be saved even if we wanted to, and won’t be voted away. Commune starts here, from these practical recognitions. We start as one must by dancing on a grave or two. We start by recognizing the hopelessness of left nostalgias. We start by taking direction from the struggles of today with their blockades and occupations and makeshift barricades, their broken glass and ad hoc organization, from multigenerational struggles that have at their center a youth who confront a world uglier and less hospitable to flourishing than anything in the past seventy years. We start because we believe in a way out.
We would not be so arrogant as to suggest that we are the only ones who have noticed this change. Still, we do not think these struggles have found any real mouthpiece in the world of popular magazines. The existing left publications, even or perhaps especially those that have arisen directly in the face of this collapse, insist on a sort of burlesque, bending these struggles back toward the dead world of yesteryear. It is not difficult to understand the charm of retrograde social democracy, the left revanchism on offer. It is something, as the familiar world falls to nothing. But the ledger yields grim totals. For all its talk of a gleaming future, its limited historical successes depended on compromises between workers and owners and, more importantly, on a world in which capitalist enterprises were ascendent and triumphant, growing at rates not seen for decades. And it is worth reflecting on the ways that the peak of US-centered growth and of social democratic entrenchment was catastrophic for the majority of the globe, for those rendered vulnerable to the ceaseless plunder that was its requirement. But sure, let us suppose this was a golden age. It is lost to us now and shall not return. The promise of full employment—the same promise every politician makes—requires high profits and expanding capital. “Today in the United States there is no doubt that those at the bottom are growing in numbers much faster than the system will ever be able to absorb,” wrote the great theorist and auto worker James Boggs—“America is headed toward full unemployment, not full employment.” This was in 1963.
And seriously, who wants full employment? On the list of things we might demand, if we believed demands made any sense, this does not even rank. Wage labor is a misery. A democratic collective where you elect the guarantor of your misery is a cruel irony. That you would sacrifice your human capacities toward some productivity level required to keep your “full employment” in the US while the shantytowns of São Paulo molder is…still a misery, north to south. And yet this is the admirably humble program of democratic socialism at present. Its essence is “radical democracy,” per one of its leading lights, Bhaskar Sunkara, but not too democratic. We’d still work under conditions of market competition and all that entails. It would be “state-regulated,” but what can this mean? Competitive markets can only imply that your firm must be more productive than the next one over, compelling your boss—democratically chosen or not—to make you work harder or else to replace you with a machine. Still, we are promised the glorious horizon of “a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.” Equality of individual opportunity! It is a rousing claim; you might recognize it from capitalism, that being its best-known selling point.
“Struggles that might have been moderated by minimal concessions to movement demands (per state strategy during boom times) now find they require insurrectionary force. They pass over into open-ended revolt, into riot, and finally, so we hope, into commune.”
Notably, such a program isn’t designed to lead anywhere. For much of the last century the relationship between socialism and communism was understood, by those who cared to clarify, as a relay. Socialism, wherein workers exerted greater control over what in most particulars remained as capitalist production, would lead toward and then dissolve into a classless society wherein the things we need were held in common. Labor would cease to be the measure of wealth. The wage, production for profit, dependency on the market—these would recede into glum history. Escaping them was the definition of emancipation from capitalism. It is precisely this relay which the retrenched socialisms have abandoned. And any hope of escape from the gloom.
Here we must admit nonetheless a real agreement. We too no longer believe that there is a track running from socialism to communism along which we might make our way, clacking mechanically. The hope that reforms might be steps toward emancipation wrecks itself on the shoals of reality. Our era has as its central feature the near impossibility of any demands that eat into profits. As the global economy sinks into the mire of the twenty-first century, opportunities for return on investment are fewer and farther between. Programs to which capitalists might have once acceded with only moderate resistance are now treated as if they meant to wheel a guillotine onto Wall Street. In the nightmares of capitalists begin political projects: in such a state of affairs, if you want to win anything worth winning, a guillotine on Wall Street will probably be required. And once you’ve done that, there’s really nothing left to demand. Struggles that might have been moderated by minimal concessions to movement demands (per state strategy during boom times) now find they require insurrectionary force. They pass over into open-ended revolt, into riot, and finally, so we hope, into commune. From there, the task of revolution begins and, with it, a world where a magazine like ours is no longer needed.
While other left magazines either ignore such developments or mistranslate them into terms legible to a dying center, we aim to recognize them for what they are. We will not judge them by the standards of another time. We begin by acknowledging what many of their participants themselves likewise acknowledge: we live in an era in which there is no longer a choice between reform and revolution, no possibility of short-term reformism with long-term revolutionary aims. None of that will work. It’s true that Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece, not to mention the DSA here, mobilize a great deal of enthusiasm for reformist projects. The word socialism is bandied about with regularity. Conservatives respond as if we were already at the guillotine stage, and no few leftists are flattered to pretend the same. But we suspect many support such figures and groups with considerably fewer illusions than is often supposed. For now, we will not shake our fingers at these enthusiasts, burning with the righteous self-satisfaction of the solitary ultraleftist. But neither will we entertain the fantasies of their thought leaders. The vision of permanently unfinished emancipation is grim, no doubt, but in some regard it is more important to grasp its logic: it is one of crisis management, carefully attuned to the end of capitalist dynamism from which it believes it can wring a few more decades for a few more people. We believe in a different society.
This is not to say we think we have the answers. It’s much easier to say what won’t work than what will. We are not here to bring the gospel. We don’t have one simple trick to overthrow capitalism, much less a program to be followed. Instead we have the capacity to clarify and communicate some important contemporary ideas about capitalism and its opposition. What we have are new and established writers who share our sense of the crisis in whole or in part, and who have yet had no venue that accords with them. We have the ability to make the history of the left relevant to contemporary readers. Most importantly, we have a willingness to pay attention, to listen to what people are doing and saying. Answers to the questions that really matter have a tendency to emerge through collective and anonymous action, through an intelligence that, because it involves thousands of people at the very least, is much smarter than any editorial collective. We keep our ears to the ground, listening for those premonitions.