I tend to look at politics and society through a telescope with lenses for equality, liberation, and justice (Maybe if you’re all good, I’ll tell you about it sometime) . And having only taken one poli-sci course (it was a good and transformative one), I may not have the best vernacular or tools to grapple with what I see, but I sees it hows I’s sees it.
I agree with Corey Robin that the conservative movement is reactionary and defensive (a line from his book The Conservative Mind goes, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes”). Its job is to defend the power structures, institutions, hierarchies, powerful, elite and – above all else – patriarchal system from the forces of equality, justice, and liberation. If it defends democracy, it defends a certain way of doing democracy – a very limited way.
Being reactive, however, is not to say that one acts instantly or without thinking. The funding of conservative think tanks and SuperPACs, or the systemic breakdown of workers’ rights over the last four decades are reactive responses to justice, liberation, and equality, but they are neither immediate nor brash.
Nor is it to say that the Left – and all that implies – is intelligent, thoughtful or unified in its approach toward equality, justice, and liberation. Or that the Left even seeks equality, justice, and liberation for all. Within the broader Left bank there are two camps (some would argue interchangeable, but not necessarily) that seek to reform society and politics rather than uproot and fundamentally change them. These groups are liberalism and its less moderate sister progressivism.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll address the more left-ist groups/movements as radicalism. Radicalism, it should be noted, is the digging deep into the roots of society in order to enact fundamental change. Radical Leftism, then, is about changing society and politics toward equality and liberation through fundamentally critiquing and changing how society and politics function. Radicalism should be looked at as something apart from extremism – though there are extremists in radicalism as there are extremists in conservatism. Radicalism isn’t about blowing up shit or people. Very few of us throw Molotov cocktails. And we can argue stringently and widely and fiercely about policies and methods towards those policies. Bertrand Russell, Malcolm X, the Weathermen Underground, Fredrick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were radicals of their times, although King is hagiographically accepted now into the very liberal circles he widely criticized in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And the Weathermen, despite accidentally killing one of their own while protesting a war that killed hundreds of thousands, are still looked at as “dangerous terrorists” by mainstream politicians and press.
Because, you know, property and decorum are far more important than sterilized, systemic war by the state.
Oh, forgive this graying radical for his tangent…
This is also not to say that radicals always seek justice for all oppressed/marginalized groups. Many radical groups are primarily concerned about economic systems and disregard sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of White/Male/Straight/Able-Bodied/Able-Mind/Wealth/Educated Supremacy. Many radicals cannot see beyond their privileges even if they (we) acknowledge we have them.
A couple of examples why I think that liberalism/progressivism ultimately fails to enact the kinds of changes our societal structure needs and the important distinctions between conservatism, liberalism, and radical leftism.
One such is seen when I showed a general malaise-al dissatisfaction with the US and the Democratic Party (and particularly its neo-liberal leadership) over the last couple days. Conservatives of course, know that everybody on the left of the dial hates America and babies and that we won’t be happy until everyone gets gay-orgy married under Chairman Mao. Or at least that’s the perception that liberals try very hard to fight – so they work extra hard to tell radicals to not act all crazy in front of the neighbors. In truth, liberalism believes that the structures of society are basically good, they just need to be tweaked. So expressing dismay over the Clintons or Democrats or the US as a whole is not acceptable. Because, don’t you know, the USofA has its problems but it’s still the #greatestnationintheworld4evah and the Clintons have had their problems but let’s be practical and reasonable and, oh yeah, they’re the best anyway and have and will always do the best with whatever they have. And Democratic Party is better than the Republicans and they’re #theonlyrealisticchoicewehave. This is like saying that the only two choices we have are to be homeless and starving or have a bullet lodged through the brain.
So I get chided for admitting that I feel like the US is an abusive parent and that I approach the Fourth of July like some who have felt abandoned approach Christmas and family-oriented holidays.
It’s not that I think they are mean people or ignorant or whatever. But USian reformers are more invested in and therefore attached to the narrative mythos of the United States and its politicians than radicals are. The myth that the United States, a nation built on and through slave labor and injust labor on the backs of the poor and that still largely relies on wage slavery for its food (particularly from immigrants) and products (through purposeful extractions and extortion of Third World people) can represent truth and justice . Radicals, in rejecting that mythos (or at least parts of it), can be so disinvested in the lives of ordinary people we seek to draw that 1) we can ridicule anyone who does not share our behaviors and values and 2) we do not consider any political action but revolutionary action to carry political weight – this is in itself problematic for the majority of poor people in the US who cannot afford to be arrested, or people of color who are already being beaten down and subjected by the police, or people who are just trying to do what they can to physically, emotionally, and psychologically survive through the next day.
So, while I actually appreciate the tug from reformers, at the same time I do not appreciate being talked down to like a simple child who can’t begin to comprehend the big, bad world and the complex choices one has to make in navigating it.
Oftentimes, those who suffer from the workings of the world are the ones being told they do not understand how the world works. It is the unnecessary suffering that arises in us; that suffocates us; that tells us, “No, you cannot have that which is necessary to live, that is for the wealthy and bourgeois”; that silences us for we have not suffered up to their expectations. *
Sorry to make people feel uncomfortable, but the oppressed have suffered long and deep and far and wide enough. It is time for the world to join together in the cries of solidarity, feeling together the deep woes of pain and inflicted violence and moving through that to a swelling and sweet symphony of justice.
It is time for, for another example, white liberals to stop ignoring and talking over the concerns of people of color. No, you don’t know better about their suffering than they do; no, you do not get to set the agenda; no you do not get to say, “But that’s past!” or, “That’s trivial compared to THIS crisis!” You do not get to pretend to care about the concerns of dark-hued people during election season or call them to your agenda and fight only to turn your back when they note real, systemic oppression just because you haven’t faced it and don’t quite understand it.
I’ve come to find that when racism is mentioned in a large liberal forum, there are about three groups of reactions:
- there are those who know, who’ve lived under the thumb of racism due simply to the color of their skin, or who’ve studied and ally themselves with people of color. These are not always nor exclusively radical leftists (nor are radicals exclusively allies or race-conscious POC), for there are many conservatives, moderates and liberals/progressives of all races who recognize their privilege and ally with people of color (as there are who ally with LGBTQ even if they themselves are not cis-gendered, straight and conservative).
- there are those who react wildly, fiercely, bitterly, and oppressively (being angry isn’t the problem on its own), who begin to metaphorically throw shit, who are indignant at the thought that black and brown people are fully human beings and should be treated as fully human beings. The reactive racist conservative demands that the black person succumb to her way of thinking, on her terms, and using her language to further her causes.
- and then there’s the colorblind – a legacy of US progressivism and liberalism. The colorblind is not far removed from the reactionary conservative though he fancies himself as being so. In fact, the colorblind progressive also demands that the black population be judged according to the standards of his culture, that the people of color succumb to his way of thinking, on his terms, and using his language to further his causes.
The colorblind sees racism only as a problem of conservatives and the GOP. He doesn’t look on the system of racial oppression inherent in US society and perpetuated by his own “blindness”.
As Rod from Political Jesus notes, colorblindness is a colonial gaze, looking upon people of color under the rubric of the White EuroAmero-normalized perspective. At the very least, the colorblind discounts and tries to silence the perspective and voice of the marginalized, critical person of color.
Again, I don’t want to turn away my co-farmers. I just want to challenge them to look more critically at some of these plants on our fields – they are rotten to the core, carrying all sorts of disease. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should pluck the weeds out by the roots a bit more. Even if these weeds are really, really big.
*Of course, I say this as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, USian, educated male. I have many roots of privilege that I fully acknowledge. But that doesn’t keep me from being severely underemployed, working-class, Taino-descended person with untreated depression. In these areas, I strike with solidarity. In my humanity and in the intersections of my privilege and oppression and in neighborliness, I identify with the oppressed, while recognizing my own privilege.