We are defined by our opposition, in many ways. And a society is determined by the frame of opposition, the boundaries of allowable thought — such as right and left (or equivalent frame). This is how power has operated in the United States. In recent generations, this frame of the “political spectrum” has intentionally been kept extremely narrow. Sadly, it is precisely the supposed political left that has kept pushing right, such as the Clinton Democrats supporting the military-industrial complex, corporate deregulation, racist tough-on-crime laws, privatization of prisons, etc; not to mention supposed radical leftists like Noam Chomsky acting as sheepdogs for the one-party corporatist state.
In the past, right-wing reactionaries have often been successful by controlling the terms of debate, from co-opting language and redefining it (consider how libertarianism originated as part of the left-wing workers movement and how human biodiversity was conceived as a criticism of race realism) to the CIA in the Cold War funding moderate leftists (postmodernists, Soviet critics, etc) as part of a strategy to drown out radical leftists. This is how the most devious propaganda works, not primarily or entirely by silencing enemies of the state — although that happens as well — but through social control by means of thought control and public perception management. One might note that such propaganda has been implemented no matter which faction of plutocracy, Democrat or Republican, was in power.
This is how authoritarians create an oppressive society while hiding much of its overt violence behind a system of rhetoric. That is while the corporate media assists in not fully reporting on all of the poor and brown people killed abroad and imprisoned at home. Plus, there is systematic suppression of public awareness, public knowledge, and public debate about how immense is the slow violence of lead toxicity, poverty, inequality, segregation, disenfranchisement, etc). The propagandistic framing of thought control cripples the public mind and so paralyzes the body politic.
As such, any freedom-lover would not hope for an authoritarian left-wing to replace the present authoritarian right-wing. But we must become more savvy about authoritarianism. We Americans and other populations around the world have to become sophisticated in our intellectual defenses against rhetoric and propaganda. And we have to develop a counter-strategy to regain control of public fora in order to protect and ensure genuine public debate defined by a genuinely democratic public as an informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry. This would require a program of public education to teach what is authoritarianism, specifically how it operates and takes over societies, and also what relationship it has to the reactionary mind.
Before we get to that point, we need to free our minds from how the enforcement of authoritarian rhetoric becomes internalized as an ideological realism that is experienced as apathetic cynicism, as helpless and hopeless fatalism. So, let’s have a thought experiment and not limit ourselves to what the powers that be claim is possible. We could imagine a society where the right-wing and conservative opposition is represented by some combination of social democrats, progressives, bourgeois liberals, communitarians, and such. This far right and no further! There might be influential thought leaders acting as gatekeepers who would guard the ideological boundaries or else public shaming to maintain social norms in order keep out fascists, imperialists, and other outright authoritarians — ideological positions that would be considered immoral, dangerous, and taboo in respectable society.
Meanwhile, democratic socialists, municipal socialists, community organizers, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and reformist groups would hold the position of moderate centrism. And on the other side of the equation, powerful social, economic and political forces of anarcho-syndicalism, radical liberationism, international labor movements, etc would constantly push the Overton window further and further to the the far left. This would allow the potential for center-left alliances to form strong political blocs.
This must require a strong culture of trust and a well developed system of democracy, not only democracy in politics but also in economics and as a holistic worldview that would be felt and practiced in everyday life. Democracy could never be part of the public debate for it would have to be the entire frame of public debate. Democracy is about the demos, the people, the public. Public debate, by definition, is and can only be democratic debate. Anything and everything could be tolerated, as long as it isn’t anti-democratic, which is why authoritarianism would be excluded by default. The public must develop a gut-level sense of what it means to live not only in a democratic society but as part of a democratic culture.
That would create immense breathing room for genuine, meaningful, and effective public debate that would be supported by a populist-driven political will with majority opinion situated to the left of what goes for the ‘left’ in the present ideological hegemony of the United States. That is our fantasy world, if not exactly a utopian vision. We could imagine many scenarios much more revolutionary and inspiring, but what we describe wouldn’t be a bad start. At the very least, it would be a more interesting and less depressing society to live in.
Rather than a political left always weakened and on the defense, often oppressed and brutalized and almost always demoralized, it would be an entire culture that had taken the broad ‘left’ as the full spectrum of ideological possibilities to be considered. As the revolutionary era led to the social construction of a post-feudal liberalism and conservatism, a 21st century revolution of the mind would imagine into existence a post-neo-feudal democratic left and democratic right. Democracy would be taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable given, based on the assumption of it representing the best of all possible worlds. In place of capitalist realism and fascist realism or even communist realism, we would have democratic realism.
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This post was inspired by a strong left-wing critique of the failures of social democracy in Western countries (see below). The author, Stephen Gowans, is a foreign policy analyst with several books in print. In his recent article, he argued that social democracy has been, in practice, fundamentally conservative in how capitalist societies and their political systems are designed or shaped by elites and so serve elite interests. We don’t know what to think of Gowans’ own political proclivities of old school leftism, but he makes a good point that we find compelling.
The bogeymen of communists, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, kept capitalist power in line and so curtailed fascism and other authoritarian tendencies. If not for the ideological threat of the Soviets as a global superpower, there likely would have been no leverage for radical leftists in the West to force political and economic elites to comply with the reforms they demanded. Similarly, it was the Soviet attack on the American oppression of blacks that gave the civil rights movement the ability to influence an otherwise unsympathetic government ruled by rich whites who benefited from their continued oppression.
Social democrats often are given the credit for these reforms, but the actual social and political force came from radical left-wingers. This is not unlike why Teddy Roosevelt openly argued that conservative and pro-capitalist progressives should listen to the grievances of socialists and communists so as to co-opt them. In offering their own solutions, such leaders on the political right could steal the thunder of left-wing rhetoric and moral force. So, Roosevelt could throw out some significant reforms to reign in big biz at home while simultaneously promoting am American imperialism that defended and expanded the interests of big biz abroad. He only offered any reforms at all because left-wingers were a real threat that needed to be neutralized.
So, once the external pressure of a threatening geopolitical opponent was gone, those very same elites could safely reverse the reforms they had previously been forced to allow, in fear of the alternative of a left-wing uprising. The object of their fear was eliminated and so the elites could once again show their true face of authoritarianism. What we added to this line of thought was, if social democrats have acted like conservatives under these conditions, then we should more accurately treat them as an ideology on the political right. In that case, what follows from this is then how to define the political center and political left.
Here is another thought, to extend the speculation about how our enemies shape us and hence the importance of carefully picking our enemies, which then defines our frame of reference. We are in another period of geopolitical contest that already is or is quickly becoming a second cold war, but this time the perceived enemy or rather enemies are no longer on the political left. What the ruling elites in the West offer up as a scapegoat for our anxieties are now all far right, if in a rather mixed up fasnion: Islamic Jihadists, Iranian theocrats, Russian oligarchs, Chinese fascists, and a North Korean dictator. In response to these right-wing threats, the Western authoritarians have pushed further right. This is different than in the past when, in facing down left-wing threats, the powerful interests of the time felt they had to relent in letting themselves be pulled left.
Apparently, according to this established dynamic of ideological forces, to make real our crazy fantasy of ideological realignment toward the political left what we need is a new left-wing bogeyman outside of the Western sphere, as a supposed threat to Western civilization. Better yet, make the perceived opposing left-wing ideology non-democratic or anti-democratic so that by being in knee-jerk opposition to it mainstream media and political figures in the West would be forced to be polarized in the other direction by adopting democratic rhetoric and democratic reforms. Sheer genius!
Social Democracy, Soviet Socialism and the Bottom 99 Percent
(text below is from link)
Many left-leaning US citizens are envious of countries that have strong social democratic parties, but their envy is based mainly on romantic illusions, not reality. Western Europe and Canada may be represented by mass parties at the Socialist International, but the subtitle of Lipset and Marks’ book, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, is just as applicable to these places as it is to the United States. For socialism—in the sense of a gradual accumulation of reforms secured through parliamentary means eventually leading to a radical transformation of capitalist society–not only failed in the United States, it failed too in the regions of the world that have long had a strong social democratic presence. Even a bourgeois socialism, a project to reform (though not transcend) capitalism, has failed.
This essay explores the reasons for this failure by examining three pressures that shape the agendas of social democratic parties (by which I mean parties that go by the name Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, NDP, and so on.) These are pressures to:
• Broaden the party’s appeal.
• Avoid going to war with capital.
• Keep the media onside.
These pressures are an unavoidable part of contesting elections within capitalist democracies, and apply as strongly to parties dominated by business interests as they do to parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class, labour, or these days, ‘average’ people or ‘working families’. The behaviour and agenda of any party that is trapped within the skein of capitalist democracy and places great emphasis on electoral success—as social democratic parties do–is necessarily structured and constrained by the capitalist context. As such, while social democratic parties may self-consciously aim to represent the bottom 99 percent of society, they serve–whether intending to or not—the top one percent.
So how is it, then, that egalitarian reforms have been developed in capitalist democracies if not through the efforts of social democratic parties? It’s true that social democrats pose as the champions of these programs, and it’s also true that conservatives are understood to be their enemies, yet conservatives have played a significant role in pioneering them, and social democrats, as much as right-wing parties, have been at the forefront of efforts to weaken and dismantle them. Contrary to the mythology of social democratic parties, the architects of what measures exist in capitalist democracies for economic security and social welfare haven’t been social democrats uniquely or even principally, but often conservatives seeking to calm working class stirrings and secure the allegiance to capitalism of the bottom 99 percent of society against the counter-example (when it existed) of the Soviet Union. […]
Egalitarian reforms, however, have been achieved over the years in Western capitalist societies, despite these obstacles, and this reality would seem to call my argument into question. Yet the number and nature of the reforms have fallen short of the original ambitions of social democracy, and in recent decades, have been abridged, weakened and sometimes cancelled altogether, often by social democratic governments themselves. […]
The point, however, isn’t to explore the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise, but to show that while it existed, the USSR provided a successful counter-example to capitalism. The ideological struggle of the capitalist democracies against the Soviet Union entailed the provision of robust social welfare programs and the translation of productivity gains into a monotonically rising standard of living. Once the ideological struggle came to an end with the closing of the Cold War, it was no longer necessary to impart these advantages to the working classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Despite rising productivity, growth in household incomes was capped, and social welfare measures were systematically scaled back.
Social democracy did nothing to reverse or arrest these trends. It was irrelevant. When strong social welfare measures and rising incomes were needed by the top one percent to undercut working class restlessness and the Soviet Union’s counter-example, these advantages were conferred on the bottom 99 percent by both social democratic and conservative governments. When these sops were no longer needed, both conservative and social democratic governments enacted measures to take them back. […]
Since capitalist forces would use the high-profile and visible platform of their mass media to vilify and discredit any party that openly espoused socialism or strongly promoted uncompromisingly progressive policies, social democratic parties willingly accept the capitalist straitjacket, embracing middle-of-the-road, pro-capitalist policies, while shunting their vestigial socialist ambitions to the side or abandoning them altogether. They planted themselves firmly on the left boundary of the possible, the possible being defined by conservative forces.
When social democratic parties espoused socialism as an objective, even if a very distant one, the socialism they espoused was to be achieved with the permission of capital on capital’s terms–an obvious impossibility. It is perhaps in recognizing this impossibility that most social democratic parties long ago abandoned socialism, if not in their formal programs, then certainly in their deeds. That social democratic parties should have shifted from democratic socialist ambitions to the acceptance of capitalism and the championing of reforms within it, and then finally to the dismantling of the reforms, is an inevitable outcome of the pressures cited above.
But the outcome is ultimately traceable to what history surely reveals to be a bankrupt strategy: trying to arrive at socialism, or at least, at a set of robust measures congenial to the interests of the bottom 99 percent, within the hostile framework of a system that is dominated by the top one percent. The best that has been accomplished, and its accomplishment cannot be attributed to social democratic parliamentary activism, is a set of revocable reforms that were conceded under the threat, even if unlikely, of revolution and in response to capitalism’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. These reforms are today being revoked, by conservative and social democratic governments alike. The reality is that social democracy, which had set out to reform capitalism on behalf of the bottom 99 percent, was reformed by it, and acts now to keep the top one percent happy in return for every now and then championing mild ameliorative measures that conservative forces would concede anyway under pressure.