Replacing Right Wing Populism with Something Awesome
The Left has a lot of homework to do
An Assessment of the Situation
What the “Adults in the Room” Say
In spite of the fact that Trump is president, liberal social values have been dominant for decades, and remain so today. Of course it depends what topic on which you focus, but in today’s white collar workplace, for example, it is a little embarrassing to say something culturally insensitive, even if out of ignorance. The media has been normalizing homosexuality long before gay marriage became the law of the land. Whenever science is in conflict with religion, outside of church and politics, religion’s skepticism is considered naïve and ignorant. There are many who reject it, yet liberalism is the dominant ideology.
Concerning economic issues, since the Reagan Revolution, our common sense presumes the conservatives are grounded in reality, while the liberals are still living in the sixties. As I have written previously, there is good reason to call this conservative economics “neoliberalism.” There is significant disagreement between the Republicans and the Democrats on economic matters, but both parties accept the assumptions grounding neoliberalism.
It is worth noting that liberal social values and neoliberalism are largely compatible. Neoliberalism prioritizes personal responsibility. Liberals are happy to take personal responsibility by being ethical consumers. The media and industry profit off of political activism as consumerism.
Donald Trump, and his fellow right wing populists, have arisen at a moment in history when liberal social values, and even neoliberalism, are vulnerable to attack. Much has already been said on this subject. Donald Trump speaks to a culture that feels oppressed by, and afraid of liberal social values. And although Donald Trump has primarily behaved in accordance with neoliberalism, his presidential campaign criticized Obama’s support for neoliberal trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for different reasons, received a lot of popular support for their criticism of neoliberal policies.
But Donald Trump is unstable and unqualified to be president. He never should have been elected. Many Republics have shared this sentiment. How come the Left was unable to stop him? I will avoid debating about whether Bernie would have won, but it is important to point out that people on the Left rejected the dominant ideologies too. Bernie Sanders’s call for single payer healthcare, free college, and dramatic regulations to address climate change were overt rejections of neoliberalism. How can the Left not only stop the rising tide of right wing populism, but also create a future free from fear and anxiety? How can we create a future in which humanity flourishes? I think we can see some of the answers in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, though we cannot stop there.
The Left and the Right under Social Liberalism and Neoliberalism
Although liberalism has been the dominant ideology, the Left has struggled to sufficiently tackle economic inequality, climate change, the prison industrial complex, or the rise of right wing populism. Aside from ethical consumerism, the Left has focused on direct action. This has effected social norms, but rarely effected the economic order. Many on the Left blame their lack of unity for this failure. LGBTQIA rights activists focus on their own issues. Black activists focus on their own issues. Women focus on their own issues. Environmentalists focus on their own issues. And among each identity there are innumerable ideologies and sub-ideologies: Marxist socialists and anti-Marxist socialists and anarchists and those who reject any label. Some believe only in direct action. Others believe in party politics. Many believe the Left should work within the Democratic party, and others argue we must destroy the two party system. We saw this clearly with the divide between Bernie supporters after he dropped out of the Democratic primaries. Most of his supporters switched over to Hillary, but others, like myself, could not.
And even if the Left could agree on anything, we generally rely on rational arguments as our weapon of choice. Rational arguments are good. A healthy population must have vigorous debate over “the Good,” and how to construct its laws in order to create a just society. But the Right, whether it be through the dominance of conservative economics or gun rights, recognizes that taking and keeping power requires more than rational arguments.
We on the Left should learn from the Right’s incredible success of the Mont Pelerin Society. They are one of the main reasons neoliberalism became the dominant economic ideology. They were a think tank that spawned other think tanks. When they formed, in 1947, they were not taken seriously. Their ideas were fringe. But they created a long term strategy that included an international think tank movement. These think tanks recognized the need to infiltrate culture, not just academia and political power.
The Right used culture to gain political power in the eighties with the Moral Majority. Many Christian voters, who had previously voted for Democrats, became committed Republicans, because of issues like abortion and school prayer.
Culture determined politics in the election of Trump. Angela Nagle, wrote about one example in her book, Kill All Normies. The Alt-Right developed on 4Chan and Reddit when ironic, young men sent unsolicited violent porn to ultra-sensitive “social justice warriors.” It started as an expression of misogyny, emboldened by finding peers under the anonymity of the internet, but evolved into a far right political movement that helped get Trump elected.
While the process of 4Chan and Reddit evolving into hotbeds of the far right was arguably an organic process, Breitbart, as an alternative media source, recognized the importance of culture in shaping politics. They have openly claimed to “court millennial conservatives” which they claim Fox News has neglected. Steve Bannon of Breitbart then went onto hire Cambridge Analytica to spread fake news on Facebook through targeted messaging.
The Left was not prepared for these strategies. We are fortunate Bernie Sanders chose that moment to run for president, but it was not enough to stop Trump. As horrible as this is to say, in some ways this may be a good thing. The election of Trump could be redeemed if we treat it as a wakeup call. If we do not start preparing now, the problems of the future will be much worse than anything we experience under Donald Trump (apart from the fact that we could experience nuclear war in the latter). Climate change alone has the potential to cause more war and economic inequality than anything else in human history.
The Left needs to come up with a long term strategy. There will be no one strategy to rule them all, but the more we challenge ourselves- do some housecleaning- the more we will build a successful movement to invent a future we want. A lot of my inspiration comes from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism and Nick Srnicek’s and Alex William’s Inventing the Future. These ideas are intended to build on their work, or to merely encourage debate on the Left.
Give the People Vision
The Left has to be able to tell the people a story that connects with them where they are at, and gives them hope for the future. This sounds obvious, but Hillary Clinton failed to realize it. She had no story. She relied upon the fact that liberal social values are the dominant ideology. Obama was able to give us hope, though he failed to deliver.
Bernie Sanders told a story that connected with voters. He told a story about how Wall Street and wealthy corporations have rigged the system, making it harder for ordinary people. He offered a vision in which Wall Street was regulated, and people could afford healthcare and afford to send their kids to college: a vision in which they could worry less about whether or not they will be able to pay the rent and put food on the table.
I think we can do a lot better than this. I think we can offer people a vision of an entrepreneurial society that brings innovation and makes everyone’s life better. Imagine having the freedom to quit your shitty job, start a new business, keep your health insurance, and having the confidence that you could make ends meet for a while, until the new business took off. Imagine that if you lost your job, you could take your time finding a new one because you knew the important things were taken care of. Imagine you could work thirty hours a week and still have some spending money after paying the bills. Imagine if recent college graduates, debt-free, could do unpaid internships, or get experience programming from small jobs through online apps like Uber, and not have to move back in with their parents.
These are the kinds of stories we have to be able to tell people. In order to be able to tell these stories, we have to be able to back them up. We have to actually understand the world enough to be able to deliver.
Do Your Homework
The Left needs to have done its homework. Today the adults in the room operate within the constraints of neoliberalism. The Left needs to start challenging neoliberalism, but it cannot just start making shit up. We have to be able to back it up with rigorous economic theory. When neoliberalism was in its infancy, it was not taken seriously, but when the Keynesianism experienced serious systemic failures in the seventies, neoliberalism won out because it was able to offer an explanation for Keynesianism’s failures. We have to be prepared to do the same when the next great economic catastrophe hits.
We need to make sure that we are not relying on “block box” terminology that we do not actually understand. People on the Left have used words like “capitalism,” or even “neoliberalism,” without actually understanding the mechanics of them. We need to make sure we understand the world as it actually is, not as our team claims it be.
We also need to understand human psychology. We have to do the economics homework necessary to back up our stories, but we have to be able to tell the stories that connect with people.
Learn from Capitalism
To be more clear, I am saying the Left needs to learn from what works. Capitalism has been incredibly successful. Adam Smith probably had no idea how successful it would be. Capitalism’s success is due in part to the fact that it continues to evolve over time. It is inherently dynamic and responsive to change. If we are to overcome capitalism, the alternative has to be better, more adaptable, than capitalism. After the Soviet Union’s failure we tend to assume capitalism is more flexible than anything the Left can offer. I believe this is untrue, and we have to do our homework to prove it.
Under capitalism people have developed sophisticated tools, and effective organizational structures, in order to overcome problems, adapt to change, and achieve goals, such as project and portfolio management, Scrum, business analysis, predictive and prescriptive data analytics, and enterprise architecture. Businesses are finding that some work is performed better by the crowd, so they are relying on crowdsourcing for that kind of work. Although the gig economy is exploiting a lot of workers, fragmenting them as a workforce, disempowering them from standing up for their rights as a collective, if its downsides can be addressed, the gig economy creates incredible flexibility and freedom. If the Left is to lead a successful challenge to the Right, it must utilize and master such domains.
Learn from the Right
The Right has claimed a monopoly on freedom and security. They justify deregulation in the name of freedom, which in actuality threatens our security, and they justify military-style policing and comprehensive surveillance in the name of security, even though it threatens our freedom. The Left has to take ownership of freedom and security. We have to tell the story of how the Right’s policies are putting our country’s values at risk, and how the Left can bring real freedom and security.
In the past youth culture leaned left. With 4Chan and Reddit, young white males have radicalized into the Alt-Right. They are rejecting the stale, institutional liberalism and hyper-moralism from the Left. The Left has to offer a space for youth culture’s rebellion, while simultaneously proving a morality that avoids turning into a cult of obedience, or a call out culture reminiscent of the Terror of the French Revolution. The Left has to offer morality while also promising hope, freedom and security. The Left has to supply a vision of the future that is awesome.
People should be free to live their lives how they want, but society should reward labor that benefits society. Today artificial social constructs like intellectual property harm society. Capitalism rewards innovation through patents, which is good, but the Left should challenge patent law when it prevents poor people from getting access to life-saving medications. Capitalism encourages businesses to collect massive amounts of data on their customers, but then that data is used to reinforce their monopoly, harm democracy and spread white supremacy, when it could be anonymized, made public, and used to promote innovation. Capitalism encourages investment in technology and medical research that will provide a quick return on investment, but the Left should make the case for publicly funded and publicly owned research. This is especially important for issues that effect the poor. This research will raise the well-being of all people.
Capitalism, whatever it is, whatever form it takes, is incredibly resistant to opposition. As I said above, it is extremely agile. It overcomes or assimilates anything that opposes it because it is more than merely an economic system. It is more than an economic system reinforced by a rigged political system. It is hegemonic. It is a network of reinforcing cultural elements. Like a living organism, it has many layers of defense. Like Freudian psychoanalysis, in which the mind does everything it can to avoid confronting reality, replacing capitalism will require a counter-hegemonic strategy. Even if the Left could gain control through taking political power, and then replace the capitalist economic system, it would fail, just as the October Revolution failed. The strategy of the Left must create a cultural expectation of hope, security, freedom, and self-determination. The Left must create an expectation that the economic system be subservient to hope, security, freedom, and self-determination.
This is going to take changes at all levels. The Left must provide media owned by the people, not corporations, in order to normalize the demand for these values. The Left must become politically active at all levels, in all jurisdictions. I am glad to see Bernie Sanders is pushing progressives to run for office in all fifty states. The Left has to politicize the workplace. Historically the factory floor created the politicization of the working class because it created an oppressed class of people now able to collaborate for their own interests. This is how unions were formed. Today, as the workplace becomes distributed and fragmented, the Left must find other ways to politicize the workplace, or lacktherof. The Left must proudly take ownership of its place in religious communities. I am excited to see, for example, the Christians for Socialism Manifesto. The Left should demand ethics in technological development. Technology is not neutral. It is impossible to know the implications of new technology, but we must make sure the technology works for us, not against us. The focus on fake news and social media is an opportunity to initiate a public conversation around the ethics of algorithms, and the need for transparency. This is the topic of an interesting book I have not yet had an opportunity to read, “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil.
There is a lot of work to do. The Left has to redraw the battle lines. This is going to require creativity and organization. We have to be ready for the next economic crash or natural disaster. We can see the disasters coming. Climate change and massive unemployment (or at least a major shift in the workforce) due to automation are coming. We have to tell a story that makes sense out of the chaos. We do not have to agree on every thing, or work towards a common goal. We need a plurality of goals. We just need to be able to experiment with tactics, and provide answers that work. Protesting is good, but we have to be able to address the other elements of society with a counter-hegemony. We have to do our homework.