It’s surely accepted that necrophilia’s bad; not for you, necessarily, but for society. The past is there to be let go of, and the future’s to be embraced, or at the very least danced with. As the present feeds us new worries by the day, we can either waspishly refuse its advances, or live with it, even live it.
In the last decade, liberalism has been dealt a death-blow. Free markets with a human face have not proven to be the final solution to the human problem, and their zombified perseverance must be attributed to habit, rather than merit. The EU’s attempt to justify its existence with reduced roaming rates and a free interrail pass have to be taken for what they are: a grasping at straws, and thin ones at that.
It has taken a quarter-century to see the tragic truth of the End of History: Capitalism has proven itself to be the only surviving remnant of the Century of Ideology, while proving that it cannot survive without a competitor. Ironically, the dogma of competition has suffocated itself by acquiring a monopoly. We’re at the pinnacle of worldly achievement: The future of sentient life is at the mercy of human institutions, and they have rid themselves of any alternative to self-destruction.
In response to this predicament, the Left has been rendered paralyzed. Its recourse has been to fantasy or futility. The post-2008 revolutions and tactics have only served to underline these tendencies.
First comes the fantasy. When the North-African revolutions broke out, a new model of uprising seemed to have been created. Intense networking unleashed the willpower of a subdued population, technology was making us free. Secularists and liberals shattered the frozen surface of dictatorship and forced change upon the elites. Tunisia was the first and most successful of these uprisings, Egypt the most significant, Libya the most catastrophic. What all of them proved is the weakness of disorder in the face of material power.
Tunisia, a nation of shopkeepers, managed to establish a fragile liberal rule, just as the West learned to loathe it. Libya disintegrated, proving that it never had been a nation-state to begin with. Egypt, the oldest nation-state in the world, fell into the hands of the group which had the most money and guns: the army.
Europe, meanwhile, was too crisis-stricken either to gloat or be disappointed. Its glory-projects of monetary unification and multiculture, both driven by the wants of northern economies, were falling apart. Too timid to unify Europe fiscally, too laissez-faire to integrate foreigners, the EU has pathetically crashed its way through one crisis after another, magnifying them at every turn.
Nevertheless, radicals of the West remain spellbound by the potential of technology, and all too unaware that our most serious problems are not technical, but structural. It is all well and good to be able to mobilize the masses, but if all they do is break without building, it might be better not to mobilize them at all. The societal systems we have are flawed, but they do at least have mechanisms to reduce inequalities of power. If we only destroy them, current inequalities will simply become formalized — and inequalities of wealth and power have not been worse for a long time.
Second comes the futility. Many of us do indeed recognize that the root cause of our problems is the stunning inequality of power that society suffers from. The question we’re faced with is obvious: What would remove it? Here a little history might help. What Piketty’s doorstopper showed, if nothing else, was that depression and war aided the advance of equality. For all the work of socialism, if there hadn’t been a stiff dose of self-immolation, industrial economies wouldn’t have allowed such things as welfare and international human rights law to pass.
The strength of these achievements can best bee seen in the postwar fetishism that still haunts us. The myths of social mobility, “Golden Age” capitalism, and humane corporatism all stem from this blip in our history, those three decades after humanity’s greatest bloodbath. It happened once, we can’t be sure (and shouldn’t hope) it ever will again.
Recognizing this means facing the fact that basic income and slightly adjusted taxation, or even a sturdy workers’ movement, is not sufficient as a strategy. In the case of basic income, it’s not even a strategy at all, but rather a double-edged tactic. After all, anything that Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman could propose in the seventies can hardly lay claim to anti-capitalist credentials.
Instead, the Left should be responsive to modern circumstances. We can’t rely on a worldwide socialist movement, but we can rely on further crises of finance and capital. We can’t rely on capitalistic reform, but we can expect environmental catastrophes. As a matter of fact, there are four famines in progress right now — the largest crisis of humanity since 1945, in the words of the UN humanitarian chief. The much-touted reduction in world poverty over recent decades hasn’t happened via free markets, but through state-led industrialization in India and China. The rest of the less industrialized world has been left in the lurch, and Africa, as usual, bears the brunt of it.
Climate disaster such as the recent famines is probably the biggest vacuum in liberal orthodoxy. Something along the axis of “more solar in China” to “Elon Musk’s next battery” is proposed as a solution to capitalism’s bewilderingly insatiable demand for energy and minerals. That simply won’t do. Less consumption in the West has to happen, and at the moment it seems it would take a global catastrophe to convince even liberal environmentalists that that’s necessary.
Conservatives tend to applaud themselves that they can face hard facts. In this case, they aren’t. Here, the Left has to take an unambiguous position. Any societal program from now on has to be of a global scale, and has to incorporate immense transfers of consumptive powers from the North to the South. Simply put, we have too much, while Africa and most of Asia have too little. Whether current nature-crunching, however distributed, is of a sustainable scope remains to be seen.
Our most immediate challenge is exclusive nationalism. Given the limited time we seem to have to deal with our problems, we can’t afford to see it as a cloud without a silver lining. Closed borders at least mean lessened mobility for corporations, and that tendency must be reinforced. Until a global regulatory framework can be implemented, free movement of corporations can’t be allowed. Individual humans tend not to be as destructive, but if their travels are to leave welfare systems intact and societies unfazed, those systems must be adaptive. A less localized form of welfare, for example one more reliant on unions, might reinvigorate both social safety and the unions themselves.
Capitalism has never been more fervently believed in, yet never more discredited in its fundamentals. Increased growth isn’t environmentally feasible, and it doesn’t increase public well-being. Concentrating wealth has captured political power, undermining meaningful expression of popular will and wants. Development in less industrialized economies isn’t taking place, and regression to rule by kings and juntas is happening there and at home. People who have been denied both bread and circuses are fed on symbolism instead.
Well, we can do symbolism too — and bread. If going to the moon was considered a worthy endeavor, surely saving the world can as well. Increased consumption is a lowly and uninspiring ideology. We can do better. The meaningfulness of nationalism and the power-dynamics of internationalism can be combined, and they must be, for us to have something to work with and to aim at. It’s not a matter of choice, but of necessity.