Identity Problem: The Delamination of the American Left

photo: 1960s antiwar poster, by cliff1066 via Flickr

photo: 1960s antiwar poster, by cliff1066 via Flickr

This is an op-ed; opinion herein is mine. ~Rayne

Once upon a time, before the rise of machines — um, before corporations took over and subsumed the Democratic Party, there were people who espoused an ideology of caring for their fellow man. Granted, some of the richest among them ended up elected to office, but they moved Americans to do the right things.

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. …”

[source]

This was a rising-tide-lifting-all-boats kind of Democratic Party, increasingly pro-civil rights and antiwar through the 1960s. The ideology was shaped in no small part by a stronger, more organized political left, manifest in student activism of the period a la Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS in particular espoused direct action and participatory democracy, a hands-on approach to society.

Now entire generations — perhaps as much as three generations — no longer connect the liberal activism of the 1960s with the Democratic Party. Too much time has passed along with negative memes and actions actively impelled by the right linking the Vietnam War to Democratic figureheads like presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, while undermining the work of other Democratic liberal champions like senators Ted Kennedy and Barbara Jordan. Ask any 20-something if they know who either Ted or Barbara were; you’ll get a blank stare most of the time.

They will, however, remember the Big Dog, Bill Clinton, who was truly Republican-Lite. He catered to business while talking a great game, ultimately undermining American democracy. As an example, his efforts to deregulate media eventually lead to a corporatist mono-culture in broadcast media. He also failed to take any real action to support unions and build the Democratic Party grassroots. He’s thought of kindly because his approach to the deficit, a more restrained approach to militarism, in tandem with the rise of the internet, led to a golden dot-com age pre-dot-com bomb when the standard of living for most Americans was still rising. He and his heir-apparent, current President Barack Obama, are now the face of the Democratic Party for a majority of Americans.

Though its original standard bearers have aged and the world has changed, the fundamental liberal ideology that coalesced in the 1960s still exists; it was a key driver behind the rise of presidential candidate Howard Dean in the 2004 election season. The left wanted direct action and participatory democracy combined with pragmatic achievement of results; barriers to their efforts had decreased because the internet was a cheap and fast facilitator. Obama’s 2008 win is owed in no small part to the dispersion of strategy and tactics embracing direct action and participatory democracy.

Since that win, however, the Obama campaign has done little for either direct action or participatory democracy. After the 2008 win, the OFA folks as well as the Obama White House completely ignored the internet-mediated grassroots it had used for more than a year. They missed an enormous opportunity to reduce the friction generated during the healthcare debate. In the big picture, this may not be a bad thing since Obamacare is simply Romneycare at scale. But in terms of the Democratic Party and the American left, this was a horror — there was no countervailing, unified message pushing back at the rising Tea Party’s toxins.

The Tea Party’s rise is the very antithesis of the 1960s leftist ideology — it was a corporate-funded, corporate-facilitated co-option of direct action and participatory democracy, harnessing ignorance as well as conservative themes in order to realize a corporatist agenda, initially focusing on the 2009 healthcare debate. The internet sped the effort along, while ensuring consistency of its anti-left, anti-Obama, anti-tax, anti-healthcare reform messaging.

Which brings us to the present: the left’s ideology has delaminated from the corporate co-opted Democratic Party to manifest itself in a loosely-organized Occupy movement. Again we see evidence of direct action and participatory democracy in Occupy’s principles and efforts. Occupy has not gained critical mass, though, because it has not organized effectively (in part out of fear of the same kinds of COINTEL that undermined its 1960s predecessors), nor has it a figurehead to act as a lightning rod to encourage identification with the movement. Until organization improves and recognized spokespersons/figureheads emerge, their works will be more nebulous in their impact and not receive the credit due from a plurality of the American public, nor will it have the long-lasting effect on the citizenry’s consciousness.

The youngest of multiple generations do not remember a strong political left, only what passes for left in a corporatist culture. Nor do the overwhelming majority of Americans really understand how their democracy works, often mistaking consumerism for democratic process. These same people now comprise the ranks of journalists and the technology industry, their current industries shaped by decades of rampant corporatism and the paradigmatic cultural shift of analog-to-digital.

They are have been herded into knowledge silos by these forces. Most are clueless about the intersection of political ideology and technology. Their lack of deep political awareness, including their own role in the shaping of politics, contributes substantially to the foundering of the American left and its missing identity.

Next: NYT’s Googly-Facebook problem, tech industry’s political ignorance, and Cory Booker.

image_print
20 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    By the way, I wrote a series back in the day about the state of the American left; it explains how I came to my understanding of the left’s challenges as a Democratic Party activist.

    I walked away from the party in 2010 after being told by party activists I once respected that I should just shut up and support Obama — in spite of the fact he’d failed with regard to Gitmo, torture accountability, LGBT rights, so on. I am the delaminated left.

  2. thatvisionthing says:

    Rayne, I like your imagery of people being “herded into knowledge silos” — but how is that so different from what you say Occupy needs — a spokesman/figurehead and “improved” organization? I think part of Occupy’s genius and power may be in NOT having those things. (Not a silo fan)

  3. Rayne says:

    @thatvisionthing: Is there a titular head for the journalism silo? the tech industry silo? Not one, just a few hundred who are strongly identified with them. Yet we can define and point to what they do for us.

    The Occupy problem is that there is NO identity for the larger public to point to and say, Yeah, I support THAT. In the absence of sharply defined actions, there is nobody at all that can be the face of the movement.

    Think of this as a branding exercise. What is the brand of Occupy? We can argue that branding is a corporatist effort, but is it? We know who Greenpeace is; we know who PETA is.

    As for the silos: I’ll point to a work I referred to frequently back in my corporate gig days when reengineering was the rage — Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart. The problem with performance was the wide gaps in awareness between the functional, organizational departments. Lots of lost inefficiencies in these spaces spawned by “not my job-itis.” In the case of the tech sector and in journalism, the push to be highly profitable to fend off the pressure of digitization and its commodification encourages excessive specialization. Journalists pump out content, but they don’t deep dive to really validate their work; what they write ends up becoming “conventional wisdom” which is far from the truth.

    Ditto for technology–jeebus, just the crushing drive to compete causes blindness among developers. They are becoming so enamored of their latest raison d’etre, “big data,” that they forget data doesn’t actually cast a vote — people do. They forget there’s humans at the end of the nodes.

    I think that Occupy has a very long, LONG way to go before it has to worry about being stuck in a silo. If it simply adhered to the values of direct action and participatory democracy, they are spread across all functions of society. But what are the measurable, identifiable, discrete efforts that Occupy has taken successfully to date to effect change toward their aims? That’s the problem.

  4. thatvisionthing says:

    @Rayne: Aw, Rayne, I want to surf and you’re making me think. “How to manage the white space on the organization chart” — there’s a vision — boxes must rule and engorge all! … eh… is that what we want? Is that the success that we want to measure?

    I’m kind of all over the place on this. It’s like every way I think of it comes with a straw man to bat at, kind of meloludicrously (“Leave Louie Louie alone!”), and… really? Maybe I’m doing this wrong.

    I was writing a comment in the sovereign citizen post but maybe I got it mixed up with here, because this quote from Aaron Swartz’s “how we stopped sopa” F2C address seems to belong here instead:

    Aaron Swartz: Now, I’ve told this as a personal story, partly because I think big stories like this one are just more interesting at human scale. The director J.D. Walsh says good stories should be like the poster for Transformers. There’s a huge evil robot on the left side of the poster and a huge, big army on the right side of the poster. And in the middle, at the bottom, there’s just a small family trapped in the middle. Big stories need human stakes. But mostly, it’s a personal story, because I didn’t have time to research any of the other part of it. But that’s kind of the point. We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of to do. They didn’t stop to ask anyone for permission.

    Maybe it’s the diff between silo organizing, and connecting? Seems to me we should want to light people up, not can them.

  5. thatvisionthing says:

    @Rayne: Not sure how accurate this transcript is, but I got parts of John and Yoko’s Bedpeace film when I saw it a couple of years ago. Some kids had called in to John and Yoko, on the radio I think, from People’s Park in Berkeley, 1969, when they were facing off cops:

    John Lennon: Yeah, hi.

    [kid]: You want people to, you know, not take part in any violence. But how else are we going to, you know, get our park back?

    John Lennon: It’s a pity that make love not war turned out to be a trendy cliche, and if they can’t wait a year or two, as Yoko just said, you don’t get a child and then stretch it to make it into an adult, you’ve got to wait for it to grow up.

    [ – ]: Beautiful. Beautiful.

    John Lennon: Now let’s kiss a cop for peace week. If you’re in a family, and we’re all in one ghetto, and if we have a brother or a sister who’s retarded, you don’t kick the hell out of him, and if the establishment and the squares and the cops are retarded children, then we’ve got to help them. The hippies and the yippies are the hip people. Let them use their hipness and do something hip.

    [radio]: Keep up the good work.

    John Lennon: And you too, you know. Spread the word like butter.

  6. please says:

    My experience is that the younger generations are indeed living in a sea of unawareness and our ignorance (that has often been ‘installed’) acts as a system that breeds coercive thinking.

    Additionally the few that struggle and muddle through and finally become aware of their ignorance are in a frightful position of cognitively and emotionally reframing their entire perspective of the world and indeed their very sense of self / community / the other / world. That is no trivial experience. Without spaces to keep exploring and nurture their learning, I fear most will either rush into another form of ignorance to get some grounding or remain largely isolated.

  7. Rayne says:

    @thatvisionthing: Two things in those two replies stand out, IMO —

    — Aaron Swartz’ “at human scale” – Occupy isn’t at human scale if the person attempting to look at them isn’t directly impacted. There’s two ways to change this: assure everyone is directly impacted by Occupy (and knows it), and/or Occupy bears a human face.

    — Lennon doesn’t point out that antiwar was targeted by COINTEL, which undermined its efforts; he does point out that a movement must be sustained (oh, and at human scale, this time one-on-one interaction).

    “Spread the word” requires organization, I might point out. Even Christ’s apostles understood that; it was their mission apart from continuing His deeds.

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    @Rayne:

    – 1) ?
    – 2) Think Lennon wasn’t trying to separate us into usses and thems, goods and bads. Come together. Care and grow, everybody.
    – spread the word is not about organization, it’s about communication. Louie Louie did it with nonsense words in a garage band, not big organization. (Did cointel ever write a song? Well, then. Sing.)

  9. Duncan says:

    Lennon doesn’t point out that antiwar was targeted by COINTEL, which undermined its efforts; he does point out that a movement must be sustained (oh, and at human scale, this time one-on-one interaction). Could that be because this dialogue took place in 1969 and COINTELPRO wasn’t exposed until 1971?

  10. bg says:

    Thanks for wading into this discussion, Rayne, or for giving us the pond to explore. I think this is one of the most important conversations we need to be having, and I hope we can go deep with our contributions somehow.

    Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy both exhibit the characteristics of actions that have lasting effects, I believe. But they are localized, and it is difficult, especially with reliance on social media, to break through.

    It is the one-on-one community building that has power, and it was a brilliant strategy on the part of the PTB, whether it was by accident they discovered their capability to destroy it or understood that the movement was powered by the community of the camps and destroyed them, I am not sure, but the effectiveness of that strategy, to take away the “public square” is as clear as anything. The survival of the movement is in the little scraps of community that came out of the public gatherings, and we have lost the power of organizing that was rooted in our access, now denied, to use public space.

    Community building and organizing is still key, IMO, and it can be done without charismatic leaders, and that is still a worthwhile effort, despite how it is marginalized by every critique.

    Perhaps it will come from organizing around local issues, maybe there are still national matters (like Keystone XL) that can compel mass action.

    But this is a worthwhile discussion, and I hope people can really dive into it.

  11. Rayne says:

    @Duncan: And there’s the keyword — exposed. COINTELPRO began as early as the late 1950s targeting Socialist Party members in the U.S., and ops began on the New Left during the mid-1960s.

    BEFORE Lennon’s 1969 dialog noted here in thread.

    @bg: The problem with Occupy Sandy is its local nature. As a citizen in flyover country, I see doodley-squat in the news about the long-lasting effects of Sandy — pretty much the same situation as Hurricane Katrina, for that matter. Strike Debt has a chance to have wider impact, but why that particular effort over the earlier Occupy Wall Street?

    As for Keystone XL, we’ve had disasters related to pipelines already–my home state Michigan has had a couple of nasty ones due to Enbridge, yet the rest of the country paid no heed. Will the same happen with XL?

    Until we suss out what will work and what’s sustainable, we’re going to end up chasing disaster after disaster and not actually looking ahead to change the future.

  12. lefty665 says:

    @Rayne: Great post.

    We stuck with the Dems through the ’11 local elections before we bailed. Couldn’t stand supporting the unsupportable any longer. Being told to shut up, dissent only helped the Repubs didn’t sit well either. Whatever happened to Will Rodgers “I’m not part of an organized party, I’m a Democrat”?

    I’d argue that Occupy was crushed with boots, clubs, teargas and massive intelligence operations. From reports, it was a Federally organized and nationally disseminated operation. COINTELPRO was primitive and small potatoes in comparison. Thank you O.

    You got it on Bill(and Hill). He was no friend. In addition to the issues you mention, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and commodities/derivatives deregulation (aka the Enron Act) both bore his signature and set the stage for the rape and collapse of the world’s financial system.

    We knew we were toast, and that Change=Same, by Thanksgiving ’08 when Rubin, Summers, Geithner, et al rode back into town on the Obama wagon. One national/worldwide disaster was not enough for them. Their work was not yet done.

    From the stories, it looks like we can thank impeachment for saving Social Security. Newtie and Bill apparently were cooking up their own grand bargain (I’ll trade you two Callistas for a Monica – both were more interested in their dicks than the country. At least JFK had some noblesse oblige). When I’m being charitable I refer to Bill/O and their fellow travelers as DLC, blue cur, right wing, Dick Morris toe sucking, repub wannabes.

    Dunno that calling Obamacare Romneycare in drag is much of a compliment. Failure to change the cost structure of healthcare is fatal. O spent a year and a half mostly protecting the status quo. He cut his deals with PHARMA, providers and insurers in the spring of ’09. All the rest was protecting them from Medicare for all and competition.

    My recollection, often wrong, is that “A rising tide lifts all boats” was co-opted by the Repubs during the Reagan years as a more genteel frame for “Trickle down/Piss on you unwashed hordes”.

    You can bang management and departments together as much as you want, but dunno there’s much success in getting folks to value a larger horizon beyond their own silo. It’s even harder in grass roots/volunteer organizations, and squared today when we’ve got so many ways to dissuade(persecute) anyone who sticks her/his head up. Sigh.

    “1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your [email protected]#ing war. 5, 6, 7, 8, organize to smash the state”. Sigh, those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end…

  13. lefty665 says:

    @Rayne: Great post.

    We stuck with the Dems through the ’11 local elections before we bailed. Couldn’t stand supporting the unsupportable any longer. Being told to shut up, dissent only helped the Repubs didn’t sit well either. Whatever happened to Will Rodgers “I’m not part of an organized party, I’m a Democrat”?

    I’d argue that Occupy was crushed with boots, clubs, teargas and massive intelligence operations. From reports, it was a Federally organized and nationally disseminated operation. COINTELPRO was primitive and small potatoes in comparison. Thank you O.

    You got it on Bill(and Hill). He was no friend. In addition to the issues you mention, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and commodities/derivatives deregulation (aka the Enron Act) both bore his signature and set the stage for the rape and collapse of the world’s financial system.

    We knew we were toast, and that Change=Same, by Thanksgiving ’08 when Rubin, Summers, Geithner, et al rode back into town on the Obama wagon. One national/worldwide disaster was not enough for them. Their work was not yet done.

    From the stories, it looks like we can thank impeachment for saving Social Security. Newtie and Bill apparently were cooking up their own grand bargain (I’ll trade you two Callistas for a Monica – both were more interested in their dicks than the country. At least JFK had some noblesse oblige). When I’m being charitable I refer to Bill/O and their fellow travelers as DLC, blue cur, right wing, Dick Morris toe sucking, repub wannabes.

    Dunno that calling Obamacare Romneycare in drag is much of a compliment. Failure to change the cost structure of healthcare is fatal. O spent a year and a half mostly protecting the status quo. He cut his deals with PHARMA, providers and insurers in the spring of ’09. All the rest of the hoopla was protecting those deals from Medicare for all and competition.

    My recollection, often wrong, is that “A rising tide lifts all boats” was co-opted by the Repubs during the Reagan years as a more genteel frame for “Trickle down/Piss on you unwashed hordes”.

    You can bang management and departments together as much as you want, but dunno there’s much success in getting folks to value a larger horizon beyond their own silo. It’s even harder in grass roots/volunteer organizations, and squared today when we’ve got so many ways to dissuade(persecute) anyone who sticks her/his head up.

    “1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your [email protected]#ing war. 5, 6, 7, 8, organize to smash the state”. Sigh, those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end..

  14. P J Evans says:

    I’d have voted for McGovern over Obama, if that had been the choice offered. (Hell, I’d have voted for Dukakis over Obama.)

  15. bg says:

    @Rayne:

    As I said, we lost the ability to recruit and organize at the same level when the public square was taken over by the PTB. Strike Debt is a continuation of OWS, essentially by a committee of the remains, probably a group that organized at Zucotti and remained active through the community of people working on the idea of debt and how to confront it usefully. There are surely other working groups that were part of the initial community, but we are not aware of their actions, if any, at this time. The marginalization and lack of coverage is more a function of the loss of the amplifier effect that existed with the larger group, though there was a lot of organizing that went on that surely has survived.

    I can simply say that as someone who went to jail related to the defense of our space, I remain very connected to the group, and we are each and all working on the causes that are most pressing to us, with groups of like-minded others, and we still get together for actions and discussion, though we are essentially invisible as a “movement” to the broader community. What is important to me is that we are still meeting, still working on actions and still strong together regardless of the perception.

    The challenge is to find opportunities for mass mobilization. OWS was a mobilization, but there was never anything overarching besides the 99% as a unifying idea, and we see that was still a good concept, as it relates to the economic tyranny we face. However we have not been able to gain a lot of traction with the public, beaten down as we all are in the struggle for survival. Whether and when we will light up the downtrodden remains an opportunity unrealized still or again.

  16. Bob In Portland says:

    I find it interesting that the article starts with a quote from John Kennedy then talks about how the party has lost its liberal soul.

    We are coming on the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination and most Americans, liberal or whatever, can’t seem to get their heads around the political assassinations of the 60s. There are predictable results of killing the leadership of the Left. In 1920s Germany there was the Black Reichsfehr, and there were multiple political assassinations of leftist and centrist leaders. Those assassinations served a purpose.

    When I hear the anger of people who want, say, Gitmo closed, and hold it against Obama, I wonder if they think that Obama has the power to close Gitmo, or that any President has that power. If you want to change this country you have to at first realize that the President or even Congress, for that matter, aren’t the ultimate arbiters of America’s direction.

    In his interview with PLAYBOY in 1967 Jim Garrison said the following:

    “What worries me deeply, and I have seen it exemplified in this case, is that we in America are in great danger of slowly evolving into a proto–fascist state. It will be a different kind of fascist state from the one of the Germans evolved; theirs grew out of depression and promised bread and work, while ours, curiously enough, seems to be emerging from prosperity.

    “But in the final analysis, it’s based on power and on the inability to put human goals and human conscience above the dictates of the state. Its origins can be traced in the tremendous war machine we’ve built since 1945, the “military–industrial complex” that Eisenhower vainly warned us about, which now dominates every aspect of our life. The power of the states and Congress has gradually been abandoned to the Executive Department, because of war conditions; and we’ve seen the creation of an arrogant, swollen bureaucratic complex totally unfettered by the checks and balances of the Constitution. In a very real and terrifying sense, our Government is the CIA and the Pentagon, with Congress reduced to a debating society.

    “Of course, you can’t spot this trend to fascism by casually looking around. You can’t look for such familiar signs as the swastika, because they won’t be there. We won’t build Dachaus and Auschwitzes; the clever manipulation of the mass media is creating a concentration camp of the mind that promises to be far more effective in keeping the populace in line. We’re not going to wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves in gray uniforms goose–stepping off to work. But this isn’t the test. The test is: What happens to the individual who dissents? In Nazi Germany, he was physically destroyed; here, the process is more subtle, but the end results can be the same.”

  17. geoschmidt says:

    Rayne, thankyou so much for elaborating what I think… (isn’t that why we like things we read?)…

    Like you say, delaminating… ! Off course that is necessary, when you have a thing that is… (“Big Tent”).

    Big tent is a bunch of folks… ( Special interests, ) inclusiveness personified… no groups… weak or under the hammer is excluded…

    Fine and dandy, those folks should have a party that caters some to the concerns of them, however, what is the possibility for that kind of party to bring any force? Force, like in power… When it is fragmented and weak, obligated to all types of promissary BS, and there is no real power center.

    Anectdotally, when the Democratic Convention was in SF, I was a democrat like my folks, but when I saw how those two candidates spun their speaches away from real issues into BS social fantasmagoria, I actually… made a statement sorry to say: I reregistered Republican and voted for Geo Buschmaster 1!

    NeoLiberal… Liberal… terms that are sort of semantical, how about: neocon… what the hell is that? Well My take is that in some kind of way… the old term “NeoNazi” provides some clue. Who in the samhill would name themselves anything with the preface: “Neo”? This signature is a tipoff, IMO.

  18. thatvisionthing says:

    @Bob In Portland:

    The test is: What happens to the individual who dissents? In Nazi Germany, he was physically destroyed; here, the process is more subtle, but the end results can be the same.”

    From the end of Lawrence Lessig’s talk on Aaron Swartz, given at Harvard last month:

    http://www.correntewire.com/transcript_lawrence_lessig_on_aarons_laws_law_and_justice_in_a_digital_age

    After Aaron died, a friend of his and mine who had known him for as long as I knew him, wrote me, a German filmmaker, a German filmmaker wrote me an e-mail, and he said, “Aaron was a victim of a strangely fascistic spirit that has developed in America over the past decade or so. Die Andersdenkenden are being destroyed without mercy. As if mercy was somehow a sign of weakness.” Die Andersdenkenden, which translates roughly as “those who think differently.” Now it would have been the last thing in the world that Aaron Swartz would have wanted to be linked to a commercial by Apple. [audience laughter] Not because he hated Apple products – he was a total Apple nerd – but because that company seems increasingly to stand for none of the values that Aaron celebrated or fought for. But Aaron would recognize the sweet and sad irony of us living in a time where the only place we can celebrate those who think different is in a television ad from a company whose image of the Internet is me.com.

    Why just there? Why do we even allow it there? If this is America, if this is America, we need to protect that right, that right to think differently of all of us. We need to protect it here, and we need to fight for it, by holding accountable those who would crush the soul of a boy like this and defend it as “appropriate.”

Comments are closed.