In search of a new Radical Left

DJ continues his series of posts on Left politics

The political landscape has changed.  Today, what passes for conservativism looks a lot like liberalism: bigger government, bigger budgets, bigger deficits, and a compulsion to regulate people’s behavior through legislation.  And while the Right has moved left, what remains of the Left has either moved Right or remains mired in ideals that have no place in a fragmenting, globalizing society.  Even progressives, whose fundamental principal is that societal practices should change as society evolves, have largely failed to keep pace with the changing world.  In other words, there’s very little Left left.

What is the Left?  According to its early definition from the time of the French Revolution, the Left refers to radical thinking.  It seeks change that will improve living conditions for the majority of people.  That change by definition should be “fundamental, drastic, revolutionary changes in society, literally meaning ‘changes at the roots.'”  But such vision is hard to find these days.  Even on the Left, arguments tend toward what sort of policies a central government ought to impose: Socialist, Capitalist, Marxist, or some hybrid of these.  That may be interesting discussion, but it’s not radical.

A radical Left would oppose the current growth model of economics, which ignores both the exploitation of resources and environment and the “value” represented by quality of life.  This doesn’t mean just the capitalist economic system, but the economic framework that measures and therefore values pure economic activity– a framework which traps socialist and capitalist economies alike in a web of competiton for growth in an environment of ever-scarcer recourses.  Instead, a radical Left would promote an economic framework which measures (and therefore values) both environmental integrity and quality of life.

A radical Left would oppose strong central governments, with their one-size-fits-all approach and concentration of political power among a small segment of population, whether aristocratic or proletariat.  It would recognize that in our post-modern world, conflicts arise less from lack of money than from lack of political access.  A man or woman willing to blow themselves up to get back at a government or people represents a particularly despairing case of powerlessness– and even economic equality would not solve the problem without political equality also.

Yet the lack of economic equality is itself a symptom of a disease that existing systems have failed to cure: consumption as a religion has failed us.  The quest for accumulation of capital and luxury cannot satisfy our inner human needs.  Why else would we Americans, the richest and the largest consumers on the planet, be so unhappy as a nation?  (We rank only 17th on the happiness scale, and Britain ranks 22nd.)

Conflict, terrorism, poverty, powerlessness, unhappiness–  clearly the answer to the problems that ail us are not simple economic answers.  They require radical change: change in economics, change in political structure, and change in perspective.  They demand that we see ourselves not in competition with other people, or as nations against other nations, or even systems against other systems, but as members of communities who must seek to live in harmony with other communities if we are to survive.

No longer can we afford colonialism, either political, economic, or philosophical.  It is time to realize that each community has the right to develop its own solutions.  Surely communication and education are desirable, but imposition of our will, no matter how well-intentioned, is still colonialism.  It is time not to demand that people see it our way, but to understand how other people see it.

Our current political philosophies, with the exception of anarchists and libertarians, all seek to implement their goals through a strong central government that better serves the interests of people.  Even progressives often seek to install experts to do better what they believe government ought to do.  And those few remaining conservatives too often do not seek to empower others with their freedom, but to empower themselves without government interference.

A radical approach calls for something entirely different than any of these: political and economic power ought to be devolved to the lowest possible level in a framework that encourages the empowerment of each individual.  Rather than being concentrated at the top with power delegated to the States and thence to Counties and Cities, power stems from the people themselves– and should be exercised in units small enough that everyone knows one another.  Politics ought to be based in the community, whether that’s a rural village or an urban neighborhood.

The economic system should be similarly structured.  Sure, we need trade so that countries that have iron can trade it for wool.  High tech gadgetry will probably continue to have centralized production.  But when we buy food, and when we invest our time and capital, we ought to do so in a way that supports our own community first.  And we should remember always that economic activity is at best a poor indicator of human satisfaction and happiness.  That would be a radical Left.

We need not look far for this New Left.  It’s all around us– and it isn’t that new.  Most often it has originated in religious or spiritual practices– liberation theology, social gospel, engaged Buddhism, and Gandhi’s Sarvodaya with its emphasis on panchayat raj (village-based government).  Yet though this “new” way of thought most often relates political and economic development with spiritual development, it need not (and ultimately cannot) promote a particular form of religion or spiritual practice.  America’s Common Society Movement seeks to implement these ideals through a grassroots effort across religious, ethnic, and class lines.

Yet there is a reason such radical ideas form in certain spiritual environments: most people who have a need to empower others through unselfish effort (rather than gaining power so they can help others by wielding it) come to that understanding through some form of spiritual practice.  It’s not the only way, but it is the most frequent way.  Theistic or otherwise, spirituality (in its broadest sense, focus on that which is beyond ourselves) is how we gain awareness of our neighbors and their wants and needs.

A New Left requires such an awareness.  No longer can we tolerate the idea that the world would be different if I was in charge.  Rather, it’s time to join together in a community effort to set aside our differences, to understand our diverging viewpoints, and to work together toward a New World Order that has nothing to do with which government is in charge of what real estate.

  • Tony

    Interesting idea. I see at least two overwhelming problems with any progress along these lines however. First is that Money rules and those with it can easily crush anyone who gets in their way. The second is that from my 50 year experience on this planet it is painfully obvious that there’s another trend that completely counters this type of movement and that “trend” is an ever increasing lack of willingness and/or desire in people to work with or have any close contact with other people. Indeed, from what I observe, as things become more dificult, people seem to become even more fervent loners seeking to have as little contact with “others” as possible. It’s fascinating to watch, but this trend has accelerated to the point that peoples attitudes have moved from distrust of others to outright disgust with others. And equally interesting is the fact that this phenomenon spans all age groups EQUALLY. By that I mean that I would have expected that perhaps we would observe this phenomenon progress as people get older, but my observations indicate that isn’t the case and that in the 20 something age group there is an equally strong contact “avoidance” mechanism at work.

  • DJ

    What’s interesting to me is that during my time in Sri Lanka, the vocal minority of Sinhalese grew more closed-minded, but at the same time the movement for reconciliation grew steadily but quietly in the grassroots. In 2002, at what appeared to be the most despairing of times, grassroots political pressure brought both parties to the table for a cease-fire agreement. What followed was four years of prosperity…

    Similarly, while the trend you note does exist, people becoming more isolated, at the same time there is an encouraging and growing number of people moving toward reconnection. The two trends are opposite, but they are not mutually exclusive.

    In the end, though, like all radical changes, this one will require evangelization– and not just words. People will need to see how this is done and why it’s better. There’s some of that going on, but not nearly enough.

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