Radicalism in the age of Neoliberalism: “What’s Left?” June 2011, MRR #337

They are valid questions.

If I’m such a rad, hardcore ultra-commie, why haven’t I spoken out in solidarity with workers’ struggles recently raging in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states? Why haven’t I voiced opposition to the US instigating yet another war with the bombing of Libya?

I guess I’m just tired with how much of an uphill battle progressive politics has become. I’m reminded of an article by Calvin Woodward and Sam Hananel on the Huffington Post about organized labor beyond Wisconsin entitled “Labor Movement Roars Again, But It’s A Wounded Sound,” that went on to detail exactly how it got that way. And it’s not like bombing the shit out of the third Muslim country within a decade has resulted in massive protests in America’s streets. It doesn’t help that leftist organizations like ANSWER openly laud madman Muammar Gaddafi as a premier anti-imperialist, or that Wisconsin’s labor leaders proclaimed their willingness to give away wages, safety standards, and health care and pension benefits, all to preserve the right for union bureaucrats to collectively bargain for their rank-and-file. The sad, uninspiring level of such struggles doesn’t make it easy to write about them, let alone participate in them.

But, hold on, haven’t most of the political struggles I’ve engaged in ever since the ‘60s been uphill, made more onerous by self-important, self-serving political organizations pretending to advance those struggles? At least in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it felt like I was on the winning side of history. These days, even overwhelmingly positive actions feel like mere holding actions against a rising tide of rightwing reaction. I’ve spent several past columns bemoaning that the various uprisings of the 1960s never managed to go further, seeking reasons why those movements petered out due to internal failings. There is another way to approach this subject. There seems to have been a decisive turn that occurred between 1975 and 1980, the emergence of some external factor which worked to defeat the ‘60s upsurge. Whether it’s Timothy Brennan (Wars of Position) who postulated that the rise of postmodernism in academia after 1975 disarmed the Hegelian Left and a generation of student activists, or Franco Berardi (The Soul at Work) who dates the rise of semiocapitalism’s digital panlogism and a willingly subservient cognitariat from 1977, or David Harvey (A Brief History of Neoliberalism) who sees in neoliberalism’s rise in the 1970s a reconsolidated ruling class force sufficient to defeat the strength of insurgent workers and rebellious peoples around the world, there is a consensus that something happened in the mid to late 1970s that tipped the scales decisively toward resurgent capital.

Personally, I place the blame on neoliberalism, but I don’t accept Harvey’s analysis that neoliberalism is merely a passing historical phase, soon to be superceded. Instead, I’m with the Aufheben folks who contend that, because of the close economic relationship between China and the US, neoliberalism is an expression of capitalism’s longterm, steady growth, and is bound to last for decades. As such, I don’t think we’re going to see a revitalized labor movement challenge the power of capital, or a revived antiwar movement take on the American empire, anytime soon. No matter how much I would wish otherwise.

But isn’t that when support and solidarity is most important, when such movements are at their most beleaguered? Shouldn’t I be willing to do political work and make personal sacrifices, given the level of assault working people and people around the world are under at the hands of the US government?

I’m no fan of the Leftist politics of discipline and sacrifice. Instead of boring you with a long explanation as to the why and wherefore of this however, consider this story as illustration. Abbie Hoffman, along with Jerry Ruben and Paul Krassner, founded the Youth International Party (YIPpie!) in 1967, which celebrated sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and an anarchic politics best summarized by the slogan “Revolution for the hell of it!” Amidst the rebellion of youth and students during the 1960s, Abbie participated in a number of creative political actions, like tossing money onto the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, which produced a mad scrabble of stockbrokers to possess it. He was a member of the Chicago Eight, a group of activists tried for conspiracy to foment riot during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. And he wrote perhaps the essential text for mischief, mayhem and anarchy within industrial capitalism, entitled Steal This Book.

Hoffman claimed to have been set up for a cocaine bust by the Feds because of his politics in 1973, at which time he went underground. He continued to be involved in political activism while on the run, and said that he became a communist as a result of his experiences. When he resurfaced in 1980 he immediately jumped back into politics, specifically, anti-CIA protests. But the political climate had changed considerably in the intervening years, leading Abbie to flip a 60s adage “never trust anybody under 30,” and to quip that American campuses had become “hotbeds of rest.” So depressed was Abbie Hoffman by the lack of rebellion and protest among students and youth during the 1980s that he swallowed 150 Phenobarbital pills in 1989, committing suicide at the age of 52.

I’m sad enough having to grow old in a hyper capitalist America without inviting suicidal depression by fighting for the Left’s numerous already lost causes.

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