Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rebellion Without Responsibility

I was listening to a song today. It's theme was about an individual realizing that they're a drone and rising up and speaking out for their own personal autonomy. It didn't really go anywhere. It's a rock n' roll song after all.

I thought it would be pretty good to take the sentiments and the stirring music and try to apply them to some more meaningful ideas (without, of course, reducing everything to some political kitsch).

That's when I thought that rebellion without responsibility has been the name of the game for quite a few decades. Ever since the shortcomings of Marxist-Leninist strategy, the Left hasn't really had a game plan. The goal of Marxism-Leninism is that a revolutionary vanguard seizes state power and introduces a temporary Dictatorship of the Proletariat, with themselves as the representatives of said proletariat. The trouble was that overthrowing the existing forces of order required centralization of authority and considerable violence, both of which led to the dictatorship of the revolutionary vanguard becoming more or less permanent.

Contrary to what right-wing imbeciles think, most Leftists have rejected the Leninist model since the 1950s. Especially since it reduced oppression to primarily economic oppression and stifled the expectations of feminists, national minorities and pretty much everybody else. So, the Left has rejected the dictatorial power of the state and the professional politicians. But then what?

Then, ... well it's complicated. For a number of reasons, the capitalist system had to make peace with the industrial working class by 1945. (Fordism, the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War all had something to do with it. Look it up under "post-1945 compromise.") As well, liberal democracy had, by 1945, only recently granted universal suffrage to the societies under its sway. Mass democracy was a new thing and, especially in the circumstances that were then prevailing, they weren't sure that they could pull it off. It was within this context that women, minorities, workers, youth, started to win their rights, and that concerns such as world peace, international justice and environmentalism got a hearing.

This level of accomplishment has seduced leftists into thinking that you can have something for nothing. They think that being peaceful can actually win results. The achievements of peaceful movements such as feminism, anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-racism, was won by a system only made bearable by struggles won with blood. (And, furthermore, all of these movements required some violence to have had an initial impact. Even the peaceful stages had their explosions.)

But the post-war compromise turned some progressives into liberals. Liberals believe in the system and think their only goal is to make it as "fair" as their limited imaginations would allow. But the system is inherently unfair and anti-human. That's why liberal feminists only wanting to break the corporate glass ceiling, or minorities looking to find their way to fulfilling the North American dream of a good income and lots of suff, and etc., inevitably fail to be progressive. They simply want their opportunity to exploit. Just like Barack Obama and the Democrats believe that their revolting selfishness and cowardice are the best that can be hoped for. (You wouldn't want them to jeopardize their careers in a rigged tournament, would you?)

The industrial labour movement wanted pretty much the same thing, except, as an economic class, they had resigned themselves to a position of subordination. Only the exercise of limited power within the capitalist industrial system of state-enforced collective bargaining rights made them think that the system could be made permanently fair. They honestly believed that the positions that forced capitalism to concede collective bargaining rights had had a permanent impact. Or else why would they be so lacking in strategies and so dedicated to appealing to the legal forms of the status-quo after decades of attack?

Genuine leftists are free of the delusion that the system itself can be transformed. True emancipation can only come from a revolution in social relations. But how to achieve this revolutionary transformation? The failure of Marxism-Leninism to resist the authoritarian impulses of state power showed the inadequacy of that particular project. Power corrupts. And so the left has renounced its claims on a right to power. The Left has given to itself the position of eternal supplicant. We will be forever appealing to our masters for better treatment. We will forever be trying to shame them with our pathetic victimization. We will rebel and revolt (however ineffectively) if our masters do not grant us our demands. But we will never try to deliberately take the power necessary to do things for ourselves. (Oh, we will wax rhapsodically about how beautiful "true autonomy" and the "dignity of the individual" will be after some mysterious revolution has taken place, but we have no idea what this will entail outside of some vague, social-realist imagery in our heads.) And, if our masters turn out to be the brutal sociopaths (that our analyses has already told us they are) and they realize that they can ignore us and abuse us with impunity? Well, ... nothing really.

We want rebellion without responsibility.

Well, I've said enough. Tomorrow, or soon, I want to talk about the means with which the non-revolutionary constitutional process can be used to achieve a revolutionary transformation. I've spoken of it before, here and there, to little effect evidently. Perhaps I can express it better, in such a way as to convey the powerful simplicity of the idea.


Boris said...

We're thinking in the same universe. I've today been playing with a similarly themed post I started a few weeks ago. Needs some more of something though. Anyway, yes, I might also add that the left is particularly good at high-minded cannibalism. These are luxuries of actually being free to hold ideas and assemble to convey them. Toronto and the G20 sh/could've been a wake-up call. There's a cartoon somewhere showing colonial Brits drinking tea when there's an elephant bearing down. The analogy here might be a consent process-based argument over the use of gendered pronouns by one member as he describes the as a phalanx of riot cops approaches. The time may be fast approaching when we're going to have to rapidly focus our game if we don't want to be interned on the Tundra or something.

kirbycairo said...

The rejection of Leninism is not, it seems to me, as clear-cut as some people make it seem. Besides the fact that there are potentially a number of conflicting notions that people might refer to as Leninism (from diverse sources such as "What is to be Done" on the one side and "State and Revolution" on the other).

I am not so sure the Left really rejected Leninism if by that term we speak of the great Bolshevik vs. Menshevik split. Lenin's notorious emphasis on the so-called "vanguard" actually fit well into many of the Post-War leftist parties even if it was not used for a supposedly "revolutionary" economic aim. It seems to me that the roots of leftist failure in many ways can be traced back to the great split of the between the Marxists and the followers of Bakunin at the Hague Conference. Whoever one ultimately sides with in that great debate it seems difficult to deny that it was here that the tradition of leftist elitism began and with it the kind of 'professionalism" or 'vocationalism' that infected the leftist movements.

I am not convinced one way or the other about the question of violence but either way the left has to adopt a real alternative to model of elitism inherent in capitalist structures.

Thanks for the post, interesting questions.

Owen Gray said...

I agree with Boris. We have consistently underestimated the appeal of neo-conservatism.

Unless we get our act together, we will simply freeze to death on the tundra.