Mark BartlettA Critique of Left Liberalism

Mark Bartlett, Ph.D.

Caveat: the following propositions were written specifically for the occasion of A World To Win’s roundtable discussion “Things Can Change,” at the Whitechapel Gallery on 2 December 2009. They were meant to be a provocation to stimulate discussion. They are not fully worked out, and I invite critical commentary. If you would like to do so, please email me.



Propositions of Strategy

1. Political change does not guarantee social change, as Visconti’s Tancredi reminds us in The Leopard: “Uncle, everything must change so everything will remain the same.”

2. Social change is possible only through mass movements.

3. Sociopolitical change is possible only through equitable power sharing.

4. Representational government as now configured ensures only the power of wealth.

5. The question is: how to radically transform representative government?

6. The only answer is: through mass movements.

7. Mass movements arise only from organizing what Gramsci termed, the national popular, by which he meant the spectra of nationalist ideologies held by large numbers of people.

8. The national popular is manufactured by the power elite through cultural hegemony in the form of patriotism - “us” against “them.” “Britains” against “Pakis.” Meanwhile, the major parties, though offering no substantive differences, control the vote.

9. Cultural Hegemony requires that change be fought through culture wars.

10. Culture wars are fought through mass media, mass organizations, schools, religion, markets, arts funding, the organizations that determine cultural/national identity.

11. The strategy of culture war is determined by what Gramsci called the WAR OF POSITION – a war to control of the positions of power and “culture”.

12. The war of position determines who controls cultural organizations and to what ends.

13. No “progressive” change is possible without winning control of these organizations.

14. The question is: how to win that control?

15. Gramsci’s real politik was not afraid to advocate violence.

16. His view was the once the war of position was won, an armed war of manoeuvre would then have to be fought to defeat capitalism. This war is taking place, though not in the developed capitalist countries. The culture wars are being fought, violently, for us elsewhere, in the non-developed worlds. We are violent by proxy.

17. Today, in Western or Western style societies among the “Left”, only nonviolent movements are advocated. Yet, it is important to acknowledge how EVERYONE of us supports violence in one way or another.

18. Violent movements are the norm of both most nation-states and corporations, and many popular mass movements around the world, from Palestine to Bolivia. The issue is, we support local and global violence through taxes, and other less tangibles means.

19. Violence is the norm of taxpayer funded national police forces, of all national militaries, in defense of capitalism. Violence is only possible on today’s scale because we approve of it. We approve it if we don’t challenge it.

20. A violent war of manoeuvre is necessary, but won’t be fought in the “developed” countries. But any local effort for change must also be global, so, how do we support Palestine and Bolivia?

21. Broad scale violence may be inevitable even in the developed worlds, given the likely and fast approaching catastrophic consequences of climate change, scarcity of resources, and population growth.

22. Most scientists and many political analysts think time has already run out, that the catastrophic consequences of climate change are inevitable, and coming much sooner than we think.

23. The ideology of the National Popular changes “enough” to meet crisis only when FORCED to, because liberalism prevents it from rising to the occasion.

24. Governments change only when FORCED to, period.

25. The question is: what kinds of FORCE are effective to bring about actual change of the kind that is required now?

26. What kind of strategies are necessary to bring about change that forces real change and not the status quo by other means, like carbon trading that leaves capitalism untouched? How do we bring about radical social change and not just another round of change that maintains the same systems?

27. The revolutions of 68 and 89 failed almost immediately. Why?

28. The answers are too complex to go into here. But one general reason is clear.

29. The reason is that Human Rights are equated with Individualism, the core ideology of the capitalist national popular.

30. Individualism is the fundamental principle of liberalism, and the Left has continually run aground on it.

31. Left Liberalism is one of the main causes of the failures of 68 and 89.

32. Hippies and East Germans merely wanted equal access to the capitalist pie, and to live their lives in libertarian freedom.

33. To win the war of position, to create a mass movement with the capacity to force the government to do its bidding, a mass movement must BECOME the government, in fact, through direct democracy, not through representation.

34. But it must establish this government not on principles of capitalist liberalism and its ideology of individualism, but on a sustainable economy and socialist/collectivist pragmatism. This is simply a statement of fact, not of ideology, since only through collective action can we bring about change at the scale that is now urgently necessary.

35. Sustainable economics is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism. A sustainable economics must replace capitalism. For that to happen, individualism must be overcome because only a national popular grounded on the concept of the collective individual, a form of individualism that puts first the good of the collective as the basis of individualism, can rise to the occasion of preventing the environmental and economic catastrophic near future that awaits us.

36. To accomplish this, the Left must shift its focus from debates over “values,” over ideological rights and wrongs, to pragmatic strategies of long term policy making. It has to get its hands dirty, if not bloody.

37. Human rights must be redefined not on libertarian principles, but on collectivist, socialist ones.

38. Its war of position must strategize campaigns, with long term goals, to build on the revolutionary potentials that currently exist in many forms and places to abolish capitalist hegemony over mass media, mass organizations, schools, and unsustainable economics.

39. It must create a broad, diverse, coherent and coordinated mass movement that targets each of these cultural organizations, and reshape them according to the necessities of a sustainable economy based, not on “human rights,” but on the social rights of the LIFE of all flora and fauna. Forests must be given rights too.

40. I will close with a few skeletal suggestions about how change might pragmatically begin.

41. We should set up a Community Interest Company to fund policy research in the areas I’ve mentioned: mass media, education, mass organizations, sustainable economics. I will address one possible strategy in each of these categories.

42. Mass Media: Create a network of local “newspapers” distributed as PDF’s online. These newspapers are not about news reportage, but address pragmatic ways toward social change based on philosophical and political-economic argument. The aim is to create a network of readers to effect how they think, vote and act.

43. Mass Organization: Establish a 2-tiered election strategy. First, start a campaign now to ensure a hung parliament in next year’s national election, by not voting either Labour or Tory, but voting Green, LibDem, and UKip. The point is to prevent dominance of any party. [I don’t agree with the political perspective, but this article has some interesting points]. Lord Pearson of Ukip is advocating direct democracy. Cameran is advocating for more localism. Phillip Blond of Res Publica is advocating “red Tory-ism.” Thus the ideological field of the national popular is being reconstructed in ways that a radical movement for change could take advantage of.

44. Second: start a campaign to take over local councils. Both Labour and Tory plans are to cede power back to local government bodies. Whatever their reasons, [not good mostly] increased localism is a shift of power in that direction, and any mass movement should be ready to take advantage of that.

45. Sustainable economics: create “consumption guides” that aim to cut consumption as much as possible, and establish resources and networks for consuming sustainably.  To cut consumption as much as possible is a form a power because it is the most direct way to bring capitalism to its knees.

46. Education: Each of the strategies I’ve just described has an educational component.  The topic is far too big to address here. But as a professor of many years, I can tell you that the deliberate assault on public education is one of the biggest issues we face. Conservatives and liberals alike have worked hard and successfully to limit  access and destroy faculty governance. The result is that in both the US and the UK, the university lies in ruins, and along with it, academic freedom and civic culture. It has been privatized and turned into a market place like any other. The same process has occurred at primary and secondary levels. The Bologna Accords that began this process must be overcome, and the effort to do so must serve as a center piece of resistance to commodifying learning and educational labour, to commodifying culture in general, for that is the result of capitalizing education, the fundamental basis of a free society.

47. In general, the kind of Force we need to wield is a combination of strategic actions, and strategic non-action. The concept of boycott must be generalized as a strategy of non-action. Large scale cessation of consumption is form of boycott. Additionally, we must learn how to impose sanctions on our own governments. We should mobilize a mass movement to pay taxes into a collective escrow account and not give it to the government until it agrees to our demands of how it should be spent.

48. Pierre Bourdieu has diagnosed one the Left’s problems as being several symbolic revolutions behind those of the Right. We need to become what Bourdieu has called the ‘collective intellectual.’ This trans-individualist entity must ‘fulfill negative functions: it must work to produce and disseminate instruments of defense against symbolic domination…’ (Bourdieu, 1998, 20) To this end, our Community Interest Company needs a face with broad symbolic recognition. I recommend Ken Livingston, in part because of his connection to Hugo Chavez, who might be willing to fund our CIC to further the project of socialism for the 21st century.

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