What is the Left for? This question is an especially complex and problematic one, since it can refer to two very different, and often antagonistic, levels of political action and historical abstraction. On the one hand, it can be a question about the goals of the Left; on the other, it can refer to the concrete function of the Left—as if to elicit an explanation as to why “the Left” is a thing worth having. My purpose here is to address both questions. Why is the Left worth having? What are its universal goals? I will argue that only the Left can save capitalism, but also that only through a reassertion of the Left’s principles can we hope to escape the heteronomy that plagues contemporary society.
The Particular Left and its Function
The term “left” as applied to politics is a metaphor, an ideological shortcut to give a sense of relative position and direction, especially with regard to its counterpart, the “right.” Of course the left-right metaphor is not neutral; it does not take the decoding prowess of a Saussure or a Canguilhem to uncover at its heart a conservative bias toward the “center.” By definition, the further one moves from the mean-point of political efforts, the less acceptable and prudent that effort becomes. To be “far right” or “far left” is to be an extremist. Even Lenin was not immune from this way of thinking, presenting some competing versions of communism as being too left-wing (an “infantile disorder” in his words).
It is neither coincidence nor conspiracy that the left-right metaphor emphasizes the desirability of the middle. At least since Aristotle explicated his notion of the “golden mean,” political thought has recognized the necessity of balance and equilibrium. A community where the equilibrium of forces is undone by too much movement toward one side, left or right in this case, is one that is in grave danger of being undone. A likely result is stasis: civil war, corruption, decay, the extinction of the community itself. The bias toward the middle thus expresses the desire to conserve social order, as well as for stability and security.
Although the left-right divide has a different manifestation in each society, it is at its core a matter of the struggle of the many versus the few. Aristotle’s suggested strategy for maintaining political balance was to keep both the wealthy few and the impoverished many out of politics. Too many of one or the other, and the political order could be undone: the rich would subvert politics to make themselves richer; the poor would subvert politics to make themselves less poor. The “middle” strata of relatively idle landowners was thus conceived of as the most appropriate class background for citizens. Of course, it is not easy to keep those with great wealth from influencing politics—and in those social formations where the few are politically active (most every society we have known up to the present), a balance of active forces appears as the ideal solution. Recall Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees or James Madison’s arguments in “Federalist Paper no. 51”: the struggle of each part of the community to further its own particular interests results in a harmony that allows for the realization of the general interest, the proper functioning and prosperity of the whole.
These struggles are fundamental to the political stability and viability of a community, not simply because they allow for the slow and controlled release of pressure and discontent from below, but also because they temper the excesses and hubris of those at the top. In societies where the capitalist mode of production prevails, this need for balance is especially urgent. As the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi emphasized, the struggles from below that accompanied the “great transformation” did not derail the creation of a modern capitalist society; they simply slowed the process to a pace that could be endured by the communities being transformed. If the capitalist few had not had any opposition, the extreme intensity and speed of physical and cultural damage wrought by this transformation could have ultimately undone the capitalist system of production itself.
A similar point could be made in regard to a great many additional examples, including the labor movement of the 1930s, without which Fordist capitalism would have been impossible. So it is today with the Occupy Wall Street movement, a welcome return of struggle from below, whose rhetoric champions its intent to balance class interests and undo the huge shift to the right that has seen the top one percent prosper enormously at the expense at the rest of society. Indeed, as financialized capitalism has spread—with little resistance from below—capitalists have become “dizzy with success.” The reduced wages and purchasing power of the working classes, combined with the contraction of credit and the housing market, the increased capacity of transnational capital to circumvent national taxes and regulations, and the endemic and rising levels of unemployment that automation has brought—to name only the leading factors—have led us to a point where short-term profitability is pursued at the expense not only of medium-term viability, but of the stability of capitalism itself.
Without a potent Left to deal with during this period, capitalists have had free reign to disregard the broader social, ecological and economic impacts of their actions. This extreme shift to the right, corresponding with the defeat of working class and other subaltern movements, has put the very existence of capitalism into question. In truth, Wall Street can only win by losing.
The Universal Left and its Goals
But there is also a “second Left,” a Left distinguished by its principles rather than its function relative to the balance of economic interests. Beyond the desire for equality lies the desire for excellence; beyond the desire for security, the desire for revolution. The second Left is for the production of subjects who are fully capable and worthy of leading political and social lives.
Taking the current Occupy Wall Street movement as an illustrative example, we see that much of its struggle is directed toward improving the living conditions of common Americans. As such, the movement is concerned with questions of material well-being, self-interest and security; clearly it is concerned with defending the interests of the many against those of the few. Certain elements within the movement, however, have goals that go well beyond health care and unemployment benefits, i.e. the defense of particular interests. On this level, we find a political tendency particular neither to class struggle nor to any specific historical moment. Rather, these interests reflect a desire for human excellence that surfaces throughout history, from Pericles’ Athens to Spartacus to the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution—a desire to break with heteronomy and become fully autonomous beings.
The Occupy Wall Street movement contains within it various manifestations of this “second” or “universal” Left, in the idea, for instance, that people are capable of self-governing and therefore do not require leaders, or in the belief that the market values engendered by capitalism are at odds with our capacity to realize our potential as political and social beings. We could point to many more manifestations of the universal Left in today’s society, small ways in which current political movements attempt to shape their members as well as the broader community. This is the emphatic Left of Mayakovsky—a Left whose goal is to create not just new prosperity but a “new man,” able to break with and even undo the “jade of the past.”
The two Lefts may coexist but there is a clear hierarchy, and a potential antagonism, between them. The struggle to secure better living conditions for the many is itself a necessary moment in the creation of liberated humans. The need for sustenance, shelter and so on cannot be denied or discounted. If our days are filled with nothing but work, debt repayment, and the struggle to secure food and health care, there will be no time to think, create or become fully human. Still, there can be no doubt that human excellence and emancipation are the only proper aims of Left politics.
Unfortunately, of all the cultural and political systems human societies have known, liberalism ranks among the most antagonistic to such aims. Liberalism dedicates itself above all to the values of security, commodious living and formal equality (as Marx notes in The Jewish Question), which are the antithesis of any project for true human emancipation. As liberalism has become more entrenched, the true goals of the Left have thus appeared more and more unreasonable. Indeed, the idea that politics can be anything other than who gets what, when, where and how is now unthinkable to most. The result is a Left that limits itself to struggles for security, safety and a fairer distribution of income.
Liberalism’s corruption of thinking and values can be seen in the fact that those most under its sway now consider humans as little more than biological organisms capable of feeling pleasure and pain. Consider the emergence and popularity of veganism and animal rights movements in the most liberal of contemporary societies. In the eyes of those who have been blinded by liberalism’s cant, the essence of our existence is that we are sentient begins, our lived experiences in liberal-bourgeois societies having reduced us to our biological moment. As a symptom of this change, we now recognize ourselves in the faces of dogs and pigs.
Proper names can demonstrate the categorizing tendencies of our societies; in this case, they show how quickly and fully we have come to think of ourselves as mere animals. Fifty years ago in The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss noted the significance of how we name animals. Birds once held a special place because of a homology drawn between them and us. We gave birds human names, Levi-Strauss argued, because we identified with such freedom-loving creatures. Dogs, by contrast, were viewed as clearly inferior, servile and obedient. As such, they were rarely given human-sounding names. Traditional dog names, from Spot, Rex, Lucky, Lassie, Laika, etc., conformed to this rule. However, there has since been a shift. The most popular names of dogs registered with the New York City Department of Health in 2010 included Max and Maggie (the top two names overall) as well as Jake, Molly, Sam, Sadie, Ginger, Abby, Sasha, Sandy, Casey and Cody (all in the top twenty). Whereas it would once have been an insult to share the name of a human with a dog, it is now considered routine. It is not the dogs who have changed. Now that we no longer take freedom and emancipation to be at the core of human existence, it has become natural to consider dogs as having a nature and existence that parallels our own.
From this position of extreme alienation and servility, it may be thinkable to mount a fight for a bone but not for full autonomy and emancipation. This is the key challenge for any Left struggle today—to overcome the great damage that liberalism has done to both our capacity for thinking and our desire for excellence. Capitalism needs the particular Left to balance the power of speculators and corporate monopolies, but all humans need the universal Left, devoted to the struggle to create individuals capable not just of reproducing as biological beings, but of advancing as creative ones.*
*This is a web-only contribution to The Point‘s issue 5 symposium, a collection of answers to the question: What is the Left for? Subscribe now to get the whole symposium, including an interview with Bill Ayers, in print.