Coordinating Opposition Radicals and Incrementalists

I'm suddenly very aware of - and interested in - the persistent discussion throughout the political community with the left. Understanding the existing opposition to the status quo is crucial to developing a strategy of resistance and reform - to whatever extent you think that's necessary. Opposition to the waffling and blatant obfuscation of systemic supports of the current mercantilist, statist establishment motivates and defines me as a leftist. Those who are like me and share a general analysis of the situation align themselves with the libertarian Left specifically, sure, and there are big differences between us and some more statist radicals that I would not gloss over. That distinction is personally important to me, but it's also easy to quantify: I'm anti-state; they're pro-state. With the preliminary work of defining goals made clear, cooperation on common goals is possible and justifiable.

Ostensibly, there are "liberals" who may or may not share the leftist view of radical action and rhetoric against the current political trends in the world. Those who reject it often point out the superficialities that are so important to establishment political interests. I'm not saying image isn't important - I share some of the criticisms of Leftist outreach and activism. Where I draw the line is when a one sided criticism is made of the movement outside of any understanding of context. I believe this context is sorely lacking from Joe Miller's recent analysis of liberals and the left at Bellum et Mores:

I've been trying for a while now to articulate the distinction between liberals and leftists. I know that there are all sorts of trends on my side of the political spectrum that I find quite distasteful. Multiculturalism. Relativism. Marxism (and its bastard post-isms spawn: postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and deconstructionism. Yes, I know the last one isn't a 'post-ism'. I think that it deserves (dis)honorable mention here, though.) It's these sorts of ideologies that spawn the blame-the-U.S.-for-everything mentality that pervades the academy. I, for one, get tired of the assumption that my Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker means that I must agree with the latest Limbaugh/Hannity/O'Reilly librul bogeyman. Liberals end up, in the popular mindset, being equated with every leftist loon out there.

You should read the whole thing. Miller makes good points to be sure, but I cannot accept some of the implicit premises.

Specifically, I think his analysis might make generalizations that are a bit too sweeping, or at least too convenient. Certainly there are those on the left who advocate greater state control, deprioritization of business freedom, obnoxious anti-americanism, etc. However, you must look at it from the perspective of the other side as well. Having a Kerry/Edwards sticker may not make you a Molotov cocktail throwing Black Bloc'er, but it doesn't exactly imply a sufficient resistance to the status quo in the sense that Kerry and Edwards were not against the Iraq war, mercantilist trade policies, expansion of gov't authority, etc. Those stances matter to people, even if certain liberals can live with the contradictions. Consistency of political thought should not be rejected - that is, if your interests include fostering true activism and not simply fitting it into a package and marketing it to establishment politicians.

I don't really have a problem with an explicit distinction between the left and liberals (though I don't think it's as clean as Miller does). However, if you want concretize that distinction, then it would be ideal to postively demonstrate what liberalism is - and not just in theory but in the real world. It should no more be soley defined by opposition to conservativism anymore than leftism should be defined soley by opposition to liberalism. The current left is largely a reaction to status quo liberal politics more than a reaction to right wing politics. Bringing the two together is more than just getting the left to behave, and when you dismiss the movement in such a way you jettison a lot of powerful thinkers whose primary difference with you is the inability to juggle the cognitive dissonance of doing the same thing and expecting different outcomes.

In the context of the topics Miller discusses, therefore, I think it makes more sense to talk about radicalism vs. incrementalism. The left he's describing seeks a more "in your face" approach to reform, while the liberals you describe seek more gradual change within the system. There is both a theoretical and strategic distinction there that informs the differences you point out. Both sides have advantages and drawbacks, and indeed both sides may have different goals from time to time. I'm just saying that if you're going to fault the left for their rhetoric, you should fault the "liberals" for theirs as well. It's my opinion that neither group is served by the image they project, and that is the real problem with realizing actual reformist goals. I'm all for uniting behind those goals, but until liberals can be a little more left and vice versa, established interests are not likely to be successfully defeated - or even convinced to compromise.

In other words, I utterly reject the premise that the left is fucking it all up for the Democrats. There are larger implications to the current state of things, such as the convincing argument that constitutionalism is a failed political system. The Left largely refuses to ignore the drawbacks of the current system, and that is no reason to reject them wholesale. If all the liberals have is a faith in the system then they are not salvagable and the left correctly villifies them. However, I'm in favor of an approach that agrees on definitions of political theories and motivations, acknowledges differences, and accepts them as valid and honest. A variety of opposition movements is not a bad thing. Radicals and incrementalists can work together once they've seriously definied themselves and their goals. Accepting this plurality of worldviews, rather than dismissing it, can balance political interests to foster coordinated action towards authentically positive goals. That said, I'm in favor of evaluating any of these movements on the basis of what they get done - and the contemporary Democratic party as an agent of liberalism is a failure.

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Written on Tuesday, April 04, 2006