Resistance Isn’t Enough

2 years ago Matthew Taylor

We are a new blog intelligently analyzing current events from a leftist perspective. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and unsubstantiated, misleading “news” with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.

Thinkers and organizers on the Left have long sought to change the world by envisioning new societal structures that address material conditions, social relations, and distribution of resources in more equitable and broadly emancipatory ways. A great deal of thought has been devoted to determining what kinds of systems and institutions might incentivize the cooperative, mutualistic aspects of our nature rather than the competitive, hyper-individualistic impulses appealed to by contemporary free market neoliberalism.

It’s no surprise, then, that leftists have offered the most consistent challenges to the widely-accepted notion—articulated most famously by Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s—that the spread of Western liberal democracy and the collapse of the Soviet Union signified an “end of history.” The theory argued that government and dominant ideology had taken their final forms, that all possible alternatives had been exhausted and there was nowhere left to evolve. Developments in terms of social progress and technological innovation would continue, but the consensus was that liberal democracy would sustain itself. Systems of government and configurations of ruling power would maintain their familiar forms as long as human civilization continued.

Suddenly, that idea now seems as ludicrous as all of its other comparable expressions throughout history—the many instances of humankind having reached a supposed pinnacle of development beyond which there was nowhere else to go. For those who not only believed but wanted the “end of history” to be true—people who saw that world as optimal—there is no palatable alternative. Yet for the many who felt powerless, increasingly economically desperate, or even just stagnant, the notion was not only presumptuous but also undesirable…many have yearned for and believed in the possibility of real, material change.

History continues, and new ideologies are vying for dominance. Many of the assumptions, values, and institutions undergirding liberal democracy are now being called into question and even being blatantly delegitimized. Unfortunately, it is the far Right—ascendent not only in the USA but throughout the entire western world—that is thus far succeeding in redefining the parameters.

But the fundamental point—and the only reason for hope on the Left in otherwise dire times—is that the world is no longer static. It doesn’t matter so much anymore whether you were a leftist who wanted drastic change or a liberal who was more or less happy with the status quo and hoped only for a few tweaks in a more “progressive” direction. Either way, we aren’t getting our familiar world with its status quo back. The grotesque nationalism and xenophobia and hatred that were once undercurrents and are now overt won’t ebb anytime soon, and that makes a return to the old world with its configurations and consensuses impossible. If your politics are at all progressive, you now have to hope for drastic leftist change. Liberalism with its sensible centrist attitude lost, and it isn’t capable of contending with any of the possible configurations of the world that is now emerging.

For the more privileged among us, this is a difficult and still abstract concept to grapple with. Most of us haven’t ever experienced a seismic ideological shift at a societal level, and the day-to-day lives of less vulnerable people remain mostly the same but for the constant inundation of disconcerting news. That won’t last, but it may take a bit longer for the most comfortable segments of society to experience these changes in distinct and undeniable ways.

This notion of entering uncharted territory can be terrifying—but it is also an opportunity to fight back and organize toward some of the substantial changes that have seemed unlikely in recent history. It’s nearly impossible to make meaningful change in a rigid world, but the systems and structures that have seemed concrete and infallible for so long are now unsteady. So in addition to fighting and defeating the vile forces of the far Right, the Left can also offer up alternative visions…and for the first time in most of our lifetimes, it seems possible to bring them into being.

The Opposition So Far

The actions of recent weeks are cause for hope. The protests and acts of resistance since Trump’s inauguration have rightfully renewed the U.S. Left’s optimism.

A cynical version of American exceptionalism sometimes surfaces in leftist discussions—one which presumes that Americans are inherently averse to direct action and disruptive protest. The causes and examples are manifold, but they share an underlying skepticism about average Americans’ capacity for meaningful opposition.

But what we have now seen goes far beyond the familiar forms of performative yet outright impotent “resistance” that we’ve grown accustomed to. (This isn’t to suggest that those are absent from the mix, of course. Just look at the many safety pin profile pictures on Facebook or the image of Keith Olbermann wrapped up like a fussy toddler in an American flag, presumably to warm up before shouting endless self-righteous variations of “How dare you, sir!” into a camera.)

The protests at major airports across the country in direct response to Trump’s travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries were a pivotal, inspiring moment for many on the Left. The reaction was spontaneous, disruptive (notably so in the case of the NYC cab driver strike), and effective—three critical elements that are uncommon in typical American political demonstrations. Furthermore, these protests began on a weekend. Americans sacrificed their leisure time for direct action, which is no small thing—and many attorneys offered services free of cost. It signaled that perhaps people will work to incorporate politics into their daily lives in a way that we haven’t seen in recent American history—certainly not during the Obama years.

As unequivocally exciting as these actions are, however, there are still some valid criticisms that warrant reflection as people continue to organize and demonstrate. It’s crucial that these sorts of qualifications are presented not as deterrents but rather as ways of refining and improving on tactics. We should be wary of turning newcomers away with harsh, sloppily presented arguments and cliché leftist infighting. As I said before, many who have maintained a moderate liberal stance are seeing the appeal of further left politics for the first time and are just beginning to appreciate the ways in which status quo liberalism is insufficient for addressing the issues that matter to them. Criticisms should always be focused on moving forward and orienting people toward viable political solutions.

And that is why one of the most urgent projects of these nascent movements should be to move beyond resistance (as in resistance only) and to develop a vision of a better future.

Envisioning A New Future

The foundation of the Left is its imaginative capacity, the ability and desire to envision radically new ways of structuring the world and to produce those visions, to bring them into being. The Left strives toward a world where people’s basic needs are satisfied, where collective interests are emphasized, and where people can pursue interests and passions that are unprofitable and therefore rendered to the periphery in a free market system. Conversely, the Right conceives of this sort of imaginative force as destructive. In a sense they are correct in seeing it this way, since it seeks to dismantle the power structures and social hierarchies cherished by conservatives. The Right seeks to restrict imaginative forces to the realm of consumer choices and entertainment and prevent them from taking any form that could effect meaningful societal and systemic change.

The foundation of the Right, then, is always reactionary politics: resisting change and appealing to false nostalgia. In their theoretical forms, both the Right and the Left are utopian—but the utopia of the Left is as-yet-unrealized, while the utopia of the Right is reclamation of a particular version of the past, a lost Golden Age that never existed, rife with the inequalities that still do.

And that’s why I maintain that an opposition that limits itself to “resistance” is inadequate. Resistance, after all, is fundamentally reactionary, springing into action only as a response rather than of its own initiative and drive toward creating something new. If the motivating vision behind this particular resistance is simply to hearken back to the Obama years, for example, then it’s just “Make America Great Again” with a different template for the nostalgia than the one Trump campaigned on.

So yes, we must resist and defy the Trump administration’s worst impulses and fight without compromise for the people whose very lives are jeopardized by the Right’s agenda…but we must also take advantage of this rare solidarity on the broader Left to think seriously about what kind of world we want. Opposition can be uniquely invigorating and joyful if we recognize that we aren’t just fighting against something, but also coming together to fight for something. We should be not only afraid, but also exhilarated, because for the first time in most of our lives another world really is possible. In fact, it’s inevitable, and the fight right now is to determine what form it will take.

We should challenge the notion that “identity politics” and “class” are discrete and separate categories, as if they don’t function together to define people’s material concerns, or as if one could somehow be less important than the other. The fight against racism and the fight to guarantee people’s basic needs are not at odds with one another in any way, and it’s a toxic ideology that would insist otherwise.

We should be reevaluating and reconceptualizing what “freedom” and “rights” really mean beyond the truisms and platitudes that propped up the ideology which eventually led us here. In what ways do certain freedoms and rights render others impossible? Of those, which do we want to prioritize in our world?

We should have discussions about the ways in which unregulated “freedom” is really just freedom for those who already have power to trample and oppress others. We should think about the distinctions between positive and negative rights and reconsider whether private property rights and rights concerning capital accumulation are the ones that society should regard as its most valued and protected.

We should think about what it means to live in a “post-scarcity” economy and why it is that in a country of supposed abundance we still have people without shelter and access to clean drinking water. We should reject whatever ideology has so many people convinced that access to healthcare is contingent upon a person’s “contributions to society,” a concept that is itself based on very parochial and questionable metrics.

At the beginning of this piece I said that we won’t get our familiar world back. Perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t want it back. We should fight fiercely and jubilantly for a better one.

There was no end of history, there was just a brief lull. History is once again a battleground. Let’s envision the terrain we want for the future, once the fight is won.

We are a new blog intelligently analyzing current events from a leftist perspective. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and unsubstantiated, misleading “news” with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.