Fighting the Liberal Reaction

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Fighting the Liberal Reaction

Bernie Sanders speaking to an audience in New York City ahead of the NY state primary earlier this year. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If the first half of 2016 represented a new hope for progressive politics, in the second half the establishment is striking back. Within the same week, Bernie Sanders publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton for President while his “revolutionary” counterpart in the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faced a Centrist coup from within his own Party. These concern even more pressing as the Democratic National Convention open to new revelations that the DNC undermined Sanders campaign while Party Leaders called for unity amidst widespread progressive anger and protest.

It is tempting to view these developments as merely temporary setbacks in the face of a broader leftist sea change across much of the Western world and beyond. To see them as simply lost battles in the unstoppable march of progress. The more immediate danger appears to be the frightening rise of a resurgent populist xenophobia threatening to turn the present oligarchy into a scarier fascism.

However, it would be equally dangerous to dismiss or minimize this attack from the Center. Rather than just an elite class clinging desperately to power, it reflects a coordinated political strategy that could not only stifle the ultimate triumph of progressive values but also pave the way for the mainstream rise of the extreme Right.

Indeed, political divisions now go beyond traditional left – right differences. The present reality is marked by a diverse struggle between revolutionaries and reactionaries. “Reformers” want not so much incremental change than the return to a recent past when they were the only credible alternative to Conservative rule. In the wake of contemporary upheavals they have upped the ante of this conventional Liberal wager – setting the stakes as a contest between themselves or the risk of a fascist apocalypse.

Consequently, while the term “reactionary” is often thrown around almost indiscriminately against all those who are not seen as “radical enough” – in this case it is fully warranted. The literal meaning of the term is a person or group who wishes to return to status quo ante translated from Latin as the “time before the war”. This is precisely the desire of modern Liberals – to turn back time to before the current “war of progress” where their lurch to the Right was seen as a necessary evil and everything to the Left of complete capitalist surrender was relegated to the political fringes.

What is particularly telling is how intentionally the Center vanguard is stoking this crisis environment to their advantage. In a legitimately tense environment increasingly ominous with the threat of real and imagined violence – Liberals have suddenly become the supposedly primary victims of extremist aggression. It started with trumped up charges of a thrown chair at a Nevada delegate convention and has continued the charges of “intimidation” levied up Corbyn’s supporters.

These claims transcend the mainstream ravings of a politically worried “soft left” establishment. They are part of similar effort to use scare mongering to marginalize a populist resistance to their reign. Barely whispered in the media was the fact that in Nevada it was the DNC that was subverting the rules to ensure Clinton received a majority of delegates and in the UK presently it is the Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) that is trying to secretly manipulate the Party’s procedures to prevent Corbyn from becoming democratically re-elected as leader.

As such the fear of violence is placed squarely on the shoulders of progressive leaders. Ignored is the systematic physical and economic brutalization of entire populations done at the hands of militarized racist police and austerity. Instead the hatred and vitriol of the Right is lumped indiscriminately with the civil disobedience frustrated riots of the Left. The message is clear – if you opt for real change you are voting for social chaos.

At a deeper level, this liberal reaction is based on a fantasy of a previous “peace” that must be recovered. It plays on a crisis narrative in which the current insecurity is linked to a mass desire to recapture the security of the recent past. Notably, this fantasy is fundamentally forward looking even as it appeals to a nostalgia for yesterday. It reflects a longing for an era when the future was assured, when once sacred truths guaranteed a better tomorrow to come.

By maximizing feelings of unease and anxiety, Liberals are stirring up a manufactured crisis that is fit for their reactionary purposes. When faced with the prospect of a reignited race and class war on the streets, the prospect of a “simpler time” when revolution was unthinkable and “reform” was plausible seem both quaint and appealing. Here the birth pangs of liberation are framed as cancerous growths that must be aborted.

Ironically, this false nostalgia was only made possible by the utter breakdown of the Center’s previous dreams of (neo)Liberal progress. The optimism of “Yes We Can” was transformed into the anguish of Clinton saying repeatedly “No you can’t”. The exhilaration of New Labour in 1997 was soon replaced by the despair of an illegal war and a financial crisis. Across Europe, attempts to fight austerity where met with savage elite opposition – leaving Greece, for instance, to be an example of what happens to those who dare to resist modern debt slavery.

Of course, there may hypothetically be room to progressively cooperate with this temporary reaction. In painting the populism of the Left as a breeding ground for excess, socialist values can be potentially embraced by the mainstream as a means for reigning in this perceived terror. It is precisely this reasoning that has so entranced many on the Center Left in rationalizing their endorsement of Clinton. Whatever the sins of her past, the political pressures of the present will sure cleanse them.

However, the Liberal reaction is ultimately conservative through and through. It is not just a harkening back to the past – a compromise of old rulers forced to wear new ideological clothing. It is a lament that these leftist upstarts are completely dismissive of the traditional values that define the “soft left”. They simply don’t have the “Right” liberal values.

Desired is a time where electability was king and principle was a luxury. Where the goal was not to end imperialism but make for a friendlier “war on terror”. Where economic development demanded strict fiscal discipline. And where the culture was inclusive so long as it continued to respect hallowed traditional family values. Their ambition is a full on revival of their recently departed old timey religion of liberal compromise.

The clear and present danger of this fantasy scratches deeper than temporarily deflating the movement for progressive change. It is a calculated but nonetheless naïve misreading of the existing situation. Decades of economic deprivation and political disempowerment have sown the seeds of revolt. The establishment is crumbling under the weight of its own hubris and structural flaws. People are rising to take power and searching desperately for different answers and a new order.

In putting down the leftist forces of revolution they are leaving the battlefield empty for the Rightwing demagogues to claim the mantle of social transformation for themselves. In grasping for a claimed golden era they fail to address just how gilded and artificial such prosperity really was. Their “sensible” backward gaze opens the door to false messiahs like Trump and the destructive protest vote of Brexit.

However, reactionaries only thrive when the revolution it opposes makes the present seem unbearable and the future clouded by the uncertainty of an even worse terror than what preceded it. It is imperative to fight this Liberal reaction through clearly articulating the threat posed these Centrist power mongers while also showing how a society rebuilt on Leftist principles can be exciting in its promise for short term relief and long term liberation.

The antidote to the disease of reaction is the cure of radical construction. Occupy, Momentum and the Black Lives Matter movements are all excellent foundations to progressive expand social possibilities. Yet resistance is not enough. To say that it is imperative to stop innocent black citizens from being killed by state authorities is both urgent and obvious. The next step is to point to the potential for a world that does not need to be policed. To argue that the ancient regime of New Labour has no solutions for chronic unemployment is undeniably crucial. It must be followed, though, by a clear articulation of an emancipated society freed from compulsory labor.

It is becoming increasingly evident that those pushing for “reforms” and fighting off leftist revolution will be the unintentional gravediggers of the status quo.  The question is whether they will pull a revitalized 21st century socialism down with them into historical oblivion.

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organisations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st century democracy, politics and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalizationand Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits which will be released in November, 2016.

 

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