Liberals Consistently Capitulate to Right-Wing Framing of Issues, the New Ascendant Left Needs to Re-Frame Issues on Our Terms
Socialists were not born yesterday. They know how to read capitalist newspapers; and to believe exactly the opposite of what they read.
Why should a Socialist be discouraged on the eve of the greatest triumph in all the history of the Socialist movement? It is true that these are anxious, trying days for us all — testing days for the women and men who are upholding the banner of labor in the struggle of the working class of all the world against the exploiters of all the world; a time in which the weak and cowardly will falter and fail and desert. They lack the fiber to endure the revolutionary test; they fall away; they disappear as if they had never been. On the other hand, they who are animated by the unconquerable spirit of the social revolution; they who have the moral courage to stand erect and assert their convictions; stand by them; fight for them; go to jail or to hell for them, if need be — they are writing their names, in this crucial hour — they are writing their names in faceless letters in the history of mankind.
— Eugene V. Debs
The 2017 General Election in the United Kingdom was seen as a sort of pilot test for the ascendant global left. The notion being tested was something like, “if you run for office on a real, uncompromisingly left platform, if you prioritize people, peace, and planet over profit and the plutocratic status quo, you can energize huge swaths of the electorate, especially the working class and young people, that are typically written off as non-voters and, yes, you can win”.
Well, we did it.
It’s true that as things stand now, the Tories will be making the next government in a coalition with the arch-religious-conservative Democratic Unionist Party, a party which denies climate science, insists that gay marriage should be illegal (as it still is in Northern Ireland, thanks to DUP efforts), is anti-choice and anti-woman (so, basically the US Republican Party). However, this coalition is shaky at best as the DUP’s views (likely considered, at worst, “center-right” in US politics) are actually seen as controversial in the UK and Theresa May has yet to come up with a solid deal regarding support for some legislative positions. Another election in less than a year’s time is actively being discussed among the British Press — Jeremy Corbyn has specifically predicted as much.
In Britain’s parliamentary political system, Labour’s shocking surge last week is nothing short of an electoral victory. The snap-election was called, cynically, by May, partially to deal a presumed death-blow to Labour, a party considered moribund by the British political establishment, having lost all over the country for the past ten or more years in a way reminiscent of today’s US Democrat Party. But, May’s other goal was to shore up a larger majority for herself, (she had a minuscule 13 seat majority before the election) to protect against internal Tory resistance to her suicidal Brexit policy.
It didn’t work.
Theresa May didn’t increase her majority, in fact she now has no majority at all. Labour won more seats than it has done since 1997, including flipping seats previously thought to be Tory strongholds, such as Canterbury, which has voted for the conservative party for one hundred and fifty years, until last Thursday. The increase in Labour’s vote-share, up 10% since the previous election, is the largest since 1945.
Much of this increase in vote-share comes from the working class and young people, two constituencies often written off as perennial non-voters.
The openly white supremacist UKIP has been completely wiped out. Shocking many pundits, many of these British white, rural and working-class “deplorables”turned not to the Tories but to Labour. Preferring, who’d have thought, to vote for someone who has their best interests in mind. Likewise, Labour’s share of the youth vote is so high as to be almost unprecedented. I say “almost”, because it’s pretty similar to the share of the youth vote earned by Bernie Sanders in his primary race against Hillary Clinton.
History is Back on the Menu
So we passed the test, we proved that we can effect huge youth and working-class turnout when we run unabashedly on a platform of leftist principals. What does this mean and what do we do now?
What this means is that for the first time in decades we can glimpse a better world. Now that we’ve seen that world, now that Sanders and especially Corbyn have started us imagining what it would be like to really live in that world, we can start fighting for it in earnest. When the inevitable detractors pop-up to tell us we’ve got our heads in the clouds and that our ideas aren’t realistic, we now have more to fall back on than the certainty of our convictions, we have real-world examples where we have begun to break through the toxic status quo, into that world.
This is not to say that there haven’t been fights all along, it would be a mistake not to give credit to all those fighting for peace, people, and planet throughout the last thirty or so years. What I humbly suggest is that these movements have not, until now, had the real power of history on their side. Until now, they were fighting for a more just world within the status quo paradigm instead of fighting for an entirely new paradigm of our own.
Growing up in the 1990s, I didn’t have to know who Francis Fukuyama was to get the sense that history had ended. The sense that all the big questions of history had been answered, that the correct course had been charted, and all that was left was minor tinkering with seating arrangements, was pervasive. The neoconservative/neoliberal colonial capitalist program, which first reared its head in mainstream politics on the right in the 70s and the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, ascended to the status of global hegemonic status quo in the 90s, thanks largely to the “third way” liberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
In the years following the 90s, history really seemed to have ended. The right-wing offered nothing but overt white-male-christian supremacy, ever-escalating war, crushing austerity for the masses, gutted welfare programs and environmental regulations and giant giveaways for the rich and global corporations in the form of tax breaks and privatization of the economy. The “opposition” parties were no real opposition at all. Liberal parties refused to try to change the paradigm, instead they accepted and capitulated to the right-wing view of history and tried to win as watered down versions of their reactionary counterparts.
Instead of a radical anti-racist, anti-sexist politics of equality, we were told that the struggles for equality had already been fought and won sometime in the past. Unlike their counterparts they admitted there were a few aspects of our society that could be tweaked — a few more people of color, women and LGBT folk in positions of power perhaps, but the big battles were already over.
Instead of a radical anti-war politics we were sold “humanitarian interventions”. Of course it was sad when our soldiers died, but they died in pursuit of a noble cause, defending a people incapable of defending themselves against ruthless leaders (even when those leaders were voted into office) and, of course, ending terrorism around the world forever.
Instead of a real inspirational politics of solidarity and hope for a better future, we were told that austerity was necessary and practical. We were told the only way things would ever get any better is if we stopped the “free handouts” to “welfare queens” that were dragging down our economy. Just about anything run by the government was considered at best ineffective and at worst a terrible waste of money. Private sector always ahem trumped public sector in quality and efficiency. Welfare specifically, and government spending more generally, became a program of last resort, one necessary now only until the inevitable day when the private economy could take care of everyone. Bill Clinton, when signing the Welfare Reform Act into law in 1996 made it clear his aim was “to transform a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence, to give people on welfare a chance to draw a paycheck, not a welfare check”.
Ever since our most progressive environmental president, Richard Nixon, signed the US’ landmark environmental protections into law, his party has been trying to dismantle them. Instead of taking up the mantle of environmental activists like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Dave Foreman, fighting to expand protections for the Earth and our neighbors on it, against expansionism and extractivism, liberals are trapped forever trying to toe the line between the environment and the economy. When liberals advocate for a sustainable economy, they do it to preserve the economy, not the Earth. They do it so they and their donors won’t have to stop making money because the world ends.
So this has been the world for the past several decades, a vindication of Thatcher when she infamously said “there is no alternative”.
It Can’t Continue Like This
People won’t put up with it any more, especially the young. The millennial generation responds to Thatcher’s assertion with a defiant “yes there fucking is”, and we’ve begun to prove it. It will still be an uphill battle, we are fighting to overcome more than three decades of inertia but the UK election results this weekend show that we are waking up, that people are aware of the real problems and are open to radical ideas of a new, better, world.
Of course, it’s not all about national leaders like Corbyn or Sanders, it’s about progressives filling up local seats and really pushing for this new world we’re dreaming of on the ground. Nor, however, is it all about electoral politics. One of the most pernicious aspects of the neoconservative/neoliberal colonial capitalist status quo is the way it has framed almost every conversation, such that progressives have often found themselves trying to justify the virtue of their programs and ideas within this paradigm, and using this language. This concedes the high ground to the ruling class every time, before the battle is even fought. It also risks putting progressives right back in the unenviable position of liberal parties during the last three decades, moving further and further to the right in order to demonstrate their “seriousness” and electability.
Instead of falling into this trap, we need to realize that we now have the chance to seize the course of history and change it. As I’ve pointed out before, the demographics suggest progressives will be the majority of the voting population in only a couple more elections cycles. Now is not the time, however, to sit on our hands. The right has shaped the global narrative, placed its constraints on what is considered possible and practical, through decades of preparation and planning.
Now it’s our turn.
Every person who considers herself a progressive or leftist can start framing their everyday conversations according to the paradigm we know to be true, and fight back against conventional reactionary framings. You won’t convince every person you talk to, or even most of them, but you will be starting to shift the narrative, a huge but necessary task, and many hands make for light work.
The simplest example that comes to mind is the paradigm that frames those that advocate denying abortion access to women as being “pro-life”. The framing here is that these folks simply don’t want people “killing” fetuses. But this is a distortion of the argument. We don’t advocate access to abortion because we think killing fetuses is just so frickin awesome, we don’t even need to approach the issue of whether a bundle of cells incapable of surviving outside the womb is a “life” or not. The reason we advocate for abortion access is that we believe, no matter what medical procedure or other context we’re discussing, that every person has the right to complete bodily autonomy, full stop.
No one, that I am aware of, advocates for compulsory organ transplants, even in the event that not donating an organ could result in someone’s death, even if it’s the death of a dependent. No, this “we have to sacrifice bodily autonomy to save lives” argument seems to only crop up in defense of abortion. Because “we don’t want women to have autonomy of body or reproduction” doesn’t play well with voters, the “pro-life” framing becomes necessary.
So, from today we can stop capitulating to this framing. Lets let our values be reflected in the narratives we tell. We are not engaged with a faction that is “pro-life” we are really engaged with a faction that is “anti-choice”. The new framing reflects the reality that it’s not their (supposed)desire not kill we’re discussing, but their desire to deny the choice of an abortion to women.
Corbyn’s unapologetic embrace of a leftist paradigm, and willingness to challenge the narrative of the ruling classes and status quo is directly responsible for his great showing in the UK election, and it’s something we can repeat over and over by not being afraid to declare what we believe to be true — the exact opposite of what’s in the capitalist newspapers.
The End of White-Male-Cis-Het-Christian Supremacy is Non-Negotiable
We should be unafraid of using the word “supremacy”. You don’t need a sociology degree to be qualified to talk about white supremacy or patriarchy. I admit that my own experience in this realm is more ideologic than academic. We do live in a “white supremacist” society — the laws and institutions of society are structured such that white people have an inherent advantage, and hold on to that advantage. That’s all that needs to be true, and it is true, to say we live in a white supremacist society.
The most visible aspect of our society’s white supremacy, especially in recent years, is the way the criminal justice system and the war on drugs, started by Reagan but thrown into overdrive by Bill Clinton, trying to look tougher than Republicans on crime, creates a permanent black undercaste in American Society. As Michelle Alexander explains in her excellent book, The New Jim Crow, despite claims from liberal elites that systemic racism is over, taken down in the 60s by LBJ & MLK, mass incarceration works as a form of social control just as pernicious as slavery and Jim Crow before it.
Liberals are happy to decry racism and sexism as individual failings (typically personified by members of the conservative electorate), and talk about how we need to have female presidents and black CEOs, but we need to take the fight further. We need to push back, not just against the outright bigotry of the right, but the soft bigotry of the center that insists that “we’ve already made it”.
Everything that can be said for the liberals take on race issues can be said for other issues of identity as well. Feminism, for the liberal elite, is voting for Hillary Clinton, not smashing patriarchy. Pride is marching with cops, not rioting against the authoritarians harassing and oppressing your community.
When we allow identity politics to be presented as a series of minor tweaks to the existing system, or try to fight for equality within that system, we leave the original structures of oppression intact, and they simply take new, usually more pernicious, forms. Our framing needs to make clear that we do live in an ocean of intersecting oppressive systems, to this day, even as this admission allows us to begin to work at the real, underlying issues.
War: Good for Nothing
One of the most extraordinary ways that Jeremy Corbyn successfully bucked the status quo consensus was in his reaction to the two terrorist attacks that occurred in Britain over the course of the campaign, first in Manchester then in London. For the first time a prominent western politician make the direct connection between terrorist attacks in western countries, and the brutal wars those countries wage overseas.
The reaction was predictable. For decades terrorist attacks have always been viewed in mainstream political circles as being “good” for the right, electorally. In the aftermath of such a traumatic event, the conventional wisdom goes, people gravitate to the parties who have the toughest rhetoric on crime and immigrants. Liberal parties’ only recourse was to call for war and rollbacks of civil liberties but just, like, less so. And so we got headlines like these:
As it turns out, the British people disagreed with this framing. 75% of Britons polled agreed with Corbyn’s assessment that the UK foreign policy was to blame for terrorist attacks.
We need to stand up for an explicitly anti-war, anti-colonial foreign policy. This will be hardest when we witness leaders in other countries commit atrocious acts, to which the ruling class insists we “must respond”. Our framing must make clear that it is never OK for our country to invade other countries. We can be secure in our knowledge that, regardless of the circumstances prior to invasion, we have never improved a country by bombing it, or supplying arms to sectarian groups within it. Libya is the shining example of this, a country which in 2010 boasted a uniquely democratic society, with the highest Human Development Index and lowest infant mortality rates in Africa, with jihadi terror almost non-existent, and which now, post invasion, is a failed state, host to open-air slave markets. The garbage, liberal, concept of “humanitarian interventions” has fallen flat on its face, and the world is better for it.
Imagine you have a friend who makes a habit of announcing that people are sick, and then performing surgery on them.
While your friend does have the world’s largest collection of surgical tools, it uniformly works out badly for his patients. Always the surgery turns out worse than the disease, and much of the time it turns out that the patient wasn’t even sick to start with — because your friend has no interest in doing diagnoses or really any form of medicine except surgery.
Now your friend has announced that someone else is sick, and a few minutes later has them strapped to the operating table and is preparing the knives. But when you justifiably express dismay, you are accused of wanting to “sit back and do nothing”.
We have the record before us: decades of bungled US military interventions on precisely this sort of flimsy evidence.
Welfare Is Incredibly Good And Cool
(Most of this section, including its title, has been inspired by the amazing work of Matt Bruenig. If you want to learn more I couldn’t recommend a better source than Matt’s blog. Matt has also started a Patreon for a unabashedly left-wing think-tank to get some of these ideas out there in policy form, if you can please donate.)
Ever since Ronald Reagan invented the concept of the “welfare queen”, welfare has become sort of a dirty word in the United States. It became shameful to be on welfare, other people on welfare were probably undeserving in some way, or scamming the system, and both parties couldn’t wait to reduce it as much and as quickly as possible. Government programs in general went from being something that we all deserved as a part of living in a developed nation, to being schemes to take from the “deserving” and give to the “undeserving”.
While right-wingers have been happy to openly decry government spending as wasteful, as a way to get the money of hard-working individuals and provide to the lazy, as increasing dependency, liberals have one again found themselves trying to toe a ridiculous line. Liberals goal is to get people excited about government programs, because they will eventually lead to less government programs. As Matt Bruenig writes “Liberals don’t really believe welfare is a good thing, but instead view it as a necessary thing in order to save people from total destitution. This is why you get the metaphor of the welfare system being a “safety net” that exists only to catch people with weak and targeted benefits when they cannot meet their basic needs through market institutions.” Bill Clinton confirmed this milquetoast view as he signed into law the gutting of welfare in 1996, saying:
A long time ago I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.
Today we have an historic opportunity to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life
Again, this failure comes from trying to defend welfare benefits within the paradigm that government spending is wasteful and promotes laziness and destitution. Bill Clinton wanted to end the era of “big government”, to prove he could be just as “serious” as the Republicans, while still pretending he was standing up for the poor. “The best anti-poverty program” he stated, “is still a job”.
But, of course, we know that isn’t true. The US has one of the most abysmal welfare states in the world, and largely for that reason, we have soaring rates of childhood poverty. Jobs came back after the 2008 crash, but they were part-time and contract jobs that we couldn’t use to support our families. So we’re poor but, hey, at least we’re not dependent.
Our framing again needs to turn this on its head. We need to start from the assumption that every human being has an inherent right to live a healthy, fulfilling life. Organized as we are in the west, in nation-states of immense wealth, there is no reason we can’t provide that for everyone. We need to insist that the way to have the freest possible society is to have one where no one’s life choices are unnecessarily restricted because of something as ridiculous as “market forces”. We need to fight against paternalistic sentiments that the collective resources of human societies are best used to punish perceived moral failings like “laziness”, instead of for providing each of us living under it to live the fullest lives possible.
Hand-in-hand with welfare demonization is the lionization of anything done by the private sector, simply by merit of having not been done by the public sector. In keeping with our theme, right-wingers are happy to say that this is literally what they believe. They believe that the government running any industry, no matter how vital, is restricting the freedom of private entrepreneurs to do it better (and, of course, to profit). Liberals, meanwhile must insist that while it’s true some things, unfortunately, need to be done by the government, this, like welfare, is a last resort- only if the potential for abuse in the private sector is so obvious as to make denying it ridiculous, or only until some private company comes up with a way to do it better.
However, as prominent economist Richard Wolff points out, there is no real evidence that the private sector is any better at doing things than the public sector.
So there is no difference in the cost or efficiency of programs run in the private vs. public sectors. The only difference then, is the degree of control and access the average person has to those services. When we privatize a service, we take away any input the ones utilizing that service might have. A publicly run service, at least ostensibly, allows for a degree of input from constituencies. Private services don’t answer to anything but “the market” and most of the type of services that people like Jeremy Corbyn are talking about nationalizing — railways, post, utilities etc. — or that people like Justin Trudeau are talking about privatizing — roads, airports etc — are natural monopolies. It’s hard to use your consumer power to boycott companies that provide you water or electricity, you can’t always just choose a different road.
So our framing shouldn’t be about private vs. public per se. It should be about who has access and control to resources and services. There are ways to do this that don’t necessarily mean centralizing control in a government body. Corbyn ran on creating cooperatives for local energy and other industries as a way to bring control back to the people, where it belongs. There has been a good deal of buzz of alternative models, such as The Commons, where a resource is managed by the community that uses it. Ultimately the questions we should ask of any form of service are who controls the service, who has access to it and who profits from it.
Living in the Real World
I have written extensively about liberals’ failings on environmental issues, so I’ll keep this section short. We need to remember that there is more to the environmental crisis than just global warming. It has been the liberal position since at least Al Gore that global capitalism could continue to expand and extract, as long as it did so sustainably. That is, carbon neutrally.
This is not the case.
We need to be clear that we want to end the system that treats all other life on Earth as expendable in the name of capitalist growth.
We need to change what is seen as “realistic”, and hammer on the fact that physics doesn’t believe in or care about things like the economy. We need to make clear that there is no medal for “almost saving the world from catastrophic global warming”, we either make it or we don’t.
It sometimes seems like liberals are living in a world of make-believe when it comes to the material reality of ecological crises. Take, for instance, the fact that under Obama US coal emissions went down. Liberals will point to this as a win, claiming that Obama has done his part to reduce global GHG emissions. Only thing is, that’s not true. In fact, while US coal emissions went down under Obama, coal exports have never been higher! So the coal is still being burned, the carbon is still entering the atmosphere, but the liberals act as though they have somehow “technically won”, citing the figures: emissions went down. When confronted with this delusion, or with the fact that even if every single party to the Paris Accord followed through on 100% of their promised reductions, we’d still surpass 2 degrees, the liberals will start to mumble something about “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good”.
Platitudes like that will offer little comfort as the biosphere deteriorates and the planet heats up beyond what our civilization can survive. The Earth won’t care how historic the Paris Accord was if it doesn’t lead to us reducing emissions enough to save ourselves, nor will it matter what the official emissions figures were under Obama’s presidency. The only way to measure success in this arena is actual material changes in our global society, none of which are yet evident.
Naming the Problem
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this clip of Chris Hayes trying to get Tom Perez to say the ruling class is the problem, while Perez dances and dodges and says basically nothing.
It perfectly encapsulates the conundrum the liberals have gotten themselves it. They want to play the right-wing game while still pretending to be the left wing. They want to be considered the left but will never take up the defining mantle of the left: anti-capitalism.
Tom Perez says he wants to have a big tent where the capitalist and working classes both win, but this isn’t possible. The interests of those of us who work for a living are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. The obsession that liberals, especially the Democrats, have with “compromise” is their biggest betrayal. Many if not all of the problems of framing and narrative we’ve discussed have become the norm because the liberals have slowly, over decades, deferred again and again to right-wing ideology.
Our framing needs an explicit class-consciousness, and an emphasis on the power of solidarity. This is what makes UKIP voters vote for Corbyn and Trumpers vote for berniecrats. Regardless of what differences we have among ourselves, they pale in comparison to the differences we have with the ruling capitalist class. It’s the capitalist class, after all, that profits from the wars, austerity and environmental degradation that cause us so much suffering, why should we be interested in compromise?
We need to come to the bargaining table, as Corbyn did, steadfast in our beliefs and unwilling to compromise on our real values. The future belongs to us, we can really create a better world, not just tinker with with the old one, it won’t happen on its own, but together we can do it.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.