On the left, it sometimes feels as if we spend a lot of time in a losing battle. When the general population rejects or shows little interest in our latest set of progressive proposals and votes for political candidates even more right wing than the last, it’s common to engage in a little hand wringing, accuse ourselves of having failed to devise or effectively articulate a practical vision, and go back to the drawing board wondering how we can do things better next time. Meanwhile, the general population continues along a well trodden path of embracing war, environmental destruction, extreme inequality, mass unemployment and mean-spirited attacks on the poor along with policies tinged with racist or nationalistic overtones.
There is perhaps an inclination to interpret such developments as the ill informed choices of individuals who would choose otherwise if only they were not deceived into voting against their own interests. Or, alternatively, it might seem that people, rather than being deceived, feel powerless to effect change, and so don’t attempt it in large enough numbers. Personally, I typically adopt as a working assumption one or other of those interpretations. But sometimes – just sometimes – I wonder whether each of these is largely illusory. The unpleasant thought occurs that maybe it is not a matter of the majority misunderstanding what is, and has been, going on, but rather the majority largely getting what it wants and the left having priorities and values that are almost completely at odds with the rest of society.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a questioning of the priorities and values of the left. I count myself very much as committed to those values, only some of which are considered here. This is simply an (undisciplined, perhaps) pondering of whether the wider community actually shares these values or is likely to in the foreseeable future.
Peace. Call us crazy, but on the left, we typically prefer peace. I like to imagine that most people, even if not exactly pacifist, prefer peace to war and military adventurism. The reality around us, though, often seems to suggest otherwise. Although electorates have largely stood by while austerity wreaks economic havoc, these measures have not been allowed to impinge much, if at all, on the war machine.
It’s tempting to think that the ever expanding devotion of resources to the killing of fellow human beings is not a reflection of the popular sentiment. It is tempting and reassuring, but not necessarily an easy conviction to maintain in the face of actual developments in the world. Those developments seem to suggest that war is regarded as pretty much okay by many so long as they personally are at little risk of being killed and are not personally called upon to perform the physical act of killing. Although respondents to opinion polls typically claim opposition to war during official peace time, recent history shows that it takes little to whip the public into a frenzy of support whenever the establishment finds it instrumental to engage in another war.
If this wasn’t so, if people really despised war, surely opposition to it would be massive? There would be general strikes, mass protests. The economy would come to all but a complete standstill until the outrageous behavior was brought to a halt.
But it doesn’t happen. To the contrary, in wartime it is the critics who come under fire, ostracized with ease by the mainstream media, the sentiment shared readily by the wider public. So maybe, just maybe, people don’t care about war; or worse, actually like it.
The spiritually inclined will insist that peace is to be found within. For there to be peace in the world, there needs to be peace within each person. If so, perhaps most people are not that interested in seeking peace within, at least for now.
Environment. On the left, we typically wish to repair, regenerate and preserve nature, and live sustainably and in harmony with all living creatures. This is a priority above whatever material desires we might have beyond subsistence needs. It is tempting, here also, to imagine that almost everybody feels the same way; that they actually oppose destruction of the environment and the exploitation of natural resources by giant corporations for a private material gain that is captured by a relative handful of extremely wealthy individuals. But, in reality, at least in Australia (which admittedly is an international pariah), a majority vote for the removal even of the tamest tax on the rents derived from such activity.
True, the media propaganda was relentless. The deception was great. It was to be expected.
But people can think. They’ve got brains. They can feel, and sense, and intuit.
The thought occurs that the majority can see what it’s doing and is simply not that concerned about the environment.
Inequality, Unemployment, Poverty. On the left, we would prefer a more equal distribution of income and wealth. We think anyone who wants a job should be guaranteed one, or at the very least should be provided with an income sufficient to live in dignity and participate meaningfully in the life of the global community. We think the persistence of poverty amidst plenty is inexcusable. Some of us have no interest in having more when others have less, or even see any validity in such a state of affairs.
But maybe values such as these are simply way out of step with the majority. If not, how could the majority idly stand by for decades as income and wealth distributions under capitalism returned to truly warped profiles not resembled since the Great Depression?
Again, many are deceived, perhaps, and many feel powerless. These things could explain the lack of action. Or maybe most people just don’t care about extreme inequality. Maybe, especially, they are not interested in eliminating unemployment or poverty. Perhaps it is the suffering of the most vulnerable in society that feeds the average person’s sense of self-worth and, perish the thought, gives them a twisted kind of satisfaction.
In short, the thought occurs that the majority might pretty much like things the way they are right now and have little interest in change, except to have even more of the same: permanent war, environmental destruction, wide inequalities, entrenched poverty, mass unemployment.
It seems possible, then, at least in pessimistic moments, that there is little prospect of the majority embracing anything particularly progressive in the foreseeable future. But hope, as always, springs eternal. Maybe the current turmoil is just the beginning of birth pangs? If progress comes, events may occur more rapidly than currently seems likely. Hopefully Russell Brand is on the mark:
The agricultural Revolution took thousands of years, the industrial Revolution took hundreds, the technological tens. The spiritual Revolution, the Revolution we are about to realise, will be fast because the organisms are in place; all that needs to shift is consciousness, and that moves rapidly.
In putting up this post, the hope is that its momentary indulgence in pessimism will soon provide, in retrospect, a fun target for ridicule in much the same way as we can now laugh at the confident prognostications of capitalism’s eternal Great Moderation that were still lined up for publication, and being put into print, in leading mainstream economics journals well after the onset of crisis in 2007/8.