This article appears in both the physical and online versions of Slingshot #136. Slingshot is a wonderful anarchist newspaper going strong since the 1980's, and they put out a fabulous thing called the Slingshot Organizer -- the 2023 edition is available now!
The left, especially in the United States, has become more of a circular firing squad than it’s ever been. Left people calling out other left people for their perceived transgressions, microaggressions, or language use has become far more commonplace than left organizations or movements actually challenging those in positions of power.
There are reasons we got to this point, and there is a way out. The way out starts with understanding how destructive the exclusive culture of so much of the left has become, and how to build an inclusive movement based on the ideas of solidarity, and having a forward-thinking vision around how we can build a new, egalitarian, sustainable society.
These are bleak times. The ongoing catastrophes of climate change are picking up the pace dramatically. There are major wars ongoing, the potentially imminent prospect of nuclear war. There are billions of people around the world going hungry. The real wages of the average worker are falling fast as food and energy costs skyrocket, along with the prices of houses, mortgages, and rents. Far right politicians and parties are in the ascendancy in the US, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, India, Brazil, and many, many other places. Some elements of the population face particular forms of persecution and discrimination, due to factors like skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.
We are far from achieving an egalitarian society, where everyone has enough of all the good things in life, by virtue of being alive, not because they’ve managed to work two jobs and step over the dead bodies on the sidewalk, in order to pay the ever-increasing monthly rent for their moldy apartment.
The social movement inspired by the killing of George Floyd that was on the streets of the US throughout the summer of 2020 and beyond has at this point died a pretty horrible death. With so many of the best organizers across the country having been targeted by cancellation campaigns and rendered inert, leaving progressive networks and organizations paralyzed with an inability to function under the circumstances, it’s a fairly obvious moment to take stock of the situation. How did we get here?
It’s a complicated answer. The US is a country with an astounding degree of inequality between the rich and the poor. The degree of inequality between the classes is wildly greater than any other difference between members of the population. The inequality in the US is worse now than at any point since the Age of the Robber Barons, around the turn of the 20th century.
In a country with such severe inequality, maintaining stability is a challenge for the capitalist/landlord class that is in power. They have employed various techniques. One of the perennial ones include giving concessions to certain parts of the population while withholding them from others, in order to continually foment division within the population, with some elements wanting to hold onto the crumbs they’ve been given, and others wanting their share of the crumbs that have been withheld.
Despite these efforts at divide and conquer, huge sections of the population frequently manage to see past these strategies, and form movements across the lines of race, national origin, region of the country, rural vs. urban, and so on. Notable examples of intensely inclusive social movements that accomplished great things include the radical, multiracial, immigrant-led labor movement of the early 20th century, and the civil rights movement that followed it, which shared many of its strategies and goals.
In the ongoing efforts of progressive forces in society to make a better world, or at least a less miserable one, there have at various points been widespread understanding of the methods used by the capitalists, their witting agents, and their unwitting collaborators. The IWW, for one, produced volumes of educational materials such as the Mr. Block cartoon series in an effort to create an awareness among the ranks of the working class (of all backgrounds) about these methods of divide and conquer practiced by the oligarchs in charge.
The IWW recognized the vital importance of including all of the working class in their One Big Union. In so many cases for the first time, they welcomed people of color, women, and others who had so often been excluded from joining unions in the past. The bosses still used their favorite technique of hiring strikebreakers from a different race or national background when workers of another race or national origin were going on strike. This technique successfully broke strikes and led to what were called race riots.
Particularly in the wake of the exposure of the FBI’s massive, secret Counterintelligence Program known widely as Cointelpro, in the early 1970’s, elements of the progressive movement became more keenly aware than ever about the many methods of destabilizing and breaking apart organizations and social movements that were widely employed by the secret police.
Meanwhile, the general tendencies within the left that had existed for centuries continued to exist. At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’d suggest that one way we can understand two major tendencies that have long been a big part of the left around the world might be to look at how some movements, groups, and individuals orient towards a more narrow definition of common interests, or a broader definition — a more exclusive definition or a more inclusive one.
The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s also broadly recognized how race had been used as a tool for division. Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many other leaders of the movement deeply understand the importance of leading a movement that sought the betterment of the entire working class. Typical of MLK’s thinking, when he was shot to death he was about to lead a massive march on Washington called the Poor People’s March, that explicitly was to include poor people from all backgrounds.
Later, at the end of the 20th century, the global justice movement that arose in response to the wildly growing divide between the rich and the poor both within the US and around the world recognized how the interests of the labor movement and the interests of the environmental movement were being systematically used as a tool of divide and rule, and this movement went about different ways to unite “Teamsters and turtles.”
But there has also long been the more exclusive left tendencies. If they didn’t exist, Cointelpro makes very clear, they would have been manufactured — and in many cases, they were. If they didn’t exist, the corporate-controlled media would give us the exclusive narrative, and assign it to groups and individuals, hoping it sticks.
The corporate media rarely mentions the existence of a working class that has broadly common interests, such as housing, health care, education, jobs, a clean and sustainable environment, etc. Rather, it prefers to focus on all the different ways society is divided, other than by class. If class enters the picture, it’s only in the context of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
This is a divide and conquer technique on the part of the corporate media and the class that owns the corporate media (the ruling class). And it’s one that many, many people in our society have enthusiastically participated in, thinking that by talking about how oppressed they are and how privileged other people are, they will hopefully eventually advance the interests of the marginalized group(s) they identify with.
To my knowledge, it’s a tactic that has historically failed dramatically, and is doing so again now. With the advent of “social media,” the capacity for social movements, and society in general, to become sectarian, polarized, antagonistic, and otherwise broken, is multiplied. As well-intentioned as so many people calling for the liberation of different marginalized groups are, with the help of highly selective corporate media coverage and narrative-creating, along with extremely destructive social media algorithms that are designed to foment conflict, all we’re really left with is a circular firing squad, and no one is left standing, except for the ruling class, who no one in the squad seemed to be aiming for.
It is clear that our movement is broken. The liberals currently in power are failing to provide for the population, as usual, and the rightwing is using the failure of so-called liberal democracy (that is, capitalist pseudo-democracy) and the hopelessly divided band of identity-obsessed people shouting at each other that we once called the left as a stepping stone in their ongoing rise to power.
If there was ever a time when we needed to find common ground with as big a section of the working class as possible, and create an egalitarian society before the fascists take advantage of our society’s divided state and destroy everything, that time is now. While the building of such a movement is an endlessly complex and challenging proposition, we can be sure that the path we’re on — the path of trying to build a movement that’s based on attempting to make some elements of the working class feel guilty for their relative privilege while other elements of the working class work on getting accepted by a broken capitalist system — is not going anywhere good.
When you’re in a hole, the best thing to do first is to stop digging.