Saturday, November 21, 2009

DOING PROGRESSIVE POLITICS IN THE AGE OF CHAOS

Harry Targ

The world is a mess. Progressive movements for change are frantically trying to beat back reaction and offering anything from patchwork to global solutions to our problems. I think we need to stop, take a deep breath, and reflect on the political, economic, cultural, and technological context in which we live. We need to reflect because we now find ourselves in a new age, the Age of Chaos

What elements constitute “the Age of Chaos?” Here is a short list for starters.

First, we are barraged with and respond to a whole array of problems which have the potential for exacerbating hunger, disease, violence and war. We organize around military spending, stopping the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending Israeli violence and exploitation of the Palestinian people. Domestically, we mobilize around health care, jobs, the struggle for immigrant rights, an end to racism, and justice for women. We are being dragged into the twenty-first century by our friends in the environmental movement because they compelling argue that fixing the planet requires major change and fast.

Second, we have too many groups that are part of the progressive majority. Years ago, Mike Davis wrote that the virtue of progressive politics in the United States (as opposed to Europe at that time) was that it was distributed in a whole array of single issue groups. He was reacting, I think, to some of the rigidities of old left politics. Now, I believe, we have too many single issue groups, each with the ownership of the most important problem Americans face.

Third, the confusion is multiplied by the profusion of demands, positions, lobbying campaigns, and iconic spokespersons’ declarations. And since most of us are tiptoeing in a relatively new twenty-first century political terrain, each position is potentially useful.

Fourth, we live in an age where the fundamental contradictions in the political economy have surfaced in their unbridled brutality. Just looking back to the onset of the “neo-liberal” age in the late Carter and Reagan period we see massive cuts in government programs; deregulations of banks and corporations; ruthless efforts to destroy unions; and huge tax breaks for the rich. Government policies rewarded shifting corporate investments overseas and shifting from an economy based on the production of goods and services to one based on financial speculation. And to protect the ruling class from growing reactions of outrage, the U.S. government launched more wars, covert interventions, and police violence at home.

The short of the story here is that the political and economic system in which we live does not work. And proposed programs and visions of something better, as suggested above, are in their infancy.

Finally, the morass of issues, groups, proposals for change, and the fundamental contradictions of capitalism have been aggravated by qualitative technological and cultural changes. Of course, the computer age is central to this point. As writers such as David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, have pointed out, globalization means the declining salience of time and space. With instantaneous communication across the vast worldwide landscape, consciousness of time, as ordering human experience and particularly regulating work, has changed. The capacity to communicate immediately without reflection changes how all of us behave. Also, the diminution of space means the loss of community, a sense of place, a consciousness of doing politics with like-minded others who we may know and share common experiences with, such as our fellow workers.

Further, our new sources of information provide instant information of all kinds. We can watch, hear, and read “stuff’ about the world 24/7. In fact we are barraged with information, including information we can add to the vast cyber pool of stuff for any and all to see (such as this blog entry).

At least two consequences flow from this new technological age. The media that control our lives on the one hand are as consolidated as ever in history such that ten media corporations control about half of all that we read, see, and hear. And they enter our lives in all our spaces, from offices to homes. Our world experience is shaped for us by a handful of multinational corporations. However, and in contradiction to the monopoly of culture, the new technology affords the greatest possibility of mass participation in global dialogue in human history (at least so far). Paradoxically we suffer from too much control of information and too much democracy at the same time. In the end, we have much too much media “stuff” to process, use and discard.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new technology and culture is what Fredric Jameson alerted us to: the institution of a post modern culture. This post modern culture, the 24/7 culture, the culture with little or no use for time and space, is anti-historical. It is a political culture without any historical referents, any sense of the connection between people’s work lives and struggle in the past and their experiences today, and no sense of what might be useful to know today about how mass movements were build in the past for today

Where do we as progressives go from here? I am not sure. But it may be that all these aspects of the Age of Chaos are direct results of our lack of a theory that can be used to make sense to us and to others we wish to reach about why the world is the way it is. This theory would provide a compelling, historical explanation of the basics of capitalism, how it works and in the end cannot work, and who and what can bring about its transformation. This theory needs to be historical, analytical, able to incorporate in its analyses contradictory forces, and convincingly explains how economics is indelibly interconnected with politics, society, culture, and the environment. And this theory needs to give some direction for our work that links the past to the present and to the future. Ultimately it is concrete political activism that changes the world but an activism that is guided by coherent explanations of the inter-connectedness of our world. Building this theory is essential for replacing the Age of Chaos with an Age of Justice.