In the six years since I started this blog, I have tried to render upsetting social and political events in abstract terms and subject them to some level of analysis. Last year, for instance, I wrote a bit arguing that by showing that he was sexually violent and abusive to his daughter Donald Trump’s was successful in portraying himself as an omnipotent strongman figure to his base. I want to continue with that theme and unite it with some of my observations about the institutional failure of Canadian left politics at present.
But in doing so, I want to simplify things. My ability to wrap syllables and analysis around hard realities is sometimes useful. But sometimes it distances us too much from the horror we face and the simplicity of the problem before us. Great work has been done to re-legitimate the word “lie” after decades of obfuscating terms like “mis-statement,” “alternative facts” and “journalistic balance.” I would like us to do more with another necessary word: cruelty.
Simply put, our problem is that every day, more and more people in our societies embrace cruelty and other people’s suffering as a necessary moral good. And that, readers, is, in my estimation, evil.
The reason Americans have chosen a confessed rapist and proud child molester to lead the greatest empire the world has ever known is because the ascendant social and political movements, in state after state, around the world, are those that celebrate cruelty and the infliction of suffering on others.
There have been many devastating consequences of pragmatic socialists aligning with liberal utilitarians over the past half-century, from the Third Way (neoliberalism with a human face) to the conflation of socialist thought with a nebulous, incoherent progressivism, to the replacement of socialist internationalism with foreign policy Taoism. But perhaps the most devastating is this: people who have believed themselves to live in an unjust society, who feel the palpable injustice of neoliberalism with its bloodless technocracy, heritable privilege and collision course with the carbon cycle have been offered nothing by the left. No large-scale leftist political movement has stated with clarity “this social order is fundamentally unjust and must be replaced with a just one.”
Instead we, on the left have offered short-term tactical alliances, strategic retreats and technocratic fixes. We have been so focused on trying to save the vestiges of the twentieth-century Keynesian welfare state that we have become the defenders of the status quo, promising desperate people that, with us as junior partners, things will get worse slower.
As a result, we have stood back and given free rein to the worst forces in our societies to offer the only theory of fairness on offer. By submerging socialism in liberal utilitarian discourse, colloquially known as “progressivism,” we have quit the field. We have chosen not to offer any competition to those saying “everything is fucked. The world is just as unfair as you feel it is. We must take drastic action to change everything.” At the very moment when climate science tells us unambiguously that this is actually the only position an intellectually responsible person can take, we continue to offer incremental change that no one is looking for.
So, who is saying that? Those speaking with the most clarity on this issue are American conservative evangelicals and Salafists. They have a simple message: God is trying to punish people. He is trying to scourge humanity and the institutions that comprise twentieth-century states are standing in the way. There are too many earthquake survivors, too many cancer survivors, too many people living through famines and droughts, too few homeless people freezing to death, too few asylum-seekers drowning on the high seas. The consequences of climate change have been effortlessly repurposed by these movements. Droughts, famines, floods and fires are God’s traditional tools for scourging the unjust and the just alike. And once again, government stands in the way, thwarting God’s judgement at every turn.
Day after day, I read well-intentioned but confused liberals and socialists on social media bewildered that Trump’s supporters are so foolish as to think that Obamacare’s repeal will make things better. Such a position arises from a failure of imagination about what “better” can mean, the inability to understand that the way its repeal will make things better will be by causing more people to die, people who should already be dead, were it not for the hubris of Barack Obama to try and interpose the state between God and his judgement.
Such a worldview is cruel. The theory of fairness that is on offer is that God is trying to punish us and we, arrogantly, are trying to dodge that punishment. But, at the same moment, it is altruistic. Many of the people fighting to repeal current US healthcare law or keep their town in the hands of ISIL or the Lord’s Resistance Army or Boko Haram are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of this monstrous theory of justice. People are willing to lay down their own lives to make sure that there is more suffering and death in the world, in accordance with God’s plan.
Not only does the contemporary mainstream left fail to validate the feelings of those who believe the world is fundamentally unfair and must be reordered to restore justice, it also rejects the efforts of people who wish to be heroes—valiant people who have that intuitive consciousness of the injustice of the present order. The world is, and always has been, full of people who are willing to put everything on the line to fight evil. There are incipient heroes in every family, in every neighbourhood, town and village. Many people have been surprised by the thousands who put their bodies on the line at Standing Rock last year, the thousands who faced off against the state in the streets in the early days of the Trump regime. Many people were stunned by the Syria-wide protests against a monstrous, homicidal regime following the bombing of Aleppo. I was not.
The problem is that the mainstream electoral left has a place for you if you can represent yourself as a victim, an aspiring technocrat or a classically liberal rational actor and benefit-maximizer, and, ideally all three, if you care to look at the BC NDP’s candidate selection procedures. But what about people who want to denounce injustice, call out evil for what it is, and march out into the streets to challenge it? The fascist movements around us are winning because they have a place for those people and we do not. The leftist mobilization we have seen in recent months has taken place in spite of the prevailing thinking of the left, not because of it.
Our present political moment arises from the fact that there is only one compelling narrative for vanquishing injustice that people are being offered. And it is the one that celebrates cruelty, that eggs on climate change, that revels in torture, that cheers “LET HIM DIE!!! LET HIM DIE!!!!” like that 2012 Republican primary debate audience when candidates were asked about the uninsured. In opposition to this, we offer an imagined past of tolerant twentieth-century welfare states, accommodation with global capital and the investor class, investor rights regimes like the EU and NAFTA, and small-scale technocratic change, provided the investor class gets its cut.
It is a testament to the fundamental decency of the human race that, in democracies around the world, a slim majority continues to reject the politics of cruelty and conservative religio-political eschatology. In the absence of a visionary left, that decency is all that is holding human civilization in place.