Beyond the Politics of 'Ism'
None of the human inventiveness that has broken new ground in science and technology can be readily seen in today's politics, which has become a narrative of regression and despair. The early Twentieth-century demons are out of the bag again and we are debating some of the issues we debated ever since. With time - as we descended into permanently labelling people by what they believed at a given point of time - the politics of 'ism' has become personal. At a point of history when cooperation - on issues ranging from confronting terrorism to climate - and community have become essential to our well-being, we seem to be lost in a maze of ideological walls.
Democracy is dying, some commentators claim, and they point to the symptoms - fake news, irresponsible politicians and discredited institutions! And, yet, the disease goes unrecognised, perhaps by design: The complexity of the system, which was crafted to limit how much an ordinary person could understand and have a say about, have made the system unresponsive. It has almost no answers when the tide of prosperity that lifts all the boats - even if it raised some a lot and others just a little - subsides and time to give back and cooperate begins. It was all too convenient a charade - the almost festive day of the election, the pomp and ceremony of the inauguration, the daily drama of politics as usual, within the ever-growing, ever-expanding influence of those who control the purse strings - which has now reached a breaking point when sacrifices are being called for. And, yet, behind the curtains of isms which have obscured our vision for a very long time, we just can't see the change and begin to grapple with its consequences.
This is meant to be a personal note, though. This is about my troubles with political categorisation. I have been, it seems, almost always on the wrong side of what was politically fashionable. When it was politically fashionable to be apolitical, as it was in the 90s, I was politically minded. And, then, when people discarded the 'being professional' stance and openly chose one political camp or the other, I have been exposed as one of those homeless varieties who belong to none of the camps. It's a terrifying place to be, as this means being called names without finding solidarity among the persecuted.
Indeed, I am being called some names more frequently than the others. Despite my attempts to disclaim a label, I can be more readily identified as a socialist or 'left-liberal' (a peculiar grouping which still mystifies me). And, despite my several attempts to do a close reading of Marx and an early enthusiasm with the progressive ideas of socialism, I am all too acutely aware of at least two problems with its 'ism'.
The first is that inherent in socialism is a promise of acquisition, a better life for the world's have-nots by distributing the material resources more evenly. And, while I can readily see the injustices of the current arrangement and believe the fairness as a worthy cause, I know from my lived experience how easily this message of material well-being can be exploited by demagouges. It's easy for the oppressed to think that they ought to attain the lifestyles of the oppressor - that's what the message of aquisitive materialism leads to in practice - but this only makes the oppressed, once a revolutionary victory is achieved, the new oppressor.
The other, related, problem is the message of eternal class divisions and conflict. Here, while my lived experience points to undeniable existence of markers of class, the path to classlessness - for me - doesn't lie through class struggle and violence. The way, I hope, to transcend struggle is not to bring it to a bloody end but rather to look elsewhere for ideas. This may indeed sound hopelessly naive but it's no worse than believing that one side could be vanquished without permanent resentment. In fact, the latter is the path to guillotine and death camps, and yet, even those terrible methods have failed.
At this point, it should be clear that despite my readings of Marx and enthusiasm for a broadbased democracy, no socialist will really have me as a fellow-traveller. The ephemeral category of 'Left-liberal' (which would have been 'democratic socialist' in a different age) wouldn't also apply, because democracy, in its liberal form, has been a method of limiting political participation rather than widening it. In my interpretation of late nineteenth century and twentieth century history, the evolution of political systems shouldn't be seen just as gradual progression towards wider suffrage, but also in context of parallel emergence of a sovereign legal and administrative system, somewhat outside the direct influence of the political. The liberal project - in my mind - is to expand the deliberative participation while creating a strong state of continuity through institutions independent of democratic influence. Originally a Jeffersonian suggestion, writing the constitution all over again every twenty years, would have been out of line with this thinking as much as Mao's cultural revolution was. Instead, the Liberals wanted to build a state to secure property rights and to create inflexible 'meritocracies', a new system of hereditary advantage skewed in favour of middle-class men.
In fact, given my aversion to the big state, which is central to both socialism and liberal world-ideas, I should naturally belong to natural conservatives, those who believe in frugality, responsibility and ever-gradual change. Given that I was brought up with a 'producer ethic' - the first English expression that I learnt was 'cut your coat according to your cloth' and I am still deeply averse to taking loans and speculative investment - my values are often in sync there. However, being a conservative stopped meaning all those things a long time ago, perhaps ever since Reagan-Thatcher ascendancy, and it's now home for as many doctrinaire radicals as those on the extreme left. In fact, in the medley of labels, it's the liberals who want the world to go on as usual, whereas the conservatives want to tear it down. Despite all the nostalgia of maintaining communities, the communities in conservative dreams are often racially and culturally pure one, without any scope of mongrel nature of actual human contact. Besides, paradoxically, at the centre of this universe is an all-consuming man, whose life is built around materials produced all around the world, and whose sense of progress is defined by how much money - or his nations credit - can buy. If socialism's path lie through gulags, the conservative road leads to slavery and empire. Not my type, I would say!
As is plain, this leaves me nowhere. But, then, the place I am in, despite all the feeling of despair, is not a bad one to be. As the liberal world of undemocratic institutions and patriarchal practices, under the onslaught of radical right and unleashed left, come to a breaking point, unbelonging is as much a virtue as a handicap. In this season of questions, second-hand answers do not offer a feasible way to go by. Rather, it's a moment to recognise that the fundamental social realities are changing and new ideas, rather than old ideologies, may offer more useful ways of organising. I don't know them yet, but I would tend to believe that there are many more people like me - outside the tents rather than inside.