Starting down the road to leftism

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A world without hunger, disease, poverty, war, environmental degradation, the subordination of women and gays, and wars fought in the name of nations and religions would be better than our present-day world.

The general state of affairs, we are told again and again, every day, by a hundred voices and in a hundred ways, is the only way things can possibly be: all of these massive patterns are beyond human control; you might try to change one or two details, you cannot change the big picture. To imagine a radically different world that does not generate patterns like the ones we are now seeing is to succumb to a delusion.

This “delusion” — that another world is possible — is traditionally called the left.

To be a leftist — a.k.a. socialist, anarchist, radical, global justice activist, communist, socialist-feminist, Marxist, Green, revolutionary — means believing, at a gut level, “It doesn't have to be this way.” Vivre autrement — “live otherwise! Live in another way!” — was a slogan used by one Quebec radical group in the 1970s. Reasoning Otherwise was the slogan of William Irvine, the legendary Prairie socialist. Words like these are inscribed on the heart of every leftist.

Of course, every one of the social problems of the day — from growing inequality to global warming — has its own story. It is properly addressed by its own experts. Such problems cannot simply be lumped together. Each demands its own response. So why not just do what is pragmatically possible, and tackle one issue at a time?

Just so. Living otherwise means engaging with the life-and-death, down-to-earth issues as they present themselves. Living and reasoning otherwise mean the mobilization of resources to handle the emergencies of everyday life.

Yet many people engaged in these emergencies are forced to the conclusion that living otherwise demands more than pragmatic, one-issue-at-a-time responses.

Consider the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Suppose, instead of some grandiose scheme of ridding the planet of the disease, you just settle for a more modest objective: reducing the projected death toll over the next few decades, say, from forty-two million to ten million. You come up with the most practical, common-sense ways of doing so: making drugs as effective as possible, promoting the use of safe sex, attacking the other ailments that facilitate the spread of AIDS, and fighting the stigma often attached to people living with the disease.

Quite soon you will find yourself up against the people who are actively working against you. The Catholic Church will fight you on “moral” grounds about the human rights of gays and the legitimacy of contraception. Pharmaceutical companies will fight you economically on producing free and effective medicines. The U.S. government, the mightiest in the world, will fight you on both fronts. How are you going to make an effective difference, if your struggle necessarily means working in a world dominated by these forces?

Or suppose, instead of some revolutionary vision of humanity living in a harmonious balance with the rest of nature, you settle for a more modest objective — say a 50 per cent reduction in carbon-based air pollution over the next ten years. You come up with the most practical, common-sense proposals for doing so: reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, switching 35 per cent of the power grid to alternative energy sources, cutting back on coal-burning generating plants, exploring new energy sources such as wind or solar power. Even though you can argue that every human has a long-term interest in the success of these modest proposals, you will quite quickly find yourself up against people who are actively working against you.

Automobile manufacturers will fight your demand that they make only less-polluting cars. Powerful oil companies will hire advertising firms and scientific consultants to discredit you. And, once again, the U.S. government will oppose even the most pragmatic, down-to-earth measures — even if many of its own scientific experts are convinced that a capitalist system reliant on fossil fuels is one that is riding for a fall.

Do what is possible, one issue at a time? Of course — there's no realistic alternative. But you will most likely soon reach conclusions about the patterns of opposition and support that shape each and every one of these issues and connect them together. You may well decide that the persistent general reactions behind that specific pattern also need to be understood and changed. You will start to see not just a random pattern of problems, but a system underlying them.

Every leftist, at some level, believes and acts on this insight: there are ways of explaining not just the individual problems but the connections between them. Once grasped in thought, these connections have to be transformed in reality. To tackle even one problem — eliminating HIV/AIDS, preventing global environmental meltdown — means struggling to puzzle out why that problem arose in the first place. As soon as you start pursuing the process of figuring each problem out, and connecting it with other problems, you have started down the road to leftism. You will be led back, step by step, to recovering the down-to-earth historical explanations of why such patterns emerged and why large groups of people respond to them in such different ways.

To struggle against each of these problems means that you think alternatives are possible. War, mass starvation, death from disease, global environmental devastation — maybe these are all aspects of life that have always been and always will be with us. Maybe they reflect unchangeable human nature. Maybe they reflect the Will of God. Maybe they are part of an unstoppable process of evolution.

Once you start trying to change these patterns, even in the most direct and down-to-earth ways, you are acting on a different conviction. You are saying, in your own way, that humanity's future is not completely predetermined. Collectively human beings have the ability to shape different destinies for themselves.

You are also saying that some futures are better than others. We humans face strategic choices. A world without hunger, disease, poverty, war, environmental degradation, the subordination of women and gays, and wars fought in the name of nations and religions would be better than our present-day world. To be a leftist means thinking that human beings could organize themselves in such a way that these evils would be at least diminished if not ultimately eliminated. To be a leftist means throwing oneself into the problems of the present in the gamble that these problems are not just eternal aspects of the human condition.

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