Liberals and leftists frequently debate 21st century challenges by looking back at expired solutions: classical organized labor, anarchist uprisings in Spain, the New Deal, and the post-war welfare state. I was born in 1991, and have no memory of Cold War politics. I’m actually happy about the distance it affords me. I often feel bewildered when I see my elders and intellectual superiors obsessively discussing which anachronistic thinker should be rediscovered. Most will admit that Marx’s economic analyses are correct, though this is occasionally anchored with a bit of foresight from Bakunin.
When it comes to alternatives to the systems, though, there is far more debate. Shall we take a page from Bernstein‘s efforts of reform? Should we reclaim Lenin, and see Red October as genuinely emancipatory, despite what followed? What about going in a more anarchist direction, nodding towards people like Kropotkin, Proudhon, and Thoreau? Maybe we should revive the social-democracy of the mid-20th century, from the European welfare state, to Johnson’s policies in the United States. We could also convince the upper-class to pay us all better and spread things around a bit more, generating consumer demand in the process. It’s currently fashionable to consider applying Fordist wages to the modern retail workforce, switching cars with burgers and Everyday Low Prices.
This type of reflection is certainly worthwhile. After all, some things really don’t change. David Harvey has noted how similar Pikkety‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century sounds to Das Kapital. Labor mobilization in countries like Bangladesh can certainly take a few cues from thinkers like Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. At the same time, though, there is a point when we fetishize the past at the expense of something new. The idea that we are going to find the perfect solution to all of our current problems somewhere in the annals of established thinkers is ridiculous. The world has changed so massively that left politics have to transform with it. That much is obvious, but it doesn’t prevent many liberals and leftists from mourning the loss of past victories as though the working class was tossed out of the Garden of Eden.
Nostalgia like this is dangerous for a number of reasons. One is that it venerates failed approaches and blinds us to their limitations. As just one example, the Soviet Union still benefits from an undeserved emancipatory aura, despite its undeniable autocracy and imperial assaults on countries like Afghanistan. Another is that it stifles an understanding that in many ways, we have to start again. Things are different now. Simply repeating outdated theorists is insufficient, and estranges us from the reality of our current historical situation. Doing that isn’t keeping in line with the critical leftist spirit.
Accepting this hardly means that serious politics are impossible. We live in an era of growing dissatisfaction and mobilized resistance from a motley crew of actors: the underemployed, religious minorities, refugees, and migrant laborers, to name a few. These disparate movements trace their grievances to a variety of problems that are tied to inequality and corporate hegemony. Those include such diverse issues as immigration, the War on Terror, and an anemic reaction to climate change. If unified, they actually provide the best possible challenge to neoclassical economics and the globalized status quo.
Many thinkers would have never predicted that we would be in such a strange position, with a collection of 19th century issues (plus global warming) in the 21st century. When it comes to ecological questions, many didn’t even seriously consider them, since that would have required industrial production on a far greater scale. That is exactly why we need to recognize that it is time to move on. Immense change is perfectly feasible, and likely coming, but 19th and 20th century tools are simply not going to solve 21st century problems by themselves. Even Marx couldn’t have predicted that the system would begin to skillfully compensate for its tendency to hit recession and economic depression. The best thinkers don’t get caught up in the past, which is why Roberto Mangabeira Unger is arguably far more useful for digesting what comes next than Alain Badiou. Our intellectual efforts are much better spent on generating the appropriate social and economic alternatives that a disenchanted global citizenry clearly desires. We’re not going to do that by looking backwards.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Kötter. Published under a Creative Commons License.