Last week a New York Times columnist wrote a column criticizing professors for shirking their responsibility to the public by staying put within the Academy. American journalism is and for most of the 20th and 21st century has been reliant on advertising revenue. But while that ad revenue used to be based on subscription data and on hard sales, with the growth of the internet, that’s shifted towards the click economy. Every click advertisers receive, particularly from key demographic groups, generates revenue.
So while I don’t think the New York Times columnist had this in mind when he wrote the column, I do think the column ends up working very well for the newspaper. Not because the argument is sound–because it isn’t. Not because the columnist writes well–because he doesn’t. But it works well because it generates outrage from a population that with important exceptions has a lot to offer the types of advertisers attracted to the New York Times. And that outrage translates into clicks.
Someone writes a response to it and links to the original?
Someone puts a link to the story on Facebook, pissed off about how bad the article is?
Someone tweets the story (with the hashtag #thiscolumnistisanidiot)?
Clicks that end up drawing attention and energy away from far more productive and interesting work.
Which brings me to Adolph Reed’s Nothing Left (subscription required for the full article). Reed has been charting the slow death of the American Left for almost thirty years beginning with The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon. In fact I think Reed’s body of work (which includes Stirrings in the Jug, Class Notes, and even W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought) all deal with this question.
To this extent Reed’s article isn’t really charting new ground. But that’s why I think it’s important reading.
Here’s the argument in a nutshell. We can point to a moment in time when even the nation’s most powerful political figures articulated an egalitarian agenda. For Reed the high point is FDR’s call for a new Bill of Rights:
Every single important movement of the sixties owed a great deal to the “old left” as both the vision they articulated and the institutions they developed to get government to adhere to this vision (through electing candidates and through passing legislation) were adopted/adapted from them.
Within twenty years both the old and the new Left are in tatters, unable to respond to Reagan:
By the nineties both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are in effect held hostage by big business. Reed:
…during the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same time, business interests, in concert with the Republican right and supported by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left had won.
Where are we now?
Today, the labor movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care inn the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling. Dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to ‘disparity,’ while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.
And perhaps most importantly, while some could argue that the right has in effect colonized the GOP the Democratic Party has colonized what’s left of the left. By painting an all-too rosy picture of the Clinton era (as Reed notes Clinton is responsible for the evisceration of welfare, for significantly increasing the size and scope of the prison industrial complex, for de-regulating derivatives, and for significantly reducing labor’s ability to organize) and consistently emphasizing political practicality and “common sense”, the Democratic Party has reduced the role of the left to getting behind the neoliberal presidential candidate once every four years.
Obama and his campaign did not dupe or simply co-opt unsuspecting radicals. On the contrary, Obama has been clear all along that he is not a leftist. Throughout his career he has studiously distanced himself from radical politics. In his books and speeches he has frequently drawn on stereotypical images of leftist dogmatism or folly. When not engaging in rhetorically pretentious, jingoist oratory about the superiority of American political and economic institutions, he has often chided the left in gratuitous asides that seem intended mainly to reassure conservative sensibilities of his judiciousness–rather as Booker T. Washington used black chicken-stealing stereotypes to establish his bona fides with segregationist audiences. This inclination to toss off casual references to the left’s ‘excesses’ or socialism’s ‘failure’ has been a defining element of Brand Obama and suggests that he is a new kind of pragmatic progressive who is likely to bridge–or rise above–left and right and appeal across ideological divisions.
Said another way:
Now it isn’t as if the American public isn’t aware of growing levels of inequality. And although Reed works in the ivory tower it isn’t as if he’s unaware of Occupy Wall Street or the growing degree of black youth activism. It’s just that he doesn’t think much of it.
The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants’; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban ‘precariat’; green whatever; the black/Latino/LGBT ‘community’;the grassroots, the netroots, and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a ‘Troskyist’ software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another.[foot]This piece was likely written before the elections of both Bill de Blasio in New York City and Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson but he’d likely include their elections here as well.[/foot] It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to ‘send messages’ to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.
This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam.
(Reed’s never been known to pull punches.)
So what are we to do? Reed’s prescription is twofold. First we have to open our eyes to the reality that we’ve a decades long struggle ahead of us given how weak the left is as a political force. Second we have to work to rebuild labor, as only a new labor movement can give us the institutional foundation we need for rebuilding.
In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program–the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U. S. black politics here…(p. 13)[/foot]
But again…that’s the point.
And while Reed doesn’t tackle black politics per sé in this piece, it isn’t hard to apply his argument to the terrain of black politics (both within the U.S. and abroad). Certainly we can take the news of the recent “historic” and “unprecedented” African American Leaders Convening meeting as simultaneously being too little and too late (coming six years after it was theoretically possible to exact promises from Obama) and besides the point (as they convened in Washington D.C. rather than in the communities they presumably “represent” and seek to serve). Similarly we can view the relatively recent argument over Beyoncé’s feminism between women of color as an argument over the degree to which contemporary questions of black feminism should focus on representation rather than on questions of political economy. And we can examine the discussion over the contemporary role of black public intellectuals as rehashing a twenty-year old debate that places far too much weight on the ability of people like me to “speak truth to power” and far too little weight on organizing and institution building.
A number of us have begun thinking critically about political activism inside and outside of black communities. Though I’m not sure if I believe labor is our last best hope as Reed seems to, I think our intellectual and political work would benefit a great deal from Reed’s work (and as I think of it Michael Dawson’s recent tome as well).
p.s. (as if this piece wasn’t already long enough) As it stands there are a couple of spaces on the internet that are “natural” for this conversation to the extent folks are interested in continuing this in venues outside of Facebook and Twitter. If folks want to chime in with longer responses on a non-corporate owned website feel free to contact me.