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The Failure Of The Left
by David Edwards, Editor
July 8, 2014
Image: From the series titled Climate Change Couture: Haute Fashion for a Hotter Planet.
In Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness At Noon, N.S. Rubashov, founding father of ‘the revolution’, stands convicted of treason against tyrannical leader ‘No. 1’. But Rubashov knows that his real guilt lies elsewhere:
‘Why had not the Public Prosecutor asked him: “Defendant Rubashov, what about the infinite?” He would not have been able to answer – and there lay the real source of his guilt… Could there be a greater?’
What about uncertainty, what about the Unknown? How could Rubashov be sure that the tyranny his party had imposed on the people would truly deliver them to some socialist utopia?
‘What had he said to them? “I bow my knees before the country, before the masses, before the whole people…” And what then? What happened to these masses, to this people? For forty years it had been driven through the desert, with threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards. But where was the Promised Land?
‘Did there really exist any such goal for this wandering mankind? That was a question to which he would have liked an answer before it was too late. Moses had not been allowed to enter the land of promise either. But he had been allowed to see it, from the top of the mountain, spread at his feet. Thus, it was easy to die, with the visible certainty of one’s goal before one’s eyes. He, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, had not been taken to the top of a mountain; and wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night.’
Leftists and environmentalists have also not been allowed to enter the land of promise, or to see it from the mountain top.
Instead, we see the looming tsunami of climate catastrophe blotting out the sun, obscuring hopes of a decent future. We witness the astonishing spectacle of global society failing to respond to a threat so severe that scientists warn that even a few more decades of business-as-usual could result in human extinction. We absorb the crushing defeat since 1988 – the year the United Nations set up its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – of our inability to overcome corporate resistance to mounting, now mountainous, evidence of approaching disaster.
After decades of intense effort, which many of us felt sure would culminate in a steadily saner society prioritising people over profit, we also can see ‘nothing but desert and the darkness of night’.
The Elusive Turning Point
The 1980s explosion of public interest in green issues had writers like Edward Goldsmith and Fritjof Capra heralding ‘The Great U-Turn‘,’The Turning Point‘ that would transform society into a rational, sustainable, ‘solar’ economy.
How naïve and deterministic these predictions seem now with the green movement long overwhelmed by a corporate backlash that has supersize people driving supersize cars through an eruption of global consumption, with ‘green concern’ reduced to a niche marketing strategy targeting privileged elites.
Three decades later, the whole world flies the whole world for any reason it can conceive: a weekend shopping trip to New York, a day trip to Rome, a school trip to LA, a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ this year and every year. The world’s famous sights are now rammed in tourist gridlock.
In other words, the noisy, optimistic greens of the 1980s and 1990s should be suffering a mass nervous breakdown about now. So, also, should the left, which woke late to the crisis of climate change. In an interview, the Canadian Dimensions website asked Noam Chomsky:
‘In a lot of your writing ecological concerns seem to have come to the fore only fairly recently or at least didn’t figure as prominently in your earlier writings on foreign policy.’
‘Well, the severity of the problem wasn’t really recognized until the 1970s and then increasingly in the 1980s.’
True enough, but in books like Deterring Democracy (1992), Year 501 (1993), and World Orders, Old And New (1994), Chomsky devoted just one or two paragraphs to climate change at a time when green commentators were trying to amplify the urgent alarm raised in the US Congress by NASA climate scientist James Hansen in 1988. Chomsky’s book Powers and Prospects (1996) contains no mention of the issue at all. By contrast, Chomsky concentrated heavily on issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – hardly insignificant, but trivial by comparison.
Unlike Chomsky, who in 2013 published Nuclear War And Environmental Catastrophe with Laray Polk (Seven Stories Press), many high-profile writers on the left continue to have little or nothing to say about climate change. Why?
Leftists are typically rooted in the 17th century Western Enlightenment conviction that humanity should use reason, notably the scientific method, to radically transform both society and the natural world to the benefit of mankind. Leftists have been reluctant to perceive a fundamental problem with high-tech industrial ‘progress’ per se, focusing instead on the need to share the fruits more equably.
Greens argue that the ‘conquest of nature’ (both human and environmental) delivers pyrrhic victories because human reason is simply not equal to the task. The complexity and unknown (and perhaps unknowable) nature of the human and natural systems involved means that in ‘improving’ one aspect of life, we very often create entirely unforeseen and perhaps unmanageable chaos elsewhere.
The left just did not want to hear the bad news that there might be a deep problem with the scientific-industrial project, with the whole idea that the world can be endlessly ‘improved’. While corporate elites put themselves first and leftists prioritised humanity, greens argued that we should respect the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.
Despite the failure to address climate change, there are few signs of soul-searching in left-green circles. For example, anyone wondering what happened to Jonathan Porritt – an inspirational spokesman for green revolution in the 1980s – need look no further than his recent comment on Twitter:
‘Big bash yesterday celebrating 3 years of @Unilever’s USLP [Unilever Sustainable Living Plan]. CEO Paul Polman in great form: much achieved but so much to do.’
Has much been achieved in the 25 years since James Hansen and other scientists raised the alarm? In 2009, Hansen estimated the percentage of required action implemented to address the climate crisis at precisely ‘0%’. (Email, Hansen to Media Lens, June 18, 2009) Since then, carbon emissions, consumption and temperatures have continued to soar.
And this is hardly the only failure we’ve faced in recent times. Consider the ‘convergence’ of ‘mainstream’ politics – Blair’s 1997 corporate coup d’état that removed any semblance of ‘mainstream’ left opposition in the UK, so that we are free only to choose from a selection of representatives of corporate rather than popular power.
Or consider the entrenchment of Orwellian ‘Perpetual War’ – the state-corporate determination to bomb someone, somewhere, every couple of years for reasons that have everything to do with realpolitik and nothing to do with reason or righteousness, or ‘the responsibility to protect‘. Despite self-evident crimes resulting in mass death on a scale that almost defies imagination, the left has failed to resist the warmongering tide in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq (again).
As recently as August 2013, even after the deceptions of Iraq and Libya, both corporate and non-corporate dissidents were lending credence to US propaganda blaming Syrian president Assad for chemical weapons attacks in Damascus. Leading weapons expert, Professor Ted Postol of MIT commented on these claims:
‘To me, the fact that people are not focused on how the [Obama] administration lied is very disturbing and shows how far the community of journalists and the community of so-called security experts has strayed from their responsibility… I am concerned about the collapse of traditional journalism and the future of the country.’
Given the above, the left-green movement might be expected to share Rubashov’s crisis of conscience and confidence – many have deceived themselves that they know, with absolute certainty, how to make the world a better place. But do they? Are they right?
The confidence, in fact arrogance, of many ‘progressives’ has been so overweening that they have simply dismissed thousands of years of insight into these problems from non-Western sources whose understanding of human psychology and, by implication, social change far exceeds almost anything found in the West (an issue to which I’ll return in a later Cogitation).
Is Anyone At The Wheel?
The failure to respond to climate catastrophe has to raise urgent questions for anyone trying to address human and animal suffering. Even to compare this failure with political and media enthusiasm for ‘action’ in response to the absurd, credibly dismissed, and in fact completely non-existent threat from Iraq’s WMD in 2002-2003 is astonishing.
We assume our society is able to act rationally, but is it in fact only able to respond to threats (real or imagined) that serve vested interests? Has our political system evolved to respond in ways that increase short-term profit, but not to threats that could be averted by harming profit? Perhaps no actual agency exists with sufficient power to counter this deadly bias. Perhaps no-one rational, in fact, is at the wheel.
One also cannot help wondering about the hidden ideological obstacles to the idea that human beings could face extinction in the next 50 or 100 years.
What we call ‘progress’ is strongly imbued with a sense of ‘manifest destiny’. The rapid empowerment of science and technology naturally gives the impression that they are leading somewhere better, not worse. As environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth comments:
‘A society that takes progress as its religion does not look kindly on despair. If you are expected to believe everything will keep getting better, it can be difficult to admit to believing otherwise.’
Especially when billions of advertising dollars – all in the business of promising a better life – have a vested interested in denial. It surely seems inconceivable to many in awe of the high-tech revolution that an iPad could emerge shortly before we are erased from the face of the earth. It is a story that makes no sense. Even committed atheists may have a subtle faith in the idea that the human journey cannot be merely absurd – that we could not develop, flourish and suddenly vanish. Surely science and technology will save the day – surely the great adventure of ‘progress’ will not collapse from glittering ‘peak’ to catastrophe. Science has long given us a sense that we have ‘conquered’ and ‘escaped’ nature. It is humbling, humiliating, to even imagine that we might yet be annihilated by nature.
Science fiction writers and film-makers have saturated society with the idea that our manifestly unsustainable way of life is part of an almost pre-ordained journey to an ever more high-tech lifestyle. A glamorous future among the stars, however fraught with alien menace, seems to have been mapped out for us. Although humankind has remained stubbornly stuck at the Moon for 40 years, there seems little doubt about what the future will bring. But will it? Is it possible that this idea of human development is fundamentally misguided? Should we be more focused on moving in rather than out? (Our society is by now so divorced from spiritual awareness that the question may appear meaningless.) What if the reality of our situation on this planet makes a complete nonsense of the science fictional vision of ‘progress’?
Similarly, is it really possible for the many believers in a theistic God to accept the possibility of near-term human extinction? Can they conceive that we were created by a divine being only to be wiped out by a giant fart of industrial gas? What kind of deity would play such games? Theists precisely reject the idea of a random, meaningless universe. But what could be more nihilistic than industrial ‘progress’ culminating in self-extinction? What does it mean for the promise of ‘the second coming’, for the teaching of the prophets down the ages, and so on?
Drawing Water From The Corporate Well
Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot asks a good, related question:
‘We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats; as the biosphere is trashed… How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?’
Instead of organising to change the world, Monbiot perceives a superficial society lost in a ‘national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts?’
This certainly describes the typical fare served up by the newspaper that pays Monbiot to embed his left-green concerns alongside its soul-bleaching, advertiser-friendly pap. Monbiot’s Rousseauvian conclusion:
‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.’
And indeed, flip a page in any number of chainstores and you will find Monbiot’s earnest, kindly face smiling out at you.
In truth, corporate dissidents like Monbiot have played a crucial role in persuading intelligent, caring, potentially progressive readers to continue drawing water from the corporate well. Journalist Owen Jones, also of the Guardian, tells Media Lens (to paraphrase): ‘You are irrelevant, reaching no-one. I am reaching a mass audience.’
But reaching a mass audience with what?
The filtered content of corporate news and commentary, saturated with corporate advertising of every stripe, makes a mockery of these rare glimpses of dissent.
Imagine the impact of reading an article on climate change by a Monbiot or a Jones and then turning the page to an American Airlines advert for reduced-fare flights to New York. Or imagine turning to the front cover of a colour supplement that reads:
‘Time is running out… Ski resorts are melting… Paradise islands are vanishing… So what are you waiting for? 30 places you need to visit while you still can – A 64-page Travel Special.’
This concussive car crash of reality and illusion – of calls for action to address a grave crisis alongside calls to quit worrying and embrace the consumerism that has precisely created the crisis – delivers a transcendent message that the crisis isn’t that serious, things aren’t that bad.
The collision delivers the crippling lesson that the truth of looming catastrophe is only one of several versions of reality on offer – we can choose. We can even pick ‘n’ mix. We can enjoy a moral workout while commuting to our corporate office, feel enraged about the climate, Iraq, dolphins. Then we can turn to the business section, or think about buying a new car, or choose the next trip abroad. Later, we can watch a David Attenborough documentary about the wonders of the natural world without giving much of a damn about the fact that these wonders are being obliterated.
Corporate dissidents are a rational, compassionate, reassuring presence persuading us that compartmentalised moral concern is part of a healthy, balanced corporate media diet and lifestyle. As discussed, like Owen Jones, Monbiot’s earnest portrait in the Guardian peers out from a crowd of corporate adverts, entertainments, perspectives. We look at his concerned face in this context and see a guy like us, living as we live and work. Are we better-informed, more impassioned, more radical than he is? Surely not. So if he lives this way – if he is willing to be employed by the very corporate system against which he is ostensibly rebelling, the system that is killing us – why shouldn’t we?
There is no question that corporate media teach ‘mainstream’ propaganda values. The Guardian, for example, taught us to see Blair as a great moral force; it taught us to see the ‘Iraq threat’ as something more than a cynical fraud. More recently, it has been teaching us to swallow the West’s claimed ‘responsibility to protect’ in Libya and Syria, and even (without so much as blinking an eye) in Iraq, a country in desperate need of protection from the West.
But crucially, the Guardian and other media also teach us dissent, even as they teach us to crave the luxury products and lifestyles they sell. And so their most devastating lesson of all is that this cognitive dissonance can be embraced, accepted, left unresolved, year after year. We are trained to live with absurdity, to embrace it as ‘normal’. We have been numbed to the insanity of the way we live and think. And in the face of approaching apocalypse, we are numb, and dumb, and unmoved.
In the early 1990s, Phil Lesly, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, revealed a key secret of corporate control:
‘People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt… There is no need for a clear-cut “victory”… Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.’ (Lesly, ‘Coping with Opposition Groups,’ Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)
Corporate media reports and commentary ‘nurturing public doubts’ overwhelm occasional dissenting pieces. Adverts also loudly sell a corporate version of invincible ‘Normality’ (with no balancing perspectives allowed or even imagined). All insist we are facing ‘a non-alarming situation’.
Corporate dissidents deliver their strongest, most impassioned arguments. Corporate media gratefully receive these arguments, position them among their low-cost flight and sofa deals, and in effect say to readers:
‘See, even this has a place here, fits here, is compatible here.’
So while corporate dissidents have indeed reached a mass audience through the ‘quality’ press, they have drawn that mass audience into a corporate killing zone.
Isn’t it obvious that everything hosted by corporate media is diminished and degraded? As the American philosopher Thoreau observed:
‘I have learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.’ (Thoreau, Walden)
Left-green groups have achieved so little, in part because they have embraced corporate dissent and corporate dissent truly is cursed by the trade handling its messages from heaven. Consequently, these movements have been cursed, crushed, neutralised, neutered, made nonsensical by cooperating with a media system that is the sworn enemy of everything they are trying to achieve – deep change to the status quo.
The unwritten quid pro quo of media inclusion is such that these groups have refused even to comment on the structural bias of a corporate media system reporting on a world dominated by corporations. Why? Because, as they tell us, ‘We have to work with the media’. Attentive readers will catch occasional swipes at ‘the media’, at the tabloids, at everyone’s favourite punch bag, the BBC. But the de facto ban on discussing the oxymoron that is a corporate ‘free press’ strongly supports the illusion that no such contradiction exists. If even the boldest, most honest dissidents are not alerting readers to the problem, then those readers are being hung out on a hundred propaganda lines to dry.
The fatalistic impression given is that no-one and nothing can really escape the grip of corporate ‘normality’, of corporate control. Cooperation helps sell this ‘normality’ as Higher Truth – we all prioritise comfort, luxury, earning more, consuming more, travelling more.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that every system of unaccountable power benefits from employing a handful of individuals admired for their honesty about everything except that which threatens their unaccountable employer.
We might well dismiss all of the above as speculative and inconclusive, but for the fact that the argument is given immense, urgent weight by the catastrophic failure of the left on climate change.
And yet, to reiterate, even now corporate dissidents are not engaging in this kind of soul-searching – they cannot because corporate journalists may not discuss the problem of a corporate ‘free press’ in the corporate press.