Saturday, March 21, 2009

Davis on the role of the American Left

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I mean, the role of the Left or the Left that needs to exist in this country is not to be to come up with a utopian blueprints and how we're going to run an entirely alternative society, much less to express nostalgia about authoritative bureaucratic societies, you know, like the Soviet Union or China. It's really to try and articulate the common sense of the labor movement and social struggles on the ground. So, for instance, you know, where you have the complete collapse of the financial system and where the remedies proposed are above all privileged the creditors and the very people responsible for that, it's a straightforward enough proposition to say, "Hey, you know, if we're going to own the banking system, why not make the decisions and make them in alliance with social policy that ensures that housing's affordable, that school loans are affordable, that small business gets credit?" You know, why not turn the banking system into a public utility? Now, that doesn't have to be in any sense an anti-capitalist demand. But it's a radical demand that asks fundamental question about the institution and who holds the economic power. You know, why isn't the federal government taking a more direct role in decision making?
Do you agree with him on what the Left should and should not be doing?

He's obviously trying to frame himself as the pragmatist, but isn't there a need for alternative visions to back up this pro-labor activism?

1 comment:

T said...

I share some of your frustration here. Most all prominent Leftists these days will shy away from giving concrete accounts of what an alternative society might look like. Some of this, I think, is for good reasons. An entirely different alternative society is scarcely imaginable, and it seems politically suspect to require first that we have a utopian vision of the perfect society in place before any activist destabilization or critique of the existing order can begin.

Nonetheless, some idea about how specific, concrete changes to institutions might have been helpful, and Mike Davis didn't offer many (although he did talk about the need to increase unionization and to nationalize banks and run them like 'public utilities').

But I think there is some value to shying away from giving a different picture in contexts like this interview. The condition for a better society is first of all that people have the critical faculties to understand what's wrong with the existing order; having the correct institutional plan to implement a better society is a different problem. If Davis simply gave 'easy answers' to difficult questions, this does nothing in the way of getting people to critique the economic forces and distribution of power in most social institutions. We will never have a better society unless the potential for this kind of critique is widespread and uncompromising.

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the Left, if it is to make headway in the current crisis, must have something to say about how certain concrete changes in institutions could make people's lives better. It's a problem that there isn't more of this on offer -but even where it is (in moderate Keynesian forms, for example Krugman... or Single-Payer advocacy groups) this kind of advice gets seriously ignored by those in power and by Consensus media.