Apr. 20, 2008
by Chris Hedges, a former Middle East bureau chief for the New York
Times and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute
The failure of the American left is a failure of nerve. It has been
neutralized and rendered ineffectual as a political force because of
its refusal to hold fast on core issues, from universal,
single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans, to the
steadfast protection of workers' rights, to an immediate withdrawal
from the failed occupation of Iraq to a fight against a militarized
economy that is hollowing the country out from the inside.
Let the politicians compromise. This is their job. It is not ours. If
the left wants to regain influence in the nation's political life, it
must be willing to walk away from the Democratic Party, even if
Barack Obama is the nominee, and back progressive, third-party
candidates until the Democrats feel enough heat to adopt our agenda.
We must be willing to say no. If not, we become slaves.
Political and social change, as the radical Christian right and the
array of corporate-funded neocon think tanks have demonstrated, are
created by the building of movements. This is a lesson American
progressives have forgotten. The object of a movement is not to
achieve political power at any price. It is to create pressure and
mobilize citizens around core issues of justice. It is to force
politicians and parties to respond to our demands. It is about
rewarding, through support and votes, those who champion progressive
ideals and punishing those who refuse. And the current Democratic
Party, as any worker in a former manufacturing town in Pennsylvania
can tell you, has betrayed us.
"The mistake of the former left-wingers, from Tom Hayden to Todd
Gitlin, is that they want to be players in the Democratic Party and
academia," said John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's
magazine, speaking of two prominent 1960s activists. "This is not
what the left is supposed to be. The left is supposed to be outside
the system. The attempt by the left to take control of the Democratic
Party failed with [Eugene] McCarthy and George McGovern. The left, at
that point, should have gone back to organizing, street protests,
building labor unions, and the mobilization of grassroots activists.
Instead, it went for respectability."
The rise of a corporate state, and by that I mean a state that no
longer works on behalf of its citizens but the corporations, is as
much a part of the Democratic agenda as the Republican agenda. Sure,
every four years Democratic candidates pay lip service to the old
values of the party, but then they head off to Washington and do
things such as ram NAFTA down our throats, throw 10 million people
off welfare, and peddle health-care proposals acceptable to the HMOs,
huge pharmaceutical giants, and for-profit health-care providers who
are, after all, the very sources of our health-care crisis. What we
as citizens need and work for in a corporate state is irrelevant.
The working class has every right to be, to steal a line from Obama,
bitter with liberal elites. I am bitter. I have seen what the loss of
manufacturing jobs and the death of the labor movement did to my
relatives in the former mill towns in Maine. Their story is the story
of tens of millions of Americans who can no longer find a job that
supports a family and provides basic benefits. Human beings are not,
despite what the well-heeled Democratic and Republican apologists for
the free market tell you, commodities. They are not goods. They
grieve, and suffer and feel despair. They raise children and struggle
to maintain communities. The growing class divide is not understood,
despite the glibness of many in the media, by complicated sets of
statistics or the absurd, utopian faith in unregulated globalization
and complicated trade deals. It is understood in the eyes of a man or
woman who is no longer making enough money to live with dignity and hope.
"The other side has religion, and we need some," said the Rev. Susan
B. Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. "We
need a more robust understanding of the role of religious values,
values that prevent us from compromising the sanctity and dignity of
human life. The left, because it is largely secular, did not do
enough as the working class was finished off. And now the same thing
is happening with the middle class. It is the loss of the left's
spiritual resources that has crippled the movement. The left forgot
that nations, like individuals, have souls. Once you sell your soul,
it is hard to get it back. History is not linear. History is about
constant struggle. It is the struggle, if you come out of faith,
The failure of the left is the failure of well-meaning people who
kept compromising and compromising in the name of effectiveness and a
few scraps of influence until they had neither. The condemnations
progressives utter - about the abuse of working men and women, the
rapacious cannibalization of the country by an unchecked arms
industry, our disastrous foreign wars, and the collapse of basic
services from education to welfare - are not backed by action. The
left has been transformed into anguished apologists for corporate
greed. They have become hypocrites.
"The loss of nerve by the left comes down to this lack of faith,"
Thistlethwaite said. "Having a soul means there is coherence between
our actions and our values. The left can no longer claim this
coherence. It has no moral compass. It does not know right from
wrong. It has, in its confusion, lost the capacity to make moral judgments."
Hope, St. Augustine wrote, has two beautiful daughters. They are
anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and the courage to see
they do not remain the way they are. We stand at the verge of a
massive economic dislocation, one forcing millions of families from
their homes and into severe financial distress, one that threatens to
rend the fabric of our society. If we do not become angry, if we do
not muster within us the courage to challenge the corporate state
that is destroying our nation, we will have squandered our
credibility and integrity at the moment we need it most.
Chris Hedges is author of "I Don't Believe in Atheists" and "American
Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America."