Solving Christmas conundrums with New Year’s resolutions

I know I promised to not post until the New Year. Clearly the holidays have gotten the better of me. This, however, will be a short reflection and at once a New Year’s resolution.

Christmas is a time of large get-togethers for my family and this year was no different.  We feasted late into the night on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day. Both nights the talk at the table inevitably turned to politics.

The range of economic, social and political problems identified during our meals would make any left-wing activist squirm in her seat with glee. A dearth of good jobs, runaway inequality, corporate control of politics, rampant consumerism, housing unaffordability, environmental degradation, climate change – these and more like them were raised many times over and by different people. Indeed, there was broad agreement at both feast-tables that we are in the midst of a systemic crisis.

At this point, you would expect the token lefty writer and activist (me) to easily leap up onto the table, make a rousing speech and lead a rabble in its Sunday best to take over the nearest bank, corporate office or shopping mall armed with borscht spoons and pierogis…or, at least, to get widespread agreement among those at the table that the only sensible way forward is a strong left-wing program – one best able to address the concerns raised.

Sadly, nothing like the latter took place (nor the former in case you’ve been holding your breath). When talk turned to what is to be done, left responses were largely dismissed as either ineffective, dangerous, idealistic or some combination of the three. One explanation for this reaction is that my family and their friends are Poles who left Poland during the 1980s. They by-and-large harbour a kind of antipathy to left-wing politics that is increasingly rare in Poland itself – as those who stayed saw first-hand the negative effects of the “shock therapy” transition to capitalism. For the generation of 1980s Polish emigrants, the essentially authoritarian, statist capitalism in the Soviet satellite states is conflated with anything left-of-centre.

This explanation doesn’t hold up, however, as the sceptical-at-best reaction to left solutions is one I have seen repeated over and over again when talking with working- and middle-class people who don’t openly identify as left-wing. There is much more behind my Christmas interactions than simply a cultural idiosyncrasy. Surveys confirm that majorities support left principles; the issue is the follow-through. Indeed, this appears to be a contemporary generality: very progressive concerns couched in conservative politics – put differently, left problems with right solutions.

It appears we are witness to a new strain of the same old TINA (There Is No Alternative) syndrome, one slightly different from the original that reared its head in the 1980s. It is difficult to tell if this new strain is more or less lethal to substantial social change. The main symptom remains resignation, but unlike the hopeful resignation to advanced capitalism that infected the boom years of the 2000s and parts of the 1990s, the current form is a hopeless resignation. Although more people more strongly acknowledge that trickle-down economics has utterly failed – hey, even the Pope is in on it! – the prospects for meaningful, left-led social change remain dim, particularly in the global North.

The left has for a long time been more-or-less aware that it has difficulty connecting with everyday hopes and fears, even, and especially, of those who in large part agree with its diagnosis of the present. This Christmas simply brought this difficulty viscerally home to me. Of course, I may be a particularly bad communicator when it comes to family and friends, but the fact that I have seen this scenario repeated so many times over when it comes to others allows me to believe that it reveals something more fundamental. Indeed, while I have a certain dinner-table cachet as an economist when the conversation is on the level of economic facts, trends and predictions, this cachet almost disappears when it comes time to offer solutions phrased as alternatives to the current malaise.

So what, then, is the strategy? Do we take baby steps instead of pushing grand ideas? Rather than talk about the corporate and banking sectors as harming workers and redistributing income to the very wealthiest, perhaps just single out a bad company or two. Rather than talk about the tax system as a whole as unfair, perhaps advocate for a 1% change here or a few percentage points there. Or rather than talk about global climate change, perhaps focus on clean power technology…

The list could go on and, indeed, it has. The strategy of baby steps has been the preferred method for many left political parties across Canada and the world. Its proponents call it realism; opponents prefer defeatism or selling out. While it is a not altogether crazy response, it misses the problem. The problem is not that people don’t agree with our diagnosis – millions really think the entire corporate sector is a corrupt, exploitative sham and so on – it’s that they are less willing to listen to our solutions. Offering solutions to not only smaller but qualitatively-different problems – the “bad apples” view of business malfeasance, for example – does little.

Do we instead just need to lighten up and let go of the doom-and-gloom pessimism? Engage in shameless populism? Move to a more values-oriented approach? All of these have some value. We don’t have to be that guy (it’s usually a guy): the buzzkill, the wonk, the ever-rationalist, the person at the party everyone wishes would just stop talking or leave. Joy, populism and belief are all left values.

One of the main ways we can do better is to focus more on solutions and on rebuilding class consciousness. We have the problems side of the equation pretty well down but this on its own only feeds the hopeless resignation. Bad news overload. The way the left promotes its solutions needs work. Either we fall into the trap of arguing for solutions that are often too timid or inappropriate to the problems at hand– something easily seen through, which may explain the continuing failure of the centrist left in so many crisis-hit countries – or we are unable to answer the demand for a full-fledged alternative.

We have to remember ourselves and remind people that the Romans didn’t have a ready-made plan of a new civilization, neither did feudal lords nor capitalists in the 16th and 17th centuries. They all made radical steps that changed social structures. Some steps were small, some were big, there was dirty work involved, but also joy. Perhaps this is why Occupy struck such a chord, why take-overs of factories and repossessed homes are not easily dismissed and why revolutions offer so much hope. We all respond to action that is focused on physically changing and removing problems. The right has taken over some of this space in recent times because it has been willing to act, despite the fact that its actions only deepen the multiple crises we face.

This is where class consciousness comes in. Those most affected by the brutal economic, social and ecological devastation capitalism has set loose, especially in the global North are disconnected. We are removed from one another as we are from the solutions to this devastation. The reasons are too many to properly discuss here, but they include everything from a pervasive ideology of individualism to strategies of co-opting people into the capitalist system, particularly via finance, to outright censorship and lies. Building solidarity and a recognition of shared experiences and, importantly, goals is as central task that can help overcome the kind of reaction I saw at my Christmas table.

This post is thus simultaneously a look back at my holidays and a look forward to my New Year’s resolution. No predictions here; for while there are surely deep laws and tendencies of motion that guide and govern the economy, their interactions with human agency, ecological limits and political countervailing forces can too easily turn any prediction to fantasy. Resolutions flow in the other direction. They are fantasies we try to make real through work and agency. My hope for the coming year and years is that left solutions to the problems we face move from fantasy to reality, from a minority to a newly-energized majority, from the work of millions of minds, hearts and hands to the everyday structures of the world.

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PS – Now off to spend the New Year completely cut off from communications deep in the backcountry of BC’s Coast Mountains, charging batteries for bringing life to these resolutions in 2014. Perhaps I’ll find a new world when I come back on January 3…if not, expect more concrete economic analysis here in January, and more thoughts on solutions.

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