There are few things I find more pretentious in the political sphere than inventing your own ideology. Over the past few years my own ideology has evolved quite a bit based on acceptance of certain objective facts, some of which compelled me to reject other beliefs because I refuse to live in a state of unreality. Despite the more eclectic nature of my beliefs, I still don’t resort to coming up with some neologism or long string of hyphenated words to describe them. These days I typically just say “socialist” and if someone wants to inquire further we can take it from there.
This being said, I’ve been struggling for some time now with the question of what sincere socialists can do in a world where open fascism at worst and proto-fascist authoritarianism at best appear to be on a triumphant march across the globe, especially considering the increasingly disturbing convergence between the traditional left and the far-right. While in the West radical leftists still display admirable ability to confront open fascism in the streets, leading some far-right figures to go as far as to concede defeat, they have at the same time displayed incredibly poor judgment when it comes to foreign policy, often defending the propaganda of authoritarian and right-wing states and sometimes regurgitating and/or otherwise legitimizing the talking points of literal fascists. At this point it matters little whether they still do it unwittingly or not- results are what matter, and the results we’ve seen in the past decade has been a major net gain for fascism. Indeed, this has been the case despite a historical crisis of global capitalism that ought to have been a major boon to proponents of an alternate, more humane system. To put it simply, the left clearly fucked up.
How did we get here? This is a question that demands a thorough autopsy, one that delves to the very root of the problem. For if we do not get down to the root and pluck it out, we will never fix what’s wrong with the left. And believe me, something is very wrong.
While most leftists openly proclaim they are in favor of equality, freedom, democracy, and the breakdown of unjust hierarchies, we have seen how in certain contexts they are easily capable of displaying xenophobia, Islamophobia, Orientalism, or other behaviors totally antithetical to their stated values. When it comes to universal healthcare at home or human rights in Gaza, the average American leftist is a moral saint and a humanitarian. Switch the venue to Syria, Ukraine, or now Nicaragua, and suddenly they identify with the oppressors and authoritarians while dismissing masses of people they don’t know in countries they’ve never been to as pawns without agency in a geopolitical game. I’ve seen some even refer to the “socialism” that some Western leftists seem to want as “Herrenvolk socialism,” or in other words- socialism for my kind- fuck the rest of the world.
As we dig for the roots I’d concur with others that there is a major epistemological problem on the left, one which leads to these corrupted, deformed takes on certain issues. Put simply, the problem is an out-of-date approach to politics and a Dunning-Kruger like conceit that prevents many from correcting their ideological errors. The former tends to manifest in “campism” or vulgar anti-Americanism, whereby countries are sorted into America and its allies, i.e. “the empire” or “hegemony,” and the countries that are supposedly “resisting” that hegemony. The latter manifests in the insistence that one’s leftist politics somehow give them a more internationalist, informed point of view when oftentimes it can be just as ignorant as the xenophobic rightist view.
To see this in action all you need to do is invoke the right event in the right place. For example, your average leftist would bristle with rage at the assertion that Palestine is a made-up nation whose population consists of terrorist-sympathizers. But they will readily accept the Russian imperialist-colonialist narrative that Ukraine is a contrived nation whose population, insofar as they identify as a separate people, consists of right-wingers and neo-Nazis. The leftist would similarly react at the assertion that residents of Gaza have no right to complain about IDF bombing when their territory is used by Hamas, elected by the people, to fire rockets into Israeli territory. Yet when there’s talk of Assad and Russia’s bombing of civilian targets in Aleppo, Idlib, and so on, we hear how these territories are controlled by “jihadists.” In fact, leftists who routinely talk about Palestinian rights have often been utterly silent on Assad’s treatment of Palestinians in his territory. In Afghanistan and Iraq, leftists routinely pointed out that one cannot bomb terrorism away, and that bombing civilians only radicalizes more people into becoming terrorists. Yet leftists curiously don’t employ that formula when it’s Assad doing the bombing. In short, Syria alone has transformed much of the Western left into Bush-era neocons cheering on their own War on Terror, all because it isn’t “the empire” carrying out the atrocities.
With similar inconsistency, the Western left expresses indignation at conspiratorial accusations that they are controlled by George Soros or Vladimir Putin, yet they are more than ready to accuse protesters in other nations as dupes of the CIA or State Department. For Americans, to use one example, it is not necessary to identify with one’s government. One is allowed to dissent and stand up for better rights and against policies which negative impact them. But for residents in countries which the leftists deem “anti-imperialist,” there is no such luxury. Here the interests of such nations are expressed via their ruling classes rather than the majority of the people. Ergo Yanukovych represents Ukraine, Assad Syria, and Ortega Nicaragua. The only ordinary citizens of these countries worth listening to are those who support the “legitimate government.” One who is personally acquainted with the situation in such countries or at least similar situations in other countries need not strain their imagination as to how those same leftists would act if the “legitimate governments” in their own countries were to adopt the practices of their arbitrarily-chosen “anti-imperialist” heroes.
The inconsistencies mentioned here are often so glaring it’s infuriating when some leftists act so oblivious to them, but there lies that root of the problem, the epistemological problem. Speaking generally, leftists adopt these erroneous positions because they reverse cause and effect between their political identity and the values they purport to have. In other words, they identify as socialists, anarchists, etc. and then assume this means they hold certain values, rather than holding certain values which lead them to adopt a socialist worldview. The result is that they assume they can’t be racist or xenophobic because the identity ostensibly negates that possibility- though in reality it obviously doesn’t.
So what is the solution? Well this is where terminology comes in. If there’s one positive trend I have seen on the left in recent years it is the tendency to characterize socialist politics not in terms of theory but rather basic decency and morals. For example, people point to our healthcare system, one of the most irrational in the entire developed world, and rightfully declare it immoral. It is immoral that in a country so wealthy, wealthy enough to pass an annual defense budget of over $700 billion and announce the creation of a whole new military branch focused on space, people are forced to resort to online crowdfunding to get medical treatment. It is immoral that people with insurance can’t even see a doctor because of the bureaucratic red tape that comes with private insurance.
This is a very positive development. Some time ago I began to realize that the trick to advancing socialism (and we have precious little time if we are to preserve human life on this planet) cannot possibly lie in getting everyone to consciously adopt a certain theoretical worldview or even identity (i.e. socialist), but rather in advancing the idea that capitalism is inherently immoral. As I once put it- get people to see capitalism the way they see cannibalism or pedophilia and you’ve won. A person may not identify as a socialist, but they should see the way Amazon treats its works as disgusting, and by extension they should see a system that requires and rewards such practices as disgusting. That day will be the true day of triumph for socialism.
Here is where I break my rule and humbly suggest that a term is needed to define this kind of socialism. I’ve been referring to it as ethical socialism. The idea is that you begin with certain values- that people are equal and have worth, that it is wrong to require the majority of people to give up the majority of their life so that a minority can live in luxury, that if we can provide everyone with the necessities of life then we should and it is immoral to do otherwise, that unjustified hierarchies deserve to be abolished, and so forth, and your political identity as a socialist flows logically from those values, rather than assuming you must hold them simply because you called yourself a socialist.
I believe that once you make this switch erroneous ideas that lead one toward reactionary thinking suddenly become exposed. If you believe all humans have rights and you have the right to protest against your government for its authoritarian practices, then others have the same right. If you believe that fascism is a danger that must be opposed at all costs, you will not be echoing their talking points and sharing platforms with them.
Naturally this isn’t a silver bullet solution. We can still make errors of judgment, usually due to lack of information. But I would assert that it is far better to start with certain core values and base decisions on a case-by-case consideration of said values rather than adopting some identity and just assuming this means you hold all the values traditionally associated with it. My experience living in the Former Soviet Union, where yesterday’s “ardent Communists” and “internationalists” often rapidly reinvented themselves as right-wing reactionaries has ultimately taught me to put more faith in people’s values and how they adhere to them than the labels they might adopt.
As such, a label like “ethical socialist” would seem paradoxical. Thus I intend to use it only to describe a certain concept, an approach to socialist politics, rather than a label. Ethical socialism is about living and advancing certain values first and foremost. I can only hope that it will catch on.