Are progressives missing the chance to capitalize on a major cultural transformation?
The other day a friend started haranguing me about “greenwashing”—token ecological gestures that corporations make to mask their environmentally destructive practices. I suggested that the practice reveals a corporate vulnerability to public opinion that opponents can turn to their advantage. He brushed this thought aside, as if anxious to convince me how hopeless it was trying to stop corporate malfeasance. I began to wonder if harping on the magnitude of problems might actually be keeping us from doing anything about them.
I’ve begun to feel lately that such lamentations are related to the ineffectuality of progressive politics in recent years. The left is floundering in part due to a failure to grasp the essence of a cultural shift that is slowly but surely transforming the world. The right is desperately fighting this shift, using time-honored strategies, tactics, and slogans. The left remains confused, standing in opposition to the right while sharing, unconsciously, many of its underlying assumptions and values. What is this cultural shift, and why are so many resisting it? Consider these more or less random examples:
In all three conflicts, one side is feeling a connection—with different cultures and species—that the other side does not feel. These contrasts are symptomatic of a much larger ideological conflict being played out in the world today. This is not a conflict between nations, between political systems, between religious traditions, or between left and right. It is a conflict taking place within every nation, every political system, every religious tradition, and, indeed, every individual. It’s a gradual but massive collision between two competing cultural systems. I call them the Culture of Division and the Culture of Connection.
Wherever it appears, the conflict between them boils down to a different attitude toward boundaries. The Culture of Division is based on boundaries and seeks to uphold and create them. The Culture of Connection seeks to dissolve them.
Connector culture is characterized by a preoccupation with linking—people, concepts, places. It seeks to recognize commonalities and promote democratic decision-making. It emphasizes process over product.
The emergence of Connector culture takes such diverse forms as the euro, the ending of apartheid, the blurring of gender roles and the increasing power and influence of women, global communication and the global economy, internationalism in music, cuisines, and art, and the retelling of old tales from the viewpoint of the antagonist.
Resistance to Connector culture has been most visible in the rise of fundamentalist movements—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu—throughout the world. Paradoxically, it is strongest both in the world’s most backward areas and in its centers of great power. Osama bin Laden and the Bush administration both exemplify Divider resistance.
Divider culture is marked by a preoccupation with control—over nature, over other people, over our own bodies and feelings. It’s relentlessly dualistic—splitting all of life into warring opposites. It fosters rankings and hierarchies. It exalts war and competition, and tends to see cooperation as weakness. It seeks a fixed, static world in which good perpetually battles evil. The clash between Dividers and Connectors can be seen in every area of life—politics, business, science, art, personal relationships, sexuality, religion, psychology, medicine. (It mirrors, for example, the conceptual revolution brought about by quantum physics and chaos theory.) It is the defining social issue today, and probably for decades to come.
The right has positioned itself unambiguously in this struggle—resisting nearly every aspect of Connector culture. The ambivalence of the left—stemming from its failure to grasp fully these fundamental changes and align itself with Connector culture—has forced many progressives into a reactive role. Only when someone in power does something destructive, predatory, or stupid do they mount some sort of protest in response—a demonstration, a march, a boycott, a lawsuit. American politics has become a tennis game in which the left no longer gets to serve. The wider public can see clearly today what progressives are against, but can often only guess what they are for.
Far from putting itself at the forefront of the shift toward Connector culture, the left has neutralized itself by pushing the Connector agenda with one hand while embracing Divider values with the other: values like militarism, individualism, elitism, and utopianism.
Militarism: One of the oldest tenets of the left is that you cannot be a true radical unless you’re “militant”—that is, at war with representatives of the status quo, who must be demonized and dehumanized. (The fact that, given centralized power, leftist leaders tend to behave just like rightist leaders is excused and rationalized.) Though nominally antiwar, the radical left tends to embrace the militaristic values of the right. Environmentalists who try to help corporations move in an ecological direction are stigmatized for fraternizing with the enemy.
Individualism: Going it alone, seeing enemies all around, is the stance of the radical right. Yet leftists, too, often prove incapable of forming crucial alliances, even with other radicals—a failing beautifully satirized in the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian, in which the Judean People’s Party, ostensibly formed to resist Roman rule, spends all its energy attacking the People’s Party of Judea.
Elitism: One of the left’s most common flaws—intellectual elitism—alienates the working class. Environmentalists are particularly prone to this failing, too often ignoring the legitimate concerns of loggers, farmers, autoworkers, fishing industry workers, and others whose livelihoods appear to depend on ecological destruction. In the long run, these different interests often turn out to be less contradictory than they seem. Ecology groups and fishing fleets, for example, share the same desire—a sea full of fish. But progressives often prefer confronting “enemies” to finding common ground with people different from themselves.
Progressives also find it hard to discriminate between their various opponents, between the militaristic cowboys of the radical right, for example, and internationalistic corporate leaders. As predatory and destructive as corporations can be, they are the most powerful force on the planet today. Not to engage with them is as self-defeating as not engaging in the political process. Most business leaders today have a vested interest in a peaceful world. Yet for many radicals, they are merely evil bogeymen.
Utopianism: Democracy is an ever-evolving, self-correcting process, not a frozen final product. The radical right has mounted a rear-guard assault against this dynamism—trying to re-establish, with considerable success, an authoritarian state. Too many leftists, as well, see themselves as godlike architects of a “better” world, drafting blueprints of how things should be and attacking all who fail to agree with their specifications. They compete to be “more militant than thou,” and the grandiosity of their goals suggests that the ego investment in their ideas outweighs the desire for change. Some progressives are quite willing to see nothing achieved as long as their values remain unsullied. Such piety betrays a hidden belief in a sort of Radical Higher Authority who rewards true believers. Followers of this path can all too easily aim not at creating change, but at proving that they are Good and their opponents are Bad.
For the left to reclaim its role as the creative edge of social change, it needs to recognize what that change means at its core: connection, communication, and the removal of walls. Millions of people around the world are doing just that—consciously and otherwise. They’re not lamenting, they’re not plotting revolutions, they’re not committing acts of violence, for they’re aware that violence, revolution, and lamentation are all reactionary. They’re organizing, peacekeeping, growing organic food, working with solar energy, forming international alliances, and, yes, helping corporations and other organizations try to become sustainable.
The concept of “left” or “progressive” needs to be redefined. If “left” means being in the forefront of cultural change, much of the current left is out of the picture. Insofar as it still clings to individualistic values, authoritarian assumptions, and militaristic stances, it has aligned itself with the Divider position of the right. It will regain a sense of purpose and public support when it has fully grounded itself in the Connector values of the future.
Philip Slater is the author of the best-selling The Pursuit of Loneliness and is working on a book tentatively titled Temporary Insanity: Living in a Transitional Age.