The Left needs to reclaim the language of freedom
Column | The Champagne Socialist
We live in an oligarchy, a plutocracy even. This is the somewhat obvious conclusion that researchers at Princeton and Northwestern have come to in a recent study of the relation between the views of the public and the actual policies that the American state enacts. Titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, the study’s authors write that, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Almost, by a stroke of luck, if not divine intervention this report was released almost in tandem with the English translation of the tome Capital in the Twenty-first Century by French economist and Socialist Party supporter Thomas Piketty. And this 700-page doorstopper has made quite a splash, nay, a tsunami amongst the lettered and the lay alike.
Piketty’s thesis is simple: if capitalism is left unchecked and absent of a major disruption like a 1930’s-style depression, world war, or a revolutionary social movement, then the benefits its growth will accrue more and more to a wealthy sliver of the population. In short, wealth inequality and its effects isn’t an accident of capitalism, it isn’t some anomalous “crony capitalist” afterthought, but the very life and blood of the system. His research and his proposal of a “confiscatory” progressive tax on the rich has given fodder to a growing popular consensus in our society and in our world, from Obama to the Pope Frankie to Occupy that inequality is, to paraphrase the president, “the defining issue of our time.” And though this consensus is gaining wider ground and deeper roots in the hearts and minds of the global public, efforts to break the back of the 1%’s power have either stymied, been reversed, or are making little ground. Occupy seems to have fizzled out. Europe’s massive anti-austerity public square-centered protests from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to Athen’s own Syntagma seem to have lost airtime to the Ukrainian crisis. The Arab Spring has chilled into a bloody winter and the future of Latin America’s so-called “pink tide” seems to be under serious threat in the streets of Caracas contra a revanchist, right-wing populist movement. Indeed, the hopes and prospects for global democracy seem to be bleaker than ever.
Its evident that from this, well, shitty situation that if we want to reverse the global proletariat’s losses and even go beyond capitalism as it exists, we need a consciously socialist Left, and not just any Left, but a committed and organized one unafraid to fight on the Right’s terrain and take back the language of freedom and democracy. Looking back at the history of our own republic, a country borne by the modern world’s first revolution, every egalitarian movement and agenda – abolition, feminism, civil rights, anti-war, organized labor – has claimed the language of freedom and democracy. Freedom, in perhaps a uniquely American sense, has traditionally meant the ability to act, to assert one’s will into the world and to do so without repression. What conservatives have done then is identify freedom in the marketplace and the entrepreneurs who man it as inheritors of the legacy of Tom Paine, Abe Lincoln and Dr. King; the “guvmint” then, becomes its mortal enemy. What this language shields then is very real personal power of the boss. When your boss has the power to fire you from your job at any moment’s notice, that’s not freedom. When the boss can tells that you cannot use the bathroom when you need to, that’s not freedom. Furthermore, when your husband or boyfriend tells you that you can’t leave him and his abusive ways or you’ll end up on the streets, that’s not freedom.
The very same un-freedom that we see on the job then, effects the sort of “democratic deficit” that the Northwestern and Princeton researchers have studied. If people aren’t even allowed freedom in the most private spheres of their lives, such as their workplaces, then of course their voices will go unheard in public. Missing from much of the commentary surrounding Piketty’s book is the role that the working classes, not the rich have played in the drama over wealth and democracy that began in the eighteenth century’s midwifing of modernity. It historically has been the working classes, not the bourgeoisie, who have pushed the boundaries of freedom. It was Paris’ sans-culottes who pushed the 1789 French revolution to more radical conclusions and defended the Republic against the monarchist armies. It were the slaves themselves, with their white and free black allies, who made the revolted in Haiti and took up arms against their former masters in America. It were women who broke centuries-old taboos and the authority of boyfriends and patriarchs everywhere to win the vote! What the Left needs to understand and evangelize then, is that is we, the people, who will push the boundaries of freedom and that this freedom will only come about when we make equality its precondition.
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in history and political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.