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  • What Kind of Left Does America Need?
  • Stanley Aronowitz (bio)

We live in a time when the “Left” is defined by the media, scholars, and liberals as a faction of the Democratic Party that still holds the New Deal as a standard of popular aspiration. The official Left is held together by hope for a return to happier days and despair that anything else is possible. The retrenchment of the Left’s declining aspirations is fueled by the pathological fear of the Right that pervades the liberal center. Indeed, we have had no significant social reform that was not mandated by the Supreme Court since the enactment of Medicare in 1966.

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“To become strong, the Left would need to launch a comprehensive educational program,” Aronowitz writes. “Education would be one of the crucial tasks of a radical political formation.” Illustration by Jeff Gomez.

The liberals have, in general, submitted to neoliberal degradations of health care, jobs, public housing, and income guarantees for the long-term unemployed (let alone the rest of us). They have not even updated Richard Nixon’s proposal for guaranteed income or fought for a serious program for combating global warming (recall it was the Nixon administration that created the Environmental Protection Administration and supported the Clean Air Act of 1970). Most recently, the idea of a national single-payer health program was abandoned when President Obama proposed a plan that would require the uninsured to buy health coverage from private insurers (who are licking their chops in preparation for the windfall). This was a surrender of the long-held perspective that health, like public education, is a right that should be paid for through public funds. “Obamacare,” the conservative alternative, has become the new banner of the official Left, even as the Right denounces its own health program.

Thus, against its own principles, the official Left became the fervent advocate of privatization. Meanwhile, the actual jobless rate continues to hover around 15 percent of the labor force, the poor grow by the minute to more than 15 percent of the population (and 32 percent of children), and the White House and Congress have no proposals to alleviate the suffering or address the issue of chronic economic stagnation. The civil rights establishment, the remnants of the labor movement, and mainstream feminist organizations dare not challenge the White House and big business for their wholesale theft of the public interest.

As the Obama administration defends universal surveillance, shreds the constitutional guarantee of privacy, persecutes whistleblowers, and authorizes police actions against strikes and demonstrations, members of the liberal center stand silently on the sidelines, trembling in their belief that to criticize the national administration is to invite disaster from the Right. The Right is bold, while the fragmented liberal center, mistakenly coded as the Left, has lost its voice and trails behind the center-right president, showering his campaigns with millions of dollars. In return, the administration dispenses a few favors, but no real concessions to the more progressive base.

Certainly, the United States needs a Left, but it must be anti-capitalist and independent of the Democrats. It would devote itself to three distinct tasks: reviving the radical imagination, launching a comprehensive education program, and opening a conversation about the creation of a new Left political formation.

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Is it possible to make substantial progress on anti-war aims in the absence of a new leftist political formation? Here, peace activists outside the Pentagon protest the Iraq War in 2009.

Reviving the Radical Imagination

The anti-capitalist Left that we need would offer in-depth analyses of the trends in global capitalism and the failures and capitulations of modern liberalism, embarking on a fresh exploration of alternatives to contemporary capitalism and the institutions of representative democracy that are a smokescreen today for authoritarian rule. Not all alternatives of the past are entirely discredited or antiquated, but as Marx argued, the Left cannot draw its primary inspiration from the past.

This project calls for the revival of the radical imagination. Among its elements is an effort to reinvent democracy in the wake of the evidence that...