Beyond False Dichotomies: Toward a New American Left, Z Magazine (April 2015)
I have long registered my agreement with the brilliant socialist philosopher Istvan Merszaros’s dark, environmentally informed 2001 judgment that: “many of the problems we have to confront—from chronic structural unemployment to the major political/military conflicts [of our time], as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere—require concerted action in the very near future. The timescale of such action may perhaps be measured in a few decades but certainly not in centuries. We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself…If I had to modify Rosa Luxembourg’s words, in relation to the dangers we now face, I would add to ‘socialism or barbarism’ this qualification: ‘barbarism if we are lucky.’ For the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.”
I do not see how the movement required can emerge as long as leftists and many others here are plagued by the false dichotomies and false dilemmas discussed in this article. Here’s a useful definition and discussion of a false dichotomy, found online: “a false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones…. There are two ways in which one can commit a false dilemma. First, one can assume that there are only two (or three, though that case is strictly speaking be a ‘false trilemma’) options when there really are many more. Second, one can take the options to be mutually exclusive when they really are not.”
Below I discuss and propose solutions from an eco-leftist and participatory-socialist perspective to 25 leading false dichotomies and false dilemmas (hereafter abbreviated as FDs) that afflict leftists and those leftists would like to enlist in the cause of radical-democratic change. Many of these FDs seem to have been internally created by the Left itself; others seem more externally than internally derived. They require attention and remedy—resolution—by leftists either way.
- Self or Society
According to this FD, one must choose between one’s own personal interests and health on one hand and the greater or common good on the other. This is nonsense. While the revolutionary project of my desired post-false dichotomous Left (hereafter referred to, half-seriously, as the PFDL) sees selfishness, excessive ego attachment, and narcissism as reprehensible, it also believes that individual development and health are enhanced by social and environmental justice. At the same time, the PFDL does not believe that people who sacrifice their individual well-being on behalf of changing society are likely to succeed in making the world a better place. The opposite is more likely. As the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa once observed, “our individual experience of sanity is inherently linked to our vision of a good society…If we try to solve society’s problems without overcoming the confusion and aggression in our own minds, then our efforts will only contribute to the basic problems, instead of solving them.”
- Earth or Jobs
According to this FD, we must choose between ecological sustainability on one hand and jobs on the other. This is a false choice which ignores both the long-term reality that (to quote a favorite green protest slogan) “there’s no economy [and hence no jobs] on a dead planet” and the shorter-term fact that a broad conversion to ecologically sustainable energy sources and infrastructure would generate millions of socially and environmentally necessary jobs. The PFDL advocates massive public works “green jobs” programs designed to move humanity off fossil fuels and away from extractivist relationships with the planet to renewable energy and other Earth-regenerative policies and practices (see point 14 below). At the same time, the PFDL advocates a post-capitalist participatory-democratic society in which citizens are no longer compelled to rent out their labor power to an inherently exploitative capitalist employer class (to work in “jobs”) to obtain life necessities.
- Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Nationality or Class
According to this FD, we must choose between advocating racial justice and equality on one hand and fighting for economic and class justice and equality on the other. This is a false choice which ignores the facts that racial injustice and inequality find much of their taproot in class oppression, that class injustice is significantly sustained by racial division, and that one cannot meaningfully struggle against class oppression without fighting also to overcome racial inequality. The PFDL does not feel forced to choose between fighting against class oppression and struggling against race oppression. The same basic point holds for inequalities of gender, ethnicity, regional identity, nationality, sexual orientation, religious (or non-religious) identity, age, sickness, and disability. The PFDL is simultaneously against any and all structures, institutions, and ideologies of inequality, oppression, and exploitation.
- Pro-union or Anti-Union
This FD posits that one is either pro-union or anti-union. This ignores key differences between different types of unions. The PFDL does not align with purely job- and wage-conscious “business” unions that care about nothing more than employment opportunities and pay and benefit levels for their members. Such unions show no concern for the often anti-social and environmentally toxic nature of the work tasks their members perform or for the deeply dehumanizing ways in which that work is structured and organized—typically on a militantly hierarchical basis, with an extreme authoritarian division of labor. (Examples of anti-social and ecocidal work include the construction, operation, and maintenance of: oil, gas, and coal extraction and transportation facilities; nuclear power plants; mass prisons and police and surveillance facilities and technologies; obesity-inducing fast-food restaurants; nuclear weapons and other means of mass annihilation.) At the same time, the PFDL believes that all workers (prison guards, oil-drillers, and weapons-makers as well as teachers, social workers, and nurses) under capitalism deserve union recognition and collective bargaining rights. It backs and advances socially and politically oriented unions ready to fight for broad, many-sided progressive and radical-democratic change leading (among other things) to the non-authoritarian and egalitarian structuring of work (along “pareconish” lines) and the collective application of human labor power to socially and ecologically necessary and useful, environmentally sustainable tasks. The PDFL supports radical and revolutionary unions—working class organizations that seek a new and democratically transformed world turned upside down rather than just a better deal for its members and its bureaucratic officials in the rotten, top-down world ruled by the exterminist logic of capital.
- Voting or Apathy
This FD says that one either participates in political elections or is politically disengaged. Besides exaggerating the extent of relevant options that are commonly offered in time-staggered elections under “really existing capitalist democracy” (RECD), pronounced as “wrecked” in the clever words of Noam Chomsky, it misleadingly identifies electoral politics as the only relevant form of politics. While the PFDL does not reject any and all participation in electoral politics (this writer would certainly have voted for Syriza in the recent Greek elections and for Socialist Kshame Sawant’s Seattle City Council candidacy last year and would vote for the Left third party Podemos in upcoming Spanish elections), it is more concerned with developing the power, disruptive capacity, cultural influence, and daily relevance of grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the candidate-centered election spectacles that are sold to U.S. citizens as “politics,” the “only politics that matters.” This is particularly true in the United States, where the range of “choices” offered by viable parties and candidates is especially narrow and Big Business-controlled. To paraphrase the radical American historian Howard Zinn, the PFDL is much more interested in who’s sitting in the streets and on the shop-floors and in the schools and the offices and the public squares than in who’s sitting in the White House, the governors’ mansions, the Congress, and other supposedly “representative” positions. At the same time, the PFDL supports changing the U.S. party and elections systems to make U.S. elections more deserving of popular participation than they are at present.
- Democrats or Republicans
This U.S.-specific FD claims that leftists and other progressives must support the Democratic Party to block the arch-reactionary Republican Party in all U.S. elections and policy. The PFDL understands why many U.S. progressives feel compelled to grant tactical backing to Democrats over Republicans. It does not think that one ceases to be seriously Left simply because one chooses to step into a U.S. voting booth for two minutes to block a hideously reactionary Republican candidate with a less horrific Democrat or to select a more progressive Democrat over a right wing Democrat (i.e., Chicago Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia over the incumbent arch-corporatist Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in that city’s 2015 elections). It also does not believe that the two dominant U.S. political organizations are completely identical (the Republicans and the Democrats have different histories, constituencies and funding streams among other variations between them).
At the same time, the PDFL never forgets that those organizations are more alike than different in their shared captivity to the capitalist elite, the “free enterprise” (state-capitalist) system, and the U.S. global and military empire. The PFDL also knows that the Democrats are in some ways worse than the rightmost of the two organizations (the Republicans). They are to some degree “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford), particularly when it comes to their ability to capture, co-opt, and shut-down the disruptive and radical potential of popular social movements. The PFDL does not believe that meaningful solutions to our current grave societal and environmental dilemmas are remotely attainable through the U.S. “two party system,” both of whose wings (the far-right Republicans and the center-right Democrats) stand well to the right of the majority populace in combined service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, capital, business, empire, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
- Reform or Revolution
This FD claims that one must support either reforms under the currently reigning power system or the revolutionary overthrow of that system. The PFDL thinks that reform and revolution are not mutually exclusive goals. It grasps that revolutionary movements are built partly on the basis of popular support won through the advocacy and occasionally the winning of reforms that improve everyday peoples’ lives. It understands that certain reforms create and expand popular expectations that the state-capitalist system and its rulers cannot satisfy. At the same time, the PFDL knows that serious reformers need radical “thunder on the Left” to convince reluctant elites to pass reforms as alternatives to more radical change.
The PFDL knows that reforms will not suffice. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he wrote near the end his life that “the real issue to be faced” is “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” The PFDL is highly conscious and wary of reformism’s long record of co-opting, diluting, de-radicalizing, dividing, and demobilizing popular movements. It is nonetheless ready and willing to work creatively with the tensions inherent in the dialectical dance of reform and revolution.
- Demands or Organization
This FD posits that an emergent Left movement must focus either on specific demands or on the development of its organizational capacity for forcing change and winning demands from the bottom up. The PFDL priorities organization since a strong and durable (“sticky”) institutional presence and power—not policy ideas or demands—is the primary thing missing on the Left right now. Still, the PFDL does not ignore or indefinitely postpone the inevitable question of “what are you for?” either in terms of immediate reforms or on the longer timeline of alternative societal and political-economic vision. Ideas without organizations to fight for them have little chance of implementation, but organizations without specific, well-conceived demands and ideas for change are unlikely to be taken seriously or to recruit a large and resilient membership.
- Growth or No Growth
According to the FD, we must either (a) support the environmentally disastrous economic growth that billions of people require under capitalism for employment and income or (b) oppose growth in the interests of saving livable ecology. Painfully conscious that a no-growth economy would lead to drastically expanded unemployment and poverty for billions under the currently reigning state-capitalist system, the PFDL does indeed oppose growth on the chaotic and environmentally exterminist state-capitalist model. The PFDL does not so much reject growth as redefine growth to mean a number of things beyond and against the dominant capitalist meaning.
The great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about peoples’ remarkable capacity for “psychological growth,” by which he meant advance toward “self-actualization” through (in the words of one his leading followers, Frank Goble) “a constant development of talents, capacities, creativity, wisdom, and character”—something he found contrary to capitalist society’s over-emphasis on material and economic “success.”
On a broader scale, the PFDL thinks of a society’s real and desirable growth in terms of the increased quantity, spread, and intensity of equality, justice, democracy, participation, sustainability, health, creativity, imagination, empathy, solidarity, compassion, and happiness experienced by the broad populace. All of these (we think) positive attributes are assaulted and undermined by the state-capitalist model and definition of “growth,” ultimately a form of human de-development and extermination.
- More or Less
The PFDL rejects the argument of some environmentalists that the populace must be instructed to “make do with less.” The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades. It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been assaulted for more than a generation. Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant ecological, social, and even spiritual problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and eco-exterminist rule of capital.
- The Environmental Crisis or Everything Else
Given recent ever-worsening climate projections, it is tempting to conclude that if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change isn’t averted soon, then, as Noam Chomsky has warned, “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”
The warning is powerful and chillingly accurate enough given “capital’s destructive course of development” (Merszaros). Still, the brilliant left environmentalist Naomi Klein is right to challenge activists to understand the environmental crisis and climate action within the broader political framework of issues and problems that are directly linked to global warming: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more. Climate action, Klein shows, is intimately related to and consistent with positive government and collective action around each of these and other interrelated areas.
A movement to address the climate crisis can be a bridge to broad progressive and revolutionary change and the regeneration of democracy and the public sector in all areas of society. In her important new volume This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, the argument isn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.” Klein’s point instead is that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to progress on “everything else.” Ultimately, Klein argues—correctly in this writer’s opinion —that “the really inconvenient truth is that [global warming] is not about carbon—it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth” (a position with which Chomsky would likely agree). The PFDL (well, the present writer) concurs.
- Vanguardism or Spontaneity
According to this FD, we must either advance a militant and controlling, top-down, vanguard style of radical leadership or we must “give in” to the “naïve spontaneity” of the insufficiently radical “masses.” The PFDL does not romanticize or sentimentalize the rank and file working class and citizenry or reject the need for leadership, programs, strategy, tactics, cadres and organization. Painfully conscious of the powerful role that ruling class propaganda, media, “education,” and ideology and other reactionary influences have long played in manufacturing mass consent to state-capitalism and imperialism (and other authoritarian oppression structures and ideologies), it does not support unquestioning deference to whatever oppressed people might say, think, or do. It does not shrink from its duty to struggle against elite and reactionary cultural and ideological influences and to advance a critical pedagogy of radical liberation. At the same time, the PFDL does not wish to substitute its own privilege and power for that of currently reigning elites. It works to widen, not narrow, the depth and breadth of popular participation and power both in society and in popular movements. Seeking to rise with and not above the popular majority, PFDL aims less to direct than to accompany and assist the “masses”—the great majority of world worker-citizens—in solidarity on the path to a popular, many-sided democratic revolution.
- Real-life Struggle or “Utopian” Blueprints
According to this FD, we must choose between (a) organizing and fighting struggles in the here and now and (b) rigorously imagining and proposing a future beyond contemporary oppression structures. The PFDL prioritizes contemporary real-time struggles and recognizes that a revolutionary future will have to emerge from those struggles. At the same time, the PFDL thinks it is useful for activists in the present to develop, maintain, and update a strong sense and vision of what kind of future ends and aims and society we seek. Doing so helps sustain us in our current struggles and helps shape those struggles in accord with ultimate intentions.
- Capitalism or Really Existing Socialism
If we pose our vision of an alternative society purely in terms of the historical conflict between capitalism and really existing past and present socialism, it becomes all too easy to unduly suppress grave difficulties shared across both systems to date. The PFDL reminds us that really existing capitalism and really existing socialism have shared some terrible characteristics and patterns in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two such characteristics and patterns that deserve special mention are (a) attachment to an alienating and hierarchical “corporate division of labor” (Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s useful term) under whose reign the great majority of the working population is assigned to narrow and disempowering, low-status tasks that are conceived and coordinated by a comparatively privileged, empowered, and affluent elite class of managers and professionals (what Hahnel and Albert call “the coordinator class”); (b) attachment to an “extractivist” model of interacting with Earth—a model that is ruining livable ecology in ever more imminently catastrophic ways.
The PFDL rejects these and other negative characteristics of really existing socialism. It calls for a participatory and egalitarian economy that attacks and transcends capitalist and other corporate divisions of labor as well as capitalist property and ownership relations. It fights for a new “regenerative” (the opposite of extractivist) relationship between humans and their natural environment.
- Local or Global/Systemic
This FD tells us that we must choose between seeking change either at the “merely” local level or at the more systemic levels of nation and world. The PFDL does not foolishly imagine that giant oppressive structures of class, race, nationality, and empire can be overcome through local (or for that matter regional or national) struggles alone. Still, it does not ignore or downgrade the importance of lived local and regional experience, local issues, and the ecological imperative of local resource utilization. It is a sign of the capitalist and eco-cidal madness of our times that more than 90 percent of the edible items in a typical dinner in an agriculturally hyper-fertile states like Iowa derive from foodstuffs grown and raised outside that state. The PFDL’s vision of national and global change calls for the significant re-localization the provision and transport of food and other resources.
- State Socialism or Worker Control
The PFDL recognizes the dual and simultaneous necessities of (a) Leftists seizing state power and using it against counter-revolutionary capitalist forces and (b) Leftists and others developing mass-based democratic institutions and modes of popular-participatory power in workplace and community. We reject the Bolshevik Revolution’s almost instantaneous subordination of (b) to (a). Consistent with its rejection of the FD between capitalism and really existing socialism to date (see point 14) and its related rejections of the FDs between vanguardism and spontaneity (point 12) and between growth and no-growth (point 9), the PFDL advocates a mutually reinforcing and dialectically inseparable relationship between transitional state socialism on one hand and workers’ and people’s power on the other hand—a relationship in which a revolutionary state protects organs of workers and popular power, enhancing popular support for that state’s necessary struggle against capitalist and imperialist reaction.
- Forces or Relations of Production
In Marx and “Marxism’s” classic formulations, the revolutionary Left aims to free the “forces of production” (factories, mills, mines, railroads, steamships, farms, etc.) from the oppressive bourgeois (capitalist) “relations of production” that largely brought them into being, placing those forces under the democratic and social/socialist direction and ultimately into the hands of “the associated producers” themselves. The task was to change the relations—not so much the forces—of production from capitalist to socialist. The PFDL remains committed to that project to no small degree but it also recognizes that many (if not most) of the productive and distributive and other techno-economic forces called into being by capital are now cancerous, wasteful, destructive and ecocidal. These and other horrific, exterminist “forces of production” need to be discarded, replaced, and/or re-converted in ways consistent with the necessary shift from an extractivist to a sustainable (regenerative) relationship between Homo Sapiens, other species, and the Earth—and with our intimately related obligation to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, imperial domination, and endless war.
- Understanding History or Changing History
The young Marx is often misquoted by leftists as having written that “philosophers have tried to understand history; the point is to change it.” The real comment was “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marxology aside, the PFDL believes that people are in a better position to change history (or “the world”) in a desirable direction when they have studied and understood history (and “the world”).
- Critique or Solution
Leftists are commonly, even almost ritually told that they carp and complain without offering solutions. As Chomsky once wrote, “there is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’” While the work of Left thinkers is in fact excessively weighted toward criticism over solutions, there is no shortage of good Left thought on radical peoples’ alternatives to currently reigning policies, practices, socio-political relations, and institutions. The PFDL strongly encourages such thought, but it does not believe in separating its solutions from its critique any more than a medical worker believes in separating a patient’s treatment plan from her understanding of the condition being treated. Social critique and solution are inextricably linked like diagnosis and treatment in health care.
- Marxism or Anarchism
The PFDL does not feel compelled to choose harshly or dogmatically between these two great and long-warring tendencies on the anti-capitalist Left. It draws inspiration from the “Haymarket synthesis” of both, combining respect for the trenchant critique of capitalism advanced by Karl Marx and his many declared followers with esteem for the left-libertarian and anti-authoritarian writing and activism of radical Left anarchists over the years.
- Religion or Revolution
Atheists have no monopoly on revolutionary potential. There are radical-democratic and egalitarian strands in every major world religion and there is a long history up to the present of heroic and egalitarian activism on the part of religious believers, including (for example), Latin American Liberation Theology, who combined Christianity with Marxism and anarchism to fight brutal U.S.-sponsored dictatorships in Latin America.
- Earth or Homo Sapiens
The PFDL rejects capitalism’s and indeed industrial society’s long struggle to “conquer” nature. It embraces humanity’s remarkable capacity to understand the laws of nature and the universe and to turn scientific knowledge to the benefit of the species. At the same time, it insists that we employ those capacities in a way that seeks to restore and advance relations of harmonious of co-existence between living things and their earthly surroundings—relations that have been collapsed in ever more imminently catastrophic ways by the war that capitalism is waging on life on Earth.
- Hope or Hopelessness
The PFDL does not spend much time looking into the crystal ball, speculating on its chances for success or failure. We have a moral and existential duty to fight for justice, equality, democracy, and livable ecology—the salvation and flowering of the commons—“even if we do not know we are going to win” (Mario Savio). Hope is preferable to hopelessness, no doubt, but it is a largely maudlin, easily manipulated “pie in the sky” sentiment regarding future outcomes of present day struggles that need to be waged with no certainty of triumph if humanity is going to have any chance of enjoying a decent future.
- “Hairshirt” or “Hedonist”
Some elite urban Marxians like to join rich business cosmopolitans in mocking left radicals and environmentalists as supposed “hairshirt” puritans who “don’t know how to enjoy life” and who thus coldly reject any and all enjoyable activities like world travel, attending theater, viewing spectator sports, and fine dining. The PFDL does not embrace wasteful, ecologically destructive, and excessive consumption and travel or lifestyles of elitist and narcissistic display, it is true. At the same time, it is hardly opposed to sensual pleasures, material enjoyment, attending a baseball game, viewing movies, eating well, traveling within reason, and generally “enjoying life.” The PDFL is neither “hair-shirt” nor hedonistic and finds great personal and collective enjoyment in revolutionary struggle.
- Personal Responsibility or Structural Change
The PDFL rejects neoliberalism’s common vicious victim-blaming explanation of poverty as the consequence of the lack of personal responsibility on the part of the poor. It roots poverty and inequality (and more) in the exploitative nature of contemporary and historical class society and capitalism and calls for root and branch structural transformation beyond such society and the profits system. At the same time, the PDFL does not simply reject the notion that all citizens have a personal responsibility to behave in healthy, decent, and nurturing ways towards others and indeed towards themselves. It includes the duty to engage in revolutionary struggle to bring about radical structural change beyond class exploitation, socioeconomic inequality, racism, sexism, imperialism, and ecological ruin in its definition of personal responsibility.
Paul Street is a writer in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.