Culture Change e-Letter
A critique of pure liberalism
The System's opponents are not liberals
by Jan Lundberg
A basic choice people have in their lives is whether to accept
the dominant socioeconomic/political system as desirable, or, think of it as changeable or
expendable. Some even dare to resist it with all their being, when global warming and peak oil are added to outrages such as ongoing military aggression. But
even thinking in opposition to "the system" is suppressed and driven underground by
those who want to do our thinking for us. When the dominant system is
assumed sacrosanct or forever inevitable, most
efforts to improve our lives or assure survival may be for naught.
reform the system may be vitally important at times, commanding even the attention of
cultural revolutionaries, even though reforms may simultaneously serve to perpetuate the
system along with its future crimes against humanity. We must be honest that
Western civilization has taken the cake in serving up the greatest crimes
against humanity -- despite our attachment to civilization when it has uplifted us
occasionally with a Mozart, for example.
Today, with ecological disaster and the possible extinction of
the human race more and more likely -- as long as trends continue and
the system rolls on -- the questioning of our leaders, the structure of
society and our very culture is
appropriate. However, there are reasons such questioning isn't done by many, or if it
is it's kept under wraps.
One of the main reasons is the role of liberals. Conservatives are
considered the reactionary force in society, but liberals provide resiliency to the system
through "having a conscience" and being tolerant in general, and trying to alleviate a little suffering.
As laudable as these tendencies are, this serves to distract people from both opposing the government
all-out and from building a new society. Clearly, liberals are of
questionable value in the long run when it is a conservative Republican,
Roscoe Bartlett, who is the only U.S. government official to take peak oil
seriously (and, as it happens, eloquently).
The conscious opponents of the system are radicals, and the
unconscious opponents are the reactionary conservatives who think they are
preserving the system. When a system is so out of balance that it has invited
correction or has sewn the seeds of its own obliteration, the mindless and greedy milking of the system
contributes toward the unmaking of the system. The way this works
famously is certain Republicans' having gone after all the power they
Richard Heinberg, author of
excellent books on peak oil such as The
Party's Over, says "the US electoral system has been eviscerated and
commandeered by a single party (using various forms of systematic fraud that
have now become endemic), so that a peaceful rectification of the situation by
a vote of the people has become virtually impossible." [from his review
of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, in Museletter.com]. Heinberg finds the
situation a "truly horrifying state of affairs," but one can instead
be bemused and see it as hopeless while it hastens the system's final upheaval.
Author Daniel Quinn has
deftly dismissed reformism as
guaranteeing more of the same problems people have been up against in our
totalitarian civilization. Even
the average U.S. citizen sees politicians of the two always-dominant political
parties as barely distinguishable; the low voter-turnout proves this. Voting
only for representatives (President on down) instead of on national referenda is another
limitation that serves to preserve the system instead of steering it into new
waters so it could become something different.
Culture Change Letters have always advocated fundamental change and
resisted lobbying or politicking. If the people lead, the leaders will
follow -- as the slogan goes. The people are not leading as long as they
are stupefied by accumulating material things, brainwashed through media and schooling, and
can -- while there's petroleum and cash -- maintain a semblance of order to provide basic daily
"needs." People are thus not inclined to look
beyond the short term to wonder such things as whether the orgy of
nonrenewable energy use will soon end. Of course, they are told by
liberals and the funded environmental movement that today's massive fossil fuel
consumption is just a delayed phase of history that can be solved by another
election or anticipating the "Solar Economy" or the "Hydrogen
Economy" (impossible scenarios to honest students of energy who consider
To the left of liberals,
who may be synonymous with Democrats, are generally the progressives, and
in many cases these may be radicals who prefer the term
"progressive." Progressives may serve the same
function as liberals in propping up the status quo. They hammer on
policy issues instead of fundamental change, although they may bravely face
police brutality along with radicals and anarchists in the streets during
certain protests. The question becomes, are progressives fooling themselves as
much as liberals (and thoughtful Democrats and Republicans) when it comes to
trying to do away with war and social injustice? Many sincerely believe
the corporations are here to stay and can be made good
"citizens." Even those who know that in 1886 a
misinterpretation of a Supreme Court case gave corporations the rights of
"persons" believe only in reforms, so as to allow capital to remain
the dominant way of the world. People who have basic disagreements on
key issues honestly do not know if they are enemies or are people on the same side who
are really all in the same boat (planet Earth).
Very often the only visible progressives or
"radical" leaders opposing the system are actually mere
semi-critics, interested to some extent in their own continued funding which is understandable.
But they may temper their
views in order to maintain their own dominance among the opposition. "Opposition" can mean reformism and is not necessarily the
resistance to the system that a revolutionary or activist for alternative
living may represent as opponents of the system.
Meanwhile, many wonder why things don't change for the better,
while the system gets worse. Considering all of the above, it should be
clear why there has not been a real opposition to the two-party political
system in the U.S. and nations such as France since the late 1960s. In
the absence of serious change and with no strong movement or visible leader,
activism in the U.S. is co-opted to work for a Democrat who is no more than a liberal
member of the Establishment, as in the U.S. presidential elections of 2004 and 2000.
A Gallery of Liberals
A tiny percentage of the vote
has gone to Nader and the Green Party,
who apparently want to keep the basic system intact or would allow this by
default. So John Kerry becomes the big hope for reformists as well as
progressives who may even believe themselves to stand for fundamental change.
The Greens had actually split in the 1990s regarding the advisability of
running candidates early on. The original Green Committees of
Correspondence are still active as "The Greens/Green Party USA," not
to be confused with the Green Party that made sure it backed Kerry by refusing
to select the Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo ticket.
Amy Goodman does great work as a journalist and does oppose
the government on many points. However, she does not identify herself as an
all-out opponent of the government or of the entire system, and she is not in
the business of offering a clear alternative vision of a new
society to cope with the environmental crisis and social injustice. She
may serve radical ends consciously or unconsciously with her excellent
coverage, but her editorial stance or possibly funding from
powerful backers may limit her message. She does not want to be "too radical" although the term "radical" simply means "to the
root." The truth cannot be "too true."
Noam Chomsky is an amazingly
articulate and meticulous critic of foreign policy and
corporate media. But what does he believe will change things: better
leaders? The system needs to be altered almost beyond recognition.
The vision for change that emerges from listening to MIT Professor Chomsky is that
we just have to change policies for American democracy to do its rightful
job. This does not cut the mustard for some of us who see a deeper reality.
At the same time, we urge people to read his works to become informed and draw
their own conclusions. Chomsky is a nice man who saw the value of the
Alliance for a Paving Moratorium several years ago, as he provided contact
information for us at APM in the back of one of his books. It's
disappointing that his sharp mind stops short of a truly radical analysis.
Michael Shellenberger, co-author of
The Death of Environmentalism (an article to become a book), and consultant to nonprofits and Hugo Chavez, advocates that
progressives reclaim American values in order to win. While there is
wisdom in being more positive-sounding and in appealing to people's common
everyday concerns, Shellenberger is a reformer who in effect advocates continuing car culture and technology's role in general.
As a co-founder of The Apollo Alliance, he exhibits little intention of fighting for radical conservation.
Instead, he and his cohorts want to preserve the economy and industrial jobs but make them less polluting.
This may be a message decades too late. Shellenberger is nevertheless a
passionate PR man for good causes, such as the forest defenders of Humboldt
Hillary Clinton can barely be called a liberal, but liberals will rally around her if she runs for president.
A woman president would be a good thing, but she voted as a senator to attack Iraq, and as a lawyer before becoming First Lady she helped ram through toxic incinerators for powerful polluters who were clients.
The Republicans did not attack her for that, however.
Howard Zinn is a tremendous critic of the official story of
the U.S.A. I sent the following to In These Times, which published an interview of Howard Zinn on May
18, 2005 (syndicated in Truthout.org):
Howard Zinn, who wrote A People's History of the United States, has compiled a follow up:
Voices of a People's History of the United States.
He says, "...our hope is that this will be read by the average American who does not know these things and will then organize and act and become part of the social movement that will then force the people in power to change their policies."
He did not say throw out the people in power. Does he think it unlikely or is he against it?
doesn't sound like he wants a total change of systems. This seems to be the same position held by Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky.
Are successful historical movements really about just changing policy? These "radicals" are not as radical as Jefferson or Lincoln who advocated replacing whole governments, even though these founding fathers would not have then advocated system replacement (but if they were around today and looked around, maybe they would).
Zinn was in the news again because of his May 15, 2005 commencement address
at Spelman College. His theme was "against discouragement," and
on the civil rights struggle he said, "Many people had said: The South will
never change. But it did change. It changed because ordinary people
organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up.
That's when democracy came alive." Zinn's other reason for people not
to feel discouraged about the U.S.'s ongoing attempt to "expand its
empire" was about the anti-war movement which he apparently thought
successful back in the early 1970s: "...just as in the Southern movement,
people began to protest and soon it caught on. It was a national movement.
Soldiers were coming back and denouncing the war, and young people were refusing
to join the military, and the war had to end." However, as an
historian he should know that the victories he points to have turned out to be
only slight, if today's situations of equality, rights and militarism are the
standard. The system was not quite challenged over three decades ago, as he claimed, for it rolls
on worse than ever today.
The above instances lead me to believe that Zinn and fellow liberals are
romantics from another era who are not quite relevant enough today to lead
people toward a more effective movement for lasting systemic change.
The most blatant example may be Thom Hartmann, a syndicated radio
commentator as well as author. According to his website, "he has also
founded 7 companies, worked as an international relief worker, founded schools
and hospitals on four continents, and is the award-winning, best-selling author
of over a dozen books available in ten languages." All the more
reason that his embracing reform through party politics is sad. Moreover,
it is so outmoded that it represents a threat if it means people don't wake up
to the need for fundamental change in their own lives in their own communities.
One can sympathize that the Bush
victories or thefts in 2000 and 2004 were disasters for the country, far worse
than just another Democrat Presidency would have been. One laments the
right wing judges appointed, the Iraq War especially, and the list goes
on. But it must be kept in mind that the economy is the real monster
destroying the planet, and the Democrats do uphold business as usual.
Activists such as Hartmann rally around the idea that at least with Democrats
some gains can be made on various fronts. As with Clinton/Gore, eh?
His recent book, We the People,
is a thick comic book ably illustrated by Neil Cohn. I noticed disturbing assumptions that Hartmann built into
this quasi-textbook. As if he were making a speech to mainstream, flag-waving politicos,
he lauds the American system as if it just needs some correction and new
leadership. It makes pro-environment statements yet promotes the idea of
roadbuilding as a good thing as opposed to more missile systems. The book
is billed as applicable to "A Time to Restore Democracy." But
when was democracy really present in America, aside from representative
majority-rule that was not a participatory democracy? A reader of Howard
Zinn and Noam Chomsky knows the U.S. system is shot through with corruption and
worst part of all Hartmann's propagandizing for the U.S. government as a
necessary force based on legitimacy -- instead of the genocide and ecocide even
a relatively peaceful U.S. government could be based on -- is that the two-party
system is the right approach. He just wants people to stand up and vote
for the Democrat party. Based on history I have witnessed, I find the concepts of activism and the Democratic
Party to be incongruous, although I backed McGovern, for example. The subtitle of We the People is A Call
to Take Back America. The problem with that concept is that the
America Hartmann wants is far too similar to the one whose many problems he
touches on. Without radical change that turns our back on consumerism and
property rights in an overpopulated, unjust society where wealth is so poorly
distributed, there is no future for this country. However, despite
Hartmann's knowledge of dwindling oil supplies (as author of The Last Hours
of Ancient Sunlight), he assumes without question that the U.S.A. will
endure. Overall the book is misleading and manipulative, as if he and
whoever backs him have decided that just one pivotal election victory can save
us. But does it not seem obvious that the two-party Establishment will
never allow parliamentary/proportional party make up of the
More beefs, analysis, and the
Liberals are useful but often treacherous. This was learned by the
peace activists who relied on the Democratic Party in the late 1960s. This
sad story is made abundantly clear in such histories as the book Abbie
Hoffman: American Rebel by Marty Jezer. Today, in addition to limiting
activism to helping elect Democrats, there are a multitude of issues that many liberals do
not want to touch: the truth about 9/11, for example. The weakness of the official U.S.
version and the whitewash of the government's 9/11 Commission makes one wonder
how the cover up has endured. And, in
opposing the war in Iraq, a leading group such as the A.N.S.W.E.R.
stays clear of suggesting to the public that getting off petroleum through
serious conservation is part of the path to peace.
We can group with the above
shortcomings the selling out of the environment by the the
funded environmental groups who are often Democrats or support Democrats.
These groups and individuals promote cars and other alleged sources of
"efficiency" and "renewable energy" instead of advocating an
immediate slashing of energy use. The challenge is to break up the love
affair between the funded environmentalists and the "clean" car -- a
campaign that is the subject of an upcoming Culture Change Letter.
Liberals often sell out, aligning with
Democrats and Republicans on many an issue. The Clinton regime was
responsible for over one million Iraqi civilian deaths through bombings and
upholding UN sanctions. Liberals have also sold out badly on the
environment, cutting deals with polluters and agents of deforestation --
although one could say the Republicans are generally much worse on the
environment. As part of publicizing the dangerous compromising by liberals
and Democrats, they have occasionally been pied in the face, usually by the
Biotic Baking Brigade who provide communiqués on the reason for the targets
getting their "just desserts."
This "critique of pure liberalism" is really an objection to
restrained, false liberalism. Herbert Marcuse contributed to A Critique of
Pure Tolerance, a celebrated 1965 book he co-authored, that included his
essay Repressive Tolerance. His analysis of society served the
then-New Left with an understanding of their uphill battle against the status
quo of what is assumed to be democracy. Marcuse said "Tolerance is an
end in itself." He also said a truly tolerant society did not exist
in the modern world; instead, "...what is proclaimed and practiced as
tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the
cause of oppression... Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state,
from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is
the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition
within the framework determined by the constituted authorities."
Understanding the way things work is essential for knowing
(A) what needs to be
changed in an entrenched system or (B) changing to an alternative system. What
we have learned since Marcuse's heyday may be that the system is running out of
gas as it asphyxiates us all, and that civilization as we know it is not
necessarily the friend of humanity; civilization is certainly not the friend
of the Earth.
Daniel Quinn's website: www.ishmael.org
Richard Heinberg: www.museletter.com/archive/154.html
Herbert Marcuse: www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/65repressivetolerance.htm
The Greens/Green Party USA: www.greenparty.org/index.php
Thom Hartmann: www.thomhartmann.com
Back to Home Page
Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by
copyright; however, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as
full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the