What kind of leftist am I? I don’t call myself a Marxist, communist, socialist or anarchist, though all of those traditions offer insights along with lessons from their failures. I don’t belong to what are called “left sectarian” organizations, which typically remain committed to 19th- or 20th-century doctrines and political figures (such as Marxist-Leninist or Maoist groups). I call myself an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist leftist rooted in a critique of white supremacy and a radical feminist critique of patriarchy. Not the pithiest label, but accurate.
My left politics also focus on the human species’ intensifying assault on the larger living world — multiple, cascading ecological crises that we can’t afford to ignore. Modern humans’ arrogance puts us all at risk. The naïve assumptions of the high-energy and high-technology industrial world — especially the idea that we can solve all problems with more energy-intensive technology — must be abandoned as we struggle to understand how many people can live sustainably on the planet.
There’s not a widely used term for going beyond liberal environmentalism’s half measures, but some people call it “ecospherism,” the understanding that humans must find our place in the ecosphere rather than try to dominate. Ecospherists reject the idea that humans really “own” the Earth and fight to end the accompanying abuse and exploitation of land, water, air and other creatures.
Liberals and conservatives typically ignore ecological realities, but so does much of the left. The overwhelming nature of the challenge scares many into silence, but problems ignored are not problems solved. For example, research on renewable energy is important, but no combination of so-called clean energy sources (and let’s remember that wind turbines and solar panels are industrial products, which can’t be manufactured cleanly) can power the affluence of the First World. The solution is dramatically lower levels of consumption in the developed world.
Many people in the U.S. disagree with this kind of left/radical feminist analysis. Many people have told me that these views make me unfit to teach at a state university. I welcome serious challenges, but left political positions are too often dismissed as crazy because that’s the one thing both liberals and conservatives agree on.
The U.S. is a dramatically right-wing society when compared with other industrialized countries, illustrated by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. He offered no foundational critique of U.S. systems, opting instead for a traditional social democratic platform to make our institutions more humane. Yet in America, such policy proposals were seen by many as revolutionary and Sanders was often dismissed as a wild-eyed radical.
In a recent call to action, Sanders supported a single-payer plan for health care and stated “our current economic model is a dismal failure,” but he did not dare use the term capitalism or even hint at a deeper structural critique. His discussion of the ecological crises stopped with a weak call for renewable energy, and there was no mention of racism, sexism or U.S. foreign policy. I realize politicians shape rhetoric to win votes, but let’s not pretend this is a left agenda.
(For the record, I’m not a Democrat, but I’m also not purist in electoral politics; I voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election.)
Sanders’ success suggests more people might support a candidate with an even deeper critique of illegitimate structures of authority. If in the short term the best we can hope for is reform of existing systems, we can pursue those reforms with an eye on more radical long-term goals.
It’s hard to imagine a decent human future — perhaps any human future at all — if these radical ideas are not part of the mix. “Radical” is often used as a political insult, suggesting people who focus on violence and destruction. But the word simply means “going to the root,” and at the root of our contemporary crises of justice and sustainability are capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the human willingness to destroy the world in pursuit of affluence.
Leftists are told that we have to be realistic, and I agree. But how realistic is it to expect solutions to human injustices and ecological crises to emerge from the systems that have created the problems?
If you want to be realistic, get radical.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, and Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. Email: [email protected]
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