Steer clear

Many a well-meaning liberal views issues in isolation, as if climate change, mass incarceration, inaccessible health care, deportation, and poverty wages are all independent from each other and can be understood and critiqued in themselves. As a result, we tend to feel guilty and powerless because we can only learn about and advocate for selected issues at the expense of all the other meritorious causes.

Others, especially conservatives, tend to be more reductionist, viewing all issues in broader terms like the size of government, individual responsibility, or God’s will. This approach is alluring: it elegantly explains the world rather than overwhelm with complexity, and it offers a simple solution to a constellation of problems. The resulting clarity lends itself to passionate, unconflicted advocacy rather than paralyzing ambivalence.

The synthesis of these antithetical approaches may be found in a more progressive critique. The seemingly overwhelming multiplicity of issues that liberals can only selectively care about may be understood as functions of one underlying dynamic: the self-serving power of concentrated wealth at the expense of people in common. Yet this explanation has been lost in the public discourse, relegated to the seemingly radical fringes and ivory tower academia, leaving the majority of people grasping at straws with which to stay afloat midst the cross-currents of our political world.

Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders came close to offering a solution in the rhetoric of the 99 versus the 1%. But this explanation is a near-miss, over-simplifying the issues in terms of some bad individuals, the 1 percenters, whereas the underlying problem is systemic: the beliefs, practices, and laws to which nearly all of us ascribe, in which natural resources, including human labor, may be appropriated for the profit of some at the expense of all. We need to broadcast this critique of the system for all to hear, and offer as well a positive vision of the alternative: protection of natural resources for the benefit of all, equal access to public goods, harmony with nature and each other.

Yes and no

There is something to the criticism of “political correctness.” It often seems to function as an exclusionary purity test in the guise of a commitment to inclusivity. Yet the truth is worse: it tends to reflect a commitment to token equality, belying an unwillingness to fight for equal power. But beware, too, the criticism of “political correctness,” which generally reflects a clinging to inherited hierarchies, a willful ignorance of historical oppression, and a refusal to do the basic personal work of living in harmony with other people: considering each other’s points of view.

The body politic

While conservatives form the party of death, liberals perform palliative care, providing comfort but little more to the exploited. They apply salves such as Obamacare, DACA, the Paris climate accord, and talk in soothing tones of equality and inclusion. But the former band-aids hardly take the sting out of the vicious inequalities inflicted by the concentration of wealth, and the latter show of sympathy belies the unwillingness to fight for true, socioeconomic equality. We seem to have given up the progressive hope for recovery of American public life, resigned to acceptance of power imposed from above rather than shared by people in common. But if we pay attention, we may sense tremors of life rumbling below.

 

Exploiting exploitation

An essential example of the need for savviness: the pretext of saving Muslim women. Well-meaning people are justifiably upset by stories of the oppression of Muslim women — but fail to realize that these stories, although often true, are used in bad faith to dupe people into condoning the policies that serve the concentration and abuse of power, e.g., immigration crack-downs, refugee refusal, police militarization, expanded surveillance, discrimination, incarceration, torture, bombings, war.

No one can save us

Why democracy? Not because majorities are wise. But because the majority must check concentrated power. The holders of concentrated wealth have every incentive to protect and grow that wealth regardless of the broader consequences for the rest of life on Earth. By virtue of simple arithmetic, only by uniting enough people into collective action can we effectively oppose the influence of concentrated power, and only in a well-functioning democracy can such effective collective action take a non-violent form.

But we do not have a well-functioning democracy. We have an oligarchy in the form of a democracy. Our campaign finance system reproduces the inequalities of power in the economy. Gerrymandering, the electoral college, voter ID laws, and other voter suppression tactics further rig elections in favor of affluent or white voters interested in preserving their position of superiority in the hierarchy of concentrated power. Media dependent on profitability and public education starved of funding leave us uninformed and therefore duped into believing whatever we are told by those with concentrated power.

As a result, we are tempted to fight concentrated power with concentrated power, whether in the form of a strongman, as Trump held himself out to be, or the dream that a billionaire or technological innovator can save us. But no one can save us. Only the many can.