“…that’s the opportunity: to engage in a struggle for the power to produce new cultural and political meanings”

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Marcy Darnovsky

THE COLD WAR AS guarantor of political stagnation and ideological paralysis has been a central theme of the new and later lefts in the United States. Here, as one among many possible examples, is a rendering of the theme from the 1962 Port Huron Statement “Political debate is restricted, thought standardized, action inhibited by the demands of ‘unity’ and ‘oneness’ in the face of the declared danger.”

A quarter of a century later, the declared danger has finally lost its grip. Uprisings that take “democracy” as a key word have toppled governments, demonstrating that political and social systems are not inevitable but rather inevitably changeable. The end of the Cold War produces important openings for political opposition and ideological challenge in the United States—but it guarantees nothing. There is nothing automatic about the onset of non-conformist debate, thought or action.

The shifting ideological terrain is felt at all points on the political spectrum. For their part, U.S. policy-makers were not particularly quick on the uptake; some still seem to regard the upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a Gorbachev-orchestrated ploy. But the defenders of the status quo are slouching into action, looking for ways to reinforce the forms of the Cold War even as its substance deserts them.

Their first impulse has been to cast about for the ideological equivalent of a technical fix. They’ve already presented us with two substitute external enemies—Manuel Noriega and drugs—and launched wars on them. (Noriega serves the important function of personifying evil: that’s why the administration insisted that his capture was the primary objective of the invasion, despite the chance that he would slip away.)

The “specter of peace” is a reminder of just how much money, talent, time and sweat is squandered on military-industrial production and the profits derived from it. The invasion of Panama and the attempted deployment of a U.S. fleet off the coast of Colombia were attempts to exorcise this specter they were meant in part to demonstrate that the military still has a mission and the Pentagon a justifiably voracious appetite for money.

The administration tried to rapidly squelch the recognition that the end of the Cold War could create a “peace dividend” that might be claimed for social programs, economic rebuilding and restructuring, and ecological reclamation. That discussion has to be revived. The good news with respect to the peace dividend is that enough research and organizing has already been done to increase the likelihood of community and worker participation in shaping the outcome of conversion and to ameliorate some of its dislocating effects.

The bad news is that the peace pie won’t be nearly big enough. The staggering size of the physical messes that have to be cleaned up—the toxic waste dumps, the rotting infrastructure, the dangerously fouled nuclear facilities—is matched only by the extent of the social devastations that are now openly tolerated—throngs of homeless people and skyrocketing rents and mortgages for the middle classes, healthcare, legal and social-service systems well past their breaking points. These are the symptoms and side effects of huge changes within the United States and in global configurations of capital and power—changes that aren’t the headline material of the rebellions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that may be every bit as epochal.

Nonetheless, the pundits proclaim “the triumph of capitalism” and “the end of history” These sound-bite style pronouncements can best be understood as public-relations efforts: put the proper “spin” on the situation, freeze popular consciousness and political culture so that “capitalism” and “democracy,” “the market” and “prosperity,” “consumerism” and “happiness,” remain linked in a chain of unexamined associations.

In times of ideological flux, these sorts of received ideas are, in principle, vulnerable. Formerly fixed concepts can more easily be broken into pieces, examined from many angles and reassembled in a variety of configurations. That’s the opportunity: to engage in a struggle for the power to produce new cultural and political meanings.

In order to recognize the opportunity, let alone grab it, the left in the United States will have to reinvent itself and learn to speak new languages. That doesn’t mean honing the correct line or identifying the right revolutionary agent those kinds of heroic quests have been part of the problem; that kind of language serves only to isolate the remnants of the old and new lefts that still speak it As for left-leaning academics, they speak a different dialect of jargon, but one that is equally isolating, and most of them don’t even claim to be interested in the public beyond the academy.

The new social movements—women’s, gay and lesbian, ethnic and racial, ecology, neighborhood and community-based groups—are far more alive and energetic, far more able to speak in the vernacular and with passion and vision, but they haven’t yet found a language for devising collective strategies and theories.

Social movements and oppositional politics have always fought on the terrain of language and culture. Now that terrain has been transformed—is continually being re-transformed—by advertising, public relations, image consultants, mass media. The field is far from level: the commodifiers of everyday life and packagers of public discourse command vast resources, and their methods are not neutral techniques that can be uncritically redeployed in the service of resistance or liberation. But without a willingness to engage on the contested terrain, without a language that plays on its stage, political opportunities will fade and ideological openings shut as tightly as ever.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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