Ambivalence in the Next Left


David I. Backer I Social Movement Studies I Commentary I September 29th, 2016



As the end of history ends and neoliberalism shakes its last convulsions before dying completely, the strategy of building a stronger political organization is emerging across groups on the Left in the United States.The Democratic Socialists of America wants a party (lower case p),Freedom Road wants a movement,Solidarity is with the DSA, Socialist Alternative wants a Party (upper case P), and the Stansbury Forum has endorsed an ambiguous mixture of these options. They are all versions of a strategy in thinking about how to capture the energy of Bernie Sanders's presidential primary campaign (who himself is launching a 501(c)4 Our Revolution for similar purposes). The Green Party is posturing ambiguously as just the kind of organization to do all this. In general, the Next Left wants some kind of structure and organization (party, Party, movement, or campaign offshoot).

If this is true, it leaves two basic options for those seeking to build the Next Left: build the organization or don't build the organization. But an important third option exists here: ambivalence.

At a Jacobin reading group event last year a large group gathered to discuss excerpts from Vivian Gurnick's Romance of American Communism. The question put to us, a group of young socialists, labor organizers, and former Occupy activists sitting in a fourth grade classroom, was whether or not we wanted a party structure on the Left. Some said yes, others were hesitant; everyone--even after an hour of discussion--agreed that "yes and no" was the best response. There was a sense of ambivalence.

Ambivalence is when you feel two contradictory things, like a love/hate relationship. While the word sometimes means detachment or resignation, it also means having two valences about a single thing--valuing it in two different ways. Ambivalence can be personal. You love your parents and you want to throw them out the window. You love your partner and you treat them badly. You want people to pay attention to you and you feel uncomfortable when they do. But ambivalence can be political too. You want to take an Uber ride because it's so easy and you don't want to because they treat workers badly. You want to vote for Jill Stein because the Green Party platform is fantastic and you don't want a third party to inadvertently help Donald Trump.

Ambivalence happens because consistency of self is impossible, and nobody can know themselves entirely. All kinds of conflicting influences and interpellations, traumas and successes, loves and losses have shaped us as we grew up and orient us towards the present as we continue developing. These past influences shape our reactions to things now and our reactions end up being contradictory. Most of the time we're not totally aware of the force of these influences. In other words, we have conscious and unconscious selves, both of which come to bear on day-to-day life.

While strong join-rhetoric flows from star Leftists like Kshama Sawant and Chris Hedges, and old liberals in the Democratic Party haunted by ghosts of Cold War ideology pander anti-socialist rhetoric, there may be a potent apprehension among the rest of us. It is possible--likely, in fact--to be ambivalent about what to do on the Left, particularly as what Craig Calhoun, in response to Wolfgang Streeck, has called the interregnum between neoliberalism and neofeudalism sets in. Folks may both want to join a political organization and not want to join it for various reasons, feelings, and desires.

This third place is more difficult to give a rousing a speech about, but is perhaps more descriptive of where Leftists are at in their experience at this moment in the conjuncture where the New Left is old news and the Old Left looks more like the future than the past. Maybe we want to build a political organization to make gains for progressive and liberating purposes and we don't want to build a political organization because of red baiting, hard-to-condone cadre organizational practices, or a generalized fear of ideology.

Whatever composes it, holding this ambivalence as a valid and real position--rather than trying to bully it one way or the other--must be part of Next Left strategy, whatever shape it takes in the coming year.