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Chapter 3

Liberals and Radicals

by Lierre Keith

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one.… others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.… Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.

—George Orwell, author and journalist

Can it be done? Can industrial civilization be stopped? Theoretically, any institution built by humans can be taken apart by humans. That seems obvious as a concept. But in the here and now, in the time frame left to our planet, what is feasible?

Here the left diverges. The faithful insist that Everything Will Be Okay. They play an emotional shell game of new technology, individual consumer choices, and hope as a moral duty. When all three shells turn up empty, the fall-back plan is an insistence in the belief that people can’t really kill the planet. There will be bacteria if nothing else, they urge, as if that should give solace to the drowning bears and the vanished snails. Meanwhile, the facts tell a different story. Methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide, is escaping from both land and sea where up until now it was sequestered by being frozen. This could lead to “a catastrophic warming of the earth.”1 Catastrophic meaning a planet too hot for life—any life, all life. Kiss your mustard seed of bacteria good-bye: yes, we can kill the planet.

It’s a bankrupt approach regardless. Try this. Pretend that I have a knife and you don’t. Pretend I slice off one of your fingers, then another, then a third. When you object—and you will object, with all your might—I tell you that I’m not going to kill you, just change you. Joint by joint, I continue to disarticulate someone still alive, who will very soon be dead. When you protest for your life, I tell you that you’re not actually going to die, as there will surely be some bacteria remaining. Does that work for you?

One would hope that a looming mass extinction would compel us to seek something beyond emotional solace wrapped in pseudospiritual platitudes. But strategies for action are an affront to the faithful, who need to believe in individual action. This faith is really just liberalism writ large. One of the cardinal differences between liberals—those who insist that Everything Will Be Okay—and the truly radical is in their conception of the basic unit of society. This split is a continental divide. Liberals believe that a society is made up of individuals. Individualism is so sacrosanct that, in this view, being identified as a member of a group or class is an insult. But for radicals, society is made up of classes (economic ones in Marx’s original version) or any groups or castes. In the radical’s understanding, being a member of a group is not an affront. Far from it; identifying with a group is the first step toward political consciousness and ultimately effective political action.

Liberalism vs. Radicalism

Individualism Group or Class
basic social unit is individual basic social unit is group
person is distinct from social group person is socially constructed
  active and critical embrace of group

Idealism Materialism
attitudes are sources and solutions for oppression concrete systems of power are sources and solutions of oppression
thinking as prime mover of social life thoughts and ideas are only one part of social life
rational argument/education is engine of social change organized political resistance compels social change

Naturalism Constructivism
body exists independently of society/mind reality is socially constructed
gender/race as physical body gender/race are socially real categories, but biology is ideology

Voluntarism Social Determinism
social life comprised of autonomous, intentional, self-willed actions social life is comprised of a complex political determinism
  the oppressed do not make or control conditions
  but “with forms of power forged from powerlessness, conditions are resisted”2

Moralism Feminist Jurisprudence
rightness means conforming behavior to rules that are abstractly right or wrong abstract moralism works in the interests of power
equality before the law material equality
  while powerlessness is the problem, redistribution of power as currently defined is not its ultimate solution