The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, begins: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus similarly observed: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The universe is fluid, perpetually shifting and evolving, an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, creation and entropy. Just as things come into being, things fall apart. Not since 1930 have people had so little trust in central institutions, so little faith in their leaders, and so little optimism for the future.
For many of us it is easier to imagine Armageddon than an alternative to liberal capitalism. Most of us under forty years of age have only ever known the neoliberalism that became Western orthodoxy in the 1980s. Our imagination is feeble. But a different world is possible, and indeed wants to be born; masses of people, increasingly alienated and angry, are greedy for new ideas, for an alternative fashion of living. Such a future, however, cannot be realized in the absence of salient critiques of the failing regime or an unqualified normative commitment to the care and liberation of all peoples. More specifically, agents of change must cease to define themselves by their protest, their opposition to what is, and instead rally behind a clear, comprehensive re-imagining of state and society according to principles of radical egalitarianism.
The signs of decline are apparent to those who care to look. Around the world, income inequality is growing as wealth becomes increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent “Great Recession” revealed not only that this unaccountable economic elite was irresponsible, but that it was a protected class. Despite popular outrage, none of the institutions responsible for the crisis suffered, and any attempts to curb such behavior have proved fruitless. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the now dominant neoliberal consensus, young people in the West can no longer expect the high standard of living their parents once took for granted. Instead, many now look forward to incurring crushing debt (as a substitute for wages, long stagnant in Western economies) and insecurity in housing and employment — whereas Mom and Dad could depend on the white picket fence and the Plymouth in the garage. Moreover, in the short-term, those born with the millennium must pay the price in many countries of austerity measures adopted post-2008 in response to the crisis caused by those same culpable but unpunished oligarchs. Fear and frustration at this bleak present and grimmer future has led to global unrest. In 2010, popular revolts broke out across North Africa and the Middle East. In each case, it was the working classes who challenged the preexisting settlement. Although some of these revolts failed, the grievances of economic anxiety and powerlessness are finding expression from the underdeveloped world to the developed world, from the periphery of the global economy to its very core.
As the injustice of economic inequality becomes more acute, so too do societies become more cognizant and receptive to the expressions of social inequalities too often ignored. The constant institutional racism African-Americans experience daily only entered popular consciousness via the Black Lives Matter and the moral outrage over the killings by police of unarmed African-American children. The ongoing Me Too Movement has created awareness to the harmful effects of patriarchal male culture on women, who face discrimination and harassment regularly. A historically overlooked part of the LGBT community, transgendered people, are becoming more culturally prominent. There is a pattern of recognition that our present way of life not only enriches a few at the expense of the many beyond economic life, but our social life as well, and that these lives intersect in myriad ways constantly. In other words, from top to bottom, modern life is garbage — politically, economically, culturally. The liberal default position — to believe in reform over revolution, tinkering around the edges in avoidance of clean breaks — remains the consensus, but this begs the question of how long people will “trust the process” when the status quo is so plainly and painfully corrupt and broken. In a cruel turn of tragic comedy, it has actually been the extreme right who have been the most successful in launching (and legitimating) their revolutionary demands, ludicrously predicated on the persecution of”the white race” — an imagined community suffering an imaginary genocide. As the empire rots from within, the emperor blames the barbarians. Just as the equally mythological “Judeo-Bolshevik” once rallied the disenchanted petit bourgeoisie to fascism, today the specter of the MS-13 member or Arab jihadist serves as a useful distraction for the dissenting masses (along with the usual Illuminati cliches or anti-Semitic canards). Just as the status quo weakens, the people allow themselves to be divided, until we are left with the present political condition: a weary cynicism content to constitute itself as a negation, but unwilling to embrace revolution.
Revolution is now necessary. The time of bourgeois liberal capitalism is over; its death is heralded everywhere. By “revolution,” what is meant is the social sort characterized by the two most meaningful revolutions in the Western world: the 1789 French Revolution and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The former was the fatal blow against feudalism, absolute monarchy, and the influence of the church in secular affairs. Even those absolute monarchies that sought to destroy the French Republic eventually had to undertake liberalizing reforms. Its ideas sparked revolutions in Latin America and sowed the seeds for national liberation in the inchoate colonies. Over a century later, Red October was no less influential as a challenge to the hegemony of bourgeois liberal capitalism, even if in the end it was less successful. However, the fact that socialism endures as the most popular critique of liberal capitalism speaks to how the battle of ideas is still being waged. Socialism and all deviations of radical egalitarianism (which includes anarchism) share a commitment to removing the disparities and dispossession upon which capitalism depend. Late capitalism can no more be saved than the economist Turgot could have implemented his modernizing reforms in 1775 that would have forestalled the 1789 revolution i the environment of absolute monarchy was infertile to the change required. Reform in such times is a dead end, a cul-de-sac.
Calls to action (which the contemporary extreme right is exceedingly good at, and radical egalitarians woeful) are bound to unnerve some, but this is not a call to violence. Violence is a tactic, not a strategy, and arguably one not not to be employed until the state is at its weakest. Rather, it is a call for affirmative activity, for constituting radical egalitarian politics as providing care for all humanity, of fostering a culture of inclusiveness, kindness, and mutual respect. We must not only be skeptical of reformist measures to create a more “humane capitalism” while showing commitment to a new society, a new culture, a socialist alternative. Increasingly, liberal capitalism is steering toward providing material assurances, such as a guaranteed basic income for everyone. This will only safeguard the astronomical privilege of the elite by raising the lowest strata a little higher from the bottom. Such a basic income would only provide the “freedom” to work most of your life away so that someone else might profit from your own labor. Similarly, equipping police officers with body cameras will only provide shootings of unarmed African-Americans from new angles. Paying women actors as much as their male counterparts raises the paychecks of ordinary women not one cent.
There was a time when the West used a fraction of its lucre to mollify the masses: the welfare state, providing care from cradle to grave. The “Golden Age of Capitalism” this produced from the 1950s to the 1970s died with the rise of neoliberalism, and never will it rise again. Neoliberalism (that ideology so insidious its most stalwart defenders deny it exists) squashed this deviation, restoring that cardinal pillar of every liberal since the 18th century: guarantees for private enterprise, the supremacy of profit over public needs. Liberalism and capitalism are ideologically joined at the hip; the “liberty” of liberalism has always been an individual liberty to exercise “natural” skills and talents (along with an expensive bourgeois education). The institutions of liberalism, from Constitution to Congress, are designed to protect the property-owning class because it was their ancestors who designed them. The last significant political “revolution” in U.S. history was that of Jefferson and his anti-federalist republicans in 1801; ever since, interests have become so increasingly narrow and vested that even undoing the far-reaching and controversial legislation of a predecessor is no easy feat. Additionally, the state has retreated so much in the age of globalization that its ability to even control the economy has shrank. Precisely because unrest is spreading and alienation is becoming more pervasive more and more power is moving from the public sphere into the private sphere. This power will not be surrendered willingly; it will be defended tooth and nail.
Once the nature of the struggle is realized, it is evident that the marches and rallies that have come to dominate the expression of political expression — the Occupy Movement, the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives — are no longer sufficient. These actions draw awareness to societal ills, but that is all they do. Their problem is not the absence of concrete policies, as critics often claim, but an absence of vision. There were no ideas of what would constitute the alternative to the one-percent-versus-99-percent inequality. The Women’s March avoided tough questions about bourgeois feminism and the problem of trans-exclusive radical feminists. The broad anti-NRA campaign after the Parkland High School shooting often ignored the reality that the toughest gun laws already in place are targeted at and enforced against poor people of color. New political parties and manifestos would not have helped these movements, as that would be playing into a political system arrayed against them anyway. Instead, there needed to be an active counter-culture continually interrogating these problems while also crafting ideas, values, and concepts around these issues that could be applied in a more ideal egalitarian society. This counter-culture can still exist — and indeed it must if liberal capitalism is not to be “the end of history,” as Fukuyama famously proclaimed. Instead, like our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1930s, they believed in either a better, more joyful future or no future at all. It was, after all, socialism or barbarism.
Relative to most of the world, the West enjoys a level of material comfort that hinders the development of a revolutionary consciousness. Yet, even if the sons and daughters of the middle class are not yet starving in the street, most people in the West are feel a sort of alienation, what the sociologist Durheim called anomie: a sense of disconnect or wrongness about the norms and values of society and those of the individual. When a person becomes aware of current events — the staggering income inequality, class immobility, the exemption from punishment of corrupt oligarchs, the institutional violence and repression women and people of color face, the breaking up and deportation of families, mass shootings with no political consequences — there is a registration of a mismatch, of a social illness, that we cannot be satisfied or fulfilled under these conditions. It falls to those who believe in revolution to seize upon this frustrated outrage and perpetual nausea and from these symptoms diagnose the disease: neoliberal capitalism as perpetrated by and for the enrichment and luxury of straight white men. Finally, it falls to us to design and promote the cure, as a collaborative project: What would a socialist economy in the 21st century developed world look like? How do we ensure a truly democratic form of government that is both demographically and substantively representative of all social groups? How might we socialize future generations to the principles of radical egalitarianism in order to foster a more diverse and inclusive culture? How do we construct not just a more just and equal order domestically in Western countries, but globally, so those countries constrained to the periphery might finally escape underdevelopment by Western states and corporations?
While the time for revolution in the West may be far off, the time is ripe for the emergence of a counter-hegemonic vision heavily based on socialism, anarchism, and other radical egalitarian movements. Liberalism is impoverished and can offer nothing new; neoliberalism was a reversion to classical liberalism, not forward progress. Fascism, as ever, remains the irrational romanticism of the “angry white men” of the petit bourgeois, and despite the privilege of this class, the crimes of fascism still linger in the popular mentality (albeit not as strongly as they perhaps should). Radical egalitarianism alone has the moral advantage, the ability to speak to the what the discontented think a fairer and more humane world would look like. Unfortunately, this potential will be wasted if we try to work within a system beyond redemption, or if counter-hegemonic activity is limited to sign-carrying and sneering satire. We have a world to win, but to begin with, we must imagine what such a world will be like.