The longer I cover poverty in the American urban context, and the politics that accompany it, the more I am confronted with the uncomfortable fact that the politics of the left, and particularly the far- or progressive left, has taken on a rather theological character, where the goal is not to relieve the material pressures of poverty and improve the lives and life-chances of the poor, but where some ideal end of history, in which all oppression shall cease, must be fought for and won.
In classical Christian terms—and this is important, because no intellectual tradition more informs the political parameters of the American context than the Christian one—that ideal end of history is the establishment of the “Kingdom of God” on Earth. It is true that the left does not use that language, but when figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raise the spectre of “political revolution” to bring about an ideal, or even more ideal, situation (everyone goes to school for free!), what they are arguing is that the old system is corrupt, and a new one must be put in its place, a new order that will not carry with it the oppressions of old; that is, a Kingdom of God on Earth (and note how, as the Christian Kingdom of God results in a situation where everyone is a Christian, the Sanders vision similarly results in a situation where everyone gets to look like someone from Sanders’s social location, college degree and all).
As Puerto Rico, where most of my family lives, limps into its fourth week without power or access to clean water since being struck by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, and now suffers the double humiliation of the federal response and President Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw resources, it is hard not to feel that this enchanted island’s plight is an easily foreseen result of the far-left’s vaunted “political revolution.”
Or at least the far-left’s insistence that all “establishment” politicians are the same, and the system equally corrupt under a Hillary or a Trump.
But anyone who makes that claim ignores that a principal function of the president, is not to serve as our symbolic conscience or moral avatar, but to manage and execute the affairs of government. And it is with respect to this management and execution that Puerto Rico’s current catastrophe, to borrow an abstract noun from the president, has arisen.
Before continuing, let me address the question of on what basis fault for the election of Donald Trump may be laid at the feet of the far- or progressive left.
The following chart, based on 2016 election data from CNN, shows the number of votes Trump and Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton won in three states that are commonly thought of as having determined the election (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, with each state’s total number of electoral votes in parentheses). The bottom row shows the number of votes for Clinton and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, combined:
While the combination of Clinton and Stein votes outnumbers Trump’s totals in all three states—whose electoral votes, had they gone to Clinton, would have swung the election in her favor—it would be faulty to assume that, but for a vote for Stein, a vote for Clinton.
Certainly, I expect some small percentage of those Stein votes to be pure protest votes in the sense that it was not a left-right division that led the voter to pull the lever for Stein (as opposed to Libertarian also-ran Gary Johnson), but simply a general aversion to the two principal choices. But I do assume most Stein voters were genuinely convinced that her further-left-than-Clinton positions and proposals made her a superior candidate, and it was precisely their broader commitment to a further left vision of American policy or society that animated their choice on election night.
It certainly may be said, therefore, but for Jill Stein, many of these folks may very well have stayed home, rather than vote for Clinton, whose more centrist orientation turned them off. This, however, would not obviate my point about the left’s complicity (and responsibility) in electing Trump. Sitting out an election in which you had the right and ability to participate is not protest, it is consent masquerading as principled indifference, as though there were such a thing (as Ras Kass, one of Hip-Hop’s principal intellectuals from the West Coast tradition, puts it in the song “Amerikkkan Horror Story,” “Thought indifference was rocking the boat.”).
Percentage of liberals who voted for GOP Candidate
Put another way, that approximately 10 percent of Democrats will vote for the GOP candidate is a political given, a basic operating assumption of American elections. It is also, as the years 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012 demonstrate, not an impediment to Democratic victory.
Two ongoing wars seemed to insulate President George W. Bush from defeat in 2004 (not to mention the effectiveness of his “Swift Boat” attack), but in 2000 and 2017, the complacency of the left delivered, in the context of their relative time frames and from the perspective of the left, two right-wing nightmare presidencies.
It was not uncommon, leading into 2000, for Americans to argue that Democrats and Republicans had become impossible to distinguish, a sentiment captured in a Saturday Night Live parody of Al Gore and George W. Bush’s second debate (available to download here).
A basic premise of this supposed lack of distinction between the parties and their representative candidates was that their policies were essentially the same, a sentiment parodied, again by Saturday Night Live, in this sketch about the third debate between Gore and Bush, before an audience of undecided voters:
As the sketch demonstrates, there were indeed serious policy distinctions between the two candidates, distinctions that made a mockery of the “undecided” phenomenon. And few Americans, by 2008, when Bush had invaded Iraq and squandered the budget surplus accumulated under President Bill Clinton with revenue busting tax cuts, would still have made the argument that Bush and Gore would have been indistinguishable presidents.
Of course, by then, Bush had become the figure against which the left “resisted,” guided by his coterie of sinister advisers such as Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Bush was now the left’s Whore of Babylon—the Book of Revelation’s mythological (and symbolic) city that is to be destroyed prior to the final establishment of God’s Kingdom—and Gore could again be counted among the elect, those opposed to the abomination and for whom the end or redemption of history (think of the “postracial” narrative surrounding President Barack Obama’s election) unfolds.
And it is here that the validity of my laying responsibility for the election of Trump (and Bush in 2000) at the feet of the far or progressive left rests. For the claim by anyone on the left that Democrats and Republicans are the same, whether made in 2000 or 2016, is actually a claim about history, not politics, and is little more than the assertion that neither party or their respective presidential candidates has agreed to bring about the end of history, which is the Kingdom of God on Earth (however you define the parameters of that kingdom or the person and values of that God), in which there is no sin or oppression, and, “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelations 21:4, RSV).
As a religion scholar, I know a theological project when I see one, and the far left’s cry that a Hillary, for example, is the same as a Trump, is little more than the observation that, under a Hillary, every tear will not be wiped, and death will still prevail, and persons will still mourn and cry. None of this can be denied, but as the plight of Puerto Rico worsens as a result of administrative unwillingness, it can also not be denied that in spite of Hillary’s preservation of our historical human condition, there are more tears needing to be wiped today than there might otherwise have been.
That is not to reduce the question of the presidency to a utilitarian calculation, but as colonial subjects Puerto Ricans are far more vulnerable to an inept or corrupt executive of American government than to a competent one, which few would argue is what Hillary would have been, unless they define “corrupt” or “inept” as failing or unwilling to bring about their preferred version of the end of history.
As Ras Kass argues, again in the song “Amerikkkan Horror Story,” the end of politics should not be the end of history, but rather, “Make this world a better place, that should’ve been our mission [in the 2016 election].” Internal to his use of the comparative “better” is a view of politics that, even if it possesses some vision of the end of history as an ultimate goal, is concerned first with making the current situation better, not perfect or finished. It is hard to argue that a President Hillary Clinton would not be better than a President Trump, especially from the perspective of the general policy orientation of the far- and progressive left, but if you set the end of an election as the redemption of history, then a Hillary would not be better than Trump, but the same. If the end is to save, as in bring salvation to, the poor or oppressed, as opposed to help by making the world even incrementally better and their lives materially easier (even if not easy), then a Hillary would not be better than Trump, but the same.
It would seem, however, and certainly in the case of Puerto Rico, that the very oppressed people the left seems to want to save (note: not help), salvation being fully accomplished only at the moment the new Kingdom has been established, have been made worse off because of the left’s unwillingness to see past their theological aim, which is to say, to see past their own self-righteousness, for there is no absolute end of history, just the one we demand and insist we will bring about, and that is constructed in our own image. And so actual Puerto Ricans have been sacrificed at the alter of the God of this impending progressive Kingdom, who, like the contemporary popular philosopher Slavoj Zizek, would happily see “the system” torn down if it would hasten the arrival of that Kingdom (or the “new political reconfiguration,” as Zizek words it, which is to say, with Revelations, the state where “the former things have passed away”).
On this, the question of the eschaton, a theological term which means the end time (as in, end of history when the Kingdom of God is established, on Earth as it is in Heaven), the left sets itself as its own determinant of history, its own God.
Let me give an example of this theological operation of the left’s discourse and politics, by continuing to use Zizek as a foil. The theological character of Zizek’s assertion of the need for a “new political reconfiguration” is apparent when he asserts that those who think as he does are the true “moral majority,” and that the rest of the world is trapped in a consent manufactured by the powerful, and that the only “real” choice in 2016, would have been between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Trump, otherwise it was a false choice, which is to say, a choice between two options that were the same.
But here we have to accept that Zizek determines who and which perspectives are moral, as on that basis alone he makes himself a member of the moral “majority.” Meanwhile, by saying there is no “real” choice between Hillary and Trump is to say that this choice does not provide an option that validates Zizek’s sense of morality, again placing Zizek in the position of the determinant of history, of God Godself. And Zizek accomplishes this by asserting that most people (such as the actual “majority” that voted for Hillary over Trump) did not make a “real” choice, but had their consent manufactured by . . . someone. Those people, unlike Zizek, do not reach their own conclusions, much less “real” conclusions, and they need Zizek to redeem them from their false dichotomy, that they may be delivered from their oppression, as Zizek has defined it, into the new political reconfiguration, as Zizek has defined it.
Such is the operation of discourse on the left. One that, if we are honest, does not concern itself with the oppressed, who live material realities; but with oppression, conceived and battled abstractly. Thus, it is more important for the left to make everyone see their “truth,” the “real” choice that the left would leave them, than to ensure they have access to the resources persons like Zizek, and most people I have ever known in the activist left, will enjoy regardless of who holds the presidency (like power and running water).
And herein lies the hollowness of the left’s call for political revolution, since it requires no sacrifice on their part, just the sacrifice of those the left claims to fight for. A Zizek can stand in his t-shirt in an academic setting and wax eloquent about systems of oppression and manufactured control, all the while possessing the surety that he will never actually fight in any revolution, not to mention the full privilege of someone who is not only not meaningfully oppressed in any way, but is, frankly, a beneficiary of the current system.
Put another way, the left does not assert an identification with the oppressed, but rather the right to marshal the oppressed to be cannon fodder in the battle for the left’s divine Kingdom. It is not that the oppressed must live, which would require a consideration of the oppressed’s material reality, it is that the oppressed must fight and die for an end of history they never asked for (seeing how their consent to something other than the left’s “real” option is manufactured and all).
Meanwhile, the left resist on their college campuses while Puerto Ricans hope relief comes to their island. The left defines their political project by way of combat metaphors, with terms like “revolution,” while actual and actually oppressed persons suffer for the left’s delusions about the centrality to the arc of history of the left’s insights.
So let us, quickly, consider what revolution looks like. And we have a present example in the country of Syria, which for years now has been suffering through a civil conflict—you know, an actual “political revolution.”
According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, as of 2014, there were 605,000 less persons alive in Syria than there would have been but for the civil war. The center goes on to describe the situation in Syria, in the following terms:
In addition to the many material losses, the crisis also has profoundly and critically undermined social cohesion and frayed the Syrian national social fabric, as it has reduced the quality of social and human life, for most of the population, to the elemental level of biological existence. The population suffers from a sharp deterioration in living conditions, aggravated by a loss of security, the intensification of military operations, excessively high prices, and the deterioration of public services including health, education, energy sources, and transportation, in addition to increasingly difficult housing conditions as the result of damage to buildings in many areas. This concern applies even more sharply to families and individuals who have been displaced to other areas within Syria or who have fled the country. The displaced and migrants live under inhumane conditions in which children and women are particularly exposed to oppression, humiliation, deprivation, and abuse.
As far as I can tell, and the radio silence under which Puerto Rico is currently operating makes it rather impossible to know, the social fabric has not frayed, but it has been three weeks, not three years (as the Syrian civil conflict began in 2011 and the Center’s report is using data from 2014). Other than that detail, it is hard not to feel like this paragraph more or less exactly describes the situation in Puerto Rico three weeks after Maria.
Of course, a hurricane is not a political revolution, but, it turns out, with respect to its destructive and anti-social force, a political revolution is much like a devastating hurricane. And now the left’s political revolution, which clamored for Jill Stein when their Chosen One was not allowed the Democratic nomination, and in so doing participated in the election of Trump, has delivered the foreseeable result of any actual revolution, the sacrifice of the very vulnerable or oppressed in whose name the revolution was supposedly fought.
And this is why the left’s call for “revolution” is so hollow where the plight of the actually oppressed and vulnerable is concerned. Sanders is a U.S. Senator, Zizek is a celebrity academic, neither is oppressed, nor would either ever be called upon to fight in a revolution. The persons who pontificate about the need for a revolution, whether they be a Sanders, a Zizek, or even the demonstrators who clearly enjoy sufficient leisure to be somewhere other than at work, are not the ones who would fight or suffer most in a revolution, but they might be those left in charge, which is to say, in power, were that revolution to prevail (convenient, no?).
The oppressed, on the other hand, who rely far more on the relative stability of our social order than do the privileged, who have few resources of their own to turn to when the state fails, are left to suffer the physically violent consequences of the left’s embrace of discursive violence: it’s a revolution!
The poor and the oppressed are not asking to be sacrificed for the sake of your end of history, nor have they asked to be saved by any impending new Kingdom. They are far more likely to respond to the theology of the left as the East Coast Hip-Hop intellectual Nas responded to some of the activist theological claims asserted by the self-appointed prophets of his inner city context on the song “Represent,” from his seminal Illmatic: “I don’t believe in none of that shit, your facts are backwards.”
The poor and oppressed need government to function, not the left’s promise of salvation. For when government collapses, the privileged flee (as many Puerto Ricans of means have done, having already left the island), while the poor “live under inhumane conditions in which children and women are particularly exposed to oppression, humiliation, deprivation, and abuse,” to invoke the Syrian Center. As such, Puerto Rico is left at the mercy of an executive who, not unlike the left, would rather see government collapse than live an existence in which his perspective is not vindicated at every turn, is not validated as the end of history.
And so the left becomes what it beheld, and the poor residents of places like Puerto Rico bear the costs and the scars of the left’s call for revolution. Don’t worry too much about that though, Zizek has another guest lecture you can attend next semester.
Roberto E. Alejandro is a former fast food worker, transit bus driver, assistant book preservationist, hospital interpreter, and handyman. He holds a PhD in religion and theology from Durham University, and is a licensed member of the New York State Bar, holding a law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. Roberto currently serves as CEO of On Background Media, Inc., and is editor-in-chief of StayUp.News, a Hip-Hop and politics web magazine based out of New York City covering poverty and other social issues in urban settings.