Review of ‘The Old Future’s Gone: Progressive Strategy Amid Cascading Crisis,’ a talk by Robert Jensen
Last month, author and activist Robert Jensen spoke in Denver at an event sponsored by Argusfest entitled “The Old Future’s Gone: Progressive Strategy Amid Cascading Crisis.” It was based on a writing that has circulated among left-liberal websites. A professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, he also has written many books and articles on topics such as imperialism, capitalism, white privilege and patriarchy. He doesn’t quite go to our line, but he at least asks the right questions and approaches the right topics. Because of this, a few members of RAIM went to check out the event.
At best his talk could be summed up as eclectic with a sub-reformist emphasis.
Jensen also carries a sense of honest despair, admitting he sees little in the way of widespread, fundamental change. Rather than seeking out revolutionary means to revolutionary ends, he instead prefers to deal in ways in which he feels he’s made a more immediate, though irrelevant and fleeting, impact.
In talking about strategies for change, Jensen sees the Amerikan left engaged in three types: electoral politics, movement politics and local projects. He sees no use in electoral politics. Movement politics have their limits also, especially in their emphasis on protest marches. Bringing up the February 15, 2003 worldwide marches against the invasion of Iraq, the largest coordinated protest in history, which the New York Times said made world opinion a second superpower, he noted that they did nothing to stop that war. He sees more hope in local projects, things like community gardens and such. According to Jensen, the potential for dialogue and debate among others is increased in local projects, though he didn’t specify to what concrete end. The example he raised as his own efforts with local projects was a worker-owned cafe in Austin, though he admitted this effort failed to get off the ground.
While we understand the frustrations in observing the seemingly immovable state of Amerika and the world, the lack of radicalism in Amerikan mass politics, and the inability for radicals to act effectively in a minoritarian context, there were limits to Jensen’s insights beyond this.
When prodded by a RAIM comrade, Jensen admitted that the First World benefits from the exploitation of the Third World. When asked how this phenomenon of entire populations benefiting from others related to and could perhaps be overcome by local projects, he didn’t have an answer. When asked about a solution in putting local projects to tackling this global issue of exploitation, he said the question was too big and too complicated to solve.
Jensen’s inability to answer straight questions were illuminating to the level of confusion within the Amerikan left, even amongst its intellectuals. Jensen is one of the better intellectuals on the left, as he critiques metaphysical liberal ideas in favor of more radical analyses. Jensen’s desire for revolutionary change is in some ways genuine, though Jensen himself is unable to come up with an effective model for widespread fundamental change. Instead he promotes feel-good sub-reformism in the form of local projects, something he himself admits won’t work all the time. As once stated by Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), “Confusion is the greatest enemy of revolution.”
Much of this confusion can be seen in the trappings of left’s First Worldism. Many on the left nominally go against imperialism while simultaneously campaigning to make Amerikans even better off. Jensen falls in this camp: he wants a better world but doesn’t want to alienate Amerikans. The truth is, Amerikans benefit from the global capitalist economic system as it is and have little material interest in working to create a new one. This in part explains why revolutionary change seems so untenable within Amerika, even to those who genuinely desire it.
Unlike Jensen, we at RAIM apply global class analysis fully. Doing simple math, Amerika is only 5 percent of the world population but the consumer of over 25 percent of the world’s resources. The poorest half of the world lives on less than $2 a day, and the bottom 1.3 billion live on less than $1 a day. Although Jensen admits this, RAIM-Denver plainly says the obvious truth and takes it to its logical end: Amerikans are part of the problem; they are a force which must be overcome during the course of progressive change. Unlike Jensen who is fruitlessly engaged in various forms of pandering to a population of petty exploiters and polluters, RAIM champions the cause of the world’s exploited and oppressed majority as the most direct route to creating a new world.
At one point, Jensen said that he struggles to identify as part of humanity and not Amerikan, white or male. In reality, to stand with humanity is to stand against Amerika and the First World.
The First World is destroying the planet and exploiting its people. On a structural level, this mean that the principal antagonism is between imperialism and the people of exploited nations. Exploitation-driven consumption and related environmental destruction affect the Third World the most, while benefits, even indirectly, trickle up to the First World. The solution for this problem isn’t for those in the First World to engage in local projects. Rather, real change will come when Third World peoples wrestle stolen wealth out of the hands of First World imperialists. While this includes worker-owned industry on the part of currently exploited people, history has proven that this itself requires a fight and involves actual confrontations. Amerikans are not simply going to stop being exploiters: unlike the fluffy revolution of values Jensen dreams up, revolutions actually require revolution.