Beyond Jon Stewart: Escaping Democratic Centrism And Finding a New Left

Shannon Ikebe

“Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution?” So rhetorically posed Jon Stewart at the “Rally to Restore Sanity” last October. As an activist of the Marxist persuation, I can certainly assure the darling of liberal America that I am not in the business of subverting the Constitution, and neither is any Marxist that I know of. There is nothing new and surprising in the demonization and caricturization of leftist voices by a powerful figure in the media. However, what distinguishes Stewart from others in the establishment is his enormous following among young, educated progressives — in other words, people like us. Indeed, what Stewart and his rally symbolize is the sorry decay of the American Left, which has been ongoing for more than three decades since the advent of Reaganism.

After the great upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s, what used to be left-wing politics morphed into anemic liberalism, which is best reflected in the Democratic Party and large “progressive” organizations subservient to the Democrats. As the travesty of neoliberalism was warmly embraced by the powers that be of the Democratic Party, many progressives have tacitly bought into the culture in which moderation, compromise and the pursuit of the mythical independent middle are the highest virtue. Bill Clinton was said to be the master of triangulation of the Left, but it was perfected by President Obama, whose very appeal lies in his ability to appease Goldman Sachs and Anti-Choice terrorists while masquerading as the image of reason, calmness and unity.

In the meantime, the academic Left and the mainstream of the radical Left turned to the increasingly influential politics of postmodernism. Certainly, postmodern theories made important contributions to the politics of liberation, most notably for feminism and LGBTQ movements. Foucault proved to be crucial for feminism because so much of gendered, patriarchal power is indeed exercised in capillaries — everywhere.

There are indeed dangers in modernist projects to form and transform society through exercise of the large institutional power. However, no matter how useful the skepticism of grand narratives and projects for criticizing of power structures may be, its overdoses have been poisonous to the leftist politics. As subversive discursive performances and fashioning of individual identities are treated as the main sites of resistance, organized struggles over politics and the economy based on transformative ideas became out of fashion. The big questions for the Left ceased to become the matter of how to expand political influence and take political power or how the economy can be organized differently — that is too modern! — and shifted to localized, fragmented “resistance” against the overwhelming forces which are subconsciously percieved as unchangeable.

In the contemporary “progressive” culture that Oberlin represents, the postmodern critical postures and “incredulity of the metanarratives” are absorbed into the emptiness of liberal neutrality. However entertaining it is to mock Sarah Palin in thousands of different clever witticisms, ironic subversions are not a substitute for offering and organizing a radical alternative to the Tea Party’s reactionary platform. For Stewart and his legion of followers, revelling in discursive plays against the radical Right has led to advocating for preservation of the moderate status quo presented as “sanity.” This is based on the assumption that the Democratic triangulation of the Left is a demonstration of sensibility because there is nothing so radically wrong with the status quo.

The liberal Democrats have absorbed the postmodern spirit while sheepishly following the continual rightward trajectory of American politics in the name of compromising with reality. America does have thriving leftist scenes, but what is striking is their disconnect from the wider national life. Not only do we lack a leftist party of any importance, but we are also bereft of a unified leftist movement whose presence is at least widely recognized outside of the leftist circles. I do not mean to understate the formidable difficulties that any Left politics faces, and do not wish to get mired in the internal blame games of our lack of success. But we can certainly move beyond the toxic synthesis of liberalism and postmodernism, which consigns us to powerlessness. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek observed that in our times it has become “much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than… a radical change in capitalism”. The latter needs to be imagined, if we are to be the catalyst for real change. We wouldn’t be able to take a step toward it if we were stuck with the Democratic mentality, and we need more than reading Foucault and watching Stewart in order to envision a better future.