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Culture Change

A critique of pure liberalism

The System's opponents are not liberals 

by Jan Lundberg

A basic choice people have in their lives is whether to accept the dominant socioeconomic/political system as desirable, or, think of it as changeable or expendable.  Some even dare to resist it with all their being, when global warming and peak oil are added to outrages such as ongoing military aggression.  But even thinking in opposition to "the system" is suppressed and driven underground by those who want to do our thinking for us.  When the dominant system is assumed sacrosanct or forever inevitable, most efforts to improve our lives or assure survival may be for naught.  

To reform the system may be vitally important at times, commanding even the attention of cultural revolutionaries, even though reforms may simultaneously serve to perpetuate the system along with its future crimes against humanity.  We must be honest that Western civilization has taken the cake in serving up the greatest crimes against humanity -- despite our attachment to civilization when it has uplifted us occasionally with a Mozart, for example.

Today, with ecological disaster and the possible extinction of the human race more and more likely -- as long as trends continue and the system rolls on -- the questioning of our leaders, the structure of society and our very culture is appropriate.  However, there are reasons such questioning isn't done by many, or if it is it's kept under wraps.  One of the main reasons is the role of liberals.  Conservatives are considered the reactionary force in society, but liberals provide resiliency to the system through "having a conscience" and being tolerant in general, and trying to alleviate a little suffering.  As laudable as these tendencies are, this serves to distract people from both opposing the government all-out and from building a new society.  Clearly, liberals are of questionable value in the long run when it is a conservative Republican, Roscoe Bartlett, who is the only U.S. government official to take peak oil seriously (and, as it happens, eloquently).

The conscious opponents of the system are radicals, and the unconscious opponents are the reactionary conservatives who think they are preserving the system.  When a system is so out of balance that it has invited correction or has sewn the seeds of its own obliteration, the mindless and greedy milking of the system contributes toward the unmaking of the system.  The way this works famously is certain Republicans' having gone after all the power they can.  

Richard Heinberg, author of excellent books on peak oil such as The Party's Over, says "the US electoral system has been eviscerated and commandeered by a single party (using various forms of systematic fraud that have now become endemic), so that a peaceful rectification of the situation by a vote of the people has become virtually impossible." [from his review of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, in].  Heinberg finds the situation a "truly horrifying state of affairs," but one can instead be bemused and see it as hopeless while it hastens the system's final upheaval. 

Author Daniel Quinn has deftly dismissed reformism as guaranteeing more of the same problems people have been up against in our totalitarian civilization.  Even the average U.S. citizen sees politicians of the two always-dominant political parties as barely distinguishable; the low voter-turnout proves this.  Voting only for representatives (President on down) instead of on national referenda is another limitation that serves to preserve the system instead of steering it into new waters so it could become something different.

Culture Change Letters have always advocated fundamental change and resisted lobbying or politicking.  If the people lead, the leaders will follow -- as the slogan goes.  The people are not leading as long as they are stupefied by accumulating material things, brainwashed through media and schooling, and can -- while there's petroleum and cash -- maintain a semblance of order to provide basic daily "needs."  People are thus not inclined to look beyond the short term to wonder such things as whether the orgy of nonrenewable energy use will soon end.  Of course, they are told by liberals and the funded environmental movement that today's massive fossil fuel consumption is just a delayed phase of history that can be solved by another election or anticipating the "Solar Economy" or the "Hydrogen Economy" (impossible scenarios to honest students of energy who consider today's overpopulation).   

To the left of liberals, who may be synonymous with Democrats, are generally the progressives, and in many cases these may be radicals who prefer the term "progressive."  Progressives may serve the same function as liberals in propping up the status quo.  They hammer on policy issues instead of fundamental change, although they may bravely face police brutality along with radicals and anarchists in the streets during certain protests.  The question becomes, are progressives fooling themselves as much as liberals (and thoughtful Democrats and Republicans) when it comes to trying to do away with war and social injustice?  Many sincerely believe the corporations are here to stay and can be made good "citizens."  Even those who know that in 1886 a misinterpretation of a Supreme Court case gave corporations the rights of "persons" believe only in reforms, so as to allow capital to remain the dominant way of the world.  People who have basic disagreements on key issues honestly do not know if they are enemies or are people on the same side who are really all in the same boat (planet Earth).

Very often the only visible progressives or "radical" leaders opposing the system are actually mere semi-critics, interested to some extent in their own continued funding which is understandable.  But they may temper their views in order to maintain their own dominance among the opposition.  "Opposition" can mean reformism and is not necessarily the resistance to the system that a revolutionary or activist for alternative living may represent as opponents of the system.

Meanwhile, many wonder why things don't change for the better, while the system gets worse.  Considering all of the above, it should be clear why there has not been a real opposition to the two-party political system in the U.S. and nations such as France since the late 1960s.  In the absence of serious change and with no strong movement or visible leader, activism in the U.S. is co-opted to work for a Democrat who is no more than a liberal member of the Establishment, as in the U.S. presidential elections of 2004 and 2000.

A Gallery of Liberals

A tiny percentage of the vote has gone to Nader and the Green Party, who apparently want to keep the basic system intact or would allow this by default.  So John Kerry becomes the big hope for reformists as well as progressives who may even believe themselves to stand for fundamental change.  The Greens had actually split in the 1990s regarding the advisability of running candidates early on.  The original Green Committees of Correspondence are still active as "The Greens/Green Party USA," not to be confused with the Green Party that made sure it backed Kerry by refusing to select the Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo ticket.

Amy Goodman does great work as a journalist and does oppose the government on many points.  However, she does not identify herself as an all-out opponent of the government or of the entire system, and she is not in the business of offering a clear alternative vision of a new society to cope with the environmental crisis and social injustice.  She may serve radical ends consciously or unconsciously with her excellent coverage, but her editorial stance or possibly funding from powerful backers may limit her message.  She does not want to be "too radical" although the term "radical" simply means "to the root."  The truth cannot be "too true."

Noam Chomsky is an amazingly articulate and meticulous critic of foreign policy and corporate media.  But what does he believe will change things: better leaders?  The system needs to be altered almost beyond recognition.  The vision for change that emerges from listening to MIT Professor Chomsky is that we just have to change policies for American democracy to do its rightful job.  This does not cut the mustard for some of us who see a deeper reality.  At the same time, we urge people to read his works to become informed and draw their own conclusions.  Chomsky is a nice man who saw the value of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium several years ago, as he provided contact information for us at APM in the back of one of his books.  It's disappointing that his sharp mind stops short of a truly radical analysis.

Michael Shellenberger, co-author of The Death of Environmentalism (an article to become a book), and consultant to nonprofits and Hugo Chavez, advocates that progressives reclaim American values in order to win.  While there is wisdom in being more positive-sounding and in appealing to people's common everyday concerns, Shellenberger is a reformer who in effect advocates continuing car culture and technology's role in general.  As a co-founder of The Apollo Alliance, he exhibits little intention of fighting for radical conservation.  Instead, he and his cohorts want to preserve the economy and industrial jobs but make them less polluting.  This may be a message decades too late.  Shellenberger is nevertheless a passionate PR man for good causes, such as the forest defenders of Humboldt County, California.

Hillary Clinton can barely be called a liberal, but liberals will rally around her if she runs for president.  A woman president would be a good thing, but she voted as a senator to attack Iraq, and as a lawyer before becoming First Lady she helped ram through toxic incinerators for powerful polluters who were clients.  The Republicans did not attack her for that, however.

Howard Zinn is a tremendous critic of the official story of the U.S.A.  I sent the following to In These Times, which published an interview of Howard Zinn on May 18, 2005 (syndicated in

     Howard Zinn, who wrote A People's History of the United States, has compiled a follow up: Voices of a People's History of the United States.
     He says, "...our hope is that this will be read by the average American who does not know these things and will then organize and act and become part of the social movement that will then force the people in power to change their policies."
     He did not say throw out the people in power.  Does he think it unlikely or is he against it?  It doesn't sound like he wants a total change of systems.  This seems to be the same position held by Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky.  Are successful historical movements really about just changing policy?  These "radicals" are not as radical as Jefferson or Lincoln who advocated replacing whole governments, even though these founding fathers would not have then advocated system replacement (but if they were around today and looked around, maybe they would).

Zinn was in the news again because of his May 15, 2005 commencement address at Spelman College.  His theme was "against discouragement," and on the civil rights struggle he said, "Many people had said: The South will never change.  But it did change.  It changed because ordinary people organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up.  That's when democracy came alive."  Zinn's other reason for people not to feel discouraged about the U.S.'s ongoing attempt to "expand its empire" was about the anti-war movement which he apparently thought successful back in the early 1970s: "...just as in the Southern movement, people began to protest and soon it caught on.  It was a national movement.  Soldiers were coming back and denouncing the war, and young people were refusing to join the military, and the war had to end."  However, as an historian he should know that the victories he points to have turned out to be only slight, if today's situations of equality, rights and militarism are the standard.  The system was not quite challenged over three decades ago, as he claimed, for it rolls on worse than ever today.  

The above instances lead me to believe that Zinn and fellow liberals are romantics from another era who are not quite relevant enough today to lead people toward a more effective movement for lasting systemic change.  

The most blatant example may be Thom Hartmann, a syndicated radio commentator as well as author.  According to his website, "he has also founded 7 companies, worked as an international relief worker, founded schools and hospitals on four continents, and is the award-winning, best-selling author of over a dozen books available in ten languages."  All the more reason that his embracing reform through party politics is sad.  Moreover, it is so outmoded that it represents a threat if it means people don't wake up to the need for fundamental change in their own lives in their own communities.

One can sympathize that the Bush victories or thefts in 2000 and 2004 were disasters for the country, far worse than just another Democrat Presidency would have been.  One laments the right wing judges appointed, the Iraq War especially, and the list goes on.  But it must be kept in mind that the economy is the real monster destroying the planet, and the Democrats do uphold business as usual.  Activists such as Hartmann rally around the idea that at least with Democrats some gains can be made on various fronts.  As with Clinton/Gore, eh?

His recent book, We the People, is a thick comic book ably illustrated by Neil Cohn.  I noticed disturbing assumptions that Hartmann built into this quasi-textbook.  As if he were making a speech to mainstream, flag-waving politicos, he lauds the American system as if it just needs some correction and new leadership.  It makes pro-environment statements yet promotes the idea of roadbuilding as a good thing as opposed to more missile systems.  The book is billed as applicable to "A Time to Restore Democracy."  But when was democracy really present in America, aside from representative majority-rule that was not a participatory democracy?  A reader of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky knows the U.S. system is shot through with corruption and inequity.

The worst part of all Hartmann's propagandizing for the U.S. government as a necessary force based on legitimacy -- instead of the genocide and ecocide even a relatively peaceful U.S. government could be based on -- is that the two-party system is the right approach.  He just wants people to stand up and vote for the Democrat party.  Based on history I have witnessed, I find the concepts of activism and the Democratic Party to be incongruous, although I backed McGovern, for example.  The subtitle of We the People is A Call to Take Back America.  The problem with that concept is that the America Hartmann wants is far too similar to the one whose many problems he touches on.  Without radical change that turns our back on consumerism and property rights in an overpopulated, unjust society where wealth is so poorly distributed, there is no future for this country.  However, despite Hartmann's knowledge of dwindling oil supplies (as author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight), he assumes without question that the U.S.A. will endure.  Overall the book is misleading and manipulative, as if he and whoever backs him have decided that just one pivotal election victory can save us.  But does it not seem obvious that the two-party Establishment will never allow parliamentary/proportional party make up of the government?  

More beefs, analysis, and the solution

Liberals are useful but often treacherous.  This was learned by the peace activists who relied on the Democratic Party in the late 1960s.  This sad story is made abundantly clear in such histories as the book Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel by Marty Jezer.  Today, in addition to limiting activism to helping elect Democrats, there are a multitude of issues that many liberals do not want to touch: the truth about 9/11, for example.  The weakness of the official U.S. version and the whitewash of the government's 9/11 Commission makes one wonder how the cover up has endured.  And, in opposing the war in Iraq, a leading group such as the A.N.S.W.E.R. "Coalition" stays clear of suggesting to the public that getting off petroleum through serious conservation is part of the path to peace.  

We can group with the above shortcomings the selling out of the environment by the the funded environmental groups who are often Democrats or support Democrats.  These groups and individuals promote cars and other alleged sources of "efficiency" and "renewable energy" instead of advocating an immediate slashing of energy use.  The challenge is to break up the love affair between the funded environmentalists and the "clean" car -- a campaign that is the subject of  an upcoming Culture Change Letter.

Liberals often sell out, aligning with Democrats and Republicans on many an issue.  The Clinton regime was responsible for over one million Iraqi civilian deaths through bombings and upholding UN sanctions.  Liberals have also sold out badly on the environment, cutting deals with polluters and agents of deforestation -- although one could say the Republicans are generally much worse on the environment.  As part of publicizing the dangerous compromising by liberals and Democrats, they have occasionally been pied in the face, usually by the Biotic Baking Brigade who provide communiqués on the reason for the targets getting their "just desserts."

This "critique of pure liberalism" is really an objection to restrained, false liberalism.  Herbert Marcuse contributed to A Critique of Pure Tolerance, a celebrated 1965 book he co-authored, that included his essay Repressive Tolerance.  His analysis of society served the then-New Left with an understanding of their uphill battle against the status quo of what is assumed to be democracy.  Marcuse said "Tolerance is an end in itself."  He also said a truly tolerant society did not exist in the modern world; instead, "...what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression... Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities."  

Understanding the way things work is essential for knowing (A) what needs to be changed in an entrenched system or (B) changing to an alternative system.  What we have learned since Marcuse's heyday may be that the system is running out of gas as it asphyxiates us all, and that civilization as we know it is not necessarily the friend of humanity; civilization is certainly not the friend of the Earth. 



Daniel Quinn's website: 
Richard Heinberg:
Herbert Marcuse:
The Greens/Green Party USA:
Thom Hartmann:

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