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Who is left?

April 12, 2012 6:42pm
What does it mean to be a leftist in the Philippines today?
Now is probably a good time to ask this again because nearly a generation has passed since the most painful splits in the Philippine left. More than that, recent developments have opened up new possibilities for, and triggered new debates among, those who identify with—or who are moving toward—the left these days.
Self-defeating definitions

Who is or is not a leftist? The ability to name and to categorize, sociologists remind us, is itself a source of power and, hence, always an object of fierce struggle. Indeed, so important has this categorical struggle been for the left that not a few have been killed because they were judged to have failed to pass the test.
And yet, through these violent struggles, the definitions for determining who is or isn’t left have been too narrow at best and self-defeating at worst.
One party basically says that anyone who follows its partyline is a leftist. Whoever disagrees with it, on the other hand, especially if she claims some leftist allegiance, is liable to being dismissed as a fraud: Indeed, the words “pseudo-progressive,” “fake,” “phony,” etc. tend to be used in polemics as though they were going to be stricken out of the dictionary tomorrow.
Ultimately, however, this party’s basis for saying whether someone is a leftist seems to be adherence to a set of tactics, policies, and rules: whether she believes in armed struggle, in the nationalization of haciendas, or in the authority of the central committee.
Other leftist groups basically follow similar, if inverted, definitions of their left-ness. While they generally don’t accuse the other party of being posers, they too have their own ready reply: Many cry out “Stalinist” or “dogmatic” at the slightest provocation.
But they too tend to establish their self-identities with reference to their strategies or organizational structures: They believe in a war of position rather than maneuver; they swear by Gramsci (or Trotsky or Kropotkin) rather than Mao; or they are more willing to place their bets on an aristocrat rather than a parvenu.
Toward a less sectarian identity

These strategic, doctrinal, and organizational differences are real and should not be glossed over. But to define who is left in terms of means while overlooking ends is probably masking a more essential part of what it means to be a leftist—at least to me, but I suspect for many others too.
Not only does it allow our adversaries to caricature us as a hopelessly fractious bunch and to play us off each other, it also obscures from the public something that many may actually share with us—and that we may actually share with each other: a profound moral outrage at the terrible injustices of the world, a deep concern for the absolute dignity of every being, and an unshakeable moral conviction that society can and should be better.
A leftist, it seems to me, is anyone who thinks it’s not right for the 1 percent living at the Fort to indulge in truffles flown in from northern Italy, while those in Baseco make do with re-cooking collected fried chicken scraps thrown away by customers at fast-food chains. She is more disgusted by how sick people have to display their terrible tumors on TV to beg for help—if only to be showcased as proof of some elite family’s charity—rather than by two men kissing. She believes in collective redemption through collective action, not individual salvation.
It is this, I think, which ultimately defines what being a leftist means, and Che Guevara still captures it best: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.”
If so, leftists can be in Malacañang or in Mendiola; in the Cordillera or in Congress. They are—and should be—everywhere.
To be sure, leftists in these different places have different analyses of and proposals for addressing injustice: Some, following Marx, think capitalism is intrinsically exploitative. Those, following Polanyi, find that it is the dominance of market relations that threatens society. Feminists and queer activists will point to the centrality of patriarchy and chauvinism.
The list of social critics to cite is long, but I suspect that most leftists don’t even have a fully-formed analysis, only an instinctive feeling that something is not quite right with the world when gleaming luxury condos can stand beside the most destitute of slums.
Regardless of their proposed solutions and means, however, all are ultimately moved by what seems to me to be a moral certainty: that the world is screwed up and that another, better world is possible.
A crisis of confidence

Now this is probably too simple, but perhaps it has become necessary to reassert even this simplest of definitions to counter sectarian categorizations, but also to defend the possibility and desirability of this moral certainty—something which some leftists now seem to doubt.
Voicing a sentiment expressed also by others outside his party, Akbayan leader Leloy Claudio has recently sought to defend his party’s defense of President Aquino by suggesting that their critics just fail to appreciate that “the period of moral certainty is long gone.”
To be fair, it’s not clear what exactly he—and others who’ve invoked the same argument—mean by “moral certainty.”  I would like to think that what they really mean is that we have lost our “tactical” or “policy certainty”: Indeed, it’s easier to agree on how to fight a brutal dictatorship, much less so on how to deal with a presidency enjoying possibly the broadest legitimacy since Marcos.
But if, by “moral certainty,” they mean that conviction about what we are outraged by and what we are fighting for, have we really lost that? Are we no longer sure that capitalists exploit their workers, that men oppress women, or that Filipino elites treat Moros as colonial subjects? Has social justice or collective emancipation become passé?
I’m almost sure that many, if not most, of those in Claudio’s party would answer no to these questions. But his and others’ invocation of moral irresolution seems to speak of a crisis of confidence in the left—at precisely a moment in which our opponents may also be at their most diffident. Why?
Doubt and belief

Part of the reason, it seems to me, is that many of us have been extra-careful—rightly, I think—to avoid being zealots: we have been humbled by the perils of dogmatism and we have learned from the excesses of fanaticism.
But being certain and being fanatical or dogmatic are not the same thing. One can be absolutely convinced of one’s ultimate values and yet be extremely unsure of how to uphold them in the context of changing circumstances. One can be sure about the morality of equality, for example, and yet be open to many views regarding land reform.
Indeed, I think that it is actually our moral certainty that pushes us to question, to explore different sides, to debate about the best means, to be our harshest critics, to be humble. For if fanaticism is just overcompensation for doubt, certainty constantly breeds doubt: When you have an idea of what is right, you begin to recognize all the things that aren’t quite right and you begin to want to find all the answers to make things right.
As philosophers of science have pointed out: Only when you have something like a core of initially unquestioned postulates can you formulate the questions that will enable you to advance your quest for truth, spot anomalies in or deviations from your theory, and then allow you to reconstruct it or, if need be, construct a new one.
But what is it that drives you too keep wanting to find answers at all? Isn’t it the moral certainty that the pursuit of truth is good in itself and in the service of larger goals?
Truth and Faith

Another possible reason why leftists seem to have been rather shy about our moral convictions is that said beliefs seem to sit uncomfortably with an enduring presupposition: that the “economic base” is ultimately prior to ideas or beliefs in shaping history.
Thus, paradoxically, even as we spend so much effort trying to convince others of our ideas, we ultimately tend to discount the causal force of our own ideas in changing the course of events.
Then, we found ourselves put on the defensive by the technocrats and ideologues who held sway during the long period of neoliberal triumphalism. Driven to highlight the “scientific” basis of our critiques, we may have ended up playing down our own moral beliefs—instead of calling out these technocrats’ own detestable moral assumptions: that human beings are selfish, that some are just naturally superior, and that we can’t do anything about it.
Their faith, we may have failed to stress enough, was not more “scientific,” just more pessimistic. And our power, we may have failed to say confidently enough, lies not just in the logic of our prescriptions but in the beauty of our vision: a civilization in which we are able to develop our rich talents rather than be reduced to being appendages of machines, in which we really love and care for each other, rather than use each other as instruments or as slaves.
Our faith in the rightness of that vision is not something we should have to apologize for, but something that we should affirm—whether we be in Mendiola or in Malacañang: It’s what makes us angry, it’s what makes us dream, it’s what makes us better. It’s a source of strength—and possibly unity. - GMA News
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