There is no Time for Reform Anymore

By E Ryerson

A few things to hold in mind while reading the following:

  1. Eight or nine more degrees of average global temperature will devastate crop yields, vastly depopulate the world’s oceans, and literally slowly cook human beings inside their bodies.
  2. When enough jobs are automated that humans no longer can meaningfully limit production or distribution, then those in possession of capital will no longer be dependent on beings who will want food or medicine or shelter in exchange for their labor.
  3. Some estimates suggest we have thirty years until the first one happens. Some estimates suggest we have fifty until the second.

Often when political discussions veer towards the left, most people will fall back on a number of tried and true responses: socialism is [something that is not socialism], socialism always fails because [reasons], if it did work it would be evil, when it has worked it was evil, and eventually you’ll settle down and understand that progress moves forward incrementally, slowly but surely, without excitement or dramatics or people getting hurt. Many who say these things probably believe them, especially this last bit. Liberalism is slow and steady, they say. Liberalism brought the US an average standard of living that is very impressive. Liberalism brought us a variety of consumer electronics. Liberalism just works.

Politics isn’t about compromise and bipartisanship and coming together with your ideological opponents after a stimulating debate, contrary to The West Wing and NPR and your facebook timeline. Politics is, in a very real sense, about distributing pain. The difference between a child having enough food to eat and them not doing that, or between a pregnant mother getting gestational diabetes that ruins her life and not, or a young trans person killing themselves, or a person diagnosed with liver cancer dying and not, are all politics. Politics is about distributing human suffering. Saying “I don’t pay attention to politics” is one of the most privileged things a person can say, because they have the luxury of not having to care if the check that pays for their rent and food will come next month. Everything is political, and it’s a fucking battle every single day.

When people, including liberals, say “socialism just doesn't work” they’re saying that it’s okay for human lives to end early and for some children to suffer brain damage from malnourishment and for a handful of people to pathologically hoard more wealth than literally hundreds of millions of others. This sounds dramatic, but at root that is what’s being concealed by this tired rhetorical move. Socialism is removing profit from the workings of human society, the systems we’ve developed to stay alive and fulfilled as mammals on Earth, and opposition to this is fundamentally an capitalistic, anti-human ideology.

Here’s what isn’t realistic: believing that we have enough time to give everyone healthcare and food and a standard of living through incremental reform before climate catastrophe or automation takes us past a point of no return. This sounds dire, but when the staunchest defenders of liberalism also panic about how this upcoming election is perhaps the most important ever and a turn towards the right can systematically dismantle every good thing we’ve been given, one starts to question just how realistic this option is.

We aren’t the unrealistic ones. Socialism can work, has worked. It merely requires a critical mass of people to agree that profit isn’t how we want our lives run. Liberalism is the idea that this claim, while perhaps laudable, is not realistic or would cost more than we’re willing to pay. Liberalism is the accepting of the limits of political reality. Liberalism is the superego: the conditioning and conventional wisdom and shame and psychic torture mechanisms that make us able to go about our lives without needlessly libidinal thoughts that would be distracting or damaging to our daily performance. This is why liberals like horseshoe theory, the idea that the far right and the far left are equally destructive and undesirable, so much: liberalism serves to nip any transformation or anything that would damage the postwar liberal consensus in the bud. Make no mistake: conservatives and the right are our enemies, and they want to rule us, if not kill us outright. But liberals are standing in the way as well, since liberalism deems staggering imperial violence overseas and the poverty of hundreds of millions and the racist carceral state acceptable costs for the status quo. We’re more afraid of “authoritarianism” than we are of the present reality of the truly horrific human cost undergirding every single one of our lives.

So yes, liberalism works. Liberalism works slowly and steadily. But Earth is starving and sick and dying, and it has always been this way, and it will always be this way. Very liberally.

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