Caitlin Johnstone writes provocative columns that usually contain as much truth as anybody else’s and more than most. Her latest at Medium opens laudably by issuing a call to arms to the myriad victims of the “nationless plutocratic power structure,” i.e., virtually everybody. Johnstone urges us to unite against the “sociopathic class of elites who use propaganda to manipulate the way we think and keep us divided against each other.” So far so good, Johnstone is on rock-solid ground.
But then the self-avowed socialist goes off-the-rails. As the title,“this Revolution is Non-Ideological” suggests, Johnstone argues that a successful challenge to the neoliberal power structure will not rely on any specific political philosophy. In a world where international elites maintain and increase power by cynically but “cheerfully wav[ing] a rainbow flag today and a Nazi flag tomorrow,” ideology is meaningless or so Johnstone claims.
The author conflates the co-option of ideological symbols by amoral corporatists with the actual death of ideology. In so doing, she embraces a nihilistic worldview – a Hobbesian universe of all against all. Unsurprisingly, Johnstone revolutionary formula consists solely of a collective primal awakening within us that impels us to say “’NO!’ to our shackles.”
Johnstone bolsters her claim that a non-ideological revolution is the only one that can succeed by referencing the all-too-real partisan divide. We – Americans at least – have “split into two widely-divided tribes who are far more interested in screaming and shaking [our] fists at one another than . . . in advancing the actual policies [our] respective tribes pretend to care about.”
The flaw in Johnstone’s argument against ideology is that even a revolution that begins with millions of the newly self-liberated skipping in the fields reflects a deeply felt, if not explicitly worked out, ideology. In its simplest form, that ideology embraces the belief that neither an aristocratic nor even a merit-based class – tiny in number – should be allowed to appropriate and exhaust the world’s bounty.
Johnstone also fails to take into account the fact that successful revolutionaries rely on political theory. The American and French Revolutions, flawed and incomplete though they may have been, were catalyzed by explicitly worked-out and easily understood ideologies. Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights heroes used the language of the enlightenment and the U.S. Constitution to motivate their followers and attract new ones.
For a revolution against the 1% to succeed, ideology will be crucial. But partisanship must be strenuously resisted. Resisters must avoid the temptation to view every Trump voter as an unreconstructed ignorant, sexist, racist, xenophobe. Bernie backers will have to forestall the impulse to chastise Hillary Clinton at every turn for blowing the election and Clinton’s claque needs to acknowledge that it wasn’t her turn.
How can we on the progressive left breach these partisan divides? By embracing a truly universal humane ideology of course. One that exalts the value of each individual. One that recognizes the centrality of both meaningful fairly compensated work and sufficient leisure time. One that insists that guaranteed health care, education, food, shelter, and a secure retirement are non-negotiable. Democratic socialism is about as accurate a term for this ideology as you’ll find. To the extent we embrace it enthusiastically, we will find more and more allies and topple the artificially-constructed psychological barriers that keep us at loggerheads with those whose economic interests are nearly identical with our own.