Throughout this holiday season, I’m sure many of us are have had, or are going to have, the delight of watching family get-togethers devolve into vicious political shouting-matches. So its a nice time to reflect on the messy and incoherent nature of many people’s political ideologies.
This fact is lost on many leftists who have gone through academia and have spent countless hours poring over dry theoretical texts and lengthy polemics, and have a relatively well-developed idea of what they believe and why they believe it. But many people — maybe even most people — haven’t done any serious study on politics and social theory, and thus may (from the perspective of educated activists) exhibit bizarre and incoherent arguments and worldviews.
For example, one of my co-workers, an electrician, an elderly white man who listens to conservative talk radio, told me how he doesn’t believe in evolution because of his Christian background — and literally one sentence later, told me how he thinks that one show on The History Channel about ancient civilizations and aliens makes a lot of fascinating points. Another day, he made some scathing comments about the “scumbag” homeless people who live in the creek next to the plant — and then a week later, told me how he’s spending his Thanksgiving volunteering at the homeless shelter. Another example is my own father: his stated political identity will oscillate between “socialist” and “capitalist” depending on the day, and which news article he read last.
Much of this comes down to the role of politics in people’s day-to-day lives. People who aren’t interested in studying political and social theory form their opinions and world-views based on what actually affects their day-to-day lives. And oftentimes, this can mean that a person’s political practice ends up at odds with their stated ideological commitments — i.e. some of co-workers who are staunch supporters of our union are also, strangely enough, self-proclaimed conservatives, and listen to anti-union talk-shows.
For the radical left, the incoherence of people’s politics means that we ought to put more energy and effort into building spaces where people with potentially wildly different viewpoints and opinions can work together on concrete issues that benefits everybody involved — and in the processes, take down reactionary ideas and develop a higher level of political understanding. Unions, of course, are a prime example of this, which is the main reason why Ray Valentine of Orchestrated Pulse centered labor organizing in his piece on how to undermine Trumpism, as opposed to vague appeals to “public debate”.
Union members are exposed to the same “public debate” as everyone else, but their immediate experience of the union provides practical reference points for a profoundly different conception of their relation to one another and to the wider economy and society. In a market society, workers ordinarily experience a fierce, zero-sum competition with other workers for scarce jobs, units of housing, educational opportunities, etc. Even when union membership is [a] “low-commitment, low intensity affair” …it brings people into contact with a concrete and coherent collective workers’ interest that can be opposed to the boss’s.
The relatively nonconfrontational union activities workers normally participate in today – union elections or card checks, collective bargaining, grievances, meetings with reps in break rooms – is more than sufficient to inculcate a mild labor-liberalism. More militant collective action like strikes, mass pickets, slowdowns, wildcats, sabotage, factory occupations, and direct confrontation with the coercive functions of the state, can raise workers to higher levels of revolutionary consciousness. Politically, the practical experience of material struggle is worth far more than the most compelling narrative that simply describes class cleavages to the masses.
You can have the most well-crafted polemic about capitalism and socialism and revolution — but unless its tied to a concrete struggle, and day-to-day organizing and collective spaces, its not gonna do much to overcome the inherent messiness and incoherence of many people’s views.