Out of this crisis of global capitalism, something new will emerge: new vocabularies, new organizations, new politics. But the direction of change is as yet unknown. New forms of authoritarian oligarchy, transformed modes of participatory democracy, resurgent xenophobic nationalisms–all of these seem possible as responses to a dramatic economic downturn. On the democratic left, we need to do two things: first, be political scavengers, by which I mean gather together the already existing, promising forms of egalitarian cooperative thinking, working and living; and second, make things up.
As others in this forum have pointed out, if the left is to lead the way out of this morass, we must pay attention to a number of crucial issues and developments: the social movements and new, radical social democratic governments in Latin America; the collective thinking and organizing at the World Social Forum; the fruits of direct democracy reflected in local activities including cooperative farming within the United States; and the emerging regional alternative power centers that might produce a multilateral rather than imperial global political economy. All of these models are useful for practical utopian thinking and planning. I would like to add local radical queer, feminist and sexually dissident organizations to the list.
There has long been a tendency on the left to separate out the so-called serious economic issues from “merely” cultural politics that draw on identity, i.e., gender, race and sexuality. This is a huge mistake. People live their economic lives in the intersecting spaces of intimate and public activities–in households and neighborhoods, at workplaces and social service offices, at play, in bed and on the streets. In everyday life, the economic blends into the social and cultural, as the experiences of foreclosure, unemployment, divorce, education, or social-movement organizing occur within complex, overlapping, dynamic social formations. In a time of economic crisis, much of the work of survival is taken up in “private” households, mediated by kinship and employment structures through which the burden of labor is unevenly shared along lines of gender and race. A left politics that abstracts “economic” issues from cultural life cannot explain or even speak to the way capitalism is actually lived day to day. This is a point that conservative churches, for instance, seem to understand far better than most leftist groups.
A close look at the activities and publications of local radical queer organizations can illustrate this point. In New York City, for instance, the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice and FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) produce creative analyses of public policy–such as ALP’s work on immigration policy, QEJ’s project on the experience and politics of homelessness and FIERCE’s critique of the privatization of public space in the city. They offer broad economic critiques, but they also spend a lot of energy imagining otherwise, at the nexus of intimate and public life. How might we live without a rigidly binary gender system? How might we organize homes and workplaces for universal accessibility? How do we rethink global citizenship beyond the racialized nation-state?