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The Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part III

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If a certain sense of justice and fairness with respect to how we ought to treat other cultures and nations characterizes the Left’s main position as regards its outreach toward the world at large, what is the issue, we may ask, which exercises it most on the domestic front? Aside from any number of discrimination or justice-related issues appertaining to gender, race, and civil rights, I’d have to say that potential abuses from the private sector figure among the most prominent of the Left’s ongoing concerns, and I think that's only right. Unlike many others who view the capitalist system and free-market economies as a necessary outgrowth of, and therefore complementary to, our liberal and democratic institutions, I think (without disagreeing with the first-mentioned claim) that, when taken to the limit, they’re essentially inimical.

But therein lies the rub. Our democratic institutions, which provide for the freedom of the individual to enrich themselves (even to the point of creating gross inequalities and injustices, internally and worldwide), are the very same institutions which are also the ultimate guarantors of all other freedoms which we’ve learned to cherish and take for granted. You can’t have one without the other, it seems, which is to say that all freedoms must be guaranteed -– including the freedom of economic pursuits. We can't just pick and choose.

Consequently, if those institutions are dear to us (and I can’t think why a reasonable person would hold it otherwise), then that freedom must be guaranteed as well -– both in principle and on empirical grounds, if only as the major enabler of the remaining freedoms (and if not to most, then at least to some). The question then is: how far can we go or ought we to go in order to prevent potential abuses, which, admittedly, may create widespread injustices, without infringing on our economic-related freedoms? It’s a touchy subject and the perennial problem for all liberal democracies.

There is a larger issue at stake, that of culture; and Howards End, by E. M. Forster, is extremely relevant here, some have argued, in providing the most comprehensive picture of liberal guilt in this century.

From the introduction by David Lodge:

The issue it addresses, and dramatises in an absorbing human story is whether culture – in the large sense defined by Matthew Arnold as the pursuit of ‘a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society’ – is an attainable ideal. If culture at the personal level depends ultimately on the possession of money (and Forster insists that it does), can it be shared equally in society? And what stance should the advocates of culture adopt towards those who have little or none?

Ironically, the very emergence of the Left (and of the counter-culture, if you will) is one of the fruits of liberal democracies and the freedoms guaranteed thereby. Without liberal education and leisure time – afforded by none other (and that’s the paradoxical thing!) than the economic well-being of the many – I very seriously doubt whether the Left could have grown to its present dimensions or stature. For better or worse, it’s a movement drawn mainly from the middle- to upper-class social strata, predominantly whites, and therefore elitist in a sense. The fact that it grew and spread beyond its original configuration to include and ignite other minds and elements initially extrinsic to it, is only a testimonial to its ideological appeal -– its values-ideas system. But initially at least, the typically idealistic stance of the Left could find fertile ground only in the higher strata of society -– young and upwardly-mobile, well educated and well-to-do whites.

David Lodge reiterates this paradox but within a larger, societal and global framework:

Richard Rorty has observed, in a passage that seems to recapitulate the intellectual quandary. . . [posed by Forster], ‘We should be more willing than we are to celebrate bourgeois capitalist society as the best polity actualized so far, while regretting that it is irrelevant to most of the problems of most of the population of the planet. One might query the ‘irrelevance’, but since the collapse of Communism, it has become harder to deny Rorty’s assertion that ‘there is no way to bring self-creation together with justice at the level of theory.’ Forster’s yearning to make such a connection, however, is still an aspiration with which many readers will identify.

I have a proposal to make to my colleagues on the Right. Let’s face it, we need each other. The Left needs you in order to stay honest and not to overextend its reach. Further gains might lead to statism or worse yet, to a totalitarian government, with the undesirable effect that the Left’s position would become the "official" position (which would effectively terminate its present role and function as an ideology and a movement). But you need the Left, too, if only to keep you on your toes and to allow you to refine your own views and reasoned arguments. More importantly, however, the country needs you, for I think we can all agree that the institutions and freedoms which come with our liberal democracy are worth preserving at all cost. That ought to be our utmost concern.

So perhaps this tension, this ideological strife between our two camps, this dialectic is all to the good. Granted, it calls for extreme tolerance of stress and ambiguity, not to mention saintly patience, never to have our differences resolved. It’s like walking a tightrope, for we all strive for a resolution of sorts, a sense of closure, the coming together. But perhaps the Hegelian notion of synthesis doesn’t apply here; perhaps it’s not meant to be. On the contrary, perhaps that’s just what the country needs in order to keep our politicians in line and our fragile democracy intact.

The politicians will, of course, do what they will; their job is not easy, having to navigate between these ideological crosscurrents, which is perhaps why so much of what comes out today by way of legislation from both Houses or as public policy strikes us as a compromise and a far cry from what either of us might regard as a viable solution. As to democracies, they’re always fragile, and ours is no exception. So we may just have to live with our angst for the good of the country. It’s just a proposal. If you have other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.

Lastly, I’d like to reiterate that we’re all patriots. It serves no purpose to accuse one another of bad faith. Let’s just say that our visions for America (and for the world at large) differ. Understand our idealism and the aspiration we all share to make the connection between freedom and universal justice. It’s a powerful idea, and you shouldn’t blame us for being beholden to it, for if freedom doesn’t result in some such consequence, we must view it as being somewhat tainted . In turn, we’ll do our best to understand your adherence to olden values and vision. Above all else, let’s keep it in mind that we’re in the same camp: we’re Americans. It’s our institutions that must be preserved, may the devil take the rest.

A closing statement:  in Part I, I identified the Vietnam experience as the key event which precipitated the rise of the Left. I stand by this analysis, though I realize now it’s incomplete, a more complete rendition would be as follows:  if Vietnam was the trigger, then the liberal guilt alluded to earlier was the psychological mechanism, and JFK’s youthful and charismatic persona provided the remaining element -– the example, the pattern, the image. Statements like “Ich bin ein Berliner” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” were forever ingrained in the memories of the idealistic youth and remained the guiding light, the beacon, for generations to come. Now there’s Obama to carry the torch. So for the immediate future at least, it looks like the Left is here to stay. And so is the Right, I should hope.

As to what Israel could do alleviate the weight of public opinion against it, it’s a rather simple proposition. I’d say that disengaging itself from the U.S. -– so long as we’re being perceived by the world at large as an aggressor and bent on our imperialistic ways –- would be the first step. It’s no good saying that Hamas is a terrorist network whereas the state of Israel is not, for one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. But even that, I doubt, would result in any significant improvement in Middle East relations. The very history of Israel as a modern state -– not to mention its biblical or ancient history -– is so riddled with conflicting narratives and disputed accounts, each side blaming the other, that I don’t expect to see any peace in the region for a long time.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Arch Conservative

    There are some very ugly, useless extremists on both sides that we could all do without.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    I’m game if you are, Arch. If you’ll drop the second part from your handle, I’ll drop my last name. How’s that for a start?

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Sorry, Arch: It’s the first part that needs dropping. Keep the second.

  • HeddaCabbage

    My goodness, with too many more reasonable articles like this one, Roger Nowosielski, I won’t be able to recognize BC Politics when I come to visit again.

    Arch, change your last name to “Bunker” just to keep things hoppin’.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    I’m trying my best to introduce sanity into the conversation. And thank you.

  • onlooker

    A more traditional view of the Left may be that the unwashed masses came from the underclass. Russia, post WW1 Europe, England and the USA. The Unions were not a product of mid-class elite with time to spare. Agreed, Marx etc. may not have been underdogs and they inspired socialism/communism. The union efforts at Ford were not a product of spare time and a good bottle of wine. The Civil War was not a produce of Democrat black slaves, or Republican Lincoln who had too much time on their hands. Also the left of FDR is main stream today. In the Depression, time and an extra buck were hard to find, yet produced the foundation of “leftism”.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    I agree with you. I think the ideological underpinnings were there all along and they were born out of struggle.

  • http://ex-conservative.blogspot.com Glenn Contrarian

    Hedda – Arch won’t change his last name to ‘Bunker’ – what are you thinking?

    Waitaminnit – he just might! After all, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say he has a ‘bunker mentality’…

    …owwww…somebody STOP me! Outlaw bad puns, or something!

  • http://ex-conservative.blogspot.com Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    Very good article.

    I have to wonder, though – both you and I have stated the danger of allowing the Democrats to be too powerful, and we both know we need the Republicans.

    And then I compare that to Karl Rove’s goal of a ‘permanent Republican majority’, which idea I think found fertile ground among the conservatives.

    Could it be that we liberals see the danger of a ‘permanent majority’ and the conservatives don’t?

  • Cindy D

    This is too patriotic for my taste. We’re all complicit in every action the U.S. takes. We’re all responsible for the war in Iraq. That we sit by and allow this is a problem. Our institutions allow 303,824,640 people to sit by and blame a few people who are “responsible”.

    It’s troubling when I realize I’m accustomed to this. I’m accustomed to outrageous atrocities happening and I don’t do much about it.

    I don’t see much point in fighting over left and right. I don’t see much reason for congratulations either.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Glenn,

    Well, Dave kind of alluded to that, talking about statism among other things, and I see his point. I just tried to be fair. To tell the truth, these concepts weren’t clear to be at all until I got to thinking. And then, everything became clear. Thanks.

    (By the way, I posted a reply on the other thread, concerning Polish jokes.)

    Roger

  • http://ex-conservative.blogspot.com Glenn Contrarian

    Cindy –

    Take the ‘Serenity Prayer’ to heart. Change what you can, don’t try to change what you can’t, and have the wisdom to differentiate between the two.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Cindy,

    The Left did not acquiesce. There were demonstrations from the get-go, from day one. What else could it do? Spill blood? The Left and the politicians is not the same – even if they’re Democrats. That’s the point of the article, to make relevant distinction.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    To add to previous comment, Obama’s victory is the Left’s doing. So now, if there’s enough pressure, he’ll get us out of Iraq.

  • Cindy D

    I know Roger. But, not enough are protesting. The whole thing serves to make people feel : “you can’t fight city hall.”

    What good are “powerless masses” in any kind of reasonable society?

  • Cindy D

    Glenn,

    I’m coming up with a different solution.

    “Take action, stop falling back on excuses, remain uncomfortable.”

    But thanks for the good thoughts. I am familiar with that. I think it does have its place.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Cindy,

    There’re already powerful exponents on the Left, Naomi Klein for instance and many others, who are critical of Obama about his return to centrism and his appointments. (Take a quick look at my earlier piece concerning fraud.) They worry that Obama has been so much exalted than no matter what will transpire, he’ll do no wrong. And from their point of view, it’s cause for concern.

    I think all we can do for a short while is give him time. A lot of people are and were against this war; so if he doesn’t take some steps, and soon, he may well disappoint a great many people. His speech was progressive enough, I should say. Let’s see whether actions will follow the words.
    Otherwise, it will be business as usual; but I don’t think it will happen, not this time. I am not talking about the economy now, because that’s another matter, but about moral issues at least.

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    In short, we shall soon see whether he is the real thing or counterfeit. I hope he is a leader.

  • Cindy D

    Roger,

    Naomi Klein (brilliant thinker) and like people on the left are ones I read regularly. BTW, guess where Naomi Klein writes?–zcommunications.org

    Naomi Klein and others were concerned with Obama not being pressured enough by the left. I listened to an excellent interview with her just around the election. She was talking about how Clinton, by the time he was even inaugurated, was talked out of much of the change he intended. This is what you see from similar writers.

    So, it’s not really a matter of let’s wait and see what Obama does. Not from the standpoint of Naomi Klein or any other thinkers in her league.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Yes, and Democracy Now! website has daily discussions and forums. They all worry about Obama’s proclaimed sainthood before anything gets delivered. But you already have some good news and initiatives, like the closing of G-Bay within a year, things like that. So the signs are there. Besides that, I don’t know what else to say except keeping the pressure on and being the watchdog.

  • Cindy D

    A Long Train Ride
    January 23, 2009 By Amy Goodman

    Having heard the reply of labor organizer and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, to a question asking what he thought about the plight of the negro and the state of the nation.

    Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You know, Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. … But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.”

    (snip)

    This story was retold by Obama at a campaign fundraiser in Montclair, N.J., more than a year ago. It was in response to a person asking Obama about finding a just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. After recounting the Randolph story, Obama said he was just one person, that he couldn’t do it alone. Obama’s final answer: “Make me do it.”

    (snip)

    As Obama begins his first week as president, some might caution that it’s only fair to wait and see what he might do. But the peace group Code Pink is not waiting. Along the inaugural parade route, they were handing out thousands of pink ribbons, encouraging people to join them in holding President Obama to his campaign peace promises: End the war in Iraq; shut down Guantanamo; reject the Military Commissions Act; stop torture; work to eliminate nuclear weapons; hold direct, unconditional talks with Iran; and abide by Senate-approved international treaties.

    Just follow Obama’s own advice: Make him do it.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Well, this should be good news that someone is on his tail; it may gather momentum. And it’s a wise parable (although I know it’s not a parable).

  • Mark Eden

    Rog, I found your rambling series fascinating in an ivory-tower kinda way. Deserves more comments. I think that you should have spent some time on how the language (and therefore the deck) is stacked against the left at the level of the collective unconscious stemming as the label does from OE ‘lyft’.

    Pretty much anything else that I have to say you would dismiss as ‘Marxist nonsense’ rather than simply nonsense.

    Mark

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Mark,

    I just got on this thread, so didn’t see your comment till now. By the way, I was only expounding these concepts, thinking on the go. They were new to me. If you really want to know, it’s called “conceptual analysis,” so in that sense, you’re right. It was ABOUT concepts! (But I’m not apologizing for that. Someone’s has got to do the dirty work.)

    So what do you suggest? Any material, texts for me to look into? Could you specify a bit further?

    Roger

  • Mark Eden

    Rog, remember when you read this that I warned you. When, in the course of conceptual analysis, the reified concept becomes more important than the content from which it arose, something has gone terribly wrong.

    Mark

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Deep thought, Mark. But I regard it only as a tool. Once the job is done, then one moves to another plateau – e.g., examination of the applications in appropriate context.

    For example, one can see apparent weakness of the Left, not as a concept not but a movement: such as its separateness from the working class, the blacks, and I could go on. Because a sense of idealism, while a powerful engine of change, is not necessarily shared by significant segments of society which have other, more concrete grievances. That’s why the Left is still considered by many as being too elitist and Ivory Tower type movement (and limited, therefore), and for good reasons, naturally

    Roger

  • Mark Eden

    Hardly an original deep idea Rog; it’s Marxism 101.

    While perhaps only a tool, your analysis led you to the position that we must accept the present economic ‘system’ with its devastating impact on real live people in order to protect our cherished institutions.

    Mark

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Well, not really. I was following Rorty’s observation (without subjecting to critical analysis). Perhaps I should have stated that.

    But I am concerned about the question which exercised Forster AND with culture. And for better of worse, those institutions enable a great deal of creativity in all manner of arts. It’s should come as no surprise that U.S. has been the most fertile ground in innovation and arts – literature, technology, you name it. Partly, because of the tensions and conflict, and also because of the freedoms (including the freedom to starve.) So that’s my stumbling bloc for now.

  • Cindy D

    Roger,

    I’ve been meaning to post this quote to you. This is as good a place as any. Make of it what you will.

    “A Zapatista told me that if I wanted to understand what they were doing I should read Mariategui’s, the Peruvian Marxist. When I picked up Mariategui’s Siete Ensayos de Interpretacion de la Realidad Peruana, it was right there, clear as could be: the problem of the Indian is the problem of land. A lot of trendy lefties including some famous academics had been flying into Chiapas and coming out to tell us that this was the first “cyber revolution” and that the Zapatistas were all about the new struggle for identity. It seemed to me like they weren’t listening to Comandanta Ramona when she told us that she was a Zapatista because she wanted her friends to have food to eat and she didn’t want so many of them to die of sickness or in childbirth and she wanted the children to have an education.”

    Wobblies & Zapatistas, (etc).
    from the Foreward, Forward!
    by Denis O’Hearn, p. xii

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Are you saying that there is a disconnect between “the Left” and other, struggling elements of society?

  • Cindy D

    I think that the left are as indoctrinated as the right.

    schetoma

    How many F’s are there?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Right, they’re both ideologies. So where does one go from here?

  • ne(de kr)aM

    …..join the (salvation) army?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Some have!

  • Mark Eden

    Rog, rather than joining the army, when not out and about being practical, I’ve been participating here on BC experimenting in unsympathetic styles of sympathetic communication.

    Recently, I set myself the goal of writing simple articles grounding concepts in content. In my first effort in economics, in which I tried to tie a moral stance to economic data, I so oversimplified the concept of surplus value that I was easily skewered on the horns of logical argument. Parenthetical Dan declared the attempt ‘dead on arrival’.

    I am back at the drawing board.

    Mark

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Well, this is the problem now. BC is not really the right forum. You’ve got to work your paper out first and then present BC with a brief. That’s what Campbell does. Visit his site.

    Another problem: none of these issues, if you work them out thoroughly, can be resolved just like that. People spend entire lifetimes. So you have to be very selective, picking out only the most powerful ideas and try to work out the relationships. I don’t have enough time left to leave a definitive, lasting work.

    As to the drawing board, I’ve been at it for years. That’s why I moved from sociology to philosophy – to look for fundamentals. All one can do, even in the best case scenario, is leave a very limited contribution.

    Some argue, for example and not without reason, that all of philosophy (for one) is just a footnote to Aristotle and Plato.

    Roger

  • Clavos

    Ma(r)k E(d)e(n),

    I think that you should have spent some time on how the language (and therefore the deck) is stacked against the left at the level of the collective unconscious stemming as the label does from OE ‘lyft’.

    Actually, it goes back much further in history than Old English. The Latin for left is/was sinistro/a, from whence came, obviously, “sinister.”

  • Mark Eden

    …I should have known!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Yeah, but that an old wife’s tale!

  • Clavos

    Yeah, but that an old wife’s (sic) tale!

    Actually, it’s not, Roger.

    My degree is in English, with emphases in writing and linguistics.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Clavos,

    Don’t be on the defensive, please. I know the etymology. I spoke in another sense.

  • Clavos

    No defensiveness here, Roger, I have nothing about which to be defensive; just setting the record straight.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Well, you’ve got to me me credit then that when I spoke of “old wife’s tale” I was referring to the myth that sinister=evil.
    Ultimately, we all going to have to rise and fall on the quality of our thinking, not the degrees we have in our pocket. I am no respecter of persons!

  • M(ark E)den

    And here I was all offended that you would call the collective unconscious an old wives tale.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Maybe there was a misunderstanding here, Mark. I was thinking of the narrow context. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear enough.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)

    you’ve got to me me credit then that when I spoke of “old wife’s tale” I was referring to the myth that sinister=evil.

    Who is “me me?”

    If “sinister” isn’t “evil,” then it at least threatens evil.

    Dan(Miller)

  • M(ark E)den

    Rog, you’ll have to get to know me better — then you’ll realize that I bullshit a lot.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    OK, Mark, but as you can see, they don’t let me rest.

    Dan, The myth has to do with regarding those who are left-handed as evil/sons of Satan, witches. Why do you guys insist on intentional misreading?

  • Clavos

    I was referring to the myth that sinister=evil.

    There’s no mythology involved, Roger. Through the ages, the meaning of sinister has evolved to include the concept of evil.

    From Merriam-Webster Online:

    Main Entry:
    sin·is·ter
    Function:
    adjective
    Etymology:
    Middle English sinistre, from Anglo-French senestre on the left, from Latin sinistr-, sinister on the left side, unlucky, inauspicious
    Date:
    15th century

    1archaic : unfavorable , unlucky
    2archaic : fraudulent
    3: singularly evil or productive of evil
    4 a: of, relating to, or situated to the left or on the left side of something ; especially : being or relating to the side of a heraldic shield at the left of the person bearing it b: of ill omen by reason of being on the left
    5: presaging ill fortune or trouble
    6: accompanied by or leading to disaster
    — sin·is·ter·ly adverb
    — sin·is·ter·ness noun

    (Emphasis added)

  • Clavos

    Why do you guys insist on intentional misreading?

    Nobody misread anything, Roger; either intentionally or otherwise. You wrote:

    Yeah, but that an old wife’s tale!

    And then:

    Well, you’ve got to me me credit then that when I spoke of “old wife’s tale” I was referring to the myth that sinister=evil. (Emphasis added)

    That was pretty straightforward Roger, there’s nothing to “misread.”

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    The mythology, my dear Clavos, that I referred to has got to do with “left handers” and with how they were regarded – not with the meaning of terms. Read previous comment, please. But if you insist on putting words in my mouth, go ahead if it makes you feel better.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Mark,

    Where are you when I need you? I want to have a serious discussion.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)

    Does BC currently offer a prize for the most attempts to explain what prior comments were really intended to mean and to deny that what was perceived was intended?

    If not yet, might I suggest a certificate good for unlimited waffles at, for example, International House of Pancakes?

    Dan(Miller)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    I grant I was overdoing it, but I thought it kind of playful. If I really thought that Clavos or yourself were serious, I wouldn’t have bothered with a response.

  • bliffle

    Seems to me that the article has a truncated historical view. There were leftist movements in the USA long before Vietnam. The most powerful union existence was in the first half of the 20th century, and prevailed against troops, police and Pinkertons.

    It might be more correct to say that both left and right came about in rebellion to feudalism, as each struggled to devolve power to bourgeois and labor.

    The USA was settled by both capitalists and communists, one may argue. Each sought an escape from the titled regimens of Europe that enforced their presumed divine rights with violence.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    I agree, bliffle. Look at comment #6, very well put, and my response right after.
    I guess I was trying to provide an account of “the New Left,” I suppose. (Isn’t that what the Right has mainly in mind when it speaks nowadays of the Left?)

    Which, I believe, also points to the inherent weakness: a kind of disconnect with (and inability to connect to) other elements and their historical origins: the working class, the labor movement, the blacks.