How can a blind multitude, which often does not know what it wants . . . undertake so vast and difficult an enterprise as a system of legislation?
Rousseau, The Social Contract
The worst of all the multitude
Did something for the common good
Mandeville, The Grumbling Hive
Within contemporary radical politics, there are a lot of questions to which there are many possible answers, and one question to which there is none. There are innumerable blueprints for utopian futures that are, in varying degrees, egalitarian, cosmopolitan, ecologically sustainable, and locally responsive, but no solution to the most intractable problem of all: who is going to make it happen?
Almost all the agencies through which political change was effected in the twentieth century have either disappeared or been seriously weakened. Of these, the most powerful was the Communist state, responsible, in agrarian societies, both for gruesome repression and for dramatic improvements in human well-being. Within industrialized nations, Communist and social democratic parties, and for a period even the Democratic Party in the United States, intermittently succeeded in achieving significant social and economic reforms, of which the enduring legacy is the welfare state; in this regard, they were aided by the trade unions, which simultaneously brought about a partial redistribution of wealth. In their turn, party and union provided (often unwillingly) the institutional and rhetorical matrix for fluid social movements of much greater ambition and inventiveness.
How the achievements of these actors are judged is now, in a sense, irrelevant, for almost all have ceased to be effective political agents. The Communist state has disappeared; political parties of the left have become virtually indistinguishable from those of the right both in policy, and perhaps more importantly, in their social constituency and sources of funding; trade unions are in long-term decline, and movements for peace, racial and sexual equality have all but petered out, not because any of their long-term objectives were realized, but because they are unable to mobilize support.