Crisis of the Left
Jul 5 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – Over the last few years, quite a few countries have witnessed the rise of social movements against inequality, xenophobia, and fiscal austerity. The most notable of these are the Occupy movement and Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the US, Syriza and Podemos in continental Europe, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum campaign in Britain’s Labour party.
Amongst those opposing the established political order, some are insurgent movements within an existing party structure, like Corbyn and Sanders, while others are new parties cobbled together by grassroots activists, rookie politicians, and disgruntled progressives from existing organisations. At their heart is the assertion that contemporary centre-left and social democratic parties have failed to address fundamental problems of inequality, social stagnation, and working class despair in their societies. In quite a few instances, there is the added allegation (often true) that established parties and their leaderships are vehicles for elite interests, and represent no divergence from conservative politics.
The success rate of the ‘new left’, as it is often called, is patchy. Sanders had a remarkable run but fell short of the presidential nomination. Corbyn’s popularity amongst activists is strong but his position as head of the Labour party is under extreme pressure from elected MPs and the party establishment. Syriza’s anti-austerity agenda stands diluted after confronting the realities of an entangled economy and a rigid EU leadership. Podemos and its allied progressive groups seemed strong but only managed third place in recently concluded general elections in Spain.
Whichever way one looks at the new left, it is impossible to deny that mainstream progressive politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy.
Their success or failure notwithstanding, these movements and campaigns are part of a political reality because of a confluence of factors. Most wealth and income data shows rising inequality across much of the developed (and parts of the developing) world.
While poverty may have gone down, and those classified as ‘poor’ are objectively much better off today than at other points in the past, both the actual gap within society and perceptions of deprivation are rising. The ensuing anger and despair amongst those less fortunate shows that existing, pro-market government policy is partly (if not wholly) unsuccessful in addressing a key problem. This anger and despair is thus largely directed towards the political mainstream.
Secondly, the profession of mainstream politics is both highly exclusive, in terms of who can be a politician and who can’t, and heavily contingent on private funding. The first condition means mainstream politicians are now increasingly a separate ‘political class’, reliant on elite social networks and far removed from society and the constituents they claim to represent.
The second factor afflicts all corners of the world as party financing, campaign funding, and the general cost of being in politics makes it far more responsive to wealth than to deprivation. Therefore, a new generation of activists is keen on challenging this status quo.
Thirdly, over the past decade the internet and higher education institutions have become hubs for alternative ideas of liberal varieties. This has given rise to a new liberal middle-class segment that broadly ascribes to notions of cosmopolitanism, identity politics, social democracy, and environmental sustainability. East and West Coast liberals in the US and their counterparts in London and other metropolitan cities thus serve as core constituents for new progressive social movements.
Whichever way one looks at the new left, it is impossible to deny that mainstream progressive politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy and capability. Parties elected on social democratic platforms, such as Dilma Rouseff’s PT in Brazil, find themselves caught between their patronage-based reality on one hand and their lofty ideas of redistribution and welfare on the other.
The Blairite Labour party in the UK, long reliant on the liberal middle-class and working-class vote, is caught between a commitment to cosmopolitanism and neoliberalism versus a rising tide of anger against globalisation and cultural change. As a result, conservative and racially charged forces, such as Le Pen, Trump, and the ‘leave’ camp in the Brexit referendum, have positioned themselves as the ‘real representatives’ of the disenfranchised.
The final outcome is a fracturing of politics into many pieces. You have the new social movements that are successful in attracting some support but are alien in language and form to large swathes of the underprivileged. Both Sanders’ lack of resonance in the Deep South and the ‘remain’ camp’s loss in working-class towns in England capture this reality.
On the other hand, you have established ‘moderates’ who are trying to hold together a coalition of elites and the disadvantaged by promising something for everyone. Hillary Clinton and the Blairite camp in Labour represent this reformist tendency, which is splitting at the seams and is increasingly vulnerable to populist outsiders.
Writing presciently in the early 20th century, Italian activist and philosopher Antonio Gramsci looked at turmoil in his country and remarked: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
There is no doubt that the old consensus of social democracy, established by mainstream centre-left and liberal parties, is dying. Globalisation, the wholesale adoption of neoliberalism, and an onslaught from conservative forces has made long-term survival impossible. There is also little doubt that its supposed replacement, the new progressive order represented by new social movements and leaders like Sanders and Corbyn, is not yet born. They may be likeable and popular amongst the ideologically committed, but their organisational base is weak and the system of inequality they’re confronting is designed to keep them irrelevant.
In this period of vacuum, we are left with the morbid symptoms of populist right-wing rage, xenophobia and cultural backlash. And barring some remarkable organising efforts and creative thinking amongst progressive forces, it seems the morbidity will persist for the foreseeable future.
The writer is a freelance columnist. [email protected]
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan