Toward this Generation's New Left: Impediments and Possibilities

By Richard Sandbrook | 2017-01-01 11:00:00

Every generation develops its own New Left. This is a natural process as proponents struggle to come to grips with new challenges and old failures. The current generation is reinventing the left, but the process is still in its early phase. We find promising hints of a new approach in the ‘anti-globalization’ and Occupy movements, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the experiments in mitigating extreme inequality and domination in Latin America, and recent attempts to turn ossified party systems to progressive ends (Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US).

Nonetheless, the overall outlook is not positive. There is a need for a new New Left because the ‘old’ democratic left is in bad shape globally. Throughout Europe, all of the old social democratic and labour parties are in electoral decline, some in free-fall.

The “pink tide” in Latin America, which surged in during the early 2000s, has been ebbing fast. Venezuela is a basket case, Brazil has witnessed the constitutional deposing of its Workers Party president, and an election in Argentina repudiated the Kirschner leftist legacy. In Canada, the NDP saw itself outflanked on the left by the Liberal party in the last federal election. Finally, far-right nativist-populism is in the ascendancy in many countries aside from the United States.

What has happened? It’s a complex story, of course. What is needed, above all, is a new vision for dealing with the new realities.

Hence my question: What might a New Left look like that is in tune with the impediments and possibilities of the 21st century? I wish to suggest that an innovative and successful left must find viable answers to complex and controversial issues. My analysis is not specific to any single country, but is more general in nature, ranging widely. The problems of the left are quite similar across continents, and we can learn from one another.

Who constitutes the democratic left? I do mean the democratic left, that is: schools of thought, parties and movements that accept the unity of means and ends—specifically, that a truly democratic and participatory society cannot be achieved by authoritarian, violent means. There is an exception: In oppressive, authoritarian states, there is a justification for underground, revolutionary action, depending on the likelihood of success. But then the question becomes: What happens on the day after the overthrow of the tyrant? Does a monopolistic party continue to hold sway or not? We know where Leninist-type single-party rule leads.

But where a hundred flowers are allowed to bloom, the democratic left is a diverse and fractious lot. It includesthese overlapping groups: democratic socialists and eco-socialists; Social democrats; marxists and neo-Polanyians; “independent progressives”; radical feminists; many activists associated with the rights and situations of ethnic and religious minorities, and the LGBT community.

In light of the diversity, the democratic left is very unlikely to reach a consensus on a single New Left program. But if we believe that a strong left is important, what New Left approach may achieve this goal?

I want to suggest some key issues that the left needs to grapple with in reinventing itself for the 21st century. Though I do not have answers to all these questions, I can lay out the lines of debate.

What is the overall strategy?

The old distinction between socialism and social democracy is obsolete. Initially, social democrats were socialists who believed that socialism could be won through mobilizing majorities in liberal democracies. But in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, social-democratic parties jettisoned their socialist goals to allay suspicions and gain a wider constituency.

After World War II social democracy bet on a meaningful class compromise. The corporate and financial elites would surrender their direct control of government and accept reasonable taxes, a welfare state, and pro-labor legislation. In return, the working class and allied groups would accept the existence of private property, unfettered wealth accumulation, and regulated markets.

The compromise, in the initial form of the Keynesian welfare state in the west and state capitalisms in the global south, worked because of the strategic size and organization of the working class, the threat of the communist alternative, and national and international controls on capital markets. This accord underpinned the 25-year “golden age of capitalism”—an era that was, in truth, a gol – den age mainly for white males. Nevertheless, the prosperity of the Keynesian era can be seen as a major advance.

Socialism, in contrast, rested on the idea that a transformation of capitalism is needed, not the illusion of humane reform that the social democrats proffer. This transformation would require sustained class struggle, not compromise. The theoretical strength of socialism lay in its focus on overturning the power structures that perpetuate the inter-generational transmission of privilege. Its theoretical weakness lay in requiring its adherents to take a leap of faith that the sacrifices and dangers entailed in overturning power structures would eventually pay off in emancipation. Historically, the socialist option went into temporary eclipse with the collapse of European communism and the redirection of Chinese communism to state capitalism. The promising experiments in Euro-communism, in Italy for example, disappeared.

Social Democracy is Failing

Today the social-democratic option is failing as its party advocates lose support to liberals, conservatives, and the far right. It is pretty obvious why this is happening: Social-democratic parties offer no real alternative to neoliberal policies. This became clear in the 1990s with the touting of the “Third Way” by Tony Blair’s New Labour, an approach adopted by many other leaders (whether they used the term or not). The Third Way involved the embrace of market deregulation and neoliberal globalization, with the aim of directing the revenues gained from economic growth to compensate the losers in market competition and buttress national competitiveness. This strategy can work only in times of rapid economic growth—that is, in times other than our own. In addition, its softness on immigration—though in line with international solidarity—undermines popular support in countries with high rates of in-migration.

But the strategic problem with social democracy goes deeper than a particular policy orientation. You can’t achieve a worthwhile class compromise under current conditions. The working class has weakened as an organized force in the advanced capitalist countries. Union membership has vastly declined, and many of the manufacturing jobs have vanished. Workers, are abandoning social-democratic parties for anti-immigrant right-wing parties.

The rise of identity politics has further weakened class identities. Capital’s fear of an organized working class has thus dissipated, especially with the fall of communism. Moreover, the liberalization of cross-border capital financial movements and the forging of ‘flexible’ labour markets has strengthened the hand of the corporate and financial elites, forging a veritable plutocracy. Under these conditions, class compromise equals class capitulation.

Socialism and Populism

And what of socialism? Things have changed in the past few years. The emergence of popular leftist movements in Greece and Spain, together with the rethinking underway in Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, are taking the left in a new direction. Then there is the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries, where the “democratic-socialist” option attracted the support of 71% of primary voters under the age of 30. Even 52% of supporters of Hillary Clinton expressed, in a September 2016 New York Times survey, a favorable opinion of socialism.

In fact, the Sanders’ campaign and its aftermath may constitute a template for a winning progressive strategy. What seems to be needed is a hybrid, “in-between” approach that is neither traditionally social-democratic nor traditionally socialist. On the one hand, the political movement does not seek a compromise with the corporate and financial elite, but regards the latter as the enemy. On the other hand, the movement, though militant and confrontational, does not advocate a seizure of the means of production or the end of markets. Instead, the strategy involves the following:

Keep the notion of socialism vague, acknowledging that what people usually mean by socialism is a rejection of the unfair, inegalitarian status quo where a small elite calls the shots and reaps the benefits. The goal is thus to reverse this situation by empowering people and spreading prosperity.

Employ a simple narrative that embraces the legitimating ideal of liberal society— _equal opportunity or the American Dream—but then shows that the current neoliberal order negates that ideal. Retrieving that dream entails a variety of policy changes, including public health care for all, affordable education at all levels, subsidized child care, increased taxes on the wealthy, financial transactions tax and carbon levies, and support for worker-managed cooperatives.

Acknowledge that these policy changes cannot be won_ without a “political revolution.” This requires institutional changes to end the political control informally exercised by the plutocracy. It would include campaign finance reform, the breaking up of big banks, the imposition of controls on cross-border capital movements, and much more.

Recognize that the strategy will take a decade or more as dissatisfaction grows. An essential part of the strategy is the building of a political movement to complement electoral politics and keep the party true. This movement must depend on the energy and commitment of young people, who bear the brunt of neoliberalism’s failures. An example is the organizational work being carried out in the US by Sanders-affiliated organizations: Our Revolution, Working Families Party, People’s Action, National Nurses United, People for Bernie, and the older but now larger Young Democratic Socialists and Young Progressives Demanding Action.

This is the sort of “in-between” leftist strategy that might work.

How does climate change fit in?

Climate change threatens human existence so an ecologically sustainable economy cannot be a secondary priority just “added on” to the traditional productivist orientation of the left; it demands a complete rethinking of productionism. Traditionally, leftist programs have promoted economic growth/industrialization to generate good jobs and revenues to tackle poverty. But this productivist orientation has to be opposed if the earth is to remain habitable.

Tinkering with the economy and anticipated technological change are unlikely to avert catastrophic climate change. Any serious effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions demands a fundamental revamping of both economy and society.

Will this revamping involve transcending capitalism or just replacing the current neoliberal model with a more just and green capitalist alternative? Capitalism’s commodification of nature is deeply implicated in ecological decline. But whether capitalism is inherently destructive is a contentious issue. Some argue that we must end capitalism in order to avert the end of the world. Others contend that capitalism is malleable system and can adjust to environmental constraints. I don’t see how to definitively resolve this dispute.

But we can proceed pragmatically to demand far-reaching reforms to halt and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything blames climate change on capitalism, and yet proceeds to advocate various policy shifts that can happen within capitalism. That, I think, is the proper approach.

First and foremost, the transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 is a goal that is both necessary to keep our planet habitable and practicable. Doubtless, such a leap into the future will introduce many strains in society. To build a constituency for change, the left needs to focus on creating a more equitable sharing of benefits and burdens. Equity will flow partly from redistributing the new tax revenues needed in the transition: higher income taxes, augmented royalties on energy, a financial transactions tax, and carbon taxes. Yet it will still be difficult to move the leftist paries away from their traditional productionist orientation.

The Leap Manifesto

In Canada, the “Leap Manifesto” is an example of how progressives can use social movements to press forward an agenda of equity and climate defense. This manifesto, which surfaced in April 2016 when it was presented to a national conference of the NDP, unites environmental, labour, and aboriginal activists in a common movement. The manifesto rightly assumes that a serious effort to avert catastrophic climate change involves fundamentally revamping our economy and society. “Small steps will no longer get us where we need to go,” states the manifesto. “So we need to leap.”

The vision of an alternative, sustainable world is succinctly and passionately presented. Yes, we could make the transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, if we set our minds to it. Yes, we could, in this transition, build a more just society by eliminating racial and gender inequality—but why do other forms of inequality receive no mention? Yes, a shift of occupations to the service sector, especially in the “caring” professions, is needed. And it would be great if “many more people could have higher wage jobs with fewer work hours.”

The manifesto’s plans for raising the tax revenues to finance the transition to a low-carbon future—higher taxes on the wealthy, higher royalties on resources, a financial transaction tax, and carbon taxes—are standard fare on the left. However, if Canada imposes such measures on its own, the sudden outflows of capital will destabilize the economy—an eventuality that later iterations of the manifesto should address.

Finally, the leap also has an important political dimension. The aim is to transform the NDP from its existing “Third Way” accommodation of neoliberalism into a party responsive to a grassroots movement dedicated to a sustainable and just future and deepening democracy in Canada. To stabilize the climate, a popular movement advocating deeper democracy is the only politics likely to work. Presumably, a reinvented NDP would link up with a variety of social movements with similar aims—associations of environmentalists, labour, indigenous people, feminists, racial/ethnic minorities, electoral-reform advocates, university students, and sustainable food proponents. How such a democratic political movement might form is not yet clear, but the initiative is exciting.

What is the Left’s Constituency?

Wide-ranging change requires the enthusiastic support of a majority in democratic elections. Who will belong to this majority coalition?

The problem for the left is that right-wing parties have proven very able at mobilizing political support. They are adept at combining appeals to identity-based fears with vague, emotive promises (abolish Obamacare! Rip up trade agreements! Tell CEOs to keep jobs at home!). Left of centre parties, in contrast, generally offer complex policies. So how does the left draw the votes of people who are attracted to simple messages delivered in a familiar idiom? We have to craft better narratives.

_And who is the audience? The working class was the default answer in the late 19th and early and mid-20th centuries. But the shrinking size of the industrial working class in the West, combined with increasing casualization of work, the waning influence of trade unions, and the attractions of right-wing populism to the white working class, has undercut this political strategy.

In Europe, socialist and social-democratic parties have been weakened by three trends: the numerical decline of the organized working class; the rapid emergence of multicultural societies that have driven many working people into the far right; and the left’s complicity in imposing austerity policies. The far right has been adept at focusing anger and fear on immigrants, whereas the left has defended ethnic/religious minorities. Only in Greece and Spain, countries with severe economic problems and little immigration, has the left forged ahead in recent years. Elsewhere, except in Latin America, the left has been unable to capitalize on growing inequality and insecurity.

What to do? Canadians’ response is to hold that immigration and a diverse society are strengths, not weaknesses. However, an unconditional commitment to immigration can prove suicidal to the left in Europe and the United States. There are legitimate, non-racist concerns that an influx of immigrants will lower wage rates, overburden welfare states, and present security concerns. A threshold of tolerance exists in all societies and cannot be disregarded without dire political consequences. The democratic left will have to accept this fact to remain politically viable.

Let’s not abandon the working class as a support base for the left, but reconstitute organized labour as a multiracial/multicultural movement of men and women. However, rebuilding the labour movement will be a long-term project.

Besides the working class, there is the amorphous class that Guy Standing calls the “precariat.” In the new global society the precariat will be the new “dangerous class.” It comprises those in insecure and unstable occupations— the low-paid informal sector, together with those in casual and part-time employment or “phony” self-employment. Denied labour rights and social entitlements, the precariat demands a new system of social rights. It includes those excluded from the old stable working class, together with migrants, minorities, and well-educated people in irregular or insecure jobs.

Finally, leftist parties everywhere have tried to appeal to the amorphous middle class(es). Everyone is middle class these days, it seems, filling all the social space between the one percent on top and the poor at the bottom. Can sections of the middle class lean to the left on more than a temporary basis? Probably middle-class supporters have a limited view of what needs to be done and will remain a fickle partner of the left. But we need to know a lot more about the middle class. Who constitutes it, and where do their interests lie? The middle class played an important role in the genesis of the Nordic social democracies and may do so again.

The left must adapt to the class/ethnic structure to survive and develop a compelling story line.

How Do We Respond to Globalization?

To date, progressives have focused on the national level. Increasingly, however, more important decisions are taken at the international and regional levels too, so a new left must concentrate also on effecting change at those levels.

But what is the international order that the left seeks to forge? Or do we intend instead to retain the centrality of the national level with nationalistic and protectionist policies? Those of us who oppose isolationism and protectionism have acquired cross-national cosmopolitan identities, and see a need for global cooperation to resolve such trans-border issues as global warming.

Surely our levels of action also must include the local. Progress may be possible at the municipal level when it is blocked at higher levels. By winning local elections, progressive parties can demonstrate their capacity for effective, honest administration and experiment in participatory schemes, such as participatory budgeting. This was the approach taken by leftist parties in Brazil and Uruguay with good effect.

What Role Should Social Movements Play?

Twentieth-century strategies featured a paternalistic state providing benefits to aggrieved groups, with the party controlling the benevolent state. This top-down scenario characterized the communist systems and other socialisms as well as European social democracies. But the paternalistic model failed in the communist world and proved unviable in the social-democratic universe, when Thatcherism and Reaganism (and Pinochetism earlier on in Chile) routed statist approaches with an appeal to free markets and individual liberty.

Today, the hierarchical, paternalistic model should be abandoned. That leaves us with a far more participatory approach to governance. Does that mean we should give precedence to grassroots social movements, rather than to party politics? Not necessarily, since electoral politics remains central to gaining power. In devising a new balance between social movements and progressive parties, there is much to be learned from the global south. Bolivia, Brazil and Kerala can teach us about the propitious balance between mobilized social movements and progressive parties that must respond to interests other than those of its base to survive.

The Leap Manifesto group in Canada and the social movements invigorated by the Sanders campaign in the US show how social/political movements might discipline and motivate left of centre parties.

How Do We Integrate Civil Society into the Left’s Project?

After the disasters of governments that lionized the self-regulating market (neoliberalism) or the collectivist state (communism), community/civil society inevitably emerged as the next progressive answer.

Since the 1990s, proponents of community have promoted such overlapping projects as the social commons, open-access regimes, deglobalization, the social economy, and the solidarity economy as radical alternatives both to state ownership and the self-regulating market. However, this vast literature leaves me feeling skeptical. For one thing, communities are not necessarily progressive. Fascists too believe in community. And many “traditional” communities, whether ethnic, kinship, or religious based, are incubators of patriarchy, autocracy, and exclusion. It is often assumed that communities are naturally eco-friendly. But is this true and, if so, why? We must be careful not to romanticize community.

Three knotty questions remain about the social and solidarity economy.

1. It is unclear what the social and solidarity economy is._ A recent book defines it as “forms of economic activity that prioritize social and often environmental objectives and involve producers, workers, consumers and citizens acting collectively and in solidarity.” Does this mean that monetary considerations are necessarily secondary? There is an implication that these communities tend to be environmentally conscious. Is this so?

2. Is the social and solidarity economy a way of reforming a capitalist system? Or is it a counter-hegemonic project to displace capitalist logic with a logic of reciprocity, mutuality and cooperation?

We need more discussion of the nature of the state that will accompany a social and solidarity economy and the role, if any, of markets. In a world of seven billion people, the state cannot be abolished, but how will it be democratized to fit with a community-based political economy?

Then there is the role of local governments. Can they play a positive role in defeloping the solidarity economy even if the national government is unsympathetic?

3. How will the solidarity economy sector avoid cooptation by commercial interests, national states, and programs organized by international organizations?

Cooptation is the major danger. Marx pointed to this pitfall. Associations of producer cooperatives could play an important part in the road to socialism, he observed, but only if they were independent from government and the bourgeoisie. If these enterprises depend on government for assistance, they will be vulnerable to capture. And if workers’ cooperatives, mutual associations, solidarity banking, and social enterprises have to compete with capitalist firms, they will either fail or mimic the profit-oriented behavior of these firms.

In sum, solidarity/community should help us, but it won’t do so without greater clarity and realism.

Concluding Observations

We need to emulate US socialist Michael Harrington, who strove to locate himself at “the left-wing of the possible.” For the moment it appears impossible to transform capitalism. Should we then try to make the impossible possible?

Or should we instead emulate Bernie Sanders? Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, is now working to minimize the power of money in politics, break up the banks, forge a universal, comprehensive and generous welfare state, fight climate change, and foster unions and cooperative forms of production and consumption. He is situating himself on the left-wing of the possible, and so, I think, should we.

Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of political science, University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2017

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2017, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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