Redefining the Battle Lines of the Left

by Matthew Panton

30 September 2015

For the past 40 years, following the failures of both May 1968 and soviet communism, the left has been involved in the hackneyed yet unresolved process of attempting to ‘redefine’ itself. While the dogmatic Marxist and socialist left has stayed rooted to its political stalls and persistent leafletting, the social democratic left has arguably degenerated to the point of not being leftist at all. For the rest it’s been a cold time, with a lack of clarity of direction or large scale strategy.

What’s left?

The 2008 global financial crisis galvanised many to search for something new. It accelerated disenchantment with the large centre-left parties, mainly due to their overt acceptance of austerity and its brutal impact on its social base. The Labour party and PSOE (the Spanish socialist party) are notable examples, with the epitome being PASOK in Greece.

The crisis also engendered a number of alternatives. Horizontalist movements such as Occupy and the 15M indignados movement in Spain managed to affect the mainstream discourse, popularising and highlighting terms like the ‘99%’. In electoral politics, more radical parties such as Syriza and Podemos have gained prominence. In the UK, talk of an alternative to austerity infused the Labour leadership campaign with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Furthermore, liberal nationalist movements in Scotland and Catalonia have also captured leftist rhetoric.

Despite all this, seven years after the crash the scene remains similar. So far most of these movements have failed to impact policy. Generally right wing or neoliberal agendas are still pushed by most governments and media around the world, including from those parties and publications of the ‘centre-left’. Austerity is still prevailing, living standards have stayed stagnant or fallen in the west, and inequality is gradually worsening.

Failures and the future.

Underlying these processes is what Paul Mason describes as the transformation into ‘post-capitalism’; the troubles that now face us are the dying effects of the old system and the growing pains of the new. Economically this includes technological unemployment, fiscal debt and population time bombs, as well as the long term issue of the secular stagnation of growth in the developed world.

Nobody seems to have a thorough answer for these problems. ‘Corbynomics’ and the social democrats have for a long time failed to deal with the persistent problem of the past 30 years: how to operate a Keynesian stimulated economy within globalised, financialised capitalism given the impact and ease of capital flight and currency speculation, with the potential of uncontrolled inflation. Unfortunately for the Marxist left, it’s become too strongly associated with dogmatism and authoritarianism, as well as not offering any real success stories.

The managerial centrist class will kill us either from boredom or ecological disaster while completely denying the fire they are sitting in. On the other hand the right can only offer a ‘freer’ neo-feudalistic capitalism or an aggressive economic form of nationalism, which would only succeed in perpetuating the violence it caused in the past.

New fault lines.

The left can no longer be about trying to provide full employment or by promising returns to growth – these are indicators of the past. Instead it must work towards a society which it defines itself. This could include reducing the amount of paid work as a goal, arguing why it’s better if we don’t spend our lives monotonously providing profit or growth for the sake of it. Instead we could concentrate on better realising ourselves through our work and acting in a more creative fashion than any monetary incentive can provide. This might be achieved through the encouragement of schemes like time banks, job sharing on a state level and a guaranteed basic income.

We must also be concerned with evolving the institutions in society, for example to reflect contemporary social attitudes such the rise in individualism and the decline in deference to both tradition and authority. Policy-wise this might be done through removing legal barriers to data, greater democratic worker control, or even – as Jeremy Corbyn has suggested – a new type of nationalisation which is more democratically organised between both consumers and workers.

The point here is that the possibilities are broad and it’s up to the left to define them and be willing to experiment in order to liberate those who are being constantly oppressed in the current system.

Evolving politics.

The task of the left today is to articulate the possibilities of the future and, in tandem with battles for social justice, drill them home until they resonate with the rest of society. The right has no answer to the future or the decay of neoliberalism, whose decline is only accelerated by narratives of nationalism or the free market.

By contrast the left stands for creating a better future for society – but the traditional fault lines have disappeared, while new ones have been created. Redrawing our battle lines will enable the left to move beyond reinvigorating the past towards reclaiming the future.

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