The start of the 2020’s is a good moment to reflect on floaty topics such as the future of the Left. It is an old wisdom that the political left should stay united – but united around what exactly? This essay argues against obsessing with purity and for a return to power politics by formulating three theses on what the Left should do.
The most important political event of the last decade was the comeback of fascism to the global theatre. Although it never left in discourse and mindset, it has reintroduced itself as a global power player, not just with the election of Trump but also Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, etc. We are lucky to have somehow avoided this wave in Mexico – yet. The main implication is that the old socialism vs. neoliberalism (with its progressive or conservative masks) fight of the last thirty years now became a three way battle. Cornered two versus one we have a duty to stand our ground, because as always with leftists, we are not just fighting for ourselves. That means a return to power politics.
The paradox of talking about internal politics and unity is that one risks creating as much division as one solves. Trying to define the Left is where the first blood gets shed. Instead of getting lost in this, I will posit socialism as the ‘point of gravity’ within the left spectrum, mirroring the political reality in most countries, with other variants of Leftist thought (communists, green parties, ‘woke’ activists, etc.) diverging from it. Besides the belief that history (thus capitalism) needs correction, all these forms should remember we agree on: a) the willingness to challenge existing power relations; b) looking for common solutions to common problems; c) the use of collective organization (the state) to do so. Some anarchists might leave the room on the latter, but the adults will stay to listen. In what follows I will outline three theses.
1.The left shall be populist or not be
While a century ago leftist were still pondering the question of revolution or reform, in our current democratic age one of the main strategic questions is if the left should embrace populism or not. Before answering this with a resounding ‘yes’, let me briefly clarify the term. Populism is not an ideology, but a style of politics, centered on drawing people into the political debate through drawing contrast between the elite and the masses, as well as connecting to them on an emotional level and speaking directly to their needs. Often this goes with a loss of nuance. The difference between Left and (far)Right populism is honesty: Left populism draws contrast with objective elites (you earning 4000 times more than me is an objective standard), while fascists invent enemies or moral differences. As a consequence, Left populism does not need to lie, nor switch targets, while right wing populism switches between immigrants, poorer regions, petty criminals, liberal billionaires, Feminists, Ethnic minorities, etc.
So, why should we choose populism? First of all, because it simply works. Populism was a large part of the Latin American ‘red wave’ between 2006 and 2012. People like Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez won elections with majorities more than three times, while in central Europe the ‘polite’ left saw a steady decline. If we look at countries like Brazil and Bolivia, it was not just a success in terms of power but it also changed the continent by lifting tens of millions out of poverty. Second, because the comeback of fascism creates a strong competition for the working class vote. If we are unwilling to craft an appealing but honest message and take people’s actual concerns into account, somebody on the far right will. The battle for the intellectual and decency high ground with liberals is over, as the center right has globally already shifted gears towards a more conservative-populist message. Third, because there is no time to waste in not meeting voters where they are. The intellectual elite cannot realistically hope people will spontaneously come to their side, while we are faced with multiple escalating problems and floods of fake news. Furthermore, today left wing populism is the savior, not the enemy of democracy: it helps to engage people into a political process that is losing credibility.
Two consequences follow from the embrace of populism. First, unlike the lying fascist variant, left wing populism must start from a belief in people, and thus, democracy. Second, intellectuals on the left must once and for all let go of all classism within their minds and discourse. Much of the intellectual left is, at the end of the day, bourgeois. We can’t change our background, but we can make the internal exercise of checking ourselves on the subtle contempt for the ordinary that is often implicit in progressive circles. People should not listen to Banda? Shut up! Atheists, ‘Woke’ progressives and ecologists would especially benefit from introspection in this regard.
2. Unity implies bargaining
Internal division is an old enemy of the Left. These differences equally exist on the right side of the spectrum, but elite networks generally have a better understanding of their strategic interests. They also stomach hypocrisy better. Yet the answer is not as simple as saying we should unite. Unite around what? Differences between various left ideologies are real. And while they can agree on the points I outlined earlier, differences in interests, class, culture, and values still run through the potential left electorate. An extreme example to underline the point: even within the niche of ‘woke’ cultural progressives, there are limits to the alliance of convenience between radical feminists and the trans-activists. Now good luck in matching those with both the traditional working class and immigrants!
There are two options here. One is to pretend this is not true and be pro-everything and everyone and hope those choices simply don’t present themselves. The other is understanding that such unity implies bargaining. It is impossible to form a front against the neoliberal-fascist double threat if each interest group demands purity. The United States currently forms an interesting example, where Bernie Sanders tries to create a broad mass movement (similar to AMLO), but as a white male constantly has to fend off attacks from identity politics purists. I already posited that in most countries, democratic socialism is in the middle of the bed. Since the very nature of the socialist platform resolves around bargaining (wage increases, raises in pensions, etc.), it is unsurprising that demands for purity come from other (often internally divided) groups.
Notice that with bargaining I refer to the need for a strategic electoral alliances for specific election cycles, not changing people’s opinions, ideals or long term goals. My point should also not be confused with a plea for moderate politics or gradualism. By bargaining I mean agreeing to focus on a select number of demands and not others (or be willing to pay a price for them), regardless of how radical they are. Certain policies are simply more compatible with the rest of the Left alliance than others. The question is what you really want. A hypothetical example: the resurgence of the feminist movement in Mexico centers around two messages: one on sexual harassment and safety, the other on reproductive rights and abortion. The first issue can, even in a radical form, appeal to at least half of the population, and leaves little space for vocal opposition (or you think rape is funny?). The second, especially in its radical form (subsidized and under any circumstances), goes against the sensibilities of the majority and faces very articulate opposition. If an alliance would be formed to push for the latter (least strategic) option in let’s say a governor race, the middle class ‘woke’ left should be prepared to be very generous when it comes to economic demands for soothing the (culturally conservative) working class base.
Unity does not mean that everybody gets everything they want. Unity implies solidarity. Solidarity implies sacrifice, and granting each other things. The alternative is tribalism, state-bashing and anti-politics.
3. Politics is a team sport
Left intellectuals, myself included, love critical analysis and reflection. We are good at unpacking issues and finding inconsistencies. For some of us, our reputation or even income is built on this. But what happens if ‘our side’ comes to power as happened in Mexico? The translation from ideals and ideology to the mess of party politics is hard encounter. Do I want to protect my political virginity and stay maximally critical at all times, or am I actually willing to defend policies (not people, they can talk for themselves)?
The right side of the political spectrum is much more comfortable in such a position, either happily falling in line, and/or finding some other group to blame. At worst, they will conclude that ‘all politicians are bad’ yet vote for the same party their entire life. Yet I have noticed that many people on the left feel uncomfortable with public support for any particular policy issue. Matter of fact, I rarely hear anyone defend anything that does not directly benefit them at all. I have two questions for people who choose political purity. First, do you actually believe in your ideals and want to see them realized, or do you just want to sound different? Are you willing to risk your own reputation to actually see change done? Because seeking for perfection is a good excuse to avoid commitment, whether it is in relationships or politics. Second, do you understand the historical gravity of our situation? Taking Mexico as the example, the victory of Morena and PT is the first time the left won in over seventy years. Regardless of what your perception might be, we should recognize the big picture: depending on the poll, AMLO is either the most popular president in the world or consistently top five. That opportunity does not come back, nor do we have time to wait for it to come back. Whatever alternative plan we might have (and I have many), it will come after this or not. The deck is stacked steeply against the Left in Latin America, having to face coups, voter suppression, invasions, fake news campaigns, assassinations, etc. This is not a thing of the past, this winter the most successful Latin politician of his generation (Morales) was taken down. Globally, we are faced with climate change, the return of fascism, and the urgent issue of robotization.
Political opinion is individual, but party politics is by definition a team sport. Either you understand this (like the Right does), or you prefer being proven right over seeing actual change in people’s lives. On the left we have to support each other and play our position smart, nationally and internationally. That does not mean accepting policy as it is. I myself have shared various policy proposals that I would like to see implemented via this blog. It means being constructive. It means joining organizations and supporting other progressives regardless of our own ego of minor disagreements. And it means having the courage to defend what is good.
In summary, we must understand the Left and Right don’t play by the same rules, and the Left handicaps itself if is overly concerned with purity and total inclusion of (incompatible) concerns and sensitivities. Certainly, there are certain differentiating standards that the left must keep, honesty being the first. Yet in the coming decades – crucial to the history of our race – we should be more concerned with crafting and defending a democratic coalition that can hold power. Bargaining for this coalition is ultimately a matter of responsibility, not to leave the world to those who either don’t think it needs saving, or only want to safe themselves.