I think the title of this talk, The Rise of a New Left, is clearly to some extent projection of a desired outcome; of course, there are elements of a New Left visible. Not just the indignados and occupiers, but also the radical left challengers: Syriza, the Portugese Left Bloc, Die Linke, the Scandinavian Red-Green alliances, Front de gauche, maybe some elements of the Pirate Parties…
Still, we have to begin by acknowledging that we are speaking from the waste ground of a world-historic defeat that is, even at this moment, being inflicted on us. I say this right off because there is too much invested in the abstract idea of resistance – look at the beautiful sparks of resistance, if only we have more resistance, then the problems can be solved. Of course, there has been resistance, social movements, strike waves, quite remarkable events – the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, student rebellions, riots, near-insurgency levels of strikes and protests in Greece. Yet, one outstanding fact is that not one serious defeat has been inflicted on austerity, not one.
And the neoliberalism which we all hoped was going to experience an emaciating crisis when the credit crunch struck in 2007, and especially when the idols of Wall St from Lehman Brothers to Bear Sterns started to crumble, lives and thrives. Far from being weakened, it has adapted and come back more coherent in its objectives, more daring, and more successful.
Of course, the current success of the ruling classes is no surety of their future success. Our present predicament is no guarantee of ongoing failure. But we have to drop the consolatory notions – that the fight hasn’t really begun yet, wait until next year, you’ll see. We have been waiting five years for a win. Syriza is the closest we have seen, a point I’ll return to. Or, we hear that however weak we are, the ruling class is also weak. In some respects they are. Ideologically, the traditional parliamentary parties are weak, and the traditional sources of authority are diminishing. The dominant conservative and social democratic forces are degenerating. But the ruling class’s control over markets, their colonisation of all the major state apparatuses, their command of the dominant institutions, the dominant media, the academic and ideological mainstream, and so on, stands in stark contrast to the Left’s paucity of infrastructure, its lack of institutional advantage, its disarray, its dumbfounded attempts at analysis, the disorganised state of the working class underpinning it, the morbid symptoms arising from the secular decline of social democracy and the trade unions.
There’s a tendency to enthuse about various substitutions – social media will make up for our lack of an infrastructure, forgetting that its ‘individuating’, commodifying tendencies pose as many problems as are solved by the creative autonomy facilitated by social media; or, we suppose that a new class of degraded subjects, the urban poor in the US, the graduates with no future in the Middle East and Europe, or relatedly the ‘precariat’, will make up for the degeneration of the organised working class; or, as mentioned above, the weakness of our opponents will make up for our weakness and give us a more level playing field. I think all of this is dangerously complacent and delusional.
I don’t think the answer to this crisis is simply to bet on more ‘resistance’ ‘kicking off’. It isn’t kicking off everywhere There’s a real problem here. We should expect as materialists that a crisis of capitalism would also be a crisis of the Left. Insofar as we have built up our patterns of self-reproduction in the existing spaces of capitalism – say in student politics, the public sector, manufacturing workers, etc – a crisis necessarily threatens to erode the bases for our ongoing existence. We have to find a new way to develop if we are even to continue to exist. Eventually, this crisis is going to be resolved in some way – probably to the massive disadvantage of workers and the Left. The pieces of the kaleidoscope will fall into place, as it were. What is then left is quite plausibly what we will have to work with for a generation or so. So what we do now, counts for a lot. And we have found ourselves torn between inertia and hyper-activism, the latter often covering up for the former, while basically getting nowhere. This is not to say that none of what we have done is worthwhile – it is to say that we have been impeded by old catechisms and fetishes that prevent us from seeing what is new,
I won’t focus here on why neoliberalism has proved far more resilient than any of us expected. On this, I recommend three books: The Making of Global Capitalism by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin; In and Out of Crisis, by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch; and Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, by Philip Mirowski. Rather, I want to look past the Left’s strategic perplexity for a second, and try to find the seeds of a possible solution in what we’ve been doing for the last five years.
I think three types of strategic orientation for the Left have emerged in the folds of this crisis. The first is that signified by the autonomist-inflected democratic movement of the indignados, Occupy and so on. This is based fundamentally on the idea of claiming a visible space – the idea of protest as communication – then using it to organise a form of communal democracy – the idea of protest as prefiguration – and then letting it become a launch pad for other forms of direct action – the idea of protest as disruption. I think this was enormously fruitful, but it has run into the problem that visible spaces are not necessarily the strategically most important spaces to control and, anyway, the authorities didn’t take that long to figure out ways to smash our protests up. Our disruptive capacities, and our resilient capacities, turned out to be too weak in this case. The second is a more traditional strike-led approach, in which it is hoped that through the exertion of working class muscle in the public sector, the rank and file will gain in confidence and their militancy will encourage other workers to start organising. This is not so new, and it relies on the idea that there is a rank and file or a vanguard waiting to fulfil such a role. Nonetheless, I see this strike-led approach as containing a necessary part of a viable strategy.
The third, which has posed serious dilemmas for us, is the strategy of building radical left parties to occupy the terrain vacated by a declining social democracy. The dilemmas are familiar – how far does one end up moving to the Right in order to be elected? Once elected, what will one have to do to maintain a functional government? How much pressure from the dominant forces both inside and outside the state apparatuses can one withstand? Already, we have seen Tsipras move to the Right on a number of issues, and attempting to placate Washington. The Dutch Socialist Party moved sharply to the Right before the last election and did very poorly anyway. And of course we should remember the debacle of Rifondazione, collaborating with a centre-left government and implementing both neoliberal policies and imperialist policies, then diving into historical oblivion at the next election.
But just because these are dilemmas doesn’t mean we can avoid posing the question – the question of alliances, political representation and governmental power (not the same thing as state power). It was once possible to say that between the old reformist parties and the far left, there was nothing. This period, marked by the long-term decomposition of once dominant social democratic parties, is quite different. A typical feature of emerging radical left parties and coalitions is the involvement of a left breakaway from the old reformist parties, as well as a realignment of some of the Communist parties associated with them. There is a structural gap between what such forces represent on the ground and what they can project in elections, which makes any success extremely fragile. Nonetheless, today there are quite serious forces between us and social democracy. And in the circumstances, this is no bad thing
Syriza, the Greek radical left party, was the first radical left party to get within reach of taking power, but it is unlikely to be the last. For, unlike in previous crises, this process is marked by the long-term decomposition of once dominant social democratic parties. This is one reason why a consistent feature of the New Left parties is the involvement of a left breakaway from the old centre-left parties. Amid the breakdown of the old, there has been a profusion of the new: red-green alliances, pirate parties, neo-communist parties, and anticapitalist coalitions. They strive toward unity, recognising their fragmentation as a weakness. Often this plea for unity is pivoted on the question of governmental power. Syriza won mass support in Greece on a slogan calling for a united Left government to block austerity measures. That same demand is likely to resonate in other situations, where austerity combines with political instability.
However, as I’ve said, there is also a profound fragility about this. Syriza’s basis in Greek society, for example, has hitherto been relatively shallow. Yet it is now potentially a government in waiting. The anticapitalists around Olivier Besancenot in France, whether in the form of the Ligue communist revolutionaire (LCR) or the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), represented a groupuscule in terms of their real social weight, but could muster up to 10% in parliamentary elections – before, of course, being out-manoeuvred and overtaken by the Front de gauche (FG).
I actually think this is not limited to the electoral terrain, it is a feature of the conjuncture. When you think about how very small and unrepresentative groups can suddenly project disproportionate influence in situations like student movements or occupations, it is clear that this is because the breakdown of the old hegemonic forces of the Left has not yet resulted in any clear successor. This is partly a problem though, of course, the unpredictability presents opportunities for us.
Well, I think if we want to see a New Left emerging from this, we need to change the relationship between these strategic elements.
First of all, we need to recognise the limits of a strike-led strategy based on public sector workers. These groups of workers are too narrow for the most part, and their conditions of work too atypical, for them to transcend the ‘economic-corporate’ moment by themselves and become the vanguard of a counter-hegemonic movement. Their strikes, while important, are going to be largely defensive. Given what neoliberalism has wrought, we have to stop identifying the working class with its organised minority, and start think about strategies for organising the unorganised workers, and that includes confronting the problem of precarity.
Second, we need to go beyond the utopian moment of Occupy, and think about how we can deploy its principles of communicative, prefigurative and disruptive power. So, for example, one might ask, is there a way that we can introduce these principles into a new labour movement, one based on the ideas of social movement unionism?
Third, we need to see think of these radical left formations not as better, upgraded versions of the old social democratic left. One problem with social democracy was that it always tended to rely on a degree of political passivity in its base. It would support a limited degree of ‘economic’ action by trade unionists, but political action had to be strictly channelled through the controlled, top-down structures of social democracy. And there would certainly be a temptation for any radical left formation, particularly once in office, to try to use any social depth or influence that it attained to try to politically control its supporters in order to allow it to translate its ideas into the language of state policy, which would mean all sorts of compromises and betrayals. These formations should not be captivated by electoralism, nor should elections be conflated with politics as such. Rather, we need to develop parties with a much broader repertoire of political actions – including the sorts of actions that would not be good for an electoral strategy, but which can be said to enhance the wider objectives of the movement.
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