Whither the Left: Part 2

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Wednesday, 5 March 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

A new world for the Left

The break-up of the Soviet Union, the Velvet and Orange Revolutions and the Arab Spring show that mass movements can still achieve social and political change, with or without violence. But the capacity of the State is a key factor in such circumstances — whether it has the strength or will to respond with, and maintain force until the movement is crushed and, occasionally, whether the State’s organs of force will continue to support it or go over to the protestors.

Despite its apparent failure, there was a lasting legacy from the student protests of 1968. Some of its issues, such as human rights, became mainstream issues. The New Left rose in the 1970s, a phoenix from the ashes of 1968. The New Left addressed issues rather than overt political change, an idea that had arisen among some socialist thinkers in the 1950s such as Anthony Crossland in the UK, quoted by Frank Bongiorno on ‘Inside Story’:

Ownership of capital now mattered less than who managed it. In these circumstances, the old preoccupation with nationalisation made little sense. Even greater equality could be achieved through progressive taxation and the education system, while socialists needed to turn their attention to what he called “deficiencies in social capital … ugly towns, mean streets, slum houses, overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals, understaffed mental institutions, too few homes for the aged, indeed a general, and often squalid lack of social amenities.” In an age of abundance, socialists would also necessarily give attention to what would become known as quality of life issues: the environment, culture and civil liberties, “personal freedom, happiness, and cultural endeavour: the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement.”

The Old Left and many in the working class, however, saw that as a betrayal. It led to divisions within the Left. Many of the New Left were seen as middle class and lacking understanding of the political needs of the working class. But as alluded to in Part 1 of these articles many became, in reality, a new working class — the college and university educated required by the new industrial order to keep it functioning. No longer just an elite to join the ruling class, university graduates were, as much as the old labouring working class, a new intellectual working class who were also wage slaves, their employment just as precarious.

In Australia, the radical Left was marginalised in the 1970s, including some of the more radical unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which was effectively closed down in 1976 after its successful ‘Green Bans’. While radical Left groups remained (and still remain) in existence they were small and mostly outside the mainstream political system.

Within politics, the Victorian Left of the ALP had been the most radical but in the lead-up to Whitlam’s election it was emasculated by a Federal ALP intervention. It was believed that Labor was not electable while that Old Left philosophy was still being pursued and still existed within some Labor policies. The issues then became more about the New Left agenda drawing in voters who were financially middle class (even if, as I keep repeating, many were actually the new working class). Whitlam’s withdrawal from Vietnam after he was elected removed the single biggest issue on which the radical Left had been able to garner wide support.

It was, in my opinion, the approach of the New Left that allowed mainstream left-of-centre political parties to accept the neo-liberal economic agenda that arose in the 1980s. I say this (not having read any similar analysis) because the focus on issues basically left the political system unchallenged.

It was the two oil crises of the 1970s and the associated economic downturns that contributed to the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan adopted the new economics eagerly. After the economic problems of the previous decade, many voters were also willing to accept the approach. The New Left had little to say on the systemic issues but remained vocal on specific impacts of the approach. The Old Left were marginalised or, like the miners in the UK, crushed by the State. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 some remnants of the Old Left also lost the bastion of their faith.

Hence we come to my conclusion in Part 1: that economics has come to dominate the political debate.

Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in England, and Clinton in America, as left-of-centre governments, operated in this new context — with the view that equity could not be achieved in the absence of a strong economy. The Old Left’s challenges to the whole economic system (capitalism) were but distant cries from the wilderness. The new approach was put this way by Anthony Giddens in a New Statesman article:

… the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left — solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government — remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in the information age, the emergence of a more voluble citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Part of the rationale of New Labour in the UK was that a growing economy would allow extra funding for social issues without the need to raise taxes. As in Australia, UK Labour governments had been accused of being high taxing and high spending.

Globalisation of capital, production and distribution was also reducing the influence governments had on their own economy. Many countries could no longer pressure local corporations as major decisions were being made in Tokyo, New York, Detroit and London (to which we could now add Shanghai and Seoul). International organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were additional sources of decision making that could create havoc with the political and economic choices available to governments. As Lauren Langman wrote, international corporations and agencies were increasingly dictating trade policies, tariff rates, investment laws, copy rights, labour conditions, and so on and this is continuing in more recent Free Trade Agreements.

The internet has increased the pace of globalisation. The almost instantaneous movement of capital can impact national economies with governments having little control. Information guiding corporate decisions is also now available almost in ‘real time’. A government going through its normal checks and balances and relying on cabinet decision-making processes can no longer match the speed of corporate and financial decision making. It has become a case of letting the pack run and hoping to influence how or where it runs.

Globalisation, however, has also changed social movements. The internet has created a new public space in which ideas — from the extreme right to the extreme left, and every opinion in between — can be expressed. It can also be used to organise and mobilise groups of similar views, no longer just locally or nationally but on a global scale.

The Zapatistas in Mexico in 1994 was one of the first movements to make full use of the new technology, fighting the Mexican government not just with arms but with information spread around the world, leading to the creation of solidarity groups in many countries as well as throughout Mexico. Perhaps because of the international attention they generated the Zapatistas have continued to this day to maintain autonomous areas in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The anti-globalisation movement (Peoples’ Global Action) from late in the 1990s also used the internet to create a global response and mobilised protests at WTO and G8 meetings around the world. At a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 about forty to fifty thousand protestors shut down the city centre and disrupted the first day of the meeting. Police eventually responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. At the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001 the total protest group was estimated between 150,000 and 200,000. The first group of about eight to ten thousand marching towards the barricades around the G8 meeting place faced an unprovoked attack with tear gas by police, which started the battle that followed. The police response was heavy-handed, drawing no distinction between the more violent Black Bloc (anarchists) and non-violent protestors. One person was killed. A school where some protestors were staying overnight was raided and people severely beaten. Like the 1968 student protests, it was met with the force and violence of the State and is now called the ‘Battle of Genoa’.

Governments, aware of these developments, have at different times attempted to create forms of internet censorship which, so far, have been resisted. Recent revelations have shown that, instead of censorship, massive monitoring of the internet has been the response of security agencies. Spying and force remain the State’s main control mechanisms and that hasn’t changed since Machiavelli’s time.

Despite the changes in the world, the vision of the Left retains its emphasis on people and equity. It rejects the purely economic approach and the economic rationalist idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which mistakenly believes that if the rich get richer everybody benefits.

It could be said that one difference between the New Left and the more radical Left is that the New Left accepts equity as a goal whereas there is still a stronger element of equality in the radical Left.

Similarly, both believe in the involvement of people but perhaps the New Left believes more in terms of social movements to influence politics whereas the more radical Left still believes in control by the people, that is, the people being in a position to make decisions and not merely influence them.

The New Left tends to be more about human rights and the rights of marginalised groups and minorities. The Old Left often had a more communal focus, with its emphasis on collectives, cooperatives and so on. I believe there is still space for both, or at least space for that debate to continue as new economic models are required for the future.

The New Left focuses on issues of equity and quality of life. The more radical Left still yearns for political change but with the collapse of communist governments has been less certain of the approach until the success of the Zapatistas. The democratic socialism of Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Ecuador, was also influenced by, among other factors, the Zapatistas. It could be said now that ‘people power’ is back on the agenda.

Some of the more radical Left movements arising in the 1980s had focused on ‘autonomy’, rejecting any political system and creating loosely woven local groups. They did not believe in creating political networks and so also tended to operate independently. The main difference with earlier Left groups was that they gave much greater emphasis to individual self-determination: they rejected the New Left’s emphasis on social issues just as the New Left rejected their individualism.

How the Left should now approach economics is an open question. Other than the three South American countries adopting forms of twenty-first century democratic socialism, capitalism now dominates, including in the former Soviet Union and China (even if in China it is a form of State-directed capitalism). It has become more difficult for the Left to point to any functioning alternative economic system. The effort to challenge the economic system, if it exists at all, often aims more at ‘capitalism with a heart’ rather than open attacks on the system.

One avenue that may lead to consideration of alternative economic systems is in the debate about climate change, although at present much of that debate still takes place in the context of a capitalist market system.

There is, however, also a movement considering ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measurement of economic progress, an approach adopted by Bhutan in 1972. This is not a crack-pot movement but includes academics, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and the United Nations. Even the OECD has issued guidelines on measuring well-being. The penny is beginning to drop that our current economic system, which relies on perpetual growth, cannot continue indefinitely into the future. This provides fertile ground for a new approach to economics by the progressive and Left elements in politics.

An agenda for the Left in this new world needs to draw on elements from all of these: some aspects from the radical Left, some from the New Left, and some from the social movements that are arising around climate change, anti-globalisation and the GNH approach.

The Labor Party in Australia should also draw on these, although in the chase for government the more moderate positions are likely to prevail. That does not mean, however, that more radical positions should not be debated, particularly on Left-leaning websites and even among Labor party members. As I have pointed out in these articles, a radical stance may not achieve all that it intends but it can create small shifts along the path. Human rights may not have become a dominant mainstream issue without the student revolt of 1968!

Part 3 to follow: Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

What do you think?