Peoples' movements and protests




The "left" as a problem



Any suggestion for improvals can be mailed to the author


By Jan Wiklund



One might think that the conditions for conducting system-critical opposition politics have never been better than now. The neoliberally motivated speculative economy seems to have definitely failed. The world's governments have unleashed a feverish activity to repeatedly throw fresh resources into the mouths of speculators at the expense of the majority of the population, resulting in unemployment and misery. And if this does not work, they threaten violence. If ever the rulers have discredited themselves, it is now.

Moreover, the rulers appear to be divided; there are so many office hunters that they are at war with each other, as Peter Turchin argues. But despite this situation, which traditionally (according to the internationally recognised popular movement researcher Sidney Tarrow) is the one that most encourages dissident popular movement opposition, such opposition has refused to materialise except in the countries that have been hardest hit, such as it incidenially did in Greece, Italy, Spain, somewhat hesitantly, the United States. And this opposition has been poorly articulated, shortlived, meek, and often achieving nothing.

The emergence of a more articulate opposition is admittedly a long-term process. It requires those affected by a development to recognise each other, identify themselves as "we", identify a "they" to oppose, and design some form of organisation and alternative actions that can be believed in. In previous speculative periods, this has worked well - the speculative period of 1765-90 triggered the French and American revolutions, the speculative period of 1830-50 triggered Chartism and the revolutions of 1848, the speculative period of 1880-95 triggered stably organised labour and anti-colonial movements, and the speculative period of 1920-40 left labour and anti-colonial movements to reactivate. The current speculative period began forty years ago and should by now have triggered strong counter-actions. This has not happened.

It is true that, for a time, something emerged that also spread to this part of the world as the "global justice movement". Its base was slum dwellers and small farmers, the latter organised in the small farmers' international Via Campesina. They are still strong, for example in South America and South Asia, but for obvious reasons have not succeeded in making an impression in the core countries of the system in the same way as dissident movements in earlier periods of speculation. Instead, a residual product of earlier waves of popular movements, the so-called "left", has retained a form of hegemony among those who want to see a different development than that represented by those in power.

My position is that this hegemony is harmful and contributes to the weakness of the response to the system's crisis. "The 'left' has degenerated and can no longer point to a credible course. Instead, it stands in the way of others charting such a course. In the wake of the "left" there are plenty of skilled and intelligent people who would be more useful if the residual product did not lie there and confuse our strategic thinking with its absence of reasonable alternatives.

Let me explain:

1. the core of the problem is that "left" is now identity politics instead of interest politics, even among those who otherwise criticise identity politics. It no longer stands for a political collective united by a common struggle for something. It is a demarcation of "us" who have structured our analyses of society in a certain way, instead of "us" who are oppressed by that society. A demarcation of "us" who have roughly the same tastes, roughly the same references and roughly the same memories. A demarcation that has a couple of concrete disadvantages.

2. firstly, it draws the boundaries in the wrong places – people are encouraged to show solidarity with what they believe to be a leftist civil servant or an entrepreneur in the cultural sector, rather than with people threatened with unemployment, bankruptcy or unemployment insurance, not to mention Christian or Muslim slum dwellers or small farmers. This weakens resistance to the plundering of the popular majority. We get narrow mobilisations based on ideological and/or cultural coherence instead of broad ones based on common interests.

3. It gives too much political leverage to those who formulate these analytical structures, at the expense of those who participate in or even lead the concrete defence struggles of oppressed, exploited and/or discriminated groups and/or classes in today's world. Apart from the fact that this makes the backseat passenger too much of a driver (and thus makes the vehicle more difficult to steer), it has the somewhat dubious effect, even from a leftist point of view, of giving the middle class of the developing world a key role it does not deserve. They are the ones who have the most time to analyse and the greatest power to disseminate the results of their analyses. Perhaps this is the key to the left's political weakness today - they are "in the position of a young man living on the allowance of a father he hates" as George Orwell put it in the 1930s, and therefore not really keen on change?

4. In addition to this, as important as it is, ideologically based 'we' groups create problems of legitimacy. Those who fight for their interests can be suspected of many things, but never of lacking legitimacy. Whereas movements held together by ideology are quickly suspected of wanting to construct a 'case' that highlights their hobby horses as soon as they engage with something, rather than defending a direct interest for its own sake. Which further narrows the scope of mobilisation. To some extent, this is something you always have to live with; all long-term movements build up ideological interests that expose them to suspicion. Perhaps it is a matter of degree. An organisation that is exclusively ideological creates less legitimacy for its issues than one that is also substantive, while the greatest legitimacy is created by the people involved.

5. There are also problems with the concrete content of the left-wing label. The background from 1789, when the term was coined, has a good value base – equality – although the emphasis of the label is on the location in a parliamentary assembly rather than the organisation in the streets, villages, neighbourhoods and workplaces. Moreover, since then, a lot of rubbish has accumulated, often based on concrete conflicts that made the rubbish logical when it was formulated, but which over time has become more a collection of traditions that have nothing to do with today's reality.

6. Among the most dubious is the enthusiastic support for "development" and "modernity" in the abstract, which, when concretised, is all too often identical to the latest and most effective mechanisms of capitalist exploitation, making fight against this more complicated. One can point to two hundred years of incitement against peasants as "undeveloped" and "primitive", one can point to the eighteenth century's enthusiastic support for colonial policies perceived as "progressive", one can point to decades of support for the 20th century's functionally divisive and thus segregating urban development policy, one can point to the now thankfully mitigated tradition of technological friendliness regardless of what the technology has been used for and in whose hands it lies. The basis, of course, is an all-too-easy adoption of the Enlightenment tradition with its capacity for both self-developed understanding and authoritarian imposition of the prejudices of the educated middle class.

7. Another of the dubious traditions, one that perhaps followed directly from parliamentary origins, is the extreme and over-dramatized emphasis on state power – either socialist straightforward embrace or anarchist equally straightforward rejection. The socialist tradition is indeed the dominant one (with the anarchist as a negative mirror image): the struggle for the good society as the establishment of the good state, via a party. The totally outsized role this gives to professional or semi-professional party functionaries and their, from the public's point of view, obscure haggling over benefits for respective brands is well known to those who have any experience of popular movement politics.

8. An often noticed and often lamented effect of this strategy is precisely the fight between different brands, different "parties", with claims to be precisely the actor who should establish this good state power. For the more well-established parties, of course, the hope of well-paid government services lurks as a reason behind the copyright battles, for the not-so-well-established ones, the motivations are more difficult to find. Within popular movement politics, organizational egoism is certainly not unknown, but it is more common for people to split up and each do what they think is good at, whereupon they cooperate as both believe they benefit from it. Mutual condemnations in principle are thankfully rare; on the other hand, the rule of the left-wing state-building sects. There must be something in the organizational form that elicits such a focus on exclusion rather than inclusion. Perhaps it is a zero-sum game – they are imaginary battles about imaginary distributions of mandates in the imaginary good state?

9. Another practical problem with the state power/party strategy is that if you imagine yourself sitting inside with the exclusive Key to the Good Society, you tend to behave a little contemptuously and wiseacry towards other political actors, as the only one who really has full legitimacy. By far the worst are of course those who have achieved some kind of success as a government party, but oddly enough, those who have had no success at all ever behave in that way. This is of course something that prevents good cooperation for mutual benefit; in a political collaboration there can be no status difference except perhaps that which is based on what each one actually contributes.

10. For those who object that this text is also characterized by wiseacry, I want to answer that I am not targeting any organization but a strategy (or perhaps the remains of a strategy...) that has proven to be fruitless. Partly in the long term: the fruit of two hundred years of left-wing politics in the form of the developed countries' welfare state is clearly going backwards, and in the form of the developing countries' socialist state-building, the fruit is even more worm-eaten. And partly in the short term: the rekindling of left-wing politics from 1965 onwards has not achieved anything lasting at all, except perhaps some funny battle memories. The large support around traditional left-wing politics that prevails on the movement scene and above all among its most committed and active participants is therefore dysfunctional.

11. The most valuable can be kept. I am of course talking about the 1789 defense of equality. The rest should be seen as historically explicable but often outdated positionings, which require good argumentation to be applied today. It is of course perfectly acceptable to also retain, for example, the Marxist theory – if you also accept other theoretical frameworks as fully equivalent. As Ha-Joon Chang says: On no account drink only one ingredient – liable to lead to tunnel vision, arrogance and possibly brain death.

12. But above all: can't one stop with the tiresome identity politics – "we on the left" (in its own way as tiresome as "we Muslims", and quite similar) – and start from the social identity to which one happens to belong instead? Contribute to a popular policy against the neoliberal plunder? Which assumes that everyone who wants to fight has the same legitimacy and understands the same amount? Which accommodates all sufferers, regardless of the interpretive structures they cling to now before we've even started? And trust that the common interpretive structure that develops afterwards will be good enough?

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