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Clashes over the definite Left

Anthony Barnett explores what he sees as the global emergence of a radical, progressive politics – especially in the United States

US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley in 2019. Photo: Mike Theiler/UPI

Clashes over the definite Left

Anthony Barnett carries on the debate about what he sees as the global emergence of a radical, progressive politics – especially in the United States

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Byline Supplement recently published an intervention by Anthony Barnett on what he sees as the global emergence of a radical, progressive politics especially in the United States. He calls it “the definite Left”. The article was made free to read in the new year and opened a special comments thread as an experiment in online debate. Here, Anthony brings together his responses to Neal Lawson, Tony Curzon Price, Jacky Smith, Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar, Pia Länsman and Jon Alexander

In my essay on the emergence of a definite Left, I show it is a new political force with characteristics of both a movement and of actual policy-making even though it is neither a traditional protest nor a political party.

I emphasise that the definite Left is an alliance of political force that is driving the opposition to the rise of the supremacist Right and so far preventing it from taking power in the USA and I hope now Brazil. The balance between defeat and success is on a “knife edge”. This means the powers that are preserving what democracy we have are equal to, but not decisively stronger than, the powers of the far-right. In addition to exposing the criminal and racist consequences of Trumpism unbound, we need to understand the sources of our strengths.

What I’m calling the definite Left is not singular yet it has common characteristics: support for the need to govern capitalism with more democracy, feminist-inspired inclusion, social and economic fairness, transparency and environmental sustainability.

The examples I draw on are from the United States but I point to the election of Lula in Brazil, the German greens, international support for democracy in Ukraine, and the uprising for ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in Iran, to suggest that it is an emergent phenomenon around the world with many different forms.

While there is something definitely happening, it is hydra-headed and pluralistic. I say it is on the Left. The criticism that many make is that, while it may be “new and vital”, we should not confine it to the Left.

Beyond Left and Right?

In response to my essay, Graham Hewitt said: “I feel we need to move away from left/right and particularly away from professional politicians, parties and top down this is what’s good for you plebs. Let’s talk about principles such as fairness, equity, integrity, honesty and democracy as rule by the people.”

Pia Länsman, from Finland, wrote: “The vast majority of Finns, for example, could support the positions of the definite Left described in the article – at least, if the word ‘Left’ would not be mentioned in the name.”

As a member of the Finnish New History movement, Länsman said: “In our view, the most important dividing line in the world politically is the attitude towards the rule of law. Ideologically and ethically, it is the culture of debate. The ability to debate fairly is therefore more important than opinions as such. This problem concerns all people, not just the Left.”

And he makes the point that “one could take Francis Fukuyama as an example from the American debate. He is a ‘definite’ supporter of democracy, democratic institutions and human rights, but he is certainly not a leftist. Isn’t the word ‘Left’ in that case in fact divisive. Why does it have to be there? Why not invite people like Fukuyama into such a debate too?” 

Jon Alexander, author of Citizens, makes an eloquent case based on the world-wide growth of deliberative initiatives such a citizen juries and assemblies selected by sortition. He sees what I’m describing as citizens democracy that grows “primarily outside the formal political system, and then challenges that system to evolve into it”.

He sees it as emerging on the Right and the centre too so, while he is confident of “something new and vital emerging” and that “it can and must manifest on the Left”, he thinks it starts from the Left: “I don’t think it can or even tactically should be claimed as a phenomenon of the Left. As I see it, there is a citizen shift across the whole of politics – and it will take hold more fully if political debate becomes a contest over how it is done, not the property of one party or tradition.”

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Alexander’s view was reinforced by Jacky Smith, who said: “I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in politics. I never could get the hang of fitting myself into the Marx-quoting ‘broad left’ or any other of the political tribes that the UK produces. Instead, I’ve taken part in single-issue activism on a very ad hoc basis, looking for opportunities to make a difference… I’m currently helping to establish a local ‘Enough Is Enough’ group [a new UK campaign]. The current set-up is just not working for any of us.”

Where will this lead?, she asks, “probably not in any easily-labelled direction, Left or Right… Best, I think, to abandon the labels.”  As a Byline regular, she added that my essay was “very different” from “other Byline channels… Have we been infiltrated?” 

These comments are concerned with process. Both Pia Länsman and Jon Alexander explicitly identified their visions as being about how democracy is conducted. Process is arguably the most important aspect of government (a wonderful reflection on this can be found in Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed.) Like the rule of law itself, fair and open debate and citizens democracy cannot belong to the Right or Left. Democracy has to be governed by processes that everyone accepts as fair and inclusive – welcome Fukyama! 

Feminism and environmentalism also are, in part, about process and can be supported by those on the Right as well as the Left. Sustainability and inclusion, opposition to identity-based discrimination, empowerment none should be confined to a left/right polarity.

But, in addition, a demand for economic fairness is integral to the definite Left, and without this we won’t defeat the insurgent Right of Trumpism and its allies.

The neoliberal period of market primacy has ended politically. But its economic legacy of staggering inequity is still active, as is the precarity it has generated for most of us who work for a living. The need for redistribution in terms of child and health care, of access to education and investment in what is described as the every day economy to ensure basic human security, must accompany any successful effort to achieve just and equitable political processes. I call this the “double helix” of democratic and economic justice. 

A grim if hilarious episode of recent US politics makes the point. Opposition to the corrupt influence over politics is widespread across all political loyalties – but just try doing something about it.

In the US, Branko Milanović points out, the top 1% of the wealthy 1% make up 40% of campaign donations. In an effort to address this, the Democrats at the start of the Biden presidency proposed a For the People Act, including limits to the secret funding of campaigns. Far-right US millionaires funding research found this was very popular and, for them, “most worrisome”. It was equally popular with right-wing voters. They spent a lot of money to see if they could find “any message” that might shift conservative voters on the issue, including that it is a way to prevent AOC from gaining power. None convinced right-wing voters to change their mind. They too opposed the rich buying elections. 

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The researchers were working for the billionaires who were buying elections. They reported to the politicians who were being bought by the billionaires. Their message: that their own voters were “riled up” about the knowledge that billionaires bought elections. The only way to stop For the People Act therefore, the politicians were told, was “under the dome”, meaning the dome of Congress. They had to use the filibuster and procedural devices to prevent it from passing. Which is what they did.

So while, of course, a fair democracy must be politically neutral, achieving it demands a fight with all those who see that the consequences will be economically and socially egalitarian, above all Trumpism. This makes us all inheritors of the tradition that, since the era of the French Revolution, has been described as ‘on the Left’. 

Not Another Orthodoxy

I’m describing something. This needs emphasis.

I’m not calling for the creation of a new ideology or announcing its advent. I’m not saying its practitioners have to declare themselves to be followers of ‘the definite Left. I use a small ‘d’ to try and make this clear.

I’m not calling for a new orthodoxy, as I suspect Pia Länsman is.

Some call themselves socialists, some Green, some progressive capitalists, some will say they are democratic liberals. Jon Alexander calls it citizens democracy. Some may simply call themselves feminists.

What I’m describing is the emergence of a non-paternalistic Left, distinct from historic social democracy that opposes the neoliberal centrism of Clinton and New Labour. For me its heteroclite, experimental nature is as much part of its attraction as its commitment to democratic agency. 

It needs to be named. This will make it harder for the Right to stereotype what’s happening in order to frighten people. 

It’s Practical

Above all, the definite Left exists in terms of exercising power.

Here I’ve an important disagreement with Jon Alexander. He says the new politics must take shape “outside the formal political system”. I’ve been involved with outsider movements since 1968 – they don’t succeed until they engage.

One that did engage and prefigured the definite Left was Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, which pioneered feminist and anti-racist policies and “popular planning” and saw itself as “in but not of the state”. It was so successful that Thatcher abolished London’s right to municipal government in 1986 altogether. 

A current example that inspires me is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Coming out of the NGO sector, she developed an economics of ‘thriving’ that is sustainable, inclusive and democratic and aims to be implemented and is now being experimented with in a variety of cities. 

This brings me to the consequences if my description holds.

Neal Lawson observed that I was “of course right to point to pluralism and alliance building – the socialist has much in common with the social liberal, the Green with the democrat. But we should celebrate our differences and align when and where necessary and possible”.

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But I’m saying more than this. What is happening is not just contingent alliance building “where necessary” of existing forces whose differences we can celebrate as they continue unchanged. A profound reshaping of politics is taking place. Everyone is being altered internally by the external reshaping and this is threatening.

The uncertainty of where it is leading is something Tony Curzon Price identifies, with the added authority of being fresh from trying to advise the UK Government from within 10 Downing Street.

There have been huge positive changes for human life on Earth during the ‘great acceleration’ since 1950. Neoliberalism has crashed politically but a technologically intensive productive systems, especially in food and medicines and finance, are generating what I describe as the “third challenge” for the definite Left. It’s the most far-reaching and it includes the need to democratise the ongoing regulation of corporate power. I’m grateful to him for mapping the terrain in a way that’s original. 

I’m also grateful for the way Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar summarise my argument and warn about the new varieties of sectarianism. These are sprouting up on the traditional Left, the orthodoxy of which is threatened by the open nature of the definite Left and its pluralist, practical spirit. 

I’m not trying to create a new orthodoxy about what is and is not ‘definite’. Except that I want to insist that what is happening is not confined to the usual tramlines of politics as we have experienced it. 

The far-right is dangerous and destructive because its funders can feel all too well that something “new and vital” is emerging that threatens them. It’s a conflict between an emerging set of forces and once dominant ones that fear they will become residual. It is most advanced in the Americas.

Europeans are used to thinking that, however energetic ‘progressives’ may be in the US, politically they are more backward and less sophisticated than the Left in Europe. No longer. Especially in Britain where, battered by Brexit, we need to lift up our heads.  

Anthony Barnett is the author of ‘Taking Control! Humanity and America After Trump and the Pandemic

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