A new Left today?

Published in Arena magazine, number 104,Feb-March 2010

Around the world the financial crisis and climate change have focused many minds on a revival of the Left. Some people point to the success of socialists in South America or the election of Barack of Obama, other point to the rise of a Left Party in Germany. Even Michael Moore's latest film, Capitalism, A Love Story, seems to be a straw in the wind. The fate of the Left was one of the topics at a conference of activists and thinkers at Deakin University recently and was discussed in an editorial of Arena (No. 102). The purpose of the conference was to rethink ideas from that broad political force known loosely as 'the Left'.

In opening the conference, I described the Left's weakness as 'the crisis of ideas and values which express alternatives'. Other might call it a crisis in the political vision, or in the theory or the social philosophy of the Left. Perhaps paradoxically I argued that we could draw a lesson from the rise of neo-liberalism during the 1980s. Whatever else it illustrated, the rise of the right showed that 'social change depends on political ideas embedded in an intellectual and moral framework.'

Putting it simply, the Left lacks such a framework. Instead of a framework, we have only issues and campaigns. Instead of projecting a vision, we are merely oppositionists and hyper-critics. All kinds of people are grouped under the rubric of the Left. Both militant coal miners from the CFMEU and coal critics from Greenpeace. There is an old Left, whose critique is based around the material deprivation and the need for redistribution; and a new Left -- if that's the right word -- whose critique is based around the unsustainability of the economy and the empty affluence it creates. Neither has the answer and the danger is that this division will become an even deeper fault line than it already is.

Is a perfect agreement between the various sectors of the Left waiting to be discovered? I don't think such a new unifying ideology is possible, or even desirable. (In Beyond Right and Left I argued that agreement will be found in a set of values, rather than a new ideology or all-explanatory world view.) But the diverse sectors of the Left can do better in co-ordinating a wider agreement than they have now.

The process of finding what these values might be and then building a political strategy on top of them is a difficult one partly because there isn't a recognition that there is indeed a problem in the first place.

For one part of the left a simplified Marxist-influenced theory of society and politics still forms a default position. It's also a sentimental option because there is a long and proud heritage of working class struggle. Such a theory assumes that all social evils arise from the economy and from economic deprivation. If capitalism is the cause of all injustices then clearly you need to stick to a theory which aims to abolish capitalism in its entirety.

But it is obvious that considerable oppression and injustice are not caused by capitalism. Patriarchy and women's oppression pre-date capitalism. As do racism and ethno-centrism. Unsustainability is aggravated by ruthless corporate power but if we have to abolish capitalism in order to achieve sustainability then we may be waiting a long while. Anti-capitalism is also flawed because 'non-capitalism' has proved such a disaster. The actual consequences of anti-capitalism has been a string of grotesque societies which are a travesty of any democratic or socialist values. This has been recognised for decades, but some on the left still haven't faced the fact that aspects of Marxist theory contributed to the disaster.

The problem which the Left exists to solve has also changed. Marx and Engels saw poverty as the main problem and assumed that capitalism could not harness the forces of production to satisfy human needs. Today the forces of production are in overdrive, generating an output threatens to drown humanity in a climate disaster.

Some parts of the Left realized these fatal weakness of Marxism many years ago. This cultural left, based largely among intellectuals, developed a more sophisticated analysis of power and culture. Basing themselves on the social movements of women, youth, gays and ethnic groups, they challenged the values and beliefs of dominant culture and ideology. This successful challenge made for a freer, more diverse society. But the trajectory of the cultural left has run into sand. Its central of ideas of freedom and diversity fitted the emerging consumer capitalism which dissolved much of its cutting edge for social change in a sea of affluence. As well, the cultural left has never developed a political strategy or identified a base for social change. Moreover, significant anti-scientific strains within its world view make it hard to identify with the other radical movement based around the environment.

What to do? In past articles in Arena I have argued that the main circumstances which requires attention from the Left is the dramatic and accelerating threat of global warming. This threat is moving to be the fulcrum of our political situation for decades. Here we find a further complication for any revival of progressive ideas. So much of politics today has been professionalized. The largest environment groups are elite organizations which conduct their politics through symbolic actions designed for media attention. Mass action is seen as an adjunct to a strategy based on media and on lobbying governments. No perspective exists to make mass participation a central feature of action for change. Yet historically we know that societies only change when large numbers of people take extended, demonstrative action.

The most pressing issue is the need to reinvent an inspiring, new kind of mass politics to struggle for sustainability and against the powerful coal, energy and electricity corporations. Perhaps with this urgent need in mind the fragments of the Left can begin to engage in a collective effort to provide a synthesis of ideas, values and theory. Then, maybe, we will see 'a new left forming' as Arena's editorial (No 102) suggested.