It’s a good question, isn’t it? Because, with all due respect, the Left doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. It’s losing big time at the moment, so something must be wrong with it, right? Accordingly one finds a lot of answers out there.
“it’s not because the world is evil that the Left doesn’t succeed; it’s because it suffers from a lacking analysis of how the world actually works.”
A common and widely proclaimed notion is that the reasons for the Left’s decline is that it isn’t left enough and that it has given up on its core values. The idea here is that going further left, stressing even more state control, combating conservative values even more zealously, would all of a sudden fix the economy and convince more conservatively inclined voters to choose the Left rather than the Right. But lack of ideological purity is not the culprit; the failure to address current issues in an adequate manner is.
Often it’s also heard by the representatives of Left parties and other groups that they have failed at communicating their message more efficiently. But seriously, is it just that we have a communication problem here? Is it really true that in the time of social media and a rapidly growing army of media savvy communication experts, that the biggest problem of the Left is its lacking communication skills? Is it entirely impossible that the politics being communicated just aren’t good enough? That the age old doctrines of the Left just don’t seem to cut it any longer in today’s post-industrial world?
Another commonly heard conviction in later years, with perhaps a little more merit, is that the Left has become increasingly out of tune with its core voters of the working classes. But what’s often omitted from such analyses is the inquiry into what constitutes the working class today, or more specifically, if this term makes much sense today in the increasingly de-industrialized societies of the developed world.
And no, it’s not because the world is evil that the Left doesn’t succeed; it’s because it suffers from a lacking analysis of how the world actually works.
“The world has changed too much, and the Left, unfortunately, has not.”
Industrial Era Thinking
In the past, the Left has accomplished a lot of things: it improved the working conditions of wage laborers, built the welfare state and won an intellectual victory with the decades long success story of Keynesian economics, just to mention a few of its greatest accomplishments. But a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that. All of these things belong to the industrial era, and hitting the same strings in today’s hyper capitalist global information economy doesn’t seem to generate the same results; in fact, attempting to do the very same things that proved successful in the past often tends to be rather inefficient and sometimes outright counterproductive today. The world has changed too much, and the Left, unfortunately, has not.
The prevalent industrial era thinking of the Left is perhaps one of its greatest handicaps. Notions such as “the working class” and thinking along the lines of large groups of organized labor in the industrial centers of the nation state are so exceedingly out of tune with the present developments of the global world economy – especially in the richest and most advanced countries – that the transformative power of the Left has become a far cry from that of yesteryear. It doesn’t have adequate answers to address the issue of transnational capital flows; it doesn’t know how to handle new emergent technologies such as AI, robotics and transhumanist bio-technologies; it’s paralyzed in regard to immigration and refugees; and what to do with the growing precariat, i.e. the people who are at the fringes of the labor market and have generally low levels of social and economic enfranchisement? Does it even have any proposals to how the growing psychological distress, alienation and feelings of marginalization in modern society could be addressed? Or the acute destruction of the environment? Globalization? No it doesn’t.
With the status quo of the nation based welfare state and the regulation of the labor markets in the most developed countries, the old established Left seems to have reached the limits of its analytical power. The end of history. Its history. Since the great visions of the welfare state and the organization of the labor force, no new utopian ideals worth mentioning have been proposed. A grand vision of how to raise the level of well-being and life satisfaction further is all but entirely lacking. Its raison d’etre is simply to keep the boat from rocking. Sadly, this is diminishing the importance of the Left.
The old vision of creating a feasible alternative to the capitalist world order is, in terms of real political movements, a forgotten dream of the past. Rather than challenging capitalism with new means of coordinating people’s productive actions in the new information economy, it tends to play along the pre-given rules of capital. And instead of conquering new territories, its fiercest battles are fought over keeping what it has previously won. But when you’re always on the defense, you know that you have already lost.
But who can blame them? If the labor movement could have taken over production and turned it into cooperatives, it already would have. If a greater solidarity between all workers of the world, in the spirit of the International, could have been achieved, we would have seen it by now. And if the intellectuals of the old Left could have developed a workable and convincing alternative to capitalism, it would already have been implemented. After all, the Left has had more than 100 years to achieve these things.
There are challengers to the old established Left, but none have put forward workable and convincing alternatives to the fundamental economic thinking first envisioned in the industrial era. Instead of focusing on novel economic systems in tune with the information era and addressing the issue of equality on a systemic level in our increasingly globalized world, parts of the Left have moved on to minority and identity issues.
“if it’s all a big zero-sum game, why give up on that white-privilege if that’s the best card you have on your hand?”
The recent surge in various minority and identity projects has accomplished a lot of good things (however, often independently and sometimes in opposition to the worker’s movements), but they have not, will never, change society in any fundamental, groundbreaking fashion. Often that’s not the ambition either. Most of these movements settle for equal rights and equal access to the very same privileges as the majority population (which is, admittedly, not such a bad thing). But those who believe these ideas will somehow miraculously change society in any fundamental fashion, crush capitalism or save the environment, are severely deluding themselves. Changing the capitalistic world system is far beyond any of these movements’ analytical reach. They simply don’t know what they are up against and often reduce capitalism to a club of rich white guys that can somehow be purged.
For all the good things to have come out of these movements, their lacking transformative power on the bigger scale remains a severe handicap. They don’t offer feasible paths forward on the systemic level, but seem to be content with merely serving the special interests of certain marginalized groups. But that’s not only unambitious; it’s also rather counter-productive as recent political developments have showed. Just think about it; if the identity Left would have a complete victory, everything would still be pretty much the same, but with more women and ethnic minorities in the top. Is it strange that white disenfranchised males don’t get overly enthusiastic about these ideas: a world that pretty much works like now, just with more women and blacks to boss them around, instead of just white guys in suits. Great, huh? No wonder that the traditional working classes aren’t as closely allied with the Left as they used to be. And if it’s all a big zero-sum game, why give up on that white-privilege if that’s the best card you have on your hand? Did anyone really believe that people would just give up on that without an alternative proposal to how their lives could become better too?
Neglecting the class aspect in favor of ethnic and gender identities and not offering any new solutions to how common white workers could empower themselves, or even make their lives better, has had grave consequences. It’s quite silly when you think about it, leaving one of the largest demographics out of the equation is bound to come back and bite you in the ass.
And it’s not just that common white workers don’t seem to be included in these new identity Leftist movements, they have even been deprived of their old narrative in which they were the heroes. Prior to the decline of democratic socialism and the proud ethos of the working class, common working men could obtain pride, identity and self-empowerment from traditional Leftist ideology and often saw their representatives in parliament as some of their “own”. Now where should they turn when the old labor parties seem to have sold them out? Queer-feminism?
Many people aren’t really working class any longer but have plunged into the growing ranks of the precariat, with new interests not covered by the traditional worker’s movements. Is it so strange that a new brand of postmodern fascism appears as a valid option to these people?
“All that remain are vague notions of the ‘people’ winning over the ‘bad guys’ by smashing
While the old Left, devoid of any real transformative agendas, has become part of the establishment and increasingly more bourgeois, radical activist groups on the fringes have taken its place as the standard bearer of progressive change. Unfortunately you don’t find a whole lot of new ideas here either. These movements tend to be characterized more by what they are against than what they are really for. It is a telling sign that many such groups tend to be explicitly identified by what they are against and often even use the prefix “anti-” in their names. It seems as though opposition in and of itself is considered the highest virtue, that being against a whole lot of things takes primacy from actually developing workable solutions and investigating realistic methods and plans to implement these in the political game. Of course there are many things out there worthy of opposition, but if the primary endeavor is just to be against stuff, hence being on the defense all the time, then it’s a sign that you’re already losing.
The far Left is still capable of mobilizing large numbers of people in demonstrations, happenings and so on, but such gatherings are mostly based on feelings of dissent and almost never on any constructive ideas of how to reorganize society. They rarely achieve much. Despite the spectacle, they are quite harmless really. Burning a few dumpsters and blocking the roads is barely a threat to capitalism or whatever they are opposing.
But that’s probably not a major issue to those involved. Often the political fight itself is romanticized and what’s going to happen if they actually win the fight is of secondary importance. Rarely is an actual plan envisioned, but who can blame them as the odds of success are as close to zero as possible. All that remain are vague notions of the “people” winning over the “bad guys” by smashing
It’s not that the far Left is entirely without its merits, but the excessive focus on opposition, civil disobedience and activist manifestations, not just as means, but as goals in themselves, is severely reducing the actual political impact and transformative power of these movements. If you are only capable of setting the agenda for opposition, and even if you might be successful from time to time, it’s others who will be the ones to set the actual course. It’s a shame really, all that wonderful engagement largely becomes a wasted potential for greater things.
The sad state of affairs is that we rarely see any Leftists today with any grand plans for society that could actually be achieved, hasn’t been tried before, or with any groundbreaking new ideas to transform society. And if we do, they mostly tend to fall into the trap of game denial.
“Avoiding game denial is not so much a matter of just being ‘realistic’, but more about being able to decipher the rules, find out how the current relations of power play out, and accordingly develop new means of changing the game in a feasible manner.”
The Left tends to be exceedingly prone to game denial (for a more thorough presentation, read this post): the idea that it’s somehow possible to make away with all the games that governs our social and political relations; that everybody, always, can be a winner; that you can omit losing from people’s lives entirely; that life could be completely fair. The farther Left you go, the more prone people tend to be game deniers, ultimately succumbing to “give everything to everyone” arguments and equally silly notions.
Avoiding game denial is not so much a matter of just being “realistic” (which mostly tends to throw one into the opposite camp of “game acceptance”), but more about being able to decipher the rules, find out how the current relations of power play out, and accordingly develop new means of changing the game in a feasible manner.
The sad consequence of game denial is that your opponents repeatedly will have you by the balls (excuse the male-centric expression) in face of practical reality; they will have the means of exposing that your solutions won’t be feasible, and your lacking ability to understand the rules of the game will ultimately make you incapable of changing them for the better. Game denial will put you on the side line. And if you actually succeed in implementing policies that suffer from a poor analysis of how the game plays out, how human relations actually work, they will fail and thus make way for your opponents to take over. Solutions based upon game denial are bad because they aren’t socially sustainable – something you can see examples of in everything from socialist states to hippie communities.
But a lot of leftists don’t care about the game. They are just too good for that, which leads us to the next and final point.
“Idealism shouldn’t be a matter of moral purity, but of finding the ideal practical solutions to make reality of your ideals. If your political ideals don’t hold up to practical reality, the ideals have already disqualified themselves as worth striving towards.”
The Trap of Righteousness
A lot of Leftists end up in the trap of righteousness: a paralyzing condition where personal moral superiority takes primacy over actual political results. Too preoccupied with being perceived as the “good guy”, and feeling “empowered” by telling everyone else that they are wrong or outright “evil”, it often results in people sitting in their ivory towers just being “right” about everything but not accomplishing anything. As any social theorist knows, there is nothing wrong with ivory towers per se; you just have to build them in the right historical spots. Unfortunately, moralism often hinders such placement and they are built at safe distance from political and economic reality.
You might think that it doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks if you just “know” that you’re “right”; that it’s perfectly acceptable to disregard the lacking results of your political ideology, and that it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you if your take on politics don’t seem to be catching wind; that it simply suffices to have the “correct” opinions. False. I don’t talk about giving up on your ideals, but if your methods of action and applied theories don’t seem to generate any positive changes, then they just aren’t good enough. The world needs your help and we’re running out of time.
You might moralize about all the evils that come out of participating in the political game; that it’s better to avoid dirty politics altogether and instead take on a more “activist” role; that it’s morally more pure to form local grass root movements, gather in protest marches and sign petitions in order to influence politicians than entering the floor of politics yourself. But I suspect these are often bad excuses; that another issue is at hand, namely our own vanity. We are too afraid of losing our moral superiority. We don’t want to risk being the bad guy. We simply don’t want to get our hands dirty.
Taking responsibility always means that you can’t make everybody happy, and, perhaps more importantly, that you will be accountable if something goes wrong. But seriously, the world doesn’t have time for that, the fate of humanity is at stake and your personal moral purity puts that in jeopardy. Forming pious priesthoods whose mission it is to discipline and correct those unfortunate enough not to have the correct opinions does not suffice. The world needs your engagement in a practical and effective manner, not another person to merely call himself a good guy.
Idealism shouldn’t be a matter of moral purity, but of finding the ideal practical solutions to make reality of your ideals. If your political ideals don’t hold up to practical reality, the ideals have already disqualified themselves as worth striving towards.
You don’t need to change your core values, but evaluating your line of action and methods of application is a moral imperative if they don’t seem to be generating any meaningful results.
So maybe it’s not just the evil spirit of capitalism, racism or the patriarchy that is to blame. Maybe it’s you?
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.