A New Vision for the Left I: Legacy

Tolstoy observed that there are only two essential questions: how shall we live, and what should be done? A vision effectively answers these two questions.

But the left’s vision is no longer as compelling as it once was. The failures of socialist and social-democratic movements in the 20th century and new challenges in the 21st century demand a rethinking. The absence of a compelling and viable worldview has allowed far-right, populist movements to step into the breach and make headway everywhere.

This post retrieves what is valuable from the history of the global left. A subsequent one considers current challenges.

Context: Predatory Capitalism

The left has always defined itself as the counterpoint to predatory capitalism. Neoliberalism, the latter’s current manifestation, makes a simple promise. The market, if allowed unimpeded sway, will allocate resources and rewards more efficiently  and equitably than any conceivable alternative. However, the optimism and certainty of the 1970s and 1980s have given way to disillusionment and despair.

Why? In a nutshell because supposedly free markets have loosed destructive forces through the commodification of everything.

  • The deeper commodification of nature has augmented ecological collapse and catastrophic climate change.
  • Further commodification of  people through “flexible” labour markets has instigated widespread economic insecurity as livelihoods become precarious, wages stagnate and personal debt grows.
  • The commodification of money through capital-account liberalization and deregulation of banking has led to “financialization” of the economy. The financial elite extract rents from the rest of us by engaging in speculative investments and lending money as debt explodes. They also avoid or evade taxes through tax havens, the manipulation of tax loopholes, and tax cuts.

A world rife with speculation and free markets is one constantly threatening to veer out of control.

The world economic crisis of 2008 might have put an end to this destructive system. But it has survived. The power of its beneficiaries, the potency of its message mixing free markets with freedom, and the lack of a credible left alternative have proved decisive so far. It is the far right that has seized the initiative by framing the sense of anger and loss in simplistic conspiratorial terms.

Goal: Human Freedom

A recurrent progressive theme is that the left, rather than the liberals, is better-placed to realize its vaunted goal of freedom. But the freedom we espouse is equal freedom. In a nutshell, every citizen, and not just the elite, should have the opportunity to experience freedom. Freedom is just a fancy word for describing a society in which all people share a realistic prospect of leading lengthy and meaningful lives of their own choosing. That is not what we have now. Human freedom cannot flourish in a milieu in which labour, nature and money are deeply commodified.

For all citizens genuinely to have an equal opportunity, they must develop a range of capabilities, gain access to an essential set of resources, and protect themselves against domination. The free market, far from guaranteeing equitable provision, in fact bolsters inequality and  inherited privilege. Hence, the state needs to intervene to provide universal access to high-quality services, redistribute income and perhaps assets,  democratize markets (at a minimum), and build institutional defences against domination. Deep democracy,  eventually extending  into the realm of production, is the only defence against oligarchy and domination.

Future: Promoting Freedom

This vision is not the exclusive property of the left. It belongs also to those, distinct from the liberal fundamentalists, who are described as social liberals, left liberals or, in the US, simply (and confusingly) liberals – people like Barack Obama. But social liberals, no matter how admirable,  are highly constrained in what they can achieve – by essential elements of their liberal creed.

The left position is more attuned to attaining equal freedom. Although the reasons are complex, two antinomies go a long way to explaining the greater potential of the left. First, whereas liberals believe in the primacy of markets, the left champions the primacy of politics. Yes, social liberals are willing to use the state to counter the failures of the market. Yet the essential belief is that the freer the markets the better because exchange is itself an exercise of freedom. In contrast, the left is skeptical of markets because they see them as the incubator of possessive individualism and commodification. Progressives have a purely instrumental view of markets. They may be unavoidable in complex economies; however, they are inherently destructive. For this reason, politics must be in command.

But the primacy of politics does not imply supremacy of the state. Of the three steering mechanisms in society – state, market, and civil society/community – politics lies in the realm of civil society as well as the state. And the left cannot succeed unless the primacy of politics materializes as the primacy of civil society/community. Social-movement politics is key to pushing forward the programme and stemming oligarchy.

The other, related antinomy pits the liberal’s focus on individualism against the left’s concern for solidarity. Liberals value individual liberties and making markets – including political markets – work better for self-interested individuals. But equal freedom demands more than this.  It is not just a matter of reforming markets to provide more opportunity. it is centrally a matter of challenging power structures that perpetuate inequalities. The rich employ their wealth to gain political influence, and their political influence to gain further wealth, To combat this process requires collective organization and political action, not simply voting in elections. Solidarity aids such a politics and provides a basis for cooperative alternatives to an individualist-competitive liberal economy.

For now, it is worth reflecting on how reasonable and even mainstream it is to insist on equal freedom. And how reasonable it is to count on solidarity, collective political action and cooperative approaches. They are  the only ones that are equal to the revolutionary goals – liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I am interested in what you think. Do comment below.



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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).