With the parties of the democratic left in Europe in free-fall, with the receding of the ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America and with the widespread rise of far-right populism, a shift in progressive strategy is past due.
But progressive strategy matters only if we regard this decline as a problem. Some contend that the time of the left has passed, that the issues in a globalized world of integrated markets, global warming, immigration flows and identity politics are too complex to be reduced to left-right distinctions. Yet the values associated with the left remain highly pertinent. Solidarity on a national and international basis is essential in sharing the burdens of stemming catastrophic climate change. The idea of equal freedom is the intellectual foundation for countering the libertarian impulse that justifies vast inequalities. Cooperation is the antidote to the atomization and destructiveness of a market system running out of control. Class analysis and political mobilization are needed to challenge the financialization of economies and the rise of plutocracy. The left surely remains relevant to a civilized resolution of the mess we’re in.
If the fate of the democratic left matters, what should be done? Clearly, no simple answer presents itself. But, as a start, we need to question the distinction between socialism and social democracy. We need to escape these well-worn grooves in our thinking.
Initially, social democrats were socialists who believed that socialism could be won through mobilizing majorities in liberal democracies. But in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, social-democratic parties jettisoned their socialist goals to allay suspicions and gain a wider constituency.
Social democracy bet on the possibility of a meaningful class compromise. On the one hand, the corporate and financial elites would surrender their direct control of government and would accept reasonable taxes, a welfare state and pro-labour legislation. On the other hand, the working class and allied groups would accept the existence of private property, wealth accumulation and regulated markets. The compromise, in the initial form of the Keynesian welfare state in the west and state capitalism in the global south, depended on the strategic size and organization of the working class, the threat of the communist alternative and national and international controls on capital markets. This accord underpinned the “golden age of capitalism” from 1947 to the early 1970s – an era that was, in truth, a golden age mainly for white males. Nevertheless, the inclusive growth of the Keynesian era can be seen as a major advance.
Socialism, in contrast, rests on the idea that a transformation of capitalism is needed, not the illusion of humane reform that the social democrats proffer. This transformation would require sustained class struggle, not compromises. The strength of socialism lay in its focus on overturning the power structures that perpetuate the inter-generational transmission of privilege. Its weakness lay in requiring its adherents to take a leap of faith that the sacrifices and dangers entailed in overturning power structures would eventually pay off in emancipation. A utopian tendency, the disappointments associated with actually-existing socialisms and the redirection of Chinese communism to state capitalism sent the socialist option into temporary eclipse. The promising democratic experiments in Euro-communism, in Italy for example, disappeared.
Where does that leave us today? The social-democratic option is failing as its party advocates lose support to liberals, conservatives and the far right. It is pretty obvious why this is happening: social-democratic parties offer no real alternatives to neoliberal policies. This became clear in the 1990s with the touting of the “Third Way” by Tony Blair’s New Labour, an approach adopted by many other leaders (whether they used the term or not). The Third Way involved the embrace of market deregulation and neoliberal globalization, with the aim of directing the revenues gained from economic growth to compensate the losers in market competition and buttress national competitiveness. It is a strategy that works, to the extent it does, only in times of rapid economic growth – that is, in times other than our own. In addition, a softness on immigration – though compatible with international solidarity – undermines popular support in countries with high rates of immigration.
But the problem is more general than any particular policy. The deeper problem is that you can’t achieve a worthwhile class compromise under current conditions. The working class has collapsed as a potent, organized force in the advanced capitalist countries. Union membership has vastly declined, and many of the manufacturing jobs have vanished. Workers, moreover, are abandoning social-democratic parties for anti-immigrant right-wing parties. In a few developing countries, the working class is larger, but it is fragmented politically and between the formal and informal sectors. The rise of identity politics has further weakened class identities. Capital’s fear of an organized working class has thus dissipated, especially with the fall of communism. Moreover, the liberalization of cross-border capital financial movements and labour markets has strengthened the hand of the corporate and financial elites, forging a veritable plutocracy. Class compromise can equal class capitulation in this situation.
What of socialism? For a long time since 1990, it had been mainly the subject of debates among intellectuals at universities. But things have changed in the past few years. The emergence of popular leftist movements in Greece and Spain, together with the rethinking underway in Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, are taking the left in a new direction. Then there is the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries, where the “democratic-socialist” option attracted the support of 71% of primary voters under the age of 30. Even 52% of supporters of Hilary Clinton expressed, in a September 2016 New York Times survey, a favourable opinion of socialism.
In fact, the Sanders’ campaign and its aftermath may constitute a template for a winning progressive strategy. What seems to be needed is a hybrid approach that is neither traditionally social-democratic nor traditionally socialist. On the one hand, the political movement does not seek or expect a compromise with the corporate and financial elite, but rather regards the latter as the enemy. On the other hand, the movement, though militant and confrontational, does not advocate a seizure of the means of production or the end of markets to achieve a preconceived notion of “socialism.” Instead, the strategy involves the following:
- Keep the notion of socialism vague, acknowledging that what people usually mean by socialism is a rejection of the unfair, inegalitarian status quo where a small elite calls the shots and reaps the benefits. The goal is thus to reverse this situation by empowering people and spreading prosperity.
- Employ a simple narrative that embraces the legitimating ideal of liberal society – equal opportunity or the American Dream – but then shows that the current neoliberal order negates that ideal. Retrieving that dream entails a variety of policy changes, including the obvious ones such as public health care for all, affordable education at all levels, subsidized child care, increased taxes on the wealthy, financial transactions tax and carbon levies, but also more radical ones such as support for worker-managed cooperatives and expansion of the social economy (about which more later).
- Extend the narrative to its obvious conclusion: the needed policy changes cannot be won without a “political revolution.” This revolution entails a variety of policy and institutional changes to end the political control informally exercised by the plutocracy. It would include campaign finance reform, the breaking up of big banks, the imposition of controls on cross-border capital movements, and much more.
- Recognize that the strategy can only work in the longer term (a decade or more), as dissatisfaction with the current order grows along with the costs and anxieties associated with climate change. An essential part of the strategy is the building of a political movement as an important complement to electoral politics – above all, a prod to keep the party true. This movement must depend on the energy and commitment of young people, who bear the brunt of neoliberalism’s failures. An example is the organizational work being carried out in the US by Sanders-affiliated organizations: Our Revolution, Working Families Party, People’s Action, National Nurses United, People for Bernie, and the older but now larger Young Democratic Socialists and Young Progressives Demanding Action.
This in-between approach may avoid the devastating dilemma of the left: that social-democratic reform ultimately alienates its supporters whereas socialist transformation provokes a devastating economic and political crisis. What is the practicable alternative?by