A New Vision for the Left II: Challenges

When I showed When the People Awake to an undergraduate class in the mid-70s, the militant documentary received a strongly favourable response. It had been made in 1972 by left-wing Chilean film-makers who supported the democratic-socialist administration of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular. When I screened the same stirring documentary in the same course 25 years later, the students responded negatively. In fact, they voted with their feet, most of them withdrawing from the classroom under the cover of dark. What had changed in the interim?

Everything! And if the left’s vision does not adapt to the new realities, the game is lost.

What Went Wrong

Left behind, by the 1990s, were the romantic images of rebellion, a view of the world neatly captured by Albert Camus’ phrase “I rebel, therefore we exist.” Allende’s promising experiment ended in repression and death. The Algerian revolution became a nightmare. The Cuban revolution, once viewed so favourably by the young and the dissenters, faded in allure with its Sovietization. The martyred Ché Guevara became an icon of rebellion divorced from his context. The attractive Sandinista government in Nicaragua quickly bogged down  in conflict with the US-supported Contras. The anti-war movement in the United States, which had been a major source of radicalization for America’s youth, subsided with the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

Nearly all the Communist and state-socialist governments in East and Central Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Communism had congealed into a new class and authoritarianism – bureaucratic collectivism. Civil wars, corruption and repression became the hallmarks of state socialism in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea (Bissau). The ANC, through its armed opposition to Apartheid, triumphed by the early 1990s. But it then faltered in charting a path out of neoliberalism. Socialism in the common mind was associated with oppression and corruption.

Social democracy in its western redoubts also fell into crisis in the 1970s. Stagflation, the combination of high inflation with stagnant economies and high unemployment, provided an opportunity to the right.  But the problem with social democracy was not only its economic policies. Social democracy had won remarkable victories – promoting equality through progressive taxation, regulation of national economies and increasingly comprehensive, generous and universalistic welfare states. However, it had become too top-down, too paternalistic, too much oriented to giving benefits to grateful constituencies. Something had to give – and did.

The Conservative Rebirth

Conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet developed a powerful vision that underpinned a purportedly free-market economy and globalization.

A compelling and apparently viable vision is crucial for two reasons. First, it establishes guidelines for strategy – basically, the proper relationship among state-society-economy – and even tactics – particular policies and political actions to attain the right strategic balance. These guidelines, however, are not set in stone; they evolve. And they are phrased in highly abstract terms. So there is plenty of room for dissent within the ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘fascism’, etc. Secondly, an effective vision provides a simple, comprehensible story-line that captures the imagination and support of wide constituencies by appealing to their core values.  The contest between worldviews is primarily political, aiming to win hearts and minds and establish hegemony.

The conservative story-line is brilliant in its simplicity and normative appeal. it links individual freedom to limited government, free markets, and the right to accumulate and enjoy unlimited property. The US version since Reagan appeals to individualist, frontier values, it is congruent with the American Dream in which hardy entrepreneurs enjoy unprecedented wealth and status through hard work and initiative. Other ingredients have been added with particular appeal to segments of the population. These ingredients are captured in the reactionary song by country singer Hank Williams: “God and Guns.”

Conservatives in other countries have adapted the same basic narrative to particular cultural themes in their own milieu. However, the American Dream is now a universal dream.

This vision possesses special power because it connects with the interests of the corporate elite and wealthy. Deregulation, globalization, tax cuts, and the political influence stemming from unrestricted use of money in politics (individual liberty!) has concentrated economic and political power in a few hands. Consequently, the neoliberal order rests not only on a compelling vision, but on its propagation through the privately owned mass media, foundations and think-tanks, as well as the power of money.

Challenges to the Left

Today, the growth of vast inequality, high debt loads, limited job opportunities, rampant commodification  and the volatility of market forces since the economic meltdown of 2008 have undercut the right’s simplistic vision, in the US and elsewhere.

So this is the situation the democratic left faces. A growing view that the conservative emperor has no clothes. The reality  that the legacy of the left, as analyzed in my last post, also contains a compelling core. That core is the focus on equal freedom and a commitment to the collective political action and cooperative means equal to attaining this radical agenda. But the political struggle is fraught with tensions: the mass media are hostile, think-tanks and universities are aligned with power, the electorate is fragmented – there are many obstacles.

And there is much more. We need a vision that addresses the major challenges of the 21st century, challenges that the conservatives simply  ignore, assume are benign,  or treat as trends to be eliminated. The top three are catastrophic climate change, globalization and multi-cultural societies tied to immigrant flows. Later posts will address these issues in turn.

Although we will not return to the romantic leftist notions of the 1960s and 1970s, we must find ways to touch hearts as well as minds.


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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).

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