Why Identify with Left-Wing Politics?

“A young person who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old person who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.” Is this true?

This old adage suggests that an attachment to the left is merely a romantic and naïve phase that should eventually pass as we mature and gain a more “realistic” understanding. Realism from this viewpoint involves the acceptance that There is No Alternative (TINA) to presently-existing capitalism and liberal democracy, that the most we can expect is some minor tinkering.

But this conservative viewpoint is unconvincing for two reasons. For one thing, several conceptions of socialism jostle for dominance, and some of them are possible even under prevailing circumstances. It is true that some socialists, including most Marxists, seek in effect “to make the impossible, possible’” They aim, in other words, to transform capitalism either by eliminating markets and private property altogether (participatory planning) or socializing the means of production while retaining markets (market socialism). Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is the most recent example of a leader who sought, in an experimental way, to make the impossible possible (and failed).

At the other end of the socialist spectrum lie those, such as the US socialist Michael Harrington, who strive to position themselves on “the left-wing of the possible.” These individuals and movements are often referred to as social democratic. Leaders of the latter tendency, out of either conviction or resignation, contend that a more progressive type of capitalism than neoliberalism is attainable, and worth fighting for. In the longer run, they may hope to lead movements that can transcend capitalism, but for the moment they accept that that goal is impossible. Bernie Sanders, for example, professes to be a democratic socialist, yet his aim is actually to make the US a lot more like the social-democratic Nordic countries, by minimizing the power of money in politics and forging a universal, comprehensive and generous welfare state. This notion of “political revolution” may well be a feasible alternative.

Why? In part because of the new openness of young people to leftist positions. In this post-Cold War age, socialism is no longer a bête noire for the young. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in November 2015 in the United States uncovered a generational divide: 69 percent of Americans in the 18-29 age group would have no qualms about supporting a candidate for president who was a socialist, whereas only 34 percent of those above the age of 65 would be so inclined. In 2009, a Rasmussen poll found that only 53 percent of Americans surveyed believed that capitalism is better than socialism. The times are changing.

The second reason to doubt the realism of TINA is that realism itself is ambiguous. Yes, the more transformational conceptions of socialism seem to be ruled out as imminent projects by existing conditions, including prevailing power structures both within nations and internationally. But we can also conceive of realism in terms of what may become possible in light of prevailing trends. We are moving into an era of extreme turbulence in which the growing insecurity and anger of populations throw existing political certainties into doubt. The most significant trends are the high and often growing levels of #inequality, both within nations and in the global population, the relentless and destabilizing onset of #climatechange, and increasingly anemic democracies. Will we see a resurgence of the left in these unsettled circumstances?

We see signs of the reinvigoration of the left. They include the “pink tide” that swept through Latin America in the early 2000s, the rise of the #Occupy movement – originally in New York (Wall Street) and then throughout the world – the emergence in Europe of more radical alternatives to the traditional (and ineffectual) socialist and social-democratic parties (Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain), a rejuvenated Labour Party in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn, and the remarkably successful campaign of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders in the US presidential primary elections. These may be harbingers of a new reality.

However, the growing turbulence is also reinvigorating the Far Right in the form of neo-fascist movements in Europe and elsewhere. We cannot assume that socio-economic trends will necessarily favour the left. Political agency – organization, strategy and leadership – will shape the outcome.

A critique of the conservative TINA perspective is one thing, but it doesn’t answer the central question: why are we on the left?

One evocative answer: “socialism is the name of our desire.” This phrase introduced a spirited defence of socialism by Lewis Coser and Irving Howe in 1954, at the nadir of the US left’s fortunes in the era of Senator Joe McCarthy. The phrase can be variously interpreted. It reminds us that socialism as an alternative has existed almost as long as capitalism. It has always stood as the “name of our desire” for people who reject the current system as unacceptable and envision a better, more just and inclusive, future.

Today, people turn to left alternatives out of disgust with what is seen as predatory capitalism. They reject tax cuts and austerity programs that favour the wealthy at the expense of the public services and transfers enjoyed by the vast majority. They abhor the growing wealth and income disparities, manifest especially in the inflated remuneration of financiers and corporate executives, the shipping offshore of well-paid jobs, and tax evasion on the part of the super-rich. They protest the energy corporations that pursue short-term profits at the expense of the environment and the climate. They note the dependency of politicians on the largesse of the corporate elite, and the consequent skewing of policy and dilution of democracy. In these and other ways, the free-market ideology is out of control.

But there is a positive reason as well to identify with the left: the alternative vision.

What is its essence? The left encompasses diverse groups in bitter contention. The animus between self-identified socialists and #socialdemocrats is so deep as to seem to preclude common values. Despite their differences, however, one transcendent value unites the left. It is often said that the #liberal espouses liberty and the left equality, but this is inaccurate. More precisely, the left advocate equal liberty – a society in which every citizen, and not just the elite, has an equal opportunity to experience freedom. This statement may strike you as bland. But, if you think about it, equal freedom is a revolutionary idea in inegalitarian societies in which class privilege is transmitted from one generation to the next. And, unlike #leftliberals (such as Barack Obama) who embrace the same vision, the left embraces the disruptive political tactics, such as mobilizing and organizing excluded or marginalized groups, to realize the Good Society.

In short, one is on the left because that is where the heart is, but it is also where the head is.

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