By Abe Collier
There was once great hope in the political left. In 1917, it celebrated the rise of communism in Russia as the liberation of peasants and working classes from oppressive masters. It rejoiced in the victory of progressive Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in the United States in 1932 and the implementation of the New Deal. In India, throughout its long pre-1947 liberation process, it revelled in the patience and tolerance of Gandhi and his party.
Somehow, the twentieth century killed that excitement. Perhaps it was the oppressive reality of the Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, which caused far more misery and death than the regimes they had replaced. Perhaps it was the technocratic, neoliberal turn in progressive Anglo-Saxon politics, which brought leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to power and weakened the progressive wings of their respective parties. The left was losing the intellectual battle. Progressive policy was disregarded as utopian and fiscally irresponsible. Cultural ideals, after a resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, were shunted to the back bench – “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Then came its worst nightmare. As the left weakened its policy vision and got into bed with business and conservative politicians, the people began to abandon it. And with good reason: the left increasingly looked like the tree-hugging, nerdy best friend of the right. The two had the same economic policies – austerity in Europe, free trade and debt in the United States, privatization and commodity exports in developing countries.
The left may have offered platitudes about environmental sustainability, minority oppression, and women’s rights, but when the rubber met the road, supposedly progressive governments signed NAFTA and oppressive financial bail-out agreements. In Germany, social democrats and conservatives became so indistinguishable that they have governed in coalition for decades. In the United States, the two Democratic administrations after Ronald Reagan submitted to the demands of corporations and banks with shocking regularity. Human rights were trampled by these indistinguishable leftists and rightists in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the left has been unpardonably quiet as human suffering grows in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Ukraine, China, and elsewhere.
When the left abandoned its voters, they first became apathetic. Politics suffered; unelected technocrats in national and international organizations and corporations thrived. Then, as incomes stagnated and wealth concentrated in the hands of the global rich, people began to search for responses. Paralyzed by years of unimaginative policymaking, the left offered nothing. The far-right stepped up: nationalist xenophobia became once again a major force in politics. Refugees in Europe, Latin American migrants in the United States, Muslims in India – “external threats” serve as the justification for new parties or candidates to peddle security-centric, anti-foreigner, hateful politics. They have taken power in many countries and threaten to do so in others.
But all of this failure has lighted a flame on the left. Who can forget the Arab Spring of 2011? The Athens Spring of 2015? They rose, shone, and died. But they have sparked a new generation of movements. The election of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, after decades of progressive idealism. The extraordinary 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States. And for Europe? A groundswell may be starting. The fragmenting European Union must undergo a revival, turning from a neoliberal fortress into the wellspring of European plurality. Movements such as DiEM25, founded by economist Yanis Varoufakis and philosopher Srecko Horvat, are trying to do just that in this year’s European Parliament elections, calling for a Green New Deal for Europe and a more democratic and transparent Union.
It may be that hope has finally returned to the political left. Bolstered by the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of nationalist xenophobia on the right, and the failure of mainstream economic and social policies, an energy runs through progressive movements which has been absent for many generations. Only time can tell if it will translate into long-term electoral success and into prosperity for the world’s democracies.
Abe Collier is a graduate student at PSIA, Sciences Po. He studied philosophy as an undergraduate and worked for several years in management consulting before disenchantment with the corporate world sent him back to university.
Featured Image: Bernie Sanders rally at Penn State prior to the Pennsylvania primary election, 4/19/16. [Paul Weaver/Flickr]