An exciting form of radical politics is challenging the status quo. Writer Anthony Barnett and others answer your questions about what our response should be.
This is our first experiment with trying to create an online forum to debate important ideas on Byline Supplement, and provide a setting for intense but civilised debate. There is no time limit to the discussion, and we will use your contributions here to carry on the debate with subsequent articles and forums.
Anthony's analysis of political trends of the last year is good, as well as political goals of the Definite Left. It's very important that there are attempts to redefine the concept of the left.
Anthony sticks to the traditional right-left division. However, the presented goals are not just "leftist" goals, but they can be supported by people without any political orientation (at least in Finland where I am from.)
In general, the choice today is no longer between the left and the right but whether we aim for an honest discussion culture and ethical attitudes, or not. And "yes" not a priviledge of the left only.
I'd like to underline a need of a philosophical debate. The left has traditionally relied on some ideologico-philosophical view of world. Nothing profoundly new will emerge from the left if the ideas of the past era will not be discussed in-depth.
Humanity is in danger of self-destruction. Nuclear weapons, climate change, loss of biodiversity etc. are all examples of the fact that humans are able to destroy the preconditions for human life on the planet. What is the reason for the self-destructiveness of the human species, that is the crucial question today and all other ideological speculations are subordinate to this problem. And in special for the left, that question is closely related to the rise and fall of socialism in terms human nature. Would that be a good starting point for a debate?
I very much enjoyed this piece… although I see things a little differently, I learned a lot. I love the closing phrase about the wisdom of the pavements; the statistic on the scale of the wealth transfer from poor to rich in the US is mind-blowing; and I particularly valued getting a proper understanding of AOC.
I think my main point of difference is that I see the new politics - which I would call Citizen Democracy - taking shape primarily outside the formal political system, and then challenging that system to evolve into it. It’s the Buckminster Fuller quote about changing things by creating new models, rather than fighting the existing system. This is how I see what has happened with Gov Zero in Taiwan, the Chilean constitutional campaign (whose failures, indeed, I would tend to blame on the left), the deliberative wave around the world and especially in its incarnations in the standing citizens assemblies now in place in Paris and Brussels. I think I see AOC in this light too - she’s an outsider acting from the inside.
I would also argue, as a result of seeing it more as an outside than inside phenomenon, that identifying this solely with the left is questionable - which makes me struggle with the language of “definite left” that pins it there so strongly. I’m not sure it’s necessarily accurate and I wonder if it might even risk being unhelpful to put it in this box - when as Anthony says it has as many enemies on the traditional left as on the right. I also see it as emerging both in the centre and on the right too, in different contexts around the world. The Taiwanese changemaker Audrey Tang describes herself as a “conservative anarchist” for example; parts of the liberal centre are driving it in France; even in the UK the Tory think tank Onward is probably the closest think tank to articulating it, although with serious flaws.
So I suppose in sum I am very much in agreement that there is something new and vital emerging - and I also agree that it can and must manifest on the left. But I don’t think it’s starting from there, and I don’t think it can or even tactically should be claimed as a phenomenon OF the left. As I see it, there is a Citizen shift across the whole of politics - and it will take hold more fully if political debate becomes a contest over how it is done, not the property of one party or tradition.
Let the debate continue!
As Anthony knows, Im a huge fan of his book Taking Control and the rational hope that underpinned the analysis. I see this article as an extension of that theme. Im nowhere near as close to the figures in the USA the articles cites. Here in the UK it feels more gloomy. Clive Lewis beats the same drum as AOC but where are the others? Labour could of course win, but then what? Beating the Tories is necessary but not sufficient. Where is the vision, narrative, programme, movement, alliances and agency for transformative change – not a big bang – it wont happen over night – but a strategic incrementalism that builds over time.
Im unsure about the term Definite Left. But all names feel odd and then a week later they are accepted. Maybe this will be. How much Biden or his successor maintain any radical intent and connections remains to be seen. The establishment forces in the Democrats mirror those in Labour – it is their desiccated way or no way. If it wasn’t for climate chaos, spiralling inequality, surveillance capitalism and renewed right populism, then their stubborn egotism wouldn’t matter. These old forces are well entrenched but brittle. The culture is against them.
Anthony is of course right to point to pluralism and alliance building – the socialist has much in common with the social liberal, the Green with the democrat. But we should celebrate our differences and align when and where necessary and possible.
Thanks for keeping us thinking Anthony and By-line Times for holding the debate.
I continue my previous post and try to explain the views of my NGO New History Association a bit more.
Anthony’s piece is a programmatic proposal. It is different from an article on politics of the day, it has different requirements. We think there should then be some philosophical overview to base it on, and related concepts. Some stand on the ideas of the past era.
In that sense, if you are looking for a new direction for the left, you should deal with the whole past era, and seek a new overall vision of the main issues, both philosophical and historical. As Aristotle and Hegel said, we must learn from our immediate predecessors. History does not begin with us.
We have great respect for the people who were metioned in the article. Bernie Sanders, Elisabeth Warren, AOC and the squad and Jamie Raskin - we knew and really appreciated them.
We think that the vast majority of Finns, for example, could support the positions of the Definite Left described in the article - at least, if the word "left" would not be mentioned in the name. That is, a great many people who vote for bourgeois parties too.
One could take Francis Fukuyama as an example from the American debate. He is a 'definite' supporter of democracy, democratic institutions and human rights, but he is certainly not a leftist.
Isn't the word 'left' in that case in fact divisive. Why does it have to be there? Why not invite people like Fukuyama into such a debate too?
I guess my question is that while the article speaks to an optimism via the promise of the definite left, I am feeling profoundly pessimistic! Six months ago, the US sent out a message that the human rights of women were disposable, and that is a message which we know from my own reporting is being picked up by anti-abortion campaigners and governments around the world, including in court cases in Nigeria and Kenya. Whether it was complacency or despair from the left (and the feminist movement) that allowed this to happen I am unsure, but this was a clear win for the far right (as my book outlines). It took 100 years to reintroduce abortion rights to the US, and 50 years to trash them. Can we be optimistic when the rights of women have been put on a dust heap by a far right and Christian Nationalist right emboldened by Trump? Where did the left fail on protecting women and girls? It feels a bit like when Corbyn lost in 2017 and said "the fight starts now". But starting now is starting too late. How does the Definite Left inspire hope and change so that we can win again?
I am sick and tired of being labelled "Woke " by others who really don't even understand the term and throw it around as an insult when anyone is arguing for a fairer more equal and peaceful society.
I am a loyal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn's politics and was devastated by what they did to him and us and to be honest I have almost given up on the hope that he gave me of a better future for all of us, Where do you see his place in the new socialist ideas for the future?
From Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar
Anthony is a colleague and friend to both of us. We have our disagreements – notably about English nationalism - and he recently took a pop or two at our dissection of national-populist ideology in Byline. But we’ve always hugely admired his intelligence, the depth of his research and the breadth and ambition of his vision. Read in conjunction with his latest book, Taking Control, The Year of the Definite Left makes a vital contribution to the debate as to how the left can win back the territory it has so spectacularly lost since 1989.
In summary, Anthony’s historical analysis is this: neoliberalism was not just an economic theory but a fatalist political ideology which persuaded people of its own inevitability (“there is no alternative”) and thus of the pointlessness of voting. By appropriating its essential tenets, Clinton and Blair abandoned their parties’ traditional working-class base, and so, after the near collapse of neoliberalism in 2008, that base turned elsewhere. As Anthony puts it, Trump “shattered the fatalism on which market supremacy rested as he made voting count”.
As he points out, the far-right’s ascendancy is due to a considerable and well-funded organisational effort over many years – this includes, in America, the Republican takeover of the electoral systems of the so-called flyover swing states which gave Trump the presidency in 2016. One particularly important organisational achievement we’d add to the list was the bringing together of evangelical with Catholic Christians as far back as the late 70s, around the issue of abortion, leading to the Right’s greatest contemporary policy victory.
We’ve argued that the Trump and Brexit victories were also brought about by a huge shift in the political fault-line throughout the democratic west, changing the traditional left alliance of economic intervention and social liberalism to the increasingly potent cocktail of economic intervention and social conservatism which gave us Trump and Brexit. As the progressive/working-class alliance brought about most of the great reforms of the 20th century, from the American New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement, from the British welfare state to the social reforms of the 60s, its break-up has proved a major – if not the major – blow to the left this century.
Anthony’s piece argues persuasively that the Sanders campaigns have inspired a new politics which reinvents that old alliance, and – furthermore – brings the activist energy of the new social movements (feminism, gay rights, anti-racism, the peace and environmental movements) into traditional electoral politics, something only partially and intermittently achieved in Britain. It’s a genuinely hopeful prospect, and, as Anthony argues, it’s borne fruit in the 2020 election and – more surprisingly – in the midterms. In both cases, Democratic activists were able to bring out new voters, and, this year, to win unexpected victories by mobilising young voters on issues that mattered to them, like abortion. As he points out, where the Democratic machine refused to do that, as in New York state, they did badly. This success shows that socially liberal campaigns are far from an electoral third rail. In 2022, the reverse.
Anthony warns against two internal opponents of the new politics: the hard-line old left, and Blair/Clintonism (it’s worth remembering that, on top of their embrace of neoliberalism, both Blair and Clinton moved substantially rightward on social issues – from welfare and civil rights to policing and militarism - during their terms of office).
We’d add two more threats to the new alliance which Anthony identifies. The partial loss of the red wall has tempted some on the left (or former left) to argue for Labour to regain its working-class base by abandoning its social liberalism (the Blue Labour argument, re-minted by much of the former-left commentariat associated with the Unherd website). To do so would be politically and ethically wrong, but would also threaten the gains that Labour has made, particularly in the 2017 election, among young voters in progressive middle class areas of the south.
There are also dangers lurking within the new progressive left. The experience-based politics which Anthony properly cites is not immune to sectarianism. The hard Right keeps receiving a helping hand from parts of the progressive spectrum, which prefer attacking its own side to focusing on the opposition. On women, we read academic feminists like Kalwant Bhopal ‘Let’s be clear, Feminism has only ever been concerned about fighting for the rights of white middle class women’ (Twitter 11 Feb 2021), while Rafia Zakaria expands the polemic into a whole book ‘Against White Feminism’. As Sonia Sodha argued in the Observer (26 September 2021) this stereotypes feminism and deepens divisions and fractures within the Left.
Similarly, there are some within the anti-racist movement who propose the narrowest kind of identity politics where solidarity is impossible because only direct, personal experience counts. Millions didn’t need to be black South Africans to fight apartheid. As Anthony points out in Taking Control, after the death of George Floyd, 95% of the counties where Black Lives Matter demonstrations were held were majority white. An identity politics where solidarity is denied makes broader alliances on social justice all but impossible
Rebuilding the progressive/working-class alliance relies on uniting against the main enemy, which is the authoritarian/nationalist right.
personally i have always loathed labels, they're divisive. so...
Generally people are decent, and will make decisions based on the emotional and factual information they are given. The facts, however, are irrelevant if the emotions don't align. currently 80% of media consumer is very hard right and will only present the facts that align with their hard right narrative.
Until we get a balanced media that can present facts and the emotional alignment with those facts in a way that people can understand and digest I hold no hope.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in power away from plutocrats back to the people, decent journalists & elected representatives.
in terms of a societal model, the only long term solution is a three part model that has sustainability at its core, while simultaneously balancing the needs of the individual and society.
Sian here, Chief European and Social Affairs reporter at Byline Times and author of forthcoming book on abortion rights - something Anthony touches on
I am also active in the Finnish NGO Newhistory (newhistory.fi) like Pia Länsman. I will try to shed some light on our view from a slightly different angle.
John Alexander's writing was interesting! The starting point is similar to mine: grassroots organizing is important, new, and there is no right-left divide.
Here is a link to an interview with a Ukrainian social scientist who uses the term heterarchy to describe the self-organization of Ukrainian civil society. He argues that after the war, Ukraine will develop a whole new set of institutions without hierarchy. It is indeed possible that new thinking will emerge in Ukraine!
However, I think that some kind of hierarchy is needed, because
(1) Human society cannot be organised without some kind of centralised leadership. However, human communities are also characterised by their individuals’ intellectual and moral independence. Human communities always tend to divide into freely operating subdivisions that are independent of the centre and can decide on their own matters.
This kind of organisation describes well, for example, hunter-gatherer tribes or peaceful pre-historical civilisations.
(2) Humanity is in danger of self-destruction. The fate of humankind is in the hands of governments and the political parties that lead them.
But different grassroot networks form a counterbalance to traditional political activity. They can create a sophisticated public opinion that forces political parties to change their views and make the right decisions.
(3) No grassroots organisation can create new social models without first creating new ideas. Participation in ideological debate, discussion and learning is essential.
Neither liberal nor various left-wing schools of thought have been able to explain the surprising events of the 20th century (e.g. the rise and fall of socialism, capitalism's capacity for renewal) or to summarise the revolutionary research findings of the last 50-70 years in prehistoric studies.
What is needed is an interdisciplinary study of the human path from the perspective of solving contemporary problems. Some form of central leadership is also needed to organise such a debate.
The following principles are essential to the debate:
(1) Discussion and research topics are ideological if they include opinions which, in some way or another, are dictated by interests – real or imaginary, conscious or unconscious, material or social-psychological – and if they reflect the debaters’ view of the world and values of life.
Ideological rationalism means that the ideological nature of certain themes is accepted. Debaters recognise that they can become blinded by prejudice or by their unconscious ambitions. In this way, the debaters are open to criticism.
In an ideologically rational debate, not only opinions but attitudes are also discussed.
(2) True knowledge of the world – serious truth-seeking – means unmasking prevailing lies and going against collective self-deception. When persons seek the truth, for the common good and in defence of human rights, they become consciously exposed to other people’s primitive reactions, slander, discrimination, and persecution.
The most important human right is the right to ”seek the truth”. Crediting people for their love of truth is the best way to protect and improve everybody’s human rights. It is also a necessary step in stopping hate speech and malevolent information influence.
That is why one must get paid, also and eventually above all, for a sense of justice, solidarity, and truthfulness.
Hopefully these considerations would be of some use in thinking about the state of the left, because any attempt at renewal, both in terms of organisation and thinking, is extremely important.
I feel we need to move away from left/right and particularly away from professional politicians, parties and top down this is what’s good for you plebs. Let’s talk about principles such as fairness, equity, integrity, honesty and democracy as rule by the people.
Benjamin Tallis coined the idea of Neo-idealism based on principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law. Is there an intersect with progressive (left)* politics? Or are they both dealing with essentially the same?
*Can centre right or just the right also be 'progressive'
Ditch the term 'progressive' for a start. It's a lame re-branding and an insult to anyone on the right with half a brain. It's a smug and self satisfied term used by socialism to pat itself on the back whilst losing election after election. We don't need another 'Labour that is palatable to the Tories' left wing. Corbyn's message in 2017 was a damn near election winner, and would've cruised it in my opinion if Labour enjoyed the slavish praise and backing of the global media and corporate interests of greed based free market capitalism. But they don't, and never will, and you can't vote for that level of influence, only kow tow to it. You have to state boldly your intent to take on the machine and those who fuel it and reap its rewards. If you enter No.10 by doffing your cap to Murdoch you've already lost...and so have we...again. Corbyn and Sanders were right, and it's a mistake to abandon the message. People are tired of horseshit and are going to snap. Is Sunak isn't going to tax his wife. And he's the PM. This country is gripped by institutional corruption from the top down, and it can't be 'influenced from within' Ordinary working people are being absolutely rinsed, they're being laughed at and insulted by the state that's supposed to serve them. Supposedly standing up for them against the machine whilst calling yourselves 'progressives' ?? It's as insulting as Sunak at the soup kitchen. Think again
I already have a Byline digital account I am a bit confused by the idea that I also have to pay for a supplement?
My support to the Definite Left