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The Year of the Definite Left: How Progressives Can Defeat the Right in 2023
Anthony Barnett reveals how new movements on the Left are challenging the political status quo
A year ago, at the start of 2022, the feeling across the political centre and left everywhere was of trepidation, if not outright gloom.
Trump was still rampant and the mid-terms were a cause for dread. President Jair Bolsonaro’s massive support in Brazil could lead to his re-election and the destruction of the Amazon, with irreversible consequences for the planet. Xi Jinping was heading for an unending presidency in China, surfing the success of his zero-covid authoritarianism, as the Uyghurs and Hong Kong were crushed; and Brexit Britain was transfixed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson despite his blatant lies and corruptions. In addition, the Russians were mobilising on the borders of Ukraine, for a possible invasion which, however shocking, it was assumed would sweep aside the government in Kyiv.
Instead, the mid-terms were exceptionally positive for the Democrats, Lula won in Brazil, Xi has been forced to compromise by demonstrators who had learnt from both Russia’s blank paper protests and the call of Hong Kong’s Umbrella resistance to ‘be like water’ and Johnson is gone even if his influence remains. Meanwhile, Putin has been humiliated by Ukrainian defiance and now fights to preserve his ‘credibility’ in a cruel but hopeless cause. Equally astounding, the younger generation across Iran has replaced Lenin’s slogan of ‘Bread, Land and Peace’ with what was originally a Kurdish call for ‘Woman, Life and Freedom’.
There is only a sense of relief, however. Gloom has not been replaced by optimism amongst most progressives. Rightly so, in that the Left, as we have known it, is just as far from being a winner as the centre is from restoring the status quo before the financial crash.
Yet a profound change is underway that has energy and potential.
Thanks to that change, the present situation has a knife-edge quality. In different countries and in different ways. While the advance of the right and far-right has not been pushed back, it has been blocked. Above all in the United States.
I want to look at what is happening there as a template for a worldwide set of developments.
Neither the popularity of Biden, who has record-low approval ratings, nor the appeal of socialism, frustrated the Republicans in the mid-terms. What was it then? Of the better-known commentators, only Michael Moore, an outsider based in Michigan, was confident of a positive outcome for the Democrats. He is a filmmaker. Movie critics too often see what is ‘hidden in plain sight’ from most of us. In making his annual list of best films, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, observed that for years outstanding directors had confronted “the resurgence of openly anti-democratic forces and brazenly hate-driven ideologies, the crisis of illegitimate rule, the menace of authoritarianism, the potential end of even our current debilitated American democracy”. But only now, in 2022, has there been a “shift in the cinematic paradigm”. One that means “there’s something new and extraordinary in the air”.
Not just in the air. There is something new and extraordinary on the Left.
Since the rise of Trumpism and its makeover of the entire Republican Party, the hard right’s potential has been undeniable. It has strategic coherence, deep funding, well-organised populism, evangelical endorsement, the lure of false ideas about racial or religious supremacy, institutional rigging, and media support (above all Rupert Murdoch’s).
Its influence has been assisted by the financial crash and collapse of legitimacy suffered by the financial elite, the feebleness of the liberal centre, the crushing of trade unions, the marginalisation of socialism, and the effectiveness of decades of neoliberalism, which demobilised the less well-off especially into believing that voting can’t change things.
Finally, and this remains crucial to its influence, Trump shattered the fatalism on which market supremacy rested as he made voting count. And he did so by offering a story of a return to greatness via self-interested, anti-elitist nationalism.
Given all this, Trumpism should be triumphant. How come, then, that the opposition can equal its influence even within the rigged system of the USA? If politics there —but not only there — is on a knife edge, what explains the equal but opposite strengths of the resistance to the rampant Right, capable of holding it to a stand-off?
The answer is that a new kind of progressive force has evolved to become a real politics, now expressed by politicians engaged in actual local and national arenas going head-to-head against right-wing and centrist candidates and representatives.
This politics has three defining aspects.
First, it seeks to empower voters to take charge of their lives in so far as they can. Like authoritarian populism, it disdains deference towards the political, religious, and financial elites of the post-1945 period. It is genuinely democratic and engages with new forms of deliberative representation and constitutional change.
Second, it seeks to take control of capitalism, above all to save the planet from environmental and ecological catastrophe; to reverse the inequality of wealth and terminate corruption, especially the corruption of politics, and to assert human values that are not determined by the market. Thanks to this, it is distinguished by an interconnected sense of society-as-a-whole.
Third, it stands for a culture of experience as well as empowerment. Politics is always about how people feel. From liberal patriotism to xenophobic nationalism, it addresses, and in its authoritarian versions conscripts, people’s emotions about who they are. The new politics is passionately inclusive, it has learnt from feminism the need to stand against identity-based discriminations, and particularly racial discrimination and is positively tolerant of the right to express one’s own identity, seeing shared personal transformation as part of real change.
As it needs a name, I’ll draw on three of its most important features: it is genuinely democratic, it draws on feminism, not as a woman’s movement but as a cross-gender, anti-macho, form of politics, and it exists. So, for now at least, let’s label it definite — ‘the definite Left’.
Because it is only a newborn, the definite Left is protoplasmic in its energies and vulnerability. It may not survive. I want to register and welcome the advent of its existence. To do so I’ll start with who some of its politicians are, then sketch the deeper forces of our time that created the conditions for their existence and suggest how this led to it having representatives within the portals of power. After that, I’ll discuss the opponents of the definite Left who resist its growing role.
One reason I’ve chosen the term definite Left, at least as a holding label, is that what it describes seems so indefinite in terms of traditional ideological framing. There is no orthodoxy, it includes figures that clash and compete.
Its distinction has also been camouflaged by the self-description of the politician most responsible for its emergence as an influential force in the US, with his campaigns for the presidency, Bernie Sanders. President Biden — a centrist who saw sense and allied with Sanders after he won the nomination in 2020 — explicitly thanked “Bernie” for ensuring that people voted for him.
Sanders is a “socialist”. In reality, it does not mean he is against capitalism, saying, “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” He calls himself a “democratic socialist” and explains that this means he wants a return to the New Deal politics of President Franklin D Roosevelt, famous for saying that he welcomed the enmity of bankers.
In the aftermath of the financial crash, when Wall Street was bailed out while over ten million families had their homes foreclosed, Sanders’s shout for fairness inspired a generation revolted by the prospect of a continuation of corrupt, corporate politics. He brought much of North America’s huge environmental movement and the Black Lives Matter networks behind his campaign, helping to link a growing ‘intersectional’ consciousness to challenge the rigged nature of US politics itself.
Much of the mainstream coverage of the US Left caricatures it as a wacky, self-indulgent extremism that has no rightful place in ‘practical’ affairs. In reality, the emergence of a definite Left is rooted in lived experience and the credibility of its policies.
In the summer of 2022, Byline Times profiled three politicians from the US House of Representatives, all of whom I’d now describe as part of the definite Left, in articles by Katrina vanden Heuvel, Larry Cohen and Robert Borosage. They are Jamie Raskin, who led the second impeachment of Donald Trump; Ro Khanna, who was a co-chair of Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign; and Pramila Jayapal, chair of the hundred-strong Congressional Progressive Caucus. All were elected to Congress in 2016.
In traditional terms, they are not alike. Khanna calls himself a “progressive capitalist” and appeals to the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum; Raskin describes himself as being at “the moral centre”; Jayapal wants “another word for inside and outside politics”.
Another example is Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who didn’t back Sanders. Immediately after the success of the midterms, she published a scathing attack on ‘lobby-friendly’ Democrats in the New York Times who block change that voters want.
“Americans understand that the economic well-being of families is inextricably linked to democracy and to individual rights, even if too many cable news gurus do not. A majority of Americans know that abortion is a kitchen-table issue that is central to both health and economic security, not a distraction. Americans understand that prices are rising in part because of corporate greed, and want a government on their side. Tuesday’s results confirmed those views.”
This paragraph expresses a defining aspect of the definite Left: a commitment to the “inextricable” double helix that joins democratic deepening with social and economic improvement.
A woman’s right to choose is emblematic. It is not a traditional ‘welfare’ issue that demands the state ‘looks after’ those in need. Nor is it a libertarian market call that every woman has the right to buy an abortion if she so desires. It recognises the need to provide the means for women to choose whether to start or expand a family. It is a social call for individual empowerment and individual responsibility for all, poor as well as wealthy.
While Warren, who is 73 and was elected to the Senate in 2013, is careful to avoid labels, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 33, and elected to the House in 2018, is a Saunders socialist and a maestro of social media with over 13 million (pre-Musk) Twitter followers. Before they were elected one was a law professor the other a barista. Together they demonstrate the quality and ability of the definite Left; while those who are winning office in city and state governments across the US are at least as important as those in Washington, as only they will ensure the endurance of this “new and extraordinary” development.
Since the end of the 1970s, the incoming tide of neoliberalism has crushed the traditional, social democratic Left and ensured the apparently complete triumph of market values. But below the surface, and in part generated by the astounding improvements in the standard of living that accompanied global growth, counter currents resisted marketisation.
The most important are feminism, with all it has done for equality generally, undermining misogyny and hierarchy, and environmentalism, with its imperative message of the need to control consumption and think holistically. Anti-racism and human rights, with their separate but reinforcing calls for empowerment and fairness, are critical parts of the same process.
We can see this as a desire for the humanisation of society to replace the inhumanity of market imperatives. I have attempted to analyse the process in my book, Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic. An important part of the argument is that the growing refusal to bow down to market priorities has been empowered by unprecedented economic growth. Including the way it has transformed how we relate to our bodies, both in terms of fitness and what we expect from health services.
Another way of seeing the change is in terms of class. Within the US, unionised workforces have been undone by deindustrialisation. Now a Rand Corporation working paper has estimated that while from 1945 to 1975 US incomes grew relatively evenly, the period since has seen a staggering $47 trillion transferred from the bottom 90% of the US population to the top 1%. Pro-corporate Democrats were in power for much of this period. Definite Leftists want to reverse the steal. Not from a class or sectional perspective but in the name of shared humanity and equity. Their key demands are based on fairness and access to the economy in ways that empower and enhance people: that there should be jobs for all with at least a living wage, and, perhaps even more valuable, the rights to health services, to higher education and childcare, for all.
The creation of the internet and digital communication has intensified the two-faced impact of modern capitalism, created corporate behemoths of surveillance and control, while enabling previously undreamt-of self-organisation and collective action.
From planetary slogans like ‘#MeToo’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’, to this year’s ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, all supercharged as memes on social media, resistance to financial globalisation insists on our capacity to take responsibility for our lives.
Since the rise of the great NGOs after the 1970s, there have been many previous expressions of a politics that is pragmatic about system change, challenges capitalism where it blocks sustainability, human rights and dignity, but does not start from a call to overthrow capitalism.
Some of the policies that emerged have been absorbed by the traditional political parties; defanged of their pluralist and insurgent radicalism. Green parties have sought to systematise an approach that was neither traditional left nor right for decades but, with the important exception of Germany, have been marginalised.
In the US, only since 2016 has a range of able and influential politicians with these views been elected in significant numbers, and since 2020 participated in legislating as part of a majority in government. It is this – participation in the processes of successful policy making and delivery – that distinguishes the definite Left from its predecessors.
What the 2022 election also shows is that the definite Left, while rooted in its own long campaigning experience, is a fresh and credible contributor to an election-winning and democratically legitimate claim on power.
Challenges for a definite Left: 1) Traditional Socialists
In order to write about a society’s culture as a whole, the late Raymond Williams, who described himself as a Welsh-European, argued that we need to distinguish four aspects: the emergent, the dominant, the residual and the archaic. The archaic is simply lifeless forms of expression that belong to a previous age. But the other three, he emphasised, all actively shape society. Residual allegiances can remain as a creative influence on society alongside those that are newly emerging, while dominant interests make the greatest impression.
It is an illuminating framework for understanding any society, especially one that is changing. Around the world, the once-dominant institutions have lost their influence, often thanks to attacks from the Right. But their protection was at the heart of conservatism. Radicalism, in the sense of the call for change, has become unavoidable. Those who want fairer, more egalitarian, and inclusive change are on the Left.
There is also an older Left tradition, rooted in the disciplined organisation of the old socialist and social democratic Left. It still has an active if residual presence. The pressure this generates can be witnessed in a two-part interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the midterm results in The Intercept. Its headline, “If Someone Makes a Mistake, It’s Not the Same Thing as Someone Selling Out”’.
AOC makes two striking remarks with her trademark clarity. She praises President Biden for his immediate claim that the midterms were a success thanks to young people and women — she embraces his de facto alliance with the definite Left. Second, she describes how the old-style Democratic Party machine in New York State refused any such alliance and failed to reach out to her and those like her. This demobilised young voters right across New York state which led to the Republicans flipping three House seats, a huge consequence given their slender majority.
The main thrust of the interview, however, as you can tell from the headline, questions AOC’s own radical credentials. Was she selling out by failing to support a local strike action sufficiently swiftly? Her answer nailed the problem: “The thing is, it’s really about intra-left relationship, right?”
This is in part a reference to the concerns of the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America which she is affiliated to. Within its alliance are those whose conceit is to distinguish themselves as “democratic socialists” as opposed to “progressive liberals”. In effect, their claim is that only real socialists who represent workers are real democrats. Progressives are useful allies against the right. But as mere liberals they remain the class enemy.
AOC herself seeks to straddle both sides of this tension. Her campaign website leads with a powerful call for the Green New Deal. Well below the top scroll, and without supporting images, is the heading ‘What is Democratic Socialism?’ Her answer: “In a moral and wealthy America, no person should ever be too poor to live. Democratic Socialism is about workers having a decent amount of the wealth they are creating. It’s not about government takeover – it’s about how much say workers have in the operations of the businesses they sustain. It’s about dignity”.
This is a call for humanisation rather than class war and is one that Warren, Khanna, Jayapal and Raskin, would hardly object to. They are progressives, to be sure — they are also democrats. Those who have not proclaimed an allegiance to socialism can be fully on the side of popular agency.
A sign of how the Marxist tradition associated with the Russian revolution of 1917 has become residual is an essay published in Jacobin in February 2022 by its founder Bhaskar Sunkara. In 2014, he said that he would die happy “if there’s an opposition current in the US of 5 to 7 per cent that identifies as socialist”. Now, the Progressive Caucus in Congress is a hundred strong and includes ‘The Squad’ with AOC, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, all elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, and joined in 2020 by Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York, while the Green New Deal is serious policy with massive support. Few could have imagined this eight years ago. Yet Sunkara, who is exceptionally lucid, summons up Dante’s poem to observe that socialism is “stuck” in the phantom zone of indefinite “purgatory”.
One outcome is a resentful, self-righteous hard Left, with a policing mentality, poised to accuse those in the definite Left who are closest to it, like AOC, of betrayal. It is a claim that goes back to the pre-1989 period of the Cold War and a view that Washington is in all circumstances the more deadly enemy. Hopefully, the need to support Ukraine to the hilt will, after its victory and the fall of Putin, ensure this attitude moves from the residual to the completely archaic.
Challenges for a definite Left: 2) Corporate centrists
The definite Left’s most influential opponents are the old centre which longs for a return of paternalistic rule in the name of realism and moderation. They are still dominant but can feel the pressure of the emerging definite Left.
Their first line of counter-attack is to caricature all those on the Left as wanting to ‘defund the police’ and being ‘woke’. There is a remarkable failure to counter the arguments about the popularity of childcare, the right to higher education, justified hostility to corporate power, the imperative need to end gerrymandering and drive out dark money from politics.
Another is a reluctance to recognise the definite Left’s existence. For example, a well-established columnist in the New York Times, Ross Douthat, sees the midterms as the return of the deep normal. The same paper’s veteran, David Brooks, also identifies politics as defaulting back to its old complacencies, and claims that the midterms mean “Boring wins” and describes Biden as rejecting the “performative style of the populist moment while harnessing some progressive ideas”.
What Biden harnessed, if only partially, is not “progressive ideas” let alone ‘woke’ ones, but the definite Left’s call to do politics differently — to end corruption, empower voters and create a fairer economy.
At the heart of the once-dominant politics of the era of marketisation was a reliance on the depoliticisation of voters. While individual consumerism was stimulated, collective action was marginalised. But now the far-right has mobilised its supporters to become politically active. Without an equivalent appeal, the centrists are done for. As they share a common enemy in authoritarianism, they have to appeal to the definite Left to get out the vote. This was the point AOC makes against the old-state Democratic machine in New York State. It is what Biden recognised when he thanked “Bernie”. Voter turnout in 2020 was an indication of what is needed. Trump got five million more votes than any previous presidential candidate. But Biden got a further seven million more than Trump. Even then, thanks to the anti-democratic character of the Electoral College, Biden only just squeaked in.
Any alliance of the liberal centre with the definite Left has to be more than “harnessing some progressive ideas”. It either embraces definite Left policies that ensure the voter turnout or Trumpism will prevail. The arrival of candidates like the newly elected Senator for Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, shows that the centre may be capable of such a transformation.
In a recent survey of voters’ disenchantment with electoral politics across Europe, but focussed on Italy, openDemocracy’s special correspondent Adam Ramsay shows how the far right feeds off the disenchantment generated by pro-market politics. If there is one distinguishing feature of the definite Left that distinguishes it from the complacencies of centrists, it is that it seeks to make politics tangible as a way to deliver positive change and bring democracy to life. Boring loses.
Challenges for a definite Left: 3) Sovereignty & Globalism
The first two challenges to an emerging Definite Left are familiar. To simplify: one is more ideological. Its source is a variety of socialist perspectives that regard themselves as ‘guardians of the totality’ and the source of true democracy thanks to their class perspective. The other are centrist interests vested in the institutions and corporations, including media corporations, that regard themselves as the law-abiding ‘guardian of the sensible’. As outsiders and insiders they share a common wariness of popular agency.
A third challenge is novel and far-reaching: the ongoing transformations in the nature of power wrought by modern production, consumption and finance and their global reach that are altering the nature of sovereignty.
One aspect of this is the way the regulation of goods and services we consume, including food, medicines, chemicals, air-travel, the internet and finance, needs to be international and often concerns the toxic consequences and environmental impacts of production as much as content. Regulation is becoming a fourth arm of government alongside the legislature, executive and judiciary and needs to be made democratically accountable to be popularly acceptable.
At the same time, egalitarian and sustainable economic policies necessitate home shoring if not protectionism and therefore the need for a new kind of progressive nationalism in what continues to be a global era. In Europe there is a still little recognition of how the US has deployed resources in an effort to govern the market. While a June 2022 gathering of progressive economists in the UK, for example, described itself as a ‘festival of the future’, the Roosevelt Institute’s Progressive Industrial Policy gathering in Washington four months later was a far-reaching assessment of the present. The Institute’s Todd Tucker observed how under Biden new policies has broken from a neoliberal approach. “while championed under different names—a liberalism that builds (Ezra Klein, New York Times), a modern American industrial strategy (Brian Deese, National Economic Council)”. Deese, who participated, has helped to oversee impressive results. These Tucker summarises as:
“Building off decades of organizing through the global justice movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the Green New Deal, the last 20 months have seen a number of major wins for green industrial policy: $369 billion in clean energy and $250 billion in lending under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). $50 billion for the semiconductor industry and $170 billion in advanced research in the CHIPS & Science Act. $550 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Executive branch actions like supply chain reviews and invocation of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to maximize the domestic supply of clean energy. The Roosevelt Institute’s progressive industrial policy forum gives us a chance to zoom out from this breakneck pace of policy wins, and reflect on the lessons learned. From my perch as Director of Industrial Policy and Trade, five major lessons stand out.
· Everything is climate now.
· We need to rewrite the rules—domestically and internationally.
· Equity is not a sideshow; it is central to all policy.
· Policy needs to build power.
· Liberalism needs to learn to build again.”
This sets out only one part of a programme for a Definite Left. When economists seek to re-write the rules they can over-estimate how much rules are a matter of economics. Neoliberalism was also a politics — of political disempowerment. At its zenith in 2007, one of its leading architects, Alan Greenspan, when asked how he would vote in the 2008 election replied that fortunately “it hardly makes any difference” because “policy decisions in the US have been largely replaced by global market forces”. He welcomed the alienation of voters from politics.
When, after the disasters of the financial crash, Trump brought politics back to life, he offered voters a palpable sense of agency of a familiar kind: of identification with a singular, superior people; of mastery and submission; of enmity, greatness and mobilisation against the other.
Democracy has to be national. The rules that progressive economists now seek to write that unwind the current model of globalisation are a response to this. Yet our politics also needs to be planetary to ensure climate sustainability. To meet this challenge both liberals and the left will have to help create new forms of popular agency, in which sovereignty is no longer a singularity, but is both shared and meaningful, if we are to survive the twenty-first century.
Grounds for Hope
While it is in the Americas, both South and North, that the definite Left has gained political influence, the forces of humanisation that underlie it are felt everywhere, from Ukraine to Brazil, and from the apartments of Tehran to those of Beijing. But still they remain largely bottled up by the dominant order. In my own country, the UK, Brexit cannot be voted out like Trump, while the Labour opposition, far from seeking to initiate a Biden-style alliance with an intellectually vibrant definite Left, seeks to ensure its impotence and a return to Blairism.
Meanwhile, in the USA, both the definite Left and some in the centre are learning to be practical, empowering, feminist, racially inclusive, and ecological, and are developing a politics that is democratic and seeks to govern capitalism.
In claiming this I am not being ‘optimistic’. Progress is not a commodity that you can ‘have’ or take from a shelf. A lengthy struggle is underway that the hard right may well win and will certainly not lose easily, as we are seeing in Russia today.
But there are good reasons not to be ‘pessimistic’. Had the current polarisation been confined to economic injustice and democratic rights, progressive forces would have been marginalised if not annihilated. But the profound challenge of the climate emergency demands a new set of policy imperatives that cannot be delivered under conditions of marketisation. A novel imperative is at work, rooted in science and technology, combined with economic and democratic crises. To respond to it, those in the power structures – administrative, financial and economic – who want a law-abiding, relatively open world, will have to govern differently drawing on an active democracy.
In 2003, tens of millions around the world took to the streets to prevent, in advance, a strategic decision being prepared by the ruling elites in Washington and London, supported by their media and intelligence services. The invasion of Iraq went ahead. It was a decision as wilfully stupid as President Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Previous movements protested against the outrages of the existing order. Now, for the first time in history those on the pavements were wiser, less greedy, and more far-sighted, than the ruling elite in a matter of judgment on a policy it had yet to carry out. A judgement confirmed by the complete failure of the invasion. The legitimacy of the neoliberal centre has never recovered.
Today, we face a far greater challenge because the crisis of a new war combines with those of the economy, the environment and the Covid plague. Only intelligent, collective action can resolve them, and this demands the wisdom of the pavements as well as good government. The way we rule ourselves has to change. It is time for the definite Left.
For a further lively debate on this, follow this link
Anthony Barnett’s 20-minute documentary, US Progressives on a Knife-edge is on YouTube