Yet right now the left is having a bit of a moment. In June’s general election in Britain, the hard-left leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, defied pollsters and critics by destroying May’s majority in Parliament. Even if he didn’t win, Corbyn’s relative success followed Bernie Sanders’s strong performance last year. We may be still in the era of Brexit and Trump, but there are signs that the counter-narrative is gathering strength.
It’s the British party conference season, and Labour has just concluded its annual shindig in the seaside town of Brighton. There was the usual mix of interminable speeches, think-tank pow-wows and late-night drinking, but the attendees seemed younger and more diverse. New recruits in T-shirts mixed with policy wonks in ties. Down the road from the main conference, a packed festival called The World Transformed, organized by Momentum, a pro-Corbyn group, added to the radical atmosphere. Record numbers of delegates turned up to discuss what a kinder, fairer, more equal society would look like.
Yet the forces of global capitalism are still ranged against us. And the left will only make headway if it resolves key internal tensions about its structure, purpose and message.
In recent years, the populist right has whipped up public anger against the “political class,” leading even leftists to declare that representative democracy is defunct. The energy on the left has fragmented and dissipated into localism, leaderless movements, network theory and social media.
This development is understandable. Politicians do tend to hail from privileged backgrounds. Vested interests have corrupted democracy. But the answer is not to give up on political authority and political institutions.
Trump and May divert public anger about global capitalism toward the very people whose rightful job it is to curb its power. They call for the abolition of the political establishment while quietly taking it over.
Occupy failed because nobody was in charge, and it made no demands. By contrast, the Sanders campaign threw its weight behind traditional organizing: door-knocking and mass rallies. My hope is that Corbyn’s electoral popularity is persuading the left to overcome its resistance to gaining power and exercising it. I was glad to see activists from People for Bernie invited to Brighton.
Encouragingly, Corbyn’s electoral popularity is also prompting a rethink among centrist Labourites. Tony Blair — along with Third Way Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — was convinced that ordinary voters were naturally conservative. Accordingly, Labour shifted to the right, promptly alienating its voter base. The result has been Brexit and Trump. Some Blairites are now realizing their mistake. Yet there’s a backlash in the form of an obsession with listening to the “white working-class voters.” In the U.K., this “listening” translates into embracing nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment and support for the Trident nuclear program.
The left needs to listen, but it needs to speak, too. At campaign meetings I attend, even staunch activists rarely use the word “left,” preferring euphemisms like “progressive.” Who can blame them? The media portrays leftist ideals as, at best, a pie-in-the-sky luxury we can’t afford; at worst, a pernicious, elitist dogma. We are constantly told that left and right are in any case obsolete categories. The new divide, it’s said, is between baby boomers and millennials, graduates and non-graduates, supporters and opponents of gay marriage, wine-drinkers and beer-drinkers.
This framing is designed to split the left; to drive a wedge between the “metropolitan elite” and the “left behind.” And it conceals the real divide, which is not cultural but economic — between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Left and right are still meaningful poles, I believe, because they represent these opposed interests. If “left” is a tainted term, it should be either reclaimed or replaced.
As Brexit has so vividly illustrated, democracy is not just about taking control. It’s also about having clearly distinguished political agendas to choose between. Right-wing populism attacks the very concept of a democratic forum in which a genuine alternative could challenge the status quo. It imagines “the people” as a single body with the same set of views, and it discredits political opponents as illegitimate. Corbyn is popular because he straightforwardly says what he believes, calling out austerity and wealth extraction as the root causes of society’s problems.
I am fully behind Corbyn’s policy agenda, even if I can’t join in his supporters’ slightly idiotic hero-worship. (The conference audience chanted “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” for a full three minutes before he could begin his closing speech.) Corbyn’s authenticity is often regarded as his biggest asset, but for me what matters is his ideological commitment. Corbyn will have more chance of becoming prime minister if he stops posing as an ordinary bloke against the political establishment, and stands up proud as a political leader, defending ordinary people against the real — financial — elites.