5 Left Wing Ideas That Aren’t Influential Enough
One of the biggest signifiers of the decline of the Left has been its abandonment of the ideal of liberty and belief in the self determination of ordinary people, as well as being absolutely wedded to the state as an agent of transforming society. Since the 20th century with the rise of Fabianism, Stalinism and big state social democracy, libertarian forms of socialism have been eclipsed and condemned to the margins. One of the worst effects of this has been that the ideal of socialism has been distorted to such a degree that for many socialism is synonymous to the state simply doing stuff (as demonstrated in this embarrassing Momentum video that argues that the Police is an example of “socialism in action” simply because it is non-market and public sector) and become so detached from larger ideals of freedom and self determination that have traditionally been at the core of socialist thought. Furthermore it has allowed the right to claim the mantle of being for liberty and small government. A reconstituted Left should challenge and reverse this trend.
This may come of as a bit strange because talk of ‘sovereignty’ is usually associated with national populists like Trump, Farage, Orban and Bolsonaro, who cynically invoke slogans like “the will of the people” and “take back control” for their own purposes, and is often attached to a politics of borders, nationalism, statism, militarism and racism. But this need not be the case as the idea of popular sovereignty has a long history on the Left going all the way back to the French revolution.
Some on the Left in the name of anti-imperialism invoke ‘national sovereignty’ as a way to argue against liberal interventionism and ‘human rights imperialism’. However, a distinction needs to be made between national sovereignty and popular sovereignty, because they are are often made to be synonymous when they are quite different. National sovereignty is really about the power and authority of states and is so often used by tyrants to deflect criticism and bolster their own authority by assimilating themselves with the national ‘self’. Popular sovereignty is about self government, self determination, and the idea that power ultimately should reside with people (or citizens) not with states. In my view ‘national sovereignty’ is meaningless without popular sovereignty, so if a ‘sovereign’ is governing without the consent of the people then fuck their ‘sovereignty’. Popular sovereignty then is what needs to be defended not national sovereignty.
The idea that ‘the people are sovereign’ is what motors the recent democratic struggles in Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, and before that the Arab Spring revolutions. Popular sovereignty is a key pillar from which to build a more free and democratic world. It would be a shame if the Left gave this up.
Racism, racial thinking and divisions based on the idea of ‘race’ in various forms unfortunately still play an important role in contemporary politics. While, there has undoubtedly been substantial progress and significant victories against popular prejudice and legalised discrimination, so much so that there is a mainstream norm now against being racist, the anti-racist movements that helped drive these changes has dissipated and gone into decline.
In recent decades, anti-racism has been colonised by officialdom and evacuated of its political content. The fight against racism has been divorced from power and ideology and any conception of social transformation and has been reduced into a politics of therapy, facile representation and liberal legalism. This has lead to the stagnation of anti-racist movements, where their understanding of racism and our current condition hasn’t developed with the times and hasn’t quite caught on to the mutations of new forms of racism.
However, all is not lost. The challenge we face in confronting a resurgent and increasingly confident far right, anti-Muslim racism, anti-semitism, anti-Roma racism, as well as anti-immigration politics that has manifested itself in the Windrush scandal, the xeno-racialisation of Eastern Europeans and the rise of migrant detention camps at the US southern border is an opportunity to recover the political content of anti-racism and start anew. But it must be based on social transformation and universal human liberation.
Freedom of Movement:
This has become increasingly a very hot debate on the left recently since this is seen on some parts of the Left to either be a “Koch brothers” demand or the obsession of deluded anarchists. Contrary to what conservative social democrats say the demand for open borders has a long history in the socialist movement and comes out of the radical Left’s humanistic universalism and belief in freedom, which states that that every human being should have the right to travel, visit, live and work where they choose. This is internationalism made concrete.
Now, I concede that there are many stupid ways leftists argue for open borders and freedom of movement, such as, reducing the entire issue to a moral and humanitarian problem, or not really engaging with people’s anxieties over migration (not the same thing as pandering to them) and thinking that just shouting ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ at anyone who opposes the idea of open borders is a substitute for an actual argument.
However, this by itself doesn’t mean the argument for open borders is null and void. For too long the Left has capitulated to the logic of borders and nationalism, instead of making the positive case in favour of freedom of movement and articulating a transformative politics based on solidarity and the shared interests of all workers, both ‘native’ and ‘migrant’. Part of the reason why anti-immigration politics may seem hegemonic at the moment is because no one is pushing back against it and offering an alternative. Let’s hope a reconstituted Left will do.
One the orthodoxies that has taken hold of the Left in recent decades has been that of anti-globalisation, which, in particular, was the zeitgeist in the 90s and early 00s. While some of its critique is no doubt valid, even if it was limited to a slip shod anti-corporatism, there was always a romantic anti-modernist streak to the anti-globalisation movement that did make a great deal of it conservative in essense, even if ‘radical’ in form.
Too often contemporary left wing critiques of globalisation seem to either slip into a dull ‘small is beautiful’ localism that is hostile anything that smacks of economies of scale and industrial bigness, or nationalist protectionist autarky, or some version of social democracy in one country. Again, I find this to be quite conservative, even reactionary and not something any revolutionary ought to be arguing for.
In essence, not everything about globalisation is bad. In fact some parts of it are quite progressive, even under capitalist conditions and ought to be defended. As socialists and cosmopolitan internationalists we should recognise that progress (to use an old fashioned concept) can only go forwards onto the future and be committed to fight for a socialist and democratic alternative model of globalisation that will form the basis of the future world we seek to build that will truly unleash the vast potential that lay within humanity to greatly enrich human civilisation, not just materially, but culturally and intellectually too.