Left Politics, as if We Mean It

As a Brit, I approached the 2016 Us election with June’s Brexit vote firmly in mind. I had never felt such raw anger and bewilderment at a political event as on June 24, 2016, and through the following days. With millions of others, I am still living within the dark shadow of that ambiguous and confusing event, an uncertainty that is likely to unfold over a decade or more. In the run-up to November 8th, I followed Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog religiously, but couldn’t quite get myself to believe in its carefully graded cautions: surely, I told myself, the relatively improbable could not, in fact, happen? But it did.

Waking early UK time on Wednesday the 9th of November, I knew immediately that the approach to politics that had seen me through my life so far would have to be abandoned. I have got by until now with an unresolved contradiction between, on the one hand, my nerdy fascination with the outputs of the mainstream political system (true to my father’s ‎loyalties as a left politician who nonetheless stayed loyal to the system that had failed him) and, on the other hand, convictions and instincts about what politics could and should be much closer to a socialist rejection of ordinary politics and a desire for something very different. Put more brutally, I have written and thought at length about voice – about truly valuing voice – but failed completely in practice to do anything to make it happen; and when the consequences of neglecting voice for decades in large ‘democratic’ societies stared me in the face, my system loyalties had blocked me from seeing voice’s potency and (in the wrong hands) dangers. It is hard to see that unresolved contradiction as anything other than a personal failure, a failure that is hardly mine alone.

Indeed that failure is just my personal version of a wider, and even less satisfactory, contradiction: the failure on the left, shaped above all by the cultures of neoliberalism, to go on imagining and organising what politics needs to look like if the real effects of global capitalism today on lives and social relations are to be addressed. This failure is matched by the failure of many ‘critical’ intellectuals to hold onto the political promise once invested in the privileges of academic life lived out over the recent decades in university institutions deeply compromised by neoliberal culture. To date, critical academic work has completely failed to find an effective way of confronting the forces shaping this year’s political convulsions and to work effectively with whatever forces might challenge them. Which means that there is a need to rethink completely the role of university-employed intellectuals assuming they (we) still believe that ideas and argument have a contribution to make towards a more just politics.

That said, the Trump election still seems hard to get into focus. For one thing, it was a narrow victory, once the vagaries of the US electoral college system are discounted (a system that seems to amplify grotesquely the problems of the UK constituency system). Trump lost the popular vote, albeit very narrowly, and only won it narrowly in some of the key states where the system gave him victory and, with it, all that state’s electoral college representatives.

For another, the voter tide in Trump’s favour seems at this close time-distance to be overdetermined. It was determined, yes, by misogyny and racism, but also by the inbuilt media and other bias to a pro-gun, border protectionism for which Trump also stood. An eloquent collection of women’s responses to the victory in The Guardian last weekend reflected all these factors and their contradictions. Trump’s victory was determined also by nearly three decades of increasing inequality and the corralling of the benefits of economic growth among the rich, with barely any recognition of this problem by the political system, as Bernie Sanders noted in the New York Times.

So which of these factors deserves highest priority in the new politics that must be organised from within the shell of the U.S. Democratic party and beyond? Perhaps the initial answer is none of them, because the first task of recovery is to say no – finally and openly – to the neoliberal ‘deal’ that has overlain for decades a politics that challenges inequality more directly, not just in the USA, but in UK, France, and many other countries. That requires new ways of organising politics. It requires the left to regain conviction in the force of political anger at injustice that Trump’s campaign in a highly distorted way nonetheless retained. And it requires academics, if they indeed still have a role here, to work with those outside the academy in thinking what a road map for that new form of political organization might be.

Many see Trump’s victory as the first major political outcome of the 2008 global financial crisis. That makes sense, at least on one dimension of Trump’s overdetermined victory. The few global signs of successful political response to the 2008 crisis on the left are therefore important: I have much more hope incidentally in Spain’s Podemos Unidos than in the UK Labour party of Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the inadequacies of the path taken so far, it is essential internationally to share perspectives on how a new way of doing democratic politics can be built in the ashes of neoliberal ‘consensus’: a politics that can face seriously the challenge of speaking across bitter political divides, and with full attention to the deep inequalities that are deforming not just the USA, but the world’s other rich nations, at every level.

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