What’s left? Which of the two political lefts represents the hopes of those who long for social justice?
The fall of the Soviet empire in 1991 has split the left, says Richard Swift in New Internationalist magazine. While Soviet Russia exemplified one of the worst excesses of communism, it offered an alternative to capitalism. The fall of the USSR was seen as a triumph of capitalism. With its decline, the worst excesses of stock-market greed tore through global economies like a raging bull.
What remains are two lefts, the anti-globalization movement and centre-left political parties.
The anti-globalization movement is counter-cultural somewhat like the hippy movement of the 1960s with its distrust of the establishment and opposition to mainstream politics. It’s defined by the politics of the street.
On the other hand, the mainstream centre-left attempts to humanize conditions within the framework of a capitalist society. In Canada, the New Democratic Party aims for respectability as sound fiscal managers while maintaining ideals of social fairness. In Australia and the U.K., Labour parties also strive to level the playing field and fairly distribute a nation’s resources.
The failure of capitalism should represent an opening for the left. Traditional leftist ideology theorizes that major crises provide an opportunity for social change, says Swift. Oppressed workers should rise up in solidarity to seize the levers of power and cast off the yokes of tyranny. The recession that started in 2008 represented such an opportunity. Americans, who lost jobs and were thrown out of their homes, should have been ripe for the solutions the left offers. While they were rightly outraged when the U.S. government bailed out the banks, perpetrators of the housing scam that left citizens out in the cold, no revolution blossomed.
Instead, oppressed Americans were drawn to the right. While the Occupy movement gained some traction, so did the right-wing. The Tea Party, funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, told a narrative that resonated with average and low-income American — the social safety net must be dismantled because it is crutch for the weak and it runs contrary to the individualistic values that made the U.S. great. It’s a compelling message. In a recent survey, even Americans who used food stamps and were on employment insurance denied that they would ever rely on government handouts. They were ready to bite the hand that would lift them out of poverty.
The challenge of the centre-left is two-fold. Voters have become disenchanted with all politicians regardless of their political stripes. It’s increasing difficult to distinguish centre-left parties from the centre-right.
“Its language is often virtually indistinguishable from its right-wing rivals — austerity, balanced budgets, national security, the family, law and order,” says Swift.
The centre-left has inherited a toxic rhetorical climate. Political discourse has become poisoned by the politics of anger. Centre-left parties care about marginalized members of society but are forced to use the confrontational language of the right and “gotcha” politics. With an increasingly disengaged electorate, it’s sensational sound bites and confrontation that make the news.