2016 Does Not Mean We Are All Doomed: Lessons for the Left

In one of John Oliver’s shows immediately after the Trump elections, he had a segment condemning 2016 and being happy that such a bad political year will be over soon. There is no denial that we have had a horrendous year behind us: Brexit and Trump. I will not re-litigate why they had been bad choices for their respective countries (see my posts: Liu 2016a, Liu 2016b).

I will also not deny that the electoral choices clearly reveal the anti-establishment vote patterns that emerge from a national political class that is incapable to redress the economic and social grievances of a working class that is battered by international competition and growing automation, and the ethno-national uncertainty of a diversifying population. For that reason, any democratic vote in the immediate future will always be decided in direct opposition to what the establishment demands, since the voters rightly attribute their discontent to ignorance and helplessness of their own political class.

Democracy now mixes very uncomfortably with capitalism, because the latter pushes up inequality and the former cannot persist without sufficient equality. Something has to give and in the short term in Greece, for instance, democracy is losing, because electing a left-wing government means absolutely nothing. They can’t even hike their pensions without Wolfgang Schauble’s, the German finance minister’s, permission. France will face an awful set of choices in 2017, as the socialists are discredited, and the conservative right-wing (Fillon: pro-neoliberal, cut civil service and welfare) battles with the extreme right-wing (LePen: protectionism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim campaigns).

There is also very little doubt that some of the directional gains of political liberalism may face reversals, and some clear indications of that can be seen in Poland, Turkey, Russia or China. It is becoming increasingly less comfortable to be a member of the press or the political opposition in these countries. In China, the government has developed the Orwellian idea to assign points to people’s good behavior (e.g. visiting their parents) and deduct points for bad behavior (e.g. protest against government) such that everyone has an online profile and contribute to what the rulers regard to be a “good society”. Turkey’s Erdogan abuses the July 2016 coup against him to throw all of his political opponents either in jail or remove them from office.

We might as well bury our heads in the sand and never try to look out again, but my argument today is that not all is lost. Naturally, the default in a world of economic and political uncertainty is to have nationalist-protectionist and authoritarian sentiments prevail. But there are also signs for a positive turn in the global discourse.

First, notice the sharp negative global reaction to president-elect Trump’s statement that he might rip up the Paris climate agreement. This agreement has the intention to limit the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees celsius, which is rather ambitious given that we are already 1.2 degrees on our way there, and even if we were to shut off all sources of CO2 now, we would still experience more warming in the short-term given that it takes some time for the CO2 to be absorbed by the oceans or exit the planetary atmosphere. The serious effects of climate change even in the short-run imply that the economic growth-CO2 reduction tradeoff can no longer apply. It is when we face an immense and immediate planetary crisis that the world leaders are jolted to do something about it, even if they are intent only to save their own asses.

Second, wherever electoral opportunities arise, there are not only regretfully right-wing forces that arise, but also left-wing and progressive political forces. In Spain, a 2015 election catapulted the left-wing Podemos party to third place, which created a fractured political system and no government could be formed. A repeat election in 2016, increased the vote-share for the establishment Popular Party (Conservative), but Podemos was able to retain their seats. Popular Party has now formed a government but without a real mandate. The decimated socialists (PSOE) abstained, but Podemos now has the front row seats and can see the government’s austerity program further unravel.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn faced a direct leadership challenge in the Labour Party led by Owen Smith, who made an about-face from being a Blairite (e.g. his support for private-finance initiatives and farming the NHS out to private providers) to a Corbynite. The only selling point he made was that Corbyn was not a credible candidate, and it would be better to have someone who appeared moderate to outside voters, but would also push the Labour Party left-wing agenda. It was evidently a poor selling-point and he lost the leadership challenge. The Blairites have to lick their wounds and they have likely lost control over the Labour Party for many years to come. Will the Labour Party be able to win any UK elections? It will be difficult given that the loss of the Scottish heartland to the SNP in 2015 meant a severe blow to the Labour Party. Without being able to reach out to rural English voters, who are staunch Tories, there is no possibility for shifting the political fortunes for Labour. It is theirs for the taking given that the Brexit will be poorly negotiated by an outgunned May administration.

In the US, everyone has been lamenting the loss of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries (including the author), and the Sanderistas are already riding the I-told-you-so wave against the Clinton campaign, arguing that Sanders would have easily won against Trump. I would support that view, but understand that it does not make much sense now to litigate the past and dream up counterfactuals. But we should remember the historic moment by which a self-described democratic socialist received 46% of the primary vote in a major political party. When Sanders went out to give his hour-long political education lectures on inequality and lack of college and health care access, there were tens of thousands of people, who showed up and were willing to listen to the new message. Finally, someone who took the working man and woman seriously!

Sanders is really only the third part of the progressive political narrative: the first part begins with the 2008 financial crisis and the bailout for the banks. We can debate whether the government did the right thing with the bailouts, but what matters here is the optics: people experience that the banks were able to get rich, be declared so systemically important that taxpayers should bail out these big banks, while they pay their top bosses with bonuses. In the mean time, people, who took out mortgages that they could not service, were forced to surrender their houses, and were all of a sudden morally to be blamed for what really was the combined regulatory failure of the government and the banks, who only cared about the housing fees.

There had previously been already economic losers in the US, whether it is the factory workers of the Rust belt (who now voted for Trump in larger numbers than Clinton) or service workers trapped in low-wage jobs and other personal problems like drug or alcohol addiction. But the 2008 crisis made it plain to the entire middle class that their position was no longer safe. We are no longer talking about marginal groups that can get stiffed. People were working longer hours for lower wages, but someone had to still articulate their troubles.

The second stage of the progressive narrative was the Occupy Wall Street movement. Political scientists like Theda Skocpol make a big deal out of the Tea Party and they have become an entrenched political force in the US. They are bankrolled by the Koch brothers, while the popular front makes it appear as if they expressed an anger coming from middle America. There is some truth to that, as rural white voters tended to show the strongest support for a movement, which was disgusted by the bailouts, by the Washington establishment, and had the desire to “have the government hands off my Medicare”.

But there was a left-wing antidote in the cities, which was the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began around September 2011 and ended about 2 months later. A democratic society usually tolerates public assemblies. In China, online regulators tend to be lenient on political criticism, but are notoriously harsh on cracking down on any kind of online activism that results in mass demonstrations or assemblies as that would directly undermine the political regime. But even in democratic societies rulers get really scared when people assemble over extended periods of time, because the extended socialization on public squares might create a larger movement that overthrows the neoliberal economic configuration, which serves the powerful so well.

The city and the police forces across the country coordinated rather well in getting rid of what they officially called the “public nuisance”. That is what the Hong Kong protesters also had to listen to. Here governments all over the world are the same. They cite the blockage of roads, public squares, hindering traffic and commerce, the defecation and urination on the streets, the noise and the stench as a reason to get rid of the tents and the encampments. But what they were really after was to crush the spirit of the movement, which could radicalize as long as the encampments were there, but wither away without them, despite all the social network activism in the world.

So OWS is dead and nowhere to be seen, right? Wrong, what survived was the legitimation of the class-based discourse. The chant of the occupiers was that the 1% got richer at the expense of the 99%. I occasionally read some academics, who have the desire to correct the simplifying statement of the 1% by focusing on the top 0.1% or top 5% or saying that these figures don’t help much, but what really matters is that there is something inherently wrong when almost all gains flow to the top 1%.

But the question of ‘what is to be done?’ still hung above us after the failure of OWS, and here we fit Bernie Sanders into the narrative, who announced his presidential candidacy in the May of 2015. Would Sanders’ message have resonated without the financial crisis and OWS? I doubt it. Now, we have to move to stage four and win elections.

It might very well be that a fascist wave will take over and engulf us in political darkness before any progressive leader can step in. But those on the left have no reason to be discouraged as long as we have the political resources to fight back. The world is ours for the taking.

 

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