15 May 2014
The notion that 'enough is never enough' must be buried once and for all.
Jeremy Schultz under a Creative Commons Licence
The main manifestation of Left politics these days – beyond the Centre-Left’s sad dance with neoliberalism – tends to take place on the street. It is usually either an act of opposition or one of ‘bearing witness’.
Demonstrations of opposition are usually geared to stop or alter particular policies or projects of those in power – and movements to stop a war or military intervention tend to gather the greatest force. Yet time and again the political class ignores such movements – most egregiously on 15 February 2003, when millions of people in 600 cities around the world tried to stop the invasion of Iraq. In that instance, global power-holders had made up their minds that, despite popular opposition and a lack of evidence of the elusive ‘weapons of mass destruction’, the invasion would go ahead. Their disdain for the popular will was, for many, a disheartening and demotivating experience.
Other movements – against superhighways, pipelines, power plants, lay-offs, or austerity measures aimed at the most vulnerable – have at times been more successful. It all depends on the balance of forces, the strategic importance assigned to the cause at hand by the political class, and the wealth and influence of corporate backers. Sometimes projects and policies are delayed or modified but only occasionally are they stopped entirely. But these are hard, uphill battles that are inevitably defensive and do little to change the balance of power between people and capital. Humble (or angry) supplicants remain in a position of awaiting the king and the court’s decision. It is a process that leaves most people on the sidelines, scratching their heads as to what it has to do with them. As that unfortunate expression from the southern US would have it, they don’t feel they ‘have a dog in this fight’.
The other form of Left street politics is ‘bearing witness’. Two recent classic examples of this are the anti-globalization movement that started in the 1990s and the Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the US and beyond in protest to the bank frauds and subsequent financial collapse of 2008. Bearing witness is both realistic and unrealistic at the same time. It eschews making demands because such demands will never be granted (far too ‘unrealistic’) – and even if they were, it would be in such a watered-down form that basic power relations would remain intact. Bearing witness may tap into widespread popular sentiment (as polls indicated Occupy Wall Street’s criticisms of finance capital did) but by restricting itself to expressing disgust, this remains in the realm of ‘anti-politics’.
Anti-politics is a form of opposition that is so sceptical of political possibility that it defines itself mostly as an outraged negative. This negativity is then used by corporate power and its political sponsors to paint street protesters as disruptive nay-sayers with nothing to offer ordinary folk.
Those who believe that an alternative to capitalism would not only be healthier for human beings and more democratic but may be essential to our survival as a species desperately need a positive politics that avoids our being stuck in a perpetual anti-politics. We need to move beyond making demands and bearing witness to making political proposals crafted to meet the needs of an economically and ecologically besieged populace. This is essential not only to break out of the small ghetto of people who currently believe any alternative to capitalism is possible but also to dissolve the fog of depoliticization that prevents most people from even considering the question. ‘To propose’ is an essential part of any politics.
So what to propose? With the Old Left vision of a centralized state socialism, while tragically flawed, it was at least clear what was on the table. Now it would be very difficult for anyone to say what the Left alternative to capitalism actually is (rather than simply what it is not). It is obviously a complex process beyond the scope of this blog to sketch out what a coherent programme should look like. It needs to involve the thoughts and actions of billions of people in open-minded experimentation and with a willingness both to succeed and fail. But here are a few ideas for a broad outline. More detail can be found in my book SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism
We need to start by agreeing to live within the ecological limits that the earth provides. We are facing a cascading number of environmental crises framed by the overall threat of climate degradation. This is not some threat that looms in the distant future but something that is affecting hundreds of thousands right now. Severe weather events, resource wars, environmental refugees, desertification, and the collapse of various food economies such as the global fishery: these are just the most obvious examples. We can simply no longer afford to grow our economy in the way we have been doing. We need a commitment and a design for a democratic degrowth that is based on equity and intelligence. This will particularly affect such things as the dependence on a carbon economy, unsustainable resource extraction and the frivolous over-consumption of the better-off sectors of society. The notion that ‘enough is never enough’ must be buried once and for all.
Linked to this, we need to figure out a way to distribute society’s wealth (currently so badly skewed) in a different way. The wage-labour system is not only vastly unequal and undemocratic but is premised on creating jobs through the continual expansion of the economy – something we can no longer afford to do.
We need to enshrine a constitutional human right to a decent basic income as an alternative to the conventional Left view of ‘jobs for all’ no matter their social and ecological content. We need gradually to move to place capital and finance under the control of a public banking system. This will allow for democratic deliberation over economic goals rather than the current ethos that ‘if it makes somebody money it has to be done’. It will also prevent private finance from undermining equity and democracy so as to defend the fabulous wealth of the super-rich.
Obviously this sketchy framework raises more questions than it provides answers. But it is at least one starting-point for ‘proposing’ rather than simply ‘opposing’ or ‘bearing witness’. Crafted in the right way, it could offer tangible benefits to billions of people. It could reinvent democracy, making it much more meaningful than our current weak variant. And it could help us begin to imagine a human and humane future that is based on more than the whims and gambles of the market.
Richard Swift is a former co-editor for New Internationalist magazine and winner of the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize for an original essay which helps further socialist ideas. You can read more of his thoughts in his newly published book, SOS Alternatives to Capitalism.