The Emerging Left in the “Emerging” World: Seven Common Threads

Yves here. One of the things that makes it difficult to have intelligent conversations about politics is the way terminology has become debased, particularly in terms of what basic words like “left” and “progressive”. At least in the US, a good deal of this confusion results from the deliberate mislabeling of where political figures stand to exaggerate differences between the parties and camouflage the degree to which politicians serve big corporate interests rather than those of what is left of the middle class.

Jayati Ghosh discusses another axis that contributes to muddled categorization: that in emerging economies (and some of the patterns she describes are also present in left-leaning thought in advanced economies) is that old Socialist belief structures are being replaced by different lines of thought.

Finally, the post below is only a section of Ghosh’s speech; you can read the full text here.

By Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics and Chairperson at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Cross posted from Triple Crisis

Editors’ note: This is the second part (of four) of “The Emerging Left in the ‘Emerging’ World,” by Triple Crisis founding contributor Jayati Ghosh, originally delivered in 2012 as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics. We posted the introduction last week (here). In this second part of the lecture, Ghosh presents the first two of “seven common threads” shared by the emerging left: democracy and scale.

What I call “the emerging Left” shares seven common threads that appear in otherwise very distinct political formations and in very different socioeconomic contexts. These are not always “new ideas”—in fact they are more often than not old ideas that appear new because of the changing context and the collective failure of memory, even within the left itself. Still, these seven threads—new attitudes toward democracy, scale and centralization, private property, the discourse of rights, class and other identities, women and gender, and the environment—all represent breaks from 20th century socialist orthodoxy.

On Democracy

In contrast to some earlier socialist approaches, in which the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was misinterpreted (often willfully) to suppress procedural democracy, there is much greater willingness of the emerging left to engage with and even rely upon formal democratic processes associated with “bourgeois democracy”: elections; referenda; legal rights, judicial proceedings, etc. Even as left movements and parties recognize the limitations of electoral democracy—especially the effective takeover of democratic institutions by money power and corporate media—they have come to rely more and more on formal democratic institutions. The radical governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, etc.) derive their legitimacy from the ballot box. In other countries, the emerging left is the greatest champion of democratic and pluralist institutions—as well as the most concerned about their corruption and manipulation by entrenched interests and corporate power.

This stands in sharp contrast from many 20th century socialist movements, which viewed all institutions of the bourgeois state as inherently tainted, incapable of reform, and impossible to use to bring about positive change. As a result, they often rejected formal democracy and pluralism even after attaining government power themselves.

Within emerging left groups today, there is increasingly a trend towards the rejection of top-down models of party organization (such as were exemplified in the practice of “democratic centralism” in the official communist parties). Instead, left movements are moving towards more open, democratic party structures, the embrace of a plurality of opinions, and experiments in alternative systems of decision-making (deliberation, consensus-building, etc.).

On Largeness and Scale

The second relatively “new” feature is the rejection of over-centralization. The centralizing, homogenizing state was a central element of “actually existing socialism” throughout much of the 20th century. Even today, it remains embedded deep in the consciousness of many self-identified socialists. In the classical Marxist view, the trend within capitalism toward production at larger and larger scales was seen, paradoxically, as having a positive side. Though it went hand in hand with the centralization of capital in fewer and fewer hands, it also brought together ever-larger groups of workers, who could (if organized) use their collective power to radically alter production relations. In power, many self-described socialist parties made large-scale production a fetish. This tendency reached an extreme in the Soviet Union, where party leaders and economic planners strove to build the world’s largest factories, dams, and so on— sometimes as ends in themselves.

Still, there were some good reasons for the socialist celebration of largeness, which remain valid. Economic development requires large-scale investment that must be centrally planned, at least to some degree, to be successful. Decisions about some of the most important economic issues—the direction of investment, the production of socially desirable goods and services, and the distribution of income and wealth—necessarily require not just some but often very substantial degrees of centralization. This means that even the emerging left should not engage in a simplistic celebration of everything “small.”

Nonetheless, most tendencies in this newer left emphasize the importance of developing small-scale production. This reflects a strong move, also for good reasons, away from past attempts to centralize control over all aspects of material life, which have been characterized by extreme rigidity, hierarchy, and lack of accountability.

The turn away from largeness towards smaller-scale organization is also a reaction to two features of contemporary capitalist economies. First, there is the recent experience of the downsides of largeness—banks that are too big to fail, giant multinationals that are unaccountable and cannot be taxed, and so on. Second, technology—especially the convergence of new information, communications, and energy technologies—is opening up new possibilities for decentralized production, and suggests the possibilities for a new, locally managed, decentralized, but globally connected economy.

So emerging left movements and the governments they lead do not insist on centralized ownership and control over all economic activities. They recognize small-scale producers as worthy of both direct state support and more general “enabling conditions” necessary for their continued existence and vitality. Where there are significant economies of scale, left movements are exploring organizational forms, like cooperatives, that avoid the rigidity and authoritarianism of past models. The aim is to find a proper balance between large and small, which will obviously vary depending on context.

Look for two more installments of this lecture on the next two Wednesdays. Find the first installment here.

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  1. Maju

    As you correctly say, these are not really new elements, just recovered ones. Marx’ ideas on political organization were very close to Anarchism, although he was more pragmatic and less dogmatic, it seems.

    Now Lenin (and successors) is another story. The confusion of class “dictatorship” in Marx, which implies political democracy (how else can the 90% exert its power?) but without the limitations and tricks of the bourgeois republic, which limits the power of the people and its representative institutions, and that of mere political dictatorship (party dictatorship) actually stems from the ideas of Louis Blanqui, a contemporary of Marx, who advocated for pettit committee dictatorship (for the people but not by the people).

    See for example:

    I guess that you will deal with the issue of ecology and sustainability in another entry, right? I think it’s important, even more central maybe than the economic and class contradictions analyzed by Marx and others, although not totally unrelated because they both stem from a spiteful attitude of exploitation.

  2. middle seaman

    Makes no sense to comment on a third of a speech. The American left, however, shows no signs of coming back from the dead. It’s still hateful, labor union ignoring, Obama supporting and totally inept political movement.

    1. Banger

      I think the ideas in the article apply to the left in areas outside the U.S. There is, as you say, no effective left in the U.S. context so there is almost no point in talking about it. I believe, as you probably know, that I believe that the only direction for the left to go is towards the anti-authoritarian libertarian right. There the remnant of the left can promote something new and decentralized as in Latin America. Our main foes are both the fascists on the right and the pro-war, pro-authoritarian Democratic Party which should now be seen as just another party of the right.

  3. nobody

    “…basic words like ‘left’…confusion…politicians serve big corporate interests rather than those of what is left of the middle class…”

    Wouldn’t a genuinely ‘left’ politician serve the interests primarily of the working class, rather than “what is left of the middle class”?

  4. susan the other

    I wish we could change our constitution to be enforced by certain limits to actually be by and for the people; to prohibit corporations from being “people too,” and to include the environment – land and sea – into our bill or rights.

  5. Chauncey Gardiner

    I very much appreciate this effort to reframe the conversation, as Yves pointed out in her introduction. Reality and People are complicated and messy, and the bi-polar messaging we are treated to daily is designed to “divide & conquer”, not lead to creative and constructive efforts. Consensus-building is difficult, but necessary to effectuate positive change. The impetus to change will also require a catalyst, as they have so effectively taught us through their employment of the “Shock Doctrine” over the past 12 years.

  6. F. Beard

    One would think the Left would embrace a money form that shares wealth and power – common stock – and absolutely hate the government-backed counterfeiting cartel for the sake of the so-called creditworthy. But one would be mistaken.

    1. Bapoy

      Got it…

      So want to stop slavery from banks, but promote slavery from the government. Slavery is slavery no matter how you look at it, you do know that right?

      1. F. Beard

        You got nothing but presumption that you know what I advocate.

        Hint: Common stock is issued by corporations, not the government.

        Now go sit in the corner with Beefy; don’t forget the pointy hat.

  7. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

    There is no “left” in America, today. There is only the right wing (Obama Democrats) and the fascists (Tea Party Republicans)

    Even the least of the right wingers — Sherrod Brown, Dick Durbin, Al Franken, et al — are perfectly happy to go along with Obama’s “Grand Bargain” to cut social spending and “broaden” the tax base.

  8. Bapoy

    I see…

    Things look like this.

    Capitalism, call it whatever you want, was successful and mainly adopted by the US. The US has changed tremendously, look at the JFK years, communism and socialism were despised – yet we had an extremely healthy economy that did not rely on the government at all. Little by little we became much more socialist – and today we are in deep trouble for it. Now compare that to countries in Europe that were once all powerful and collapsed from within. Not because the US invaded them, no, they blew themselves up.

    What is the solution of the fanatics – we need to turn to what Europe did. You see, it was so successful there – there was only a little problem. The so called “socialists” and “do gooders” sort of abused their power a little bit. As we all know, power doesn’t corrupt. And since we need “investments” it must be centrally planned.

    I’m sure the left doesn’t want to be like they are, but at least don’t ignore the history and proof that’s in your face. Those tyrants that killed millions did not end there by calling themselves bad guys, they ruled because the people put them in place and handed over their rights to them.

    Capitalism has worked and continues to work. What hasn’t worked is socialism/marxism/communism, time and time again. Anyone running on the predicament that they will “give” you something for nothing is a liar and you deserve what you get. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over again and expecting different results. Look at the Fed, at your congress and your president for a good example of that.

    1. mark ahlstrom

      look…capitalism and communism are both experiments in mass society. They are experiments in how to manage populations and territories larger than have ever been managed before, whether city, kingdom or nationstate.

      Communism appears to have failed because it centralised commerce and political power to an unmanageable degree.
      Capitalism appears to centralise wealth (and political power) to an increasingly hazardous degree. We know how that ends.

      Take a step back from the “jfk years” and understand that a cold war perspective defining communism and capitalism as a contest is not as useful as viewing them both as twentieth century experiments in how to manage insanely large populations.

      Some alchemy of the motivations behind each system is the only way we can maintain. And a capitalist victory dance is both useless and premature.

      For what it’s worth, keep in mind that the JFK years were also a time when “leftist” causes were thriving in America. And capitalist interests have far more than a moderate share of blood on their hands.

      1. Bapoy

        The “left” during the JFK years was something like the tea party is today. A sprinkle of people nobody cares about.

        Like the tea party of today, they are only required when there is blame to go around. For instance, when the GOP decides to cut welfare for the poor and give subsidies to wealthy farmers, it was because of the “tea party”.

        Nobody cared about the left in the 1960s and anyone that was considered from the left was considered either loony or psychotic. Kind of like the tea party of today.

    2. jonboinAR

      Pretty sure the economy relied on the government quite a bit. It built infrastructure and the military industrial complex which, while ultimately completely wasteful, in its way, for a time, has helped keep the economy humming nicely. In fact, I think I’ve seen it argued that the MIC was a great contributor, economically, in the ’60’s although again not ultimately sustainably, maybe. Also government contributed tremendously to economic well-being during the golden era of the middle class by regulation, for example, of banks.

  9. gtg2013

    “The US has changed tremendously, look at the JFK years, communism and socialism were despised – yet we had an extremely healthy economy that did not rely on the government at all.”

    Because we all know that a massive, militarized world empire that was at least an order of magnitude beyond what the US had even 30 years before 1963, and oh yeah was already able to destroy all human life on Earth, did not rely on the government at all. And the massive post-WWII expansion of public works and education did not rely on the government at all. And… Look, maybe you’re not a total idiot and you were just too subtle with your irony. Is that what’s going on?

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