Rebooting the Left

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - Caricature” -  Credit:  Wikimedia

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - Caricature” - Credit: Wikimedia

Social democratic parties are on retreat across the Western world in the face of a new kind of politics which is eventuating from the profound economic and social reforms experienced through the 1980s and 1990s. The Right has begun adapting to the new circumstances, whilst the Left has floundered and tried to find comfort in ideas of the past, be they socialist or liberal. Neither socialism or liberalism will bring electoral success like they once did. Both new-liberalism1 and old-socialism are and were responses to the circumstances of their respective eras.

What is the answer? To push the ideological envelope and articulate a new set of ideals based on broad Leftist principles which depart from both old-socialism and the new-liberal consensus today comprise the totality of the mainstream Left. The Right has already started on its own ad-hoc project called the alt-right, which cobbles together old and new both conservative and reactionary concepts to create something that right-wing politicians will hope to be palatable or even excitable for the electorate. They know quite well that the new-liberal consensus is coming to an end and a new path forward is needed, and not just in terms of ideological elucidation, but also raw political strategy. They’ve developed a proto-ideology that it is hoped will grow into a mainstream worldview which can defend the old institutions the Right has always defended: aristocracy, wealth, and hierarchy.

I would like to stop here for a moment and emphasise that though the Right is ahead of the Left, there is no reason the Left can’t or won’t catch up. It’s done so before: the overwhelming consensus between aristocrats and capitalists was broken in 1917; and before that, the compact between feudalism and the peasantry was disrupted by mercantilism. Though today the bourgeoisie merchants responsible for the reset in terms with the old Western aristocracies are from our perspective nothing crusty capitalists, at the time capitalism itself was radical. The Left pushed the world forward through these radical changes, with the Right fighting and sometimes winning the preservation of old institutions. They held back the hordes and prevented the total annihilation of European aristocracy.2

The Left must move to develop a prototype ideology not unlike a sort of ‘alt-left.’ Be mindful I’m not advocating for an alt-left or right to become a political mainstream, merely for each to act as a petrie dish from which political operatives can locate a message and worldview that can win electorally and provide a path forward for societal evolution in this new era of social, economic, and climatological disruption.3 New4 ideas such as negative income tax, universal basic income, parliamentary juries, full employment (notwithstanding economic rationalism), are all the sorts of things that may excite a new progressive coalition and form a framework on which to build a new overarching worldview.

Now, let’s talk strategy. None of the policies I just mentioned are immediately self-evident in their purpose. Concepts like universal suffrage and universal healthcare were much easier to see and understand as a layperson than parliamentary juries, they were tangible in benefit rather than abstract.5 What is needed is to bind these new ideas together with common principles, many of which will be found in the old Left.6 Make the argument that we are in a class war and they shot first. That is what covers these broad sweeping reforms to taxation. As an example close to home, Australian Labor threw the 2019 election because it spent so much time trying to make people understand franking credits. I still don’t understand how the fuck they work. They should have been out there talking about how the right-wing was in it for itself and that greed shot first, not the workers and lower middle-class.7

Furthermore, the Obaman ideal of “when they go low, you go high” is bullshit. You will lose if you ignore the base strategies of your opposition. You need to fight on the same fronts as them. You can’t give up a theatre of conflict because the other side wasn’t fair to open it in the first place. What I’m talking about is the blatant lying used by right-wing populists and reactionaries which has found itself bleeding into the mainstream Right, especially through social media platforms. Though lying has always been a part of politicking in some form, it’s gotten much worse, having departed from even the faintest vestigial bind to reality. A viable Left opposition must be firing on all cylinders, they must be articulating the intellectual argument to capture the intellectuals, but they can’t rely wholly on that because they think themselves above getting down in the slop with the pigs. You combine your pig-wrestling with fully fleshed out arguments which are accessible and transparent.8 You know what? This concept isn’t even new, it just seems to have been forgotten. The Bolsheviks knew how to message properly; they spoke of “bread, food, and land” to the peasants whilst they elaborated on the fantasy of communist utopia with the intellectual gentry.

Chiefly, what I’m saying is that the Left needs to abandon its anxiety around remaining morally righteous. It is possible to hold the ‘correct’ views whilst also arguing those views across all forms of media and in all rhetorical paradigms. I’m not talking about lying, I’m talking about addressing the fundamentals of the reactionary Right by putting clear 140-character counters to theirs which aren’t condescending and overly intellectual, which are combative but targeting the opponents and not their (potential convert) followers. Talk about “bread, food, and land” to one group and “utopia” to another, and hold no qualms in the fact that they can mean the same thing. Lift the veil and reveal the oppositional talking heads for what they are: sycophantic bootlicking rabble-rousers living in extraordinary privilege and wealth in the inner-cities cordoned off from those whom they purport to represent. But don’t, please don’t do it using those words. I’m a condescending prick9 and I’m not the sort of person any politician should be emulating with the hopes of winning; condescension and verbosity don’t win elections. Nor does being sassy or bitter.10

In conclusion, I’ll put it plainly. To the Left: you need new grand ideas and to revive old ones with merit. People want change but they don’t want to be scared by it. Always emphasise the spend side instead of the tax side. Think of spending as giving away the sweets whilst taxes, no matter how fair and pro-worker, as like going to the dentist.11 Be ready to talk shit to your opponents and take the fight to them in all forums, whether its in long-form media interviews with tough journalists or in the tabloid gutter press or social media. Those who can’t do that or think they’re above that need not apply. I’ll give credit to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, he may have swung to the right on policy (which is definitely not what he should be doing), but he talks to the gutter and right-wing press, taking the fight to their home turf. 12

I would end by pointing the reader to ContraPoints, the prolific philosophic-political YouTuber, who published a quite interesting piece over a year ago on where the Left should be going in order to win. Also take a look at this piece in the Guardian on the idea of full employment as an example of disruptive and potentially popular policy.

  1. I choose to avoid neo-liberalism as a term in this blog post as it has too many negative connotations on the Left and may distort what I’m trying to articulate. ‘New-liberalism’ I define as meaning the tenants of classical liberalism as applied to the late 20th century. ↩︎

  2. Much of the world is still today reigned over by a monarch, albeit as a powerless one. See HRH. ↩︎

  3. I refer to climatological disruption separate from the economic and social so as to emphasise its importance as an underlying factor. However, it itself does not in my view form a ‘third head’ of disruption. The Left needs to learn this and emphasise the importance of climate always through the socio-economic lens, rather than a lens of virtue. ↩︎

  4. Relatively new ↩︎

  5. Parliamentary juries are the idea of ‘raffling’ off a subset of parliamentary seats at random to anybody on the electoral roll. Some more radical proposals are too raffle off the entire parliament. It would create something like how a jury functions in a courtroom, but in respect to legislation and public policy. ↩︎

  6. It is these concepts that have always and will forever distinguish Left from Right, in my view, perhaps owing to the neurological causes of political affiliation ↩︎

  7. Excuse the clumsy Star Wars reference, I know Han really shot first. ↩︎

  8. Think about having a massive 100+ page policy document going into an election that is available to journalists, properly developed to emphasise the most potent points, then distilled into its most useful parts for campaigning. This is not unlike what is already done in the United Kingdom with party manifestos. ↩︎

  9. Though trying to fix that ↩︎

  10. Bill Shorten, I’m looking at you. ↩︎

  11. People know they need to go to the dentist. Children, however, do not, and require careful guidance. ↩︎

  12. An even better leader, one who recognises the impending death of the new-liberal consensus and who also participates and engages even more across all forums, would be Wayne Swan. Too bad he left the parliament, and too bad his colleagues didn’t see what an asset they had. He may be federal president of the ALP but he can’t do much from outside the parliament. ↩︎