Imagination and ideas: Where does the left go from here?

Progress requires reflection — revolution, even more so. There’s an ongoing debate about the different alternatives being offered by this current of thought

A young woman holds up a sign during a protest march, warning about the dangers of climate change, in Madrid, on September 27, 2019.
A young woman holds up a sign during a protest march, warning about the dangers of climate change, in Madrid, on September 27, 2019.Marcos del Mazo (Marcos del Mazo (LightRocket / Getty Images)

Progress requires reflection – revolution, even more so.

The left has traditionally been a political space prone to academic debate, the discussion of ideas, the creation of theories and the endless generation of texts. While it’s enough for the conservative right to simply bolster existing logic, progressivism has, at its core, the need to offer alternatives. Thus, the history of the left is marked by ideological conflicts, splits and confrontations over theoretical issues. This end of the political spectrum has also been frequently accused of indulging in intellectual finesse, moving away from popular sentiments – especially when compared to the anti-intellectualism that runs rampant in the extreme right.

There’s a widespread feeling that the imagination of the left has exhausted itself. One thinks of the popular quote that is often attributed to philosopher Frederic Jameson: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Cultural theorist Mark Fisher, meanwhile, lamented the permanence of “capitalist realism” – that is, the idea that there’s no alternative to capitalism (something that Margaret Thatcher already said, though she hailed from the other end of the political spectrum).

For this reason – and in view of the political decline of the left and the growth of right-wing and far-right options – it’s interesting to see who the left’s references are today. EL PAÍS even conducted a survey to put together a list of the most influential thinkers among progressives at the moment. They include Karl Marx, Judith Butler, Antonio Gramsci, Thomas Piketty, Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Jürgen Habermas, Karl Polanyi and Walter Benjamin.

“The left is based on the Enlightenment idea of human progress – on the conviction that our future is in our hands and that we must get involved,” explains historian Juan Sisinio Pérez Garzón, who has written about the history of the left in Spain, which has its roots in the French Revolution’s motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (although the right has had great success in capitalizing on the concept of freedom). From 1789 until the present, programs consisting of “maximums” – revolutionary ideas in search of a new and better society – have warped into programs of “minimums.”

“Social-democratic pragmatism has opted to accept the free market, liberal democracy and the national framework,” the historian notes. “It has been learned that revolutionary violence doesn’t advance lasting social achievements any faster than through democratic channels.”

It’s worth asking what the ideological situation of the left is today, due to the repeated lack of imagination to propose new futures… especially when it seems that the future won’t even exist. “More than imagination, what is needed is a sense of justice,” says philosopher Laura Llevadot. Justice, she points out, is an urgent requirement, especially when inequality, precariousness, exploitation and exclusion exist. “For [justice to be achieved], no imagination is needed, nor regulatory utopias, nor fabulating other possible worlds,” she adds. “What’s expected of so-called ‘leftists’ – if something is still expected after so much betrayal – is that they don’t sell out to capital, that they stand up to it and don’t succumb to its imperatives of commodified creativity and imagination.”

On the one hand, there’s talk of a crisis within social democracy. Many attribute this to the fact that it has lost its essence, abandoning its beliefs by slowly subscribing to economic globalization. This erosion accelerated after the neoliberal revolution led by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s, which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. “However, if these were the main causes, we would have observed the progressive electorate move towards parties to the left of social democracy, which only happens to a minor extent,” says political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca. In any case, we are witnessing a gradual disappearance of the welfare state, which could be understood as the raison d’être of this trend. “Social democracy is in crisis if new ideas aren’t developed while maintaining the essence [of the ideology],” warns sociologist Manuel Castells. And what’s the essence? “The welfare state and its relationship with trade unionism. If that’s abandoned, [social democracy] will be liquidated,” Castells clarifies. For the sociologist, new ideas don’t come from parties, but rather, from social movements. Hence, it’s necessary to integrate them.

A future welfare state – or a new social contract – shouldn’t be copied from the previous one, which flourished in the European post-war period, where the reduction of inequality was combined with sustained economic growth following World War II. Today, you cannot count on trade unions to make up a powerful base, as they did in the 20th century. Rather, emerging movements must be taken into account – such as LGBTQ, anti-racist and feminist collectives – political transparency and democratic participation must be deepend, while climate change and the technological revolution have to be dealt with head-on. Perhaps the concept of a “basic income” should be considered, as machines take over several jobs.

A false dilemma?

It’s striking that the first place on the list of left-wing thinkers compiled by EL PAÍS is still occupied by Karl Marx – the great father of the classical left. Judith Butler – a prominent figure in queer theory – is close behind. This says a lot about the times we live in today, when another of the alleged causes of the crisis on the left is the schism that exists between the material left and the identity left. The material left or classical left worries about the economy, labor, housing, the redistribution of wealth and food supply. Meanwhile, the identity left – or post-material left – is focused on feminism, LGBTQ groups, oppressed minorities, postcolonial theory, anti-racism and so on. Curiously, environmentalism is usually included in the second ideological pack, perhaps because it was incorporated into the discourse of the (new) left in the turbulent 1960s, like the aforementioned identity struggles.

Are these two schools of thought irreconcilable? “No – and they never have been, until recently. The left used to want to help minorities materially, precisely by working to reduce inequality and thus incorporate people as full citizens. The more modern left, on the other hand, focuses on recognition – particularly on the recognition of difference,” explains Mark Lilla, a professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He’s one of the biggest critics of identity currents in the United States. In American universities, many critics see a breeding ground for ideas that were strongly influenced by the French philosophers of the second-half of the 20th century, such as Foucault and Deleuze. French theory would anchor its roots in postmodern continental philosophy and in the social movements of the 1960s. The right has denounced this “cultural Marxism” that originates on college campuses, holding it responsible for “cancel culture.” They are critical of the woke.

“What is being posed is a false dilemma: minorities are overrepresented among the working classes, and, conversely, the proportion of working classes is higher among racial minorities,” explains Éric Fassin, professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Paris 8. “There’s no reason to oppose the politics of recognition and redistribution, as distinguished by [feminist thinker] Nancy Fraser.” For Fassin, right-wing figures such as Trump or Le Pen are primarily interested in dividing the popular classes according to class, race, gender or sexual orientations. He thinks that the left must reject these false narratives. According to Nancy Fraser, the dilemma between the redistribution of wealth and sociocultural recognition is real… although it’s not obligatory to take sides. Rather, it’s necessary to form coalitions to respond through “multiple and intertwined” avenues to “multiple and intertwined” injustices within the economic and cultural spheres.

“A broad and inclusive left cannot act with its back to reality, moved by nostalgia for a time that will never return,” says Sánchez-Cuenca. If the left aims to protect the vulnerable and increase social equality, there should be no difference between majority or minority groups, or between identity and class, because class is also an identity. “The challenge consists of establishing links between groups that are culturally very heterogeneous,” the political scientist explains. In some countries this hasn’t been achieved: sectors of the working class – the traditional base of the left – have fallen for the siren songs of the extreme right and the culture wars, many times voting against their own interests.

Degrowth and other post-capitalist views

Some segments of the left still look to the future with hope, or with the intention of avoiding a systemic collapse, as in the case of the degrowth movement. This ideology – pioneered by economists such as Serge Latouche – proposes a reduction in global consumption and production. It opposes the continuous growth around which the economy is structured, on a planet that has been pushed to the brink. “We know that the main causes of human well-being are having access to public health, public education and economic security… [these are] the things that matter. And, to achieve them, we don’t need to grow,” opines anthropologist Jason Hickel, the author of Less is More. His proposals include tax increases on wealth (the upper classes, he points out, are responsible for 72% of global emissions) or establishing both maximum and minimum incomes.

Mass consumption is key to the current situation, both quantitatively and qualitatively: “If capitalism has triumphed, it’s because – unlike communism – it has understood how to appropriate narcissistic desire. It has promised fulfillment, visibility, creativity, petty-bourgeois luxuries [and] controlled addictions, while the moralistic left has limited itself to lecturing people,” explains philosopher Laura Llevadot. She emphasizes the “libidinal” character of capitalism, as thinkers such as Mark Fisher, Nick Land, Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari have noted. Llevadot proposes a notion of “post-capitalist desire,” which could be explained as a resistance to the desires that capital imposes on us: a bigger house, a faster car, free pornography, a few beers on the terrace… desires that have insidious characteristics and are never fully satisfied, eroding the hopes of the younger generations as they play out.

Other groups propose thinking about how to accelerate the technological and social contradictions of capitalism, in order to reach a new historical phase. Nick Srnicek is one of the greatest exponents of left-wing “accelerationism.” The Canadian academic doesn’t believe that left-wing thought is exhausted… although it might have seemed so at the turn of the last century, when the dominant position of capitalism was accepted and post-capitalist thought was neglected. “However, that situation has changed in the last 15 years… since the 2008 [financial] crisis, I think there has been a flowering of ideas about how we could organize society in better ways,” he notes. He’s referring to the currents of ecosocialism, platform socialism, projects on post-work and basic income, concerns about the use of free time and other theories that visualize alternatives for the future.

Faced with a future full of challenges – in a time of confusion and sorrow, according to historian Pérez Garzón – it’s worth remembering that the history of the left is not necessarily the history of defeat. To a large extent, today’s society is the result of the struggles faced by those who came before us. Looking back, we can verify that universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, the eight-hour workday, decent wages, improved working conditions, unemployment benefits, health insurance, the right to strike, the fight against sexist violence or the right to abortion are attributable to left-wing movements and legislation. “All of these are [victories] of the left. So, I don’t think that we’re facing a lack of ideas: it’s just that we have new challenges to face on the horizon,” the historian concludes.

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