The Left of my parents' generation was already losing momentum by the time I came of age. I got to college in time to be exposed to the glories of the "New" Left. No more would the fight be to make the country safe for the poor, the "new" left would concentrate their fire on cultural issues. Workers were no longer the "vanguard of the revolution," minorities that had been historical victims of legal repression were. Having "correct" opinions on modern art was much more important than how pensions were organized. Math was too ridged. Science was just another religion. Technological literacy was for the great unwashed. There were no facts beyond rational debate—just opinions and both informed and uninformed had equal standing.
The whole agenda of the "new" left was validated in a way when in 1970, 200 construction workers beat up some anti-Vietnam War protestors in what would be called the "Hard Hat Riot." "See we told you—workers will never be of the left" become their slogan.
Of course, what is clear in hindsight certainly wasn't clear at the time. At least not to me. In fact, I was confused for years. I would go to my DFL caucuses and sit through three hour meetings wondering why economic issues would never come up even though serious time would always be devoted to the gonad issues. In fact, the ONLY time I remember economics being discussed by the what now passed for the "left" in Minnesota, was in September of 1993 when some labor guys teamed up with small farmers to organize a meeting with our DFL Representative Tim Penny hoping to convince him to vote against NAFTA. Penny showed but wouldn't even shake our hands. The fix was in. We were talking to a wall.
The new definition of a "liberal" was someone who could embrace some of history's most anti-Producer legislation so long as they could check off most of the cultural and political correctness boxes. For several years, I lived in a college town where academics who wouldn't THINK of using an offensive term for protected minorities found it respectable to embrace all the madnesses of neoliberalism. When it became trendy to read the Economist, I almost threw up.
Since I could not understand the "new" left and their non-economic agenda, I found refuge in spending thousands of hours trying to find out anything I could about Midwestern progressive movements—back when economics dominated the political debates. It was a wonderful experience but it had an unfortunate side effect—every time I would read a book on something like how the Social Security legislation was first written, I would become even more aware of how absurdly trivial the "new" left agenda was. But 35 years of trivialization of the "Atlantic left" has taken its toll. Now that economics has barged back onto center stage in USA and the EU, the left has almost no intellectual horsepower available.
The essay below is originally from LeMonde Diplomatique. It is superb—read it all. Halimi points out that the left in Latin America is poised to become more important because they have been dealing with economic issues for at least a decade. As someone who is especially impressed by Argentina's refusal to cave to the neoliberals since the Kirchners came to power, I think this is a remarkable insight.
Where Did the Left Go?
by SERGE HALIMI
The Occupy Wall Street protests in the US are also directed against the Street’s representatives in the Democratic Party and the White House.
The protesters probably don’t know that Socialists in France still consider Barack Obama exemplary. Is there a misunderstanding? Those who are unwilling or unable to attack the pillars of the neoliberal order (financialization, globalization of movements of capital and goods) are tempted to personalize the disaster, to attribute the crisis in capitalism to poor planning or mismanagement by their political opponents. In France it’s Sarkozy, in Italy Berlusconi, in Germany Merkel, who are to blame. And elsewhere?
Elsewhere, and not only in the US, political leaders long considered as models by the moderate left also face angry crowds. In Greece, the president of the Socialist International, George Papandreou, is pursuing a policy of extreme austerity: privatizations, cuts in the civil service, and delivering economic and social sovereignty to a ultra-neoliberal “troika.” The conduct of the Spanish, Portuguese and Slovenian governments reminds us that the term “left” is now so debased that it is no longer associated with any specific political content.
The current French Socialist Party spokesman explains the impossible situation of European social democracy very clearly: in his new book Tourner la page, Benoît Hamon writes:
“In the European Union, the European Socialist Party is historically associated, through the compromise linking it with Christian democracy, with the strategy of liberalizing the internal market, with obvious consequences for social rights and public services. Socialist governments negotiated the austerity measures that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund wanted. In Spain, Portugal and Greece, opposition to the austerity measures is naturally directed against the IMF and the European Commission, but also against the socialist governments … Part of the European left no longer denies that it is necessary, like the European right, to sacrifice the welfare state in order to balance the budget and please the markets. … We have blocked the march of progress in several parts of the world. I cannot resign myself to this.”
Others think the debasement is irreversible because it is connected to the gentrification of European socialists and their lack of contact with the world of work.
The Brazilian Labor Party (PT), a generally moderate party, thinks the Latin American left should take over from the Old World left, which is too capitalist, too Atlanticist, and unconvincing in its claims to defend the interests of the people: “The ideological leadership of the left is moving to a new part of the world,” according to a document for the PT Congress in September. “South America is the salient example. … The left in European countries, which has had such an influence on the left worldwide since the 19th century, has not managed to produce an adequate response to the crisis and appears to be capitulating to the forces of neoliberalism.” The decline of Europe may also signal the end of the ideological influence of the continent where trade unionism, socialism and communism were born. Europe now appears more resigned than others to their demise.
Is it all over? Can voters and leftwing militants concerned with the content rather than the label hope to fight the right (in western countries, too) when the parties they vote for have converted to neoliberalism but still have the power to win elections? It has become a ritual performance: the distinction between reforming left and conservative is maintained during the election campaign by an optical illusion. Then, given the chance, the left runs the country just like its opponents, taking care not to upset the economic order.
Most leftwing candidates with their eye on a post in government insist that social change is needed, even urgently needed. But to bring about such change, they must see more in it than election hype and they must win the election. And it is on this precise point that the moderate left lectures the “radicals” and other “protesters”. It is not waiting for a “great debate” or dreaming of an alternative society far removed from the world, inhabited by exceptional people. To quote the French Socialist leader François Hollande, it does not intend to “thwart rather than try. Hold back rather than act. Resist rather than conquer.” It believes that “not beating the right means keeping it alive, and that means choosing it. “The radical left would prefer, in Hollande’s words, “to exploit any anger for all it is worth” rather than “opt for realism.” more