The ineffectiveness of Leftist political parties in achieving worthwhile objectives has spawned a small library of comment and criticism. Although politics has rules for getting things done, it often seems as though the Left either doesn’t understand them, or doesn’t want to. Is there anything that could be done to make the Left more effective?
Political parties and movements today which could be described as “Left” or “Notionally Left” (see definitions later) fail to achieve their objectives so often (if they even try, that is) that it has become proverbial. There was a recent very interesting discussion about this, on the indispensable Naked Capitalism site, provoked in turn by an article by Ian Welsh. What is there to add? Well, perhaps a few reflections from someone who spent a long time in government, who watched governments try (and sometimes fail) to get things done, and who saw attempts by outsiders to influence governments that were almost always ineffective. I think there are a few lessons here that may be of general interest.
First of all, I’m going to make use of my familiar metaphor of politics as engineering. We’re talking here about getting results that the Left wants, in an environment where pressures on a political system come from all directions. A Leftist government has to be able to recognise and withstand pressures from outside. A Leftist opposition has to be able to bring more force to bear on the government to cede on an issue than is being applied by others not to cede on the issue. Here, I am deliberately not restricting myself to how Leftist governments should implement their agendas, because politics is much more than that. I am also, and indeed primarily, concerned with how to make governments do what the Left wants, by bringing an irresistible and properly targeted amount of force to bear on them. This is always difficult (the more so if the government has a manifesto commitment, or is otherwise very strongly committed to a policy), but it can be done.
This is essentially the logic of Curzio Malaparte’s famous book Technique du coup d’état, first published in 1931, and long out of print in English. Malaparte famously insisted that "the problem of the conquest and defence of the State is not a political one ... it is a technical problem,” and gave examples from recent history, notably from the Russian revolution. If we substitute “political system” for “state,”that is essentially the case as well. What this means is that abstractions like “public opinion”, or considerations of morality, rationality, force of argument or even common sense, rarely have an impact on actual political decisions, unless they incite supporters of a particular position to act in an effective way, or unless they can mobilise overwhelming force. It’s like having an underdog football team that everyone would like to see win, and deserves some success at last: but they still have to put the ball in the net more frequently than their opponents.
Now, before we go any farther, let’s just tidy up some definitions. I’m not going to waste time down in the rabbit-hole of arguments about what the genuine “Left” is. I’m going to take it to be those groups who want a decent, fair and just society, where poverty, homelessness and unemployment are no longer threats, and where free education and health-care are available to everyone. Add to that a society where extremes of wealth no longer exist and the management of the economy is in the hands of the people in some fashion, and you have a sketch of a minimum set of criteria that nearly all of those of us who claim allegiance to “The Left” would support. After that, there are a host of practical arguments about, where, how, how much, what else, and so forth, but I’ll take this to be the essential core. So how do we go about getting these desirable objectives, and why is it that in the last couple of generations western societies have moved further away from them, rather than closer?
Partly, this is because the old Left has been replaced by something I call the Notional Left: parties which have kept the same names, and in some cases are prepared to sound like Leftists if it’s good politics, but have essentially been converted into extreme social and economic liberal parties. In general it is this “Left” I refer to in what follows, but I’ll try to keep the distinction clear.
I’ll start with some reflections on how political decisions are made, then move on to how the Left in all its guises seems never to have understood this, and I’ll conclude with some ideas for actually getting things done, against opposition.
Decisions, it is perhaps necessary to stress, are always made by people. They are seldom made by individuals alone, but most often by groups, including groups which may be outside the formal decision-making process itself. Even decisions formally made “personally” often have to take account of what is acceptable to others. The focus of any political campaign, therefore, has to be on individuals, with names, opinions, and potential weaknesses that can be exploited. Unless individuals who have the power to make decisions are deliberately targeted and subjected to adequate pressure, nothing will change and nothing will get done. Conversely, a Leftist government in power that does not identify its enemies as individuals, and then deliberately work to undermine their capacity for nuisance, will not last long.
Perhaps this sounds unattractively clinical and technical, and detached from considerations of ethics, or even political theory. But in fact, there is nothing more dispiriting and depressing than seeing representatives of causes you support failing hopelessly because they do not understand the basic rules of politics, while their opponents do. But from where comes this lack of understanding? It’s easy to say, and not wholly untrue, that the Right is interested in power, whereas the Left is more interested in feeling good about itself. But actually, idealism isn’t unknown on the Right either: the peasants of Vendée who rose against the Republic in 1793, or the students and intellectuals who joined Franco’s Falange in 1936, were ready to fight, and if necessary die, for what they believed in. Many did. And that perhaps gives us one clue: when the Right talks about fighting, it means it literally. When the Left talks about fighting it means signing petitions.
So why doesn’t the Left act ruthlessly for causes it believes in? Why would it rather lose the battle than do something it is uncomfortable with? There are a series of answers to this, and none of them explain everything completely, but together they explain quite a lot.
The first is the illusion of moral superiority. I don’t mean by this that the ideas of the genuine Left aren’t necessarily objectively better, nor that every idea of the Notional Left is necessarily flawed. I’m referring to the illusion that better ideas will naturally and inevitably win out against worse ideas, irrespective of the relationships of power involved. We are right, therefore we will win. But ideas in themselves have no agency. The most wonderful political theory in the world will perish if it is not taken up and promoted by people with power. The Left systematically misunderstands this: our ideas are superior, they feel, therefore they should triumph, and if they don’t it’s because the people are too stupid. This leads to a kind of elitist impatience with ordinary people, and a belief that they will eventually understand, if only you lecture them long enough.
A good example of this is the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s to the 1980s in the UK. Largely, though not exclusively, concentrated around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it enjoyed a particular lease of life in the 1980s, as a result of the bellicose policies of the Reagan administration, and the NATO decision to station Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Europe (ironically, because the Europeans had begun to doubt the US commitment to them.) Although nuclear disarmament as an objective was never supported by more than a third of the population, the anti-nuclear lobby acted as if their moral superiority was established, and they could lecture others from a position of superiority. To put it mildly, you don’t convince governments that way.
In addition, few in the anti-nuclear lobby bothered to inform themselves about the issues. Moral fervour was more important than knowing what they were talking about. Back in those days, colleagues of mine were engaged in a laborious correspondence with anti-nuclear groups who clearly had no idea of the basic facts. One approach about nuclear safety, as I recall, was only comprehensible once you realised that the militants concerned believed that Trident missiles were liquid-fuelled (they were not) and stored in submarines alongside (in fact they were offloaded). No government is going to take people who are that ignorant seriously. By contrast, well-researched and specific comments or questions moderately expressed, cause a lot more work for governments and are much more likely to influence them.
The second is a narcissistic obsession with correctness and purity. (In spite of what is sometimes suggested, the Left can be extremely determined and ruthless: but only with its own supporters.) Defeat is preferable to any compromise. Half a loaf, or even three quarters of one, is not acceptable. But in fact, politics is essentially incremental. You set an objective, you reach it, you look for the next one. But that, of course, requires a plan of campaign and a willingness to think strategically and over the long term. Groups of what I have called the Notional Left no longer have this patience or this discipline.
Moreover, as political parties in general have become more professional, success means success in the party, not with the electorate. From the days in the 1980s when Labour Party militants in the UK talked about “not appeasing” the voters, it was obvious that the days of mass party politics were numbered, and that henceforth careers would be made purely through cultivating the support of party members. Social media has immensely amplified this problem: many Notional Leftists live in a continuous bubble inhabited only by people who think like them, and who fight viciously over minor nuances and differences in emphasis.
The third is the flight from responsibility. Being in opposition not only maintains the purity of your ideas, it means you never have to meet the challenges of implementing them against opposition. Oh, you have perhaps paid an NGO to write a complicated policy paper, but your formal discourse will be couched in very general terms. For example, you demand a statutory minimum wage. Fine, but now you’re the government. By when? How much? What exceptions? What about part-time workers? What about apprentices and people on work experience? Could it not be unfair to women? How do you answer criticisms that it will hurt the economy? All of these questions have answers, but they take time, and more importantly they expose potential differences between you and your colleagues. Stick to opposition: it’s easier and you never have too say you’re sorry.
This, I am sure, is why many governments of the Notional Left avoid difficult issues, even ones that are actually popular with the electorate. A good example is the US Democratic Party’s refusal to pass a law about abortion. Now there’s nothing particularly “Left” about that subject: it was decriminalised over the years by western governments of all political shades. But it does seem to frighten the Democrats stupid, and it’s easy to see why. As soon as you try to formulate a law, you have to make choices: how many weeks, what circumstances, who has which rights etc. Back in the 60s and 70s when other western countries went through this argument, political life was much more consensual, and the decision to decriminalise was made without too much fuss. These days, as with any similar subject, everyone will stake out their position, radicals will call the less radical tools of patriarchic oppression, just as the even more radical will apply the same label to them. Not only would the party risk tearing itself apart, but there is then the need to take responsibility for, and defend, whatever you eventually decide upon, from critics on all sides. In the end, subjects of that sort are just too difficult. Better to be in opposition.
By contrast, consider the legalisation of homosexual marriage. I’ll take the French example, because it is the one I’m most familiar with. It was among the sixty pre-electoral promises of François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, fifty-nine of which were forgotten immediately after his victory in 2012. Yet Hollande’s government made much of this legalisation, and even today, Socialist politicians (if you can find one) will proudly point to it as the keystone achievement of Hollande’s presidency, and indeed just about the only one. Which is curious, when you consider the tiny number of French people who have taken advantage of the new law. In reality, the pressure for the initiative came from pressure groups of middle-aged, property-owning homosexuals, who wanted a way round the very strict French inheritance laws. These laws would have made it impossible for homosexual couples jointly owning property to have left that property to their partner on their death: it would have reverted to their family. This is the kind of decision that governments like taking: easy, doesn’t cost anything, appeases a pressure group that supports you, looks modern and progressive and is praised in large parts of the media. For an embattled government whose only policy was “the struggle against all forms of discrimination,” it was perfect.
The final weakness I want to comment on is that of performance. Now politics has and always has had its performative elements, and the traditional Left, in particular, with its marches, its demonstrations, its banners and its songs, has a rich and powerful heritage of them. But the problem is that the Notional Left has now mistaken performance for substantive action, and its politics has become nothing else but performative, under the assumptions, apparently, that its performative actions are a kind of magic, which will solve problems by themselves.
The classic example is demonstrations. Now, people who have demonstrated a lot in their lives tell me that demonstrations are not pointless: they promote solidarity, they maintain contact, they are a recruiting and publicity tool, and they help people not to feel isolated. All that’s true, but the fact is that, except for a tiny number of cases, they don’t make an iota of difference to the political calculus, nor do they influence the behaviour of governments at all. (Ironically, there were sizeable demonstrations against homosexual marriage in France, which the government simply ignored: it doesn’t matter who does the demonstrating.) Now, it is true that there have been cases where overwhelming numbers of people have demonstrated for a defined objective, and this has produced a result. The obvious example is the demonstrations in 1978 that finally persuaded the Shah of Iran to go into exile. (By contrast, the massive demonstrations in Algeria in 2019-21 resulted only in cosmetic changes.) But these positive results are so uncommon as to be worth writing about individually. Why?
The simple answer is that they have no direct effects on decision-makers, who may be only vaguely aware that they have even happened. The same applies to performative events in general, of which gluing yourself to paintings seems to be the latest. Such events, like demonstrations, attract publicity, and if that is your aim, fine. But they don’t change minds. The great anti-nuclear demonstrations of the 1980s had precisely zero effect on the British government, just as the demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003 were simply ignored.
This is all very puzzling for activists. After all, they argued in the 1980s, how could a government ignore hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding that Britain abandon nuclear weapons. Well, replied the government, fairly or unfairly, think of all the tens of millions of people who were not in the streets, and who supported keeping those very weapons. The same was true of the Iraq War demonstrations. Governments have one massive advantage in such circumstances: they only have to wait, and the demonstrators, strikers or self-gluers will get tired and give up.
In addition, of course, there are many counter-pressures brought to bear on governments which are far more powerful than performative protest. The strategic issues around nuclear weapons, like those around the Iraq war, are massive and complex, and performative actions have so little impact and visibility that they have to be understood to be futile. Now if public opinion is overwhelmingly against the government on an issue, if there is a lot of unease among the political class, then yes, demonstrations and other performative acts can have an effect, if only at the margins. It’s the old political rule at work: choose your battles wisely, and your immediate objectives even more wisely. Also be aware of countervailing pressures: it was inconceivable that a British government with a massive parliamentary majority was ever going to give up nuclear weapons. By contrast, mass demonstrations in several European countries against Cruise and Pershing missile were much more effective: the governments themselves were often unstable coalitions, and the stakes themselves were much lower.
The idea that what is important to you, and to the media, might not be important to the political system, is one that is very hard to accept. Mr Blair (who may well have been out of the country at the time) was probably briefly told about the demonstrations against the Iraq War by one of his junior Private Secretaries, only to forget immediately about it among a welter of other issues. That is the reality of politics and always has been.
So what’s the answer? Partly it’s that, just as political leaders ignore things that don’t affect them directly, so they take very seriously those things that do. That means that campaigns to change or accomplish things must be directed in such a way as to have a personal impact on those who make the decisions. This is not to condone insults and character assassinations, which in any case are usually totally ineffective. Rather, you have to bring pressure to bear on decision makers to do what you want which is stronger than pressures pointing the other way.
Let’s take a deliberately very simple example as a prototype. Assume that in your country a government with a small majority is trying to introduce educations“reforms” which will cut funding for schools, reduce the number of teachers, increase the role of the private sector, and so forth. These “reforms”, let us assume, are not entirely popular within the governing party, and widely unpopular in the country, and even with some of the media who support the government. But the Education Minister is deeply committed to the “reforms,” as is the Finance Minister (who is
hoping to save money), and the Prime Minister is worried about party unity and does not want to intervene. Several one-day strikes by teachers have had no effect (the Education Secretary was at an education outsourcing conference in the Bahamas at the time) and if anything have undermined public support. Nobody knows what to do.
If we consider the question as a technical one, it is clear that what is needed is to increase pressure on the Education Minister as an individual. How could that be done? Well, if the government system means that Ministers are elected politicians, then there is an obvious answer. You call a total and indefinite strike of teachers in the parliamentary constituency of the Education Minister only, starting in perhaps a week, thus giving him or her time for reflection. Strike funds can pay the wages of teachers, and arrangements can be made to provide places during the day for pupils whose parents work. Parents will be contacted individually and the reasons for the strike will be explained. They will be invited to write to the Minister as their local representative, expressing opposition to the “reforms.” At that point, the media will have a good story, and quite quickly the Minister themself will become the centre of a lot of coverage, supplemented by interviews with angry parents and opposition figures.
At that point, the strike action is extended to the Deputy Minister, with a warning that the Finance Minister’s constituency will be next. Meanwhile, the parliamentarians in the government party with the smallest majorities are selected, and receive personal letters asking them to publicly oppose the “reforms.” The threat does not need to be stated directly. You can start with the ten most vulnerable seats, for example. An internet site can be set up, where parents can see what their own parliamentarian has said, and perhaps start correspondence with them. Correctly managed, a campaign like this is highly likely to succeed.
It could be argued that this way of doing things is unethical, and possibly it is. But the fact is that nobody is forced to go into politics, and nobody is forced to aspire to high office. You want the rewards, you take the knocks. Above all, accusations of stigmatisation, bullying, persecution etc. should be treated as the empty noises they are. Or you can simply decide that these sorts of tactics are beneath you, or not morally acceptable, in which you allow the government to impose unpopular and damaging changes to the education system. But at least you can feel good about yourself, if that’s what’s really important to you.
Much the same logic applies to the activities of Leftist governments in office. Opposition to government policies does not come from abstractions like “the markets” or even the International Monetary Fund, which have no agency. It comes from specific individuals, who can be targeted and persuaded of the error of their ways. How can this be done?
One obvious weapon is money. Now I am not recommending bribery: or maybe I am, in the sense that in societies where paying for things is normal, it is necessary to pay for things if you want anything done. The US is a good case, where the entire political system is openly and transparently for sale, and it seems only sensible, therefore, to buy it, or at least part of it. Ten million dollars, sensibly disbursed, should suffice to buy US acquiescence to any initiatives by Leftist governments to which they might otherwise object. (If there is no Europe-US Friendship Society offering expenses-paid cultural tours of Europe to American politicians who behave themselves, I would really like to know why not.) Would this perhaps destroy a relationship of trust and confidence with the US government? Maybe, but you have to have that relationship in the first place, and you have to be are that it will endure, which with the US is never certain.
The same applies to banks, multinational corporations and giant internet companies. They are run by individuals and groups of individuals, not (yet) by AIs. It is possible for governments to make life difficult for such companies, and even more for individuals, if they have the will to do so. For example, such is the febrility and the hysteria of today’s stock market that the share prices of these companies can move massively, based on nothing except rumour. An invitation to some Internet mogul to rethink some initiative of theirs, against the possibility of losing ten per cent of their personal wealth in a share crash, is a powerful weapon.
Why does the Left (or at least the modern Notional Left) not do these things? After all, its leaders have shown they can be ruthless with the poor, the unfortunate and with rivals in their own party. There are a series of answers, of which perhaps the unkindest is that it’s easier to pick on the weak than the strong. Likewise, it is easier to pursue vague, progressive-sounding but ill-defined objectives where progress can never be satisfactorily measured, than it is to work tenaciously towards complex but worthwhile objectives.
Above all, though, what remains of the Left (largely, in fact, the Notional Left these days) no longer really believes in itself and what it is supposed to stand for. In the nineteenth century, Socialists like Jaurès and Kier Hardie saw, or even experienced, the terrible conditions in which most people lived, and adopted the abolition of poverty and the provision of free education, for example, as sacred political objectives. Todays’s Notional Left is largely removed from the lives of ordinary people, as much by choice as anything else. Its policies therefore amount to little more than the mass scratching of collective itches. So governments even of the genuine Left tend to be so unsure of themselves and their legitimacy that they make offers to compromise with their opponents at the very beginning. Yet compromise is something you do only under pressure: yes, of course, a consensus is always good if you can get it, but it’s never worth pursuing for its own sake, and is anyway a less good outcome, by definition, then a victory.
So can we have a few more victories, please?
Now that the Soviet Union is gone, and People Of Influence And Authority no longer have to toss the masses a bone or two, they would much prefer that we dissipate our energy on dreary arguments about cultural appropriation and how many LGTBQXYZPDQ can dance on the head of a pin, endless and endlessly performative struggle sessions, rather than raise questions about how the economic pie is sliced.
Put another way - to paraphrase Chris Hedges - elites will gladly discuss race, they will decry gender inequality most piteously, they will demonstrate a touching sensitivity to the rights of sexual and gender minorities so oppressed that they have not been discovered yet. Those same elites will not readily discuss economic class.
Or, in the negative formulation - if businesses were to stop opposing unionization of their workers, the result would be a transfer of wealth, of concrete material benefits, to brown and black and yellow and white working class people greater than all the allyship statements ever penned, all the diversity committees ever instituted, all the preferred pronoun tags ever attached to a corporate email. Which is precisely why they will not do this.
Very thoughtful essay. I wonder if, in the West, the Left-Right dichotomy is more illusion than substance. And if abiding by it actually retards meaningful political progress.
In the American formulation this dichotomy is more aptly labeled liberal-conservative. I remember during the Rovian triumphalism of the early century the US was said to be inherently conservative. I think it’s myopic to evaluate this with respect to electoral results and more worthwhile to do so with respect to material outcomes. Whether the “liberal” or “conservative” US party won, the policies that were implemented directed material benefits away from the public sphere towards the private sphere.
The truth is that both American liberals and American conservatives are capital “L” liberals who see politics as the empowerment of individuals over society, even at the expense of society. This can be plainly seen in the delusions of contemporary liberal and conservative “politics”. The former elevate the feelings of the individual and personal perception over material reality (see identity politics culminating in trans humanism). The latter believe in yeoman myths and think they can gate themselves from society, thus ignoring millennia of historical reality.
I understand that some people believe leftists and liberals to be different, I was once in that group. But the Left long ago succumbed to its liberal proclivities, who perhaps around the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943. Even those “leftists” that prioritize material outcomes over social symbolism only have fantasies and no pathways towards their goals. Think of a well meaning but useless politician that gave up in Vermont minute despite having his banner issue supported by more than two-thirds of al Americans. Of course “leftists” would say he added to the conversation. As you noted not even millions of people marching on western capitals to stop the invasion of Iraq got a word in edgewise in that conversation. I think the very act of self-characterization as a “leftist” is indicative of a lack of agency. If it’s material outcomes ye are after go red young man.
Of course even going red may not result in electoral victories, but it may clarify the madness of playing electoral games. After all recognizing that you’re being duped is the first step towards not being duped.