Here are a few modest ideas.
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.
“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 think something like this happened to Jeremy Corbyn. He enjoyed unparalleled support from a devoted membership but he failed to do the deed that needed doing: to purge the Labour Party off its right wing, something the members were clamouring for.
Contrast that with right winger Starmer’s actions: he lost no time at all in causing the left wing to give up and even expelled Corbyn from the party he’d just been leading! And using made up allegations! 😂😂😂 You have to admire the chutzpa! No concern for democratic process, just pure power politics.
Thank you. That was a fascinating insight into potential political strategies for left-aligned parties. They say terrorism is the surgical strike capability of the oppressed, but this idea of targeting individuals is indeed an interesting political strategy for progressives. I'd never really thought about how inconsequential demonstrations and petitions are for the politicians involved - "don't confuse discussion with action". I read Dominic Cummings and AstralCodexTen (I found you through your level-headed comments on Scott's substack) and thoroughly enjoy your writing, the topics you cover and especially your non-US-centric style. Really refreshing take on the world - and your understated experience of international politics really comes through.
Instead of the Notional Left, we should call it the "Left Over"
I wonder if these failings apply to governments of the Chávez/Maduro/Castro type.
Just one observation, it’s perhaps not very accurate to think of Falange Española in 1936 as Franco’s (he wasn’t a member nor the founder). Maybe not even a sympathiser, other than in general terms.
Here’s one of the idiosyncrasies of fascism, for those who argue that the Ukrainian government is not fascist “because the president is Jewish”: its adaptation to existing conditions and tenuous ideological identity.
Franco’s embattled bourgeois-conservative catholic traditionalism felt threatened by the “progressive”, modern, populist Falange of Primo de Rivera. Nevertheless, Franco, after assuming its leadership and denuding the party of any independent power, made use of Falange for its obvious success as a movement in articulating and organising society, and in providing some sort of ideology. Thus, Spanish fascism became Francoism.
"political leaders ignore things that don’t affect them directly, so they take very seriously those things that do”.
Indeed, as I recall, Downing Street only sat down to talk turkey with the IRA after the IRA had lobbed two 3" mortar rounds into the back yard of... #10 Downing Street.
The tube was found a block over, inside a parked UPS van with a hole in its roof.
An excellent essay. Pity Aurelien did not analyze why the anti-Vietnam war protests clearly succeeded whereas the anti-Iraq war protests did not. Many of the same people, myself included, participated in both.
"what is the answer?" It is very simple, not touched upon in your essay, although it is not very nice: violence. If we look at what the Left has achieved over the decades since the 19th century, what proportion of it has come from violence?
I cannot but agree on the general themes: « Notional Left » has disconnected itself from reality and the actual needs of the People it pretends to defend. Around here we call them « gauche caviar » or « Cuplis Sozis ». This state of affair is highly regrettable since the « Blue Collar Class » as any other Class of Workers, deserves a political force capable to negotiate / balance in order to limit what otherwise « pure predation » is doing.
"The US is a good case, where the entire political system is openly and transparently for sale"....... oh surely not!
I jest of course. I would describe myself a moderately right wing although I have sympathies with some of Aurelien's comments about what the left stand for. However, in todays world I am apparently a right wing racist & fascist for some of my own beliefs. I guess what I am coming to realize more and more is that the "left" today are just effectively "hard social liberals". As others have mentioned here that is the problem that is destroying our social construct.
If anyone wants an example of a left wing movement that is successful, its Sinn Fein in Ireland. Their background in *ahem* direct action means they have to be taken seriously. They are relentlessly populist, even if it means pursuing utterly contradictory policies. It works.
As an example here in Dublin of what is wrong with the conventional left, on the weekend there was a big march in favour of refugees. Judging from the photos, everyone looked very smug and happy with themselves for being so humane. Nobody bothered asking the question (which is often raised by working immigrants) as to why refugees should get favourable treatment over people who worked hard to get visas/citizenship via the correct legal means. But, to show the left is the left, today twitter is full of arguments over an incident when members of the mainstream left shouted 'you are not welcome here, go home' to non-white marchers who were members of the Green Party. Yes indeed they did. Why? Well, apparently for some reason nobody can quite explain, the Green Party are blamed for the refugee mess because they are part of the coalition. And that justified shouting 'go home' to non-whites at the march.
So, nobody benefited from the march, the left felt smug, the Green party clutched their pearls. Sinn Fein stayed away. Guess who will benefit electorally.
"Which is curious, when you consider the tiny number of French people who have taken advantage of the new law"
A thing about minority rights is that only minorities benefit from them. That's the point. So it's not a failure if majorities don't take them up.
A thing about rights in general is that you deserve them, rather than wresting them by force of numbers.
Thank you for the realism.
Excellent. I hope the appropriate young people are reading this.
This is an excellent essay which hopefully could become an important foundation for an honest debate about the Left and its future.
For starters, I have a few questions I would like to raise:
Your observation that the notational left no longer really believes in itself-- is this also true of the Left, in general and if not, what is the contemporary evidence, in your opinion, backing this assumption?
Your observation that the Left has had great difficulty identifying accurately groups of decision-makers and policy initiators within powerful institutions who need to be the focus of different types of inside and out side pressure seems right on the mark. But what are the reasons for the left having this difficulty? Two reasons not discussed may be fear and ideological blindness.
For example the blog Naked Capitalism was extremely reluctant, for many many years to admit the powerful role of institutions and individual decision-makers operating within the national security state (NSA, CIA etc.). because of an apparent fear of not being taken seriously as political analysts if they endorsed any dimensions of a "deep-state" perspective which they apparently tended to associate with the evil Right and other conspiracy wackos from different parts of the political spectrum.
In addition the blog has always seemed to largely advocate a type of left model of government that supported economic and political centralization--although this tendency has quite recently been allowed to be critiqued (especially around the issue of Central Bank digital currency).
You also argue persuasively that ideas within themselves have no agency but is does sound from what you say that your firmly believe that a key dimension of politics is the idea of the inevitability of a friend-enemy distinction. But does such a distinction come down to a matter of philosophical and practical choice by the individual political participant?