By Robert Wood
In re-building the idea of a global left, we must learn from the historical mistakes and victories of previous eras. Communism was the former thesis of such a coalition, with attendant spin offs of third worldism, socialist democracy, and, of course, revolution. There were splinters in such a grouping that ranged from Fidel Castro to Lee Kwan Yu. But all built from a common language that had antecedents in Marx amongst other philosophers. If Communism was the thesis, the negation was the left’s very own inside man, what we might call the liberalism of a globalised present, one that sought to co-ordinate itself around the freedom of the individual and could not apprehend its own moment in time, a kind of perpetual post-modernist defense of civil liberties rather than a way of viewing the world through solidarity and group assembly.
The progressive traditions of the United States were presented as freedoms on a world scale. There is, after all, a weaker trade union movement in the continental United States than there is in Western Europe and the shift in economic power reflected the ideological distinctions. The European Union was formed as one response to this. Everywhere from Denmark to Spain, it is hardly an insult to call someone a ‘socialist’, which does not quite match my experience of America, which partly explains part of Bernie Sanders rhetorical appeal.
Our left party here, down under, is a Labour Party that was formed out of the trade union movement and though commentators often liken it to the Democrats it philosophical organising principles are determinedly socialist. In the last generation that has changed, with the percentage of the workforce that is unionised falling from 70% to less than 20%. This might be part of the Americanisation that has happened in the antipodes in general, but it must be situated after the fall of the Wall and the end of the USSR as the leftist metropolitan.
So if Communism was the thesis and American liberalism the antithesis that lead the way for a global left in bygone days, what does announcing a progressive agenda look like in our time, right now? Should we simply fold ourselves into the juggernaut that is China, combining something of the state and market economy, and if that is the case, how do we think of human rights, freedom of the press, civil liberties? Should we simply look to Russia, combining the strong leadership with a proud nation building agenda, forgetting gay rights, crimes against citizens abroad, and the natural resource extraction that costs the very earth? There are, of course, other places to look, and to think that the Cold War was one waged between capitalism and Communism led by the United States and the USSR, forgets what is to be found when we look to those who took the best of both worlds and chartered their own path, which perhaps finds its apotheosis in India’s Non-Aligned Movement.
There is a strong and critical history in the decolonisation movements in India, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia. This is where the Wars in Vietnam are not viewed through an imperial lens but from the ground up. To be sure this is ground with workers, which allows us to embrace the philosophical language of Marx and others, but it is raced and empirical in such a way that we might begin to look back and ask ourselves what can we learn from this to re-invigorate our idea of a global left? What does solidarity look like in our time and how might we cultivate that through local actions that reach into new networks that are far away?
We can trace commodities if we want a classical analysis, but that might just lead us back to a modified thesis (communism). We can trace rights if we want a different classical analysis, but that might just lead us back to a modified antithesis (liberalism). Might we begin to think through place, to find in Max Weber’s idea of ‘lifestyle’ a notion of how we are living right now, to give us a new language of action that responds to our very present dangers. It might not be about being nostalgic for class and materialism, as broad moments derived from nineteenth century England and the industrial revolution. Nor might it be any good if we vainly cling to the shibboleths that came from identity politics and the campaigns of the second half of the century. There is still work to do in both those areas, but speaking from where I now stand, what might matter is a politics of territory. This is not about economics or the body, and nor is it a greenwashing of those positions. Rather, it starts with redrawing the map about what coalitions there were from the Cold War and its aftermath.
I, after all, have lived in capitalist cities (New York) and in communist country towns (Kochi in Kerala). I have visited sites and spaces of capital as well as toured contemporary China and formerly closed Cuba. But in them I do not find a higher synthesis of what a global left can become, not in the language that is antiquated. But we need something different for our times, which are revolutionary in their own way, not least because of digital technology and what they used to call the information superhighway. To my mind, that means waking up the suburbs, means creating a new suburbanism, for that is where the lifestyle majority live in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, but that is what the majority of consumers in India and Africa aspire to. Perhaps this does not mean there will be Ikea bookshelves in Soweto, but I would not rule it out, precisely because the suburbs are the peak of consumption now is. And thinking through an identity of that place as a leftist agenda and how it ties in to questions of solidarity, basic rights from health to education to water, through access over and above welfare might means we come closer to a true consciousness of our own time and can realise we are revolutionaries with work to do and coalitions to build that reach beyond our very limited borders.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.