Editors’ note: Back in May 2012, economist and founding Triple Crisis contributor Jayati Ghosh delivered, as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics, a lecture titled “The Emerging Left in the ‘Emerging’ World.” In it, she highlights the ways in which a new and varied “emerging” left across the so-called developing world is departing from some of the tenets of 20th century socialism (in both its social democratic and state socialist forms), as well as elements of continuity with the past. The combination of the new and the old represent an appealing vision of socialism—and one that is much better than anything simply dreamed up by a lone thinker, since it is something really happening in the world today.
We are happy to be able to present an edited version of the lecture, serialized in four parts, today and each of the following three Wednesdays, and hope that it will provoke lively discussion.
The global left is much more dynamic, especially in the South, than most people perceive. Many left movements—in Latin America, Africa, and developing Asia—are proceeding from a rejection of capitalism to imagining alternatives. As their views about what constitutes a desirable alternative to capitalism have shifted, they have come to question several key aspects of 20th century socialist orthodoxy. Here, we look at seven features of emerging left movements that suggest a move away from traditional socialist ideas, plus two important areas of continuity with the leftist thinking of the past.
Of course, there is not just one single “emerging left,” even in any single world region. Left politics and left positions have always been extremely diverse, all the more so now.
For much of the 20th century, it was easier to talk about an overarching socialist framework, a “grand vision” within which more specific debates were conducted. While there were many strands of socialism, with fierce and sometimes violent conflicts between them, they shared a common fundamental vision. At the risk of oversimplification, they all saw the working class as the fundamental agent of positive change, capable (once organized) of transforming not only existing economic relations but also the wider society and culture.
More recently, the very idea of a grand vision has been in retreat, battered first by the failings of “actually existing socialism” in various incarnations, and more lately by the ferocious triumphalism of an unfettered “free market” capitalism. Indeed, the only grand vision that dominated the late 20th century was that of the market as a self-regulating and supremely efficient mechanism for organizing economic life.
Despite the “anti-government” rhetoric associated with it, “free market” or “neoliberal” capitalism was never really about reducing the role of the state in economic life. Rather, it was about changing the nature of state intervention—away from its ameliorative and regulatory functions (as exemplified, in the global North, by the U.S. “New Deal” and western European social democracy), and towards an open defense of the interests of large capital. The “close partnership of capital and the capitalist state,” to quote the great Marxist theorist of the state, Ralph Miliband, was never really all that disguised. With the government responses to the global crises of the last half decade, however, it has become too overwhelming to conceal. The supposed ideology of free markets has been laid bare for all to see as a cover for the ever-greater concentration of capital, and the use of the state to accelerate that process.
In much of the developing world, and in parts of Europe and North America, the majority are no longer willing to quietly accept the unevenly shared burdens of the capitalist crisis. Even as resistance to global capitalism builds up in both South and North, however, it tends to be accompanied by the gloomy perception that grand socialist visions of the future are no longer possible. A basic lack of confidence in any other way of organizing economic life still permeates mass protests in Europe and especially the United States. Indeed, much of the popular protest across the world today is still essentially about “resistance” rather than “transformation.” It is engaged primarily in a rearguard action to restrain the worst excesses of current capitalism—to act as a civilizing and moderating force—rather than conceiving and putting in place alternative systems.
Elsewhere, in Asia, Latin America. and Africa, the discourse of left movements is becoming quite different. The new left movements often do not formulate their views in clear theoretical terms, nor as part of a consistent and holistic analytical structure. Nonetheless, they tend to share in common a break with the traditional (20th century) socialist vision of centralized government control over an undifferentiated mass of workers. They are placing more explicit emphasis on the rights and concerns of women, ethnic minorities, tribal communities, and other marginalized groups, as well as a recognition of ecological constraints and the imperative of respect for nature. These concerns are rendered explicitly, for example, in the new constitutions promulgated by left governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. But they are also increasingly articulated by groups as diverse as trade unions in southern Africa, “New Left” intellectuals in China, and social movements in India.
Look for three more installments of this lecture on the next three Wednesdays.