The Emerging Left in the “Emerging” World: More Threads

Editors’ note:  This is the third part (of four) of “The Emerging Left in the ‘Emerging’ World,” by Triple Crisis founding contributor Jayati Ghosh, originally delivered in 2012 as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics. We posted the introduction two weeks ago (here), and the second part last week (here). In this week’s post, Ghosh discusses five more “common threads” of the emerging left: private property, “rights,” class and identity, gender, and the environment. We will post the conclusion to the lecture next week.

On Private Property

Earlier models of socialism, such as Soviet style “state socialism”, did away with private property in the means of production, only recognizing private rights over personal belongings. The new leftist thinking is more ambivalent about private property—disliking it when it is seen as monopolizing or highly concentrated (for example in the form of multinational corporations) but otherwise not just accepting of it, but even (as in the case of small producers) actively encouraging it. Increasingly, left movements and governments have recognized the value of other kinds of property rights as well, particularly communal property associated with traditional indigenous communities. Again, this runs strongly counter to earlier centralizing and “modernizing” models of socialism, which derided these communities and their communal property forms as premodern relics that had to be done away with.

On ‘Rights’

Just as the emerging left tendencies engage more positively with formal democratic institutions, they also tend to speak more and more in the language of “rights.” They do not, however, see rights exclusively or primarily in the individualistic or “libertarian” sense of so-called “negative rights” or “freedom from” some form of intrusion. Rather, they define rights more broadly in terms of “positive rights” or “freedom to” of various kinds, as well as recognizing the need for social and political voice not just of individual citizens, but also of communities and groups. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be interpreted as a socialist manifesto, since it calls for the recognition of this wide variety of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. In practice, left governments and political groups have pressed citizens’ or groups’ demands for rights or entitlements on the state. Left groups have, recently, recognized more explicitly the rights of indigenous peoples, communities and even “nations” within a country, as well as of the elderly, the young, and persons with disabilities. This reflects the emerging left’s wider and more diverse definition of the groups it identifies as exploited, which in turn requires new forms of organization and mass mobilization.

On Class and Identities

The standard socialist paradigm that emerged in the 19th century and developed in the 20th saw class as the fundamental contradiction within each society, with imperialism as the defining feature of relations between countries. This paradigm ignored other cultural attributes or treated them as subordinate to class. Other forms of domination or oppression were transient tendencies—premodern or semi-feudal relics—which would be destroyed by the expansion of market forces and capitalism generally. These supposed “relics,” like gender and ethnic oppression, however, have proved extremely durable and resilient. The capitalist system, meanwhile, has shown a remarkable ability to absorb and make use of various “precapitalist” forms of social exclusion and discrimination (as in labor markets “segmented” along ethnic or gender lines). This has forced a realization, on the part of the left, that it is not enough to address issues in class terms alone. Many strands of the emerging left are now much more explicitly (even dominantly) concerned with inequalities, oppression, and exploitation that are not easily reducible to “class” in the traditional socialist understanding. It is a separate question whether this shift in focus (at least in its most dramatic forms) is always justified, especially as class and imperialism still remain such powerful determining forces in the world today.

On Gender

A changed attitude to the “woman question”—and a more complex understanding of the nature and locations of exploitation—are features of many emerging left movements. Of course, women have been part of the working class since the beginning of capitalism, even when they have not been widely acknowledged, even by the labor movement and the left, as workers in their own right. Their contribution to social reproduction, always essential to the functioning of the system and almost always unpaid, also went largely unrecognized. For more than a century, trade unions and other worker organizations tended to be male preserves, based on the “male breadwinner” model of the household in which the husband/father worked outside to earn money, while the wife/mother handled domestic work.

It has taken prolonged struggle, especially by working-class women, to gain greater social recognition for both women’s wage work and their unpaid household and community-based work. This is not to say that patriarchy has suddenly disappeared from the ranks of leftist organizations and movements—this is, unfortunately, a longer struggle.

On the Environment

Traditional Marxists tended to glory in the development of productive forces as an expression of the forward march of history. This does not necessarily require an exploitative and aggressive attitude to nature, but in actual practice this was the case only too often. The requirements of an organic and sustainable attitude to nature were rarely factored into left movements’ and governments’ discussions about accumulation and economic growth. All this has changed quite dramatically in recent years. Among the primary contradictions of contemporary capitalism are the ways it collides with ecological and resource limits—as evidenced by pollution, over-extraction, and other forms of degradation of the natural environment. Capitalism’s unsustainable patterns of production, consumption, and accumulation are generating open conflicts over resources and forcing societies to change, often in undesired ways. Visions for more humane and just societies therefore have to incorporate these critical concerns.

Today, many self-described socialists see environmental conservation, the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, and the recovery of degraded natural spaces as matters of primary public interest. Some recent constitutions (of Ecuador and Bolivia, for example) explicitly grant rights to nature independent of people.

Look for one more installment of this lecture next Wednesday. Find the first two installments here and here.

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