The Emerging Left in the “Emerging” World: Two Areas of Continuity

Editors’ note:  This is the fourth and final part 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. Find the first three parts of the lecture here, here, and here. In this week’s post, Ghosh discusses two areas of “strong continuity” between the traditional left and the emerging left: “the attitude toward the significance of the nation state and the attitude toward imperialism.”

None of these emerging left positions [the “seven common threads”] is completely new. There are many strands of earlier leftist thought that contain some of these features. The concern with women’s rights and the recognition of other forms of oppression, for example, can be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as other socialist thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, the features outlined above do represent significant departures from the traditional left paradigm.

Meanwhile, there are two crucial features of strong continuity between the traditional and the emerging left: the attitude towards the significance of the nation state and the attitude towards imperialism.

On the Nation State

At one level, the need to focus on the nation state is obvious: demands for rights, whether for individuals or communities or even nature, must be defined in relation to some means to achieve these rights. The nation state remains the basic location for such demands and negotiation. The demands pressed by left movements today require state intervention in all sorts of ways: reining in finance, determining how nature can be used, redistributing income and wealth, and so on. How leftists engage with the state, even when they recognize it as “the executive arm of the bourgeoisie” (to quote Miliband again), is a constant tightrope act. Left movements tread a fine line between a too-easy compromise that thwarts progressive objectives, and a rigid insistence on “purity” that can render left forces irrelevant. The movements of the emerging left recognize the need to transform the state, much like the traditional left, though the former has adopted a much wider range of strategies than were available to the left during much of the 20th century.

On Imperialism

The “cosmopolitan” character of capitalist production and accumulation has never been more evident. Capitalism spills across all national borders. The concern of the emerging left in the “emerging world” with imperialism—in the broad sense of large capital’s use of the state as a means to control economic territory (land, labor, markets, knowledge, etc.)—is its second major continuity with the traditional left. The emerging left in the global South, on this score, actually resembles the traditional left more than it does many recent left tendencies in developed countries that increasingly tend to view imperialism as an outdated concept, rendered irrelevant by globalization. But the struggle over economic territory of different kinds is as significant as ever. Indeed, the relative decline of the only current superpower has further accentuated it. The left in the emerging world, unlike its northern counterparts, has to confront imperialism as a daily reality, which includes not just naked military aggression but also newer instruments such as privatized intellectual property rights and new “economic partnership agreements” guarding the interests of large capital (especially that of the world’s most powerful nations).

In the North

In recent years, the global South has been the epicenter of alternative progressive visions for the future organization of economies and societies. Recent happenings in Europe and the United States suggest, however, a more complex reality in the North as well. As the “Occupy” movement in the United States, the Indignados (indignant) of Spain, and other left political movements show, more and more people in the North are recognizing how the current economic system is fundamentally inimical to their interests. This realization is beginning to spur a search for economic alternatives.

The fundamental premises of the socialist project—the unequal, exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalism; the capacity of human beings to change society and thereby alter their own futures; and the necessity of collective organization to do so— remain as valid as ever. The fecundity of the socialist alternatives cropping up in different parts of the world suggests that—even in what are otherwise depressing times—the project is still very dynamic and full of promise.

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