The following is a translation of an article by Juan Torres López, economist and scientific adviser to ATTAC. It was written in the run-up to the recent general elections in Spain, in which an absolute majority in parliament was won by the right-wing Partido Popular, even though they only received one third of the overall vote. It was not some great leap to the right on the part of the electorate that produced the Partido Popular victory, but the massive haemorrhage of votes from the PSOE. The latter translates as Spanish Socialist Workers Party. Of course, it bears no resemblance to parties in other countries with similar names. The outlook of this party can be exemplified by recent declarations of one of its grandees, who said, following the disastrous election results, that the party ought to move in the direction of one of the letters in its acronym (PSOE): the ‘E’ for España, signalling a sort of Blue Labour a la española.
Izquierda Unida, the main party of the left that opposed the neo-liberal politics of the two main parties, running with slogans such as ‘Markets or democracy. You choose’ only won around 12% of the PSOE vote. How, then, in light of the fact of a mass irruption of street politics in the form of the 15-M that refuses the legitimacy of parliamentary representation altogether, can traditional left forces operate as a significant countervailing force against neo-liberal capitalism?
This is what Torres’s piece, originally published in Mémoire des luttes, seeks to explore. He advocates left forces participating the broadest front possible, uniting all ‘the underdogs’ (los de abajo), and claims that if all left forces do is talk to each other, and seek refuge in abstract ideas and terminology that are alien to everyday people, they will sink into irrelevance.
Six items for rebuilding the left
The present context – a social and economic crisis of huge proportions- ought to be, objectively and electorally, favourable for the left. And yet it is not. Particularly in Spain, where the polls predict a victory for the right in the general elections of the 20th of November. How do we explain that the greatest calamity in a century for conservative economic theses should coincide with the failure of the left? What should the latter do to rebuild itself?
The period of financial and social turbulence we are living through reveals many shortfalls and frustrations. We can say, as even the conservative leaders recognise, that the capitalist system is showing a failure of extraordinary intensity. One could even talk about historic breakdown. Thirty five thousand deaths every day from hunger and the international financial system on the verge of a generalised bankruptcy would be enough of an argument to support this claim.
Yet, at the same time, it is impossible to avoid acknowledging that there has been a parallel failure in the organisations of the traditional left and of alternative movements, when it has come to resolving the crisis with a substantial advance towards overcoming capitalism and towards a greater empowerment among the working classes and, in general, among the suffering population.
It is true that this failure’s origin stems from a large scale attack by the forces of capital, which had no problem ending the lives of thousands of people in order to circumvent any hint of social change that might harm the great financial, economic and media powers. And the defeat of left forces is down, in large part, to the highly anti-democratic forms used by the neoliberal capitalism of our age.
And it is also true that there has not been a total failure, if one bears in mind that the way the crisis is being resolved is lifting a wave of outrage across the planet, a rebellion that makes itself felt with ever greater force, and which may be the starting point of a new space for social struggle and political subjects of a new type, with a greater capacity to drive change, as with the 15-M movement in Spain.
But, at the same time, it is obvious that the latter are still in a very embryonic phase and, at the moment, are not able to generate the necessary force to either put a halt to the forward march of neoliberal capitalism, or to build a desired alternative, credible enough for the ruling powers to fear it.
For this reason, it is unjustified to continue acting from the ranks of the left as if nothing had happened, at a remove from the effective impotence that the left suffers from when it comes to proposing alternatives, to making these alternatives attractive for majorities in society, and to stopping the continued attacks on welfare, democracy, and freedom that are being conducted.
This failure of the left is not only a matter of temporary circumstances. It is the culmination of a series of very serious historical deficiencies and limitations in the discourse and practice that different sensibilities on the left have been adopting.
These limitations can be resumed in one main effect: the inability to influence the conditions that generate hegemony and social consensus. And this is for numerous reasons.
First of all: the discourses of the left are still based on intellectual and formal categories that no longer fit in with the codes society uses to perceive social phenomena. It may be true that this corresponds to an impoverishment in ways of analysing the world and a banalisation of codes of perception and socialisation, but the reality is that the terminology, tones, forms and icons of the more or less conventional lefts do not fit in today with the dominant language in our societies. The proof of this can be found in that, while more traditional organisations adhering to this type of discourse become more distant from the population, others with a more open character, with a more plural expression and a less nominalised language –such as ATTAC or other associations and movements of this type, such as the recent Democracia Real Ya, within the 15-M- are capable to deploy far more influence and capacity to convince and even to mobilise society.
Though it might be true that this phenomenon is the result of unfair attacks, of demonization by large media institutions, it is also true that the old iconography of flags, of hammers and sickles, of discourses of the vast categories of social mechanics of the 19th century no longer allow for conmprehension and empathy between the left forces that take refuge in them and the everyday people to whom they seek to appeal.
In particular, traditional left forces seem to be focused on seeing social changes as produced through the action of collective impersonal subjects (the ‘working class’, the ‘proletariat’) without realising that although class is becoming ever more clear-cut and real, changes are not carried out by sociological categorie,s but by people.
Secondly, left forces lack humanity, in the broadest sense of the word: looking people in the eyes and talking to them, clashing with them (as happened, by the way, at all milestones for organised worker movements), enjoying and suffering with them, instead of speaking to them to call them to action from the (false) assuredness that they know their destinies and how they might be conquered. In other words, becoming accomplices, not giving orders.
Nearly all left forces are anchored moreover in maximalist discourses that the majority of people today consider completely outdated, as a consequence of a sort of cognitive dissonance between their respective ways of seeing the nature of social issues and even in the ways of expressing them verbally.
Thirdly, the left has proven incapable of coping with diversity, even its own internal diversity. It is still linked to purges, Cainite battles, divisions, splits, and all kind of ruptures. This is not a coincidence but a consequence of what I have outlined above. Each left sensibility believes itself the owner of the keys for interpreting what is happening in the world and how to fix it. Social democracy is ‘betrayal’ for those who are to its left, but the traditional communist left is ‘reformist’ to the left that believes itself more anticapitalist, and the latter sits perfectly alongside the previous one, according to anarchists or autonomists, and so on. A pathology that, in turn, is reproduced within each one, as any observer of what is going on in the left can see, even from a distance.
This results in not only a lack of sympathy from society towards those who behave in this way, but also in a visceral disunity. This prevents the responses to the assaults by capital from being effective.
It is a question of a heavy inheritance that continues to make the left get carried away by the mechanicism that becomes totalitarianism when it unfolds amid anything that has to do with the distribution of power (however insignificant this might be). Not only at the operational level, or that of actions, but in agreement over basic questions, where it is incredible that they have not been resolved by common accord: the role of presence in institutions, of work within unions, and so on.
Fourthly, the left pays very dearly for its inability to present to society what it has to offer, to get across in some way the type of world it wishes to reach. Apart from very exceptional cases, and very worthy ones for precisely that, and above all in processes led by experiences of popular participation rather than the traditional left, we barely have any experiences of new forms of economic, financial, social, urban organisation..apart from cases, I repeat, that are very unique and exceptional. This is very different to what happened in the first steps of organised worker movements when there was a creation of co-operatives, highly visible bonds of personal and social solidarity, and experiences of life in common that allowed workers to realise that it was worth it to opt for another way of living and acting.
All the above relates in some way to the contempt for formative activities, for the scant importance given to intellectual consistency in left militancy. It is as significant as it is lamentable that there are no experiences of schools, of combined seminars, of shared communications media, from magazines…of the left. The important question then, is to reflect on whether these deficiencies can be overcome.
This will not be an easy task because there are many dimensions involved in the problem, and many people and organisations, but it is a matter of a challenge the different currents and sensibilities of the left must face if they do not wish to disappear and turn into relics of bygone eras.
The first requirement is to take on board that this task requires a gigantic and sincere effort at convergence. It is essential to unite forces and bring about a rapprochement in analysis of the situation and proposals. We must overcome fragmentation, self-absorption and being content with occupying one’s own unassailable trench with regard to abstract principles that are more and more empty of any content.
The second requirement – to give priority to the broadest social mobilisation possible. The rule of neoliberal capitalism is unfortunately extraordinarily aggressive, but the advantage, from the point of view of confronting it, is that it affects very broad social classes and strata, many of these distant from the spaces with which the left has been traditionally associated.
To address only people on the left, to appeal exclusively to left unity, may be a prerequisite but not a final objective because this would be to limit oneself to mobilising a near negligible percentage of society. It is a matter, rather, of acting as catalysts of the broadest possible social response, of all the “underdogs” [the phrase used here is ‘los de abajo’, literally, those below. However there is a famous Mexican Revolution novel by Mariano Azuela titled Los de Abajo, which is translated in English as ‘The Underdogs’. I have no idea if this is the intended reference]. Bearing in mind that the attacks of neoliberalism are not only carried out against the working classes but also against small and medium business owners, self employed and professionals, passive classes, young people, retired people, women, irrespective of ideology and even social position.
It is necessary therefore that left forces recover their ability to communicate with society and that they do not simply talk among themselves, that they recover the human sense of political life, that they humanise their speech, emptying it of nominalist categories and filling it with fraternity, feelings and closeness to people who do not necessarily share –nor will they ever share- codes of thought and language.
The left, moreover, must realise that it is impossible to produce social changes only with their own partisans or faithful, or playing the match ‘at home’. It must make do with whatever it has at any given moment, in opposition to a large part of society that cannot be made disappear, and moving constantly against the current. To realise that one is acting in a complex world, and to learn how to act in these conditions is the great task ahead for the left, without which it is impossible for their proposals for change to succeed.
If the left moves along these lines of convergence and empathy with society it will be able to tackle other steps that are needed to break the system of domination in which we find ourselves; breaking its legitimation, blowing apart the basic consensus points of neoliberalism, showing that its institutions do not work, and presenting society with new alternatives.
The movements of ‘indignados’ and of the 15-M show that there are many people prepared to confront the challenge of thinking and speaking differently to society in order to unveil and combat injustices and exploitation. They will do this with or without the traditional left forces. So the latter would be better off catching up, casting off their old garments and getting involved, with intelligence and humility, in the new spaces of contemporary politics.