The left should stop focusing on what is wrong in our system and start focusing on a vision of the future that is positive, hopeful and even fun. The left has so many things to offer that people want, such as free healthcare, free education, research and innovation to improve people’s lives and reduce their labour hours and enhance work-life balance.
by Abigail Muscat
Image: Isles of the Left
Globally, it seems like the left is on a constant losing streak. With the rise of the alt-right in the US, the rise of populism in Europe and the gradual shift away from the centrist governments to the right, it seems like the left has had little to offer the poorest and most marginalised of society. Whether it was through willful ignorance, such as the US Democrats’ gutting of Bernie Sanders’ chances, or through the left’s inability to fully address anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe, it is time that the left starts thinking strategically on how to win.
In Malta, the success of left-wing policies has been a mixed bag.
In Malta, the success of left-wing policies has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have had policies that have aided LGBTIQ rights while on the other hand we have gone nowhere, if not regressed, in the fields of refugee rights and social inclusion of the poor and marginalised. We have seen the gradual privatisation of some of the most basic services the left advocates for: healthcare and education. Similarly, with respect to the environment, the left has failed to achieve any major success beyond that of Żejtun. This is partially due to the political situation in Malta, the centrism of both the Nationalist Party (PN) and the Labour Party (PL), has meant that their policies have veered from left to right haphazardly according to the laws of realpolitik.
Although I may not necessarily label myself a ‘leftist’, I believe that politics will benefit from moving away from the milky, toothless centrism we are used to seeing towards the best versions of the left and right that focus on the issues that people care about. Below is an attempt at a practical guide for the left to address its shortcomings and have a chance at winning:
1. Abolish negativity
One of the many reasons the capitalist ideology is so successful is that it its vision for the future is always hopeful. It is always about vision, innovation, cutting-edge technology. Its paradigm is of constant improvement, betterment and heck, even fun. Meanwhile, most of what the left does is argue how all these wonderful things come at a cost, whether ecological, human or spiritual. And while the left’s critique may be sound, it not only fails to acknowledge that many have enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, but it acts as a killjoy critique. Psychologically, people are not interested in hearing what they are doing wrong but only what they can do right in the future. The left should stop focusing on what is wrong in our system and start focusing on a vision of the future that is positive, hopeful and even fun. The left has so many things to offer that people want, such as free healthcare, free education, research and innovation to improve people’s lives and reduce their labour hours, work-life balance, maternity and paternity leave, etc.
2. Stop moralising
One of the biggest problems with left-wingers is that they may come across as condescending and self-righteous, and while fighting for the downtrodden may give you the moral high ground, it does not make you very likeable if you mark your opposition as automatically evil, immoral or greedy. Firstly, what the left should be doing is oppose the system that makes people do and condone evil acts.
So long as the system stays the same, even if the right people are in power, not much will change.
So long as the system stays the same, even if the right people are in power, not much will change. People are not necessarily stupid or evil and it is likely that in a system which rewards competition and punishes caring for others, the best of us would do the same. For example, electing Trump was different than electing Obama, but ultimately not as different as people think. Changing the flows of money to political parties would have changed more. In the same way, very little changes when PN or PL are in power and having a third party elected will not change much either.
Positive changes would be in terms of voting system, independence of authorities such as the Planning Authority, transparency of flows of money between donors and politicians, and an unhinging of clientelistic networks. Secondly, we should not create a hierarchy of the deserving based on who is closest to trauma. The left denigrates anyone whom they consider ‘privileged’, if you’re a white man, if you’re middle-class and above, etc. While recognising that the system favours those with more money, with more access to services, with the right skin colour or religious affiliation, little will be achieved by exiling these people away from everyday left-wing politics.
Third, moralising does not beget wins. Occupy Wall Street and the Syriza movements were about the forces between good and evil and both movements dissipated into thin air. It is likely that little will be achieved also by painting the over-development problem or the rule of law problem as battles between good and evil. The left will have to argue that over-development is bad for us all, including the developers. That we are heading towards a bubble and once it pops, all of us will suffer. The left has to argue that corruption has always existed and it does not belong to any political party and not fighting it will hurt the PL as much as it will hurt Malta as a country.
3. Engage your enemies
Too many young leftists on social media, used to a ‘new normal’ where it’s unacceptable to point out someone’s gender, race or religion, have a tendency to immediately shut down a conversation they deem to be inappropriate. The inability to engage in conversation with people who disagree with your politics and insulting them by calling them racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. will achieve nothing beyond antagonising people and entrenching their positions. The trend of the young liberal and left-wing to ‘shut someone down’ should be avoided. If you find people you disagree with, in real life or on social media, ask them questions, ask them why they believe what they do and find out what drives their beliefs. Show them that you are interested in their concerns.
After all, things such as racism or fear of immigration often stem from understandable fears such as the fear of the loss of identity or the fear of economic precarity. Look up ways based on psychology on how best to persuade and convince people. It’s understandable to feel it is pointless to engage Moviment Patrijotti Maltin, but the bigger danger is not the extreme right but their power to radicalise the centre.
4. Provide alternatives
The most common critique of the left is that they fail to provide alternative socio-political systems to capitalist-driven liberal democracies. If people by now do not know what our alternatives are, then we clearly have not discussed them enough. Will we have socialist democracies? Will major economic sectors go public, such as research and development and the news? Will we live in tech-driven utopias where we collectively own robot technology thereby reducing our work-weeks to focus on the betterment of society rather than bullshit corporate jobs? Do we want to simply redistribute wealth better through better taxation systems and stop inequality through a global progressive tax system?
Here’s a few more ideas to get people started so you have something to tell your capitalist-loving libertarian friend next-time they say ‘but there’s no alternative’: Firewall economics: The idea that the public sector should be responsible for basic human necessities, necessities that a consumer cannot turn down and would require credit if they do not have the wealth to buy it, things such as water, energy, healthcare, housing etc but then is everything else is left to the free market. Resource-based economy/Third Industrial Revolution: The merging of new disruptive technologies, such as the internet of things or the decentralisation of manufacturing through 3D printing and other aspects of a sharing economy with distributed renewable energy.
5. Avoid internal conflict
One of the things that has made the PL so strong in recent years is its reluctance to speak out against its own, even if they are in the wrong. While I disagree that we should defend the unethical, we should take a page or two from that kind of unquestioning loyalty. Political organisation is about winning, not ideological infighting.
6. Step down from the ivory tower
While the recent trend towards anti-intellectualism is a trend we should actively oppose, we should also asses which discussions in the left are purely academic and which ones are fit for public discussion. One of the biggest dangers of the left is that it risks becoming an academic field of study rather than a political model. We cannot deny that the public perceives academics as out-of-touch or not willing to get their hands dirty in everyday politics. There are ways to be a public intellectual and ways to be engaged while avoiding arcane discussions about different schools of philosophy. We should critically ask ourselves why most famous proponents of the left have been academics, why most people even writing in this magazine, including the author, are academics.
7. Avoid excessive ideology
While having practical politics informed by a concrete set of values, a vision and a philosophy is important to avoid becoming overly instrumental, it is also important to step out of the ideological lens. Not everything that happens or has happened can be interpreted from a left-wing, materialist lens where everything is about the struggle between social classes. Sometimes, and I would argue, often, people are motivated beyond economics, beyond class struggle. Neither should we discredit something because it came from the rich or the elite or idealise whatever is working-class or mythologise the marginal. The latter point is especially important, recognising that the downtrodden can be just as evil as anyone else is essential.
Seeing human beings for what they are is a better basis than ‘tolerance’, which is essentially an acceptance in so far as I do not have to share anything with you.
Physical or pscyho-emotional trauma does not necessarily create saints; we should protect the marginalised, such as refugees, but also recognise when things go wrong. This is important if we are to avoid being seen as out of touch with reality and to engage the genuine concerns of people. More importantly, seeing human beings for what they are, is a better basis for moral engagement with people than on a generic ‘ideal’ of the refugee, the widow, the poor, etc. Secondly, it is a better basis than the one based on ‘tolerance’, which is essentially an acceptance in so far as I do not have to share anything with you; not food, not space, not experiences and certainly not wealth.
8. Participate in the everyday drudgery of politics
This is perhaps the most important suggestion. Acts of protests are important symbolic gestures, but they must also be accompanied by institutional participation. In countries which are not failed states and where there is still some belief in the legitimacy of the state, participation provides genuine legitimacy to grass-roots movements. This means running for local councils, running as an MP/MEP (with or without one of the major parties) or having positions on authorities and boards that make important decisions.
Do not be afraid of getting your hands dirty. I remember discussing once on how we disagreed with the actions of a major corporation and how we should expect more people to stop buying their products. However, my friend pointed out that if major international NGOs spent as much buying stocks in these types of companies as they do fighting them, they might have a stronger say because they would be one of the major shareholders the company is beholden to. The point is, you need to have a stake in what you find disgusting because that’s the only way to be in a position to ask for something different.
This article was inspired by Colin Friedersdorf’s article on the Atlantic ‘Why can’t the left win?’.