Sunday, February 4, 2007

Ghosts of the Left

The left is in crisis and the only way out is to embrace democracy, for which read the people, argues Azmi Bishara

For the democratic left socialism never stood solely for state ownership of the means of production. It involved setting into motion a sophisticated, fluid and morally-inspired drive to organise society on more just, equitable and democratic foundations. At various periods in the development of Western thought the zeal for social justice was sometimes reduced to a vehement condemnation of private property as the root of all corruption. This notion of private property as original sin gave rise to modern socialist ideology, one tenet of which was that public ownership of the means of production would resolve the class conflict and pave the way for the elimination of private property. Later, fired by revolution in a country that was capitalistically underdeveloped, some began to equate public ownership with state ownership, regardless of whether or not the state was democratic. Such people assumed that when public ownership of the means of production equalled state ownership then the owning state was somehow automatically democratic, regardless of whether such ownership promoted social justice.

Yet from the early 19th century the European left was generally at the forefront of the fight to expand democratic liberties, suffrage and freedom of the press. It also believed that social justice entailed freeing mankind not only politically, but also from the fetters of economic exploitation. Only a humanitarian political-economic establishment could liberate people from their function as interchangeable cogs in the capitalist machine of production, or as consumers whose behaviour is shaped by the laws of the capitalist consumer market, and give them the fullest scope for self-fulfilment as free, independent, active and dynamic individuals.

Successive industrial revolutions, from the mechanical to the high-tech, IT and bio-tech, have radically altered modes of production and ownership. It is now impossible to speak of a society split into two distinct classes, capitalists and workers. Vast new middle classes have emerged as a result of the rapid expansion in the service and leisure sectors made possible by the increased generation of profits and surplus value. And there has been an enormous boom in new types of occupations that require high levels of education and a broad array of technical and administrative expertise.

Since the middle of the 20th century the democratic left has responded to this ongoing revolution in many ways. It spearheaded the syndicate struggles that succeeded in realising marked improvements in the conditions of work, remuneration and benefits such as social insurance and healthcare. This movement did not, though, succeed as a struggle against unemployment. It could not halt the technological progress entering the processes of production. Entire labour forces needed by early capitalism were suddenly redundant, or else labour intensive industries were relocated to places where labour was cheap, catapulting the old conflict between the left and right to the global level.

The democratic left also expressed itself in the student movement and cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, in the women's liberation movement and in its solidarity with Third World liberation movements. It sought to liberate certain sectors of society from the arbitrary reign of the market, in the belief that some principles should be prioritised over the vagaries of market forces. The right to a humane and dignified life is one such principle; it should be safeguarded by financial measures aimed at redistributing wealth and protecting the poor in the face of market forces that would otherwise exclude them. The left champions the equal right to healthcare and the sanctity of childhood and old age. It fights for the protection of the environment, for gender equality, for the rights of the child. It also struggles to subject government agencies to public scrutiny, including those that try to place themselves above such principles through recourse to the demagoguery of national unity or national security.

The left has an instinctive disposition to side with the people. However, the left as I understand it does not take the attitude of the masses or the public mood as its sole standard for what is progressive. As difficult as it may be, the left must draw a line between popular and popularist. It must strive to raise public awareness and help the people perceive where their interests lie and how best to defend them, as opposed to the popularist right which pals on gut feelings to manipulate the mass mood. The right might sometimes express the popular pulse and successfully recruit mass feeling, but the true test of the difference between the left and right resides in which better represents the interests of the people.

The left proceeds from the assumption that freedom is the state in which mankind's quintessential humanity can express itself and, hence, the prerequisite for the development of the skills, talents and abilities through which individuals can realise their full potential. Apart from diehard romantics, the left, in general, favours all forms of development and progress that advance the state of freedom. If the left opposes globalisation, for example, it does so because rather than freeing people from need it inhibits the fulfilment of need by generating and reproducing conditions of enslavement through the hegemony of transnational corporations, the inequitable distribution of wealth and the perpetuation of the donor nation-debtor nation relationship.

Under dictatorship the left demands political democracy on the grounds that it is one of the conditions of social justice and that democratic government is more progressive than dictatorship. But to the left democratisation is more than securing the people's right to choose their president or representatives by majority vote in general elections monitored by the UN or foreign nations. It entails the quest for social forces with a structural interest in a democratic system and the drive to create a civil society capable of institutionalising democracy. Democracy to the left is not just political plurality, which in some countries risks being distorted into ethnic or sectarian plurality that reproduces the traditional order. There have to be institutionalised guarantees agreed upon by all legitimate political forces safeguarding individual civil, social and economic rights, the rule of law, the autonomy of the judiciary, the public's right to hold their political officials accountable for their actions, the individual's right to choose his religious belief or to choose whether or not to observe the rites of his faith. Democracy is a set of institutionalised guarantees to ensure the peaceful rotation of authority through elections and a set of institutionalised guarantees to protect the rights of minorities.

The left is in crisis. This crisis may have come to a head with the collapse of the socialist camp but its origins lie in the emergence of a modern capitalist order capable of accommodating itself rapidly to changes in the forces of production. The crisis acquired a new dimension with the emergence of independent nations in the Third World and international capitalism's retreat from the fight to sustain direct colonial control. These developments fragmented the international solidarity movement with Third World national liberation struggles which had been generally spearheaded by the left. The crisis was further compounded as the new middle classes began to press for reform in the way in which capitalism deals with issues such as the environment, social welfare and the growing scope of political and individual freedoms. Faced with these developments members of the beleaguered left, finding themselves increasingly bereft of any social or political party support, have taken refuge in two forms of mysticism.

In the Third World a significant portion of them have embraced anti-progressive and anti-modernist tenets and slogans. The quest of these erstwhile leftists for common ground with the fundamentalists on the basis of a shared hostility to the West and globalisation disguises the fact that fundamentalist Islamist hostility emanates from entirely different premises. In its pursuit of common ground this segment of the left has not only contributed to sidelining questions of democratisation, social justice and the rationalisation and secularisation of political and social relations, it has so fallen prey to a fundamentalist culture that it has recast much of its political discourse in religious rhetorical mould, with special emphasis on the rejection of everything emanating from the West, including democracy. What this segment of the left does have in common with fundamentalism is the inability to comprehend the developments of modernism and their distorting effects on Third World societies.

Another segment of the left has tossed aside its values, especially those pertaining to social justice and equality, and hastened to import a prefabricated prescription from abroad. But what they imported could not be incorporated into the process of democratisation and the fight for political and social freedoms within a given society: rather, they opted for a package of formulas, recited like chants, with no political or social substance and without particular relevance to the society concerned. If this trend gave rise to some introspection with regard to the position of left-wing parties vis-à-vis democracy, this necessary process of revision quickly disintegrated into mutual mudslinging and recrimination. Rather than explore the concrete processes of party politics, coalition building and grassroots organisation, a motley collection of non-democratic elitist associations seclude themselves from society to theorise and pontificate, as is their habit, on matters that have no immediate bearing on the political and social realities of the majority. Such ivory tower speculations are inimical to the process of democratic transformation. All they produce is some fantasy of democracy in the abstract, with no regard for the actual social and political forces involved in the battle for democracy.

The left, whether of the fundamentalist or the form-without- substance brand, has been unable to produce a single concept capable of identifying challenges, let alone ways to overcome them and promote happiness and freedom in our countries. Nor will it be able to do so until it makes the connection between its core values -- equality, social justice, freedom, social enlightenment, progress and the rationalisation and humanisation of social and political relations -- and democracy as a system of government and a national cause.