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Book Review: The Death of the Left
A new book asks what's happened to the left — and what might become of its future.
Note: This week was meant to be the second installment of Politicians Aren’t Like Us. That piece will appear next week.
An optimist might say rumours of the Left’s death have been greatly exaggerated. They might be right. Not entirely dead, they might claim, merely absorbed. Assimilated into the big, Borg-like neoliberal tent that has been so carefully and diligently constructed for decades.
Just about every mainstream political party in the English-speaking democratic world adheres to the philosophy of the free market, limited state, global free trade, and deregulation. On the other hand, leftist influence, understood by the optimist as having been transmogrified from its traditional class concerns into a set of demands for kindness and inclusion, has resulted in making some headway in changing neoliberal norms. The results are those aspects of neoliberalism that dictate that CEOs everywhere hire DEI advisors and that banks fly LGBTQIA+ flags. From this perspective, the yoke of exploitation is easier to take because the heels on the boots of oppression have been cushioned by socially conscious corporate policy.
For many belonging to an old, class-obsessed vintage of leftist, however, the neoliberal consensus, no matter how attuned to various forms of oppression, is not the Left. On this view, a view seemingly more and more out of fashion, the Left is indeed dead. If this is true, however, its death is less interesting than the cause of its demise.
Simon Winlow, Professor of Social Science at Northumbria University, and Steve Hall, Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Teesside University, have a story to tell, from a vantage point that hearkens back to an older strain of socialism, about the Left’s decline and fall. In The Death of the Left: Why We Must Begin From the Beginning Again (Policy Press, 2023), they tell it all without reserve, regret, or the hedging ands, ifs, buts, and however that tend to accompany assessments of the contemporary left. Theirs is a book written without the fear that comes with hearing footsteps behind you as you write.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
There’s a lot to cover when talking about the Left’s failures. Winlow and Hall provide a sweeping but mostly thorough account of the rise and fall of the class-conscious, economic-focused socialist left in the United Kingdom and the United States, a mix of intellectual and political history.
Winlow and Hall argue that in recent decades the left has ceded ground to the neoliberal center and right, swapping class politics and a belief in the necessity and good of the state for a commitment to (global) capitalism and cultural politics, particularly identity politics. The individual is now the constituent unit for the left, as for the center and right; the common good is all but forgotten. Moreover, the Left has abandoned populist appeals, which the right has gladly taken up.
The left has bought into economic myths, particularly about the nature of the state and what it can accomplish, argue Winlow and Hall. The result — a pervasive sense that the state is incapable of combating capitalist depredations — is a Left more preoccupied by moral censure than in crafting economic platforms. Accordingly, “The fundamental ideological consequence of the left’s incorporation into this pervasive mythology is that the majority of ordinary people understand the left’s progressive vision solely in terms of cultural rather than economic concerns.” This point is the heart of the book. The Left doesn’t do big economics anymore. We have abandoned ordinary people and become beholden to the limited, variegated interests of a never-ending suite of cultural groups and neoliberal tinkering at the margins. Solidarity is, accordingly, dead. And without broad-based solidarity, the ability to challenge capital is likewise dead.
Solidarity in Trying Times
Winlow and Hall have produced a fine book and everyone concerned with the future of the Left — and the fortunes of the working class — should read it. But there’s a tension in The Death of the Left that the authors don’t fully work out. While Winlow and Hall are right about the shift in the zeitgeist towards individualism, the cultural and identity politics they are concerned about tend to often manifest as group concerns. Indeed, within those groups, and their allies, there is often plenty of solidarity beyond that of the thin, performative online version of the Left.
Still, their broader point that balkanized groups can never attain the power of an organized working class is not wrong. As a recently published offering from Norman Finkelstein — that covers similar terrain — points out, it was the identarian left that helped to kneecap Bernie Sander’s once-in-a-generation, class-based coalition.
Be this as it may, the book gives short shrift to cultural politics and so does not adequately work through the question of how solidarity might come about despite real divisions, different sorts of problems, and scarcities. It’s one thing to say let’s unite under a class banner regardless of race, sex, gender, age, etc., etc. etc. It’s quite another to convince people to unite when the broader social fabric is riven by different forms of chauvinism. And this is especially true if people are dealing with day-to-day problems particular to their identities and unrelated to the market — or, for instance, are fighting to survive, as trans folks. The left cannot abandon fights aimed at protecting structurally marginalized groups. But they must not abandon class battles or turn identarian struggles into neoliberal public relations exercises, either.
Winlow and Hall are correct that the left should abandon neoliberalism, adopt statism, and fight for the common good with a focus on working class folks and structural economic transformation. And again, the key for such a program is broad-based solidarity. However, we might ask whose solidarity? The answer, of course, is everyone who labors for a paycheck. But, sadly, it’s not exactly that simple. Winlow and Hall encourage us to see that exploitation is the umbrella under which other depredations occur — including oppression — but one cannot just paper over the cultural problems of our historical moment. Indeed, labor and socialist movements have a long and mixed history with gender, race, and sexuality, which partly explains the rise of cultural and identity politics in the first place. There is more work to be done on this front.
Centering Economic Issues
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the left missed an opportunity to set the agenda and fight for economic justice. Instead, it fell into line with the neoliberal consensus. As Winlow and Hall conclude,
The left’s popular message should have been this: the way we organise our economy is deeply flawed; we need to rebuild on firm foundations; the economy we build should be guided by the best available understanding of how our monetary system works and driven forward by an unyielding commitment to the common good” (emphasis theirs).
They wade into the basis of global finance and domestic monetary policy, offering a counter-take to conventional wisdom, particularly in the case of the latter, with a reference to modern monetary theory (MMT).
Making the case for this heterodox economic approach focuses on real capacity in the economy and the power of sovereign fiat currency. It dismisses hand-wringing concerns about deficits and debts. MMT offers a major takeaway that could transform public finance, namely that taxes do not, after all, pay for public spending.
MMT is a controversial proposition. Indeed, in these very pages both critics and proponents have argued for the model’s pros and cons. Nonetheless, concepts such as MMT offer the Left a handhold, something to grab on to, and a chance to climb out of its grave. This is where the book is at its best: calling for a return to a class-based, economics-focused left with a few sections of a road map to guide it there.
Do the Work To Name and Fight Economic Exploitation
The Death of the Left is a book to grapple with and take seriously. The work of rebuilding the left, if such work can be done, will be long and painful and difficult. The book is at its weakest when it ignores or minimizes the work that must be done to reconcile cultural and identarian grievances, many of which are serious, persistent, and require attention.
But Winlow and Hall are right to point out that for the left to succeed, it must offer a program of class-based, economic justice. For a call for solidarity to be effective, it should be grounded in a respectful and inclusive approach that doesn't belittle or ridicule the working class for, say, patriotism or social values at odds with metropolitan norms. Culture wars won’t get us where we want to go.
Towards the end of the volume, Winlow and Hall offer a series of questions we might ask ourselves in an effort to reimagine strategies that could lead to a reanimated Left. The section is worth quoting at length. Admitting that we cannot reconstitute a social democratic age decades-gone, they pose the following question:
How could we build an equivalent – and cautiously idealised – system today? How can we secure full employment, and how can we guarantee that work will pay enough to enable all citizens to live a good life? How can we build expansive welfare states, comprehensive public education programmes and secure world-class healthcare for all? Can we adopt strategies from the past, like the public ownership of key industries, higher levels of state spending, state involvement in the market, tariffs and the recreation of national and regional supply chains that will fit with the current energy transition and partial deglobalization that await us just around the corner?
The left in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada ought to be able to answer these questions. We ought to have a plan for re-introducing class, economics, and a socialism worth its salt into the parlance of not just like-minded cadre, but society at large. This means including declassee members of the working class whose customs and habits might be wildly at odds with the sensibility of coastal, PMC leftism. This means that the Left must also have a plan for navigating cultural clashes and righteous identarian claims — like it did in many instances in the past related to battles for gender equality and racial equality. We must have a plan for building a broad-based solidarity in which each person is seen and treated as morally equal, whatever the cosmetic difference in outlook or propriety. Whether that can be done is an open question, whether it must be done is not.