• 11 August, 2020 10:06 am


It’s a Tough Time for the Left. But I’m More Optimistic Than Ever.

Credit…Illustration by Alicia Tatone; Photographs by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times, and Chris J. Radcliff and Michael B. Thomas, via Getty Images

Never in my life have political conditions felt so ripe for change.

The signs of radical possibility are everywhere we look. In the midst of a pandemic, masses of people defied lockdowns and demanded justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all the Black lives lost at the hands of police brutality.

What has become the largest protest movement in American history also provided an outlet for discontent with the economic immiseration and mounting death toll that are devastating communities of color and working-class people. In Europe, protesters took to the streets as well, in solidarity with the American movement and targeting the often denied yet pervasive racism in their own societies.

It’s a spectacular sight: Affluent liberal democracies are experiencing an upsurge of radical energy. This volatile moment is felt most acutely by younger generations whose coming-of-age story is one of financial meltdown, right-wing resurgence, climate chaos and, now, a plague.

Crisis and discontent are two necessary ingredients for radical change. But on their own, they aren’t sufficient. In the United States and almost all of Europe, the left — socialists, labor organizers, activists and agitators traditionally outside the major center-left parties — is out of power and wounded by electoral defeat. (Spain and Portugal, where formally and informally center-left parties currently govern together with the radical left, are the exception that proves the rule.)

As the coronavirus courses devastatingly around the world, the left on both sides of the Atlantic, joined by a long history of mutual influence and inspiration, finds itself in a shared predicament: How can we exercise power without governing directly? And beyond that, how can we shape the world that emerges after the pandemic?

On the left, “electoralism” — pursuing public office through elections — is a hotly debated tactic. Some see the activity as fatally compromised. But contesting elections is essential to winning radical reforms that change the consensus on what is possible and build power.

Take Paris and Barcelona. In the early 2010s, neither city, sitting in countries governed by the center and the right, seemed a likely venue for a resurgence of left-wing politics. But in the course of two years, each was led by leftist mayors — first Anne Hidalgo in Paris in 2014, then Ada Colau in Barcelona the next year. They built new public housing, banned polluting cars from city streets and expanded urban green spaces, becoming the heads of the “radical municipalism” movement.

A small city in northwest Britain had led the way. When plans for a massive shopping mall fell through in late 2011, Preston seemed doomed to the chronic disinvestment suffered by deindustrialized municipalities around the world. But since then, the left-led City Council has transformed the city into a laboratory for innovative policies, from supporting worker cooperatives to contracting local farmers to provide produce for public school meals. The experience proved so successful it earned its own name: The Preston Model.

Winning the chance to reshape policy, as councilors, state legislators and mayors, is why elections are crucial. But successful campaigns for national office are also powerful ways to broadcast transformative ideas. In the United States, for example, the election of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to Congress has spread demands like the Green New Deal, rent cancellation and Palestinian rights far beyond the margins.

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When leftists win elections, they can transform radical ideas into pragmatic realities and move more ambitious political programs into the mainstream. But what should the left do when it is out of power?

Last year, when President Emanuel Macron of France was trying to push through pension reforms that would raise the age at which citizens received a full pension from 62 to 64, he faced profound opposition — not in Parliament, but in the streets. Large protests and a general strike drained the government’s resolve and eventually scuttled the proposed reform. Unwavering resistance forced Mr. Macron’s hand.

It’s a good example of how the left can shape politics, even when far from power. Similarly, the student strikes against climate change that swept across Europe in March 2019 — closely followed by occupations coordinated by Extinction Rebellion — propelled the urgent need for a just ecological transition up the political agenda.

In both cases, protests and strikes materially altered the course of policy. Elsewhere, it’s insurgent and oppositional electoral projects with close relations to movements that helped reshape the political landscape.

In the United States, in part through the platform provided by Bernie Sanders’s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, demands for universal health care, the Green New Deal, national rent control and abolishing ICE entered mainstream conversation. And in Britain, the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn did much to reconfigure the terms of debate, most notably on austerity and public investment.

There’s a lesson here. Though the circumstances differ — the room for left and Green parties in Europe largely does not exist in Britain and the United States, compelling leftists to contend with established parties — the left is most effective when it disrupts institutions.

By conceiving of itself as something like an opposition party, operating inside and outside the formal political system, the left can push the boundaries of debate, changing minds and policies alike.

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Principled opposition is essential. But it’s not enough. To be successful, protests and insurgent campaigns need to build on and contribute to organizing — the continuing, difficult work of building grass-roots organizations that empower people to act in concert with one another.

In Minneapolis, the groundwork for the current protests was laid by groups such as the Black Visions Collective. In 2018, they worked in alliance with Reclaim the Block to win cuts to the city police budget and funding for violence prevention. Organizations like these recruit activists and teach them the skills they need to plan a meeting or a direct action, all while cultivating the trust and accountability that are vital to movements’ long-term success.

Similar lessons apply to electoral politics. The Labour Party’s community organizing unit, which spent two years building relationships and developing leaders at the local level, may not have prevented December’s disappointing election result. But it established a network that will prove indispensable in future elections and that has already helped win local campaigns, such as organizing tenants against eviction and protecting health clinics from closure.

The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is another case in point. Some of the group’s initial forays into electoral politics were unsuccessful. But in the process, they trained hundreds of activists in the basics of canvassing and phone-banking. Years later, their endorsed candidates have won seats in Congress and at the state level. And most recently the chapter declared victory for their entire slate of primary campaigns — all, it’s worth noting, socialists of color — in the State Legislature.

Though some may be tempted to suggest such inroads are confined to New York, the recent slew of left wins in Democratic primary battles in PennsylvaniaTexasMichiganTennessee and, most strikingly, in Missouri shows how effective the strategy can be.

As different as they are, both street rebellions and electoral campaigns can leave behind a legacy of organizational infrastructure. This infrastructure is absolutely vital. There’s no way to win without it.

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In my two decades of political involvement, I’ve never been more optimistic about the left’s power to shape the terms of debate. But doing better than the past isn’t anywhere near good enough.

We are in the middle of a ruinous pandemic whose effects will remake the world: On both sides of the Atlantic, economies are contracting, unemployment is soaring and people are suffering, all while billionaires’ wealth balloons to astronomical levels. The situation in the United States, where the pandemic has exposed deep race and class inequality, is especially dire.

The coming months and years are crucial. They will shape not only politics but also, as the climate crisis intensifies, the very conditions of life on this planet. That’s a huge challenge. But it’s also a historic opportunity to make a better, more equal and more just world. We must not pass it up.

source : NYtimes. By Thea Riofrancos, Ms. Riofrancos is a political scientist and activist.

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