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A new leftist narrative is required

In discussion with Nancy Fraser on identity politics, social justice and an emergent anti-Trump coalition.

Houssam Hamade Nancy Fraser
8 August 2017
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Anti-Trump protest in Chicago, January 2017. Rick Majewski/Press Association. All rights reserved.Houssam Hamade (HH): Ms. Fraser, where did the left go wrong? Did we focus too much on the politics of personal emancipation and too little on social justice at large, “too much pink, too little red”, as parts of the leftist German party “Die Linke” put it?*

Nancy Fraser (NF): Yes and no. The problem isn’t the struggle for feminism, LGBTQ-rights and against racism, but the separation of this struggle from the struggle for social justice.

HH: A separated struggle which you refer to as “progressive neoliberalism”…

NF: Yes. For around the last three decades, neoliberal forces in the United States have aligned themselves with progressive powers and their struggle for emancipation and diversity. Neoliberalism, in other words, borrowed its progressive charisma from the progressives. It was the same forces, namely the Clintons, who signed over the US economy to Goldman Sachs and who ruthlessly pushed through neoliberal globalization. Neoliberalism, in other words, borrowed its progressive charisma from the progressives.

HH: What happened under these conditions to the traditional social movements, the trade unions and industrial workers?

NF: The trade unions were more or less destroyed: the so-called “rust belt” was abandoned. Having once been a bastion of social democracy it is now a stronghold for Trump-supporters. Clinton’s politics and that of his followers, Obama included, downgraded the life of the vast majority, particularly the lives of the industrial workers. This attack was precisely conducted under the ”borrowed” mask of progressiveness.

HH: But we should not conclude from this that standing up for emancipation and diversity is wrong?

NF: No, on the contrary. The problem lies in the coalition with neoliberalism. During this period of time there has been an ongoing debate about diversity and empowerment. Liberal individualism has replaced what was an anti-hierarchical, class-conscious and egalitarian notion of emancipation. A “winner-take-all”-hierarchy was promoted instead, one that enabled some “outstandingly talented” women or gays to rise through the glass ceiling. At the same time the majority of people had to live their lives out in the basement. Liberal individualism has replaced what was an anti-hierarchical, class-conscious and egalitarian notion of emancipation.

HH: So "progressive neoliberalism" pretends to be progressive, but actually promotes a devaluation of the lives of millions and millions of people?

NF: Yes, and this has played into the hands of Trump’s reactionary populism. He seemed to come along with a plausible alternative. Finally, someone who would stand up for the ones who are left behind. And with the departure of Sanders, the only choice that was available to people was between the progressive neoliberalism of Clinton and a reactionary populism. An impossible choice.

HH: How does this apply to Germany? Ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also dismantled social rights and distorted social democracy…

NF: In the US, the pattern is a stark one. In France too, with the choice between Macron and Le Pen, we find a choice between progressive neoliberalism and reactionary populism. The same applies to Germany today, but it is a softer version.

HH: What can we do?

NF: We have to offer a new, left-wing narrative. A seriously egalitarian social movement has to ally itself with the abandoned working class. It has to explain why the struggles for emancipation and social equality belong together. I have committed myself for example to a feminism of the 99 per cent, which explicitly opposes "glass ceiling feminism".

We are fighting for the (female and male) workers as well as migrants and those who slave away on unpaid care work. This fight can only be fought together. The progressive populism of Bernie Sanders provides a positive example of how to do this.

HH: I don’t find the concept of the 99 per cent satisfactory. Not all rich people are evil nor are all poor people good. The 99 per cent also includes many racists. And the problem lies not only in the personal misbehavior of the elites but in the structure of the capitalist system.

NF: You're right: the concept of the 99 percent is not the last word. I too prefer class politics. The difference between the progressive populism of Sanders and the reactionary populism of Trump is, however, that Sanders does not construct scapegoats. Trump blames Mexicans and Muslims. He addresses real grievances, but pursues a completely wrong analysis. The difference between the progressive populism of Sanders and the reactionary populism of Trump is, however, that Sanders does not construct scapegoats.

Sanders combines the struggle for social justice with the struggle for minority rights. This works astonishingly well. He also does not portray "the rich" as evil per se. Instead he rightly attacks structural causes and those who manipulate economic policy to their advantage.

HH: But how can we bring people on board who currently hold reactionary positions? These people are not our allies, but our opponents.

NF: Perhaps a more precise analysis is helpful. Trump’s voters consist of about three blocks. Most are the traditional voters for the Republicans. They elected Trump while – in many cases – holding their noses. Then there are the "alt-right" people, right-wing extremists, who in my opinion make up only a small part of his electorate. The third part consists also of former trade union members. Here, we don’t find committed racist sentiment, even if there is a certain existing tendency there. These people are reachable.

HH: So we should talk?

NF: The important thing is not to start with the assumption that they all are racists. This is the way for the Left to promote its own certain failure. We can only achieve our goals on the basis of respect. The left has to show that it has a narrative to offer, which grasps the concerns that are voiced and expresses them. We can only achieve our goals on the basis of respect.

HH: You seem confident that this could work.

NF: I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Today many things are possible. The hegemony is shattered, a little like it was in the 1960s. The resistance against Trump is powerful. An anecdote will illustrate this rather well. Trump, by tradition, was going to throw the first ball in the opening game of the Major Baseball League. He was, however, advised against this, since it was probable that he would be booed. Impressive left-wing coalitions are forming. People of all ages are politicized.

A progressive populism like that of Sanders can reach those people. However, this new left needs to make some changes. It needs to become a solidary leftwing, that fights for social equality and at the same time for emancipation and diversity.

This article originally appeared in German in TAZ on May 2, 2017.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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