A new politics from the left?

Can it be achieved from within existing political institutions, or does it require new sources of power to be built in society and the economy as a base for new political institutions?

Hilary Wainwright
20 May 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

We are at the end of a cycle that started in the second XIXth century. During this cycle, including in the XXth century, the left was governed by the ideology of progress and economic determinism. After the collapse of the so-called ‘communist’ countries, the question of the relevance of a new left for the XXIst century was raised. Different elements are necessary to answer it, the growing number of citizen initiatives all over the world (that is the subject of the launch text by Laville), the ambivalent experiences of left governments in South America (second subject raised by Coraggio). The analysis of these complex background issues opens up new perspectives for collective action and emancipation (to follow, third and fourth texts by Wainwright and Hart) and the structural crisis of European social democracy (fifth and sixth, closing texts by Hulgard and Lévesque). Very different from those of the traditional left; this week’s opinions and debates are also to be found in detail in Spanish (Reinventar la izquierda en el siglo XXI – Hasta un dialogo Norte-Sur) and French (Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud ). Jean-Louis Laville, economist and sociologist, supervised 'Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud' (Bord de l’eau, 2016).

The Chamber of the Greater London Assembly.

The Chamber of the Greater London Assembly. Wikicommons/JLogan. Some rights reserved.Most politicians think voters are stupid. Many voters, being intelligent, have disengaged from the politics associated with this presumptuous political class. Some, however, have rallied round the rare politicians who treat them as equals, from Ada Colau in Barcelona, originally leader of those fighting evictions by the banks, now mayor of Barcelona, to Jeremy Corbyn, formerly rebel MP, now leader of the Labour Party. 

Corbyn says he ‘never held in awe those who have had higher education [nor had] a sense of superiority over those who don’t. Life is life. Some of the wisest people you meet are sweeping our streets.’ My intention is to take this ‘new politics’ seriously, whether it is coming from Spain, Greece or the UK and to ask what political institutions of state and party would be like if the practical knowledge of the public were built into their decision-making.

I’m partisan. I’ve long wanted a new politics of the left. But the idea has always been marginal. Now it has moved centre stage. Are there social and economic trends that favour it as a serious possibility? And what is it anyway? How far can it be achieved from within existing political institutions and how far does it require new sources of power to be built in society and the economy as a base for new political institutions? What alliances are necessary?

The idea of a ‘new politics’ is contested. It has been so since at least the rebellions of the 1960s and the economic crisis of the 1970s. In the UK, some notion of it appears in the rhetoric of Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Jeremy Corbyn alike. From their different perspectives, radical left and neo-liberal right have struggled to create a new order to replace the post-war settlement of a regulated, ‘mixed’ economy based on a paternalistic nation state, mass production and full employment.

Transformative capacity?

It was the mainstream parties of the right, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, that broke first from that settlement. Their dominant positions enabled them to appropriate many of the half-sewn clothes of an emerging new left, itself a rebellion against the paternalism and narrow horizons of the post-war consensus. In its response, the left either accepted neoliberalism as the de facto new order in the belief that they could manage it more humanely (Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) or positioned themselves defensively as custodians of the old (Labour) order (most trade union leaders, many allies of Tony Benn).

Beneath the radar of mainstream political institutions, however, activists, often influenced by the earlier new left, had been taking initiatives in a new direction, experimenting with new principles of organisation. Some were defeated, others marginalised, others incorporated into the dominant neoliberal framework. I intend to explore what these experiments illuminate about the current search for a feasible alternative, and what new trends are leading new generations to spread and develop their principles of political organisation.

I argue that what has been revealed, from the feminist movement of the 1970s, through radical trade unionism, community organising and co-operative business experiments, to political breakthroughs such as the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and more recently, the problems faced by a radical government in Greece, has been the need for new understandings of power and knowledge to help generate a new politics of the left.

These are focused, in particular, on the notion of power as transformative capacity (most frequently, the power of civic social change) rather than exclusively pursuing power as domination (the power conventionally sought by political parties through governmental office).

This transformative capacity has its roots in the sharing of the practical – and often tacit – knowledge that institutions based on power as domination tend not to value. The ruling institutions of the post-war order have tended to presume that the knowledge that matters for government is the professional, science-based expertise of the civil servant. (Beatrice Webb, one of the Fabian founders of the welfare state, summarised this view when she said: “‘We have little faith in the “‘average sensual man”’. We do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe his remedies... We wish to introduce the professional expert.”’)

In contrast, the understanding of knowledge implicit in the new politics of the left is based on a recognition of the importance for public policy of its tacit as well as codified forms  – which in turn provides an answer to the neoliberal narrative of the ‘‘free market‘’ as the only alternative to the so-called ‘‘socialist‘’ command economy.

In terms of its implications for politics, this understanding of knowledge as both practical and tacit as well as theoretical but also (in contrast to the free market theorists) social points to forms of collaborative, co-operatively-managed production, in which state institutions at all levels act as facilitators, aware of the limited nature of their knowledge and recognising that they cannot pursue social goals with predictive certainty and therefore always need feedback and experiment. Hence the importance of participatory democracy being built into the institutions of a new kind of state and a new kind of party.

This break from past mentalities will mean strengthening initiatives for change arising outside the existing political system that may not necessarily see themselves as political. This approach underpins a distinct vision of socialism that does not hang on the notion of a centralised, ‘‘all-knowing’’ state. Rather it envisages the state as a facilitator and support for networks of autonomous, collaborative production, already prefigured in the many co-operative, peer-to-peer and social enterprises stimulated by the revolution in information and communication technologies. The need for a new politics is converging with the opportunities (still precarious and contested) now opening up for a new economics. I will suggest below how their decentralised /distributed, yet co-ordinated, organisational logics converge.

The emergence of a new politics on the left

For the past forty years or so, since the late 1960's parts of the left have been breaking, in theory and in practice, from the mainstream post-war consensus around state-led welfare and economic policies based on the presumption that maintaining growth must be the overriding goal. There have also been strong trends towards a further break from the idea of the political party and the state as the main instruments of radical social change, rather than facilitators for autonomous, collaborative production and democratically managed welfare.

These trends have until recently – until Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Corbyn's Labour Party in the UK — been mostly subterranean and marginal. The backcloth to these tendencies is the periodic and increasingly frequent economic, social and political crises in the institutions of the old order and now of its neoliberal successor. The following two parts of this essay outline the foundations of a new political mentality on the left, referring to key examples to illustrate its importance.

Rethinking power

The recent experience of Syriza, Greece’s radical left party, as an elected government facing the institutions of the EU and the IMF, which explicitly refused to let elections interfere with existing economic treaties, and also of many decades of the Labour Party in government, indicate that electoral success is an insufficient source of the power – and practical economic knowledge – required to achieve the social transformations that both left parties and social movements desire.

Problems in the relations between parties and movements cannot be resolved by plumping for electoral politics over autonomous social movement activity or vice versa. An adequate strategy involves understanding the relationship between the two, and designing institutions through which to achieve the most effective balance, combining to maximum effect their different sources of power. As with many other authors, I distinguish between two kinds of power. Later I explore how they might combine.

On the one hand, there is ‘power over’, which could also be described as power-as-domination, involving an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised. On the other hand, there is ‘power to’, the power to transform, or power-as-transformative-capacity.

Historically, social democratic and communist parties have been built around a more or less benevolent, paternalist version of the understanding of power-as-domination. Their strategies have been based on winning the power to govern and then steering the state apparatus to meet what they identify as the needs of the people.

The notion of power-as-transformative-capacity emerged out of widespread frustration at the workings of power-as-domination exercised by political parties of the traditional left. The distinctive feature of the rebellions of the 1960s and 70s was that people took power into their own hands, discovering through collective action that they had capacities of their own to bring about change. These were not simply exerting pressure on the governing party to do something on their behalf. Their approach was more directly transformative, as I will illustrate. They were turning away from representation as the main focus of radical politics.

The distinction between the two forms of power is central to today’s experimental search for new ways of organising. At a time when older methods, such as mass workplace-based labour organisation, have either been defeated or are inadequate to changed circumstances, this distinction helps us to focus on the most appropriate forms of democratic political organisation in a context of extreme fragmentation, precarity and dispersal of working people.

The politics of knowledge: new politics from the left answers the free market right

A central and common theme of the rebellions of the 1960s and 70s involved overturning conventional deference to authority. They broke the bond between knowledge and authority. This break was combined with a pervasive and self-confident assertion of people’s own practical knowledge, as well as their collaborative capacity. It was pitched against the claims of those in authority to know ‘what people need’ and accompanied by an inventiveness about the forms of organisation that would build that capacity.

These movements embarked on an uncertain, experimental process of democratising knowledge. In practice this led to them to create (before the internet) decentralised and networked organisational forms, sharing and developing knowledge horizontally and breaking from hierarchical models that presume an expert leadership and a more-or-less ignorant membership.

The radically democratic approaches to knowledge they pioneered in the 1960s and 70s laid the organisational and cultural foundations underpinning many subsequent civic movements, from the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement to Occupy and the indignados, and in a cautious and peculiarly British form, the movement stimulated by Jeremy Corbyn.

A new economics for a new politics: converging logics

One implication of the fundamental importance of recognising power as transformative capacity is that it enables us to think systematically about making collaborative human creativity central to our strategies for new kinds of political institutions.  Here I will explore its implications for the economy.

I intend to analyse a shift in emphasis away the traditional centrality in left thinking on the ‘nationalisation’ of key industries, towards a new collaborative, co-operative economics, in which state institutions play a facilitating and protective role. (This would no doubt involve the public ownership of utilities and infrastructure, though with significant degrees of decentralised management – for example, in energy.) I will also explore how power as transformative capacity applies to production.

Power as transformative capacity arises from both our individual creative capacity and our character as social beings. It rests on the importance of collaborative human creativity. But if collaborative human creativity is fundamental to how we understand political power, this raises questions for how we understand labour and production, where power as domination is the basis of capitalist production. Are relations of production in which the capacity to labour (in effect human energy and creativity) is sold as a commodity from which private shareholders profit compatible with the idea of citizens working together to transform society (exerting their power as transformative capacity)?

I aim to outline the possibility of an economic transformation based on treating collaborative human capacity as a common resource to be nurtured and realised for the benefit of all. This will lead me to consider how the increasingly widespread framework of the ‘commons’ can be applied to human creativity, noting its distinctively individual as well as social characteristics.

Human creativity is a necessary condition of the life of many other commons – water, land, knowledge, culture – and, though individual-centred, it is also socially shaped. Dependent in good part on the nature of education, culture, and the distribution of wealth, it can be nurtured and developed, or suppressed, undeveloped and wasted, realised and benefited from. Just as natural resources of fundamental importance need protection and nurturing, so it is with human creativity.

Having acknowledged the severe weakening of workers’ traditional means of struggling for the dignity of labour and the conditions for collaborative human creativity, I explore contemporary tendencies that favour a collaborative, co-operative economics. This requires a critical examination of the ambivalent consequences of the revolution in information and communication technology (ICT).

The nature of organisation and control around ICT, and the potential of open software and distributed production, is now a highly contested sphere in which leading corporations are successfully monetising and profiting from the voluntary, socially-driven activity of social media users and open software creators. The individualised nature of these creators, and creative users, militates against unionization. But they are becoming organised as producers, forming co-operatives and other hybrid networks.

They use their high levels of technological understanding and the new ICT tools for connection, co-ordination and collaboration to organise in a productive and sometimes self-protective way. And they are doing so in a manner that is increasingly self-conscious and ethically, sometimes politically, conscious of the new social and economic relations they are creating as they work. Some of those engaged in and analysing these trends argue that a new mode of production is emerging around what they call ‘commons peer-to-peer production’

I am not able to make definitive claims as to the systemic importance of these trends. But there is strong evidence that there is a new economic, social and potentially political force at work within this generation of individualised yet collaborative workers in ICT. It has both the potential and the desire to be transformative, and though it lacks the collective power of the traditional working class, it derives a diffuse but significant power from the fact that its skills and knowhow are at the heart of the new forms of capital accumulation, cultural production and communication, and political control and decision making in a globalised context.

The experience of the collaborative commons as a production model provides living evidence of the possibility of sharing and socialising practical and tacit knowledge – thereby challenging in practice the entirely individual entrepreneur model of the free market. Indeed, at least three of the eight design principles for managing a common resource set out by the Nobel prize-winning commons theorist, Elinor Ostrom, point to the importance of sharing practical knowledge through systems of participation and collaborative rule making.

While the social movements of the 1960s and 70s broke the bond between authority and knowledge, and established the social importance of tacit knowledge, the ICT revolution created the conditions for an economy based on collaborative knowledge. In other words, these technological tools for effectively infinite sharing and collaboration created the conditions for power-as-transformative-capacity to be productive.

I want to stress, however, the protective and supportive function of state institutions in this new productive paradigm, for though the trend towards a sharing economy seems unstoppable, the social and economic form it takes is contingent. For these reasons I will explore the importance of the state and politics in both challenging the corporate appropriation of collaborative human creativity and in creating material conditions for such creativity to thrive (for example, a basic, universal citizens income). 

Imagining the institutions of a new politics

After decades of failed attempts at rethinking/renewing/refounding, it is necessary to step back and take a long run at the challenge. This takes us as far back as theories of knowledge and the way they underpinned post-war ideologies.

These theories still influence the mentalities that animate the left and weaken the processes of renewal. For instance, the presumption that socialist planning is about centralising knowledge about production, and a left party is therefore about winning national office to take control of the commanding heights of the economy, still influences many left activists. Movements are understood as the foot soldiers of the election process, in exchange for which the party voices their demands.

By contrast, the notion of strategy and organisation that flows from my understanding of knowledge and of the individualised but also collaborative nature of creativity, sees the party as more of an outrider, a base for experiment and capacity building, than simply a means of winning electoral office.

It acts more as a catalyst to building power as transformative capacity in the here and now, than as an army bent on capturing the citadels of power in the future. What are the practical implications of this for how a new kind of party is organized? Its work would need to be rooted in daily production and reproduction, and its task becomes the aim to build and realise citizens’ capacities for self-government and social and economic transformation.

A party embedded in production and reproduction

Additionally, if power as transformative capacity is understood to include political economy and to recombine politics and economics in new ways, then a new kind of radical party would need to shift exclusive attention from both macro-economic flows (the supply of money, levels of taxation and the regulation of trade) and the purely national institutional framework of ownership towards questions of the content and social organisation of production. Production for what purpose? With what technology? With what environmental and social consequences? And drawing on whose knowledge, with what relations to its workers and users?

The planetary imperative towards a low-carbon economy gives added impetus to the creation of transformed relations of production in the present from which national policies for state support might be generated and popularised. The ICT revolution and the web have opened up opportunities for a new socially- and ecologically-driven economy. A new party, in its policies and its practice, would need to be immersed in the development of these new possibilities. It could act as a political space for those engaged in the new production, thereby overcoming the rift between politics, economics and society that has held thought and institutions in a vice since the early nineteenth century.

This would imply a party membership that is self educated and practically involved in the many social innovations emerging globally: open source software, co-operative platforms, collaborative consumption, new ways of growing and eating food, producing and using energy, transport, trade and finance, ‘soft’ care and health-enabling systems, cultural production and all the other aspects of a sufficient life. These contemporary forms of citizen participation would be the life of a prefigurative, catalytic party.

Preparing now the transformation of the state

I implied earlier that power-as-domination is exercised most distinctively through government. A new politics of the left would imply turning aspects of state power into resources for power as transformative capacity. But state institutions, like all institutions, depend on social relations that people can reproduce or refuse and, under some conditions, take action to transform. One damaging result of the narrow understandings of knowledge typical of the original architects of the welfare state was that public services were delivered paternalistically, without the participation of those involved in either their delivery or their use.

The tendency of political leaders to treat production – of goods, infrastructure or services – as a matter only for the professional engineer (mechanical or social) meant that little consideration was given to the practical importance of involving citizens as knowing producers or users with a vested interest in the social efficiency of those public bodies. As a result, there was no foundation for effective mobilisation to defend and develop these public organisations among others, as a basis for a wider decommodification of the economy.

As public services and utilities have faced wave upon wave of privatisation and cutbacks, workers and users have been mobilising in new ways, not simply to defend wages and conditions but to improve and democratise those services. Here again would be an opportunity for a transformative party to support prefigurative change, as a way of preparing for more widespread systemic change when it eventually won government power.

One special opportunity for experimentation and prefiguration would be at the level of municipal government. Cities also tend to be both where citizens are regularly engaged in formal and informal self-management and where the mechanisms are most easily invented for supporting them and acknowledging their capacity. City government can be an institutional space where a radical party can consolidate its power and improve its ability to gain national governmental power.

How to cite:
Wainwright H.(2016) A new politics from the left? , Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,19 May. https://opendemocracy.net/hilary-wainwright/new-politics-from-left


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