“We have sold genuine socialism to a hitherto unimagined portion of the electorate: the young, the idealistic, and the middle class. We now need to sell it to the people it was designed for.”
At various points in 2019, it was conceivable that—by the end of 2020—we would have witnessed genuine leftist electoral victories in both the United Kingdom and the United States. However, these hopes came to an end on the 13th of December in 2019 when Corbyn’s Labour Party was defeated. While many on the Left would describe that defeat as crushing, the ascendancy of openly socialist politics to the national stage in the United Kingdom is arguably a partial victory in itself, representing a step on the path opened by Sanders and Corbyn in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Bearing this in mind, it is important not to settle for the mere legitimization of genuinely left discourse within political debate in the Anglo‒American sphere. Above all, Left campaigners must not become habituated to a position of highly vocal “also rans.” We can do better than just saying we took part in the electoral process on our own terms. We now need to ask how Sen. Bernie Sanders might win—and whether there are lessons to be learned from the U.K. election as we attempt to realize this objective. At the same time, we need to think about long term goals, irrespective of whether Sanders wins the Presidency—or even the Democratic nomination, a feat that no one on the Left is at this stage taking for granted.
Countering Neoliberal Hegemony
Overall, we need to assume a believer’s positivity in the short-term, coupled with the expectation of a long, slow period of political realignment. This is because—when seen things from a historical perspective—short-term shifts are ultimately insignificant in comparison to the tide of neoliberal technocratic‒capitalist advance seen over the last 40 years. In the decades since the Thatcher-Reagan elections, we have witnessed wealth and power become concentrated in ever fewer hands, while the masses are monitored and manipulated as never before. These rightward victories for neoliberalism were solidified by decades of concessions by centrists, as well as even nominally progressive parties such as the New Labour of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and the SPD in Germany. Moreover—as Quinn Slobodian observed in his excellent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism—promoters of neoliberal policy such as economist Friedrich Hayek knew they needed to entrench political gains not just through domestic ideological shifts but through legal codification at the international level. From the European bank to the World Trade Organization, international bodies are institutionally inclined to resist movements towards the Left, even if candidates such as Sanders are successful. These barriers to progressive change are operational across borders and are, ultimately, unaccountable. As such, they are unlikely to be rolled back in one (or even two) presidential terms. We can further guarantee that the considerable powers mounted against President Trump in his first term by neoliberal interests both in the United States and abroad would be more than matched in opposition to a Sanders agenda, should Sanders be elected president. Many on the Left quietly believe these powers will rally to inhibit Sanders from even gaining the nomination.
Of course, the idea that an increasingly advanced pro–capitalist system may prevent the Left from gaining power at such a crucial moment—leading to another Trump Presidency and the trione Trump–Johnson–Putin among G7 leaders (to perhaps be later joined by Salvini and Le Pen)—is alarming. Although the populist rot is already global in scope, India and Brazil are just two major non-Western powers that have been swept up in the reactionary flood. To many, these developments might rightfully sound like cause for sudden action to be taken in order to stave off permanent subservience for our descendants at the hands of increasingly decentralized capital and increasingly recentralized, xenophobic state authority. But even well-organized street protests allied with mass movements have in recent years either dissipated to nothing or—in the case of Syria—acted as tinder to the powder keg with catastrophic consequences. To see protest as the only route open to the Left in any case undersells the current historical opportunity (and, indeed duty) to challenge the hegemonic forces of both right-wing populism and neoliberalism through the ballot and legislature. The Left can provide a compelling and genuine alternative to the calcifying forces opposing greater equality and democracy, providing it can make its case to the electorate.
Reflecting on the barriers to achieving this ambition can prove immensely discouraging and, in turn, can engender a search for shortcuts on the road to progress. This temptation is dangerous; the twin brother to excessive optimism is indifferent cynicism. Today’s polarization between Left and Right (and the clear concentration of power in the hands of the latter) means that we are in for a long struggle—and one that perhaps does not offer the thrills and high-paced narrative needed to maintain the focus of those ardent “tankies” among us. Yet the sad truth is that the achievement of a radical agenda will require patience, diligent campaigning, fundraising, paperwork, meeting with ordinary people, listening to stories of rent arrears, illnesses that go untreated because of lack of insurance coverage, and so on. It may require marching in ignored protest after ignored protest to demonstrate solidarity, despite the clear lack of gains. And, it will almost certainly entail things getting worse before they get better. Said things include: increased militarization of civilian life, post-truthism in politics, lack of privacy, data and camera surveillance, continued and/or deepening conflict in the Middle East, diminishing international cooperation, a continued rise of the far-right, inadequate and worsening healthcare provisions, a widening gap between rich and poor, and worsening climate change. Above all, alignment towards a genuine Left will require the socialist message be placed before the public, while also respecting people’s reticence to accept it. Finally, eventual success in selling socialism will require a vast array of approaches in order to appeal across the wide spectrum of the electorate.
So long as there is money that it is being holed up in Swiss bank accounts and trust funds (or spent on weapons programs), we are enabling injustice and suffering to continue when it could be readily countered.
What Lessons Can be Learned From Labour’s Defeat?
On this last count, one lesson to be learned from Labour’s defeat is not to fear extreme campaigning. Labour did well to emphasize its caring credentials, arguing for a welfare state adequate to our times. However, its calls for the state to adopt a pastoral role too often focused on negative campaigning against the Tories. This often took the form of video meme campaigns encouraged by Momentum via its centralized forum. These videos emphasized the grievances of ordinary people when it came to poor health care, unemployment, lack of opportunities, and class inequality. While clearly well-intentioned (and no doubt effective among a specific demographic), such an approach misunderstood the working class’s desire to see itself as self-sufficient. This is related to a grand narrative in which members of the working class are protagonists—not hapless victims. Time and again, the Tories have benefited from appealing to this fundament of working class psychology. Indeed, it is no surprise that the directness of Johnson’s slogan “Get Brexit done!” (with its promise of a new place in history for a proudly independent Britain) won the day. With its covert and overt nationalist undertones, this message had no problem appealing to people from diverse backgrounds seeking to position themselves as actors, rather than those “acted upon.”
Labour’s failing resides partly in failing to sell to the public the epic historical battle of the Left as one for individual agency. Seen in this way, there can be little in the way of succor to be taken from Labour’s bruising defeat to the Tories at the end of last year; the worker’s party basically failed in appealing to the working class ambition for greatness. And yet, if one assume the enormity of the task against the Left today, which entails rolling back not four years of Trumpian rule (or ten years of Tory rule but centuries of capitalism), then the recent realignment on both sides of the Atlantic is cause for positivity. We have sold genuine socialism to a hitherto unimagined portion of the electorate: the young, the idealistic, and the middle class. We now need to sell it to the people it was designed for.
Lessons to Be Learned for the American Election
There are a number of lessons the Left can take away from Corbyn’s defeat, particularly with regard to Sanders’ campaign for President. Should Sanders become the Democratic candidate, there are two aspects of his campaign that opponents will likely attack. First, his calls for universal healthcare will be critiqued. Second, his plans for post-secondary education and other social programs will be portrayed as untenably expensive, requiring massive tax increases for both the working and middle classes. This can be countered by pointing to the immense inequalities of wealth in American society and stressing how a more equitable and efficient system of taxation could ensure that all pay their fair share. Indeed, here we should turn the popular right-wing argument that the United States is a much bigger country than the Nordic social democracies on its head. Given its wealth and size, there is no reason why the United States cannot provide a decent life for all of its citizens. So long as there is money that it is being holed up in Swiss bank accounts and trust funds (or spent on weapons programs), we are enabling injustice and suffering to continue when it could be readily countered. It can become our generation’s calling to distribute that money for the greater good. We need to focus less on bombing other states into democracy and more on providing a flourishing land of opportunity in the United States.
The second and more subtle line of attack will state that Sanders and his radical cohort want to subvert the individualism of American society and replace it with dependency on the state. Republicans and their allies will argue that Sanders sees his supporters as victims of oppression who need to be cared for—rather than strong and self-sufficient individuals, who can make it for themselves. This is precisely the image problem suffered by Labour in the United Kingdom, and it is vital the Sanders turn the tables, conveying that this election is an opportunity for the working class to correct the fundamentally unfair power balance in the United States. It is, thus, vital that the Sanders campaign takes control of this narrative by emphasizing community-building and benevolence as signs of strength and independence. Here, Sanders can point to a long solidaristic history in American political culture, particularly in the Labour movement, as a precedent for what he is trying to achieve.
There are also more technical matters to consider. Campaigning is no longer just a matter of a few supporters knocking on doors, while the candidate appears on the podium greeting cameras. This is not to say that such activism is no longer needed; rather, this is to say that it is just not enough. Digital spaces and new communication mediums offer tremendous opportunities to win hearts and minds. This is especially true of voters who may live in communities or inhabit social circles where left-wing ideas have never had significant currency, particularly in the rural areas of traditionally red states where many voters have long been economically marginalized but have only ever turned to the GOP for recourse. To do this will require the use of independent media and certainly meme campaigns, though it must bring in some of outliers within the left spectrum if it wants to appeal to the working-class appetite for a fight. It is time perhaps to bring in some of the Acid Left, Eco Warrior, Tankie, Anarcho Communist, LGBTQ and Feminist meme tendencies onto the main stage—and to learn from their capacity to mobilize groups around singular issues that align themselves broadly with a Left perspective. The match between the Democrats and these groups may—in some cases—seem awkward and—in other cases—impossible. Yet, the vehemence with which marginal left tendencies express themselves could meet with mainstream campaigners part way. In this way, concisely expressed narratives could be formed that might appeal to a working class that does not see itself reflected in victim stories. We need to portray democratic socialism as this generation’s opportunity to make a historical mark.
None of these approaches ensures a progressive win for the White House, of course. We face serious opposition from very powerful forces, who recognize what is at stake for them. But an intelligent and strategic Left has a better opportunity than any since the 1960’s to transform the landscape of American politics—and, by extension, to shift global discourse in a progressive direction. There has already been a lot accomplished in getting such ideas on the agenda in a country that 15 years ago seemed a paragon of resistance to even moderate social democratic reform. We can win this if we are smart, compassionate, and recognize what it takes to truly engage potential voters, rather than painting them as victims in need of salvation.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof
Mike Watson is a theorist and critic, who is principally focused on the relationship among culture, new media and politics. He has written for Art Review, Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Radical Philosophy. In 2019, he published his second book for ZerO Books, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things. He holds a PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London.