The Four Tectonic Splits within the Global Left

It occurred to me recently that there are four central tectonic splits within the worldwide left. The first two are relatively recent and the last two are more enduring. Like the tectonic plates that shift beneath the surface of the earth, these represent fundamental cleavages between different tendencies, parties and groups under the broad umbrella of the worldwide left. And, like tectonic plates, these positions clash. Making matters worse, adherents of each typically don’t talk to one another, at least in order to aid mutual understanding, let alone resolution.

The first split is over approaches to globalization. By globalization I am referring to the major political and economic developments that have taken place over the last 40 years. Economically, this involved the internationalization of the capitalist market economy, following the gradual opening and liberalization of markets (capital, commodity, and to a lesser extent labour) primarily for the benefit of Transnational Corporations (TNCs), which now dominate the global economy.[1] Politically, we have witnessed the gradual erosion of national sovereignty, as increasing power has become vested in transnational political, economic, and cultural institutions. This has lead some left theorists to argue that globalization has seen the emergence of either a Transnational Capitalist Class (Marxists) or a Transnational Elite (libertarian).

And yet, today, the overwhelming majority of the left, either explicitly or implicitly, endorses globalization and its institutions. A much smaller number oppose it.

The ‘globalisers’ appeal to long-held left principles of internationalism to ground their support for globalization, even if they want it to take a fundamentally different form. They aim to reform or even radically transform the global economy, but not to unwind or roll back current levels of global integration. To wind back global intergration, they argue, would be regressive, suggesting that long-held Marxist ideas about the progressive role of capitalism are still deeply influential.

The anti-globalisers, by contrast, argue that effective social struggle today, must also include a national component in order to restore national/economic sovereignty, in the face of growing transnational power. They argue that only a restoration of national and related economic sovereignty can effectively counter the growth of unaccountable and undemocratic transnational economic and political power, which has emerged via the globalizing process of the market economy. In addition, many anti-globalisers are opposed to globalization in principle, because ‘tends to accelerate economic growth, which progressively degrades the natural environment’ (Sarkar, 2008)

A key debate between the globalisers and anti-globalisers relates to the interpretation of neo-liberalism. For the globalisers, neo-liberalism is typically viewed either as the result of misguided/irrational economic ideology (reformists), or as a class-project, designed to restore profitability for the capitalist class (anti-systematic). But either way, according to this view, neo-liberalism is in principle reversible within the framework of todays global economy. For reformists, it simply requires the revival of electable social democratic parties, whereas for (globalist) revolutionaries hope is placed in a, seemingly distant, working class revolt to overthrow global capitalism. The important point, however, is that neither approach, sees globalization itself, as a problem to be countered.

For many anti-globalisers, such as political theorist Takis Fotopoulos of the Inclusive Democracy project, neoliberalism is inevitably bound up with the globalization process. As he puts it, “globalisation, in the framework of a capitalist market economy, can only be neoliberal.” According to this view, neo-liberalism in fact represents the required policy framework for states that have opened up and liberalized their markets, as most have done over the last 40 years. Once states have done this, they are required to offer competitive conditions – that is, neo-liberal policies – in order to attract investment from TNCs and/or to ensure exports are competitive on the global market. Over the last 30 years all governments, whether conservative or social-democratic etc, have had to do this and on the few occasion that left-of-center leaders have promised to restore social democracy in significant ways, they have either failed to get elected, or have reversed course once in office (i.e see the fate of Mitterand, Lafontaine, Hollande, and Tsipras etc).  Anti-globalisers therefore argue that the only way neoliberalism could begin to be reversed is if rebel states/nations – in coalition with each other – remove themselves from global (neo-liberal) institutions (i.e WTO, WB, IMF, EU, NAFTA etc) and reinstate social (i.e. capital/commodity) controls on markets, in order to move towards greater (if not complete) self-reliance and restore national democratic sovereignty. This, it is thought, would free them from the ‘race to the bottom’ required to compete in the global economy and allow for social criteria (i.e. effectively meeting basic needs, overcoming poverty) to be applied to economic/political decisions.[2] [1]

It must be said, however, that while such social-nationalist approaches may well provide one promising pathway to restore a democratic and egalitarian state, it seems that it could only be done so at greatly reduced levels of GDP and therefore affluence. This is for the simple reason that it would cut the rebelling anti-global coalition states off from many of the resources, technology and finance made possible by the global economy, today largely controlled by TNCs. And this would remain true, even if those states continued to trade among themselves.

Still, for a growing, although still very small number of left theorists, ending growth/affluence is in any case necessary, due to mounting ecological limits to growth – and this represents the second major contemporary split within the worldwide left. Those who accept limits argue that a combination of mounting resource scarcities and environmental degradation will soon – and perhaps already has – put an end to future global economic growth and development. Leftists within this school, perhaps more so than other environmental thinkers, are likely to adopt particularly radical positions. For, as leftists, they strive for an egalitarian world order based on fair shares for all. But, as they point out, today the earth is groaning under the weight of human impact and yet only about one sixth of the world’s people enjoy levels of high-affluence taken for granted in OECD countries. In this context, an egalitarian world of affluence for all seems like an immoral pipedream. Saral Sarkar puts this view powerfully:

If we do not want to disregard this global horizon, then we cannot avoid the insight that the people of the industrial countries, but also the rich and the middle class of the Third World, with their ecologically unsustainable mode of production and way of life, are participating in a worldwide chauvinistic selection process, which robs others of their chances of survival. For leftists, the ecological U-turn must therefore stand at the top of their political agenda (Sarkar & Bruno, 2008)

So, according to this view, the left must argue for a massive retreat, not just from global capitalism, but also from high industrialism and affluence. This would involve (among other things) a planned contraction and reorganization of industrialized economies. Thinkers such as Sarkar are keen to stress, however, that this must be an egalitarian contraction, done within the framework of a socialist political economy, and with job guarentees for all. But on the left, those who accept limits are in a small minority. Most remain firmly wedded to the productivist/growth theories and ideas that emerged victorious with the rise of capitalism during the European enlightenment, and which both the socialist and liberals movements enthusiastically endorsed. Of course, today almost all factions of the left acknowledge that environmental issues, particularly global warming, represent major problems which are unlikely to be resolved adequately within a growth/capitalist framework. But the alternative society they variously envisage typically does not also call into question various sacred cows such as globalisation, high industrialism, affluence, centralization, and population growth. These are all typically dismissed as the irrelevant preoccupations of neo-Malthusian doomsayers. When pushed on these issues, (most) socialists reveal their faith in the dominant idea that technological progress, perhaps combined with a more rational socialist/planned economy, can overcome any foreseeable environmental restraints.

The last two of the four tectonic splits are far older, though still significant. There is the long split between reformists and revolutionaries. The reformists seek to change or improve society, by working within and/or modifying the dual institutions of modernity: the capitalist market economy and representative democracy. Revolutionaries seek to overthrow or dismantle these institutions and replace them with alternative ones, such as socialized/planned economies and more participatory/direct forms of democracy. There is also the split, at the heart of the divide between Marxists and anarchists, between statists and non-statists. Statists, seek to use the power of the state, even if only for a revolutionary transitional phase, to achieve a socialist society. Non-statists reject using the state, whether for transitional strategic purposes or not, and instead propose building alternative democratic self-governing institutions/cultures, that could eventually dismantle and replace the state and capital.

Each of the above four splits are theoretically separate. Thus, people on opposing sides of one split may come down on the same side of another split. For example, anti-systemic leftists, while agreeing on the need to overhaul capitalism, may well hold opposing views on globalization. And those who agree on the significance of ecological limits may disagree strategically of the question of taking/using state power etc. On the other hand, adoption of one position is often closely related to another. For example, almost all leftists who accept ecological limits, usually also oppose globalization, for reasons mentioned above.

As it turns out, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of being on the least popular ‘plate’ in each split. I oppose globalization. I believe humanity confronts severe and imminent limits to growth that threaten ecological catastrophe. And I retain a stubborn faith in revolutionary anarchism. This leads me to the extreme minority position on the left, advocating for what has been called by eco-anarchist theorist Ted Trainer, ‘the simpler way’ (TSW).

TSW  theorists argue for the radical reconstruction of society in both the global north and south. Radical action at the national levels, largely in line with the aforementioned proposals above, would be necessary in the long term, but this is seen as only possible and desirable after a long period of citizen led grassroots transformation. This would involve the gradual building up of new intensely self-reliant economies/cultures at the micro neighbourhood, suburban, and town levels – a process that has started to emerge with the Transition Towns movement, but which needs to go much further in the direction of a bold and proud new-society movement. An inspiring contemporary example can be seen with the emerging Spanish Cooperativa Integral Catalana movement. Within these communities, the many currently neglected non-monetary sources of ‘wealth’ would be emphasized and prioritized, leading TSW theorist to claim that quality of life could actually been improved for most people from today’s consumer rat race. The ultimate long-term aim is build a re-conceived democratic ‘socialism’ appropriate for the age of limits. The new villages would be federated within a new polity characterized by participatory democracy and a planned and heavily (if not entirely) socialized economy at the national level. Global trade would be vastly reduced, as most of the (simplified) material needs could easily be meet within revitalized national/regional/local economies. TSW theorists unfashionably suggest that this is not simply a nice dreamy wish list – one option among many – but really the only viable alternative, consistent with the ideals of the humanist left, worth fighting for in the coming eco-scarcity…. [1] As a New Scientist study has shown, today, just 1,318 core TNCs, through interlocking ownerships, own 80% of global revenues and 147 companies out of them (i.e. less than 1 per cent of the network) form a “super entity,” controlling 40 per cent of the wealth of the entire network!


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