When the financial system collapsed in 2008 I thought our moment had come. The streets would fill with protesters against the Capitalist Beast; governments would move to the left in response; people would rethink how they wanted to live. Yet while there have been some big protests in Wisconsin, and abroad in Spain and Greece, many more voters have instead moved to the right; the financial ancien régime has been restored. In a way this isn’t surprising. When things go wrong, people both want change and cling for comfort to the familiar. But the left hasn’t succeeded, either in America or across Europe, in making itself a creditable voice for reform.
Since it controls the media as well as money, the Beast can, of course, protect itself. In this crisis, the authors of the Great Recession succeeded in blaming particular people or policies rather than admit to fundamental flaws in the system. Ruling classes don’t invariably succeed; across North Africa and the Middle East, the oppressed are rising up against terrible odds. Nor, closer to home, would it be right to blame mass lethargy; people are full of political energy, even if it’s directed at immigrants and foreigners.
The unpalatable fact is that we, the ardent left, count for less and less in the public’s thinking about how to live together. And if that has long been true in the United States, where the left has occupied only a small corner of public discourse, the decay of the left now marks the old Western European homelands, as in Sweden or Britain. The word “progressive” seems no more arousing than “social democracy.” Though progressive think tanks abound in America and Europe, and churn out worthy proposals for social justice, policy-wonkery seems to induce an eyes-glazed-over indifference among the larger public.
As an old lefty, I worry about all this; I’d be sorry if the future consisted just of different shades of capitalism. In the midst of doctors’ appointments and funerals, I’ve wondered how the left could recover its standing in the eyes of the larger society even if the prospects for the left in power are dim. This is a problem, I’ve come to think, more social than ideological in character.
You become creditable when others take you seriously even though they may not agree with you. To be taken seriously, you need to know when to keep silent and how to listen well; you are then extending respect and recognition to others. The philosopher Anne Phillips rightly insists on the importance of “presence” in politics, by which she means being someone an individual or group feels can conduct a discussion on equal terms. Presence is something an outsider has to earn by his or her behavior. Scoring points won’t alone admit you into other people’s lives; winning an argument over them will not include you in their thinking about how to live. Creditability, that is, lies more in the realm of receptiveness than assertiveness.
If this is correct, a certain kind of politics follows. It should concentrate more on civil society than electoral politics—particularly electoral politics at the national level. The community organizer or grassroots activist needs to be honored in his or her own right rather than as a worker bee in the national political hive; he or she is likely to have developed the skills of good listening and discussion that breed respect. In America, Denmark, Finland and Britain the right has colonized effective grassroots politics, building viable and sustained communities even if its goals fail nationally. The right has pulled off a neat trick: though huge mountains of cash stand behind many of its efforts, on the ground right-wing organizers have behaved creditably as speaking in the name of ordinary people. I hope the left will take back this communal territory; but doing so requires a changed mindset on our part.