Across the Western world, the traditional left is in crisis. In Germany, support for the Social Democratic Party, once a cornerstone of mainstream politics that led six postwar governments, has fallen below 20 percent. In France, François Hollande’s approval ratings recently reached a mind-boggling low of 4 percent, while the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party has seen its support drop by almost half in less than a decade. The decline of Pasok, Greece’s main social-democratic party, which fell from winning elections to ratings of under 5 percent in less than a decade, was so rapid that it spawned a new word, “Pasokification,” for the collapse of traditional center-left parties. Even in Scandinavia, once-invincible parties of social democracy have been hit by increasingly disaffected voters, as right-wing populists stoke anxiety about immigration and its impact on the welfare state.
In some of the same countries, there are signs of hope, but they are usually qualified. Podemos, Spain’s new party of the left, went from its initial foundation to winning 20 percent of the vote in little more than two years, but it’s currently locked in an uncertain debate about a realistic path to power. In Greece, the radicals of Syriza were propelled into government as the country fell into a deep economic crisis—but the party’s torrid time in charge has sown division and confusion. In the United Kingdom, the election of veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader has been accompanied by two contradictory developments: Labour has attracted so many new members that it now claims to be the largest party in Europe, but among the voting public it is also scoring its lowest poll ratings in decades.
In the United States, progressive politics is full of its own nuances and complexities, but the picture of uncertainty and contradiction is comparable. Hillary Clinton’s merits are obvious compared to the mess of bigotry and nastiness embodied by Donald Trump, but there has been little sense of enthusiasm at the prospect of her presidency, nor any clear idea of her essential mission.
As he campaigned for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders spoke to that vacuum. For many of us, watching him gain momentum as he spoke about hitherto taboo political issues to huge crowds was undeniably exciting. But there was also a nagging sense of doubt about whether his vision of a reborn New Deal was more the stuff of keening nostalgia than the politics of the future. At the same time, there is still a sense that the radical left’s energies have yet to be fully revived after the demise of the Occupy movement, which was seemingly unable to resolve the tension between its emphasis on horizontal, non-programmatic politics and the fact that any enduring movement needs a clear sense of definition and goals.
The Western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and whom it speaks for. First, traditional work—and the left’s sacred notion of “the worker”—is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which will soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, a new wave of opposition to globalization is led by forces on the right, which emphasize place and belonging and mistrust of outsiders. Third, political alignments rapidly fragment, leaving the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of the people looking like a relic. The 20th century, in other words, really is over. Whether the left can find its voice in the 21st is a question currently surrounded by a profound sense of uncertainty.
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This past May, I stood in a parking lot outside a bar on the edges of Indianapolis, talking to a thirtysomething man named Brad. He was an employee of a company called Carrier—and for the time being, he still worked on a production line making furnaces and air conditioners and paid his dues to the United Steelworkers union. But he and his 1,400 colleagues had been given notice that Carrier would soon shut down production and move its operations to Mexico, thus cutting the average employee’s wage from over $20 an hour to around $3. The story had been enthusiastically taken up by Sanders—who saw what had happened as yet another attack on “the great middle class of America, once the beacon of hope for the entire world”—but also by Donald Trump. “We are killing ourselves with trade pacts that are no good for us and no good for our workers,” Trump said.
“Corporate greed—these guys have made millions off of us,” Brad told me, gesturing at the nearby Carrier factory. In 2008, he said, he had voted for Obama. But now, no one on the progressive side of politics seemed to have the qualities he looked for: principle, firmness, and a practical grasp of how to protect and advance the security and stability on which Brad and his family depended.
“We need somebody that’s tough, you know?” he said. “I was all for Obama the first time around…and he let me down. I felt like he was a pushover, and he let people behind the curtain pretty much lead him.… Trump just shows toughness, and I love that. I’ve got to go with my gut, I guess.” He was well aware that Trump is no friend of organized labor, but in his plans to punish companies that moved their production abroad, Brad at least sensed the beginnings of some kind of action.
Brad’s complaints about his predicament were superficially focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement, and its consequences for the local economies of scores of US towns and cities. But more generally, he and the other Carrier workers I met spoke about what many of them called the death of the American dream, and their deep anxiety about the ways that Western economies are changing: moving away from stability and certainty into a new quicksilver reality in which capital becomes ever more unpredictable, and working lives have to follow suit.
Progressive politics tries to speak to these concerns using a vocabulary largely unchanged in well over 50 years. The 2016 Democratic platform pledges to build “a full-employment economy, where everyone has a job that pays enough to raise a family and live in dignity with a sense of purpose.” In the United Kingdom, Labour’s Corbyn offers a traditional agenda of “full employment” and “bringing security to the workplace.” On both sides of the Atlantic, progressive politics still bases its notions of what gives life meaning on work, the workplace, and the worker, and the idea that paid employment remains the only route to security, if only the more malign aspects of modern economies can somehow be tamed.
Meanwhile, reality speeds somewhere else. Forbes has predicted that by 2020, 50 percent of the American labor force will work at least partly on a freelance basis. Part-time and temporary work is not as embedded here as in some advanced economies, but it is on the rise: In 2015, a report by the Government Accountability Office put the proportion of “contingent workers”—that is, people without traditional secure jobs—in the US labor force at 40.4 percent, up from 30.6 percent a decade before. Inevitably, this army of agency temps, contract workers, and the self-employed looks like it will continue to grow.
Some of this, of course, is due to the venality and greed of businesses, and the lack of leverage for workers too often forced to operate as atomized individuals rather than make their case collectively. But the central momentum behind it is rooted in technology, and what Marxists would call the mode of production. Put simply, in a world in which businesses can survey their order books on an hourly basis and temporarily hire staff at the touch of a button, why would they base their arrangements on agreements that last for years?
Looking ahead, even more radical changes to millions of everyday lives will be caused by automation. Forty-seven percent of US workers are reckoned to have jobs at risk from technology (according to a respected 2013 study by Oxford University), and huge changes will affect everything from road haulage to retail jobs. The consequences are likely to be seismic: Apart from anything else, as new technology eats into some of the staple parts of the labor market, this wave of automation threatens to drastically weaken the link between what people produce and how much they earn. And in that context, a huge question for the left will become inescapable: Does the myopic, often macho rhetoric of work and the worker really articulate a meaningful vision anymore?
Aside from Trump’s populist interventionism, the right has tended to stick to the same crass answers to all these changes: It exhorts people to keep up, lionizing those who can survive while demonizing those who fall behind. Meanwhile, the left too often sounds as if it wants to revive the slow-moving, bureaucratic capitalism that spawned a progressive politics along the same lines, back in the days when the archetypal factory gates swung open and out came thousands of men—and, by and large, they were men—united by an unchanging daily experience. During the era that stretched from the New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s election, they supported a politics that promised to use the state to create a fairer society in their monolithic image. But now?
The alternative is to come up with an entirely new paradigm: battling the modern labor market’s most iniquitous features using new models and methods, while nonetheless reducing the centrality of work to left politics, and basing new ideas of security and stability on the entirety of people’s lives. In ever more complex societies that are aging at speed, any modern left politics must speak powerfully to the fact that, as well as workers, people are citizens, caregivers, parents, and friends—aspects of life that the left has long underplayed, and for which the incessant demands of modern capitalism leave little room.
People on the left should be making the case for extending maternity and paternity leave and allowing its reprise when children are older; reviving adult education (often for its own sake, not just in terms of “reskilling”); assisting people in the creation of neighborhood support networks that might belatedly answer the decline of the extended family; and, most obviously, enabling people to shorten their work week. Think about a three-day weekend, and you begin to get a flavor of the left politics of the future.
Within all this lies a profoundly progressive opportunity to rethink the notion of work and its worth along societal rather than financial lines. A fascinating glimpse of this prospect was offered recently by President Obama in the “Frontiers Issue” of Wired, which he guest-edited. What he said perhaps underlined the missed opportunities, but as a piece of analysis, it rang true: As automation accelerates, “the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated [because] computers are doing a lot of the work.” And in this change, Obama suggested, there lies a new political opening. “We underpay teachers, despite the fact that it’s a really hard job and a really hard thing for a computer to do well. So for us to reexamine what we value, what we are collectively willing to pay for—whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole—that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.”
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A second problem for the left lies in how the rising inequality fostered by globalization and free-market economics increasingly manifests itself, and a cultural gap that is tearing the traditional progressive constituency in two. Once, all successful projects of the left and center-left were built on the support of both the progressive middle class and the parts of the working class represented in some part by unions. Now, in many countries, a comfortable, culturally confident middle-class constituency seems to stare in bafflement at an increasingly resentful part of the traditional working class, and the division grows ever wider.
The first group has an internationalized culture and the confidence that comes with education and relative affluence. It can apparently cope with its version of job insecurity (think of the freelance software developer, rather than the warehouse worker on a temporary contract). But on the other side are people who have a much more negative view of globalization and modernity. In the UK, the most vocal elements tend to be white and live in deindustrialized areas: Modern political discourse has branded them “the left behind.” In the United States, a similar demographic category defined a large part of the conversation around the 2016 election. Across the world, in fact, these people are making their voices heard in response to globalization—and emphasizing place and belonging, and an essentially defensive national identity.
The left tends to flinch at displays of patriotism, particularly when they’re infused with a sense of defiance. But from a sympathetic perspective, putting out a flag can be a complicated gesture. It often stands as an assertion of esteem—and collective esteem, at that—in an insecure, unstable world that frequently seems to deny people any at all. Those who were once coal miners or steelworkers may now be temporarily employed “operatives” waiting for word of that week’s available hours. In a cultural sense, by contrast, national identity offers people at least some prospect of regaining a sense of who they are, and why that represents something important. In faded postindustrial towns and cities, Trump voters loudly echoed his call to “make America great again”; in England, a new politics of self-consciously English patriotism is rising fast.
Some of this is reducible to a surge in racism, which has happened all over Europe and has been cynically channeled in the United States by Trump. But even in its most unpleasant manifestations, most prejudice has a wider context, and it’s clear that these modern antipathies are most keenly felt in places that have either been sidelined by modernity or represent its most difficult elements: insecure job markets, scarce housing, overstretched public services.
Most of my reporting is done in the “left behind” areas of the United Kingdom. In 2014, I spent three days in and around the South Coast, following activists from the right-populist UK Independence Party, whose close political relationship with the “left behind” played a key role in Britain’s recent vote to exit the European Union. In one town, a group of energetic left-wing activists had organized a day of campaigning against UKIP—and I watched them debate with a man who was determined to vote for the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, in an upcoming election.
“He’s going to be voted in, and there’s nothing you people can do about it,” he said, gesturing to them with a kind of camp contempt. He then explained his main source of anger. His son, he said, had a speech disability and couldn’t find work in his chosen field of catering. “Nobody will give him a job. But a foreigner could come over here and speak not one word of English and they get a job.”
The truth of this was debated for two or three minutes before the man came to his conclusion. He spoke pointedly about his own sense of insecurity: “I’m a working man. I’ve paid all my taxes and everything. And if anything goes wrong with me or my family and I get thrown out of my house because I can’t pay my mortgage, I’ll get put in a bedsit [studio apartment].”
What, then, did he want? “A better England,” the man said, with an obvious sense of patriotism and wounded pride, and I could instantly sense that he had a basic set of grievances—about insecurity and unfairness—to which the political left would once have been able to speak confidently. Unfortunately, in the absence of any meaningful cultural bonds, the avowedly left-wing people he was talking to were residents of a completely different reality.
This was the schism that defined the story of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. In places that spoke volumes about modern inequality and insecurity, many of which the Labour Party still sees as its “core” areas of support, I heard much the same thing: a bundle of essentially economic complaints, which cohered into a demand to split from a centralized European bureaucracy, framed in terms of identity and belonging and an opposition to immigration. In one postindustrial town, I watched Labour activists try to persuade their traditional voters that their real problems were about housing, a lack of opportunity, and a lack of attention being paid by national politicians to the places where they lived. What they said made eminent sense—but these were liberal, bourgeois voices, trying to make their case to people who viewed anyone involved with politics as part of the problem. “I’ve always voted, but nothing ever gets done,” one woman told me. “Everything’s outsourced abroad now. Nothing’s done in England.”
If left politics is to keep from shrinking into a metropolitan, painfully liberal shadow of its former self and abandon the hope of speaking to and for millions of people, it will have to find a way of channeling this kind of disaffection, and the sense of belonging that underpins it. Indeed, if we don’t wish to see politics speed toward the kind of nasty populism taking root all over Europe and emerging here with the Trump campaign, this is a matter of urgency—not least because, as automation takes hold, the disorientation on which the new right-wing politics feeds will only increase.
If the left’s predicament comes down to a single fault, it is this: It’s very good at demanding change, but pretty hopeless at understanding it. Supposedly radical elements too often regard deep technological shifts as the work of greedy capitalists and right-wing politicians, and demand that they be rolled back. Meanwhile, among the self-styled “moderates” still in thrall to the compromises that defined the left’s brief period of dominance in the 1990s, there remains a tendency to advocate large-scale surrender, instead of recognizing that technological and economic changes can create new openings for left ideas. Fast-food workers unionize in new ways and advance their demand for a $15 minimum wage; self-employed Uber workers contest their employment terms and achieve incremental successes; meanwhile, technology creates new opportunities not just to improve low-end employment, but to liberate people from it altogether and pay more attention to the parts of life that truly define our humanity. This should all be staple stuff for the left—but as people experience dramatic change in their everyday lives, too many of them form the impression that the progressive half of politics has precious little to say to them.
Loud and righteous opposition to Trump should not blind anyone to the deep weaknesses of progressive politics in the United States, and their reflection in similar problems afflicting the center-left across the world. Many voters see the Democrats as the party of subprime mortgages and incestuous relationships with Wall Street, while the latest Clinton candidacy has highlighted a politics of distant cliques and dynastic entitlement. At the same time, the radical-left activists who recognize these failings have their own difficulties. For many of the people to whom they want to speak, they are just as metropolitan and cliquish, and almost as removed from the communities they say they want to help. As much as anything, progressive politics needs more working-class voices—people who understand that meaningful politics is usually rooted in some sense of place, and who know what it’s like to live at the sharp end of modern capitalism as a matter of instinct rather than guesswork.
In a political reality as complex as ours, there are inevitable problems for the right as well. The crisis of the Republican Party speaks for itself. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats once vied with the Social Democrats for the support of a majority of the population; but as new forces emerge on the populist right—witness the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland—they’re now down to around 30 percent. But modern challenges for the right will always be less difficult than they are for the left. The former, after all, seeks to safeguard and advance modern capitalism rather than substantially change it. Even in the absence of a broad social base, its politics are sustained by big business and the large conservative elements of the media, giving it huge political advantages.
Occasionally, there are signs of a new left politics taking shape. In left parties and movements across the world, there is growing interest in the idea of a universal basic income, or UBI, built on an understanding of accelerating economic change. It’s still early days for such a leap (Obama predicts that the UBI is “a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years”). But proposing that the state should meet some or all of people’s basic living costs would be an implicit acknowledgment that work alone cannot possibly deliver the collective security that the left has always seen as its basic mission, and that space has to be created for the other elements of people’s lives.
Whether the left can come to terms with the new politics of national identity and belonging and thereby rein in its nastier aspects is a much more difficult question—but if it doesn’t, then left parties may very well gaze at their old core supporters across an impossible divide.
Perhaps the most generous verdict is that here and across the world, the left—from politicians belonging to supposedly mainstream parties to radical activists—finds itself stuck in an interregnum, either slowly trying to make sense of a new set of realities or averting its eyes from them. Political traditions can decline and then take on new forms; some simply become extinct. All that can be said with certainty is that if the left is to finally enter the 21st century, the process will have to start with ideas and convictions that answer the challenges of a modernity that the left is only just starting to wake up to, let alone understand.