The New Politics conference 2021 made a profound theoretical contribution to many of the most pertinent debates facing the left internationally. Over five days, participants explored questions about the state, social class, social movements, political parties, feminism and intersectional politics, eco-socialism, and much more.
click here to go to a playlist of all the conference videos.
In this summary report, we have sought to synthesize the key findings. We hope that readers will find a rich, nuanced and frank analysis of the challenges faced by the left today, and that it will serve as a useful aid in navigating the major social struggles to come.
The state is the vehicle for capitalist hegemony in political and civil society, yet it is also a vehicle the left invests many of its hopes in for transformation.
The reality the left must grapple with is that achieving governmental power is not equivalent to winning state power as a whole. When the left wins elections, it still faces profound structural barriers to implementing its program, including the need to govern an economy deeply integrated into global capitalism, the control exerted by non-elected state actors, and a neoliberalized civil society, where consciousness is individualized and working class organization is fragmented.
To overcome these structural constraints requires a strategy that goes beyond simply winning elections, seeking to build a counter-hegemonic project which challenges the state in all its dimensions.
The state has become oligarchic and financialized
The left needs to have a clear understanding of how the state has changed in the neoliberal era.
As the global economy has become financialized – the dominance of financial actors over the economy as a whole ! it has become increasingly reliant on the state to protect financial wealth and manage financial crisis. At the same time, the internationalization of capital means that finance disciplines the policies of the state. This has combined with the growth of tech monopolies in the digital age to create a capitalism that is increasingly oligarchic, whereby the top corporations are so powerful that they exercise a dominance over the state as a whole which is increasingly difficult for democratic actors to challenge.
The crises of 2008 and 2020 have only further entrenched a capitalism that is now deeply integrated with the state.
Capitalist hegemony can be challenged
The experience of the pink tide left governments in Latin America shows that it is possible to challenge capitalist hegemony, despite the challenges and contradictions.
The most profound example of this was the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, where at its peak a socialist strategy of in and against the state could be observed. Ultimately, democratic socialism was defeated because the economic model was reliant on extractivism at the time of a commodities boom, and was not prepared for a crisis in global capitalism and falling commodities prices. Secondly, the social movement was not strong enough at the base to build a powerful alternative to the state, and had much of its energy absorbed into the ruling party.
Working class fragmentation presents challenges for the left
The long-term weakening of trade unions, especially in the western world, means socialist politics is no longer built on its traditional institutional base in labor.
Left populism emerged as a means to bridge over working class fragmentation through a communicative strategy based around an antagonism be- tween the masses versus the elite. However, left populist projects, such as Corbynism in the United Kingdom, have also found themselves reliant on a narrow class base - the lower professional middle class and the ‘precariat’ - for support, and cut off from more traditional sections of the working class.
Ultimately, the left needs to build a new institutional base as part of a process of working class formation, but this will be more heterogenous than in the past, involving social movements, community organization, municipalism and social solidarity economies, as well as a trade union revival.
Social movements and parties need each other, but are not symbiotic
No transformative process is possible without a powerful social movement, but they ultimately rely on the institutional leverage offered by parties to enact social change.
The idea of the ‘movement-party’ seeks to develop parties which can sharpen the edges of social movement demands. However, parties operate according to a different logic of collective action than social movements, and therefore it should not be assumed that building parties will help build social movements, or visa-versa. Indeed, in many cases it is the party or the social movement that has been ascendent in a particular phase of anti-capitalist struggle, rarely both.
The left therefore needs to think practically how to build up the capacities of social movements and parties, and ensure they do not come at the expense of the other.
The left needs to retain political independence from the center
When operating within broader center-left formations, democratic socialists need to avoid becoming narrowly electoralist nor an auxiliary for the center when crisis hits.
The experience of Corbynism in Labour and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the Democrats shows that gains can be made by the left in broader formations alongside centrists, but that there are also clear threats to the left if it does not organize itself independently in this context. Assuming that socialist politics can be re-built from the top-down and that electoral success should always take primacy are two of these dangers.
If elections are to be taken seriously as a means of building socialist infrastructure over the long-term, a strategy of seeking to secure ‘non-reformist reforms’ needs to be applied consistently, where permanent changes which democratize the state are integrated as central planks of the left’s program.
The left needs to build power at the community and municipal level
The streets and the state are not the whole field of struggle.
The community and municipal level are the basis for an inclusive form of democracy from below, that can act as an alternative basis of power to the state. The experience of radical municipal projects such as Barcelona en Comú, the comunas in Venezuela or even state-level initiatives such as the Left Democratic Front (LDF) ruling government in the Indian state of Kerala, shows that it is possible for community-level democracy to become intrinsi- cally important to economic development at the local and regional level. Many of these administrations have won real victories against neoliberalism, and brought the social movement into local government.
Building the social solidarity economy requires long-term, persistent work
There are important examples showing that building a post-capitalist economy is possible, but it requires consistent work and has contradictions.
In Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba, there are examples of growth in co-operatives supported by changes at the state level to privilege these firms over capitalist ones. However, this state-led co-operative growth has run into problems, not least corruption (‘false co-operatives’).
Even in the richer countries of the North, there are examples which show it is possible to build community and worker co-operatives and other alternative economy forms, but it requires consistent work over a sustained period of time, and there are dangers of co-operatives becoming sclerotic and cut- off from social movements.
The left must integrate feminist, anti-racist and intersectional perspectives, changing how it works and organizes
Popular feminist and intersectional movements have emerged over the past five years internationally.
This is shaping a new left, where oppressed groups are playing a more important leadership role. This brings with it new modes of organizing, where popular assemblies are increasingly important over bureaucratic formations, and new ideas, which seek to develop a more holistic understanding of the factors of social re-production, accounting for care, domestic duties and the role of ecology, as well as the labor process.
In this context, the traditional left will have to adapt and learn if it is not to be left-behind.
Eco-socialists need their own global narrative
Climate breakdown requires urgent solutions at a huge scale which can only be delivered through a publicly-owned and planned approach to energy and decarbonization.
The left needs to win the argument for eco-socialism as the solution to climate breakdown, but to do this it needs to show it has technical competence, understands the need for decisive action and operating at scale (not only the local level).
While the Green New Deal has been a step forward in the debate about climate solutions, discussion remains focused on targets rather than urgent actions. Moreover the left still hasn’t resolved the tensions, debates and fundamental challenges posed by a model of economic growth that is destroying the ecosystem on which we depend. The left therefore still needs to build a global imaginary of a post-carbon future.
While you're here please consider making a donation to support our work. We're committed to making our valued research available for use without charge but we need your help. If everyone reading this gave just €12 we could sustain our work for three years.