Politically, economically, socially and ecologically, the status quo is a disaster.
In times gone by the left would be demanding radical change and the overthrow of a corrupt and moribund system that thrives on inequality, doubles down on surveillance and corrals and infantalises entire populations in the name of a spurious ‘security’ that kills us in our tens of thousands and calls it a success.
But the left - the experimental, bold, emancipatory left - is hardly to be seen.
Unaccountably and indefensibly, it’s the right that flies the banner of rebellion. Of course their rebellion is disorganised, reactionary, short-sighted, founded on rumour or worse, and ends up strengthening the very forces it claims to oppose. But the lesson the left could draw is that they’re confrontational, disruptive, and visibly angry.
When the left does get onto the streets - Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, the Sarah Everard vigil - it brings down the predictable wrath of the repressive state apparatus but fails to draw the appropriate conclusion: that progress through passive resistance is, right now, an illusion. As someone said recently, it’s all blah blah blah.
So the left has made the huge mistake of ceding the practice of revolt to the right. Stunned by the advances of the right in the culture wars, and allowing it complete control of the language that used to drive emancipatory politics - the language of freedom - the left’s feeble response has been to defend the status quo for all its worth.
In this sense the pandemic has been a disaster for the emancipatory left. Rather than oppose policies that systematically favoured the stay-at-home middle class, granted powers to the police that would have been the envy of the dictatorships the left used to oppose, and prevented us from accompanying family members as they drew their last breath, the left went along with it all. Sometimes, indeed, it asked for more of all these things.
This vacated a huge tract of political territory called ‘freedom’, and the right marched in. So it’s the right that’s in the streets, the right that attracts disadvantaged and disillusioned young people desperate for change, the right that is scandalous, subversive and countercultural.
Tragically, the word ‘libertarian’ has now been completely appropriated by small-state liberals, and even leftist commentators automatically elide libertarianism with right-wing politics. At one time the left would have fought tooth-and-nail to recover the word for its own emancipatory project, the bedrock principle of which is that freedom is impossible without the security that can only be provided by the community acting in other-regarding concert. Nothing could be further from the fantasies of the libertarian right, which make a bonfire of the ties that bind people together in mutual aid.
Maybe the left has given ground on freedom so it can double down it on its own unique calling card: equality? But no. Once again the pandemic has caught the left with its pants down. In the past two years the ten richest men in the world have doubled their fortunes while 160 million extra people have been plunged into poverty - defined as living on less the $5.5 a day. The left’s reaction? To flood change.org and 38degrees with toothless demands while, in a two-fingered simulacrum, the 100 richest people in the world ask to pay more taxes.
The right is everywhere the left should be. But instead of fighting for these spaces and recapturing the language of disruption and rebellion for itself, the left is static, sclerotic, like rabbits in the headlights of an onrushing car, frozen into immobility by its incapacity to think creatively about either the present or the future. Antonio Gramsci distinguished between a war of manoeuvre (physically overwhelming the state’s coercive apparatus) and a war of position (fighting it on the terrain of culture). Give the overwhelming physical power of the state he recommended a war of position. The left has taken him at his word and the result has been downward spiral of navel-gazing while the capitalist state leads us towards a disaster of species-destroying proportions.
If the emancipatory left stood for anything it was for universal liberation. But in its determination to champion special interests the left has completely lost sight of the universalist demands against which to hold the status quo to account. An example: better treatment for women in prison? Of course! But a univeralising emancipatory left would have one question and one recommendation.
The question: what does ‘better’ mean? It can't be ‘treat them like male prisoners’ because conditions in UK prisons are appalling. If it’s ‘treat them differently because they are women’ this is also music to the ears of defenders of the status quo, because it leaves the 95% of what is quaintly and absurdly called the prison ‘estate’ completely intact. Some universal standard for 'better' is needed, and it can't be deduced from the condition or experience of any one group, collective or protected category.
The left-libertarian recommendation: reduce the prison population by at least half (prison numbers in England and Wales have increased by 84% since 1990, from 44,975 to just under 83,000). And then turn the rest into schools (50% of the prison population is functionally illiterate).
Tactically inept and strategically naive, that’s where the left is right now, with every single move captured, appropriated and defanged by the very forces it’s trying to oppose.
So where now?