Matthew Kerry on ‘Crisis and the Left’
In the final roundtable of this pandemic-hit academic year, the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History welcomed four speakers to discuss the topic of ‘Crisis and the Left’. Jamie Allinson (Edinburgh), who chaired the discussion, proposed 2011 as a moment of inflection and invited the speakers to reflect on the accumulation of protest moments and movements that over the past decade. He asked: how did we get here? And how do we respond the crises that have rocked the world?
The breadth of expertise amongst the speakers pushed the conversation in different directions. Sarah Jaffe, a journalist and author of the recent Work won’t love you back, focused her attention the USA and underlined the wide variety of conflicts and campaign that have exploded over recent years. She questioned 2011 as a starting point. Instead, she pointed to the economic crisis of 2007-8 – a crisis that has not stopped. Others have since ‘stacked’ on top, which together have forced a return to a politics of class in the United States, for all of these movements respond to a crisis of capitalism. While the different campaigns pursued by social movements across the USA may appear disparate, they share overlapping, intersecting interests, issue and problems.
Rima Majed (American University of Beirut) then transported us to the Middle East, birthplace of 2011 as a transnational moment of collective action and witness to a ‘social explosion’ of conflicts over the past decade. She agreed with Jaffe that class was back thanks to an emphasis on inequality and social justice, although she painted a less positive picture of the current situation. Counter-revolutionary forces – under many guises – have co-opted radical discourse and emptied it of meaning, while the left remains in crisis. In a parallel point, she argued for the need for an updated revolutionary theory for the present moment. The Arab world presents opportunities and challenges for doing so, from the crisis of unions and a labour market defined by precarity, through the professionalisation of activism in the shape of NGOs to the rise of individualism and the problem of sectarianism. The vision of an alternative order is there; the challenge is to theorise and achieve it.
While Majed reflected on what a revolutionary theory might look like in the present day, Rory Scothorne (Edinburgh) tackled a slightly different matter: what has happened to the social question? He turned our attention back further, to the 1970s and a moment of crisis of working-class politics. While for some this crisis led to a rethinking of the left, in Scotland a solution was sought through a turn to Scottish nationalism. Social revolution was side-lined in favour of cultural questions, which constituted a survival mechanism for they sought more politically limited goals. Scothorne posed a resultant question: if political and cultural issues surfaced when the social question stalled, can the reverse also be true? We may be about to find out. A more assertive English nationalism and a Westminster government willing to flex its muscles pose a challenge and it is unclear what will happen next.
Taking us back across the Atlantic, Alejandro Velasco (NYU Gallatin) tried to combine these questions with a particular focus on Latin America. Perhaps we are experiencing a crisis of liberalism as opposed to a crisis of capitalism, he suggested, pointing to the erosion of civil and political rights under the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro. Such a crisis predates 2007/8; rather it encourages to look back to the Iraq War. Multiplying protest movements, even if weakly linked, are evidence of an exhausted political neoliberalism. The current moment can be seen as one of threat or opportunity. Despite the predictions of a resurgent right, the left is returning in Latin America even if the situation is not the same as two decades ago. If revolution means cultivating visions of alternative horizons and possible futures, then it is alive and well in local contexts in Latin America.
The wide-range of contexts and limited time available meant that the concepts of crisis, the “left” and revolution were not sharply drawn, nor was there much time left for questions. Underlying the discussion there was, however, a strong emphasis on paying close attention to regional and local developments. While Scothorne expressed optimism in the ability of localised left-wing experiments to root – and thereby exercise a degree of control over – capital, Majed was sceptical that profound systemic change could arise in the Middle East on a national or regional level. Perhaps such doubts and differences, and alternating between casting the present moment in optimistic and pessimistic terms, are themselves indicative of a present moment of crisis.