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An age of revolt – in an age without a left

I remember the exact moment when I realised that I was living in a different era from the politically tranquil times I grew up in. It was in a lecture theatre at University College London, a week or so after the 52,000-strong student march. An impromptu ‘what next?’ meeting had been called, and the room was absolutely packed with undergrads. Baby-faced though I am, I was probably one of the oldest people there.

I was used to the largely passive disillusionment that predominated among many young people during the New Labour era. But, when people spoke that day, I noticed something completely different. Firstly, the people talking were newly politicised. I doubt that most of them had given politics much thought before the 2010 general election. And yet they were suddenly talking in very political terms: as I would later find out, many of the students surprised themselves when they spoke. But the other change was their approach to the Government. They weren’t simply frustrated, or even just angry. They regarded the Government as their enemy, and an enemy that had to be removed.

For leftists like myself who have lived through the depressing post-Thatcherite ‘There Is No Alternative’ era, the idea of ‘ordinary’, non-lefty people becoming radicalised very quickly is as exciting as it is novel. At that packed meeting, the students overwhelmingly voted to occupy their university, which took place the following week. It was a scene replicated at dozens of campuses across the country. It was accompanied by an unprecedented wave of protests marked by their determination and militancy.

When lumping together what has happened here in Britain with what has happened in the Middle East, you need a lot of caveats. Millions of Egyptians have bravely revolted against a brutal Western-backed dictatorship that has clung on to power through repression and outright state terror. Our civil liberties have been chipped away here, but we live in a democratic state, even if the current government has a rather questionable mandate for its policies (to say the least).

But, as the BBC’s Paul Mason has put it, things are “kicking off everywhere”. In the Middle East, first the Tunisian dictatorship fell, followed by Mubarak in Egypt, and the tide of revolt is spilling over into countries such as Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. In the West, Greece has perhaps been the most striking example of strikes and protests: but we’ve seen, to varying degrees, similar dissent in countries such as Spain and France. There is no doubting that there’s something in the air: we live in a new age of revolt.

But I can’t help but feeling this is all rather bittersweet. There is all the potential ingredients there for a sizeable challenge to the status quo: huge mobilisations of people, united by their discontent with how things are. But the neo-liberal hegemony remains, well, hegemonic. Indeed it is more aggressive than ever, stripping back social gains which were won through decades of struggle by working people in a matter of months. The masses may be pouring on to the streets in many countries, but there is no coherent alternative for them to unite around.

In another era, it would be the left capitalising on this disquiet, and ruling elites would be getting very twitchy as a result. Take today’s seismic events in the Middle East. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing nationalism was the rallying cry of the Arab street, epitomised by General Nasser’s regime in Egypt. But today, the left is not providing leadership for revolts – big or small – in the way it once did.

In large part, this is the legacy of the collapse of Communism. Even if you were the most diehard, left-wing opponent of Soviet dictatorship, the fall of the Berlin Wall had huge consequences for everything you believed in. However repulsed democratic socialists were by the horrors of Stalinism, the disappearance of the only real existing alternative to capitalism unleashed a barrage of Western triumphalism, and cemented the idea that the market was the only game in town.

Whether you were a pink Western social democrat or an African left-wing national liberationist, your ideas had apparently been thrown on the scrapheap of history. Left-of-centre parties across the world embraced economic ideas that, in the 1960s, were confined to the loopier fringes of the hard right. It was as though the left had been sliced off the political spectrum. Even the Keynesian state interventionism of the 1970s – embraced by right-of-centre Western governments, including the Tories – now appeared a left-wing pipedream.

A year later, a young rising star in the British Labour Party argued that: “The right-wing in the West would love to see the collapse of communism in the East crush all forms of socialism beneath it.” However, he was equally emphatic that the left would have to change dramatically in order to adapt to the new political climate. “There is no appetite to return to old fashioned collectivism…whether of the full blooded sort now dying in eastern Europe or the milder corporatism of the 1960s practiced in the West.”

The writer was Tony Blair, three years before he assumed the leadership of the Labour Party. Those, like him, who advocated the capitulation of social democracy to neo-liberalism have been in charge of left-of-centre parties ever since.

Back in the 1960s, the left provided the ideological backbone for student movements. But – to take Britain – the left does not currently exist as a mass political force, and is therefore not in a position to provide leadership to rebellious students. I doubt the organised left – by which I mean the variety of left-wing sects – have been particularly boosted in numbers since November. I have seen the commendable role many far-left activists have played, but they have generally avoided going on aggressive recruitment drives – because they know that would backfire badly. Indeed, Britain’s student revolt has largely lacked any coherent ideology.

Or spin the globe to Egypt. As well as spiralling food prices, the legacy of neo-liberal reforms – which have benefited a tiny elite while ordinary Egyptian have become poorer and poorer – played a key role in the outbreak of the Revolution. But there is no strong, organised left to make that case. If the inspirational Egyptian Revolution ends up with Mohamed El-Baradei’s presidential ambitions being realised, I doubt there will be any real break with the disaster of neo-liberalism.

The worry I have is that we could be entering an era of non-ideological revolutions. Rather than overturning an old society and replacing it with something new, they could simply be used as devices by one wing of the ruling elite to smash another. That’s what we’ve seen happen in many of the so-called colour revolutions in Eastern Europe in the 2000s.

I’m not arguing we should sink into despair. Latin America was the first continent to have neo-liberalism aggressively imposed upon it from the 1970s onwards: and its nations have been among the first to rebel against from it in any meaningful way. If it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere. And, if I was to be able to email this post to myself three years ago, I’d get a reply along the lines of: ‘At least you’ve got people rebelling on a significant scale full stop, mate.”

An age of revolt is a huge step forward from even a few years ago. Yet it won’t, in of itself, guarantee a rupture from the neo-liberal era. It means that a new left has to develop a coherent alternative to rampant free-market capitalism. If we do that, we might give the people streaming out into the streets something to fight for, not just to fight against.

One Comment

  1. Excellent and thoughtful post.

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