Essay response: Many paths

A revitalised left needs to consider what exactly it wants before it can determine how to achieve it, says Siobhan McGuirk

June 9, 2009
5 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

Pat Devine and David Purdy offer a reasonable assessment of our current social and political landscape, benefiting from their historical analysis. Their call for a revitalised left is welcome, as is the debate they are stimulating. But their conclusions are shaped by too narrow and pessimistic a view of our diversely politicised landscape.

By concentrating on party-based organisations, they fail to recognise the breadth of activity on the left, ignoring non-party political approaches precisely at the moment when new ideas are needed. As a result, they discern only one path towards a post-capitalist world where there are many. For them, government and hegemony are unquestioned terms. Yet their roles in this new society require debate. We must consider what we are uniting and striving for – not just how to achieve it.

Disillusionment with the existing party political choices should not imply that a new party is needed. The political system itself is under scrutiny and has been found wanting. There is a strong desire within sections of the left to break comprehensively from business-as-usual style politics, and certainly to go beyond our current party-political system.

The insightful historical view that Devine and Purdy present is not matched by sufficient recognition that today’s context is dramatically different from that of the past. A shifting political climate calls for new ideas. Already, movements they have overlooked have found new ways of working. Their ideas demand attention, as steadily growing numbers are embracing non-dogmatic and genuinely open, bottom-up approaches.

Cooperation at local levels is being fostered through community agricultural projects, skill sharing, non-monetary trade systems and creative initiatives. This includes the production of newsletters and independent magazines, both in print and online. The internet has genuinely altered the way that political groups coordinate and communicate. ‘User-generated content’ has opened up spaces to publicise stories and events shunned by mainstream media channels. Freeware initiatives provide computer users with programs at no cost while the copyleft movement promotes creativity and information sharing without concern for monetary gain.

Hierarchies and leaderships are increasingly uncomfortable for many. Where the notion of top-down democracy is regarded as oxymoronic, a diversity of ideas finds space to emerge. Online networking and forum sites are allowing important debates to take place progressively and openly. Email lists facilitate horizontal organising, reflecting the non-hierarchical approach increasingly important to the left.

Where decision-making processes are by consensus, rather than majority-vote led, a return to party politics is a retrogressive step. We must consider what post-capitalist solutions imply for electoral politics: is there a place for majority rule in a just and equal society? For many left movements the system is inherently problematic and in need of abolition, not reform. This raises an important question: why play the system if we have post-capitalist solutions now?

Strong international networks have been built through increased interconnectivity without compromising autonomy. Yet the need for an internationalist anti-capitalist movement receives only a nod from Devine and Purdy, who fail to look far beyond the components of the ‘Union’. Further afield, genuine post-capitalist solutions are visible in both experimental and functional forms. The experience of the Argentinian communities functioning self-sufficiently post-economic crash in 2002 is an instructive case.

Devine and Purdy avoid questioning the role of nation states in what would presumably be a comprehensively different world. We must consider the type of government, if any, an alliance of the left should form. What would the transformation, and ultimately transcendence, of capitalism imply for apparatuses of the state, such as the military? What type of rules and regulations could be set in a free society? Would we seek self-sufficiency on a local or global scale? What would be the limits of the state? Fundamentally, can governance as we know it have a role in a post-capitalist future?

Despite these unacknowledged questions, Devine and Purdy insist that a cohesive and electable party-political force is the only route for the left. They presume that we have lacked the hegemonic project necessary to transcend capitalism, but leave the constitution of that project obscure. Perhaps the bigger issue we face just now is finding ways of working together on the basis of shared values and acknowledging rifts that will not be easily surmounted. Our differences do not have to be divisive, and may well be overcome through a plurality of approaches, working in conjunction. As a first step we should recognise that calls to ‘rise above sectional standpoints’ must entail genuine openness to ideas. They cannot only demand the collective rallying around a particular and predetermined solution.

The idea that party politics is the central practical issue for the left will do little to revitalise it. And if party politics is as important as Devine and Purdy believe, they may do well to reassess the Green Party as a viable alternative. It certainly shares their aims of electoral reform and a green new deal.

The revitalisation of the left will not be top-down. It can only occur through meaningful dedication to openness and the desire to work collectively, beyond existing and embedded systems – both political and capitalist. The abandonment of rhetoric and comfort and a willingness to work with non-definitive answers may in fact be the new alternative. We must build our projects together before we unite behind them.


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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