Thursday, January 12, 2012

Progressive renaissance and the newest left

By Thomas Ponniah
January 11, 2012

When a great general was once asked to detail his military strategy, he replied, "I have no strategy." In other words, he knew all the strategies, but also knew that his choice of tactics depended on the situation. Progressives have much to learn from this insight. It is more important to have multiple options for each context than to have a fixed commandment for every state of affairs. The goal in any struggle is to maintain a position of maximum flexibility. The general understood that freedom means being in a position where one can advance along any line of the compass -- north, south, east or west -- to achieve one's objectives.

The progressive aptitude for flexibility has expanded substantially over the past generation. The most influential event of our era was not 9/11 -- the attack on the Twin Towers -- but 11/9: November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down. The latter event marked not only the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union but the breakdown of the dominant left statist projects of the postwar period: the dismantling of the welfare state in the First World, the dissolution of the USSR in the Second World, and the disillusionment with national liberation governments in the Third World. The weakness, failures and monolithic thinking of these vanguardist projects opened the door for a triumphalist, neoliberal globalization.

As is often the case in history, however, the consequences of an event are never understood in its genesis: unintended effects regularly turn victory into failure and calamity into possibility. The last two "post-communist" decades have seen progressives imagine, innovate and produce a diversity of alternatives such as the cultural success of feminism, the participatory budget process of Porto Alegre, the autonomous organizing of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the open-space method of the World Social Forum process, the powerful anti-poverty efforts by leftist Latin American governments and, most recently, the expressivist tactics of the Occupy movement.

The participants in these diverse experimental processes may not necessarily align together. In fact they may even view each other with a curious antipathy. The philosopher Alain de Botton in his Essays in Love has noted the analogy between revolutionaries and romantics. Progressives often have the same coercive impatience as lovers when it comes to dealing with the passionate views of others. This mutual chagrin is evident in the occasionally hostile debates that we see between statists and autonomists, reformers and radicals, and secularists and cultural pluralists.

Despite their variety and reciprocal frustration, however, today's progressive social and political movements do share a common theme: they all resist the economic, cultural and political inequalities that have been amplified by neoliberalism. This diversity of movements actually represents a renaissance on the left -- an explosion of creativity -- that will undoubtedly demonstrate its effects over the next generation. The key principle that the progressives of the age should retain is that that while romantic monogamy may be far-sighted, political monogamy is not. The innovation of the newest left will lie not in any one given approach but instead in its evolving ability to access multiple democratic strategies when confronting the unexpected.

Thomas Ponniah is a professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at George Brown College and an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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