So the left has had some surprising achievements in the past year or two: the no vote in Greece and the rise of the Syriza coalition, same sex marriage by ballot in Ireland, the NDP’s historic win in “the Texas of Canada” (Alberta), the swift shift in attitudes and laws regarding same sex marriage in the U.S., the FCC’s swing towards genuine net neutrality, and more. And in the U.S. we’ve seen some signs of electoral potential by liberal-left candidates from Zephyr Teachout to Bernie Sanders. (If you think I’m being a pollyanna, read this.) So far, however, most of this activity can be seen as expressions of popular exhaustion with the status quo: people have lost faith in austerity policies and corporations who say “trust me,” are tired of government interfering with personal lives, and are looking for something different.
But what something different, exactly? If this trend is going to amount to something more than a pendulum swing in political mood, the left is going to have to deliver something more. It will have to offer a plausible alternative way to govern the global economy. The Greek “no” vote is a rejection of a Eurocratic regime that trusts banks and financiers more than it trusts elected governments. But the vote is not a clear “yes” to anything in particular. Now the Syriza government is left with a near-impossible task: fixing the Greek economy in a way that works and that Greek citizens can trust and respect. Yes, the Troika should cancel some of that debt, but even if it did, there’s still the problem of reorganizing the Greek (and over the long term, world) economy on a more transparent, fair, functioning basis.
There are lots good ideas and models worth considering. For example, the Scandinavian model of social democracy (strong safety net, flexible economy, commitment to liberal democratic transparency and values). And there are lots of institutions inside otherwise neoliberal nations that provide interesting models, like the politically unassailable medicare system in the U.S., or the free higher education system in Germany. And all kinds of interesting experiments, from coops to legal commons to “free and fair” regimes of trade. The left has no shortage of ideas.
The task, though, is making this diverse and loosely related collection of ideas into something effective, and associated with actual success in the minds of majorities of voting publics across the world. I’m not sure exactly how to do that, but my guess is that it will involve an intertwined mix of many-leveled political organizing, smart policy innovation and experimentation (often in very contradictory contexts), and a set of practices that may look incremental over the short term, while keeping a sharp eye on the long term goals of deep social transformation. Take small good things and build on them, all the while with an eye on both hearts and minds and structures.