Today is Mayday, the day that celebrates struggle against capitalist exploitation and honors worker protest for justice and fairness. As the power of workers decreases and the unions weaken, it is time for all progressives to come together and renew their bonds and rejuvenate the Left Liberal movement. More so in these times when capitalism has gone too far and neoliberal policies have left large swathes of people worldwide literally “excluded” and marginalized to the fringe. It is a pity that the Left has degenerated into pointless debates and mere sloganeering. Instead, the time has come for the Left to enter the mainstream and not be relegated to the sidelines of the discourse. Of course, one of the reasons for the present irrelevance of the Left is that they have too often resorted to lawlessness as an end and advocated violent protest rather than meaningful discourse. As the title indicates, what we need is a Left that is more like Bernie Sanders and less like Antifa, though both have the same goal in mind. In other words, the Left has to “appeal” to the Millennials and the Gen Zers in a way that Sanders often does, given his popularity with these age cohorts.
If not anything, the last two and half years of the pandemic induced assault on the common person has made the case for the revival of the Left that much stronger. Indeed, the present situation, if allowed to continue, can very well result in complete “annihilation” of those at the lower and bottom rungs of the income and wealth pyramid. With grotesque inequality and the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, alternatives to protest and struggle are not relevant and anyone who claims that the “markets know what they are doing” have to be reminded that the “invisible hand” of the economy has now been swayed” to benefit a select few. On the other hand, the disaffected worldwide have largely discarded what is still remaining of the Left and instead, have forged bonds on the lines of caste, religion, ethnicity, and regional aspects. So, the writing on the wall is clear and that is “class” is no longer a potent force for cohesion. This is where Bernie Sanders and his narrative is something that is worth emulating by the Left.
This is the case in India where the Left is no longer taken seriously and newer forms of solidarity groupings have replaced what remains of the old world Left. For instance, each of the marginalized caste and ethnic sections now no longer look up to the Left for grievance redress and instead, have their own communal identity based groups, who they feel represent them better. Moreover, decades of “liberalization” have convinced many in the power of the market as there have been significant gains for the poor since 1991 when India opened up and reformed its economy. Though the gains have been uneven, still the neoliberal fantasies appeal to the poor and the lower income sections, as at least there is a sense of hope that their lives would get better with the prevailing capitalist model. On the other hand, though the Left did retain its relevance till about 2010 or so (with it becoming a partner in a coalition until 2008), the last decade has been especially hard on them with decreasing vote share and being in power in only one state, Kerala.
Having said that, one can rightfully scoff at my proposition since the very idea of communism and socialism is continual struggle and protest. Indeed, the Left cannot really be expected to forego its raison detre of class struggle and embrace neoliberal policies. However, the point is that when class is no longer a potent force to bind and forge mass mobilization, then the Left does need to rethink on how to bring class back into the mainstream discourse. This is where Bernie Sanders and his messaging offers some clues on how similar appeals and “return” of class as the driver of political parties can be followed. For instance, Sanders has managed to come close to the Democratic nomination almost twice whereas Antifa is routinely viewed as a lawless bunch of anarchists. While conditions vary from country to country, there are still some lessons to be learnt here as communal and caste based appeals can be successfully countered by the most basic of all needs i.e. the need to be fed, clothed, and housed. Or, as they say, it is time to bring roti, kapada, and makan back into vogue.
Last, the whole idea here has to be “catch them young” and while the Indian Left does have a significant outreach to the youth, recent trends and events indicate that the “young and restless” seem to be more attracted by communal and caste based appeals rather than a purely class based ideology. This is worrisome on many counts as after all, their future is at stake and since an education, career, and jobs that pay and have decent working conditions are needed for this, perhaps the Left can reinvent itself to tap into India’s humongous youth population. While this has happened and is happening, though with limited success, there is a need for a more forceful articulation of class struggle and a platform that brings back the mass mobilization that the Left has been doing in the decades before 2010. To conclude, this Mayday, let us hope that the Rainbow Left coalitions in India reenter the public imagination in the way Sanders and The Squad have done and capture enough votes to take back their place at the high table of politics, polity and public discourse.