• Thoughts on a Timely Narrative for the Left

  • By Dieter Klein | 02 May 12 | Posted under: Theory
  • "Without a story every battle is lost”, formulated the authors of the Wu Ming group, whose name demonstrators in Rome had on their shields which protected them from the police clubs. With the naming of great authors and narratives of world literature on their book shields they were indicating that power does not shy back from violently attacking even intellect and beauty. What sense and advantage is there in designating as a “narrative” or “story” an emancipatory social project of the social left?

    On the possible uses of the term “narrative” for an alternative social project of the left

    The concept of story could indicate that the left is required to deliver more than a sober theoretical structure for experts if it is to advocate an emancipatory transformation perspective. An alternative social project does indeed presuppose a theoretical basis. However, this project has to be so recounted that it reaches the hearts of those it is addressing. Pure theory can hardly be called an affair of the heart. A political story could be seen as a balancing act between a theoretical societal model and an appeal made to the world of feeling of the protagonists

    We can read in Wikipedia on the particular genre of story: “Mostly shorter and above all less interlaced than a novel, a course of events or a development is represented chronologically and continuously from a perspective” (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erz%C3%A4hlung). And: “fiction whose content is connected to the reality of life and represents plainly and vividly a simple occurrence (are) stories” (Krell, 1954: 439).

    Account given from a perspective: In a left story the perspective is above all from below. However, it absorbs many perspectives within it, including from the milieu of the social middle strata all the way to that of the enlightened, socially thinking bourgeoisie.

    Tell a not too intricate story: This is a further balancing act between the grasping of a very complex and differentiated social reality and its simple and vivid portrayal.

    Connect to the reality of life: This requires of a left transformation project that it so tells a story that it is clear what in the life world of people can be immediately changed for the better and in what way.

    In a story, as a rule, a central idea is developed that lends it fascination and hegemonic power. This is what the French philosopher Jean François Lyotard observed as the essence of a great narrative about societies. And at the same time he thought it inevitable that such ideas would be overtaken by absolute and universal principles of explanation and orientation of social development.

    The consequence, he felt, is the negation of social pluralism, of conflicting interests and opinions, and consequently the tendency of the powerful to realise, in an authoritarian and dictatorial way, their own societal ideas understood as absolute truth. In 1979, therefore, in his work “Post-Modern Knowledge”, he proclaimed “the end of grand narratives”.

    The question is whether the left can, without falling into the intellectual absolutism of state socialism or of market radicalism, bring forth a new narrative, whose central idea is at once emancipatory, capable of achieving hegemony and productive of tolerance.

    The poverty of the currently prevailing politics is that nothing else occurs to the powerful than to act according to their old narrative, which ascribes to the markets miraculous powers as a kind of all-knowing being, although this narrative collapsed spectacularly in the recent multi-crisis. However, some state interventionism and, in the case of bank bailouts, even billions of Euros of state expenditures plus green technologies as a kind of blood transfusion for neoliberal capitalism – this is welcome. An intellectual vacuum is emerging, which the Greens only too inadequately fill – a space for a new narrative of the modern left.

    "Free individuality, founded on the universal development of individuals” (Marx, 2005: 91), Development of the personality of one and all in harmony with the universal conservation of nature instead of the greatest possible profit – this can be considered the Archimedean fulcrum of a just and solidaristic society, of democratic socialism and of the way to it. This is the key to the narrative of a modern left.

    Four chapters of the left’s modern narrative, or four main themes, can be opened up.

    Chapter 1: The just redistribution of life opportunities and power

    Rain doesn’t flow from the ground to the sky – but money does. When the upper 10 per cent of the German population disposes of more than 61 per cent of the total assets, and the less well-off 70 per cent of the population disposes over only 9 per cent of the total assets (ver.di, 2011) there can be no question of the just redistribution of life opportunities and of equal freedom for all. Freedom largely remains the freedom of the powerful and the rich if there is no enforcement of equal social access to the conditions of individual freedom for all.

    From the point of view of the poor and the precariously employed, from the standpoint of hundreds of millions of people on the earth who do not know today how they can still their hunger tomorrow, in the misery of millions whose children are dying in the poor countries of long since curable diseases, that is, from the point of view of those below, the redistribution of life opportunities is the first problem of survival.

    This is what a first chapter of a modern left narrative would be about. It’s not just the old story that the left has always told – because in the Western World, wealth has grown so much that, in contrast to earlier periods, it would be possible in the shortest time to secure for all people an existence with social security worthy of human beings and beyond this to give to the poor countries of the globe comprehensive support for the overcoming of poverty and of the destruction of the environment.

    This is so evident that by now all parties proclaim freedom and justice in their programmes. Only one narrative, that of the left, takes on explosive power. Because it is saying that the redistribution of life opportunities requires also the redistribution of power and property.

    Chapter 2: Socio-ecological reconstruction

    The left is accused of exhausting itself in questions of distribution. We are told it has no competence in economics, which is what produces in the first place that which there is to distribute. In fact, a central chapter belongs in a modern left narrative, a chapter on which the left is hesitant to work, yet which must reveal the red-green thread of all chapters of its narrative.

    Socio-ecological transformation, a turnaround in the relation of society to nature, the shaping of sustainable social relations of nature – this is, as a coequal to the redistribution of power and life opportunities, the second main idea of a modern narrative for the social left.

    In the place of the reckless exploitation and overburdening of nature by capitalist growth society comes the insight that people themselves are part of nature and its circulations and that the finiteness of natural resources must lead to an end of the economic growth that has prevailed up to now. The modes of life and economy must be brought into harmony with the preservation of nature and its balances.

    If neoliberal capitalism is able to absorb a green economy as an elixir of life, the modes of production and of life would, it is true, become more ecological but not fundamentally different: not more just, not more social, not more democratic.

    If, instead of this, through a green economy the relation of forces changes in a post-neoliberal direction, it could be possible, still in the framework of bourgeois-capitalist societies, to introduce a real emancipatory turning point. Social-state regulated capitalism (Fordism) and neoliberal capitalism could be followed by a transformation to a next phase or formation of capitalism: to a socially and ecologically regulated capitalism, which could be designated a social-libertarian Green New Deal – it in turn having open prospects.

    Whether the social left can decide this battle to the benefit of a post-neoliberal socio-ecological and libertarian transformation depends mainly on the overcoming of certain obstacles. The overcoming of impediments or failing because of them provides the tension of many a good story. Such an obstacle is the traditional concepts of left parties and movements on the relation of society to nature.

    “The rights of mother earth”, as is declared in the Cochabamba “People’s Agreement” (World Conference, 2010) and anchored in a constitution, for the first time in history, in Ecuador, was just as foreign to the left up to recently as it was to other social forces. A timely left narrative describes a double liberation: the liberation of people from capitalist and patriarchal, from ethnic, racist and geopolitically-founded domination, and the liberation of nature from the martial domination of society over it.

    A second obstacle, for whose overcoming a modern narrative of the left would argue is the imprisonment of society and the left in the prevailing fixation on growth. Growth and expansion are the competition-driven mode of existence of capital. But the left too has always seen in economic growth, measured by the gross domestic product, the most favourable conditions for redistribution battles, and overwhelmingly still does so. Yet for quite some time now growth, though it indeed still increases societal wealth, at the same time destroys a growing part of what was previously created.

    The absurd part of this is that beyond the material standard of living of a broad middle stratum of the population approximately in the 1970s in the OECD world, according to the findings of happiness research the satisfaction with life for people with higher incomes does not even increase or at least does not continue to increase (Wilkinson 7 Pickett, 2010: Layard, 2010). The question about the meaning of life, which runs through all great stories, needs new answers.

    Thus a left narrative for the 21st century must open perspectives of a society that makes possible a better life without conventional growth. And this side of such a narrative also is not without contradictions and difficult questions for the left. The left, which sees itself on the side of the disadvantaged in society, whose income certainly first has to be raised to an acceptable level of well-being, cannot take a position against growth that would make higher wages possible. Ecological reconstruction can in fact not be attached to low wages, subcontracted labour and Hartz IV conditions. First there has to be redistribution, so that the needs of large parts of the population does not push environmental politics to the margins (Flassbeck, 2011). And how, without growth, is the western world to lend support for the poor countries – whose total scale is greater than ever before – against hunger and for their socio-ecological reconstruction? On the other hand, however, how should the latter obtain their absolutely essential space for growth to combat hunger, when the growth of the industrialised countries is already overburdening the earth?

    Having reached this point, society, and with it the left, is for a brief historic moment being given a lucky opportunity. Specifically, for a not too long interim period a boost of environmental-technological investments can allow a growth such that thanks to a turning to renewable energies, economising and efficiency technologies, things can go forward in a significantly more environmentally friendly way than previously, new jobs can be created and above all a short reprieve can be granted. In this extraordinarily important phase of the still-growth period, before the transition to sustainable development without traditional growth, the eco-boom of the rising green sectors and human-oriented services must be used for dismantling the sectors that destroy the environment, for conversion and the entry into sustainable modes of life. This is the chapter of the wonderful opportunity just before the abyss, one of the most tense and dramatic in the history of humanity. And the left has to inscribe it in big letters in its own narrative.

    An incisive change in the modes of life is coming into view. An alternative narrative would have to do with the exit from the treadmill of the piling up of goods, which for a long time now have not been able to raise the level of satisfaction with life of large parts of the population, but above all it has to involve the entry into better qualities of life. What is at stake is the recovery of a healthy environment and the social equal access of all to a healthcare system in which the profitability of hospitals and of pharma corporations is not what determines healthcare policy but the caring for patients and their well-being. It is a matter of good education and first-class supervision already in the pre-school years for all, independently of their social origins. It is a question of good partnership and good friends. Therefore inter-personal relations will become something decisive in the future modes of life. People want to live in security and free of fear. Social security through access to good work and through a solidaristic renewal of the social security systems as well as the overcoming of violence in everyday life will have great importance for the future modes of life. Substantial shortening of work times will enable a balanced proportion of gainful employment reproduction or family labour, social engagement and leisure for the development of one’s own personality, with gender equality.

    For this path to a new land there is need of a host of decisions to be made by individuals, collective protagonists and communities. A renewal of democracy will offer the framework for this. This could be the third chapter in a timely left narrative.

    Chapter 3: Democratic restructuring

    As a rule a story lives from its protagonists, which lend it life and drive the action forward.

    A participatory renewal of democracy and an extension of democracy to the economy – which up to now has been almost untouched by it – is the third dimension of a narrative of the left that would be up to the tasks of the coming decades.

    How can democracy, as the power of decision of the many, become a reality? The relations of power and the institutions of bourgeois-capitalist society are so constituted that for the individual accommodation appears more rational than resistance. The conditions therefore must be overcome, which hold the majority within its confines. And only those who are so held, can burst these conditions asunder.

    The magic word for breaking through this closed circle of domination is empowerment. But what is the key to empowerment?

    Empowerment is taking place massively in an immense variety of forms: in the initiatives for more day care; in the small and big struggles for gender justice, beginning with equal pay for equal work and with the equitable division of paid and family work between men and women; in the solidarity with asylum seekers; in citizens initiatives against right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis; in referendums for the re-municipalisation of privatised enterprises; actions against the transformation of all relations into commodities and the whole society into a commodity society; in the form of building and factory occupations; in the experiences with citizen budgets of, for example, the anti-nuclear movement.

    An abiding motivation for societal engagement comes from the common action of collective protagonists and from the stimulus of fellow campaigners. If the old left wants to become a new one, it has to understand that especially young people feel themselves to be integrated into social networks through communication with others in the internet – code word Piratenpartei. Empowerment will be encouraged and made emotionally easier if citizen initiatives, social movements or parties practice a way of dealing with each other such that already today the culture of a better society is visible. Inter-human relations is a big issue for a narrative for the social left – and places a heavy burden on it to change.

    A new narrative of the left itself is necessary: an idea of the future or of contours of a better world that can be called a just and solidaristic society or democratic socialism. “…the twilight of the before-us demands its specific concept, the novum demands its concept of progress”. This is how Ernst Bloch formulated it (Bloch, 1985:5). Ana Esther Ceceña writes: “Capitalism is in our bones. But we have to imagine an alternative if we want to change something” (Ceceña, 2009:20).

    Chapter 4: Comprehensive peace politics and international solidarity

    A socio-ecological transformation can only be thought as a global process. Climate change knows no borders. Caused above all by industrialised countries, it hits the poor in the so-called South particularly hard. The geo-strategic interests of imperialist power in the military securing of access to economic resources are among the causes of wars that drive many countries into state failure and deep misery for their populations. German export surpluses lead to the indebtedness of the competitively weaker importing countries, to their still greater indebtedness through rescue actions, which in turn are an impulse for new speculative attacks. Thus long-lasting imbalances are created, which subvert the EU. The liberalisation of world markets, in whose wake, among other things, millions of farmers in the developing countries are ruined by cheap exports from the North, is another facet of an unjust world economic order that rests on economic power hierarchies, plundering of the weak and violence.

    This requires that states go it alone. It demands bilateral and multilateral state agreements, even if no unity can be reached in international conferences. This presupposes continuously new attempts by global social movements, new efforts of international trade-union cooperation, the networking of left parties, the reinforcement of the influence of international associations of scientists and the embedding of international obligations in the struggles of national protagonists.

    It needs a completely new dimension of international solidarity. Never before was the sacrificing of their own growth on the part of the economically stronger countries an ecological condition of survival for the poor countries. It is precisely this solidaristic effort which today belongs on the agenda of the rich countries of the globe. A series of examples already exists for the creation of funds in favour of developing countries, such that these will not have to touch their forests and natural resources residing in the soil, while previously there had been investments precisely in the exploitation of their resources. Instead of relying on export growth, Germany should focus on strengthening its domestic market and strengthening its imports in favour of exports from the debtor nations. It is obvious that export of weapons need to be prohibited. War is to be outlawed as a means of politics. A common and complex security policy, in which economic, social and ecological development policy, preventive handling of conflicts, dialogue, arms control and disarmament push back wars is among the chief contents of an emancipatory transformational process.

    Narrative with transformative perspective

    The impression conveyed here of a social project of the left could easily be understood as mere futurological story telling. A politically interested public listens when possible to the future concepts of the left. “But how would it work? People ask doubtingly. The claim of a modern narrative on the part of the left must therefore go further than just drafts of a desirable future. A new left narrative is even a part of the search for how the path to a better society could look and what tendencies toward it already exist in the present.

    The transition to a better society cannot be awaited as the result of a simple great act of the overthrow of all relations, which opens up the gates to the heavenly land. It is much more likely that it will take on the form of a long succession of small and larger reforms, of fiercely contested partial, greater and drastic breaks.

    To understand this transformation as an anticipated long process and to then make it the basis of left realpolitik could also win over those potential protagonists of an emancipatory social alternative, who do not want much more than palpable improvements in capitalism and who would be scared off by a pure revolution perspective.

    The transformation concept of a modern left starts with a hybrid or double structure of bourgeois-capitalist societies (Polanyi, 1978: 185; Wright, 2010: 367f.). Private capital cannot exist without its opposite pole of public space, the logic of capital cannot exist without a social logic – not without public existential services for education, health and mobility, for example, and not without public responsibility for the maintenance of public goods such as climate stability and bio-diversity, such as a regulated international financial system, social security systems and constitutionality. A left transformation strategy starts with this double structure of bourgeois-capitalist societies. It uses the fact that already in capitalism potentially socialist tendencies, elements, practices and the institutions of solidaristic and ecologically oriented societies exist. A modern left defends them and seeks to develop them fully. It aims at the inversion of the relations of domination between the logic of capitalism and a socio-ecological logic.

    From the double structure of bourgeois-capitalist societies there arises the possibility of the progression of a future Great Transformation as a double transformation. Against the background of the contradictions and crises of capitalism and on the condition that strong democratic countervailing powers can substantially change the relation of forces, a post-neoliberal socio-ecological transformation in the framework of capitalism could take root. After the phase of social-state regulated capitalism (Fordism) and after the most recent neoliberal phase of development or formation of capitalism, a socially and ecologically regulated capitalism would follow, which could also be designated a social-libertarian Green New Deal.

    The concept of a double transformation thus designates not two stages in social development strictly separated from one another, but that within an internal capitalist transformation a more comprehensive transformation could begin, whose result will be a better society beyond capitalism. “Shouldn’t the transformation be thought of – and promoted – as a succession of steps, in whose course the ‘nature’ of capitalism changes (or is changed) and the ‘nature’ of socialism gradually jells?” (Huffschmid, 1988: 102)

    A left transformation strategy requires according great importance to processes of differentiation within the ruling power bloc. A new left narrative is about humanity at the edge of the abyss, in which a dangerous brew is cooking, with an approaching climate catastrophe, continuing poverty and the potential of conflict tied to it in broad regions, with wars and military force in many countries and the crisis-ridden nature of the international financial system. Especially for averting a climate catastrophe – besides the survival of millions of starving people – we have at our disposal, according to the world of experts, only a narrow window of opportunity of one to one and a half decades. However, in this short space of time the current relations of domination cannot be overcome. This means that solutions which doubtless have to be wrung from the power elites are nevertheless only possible with them, more accurately only with that part of the elites who are capable of tying their own interests to the general interests of humanity.

    In any case, we know the left, and we know the enormity of the challenges we are facing. For this reason I close my attempt at a narration, as I have several of my contributions, with a quote from Hermann Hesse: “Is it not he who knows full well that it does not work and nevertheless does it?”




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