The challenges of the left

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By PAULO NOGUEIRA BATISTA JR.*

The challenges are mounting and the left is struggling unsuccessfully against them. Brazil, with Lula, even constitutes an exception, but only partial

 “Decipher me or I will devour you” (Sphinx of Thebes)

In several countries in the West and the Global South, including Brazil, the left has faced perhaps unprecedented challenges in recent decades – and is generally not faring well. As time passes, the challenges increase and the left struggles unsuccessfully against them. Brazil, with Lula, even constitutes an exception, but only partial.

I'm actually referring to the center-left, the moderate left. The extreme left does not play a relevant role. In contrast, on the right, extremists, despite some important setbacks (notably the electoral defeats of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro), remain strong, threatening traditional center-right and center-left parties.

The backdrop to these political movements is the crisis of neoliberal globalization, initiated or worsened by the near-collapse of the US and European financial systems in 2008-2009. This financial crisis brought to light a widespread discomfort among the population of developed countries with the economy and the political system. Private banks were rescued with a large mobilization of public resources while the indebted population was basically left to fend for itself. Resentment grew, fueling the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and other similar politicians in Europe.

This unease with globalization is older and broader than the 2008 financial crisis. What has happened over the last 30 or 40 years in the US and Europe is a growing dissociation between elites and the rest of the population. Income and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a few, the rich became richer, while the bulk of the population saw their income stagnate or decline.

Confidence in the political system has collapsed. The perception has spread that there is no democracy, but plutocracy – the rule of the wealthy. Worse: it has become clear that what prevails is a kakistocracy – the government of the worst. The low quality of most Western political leaders is there, in plain sight.

This decline in Western leadership reflects something bigger: the decline of establishment of these nations, increasingly dominated by rentierism and predatory capitalism. Financial speculation, destructive privatizations, mergers and acquisitions, market maneuvers of all kinds replace production and the creation of quality jobs. The decadence seems quite evident. Previous versions of establishment of the United States would have allowed the electorate to be reduced to choosing in 2024, as everything indicates, between a senile president and an irresponsible buffoon?

It is no coincidence that China, which never followed the neoliberal model, became “the factory of the world” at the expense of Western industries. Brazil, unfortunately, also fell into the globalization trap and we still haven't managed to escape it. It was entirely predictable. The local elites, generally servile and mediocre, mimic the US elites, bringing the worst here.

On a party-political level, who was harmed and who benefited from the crisis of neoliberal globalization? Among those harmed, the traditional right-wing parties, identified with the defense of the concentrative model, stand out, deservedly so. Note, however, that the damage falls not only on them, but also on those on the moderate left – social democracy, socialists and others like them.

Predictable: after all, the center-left was a partner in exclusionary economic policies. In many countries, he governed in coalitions with the traditional right. When it came to power as a hegemonic force, it did little or nothing to change the course of the economy and society. Thus, they began to be seen, together with the center-right, as part of the same “system”.

Against this “system”, the extreme right rises up, even if often only through lip service. Commanded by charismatic and flashy leaders, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Javier Milei, it managed to win several important elections. Unprepared and primitive, however, the extreme right does not govern effectively and promotes more confusion than reforms.

Maintains or deepens the conservative orientation in economics, disguising this concession with extreme attitudes in terms of customs. He did not pass the acid test of the Covid-19 pandemic, which contributed significantly, as we know, to the non-reelection of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. He recovered, however, from these defeats, as can be seen by the victory of Javier Milei, the prestige of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, especially the former, and the rise of right-wing radicals in some European countries.

What happened to the center-left in other countries is perhaps relevant to the Lula government and the parties that support it. It seems intriguing, at first glance, that the center-left in developed countries has failed to capitalize on the crisis of globalization. Part of the explanation has already been mentioned above: the condominium of power formed with the traditional right. But let's try to delve into the issue a little more. The fact is that the center-left has also become traditional and elitist, it has become complacent, lost contact with the population and shows that it does not understand its real problems. You run the risk of wasting away because you don't understand the changes taking place. As in mythology, the Sphinx of Thebes warns: “Decipher me or I will devour you”.

An example of a problematic strategy: embracing the identity agenda, which is a liberal agenda, contributes to the isolation of the left. Let's understand each other: defending women, black people, indigenous people, homosexuals and other discriminated groups is essential. However, this defense cannot be the central platform of the left. In general, identitarianism does not have the attention or sympathy of the vast majority of workers and lower-income sectors, generally struggling to survive.

Economic and social issues – employment, income, social injustice – remain priorities for them. The far right tries to divert attention from these issues with religious and conservative speeches. The center-left ends up forgetting them when focusing on identity issues.

A crucial issue in Europe and the USA, not yet present in Brazil, is immigration. The extreme right has largely benefited from its virulent opposition to the entry of immigrants – from Africa and the Middle East into Europe; of Latin America in the USA. The center-left doesn't know what to do with the issue. Its Enlightenment and internationalist traditions lead it to reject resistance to immigration. You don't realize that it has real foundations. The rejection of immigrants is not just diversionism, as many imagine.

Immigrants bring significant problems, not for the elites, of course, who live apart in their privileged world, but for ordinary citizens. Large-scale immigration affects the labor market, putting downward pressure on wages and leading to the replacement of local employees by immigrants. Firms welcome, of course, the cheapening of “labor”, but workers feel it personally and suffer. It should be noted that immigration burdens an already adverse labor market, due to the displacements produced by rapid technological progress.

But the issue is not just economic. The massive immigration of the 21st century is very different, for example, from European immigration to the Americas in previous eras. The immigrant today is essentially diverse from the populations of the host country, in racial or ethnic terms, as well as in cultural or religious terms. Their large presence threatens to distort societies in developed countries, bringing insecurity and xenophobic reactions. In other words, the issue is also national – a topic that much of the left has always dealt with poorly.

How will the center-left react to these problems? Will it continue on its current path or will it try to connect with the new realities and concerns of the majority? If she chooses to stick to her traditions, we can only wish her good luck.

*Paulo Nogueira Batista Jr. is an economist. He was vice-president of the New Development Bank, established by the BRICS. Author, among other books, of Brazil doesn't fit in anyone's backyard (LeYa) https://amzn.to/44KpUfp

Extended version of article published in the journal Capital letter, on February 22, 2024.


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