In an article in Le Monde, Edgar Morin outlines why the Left is necessary in current times, why it has failed so far and the challenges it needs to tackle to begin solving the problems of what he calls the age of barbarity.
Morin starts from the idea that there may be a unity of origins in the Left but a diversity of development. The unity comes from the Enlightenment roots and the ideas inherited from the French Revolution and the republican tradition: the aspiration to a better world, the emancipation of the oppressed, the exploited, the humiliated, as well as the universality of human rights for men and women. This common origin, in European thought at least, led to three types of political thinking: socialist, community and libertarian. In this common past, one finds of course, the main Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire and Diderot) as well as Rousseau, but also Marx an Proudhon for the socialist and social-democratic political forms, and Bakunin and Kropotkine for the libertarian forms.
The libertarian thought focuses on individual and group autonomy. The socialist thought revolves around social improvement while communist thought centers on the necessity of brotherhood and community. These currents are now, for Morin, in competition and they have been antagonistic in the past. It is time to rethink the Left for the current age.
The first challenge of the Left is, of course, globalization and the neoliberal age that unites technology and economic forms and has led us where we are today, into savage capitalism and biosphere degradation, along with warmongering from religious fundamentalists and nationalist xenophobes and the availability of weapons of mass destruction. These overlap to create very dangerous conditions.
But in Western European countries, it is not just globalization that can be blamed for the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, the massive deindustrialization / outsourcing / layoffs. Morin places the blame also on the incapacity of the Left and those who were supposed to represent the interests of the working class to provide an alternative to these challenges. In France, as Morin puts it, the communist party is a dwarf star, the trotskyist movement is long on critique of capitalism but short on alternatives and the socialist party… is there anything left to say on the sorry state of the socialist party?
More concerning, for Morin, is the disappearance of the “peuple de gauche”, that is the traditional groups that identified with any one of these three currents. Again, despite its diversity, the Left’s people was united on aspiring to a better world, based on fighting again labor exploitation, for welcoming the immigrant, defending the weak, and a concern for social justice.
Now, the main advocates for such a view – the school teacher as soldier of the Republic or the industrial union organizer – have seen their status degraded. What is left of this is a Left of the educated elite (“la gauche caviar”) that looks down upon the working-class, which then finds itself more at home in the racist and xenophobic parties where economic insecurity is translated into hatred against Arabs, Muslims, immigrants from Africa, etc. And so, one witnesses the success of right-wing and xenophobic parties in European countries such as Holland, Italy, Germany, and France. The lack of credible Left alternative is a component of the generalized crisis of legitimacy of parliamentarianism.
So, Morin advocates for a new Way (have we not heard that before?), one that unifies all the multiple initiatives taking place around the world to reform and revolutionize at the social, political and economic level. It is surprising that Morin does not mention the World Social Forum, in this context. All these initiatives – such as peasants and landless movements around the world along the lines of solidarity economics… also not mentioned by Morin – are completely ignored by dominant political parties and the media partly because they are compartmentalized.
Morin also advocates for local democracy. I have mentioned before my skepticism for this fetishism of the local. The local is not inherently more democratic than the national, regional or global levels. Many sources of oppressions are rooted in local communities and “traditions” invoked to reject universal human rights. Also, one only needs to look at the United States and its local political forms (such as elected school boards) to see how the local can go horribly wrong.
Morin also advocates specific criteria for hiring in public services administration as well as education and health care: compassion, empathy, dedication to the common and public good as well as concern for social justice and equity (which means no conservatives would need apply!).
Also, to the three threads of left-wing thinking mentioned above, one would need to add and environmentalist thread.
Finally, Morin thinks the first order of business is resistance to barbarism, that is every form of degradation by human beings against other human beings, resistance to subjection, contempt, humiliations for a better world. This aspiration has risen over and over throughout human history, and for Morin, it will rise again. I don’t think it will come from a core areas politicians (certainly not the current crop of US and Western European leaders), but more from people like Lula and other leaders from semi-peripheral or peripheral areas.