TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Rethinking the Left’s Political Project

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johanna Schenner looks at Federico Stame’s “The Crisis of the Left and New Social Identities,” from Telos 60 (Summer 1984).

In “The Crisis of the Left and New Social Identities” (1984), Federico Stame addresses the problems encountered by left-wing ideologies and political parties, such as the banality of their demands, as well as deeper underlying issues, such as the falling away of the friend-foe nexus in politics. He also provides hope for improvement by invoking the leading role of new social identities in renewing the tradition of the political Left.

Stame understands society as the coming together of injustice, inequality, and unequal distributions of power. These characteristics of societal life contribute to the plausibility of the collective political action principle. The latter is based on the ties that bring people together—namely, solidarity. Solidarity, in turn, unites disadvantaged groups. Within this framework, the Left is conceived as the jointly undertaken actions of such groups (3). The Left’s identity has been founded on the call to transform society into a more sophisticated and advanced social organization. Communism was once thought to be the ideology that would fulfill these premises (9). According to Stame, other ways to answer this call would be to convert social contradictions into political synthesis by emphasizing the significance of the labor movement or the gradual rise and expansion of the spheres subject to State intervention. The Left’s upsurge has become synonymous with the expansion of the public sphere and the political arena with political parties acting as mediators/ombudsmen (9).

With the political institutions assuming functions crucial to the political life, the citizenry is confused by the dominant political situation and therefore unable to grasp distinct political perspectives. Alternately, this confusion can be explained by the advent of an ongoing social transformation that renders the class struggle irrelevant (3). These are the reasons why Stame argues that the crisis experienced by the Left goes beyond of a simple crisis:

[It is] a general process of dissolution of fundamental notions which constituted the Left’s identity. It is no longer clear what it means to be on the Left, or what consequences it has for political economy, social policy and civil rights. (3)

Moreover, the term “Left” is rendered banal: indeed, it is commonly accepted that the Left political tradition aims at involving a greater number of people in the decision-making process so as to make this practice more democratic; to advance income distribution based on egalitarian principles; to expand both spheres of self-determination and freedom as well as endorsing the idea of progress (3). Yet these cornerstones no longer seem reason enough to be identified as a “Leftist”; the same scenario is experienced by feminism. Indeed, in the 21st century most women endorse past feminist claims, for example, the right to vote and the right for equal pay. Still, this support no longer implies that women actively consider themselves as feminists. A reason for the falling away of the leftist criteria are the illiberal traits of liberalism translating into the revaluation of negative citizen rights, for example private property rights and limited access to politics, in opposition to positive ones, for example the right for assembly and the right for expression. Moreover, the fiscal crisis experienced by the state also inhibits any intervention from this side.

The crisis of the Left discussed by Stame occurred within the framework of social democracy. Nevertheless, this critical point also seems to be applicable to the present liberal and representative democratic system. Notions such as “Blatcherism” and its historic predecessor Butskellism testify to the ideological convergence of conservative and socialist ideology, while books such as Anthony Giddens’s The Third Way (1998) and the anthology The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox (2011) attest to the quest for a new identity by the Left. In stirring up the social democratic framework, a crisis of popular sovereignty comes about.

Underlying this crisis is the evolution from the antagonistic socio-historical conception of class struggle to a non-antagonistic one, which threatens as much as enforces a deterministic perspective of the Left. This translates into the establishment of an exceptional phase in the transitional period so as to reach a “superior” society. Stame criticizes the lack of radicalism in political doctrines, pointing toward the irrelevance of class struggle. Julien Freund (cited by Stame) emphasizes the significance of the friend-foe nexus in politics due to its constitutive traits in categorizing political parties and ideologies (5). Moreover, the political scientist states that enmity is inherent in human nature. Society therefore runs the risk of equating enemy with guilt. This synonym turns out to be lethal given that in Freund’s thought no limits exist in eradicating guilt allowing political actions to be boundless. Jacobinism and Communism are denounced because of their disregard of the two fundamental political constituencies:

for the last two centuries, after the French Revolution, politics is exercised in the name of one of these ideologies which, with the pretext of suppressing political enemies in the name of a concept deemed more humane, devalues enmity and makes it more cruel, since it is concerned with the search for the guilty” (Freund, cited by Stame, 5).

With the quest to eliminate all guilt, conflict turns into a totalizing concept providing the base for political action carried out by the Left. Stame acknowledges another origin of the Left crisis: the moral foundations of totalizing politics (6). The first sign of the crisis is the crisis of the “actually existing socialism.” This expression stands for the encountered problems of historical models of socialism. Moreover, the State as an entity in a late capitalist environment also becomes a victim of its surrounding as it sees its intervention function negated. These elements have to be assessed in a broader picture: the crisis of the concept of democracy in which political demands are selected and voiced by institutions (6). Participation also is subject to these institutions because of mediation.

Stame states that it is the principle of totalitarian Jacobin democracy that is actually being challenged (6). This particular principle stands for overcoming alienation by the gradual expansion of the public sphere. This type of democracy can also be characterized as collective given that the citizen only achieves its life goals by making them public. Subjectivity can only be fully grasped when exposed to a collective (for instance, society). The tension-ridden relation between the individuals and society is won over by the collectivity. This is the reason why institutions have to assume a mediating function. By appropriating this responsibility, institutions convert into the subject of political decision-making, discussion exchanges as well as bargaining (8).

To summarize, the calling into question of the Left’s rationality occurs in parallel with the crisis encountered by the Jacobin type of democracy. Tensions are on the rise between the individualized subject and the dominant institutions/the welfare state (10). It is within this strained context that the significance of Rousseau’s Social Contract gains momentum: first, the contract between the governed and the government offers (radical) means to overcome political alienation; second, liberal themes such as individual freedom, the separation and the control of power are assumed to reflect a non-progressive outlook onto the world. It appears that this perspective cannot co-exist with the aforementioned features of the Social Contract (4).

In late capitalist societies, the development of organicist ideologies, such as the ecological and anti-nuclear movements, has to be put into perspective. In fact, their emergence can be foreseen in acknowledging the structural imperatives inherent to late capitalist societies. These new types of ideologies express themselves in a new sort of subjectivity (new social movements) challenging dominant modes of participation (8). New social movements also challenge the actions and principles of the collective Left by rejecting the principles of hierachization as well as the envisaged end purpose of political action, two principles that characterized the Left over centuries (9).

Stame views new social movements as a counter-reaction to both society and government (9). This counter-reaction translates in terms of rejecting settled or stipulated identities by focusing on the interchangeability of the Left with the following terms: technical-scientific development and progress, the extension of the public sphere, and reformist public institutions. To overcome the rationality crisis of the Left, the bourgeois concept of the dialectic of enlightenment has to be confronted as well as its merger with Jacobin democracy (10). Transposing these notions into a political context, the relation between macro-political rationalization and the subject is disputed. Stame summarizes the modern challenge of political philosophy in the following way: how to prevent the link between the death of the subject and the practice of socialization? (11). The crisis between society and the state, between social movements and institutions, is acknowledged as a structural feature of late capitalist society. The Left has to formulate a new social contract that can accommodate the principle of liberty with security. The problem lies in how to bring together these two principles. Other problems include complexity and self-determination. This enumeration brings the reader back to the basic problems of the relation between freedom and authority. The former definitions of freedom and authority have to be discarded and redefined (12).

Read the full version of Federico Stame’s “The Crisis of the Left and New Social Identities” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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