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Thoughts on a New Left

Progressives must change with the times

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I read with great interest Rui Teixeira’s Five Theses for a New Left (April 4, 2018). The author argues forcefully for a holistic rethink of the left’s role in modern politics. And while broadly in agreement, I think the left needs a bit more than what he proposes.

At first, we are experiencing a systemic shift in our economies, with services becoming the most important sector. The irreducible factor of this industry is data. Whether we speak about financial services, where information and timeliness make all the difference in investments, or the rise of corporate behemoths such as Google and Facebook, data is the new quintessential enabler of production. Much like land was in agrarian societies. Without a comprehensive understanding of the politics of data capitalism—the mechanics and implications of data collection/harnessing/exploitation—the left will remain out of sync with the times.

A New Left’s answer to data capitalism has to be multifaceted. On the one hand, it has to embrace the paradigm of free/libre and open source software. Libre software provides freedoms to use, repurpose, and share software with the community of users, unencumbered by the restrictions of copyright, patents, end user agreements, etc. This is key, as software is the vehicle through which data is collected. On the other hand, the left has to emphasise the twin magnitudes of privacy and security. These are of paramount importance for the protection of civil liberties, such as the freedom of expression. They also serve as a shield against state surveillance, or even abuses from private actors.

Secondly, and closely related to the first point, the left has to develop a more intimate understanding of the politics of cyber space. Not just the squabbles between public and private actors, the ransom attacks and the like. But the implications of cyber on inter-personal relations. We live in the era of telecommunications and social media. We are more connected than ever. Yet virtually all connections are controlled by a handful of mega corporations. It is why Google can feed its users “filter bubbles” (search results basically confirming their biases). Or why Facebook can manipulate public opinion with “clickbaits”, contributing to the prevalence of fake news and widespread misinformation. Cyber space is not just a matter for ‘nerds’, security experts, or technologists. It is where much of our collective experience unfolds.

What follows is that information technology is not morally neutral. It is not just “technology”, i.e. the state of the art. The way our software- and data- driven world works creates winners and losers, ultra rich and dirt poor, those with immense influence over what informs public opinion and those who passively consume the digital equivalent of junk food. A New Left must come to terms with cyber and adapt accordingly.

Thirdly, the left must revise its views on private economic initiative. The old left has always treated the small business on the street disproportionately as yet another rapacious capitalist force that exploits workers with impunity. Such extremes need to be avoided. We must think in terms of risk profiles: a business person carries risk and, without the support and pampers of the state apparatus, that can easily turn into a precarious situation. Think about how many small and medium sized businesses were bailed out during the financial crisis. Now compare that to the oodles of money pumped into the coffers on the financial institutions that created the crisis in the first place.

For what is capitalism in essence? State intervention that disturbs any balance that develops organically from within market activity, resulting in an elite that is largely insulated from the vicissitudes of economic forces. In short, capitalism is state intervention in support of oligopolistic interests. If it does not outright create those oligopolies, it guarantees their ongoing existence. Remove state intervention, be it in the form of direct payments, favourable regulations, tax breaks, or patents, and the giants suddenly become exposed. What this means is that a New Left must develop new narratives of precarity and exposure to risk. Enough with the generalisations of all businesses exploiting workers in their very capacity as private entities.

Fourthly, the systemic shift in our world is also affecting the right side of the political spectrum. The rise of protectionist or isolationist tendencies, as these have been expressed recently in the Anglo-Saxon world, point at a tectonic shift in the conservative agenda. The infatuation with neoliberalism is no more. Gone are the days of Friedman’s or Hayek’s minarchism where open borders and minimal state intervention were treated as humanity’s next stage of enlightenment. Modern production does not really need labour mobility, at least not for the lower end of the skills distribution. Data capitalism relies more on the free movement of capital and on the geographic distribution of critical infrastructure such as data centres and server farms. Software takes centre stage. Whatever acceptable labour mobility is limited to those needs. Furthermore, today’s conservatives have wholeheartedly embraced the paradigm of the surveillance state. It is preposterous to be against the government meddling in inter-personal affairs when it already has its panoptikon fixed on every one of us.

What this means, is that the New Left must stop propping up the bugaboo of neoliberalism. Yes, neoliberal beliefs are still in currency. One need only look at the European Union’s economic governance, the obsession with austerity, and its underlying assumptions. By and large though, we bear witness to the right’s gradual transition into a force that supports the symbiosis of the state with the capitalist elite. This symbiotic relationship was fully exposed during the financial crisis. Heavily indebted sovereigns were caught in a negative feedback loop with distressed banks. If banks do not buy the state’s bonds, then the latter has a liquidity problem. Meanwhile, capital adequacy rules effectively guarantee that financial institutions must always seek to have sovereign bonds in their portfolios. The next domain where the symbiosis will take form is cyber space. It will soon become readily apparent that the state apparatus must provide protection to private entities that have high concentrations of sensitive data, else risk exposure to cyber attacks with far-reaching ramifications. The nature of warfare and security policy is such that the idea of putting guards on an outpost somewhere in the hinterland is no longer enough of a guarantee of homeland security. Protecting everyone’s data is essential. And those who will benefit the most are the ones already riding the wave of data capitalism.

In a nutshell, a New Left must synthesise the positives of existing progressive movements—civil liberties, the emancipation of oppressed groups, environmentalism and ecology, a cosmopolitan outlook—with narratives that address the major issues of our time. A New Left must be digitally literate and must actively campaign for informing the public about the systemic shift our world is going through. Timing is important. Instead of being reactive, leftists must become proactive and anticipate the major changes in our social order before it is too late. This may also require abandoning some of the most cherished shibboleths that have characterised leftism throughout much of its history. But that should not be considered a trade-off, for being a progressive is a state of mind, not a dogma. A state of mind must conform with reasonableness and correspond to our world’s current realities, else risk becoming an irrelevant cultism of sorts.