Photo by Jeff Burak on Unsplash
Photo by Jeff Burak on Unsplash

Reorienting the Left


How can the Left structure its politics in the context of resurgent nationalism across the globe?

On May 30th, the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism hosted a conversation between Nikhil Pal Singh and Joshua Clover to address this question. Mellon Research Initiatives, administered by the UC Davis Humanities Institute, receive three years of program funding and conduct interdisciplinary work by bringing together UC Davis faculty, graduate students and outside scholars.

NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History Nikhil Pal Singh and UC Davis Professor of English Joshua Clover considered the current political climate and interrogated pathways forward for the Left. Singh is also the Faculty Director NYU Prison Education Program. Participants read selections from his most recent book, Race and America’s Long War (University of California Press, 2017). Clover, an affiliate of the Mellon Initiative in Racial Capitalism, is interested in “social movements, social reproduction theory, crisis theory and the end of capitalism.”

Clover began by describing the contradiction inherent in the context of the modern Left, where it appears to be experiencing dramatic growth in the Anglophone world–rising membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the Bernie Sanders wing of Democratic Party and the resurgent UK Labour Party. He contends, however, that the left-right spectrum is “unable to describe the political landscape.” Most significantly, the choice faced across left-leaning parties increasingly grapples with whether to turn to their own version of nationalism to combat right-nationalists in the hopes of courting “voters in the nationalist faction of the working class.”

This is the context; “what is the Left?” is the question. Clover views the border as a place to begin untangling the answer. He explained that Singh in Race and America’s Long War reveals the border as the space “where the interwar and outer-war meet” and are exposed as “a single historical phenomenon where race and empire constitute each other.” The book mostly attends to the “right and center-right regimes of Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes, Obama and Trump, but the border is also the privileged location and concept for the crisis of the Left.” Adhering to a nationalist populism is a political trap, and the border exposes it.

Singh’s first move to address the problems of the political Left is to “fall back on where he started his intellectual work,” to restructure that politics on, “for lack of a better word, internationalism.” The word internationalism is problematic, however, because it has nationalism in it. Singh considered: “what does it mean to be internationalist in a context where nationalism is resurgent” across the globe? As the Left orients itself, it should consider defining terms more suited to the current political landscape.

Nonetheless, the Left has “fallen on really hard times” in terms of what it means to forge, imagine and craft a politics across borders. The conversations seem to center on a “workerist vision” that raises concerns. Singh questioned how different a Sanders administration would be on the border and trade when compared with Trump; the Left articulates a political vision based on “how to restore progressive politics in one country by recreating” global comparative advantage and shoring up “middle and working class life that have been under pressure due to neoliberal capitalism.” While Trump expressed a racialized version, “in some ways, that [vision] was Trump’s promise.” Sanders is the best of a plethora of bad options, Singh expressed. Until the political sphere allows a more critical discussion about the American empire, this likely will not change.

In terms of big global questions, Clover wondered about the implications of the declining role of the U.S. as the world’s economic center while it continues to operate as world policeman. “What happens if the U.S. loses that role?” he questioned.

For decades the U.S. had a “capacity to passively organize the globe,” but it is no longer in the economic interest of many countries to “be on team U.S.” Because of this decline in power, the country now has to compel through either offering protection or threatening military intervention. If that policeman role is lost and the “U.S. is cut adrift,” economic contraction would surely follow. “This seems to be a very different situation that would have implications in terms of what futures both Left and Right can imagine,” Clover added.

“I think what you’re describing is already underway,” Singh argued, “and we are now in the context of the decomposition of the empire.” When asked what to make of the economic-focused side of the Left whose policy proposals are premised on continued growth, Singh responded: “We have to think about that question together. We are in a country that is incredibly wealthy” even in its economic decline, and “the fight will play out on the terms of redistribution.”

“A problem of the Left is that we set ourselves problems that we cannot solve,” Singh said. We need to consider the conditions of human flourishing and how to support the kinds of approaches and efforts that promote it. More importantly, he believes, “we need to avoid the reinstantiation of lives that matter and those that do not.” Those on the Left who promote policies like universal healthcare but call for stricter border policing fall into the reinstantiation trap. According to Singh, for the Left to be effective and just, it must be transformational.

Singh described the new political force to which the Left should adhere as “multiracial populism,” and encouraged a different thematization of left populism that rejected the nationalism of right populism. Multiracial populism would consider the “differentiated whole and the ways in which these differentiations are part of the ways capitalism has extracted differential value.” The politics of multiracial populism would combat the capitalist governing structure that relies upon the disorganization of the exploited.  

Instead of left nationalism, left fusionism would pave the way forward.

For more information on upcoming events hosted by the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism, join the listserv.

–Ashley Serpa, Graduate Student Researcher for the Humanities Institute and PhD Candidate in History

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