The new lefts

Published 15 November 2016 / By Nicholas Van Hear

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The Brexit vote and the triumph of Trump, not to mention the continuing appeal of authoritarian ‘strongmen’ like Putin, Erdogan and Modi, have prompted much chatter about the rise of populism, nativism and illiberal democracies worldwide. One obvious and much-mentioned dimension of this is that the ascendancy of the neo-liberal variant of globalisation over the last three decades has allowed some to do well while making life harder for many others. Political debate has developed a new vocabulary of the ‘left’, finally beginning to come to terms with what are now called the ‘left behind’, the ‘left-out’, the ‘left aside’, the ‘left over’, and so on.

But are these new ‘lefts’ all the same?

Left out

We can perhaps identify at least two kinds of globalisation’s left-outs and left behinds.

On the one hand are those left behinds and left outs who do not want to be part of a globalised world. For these, things are changing too quickly, too profoundly, and in ways that they do not like.

On the other hand are those who are left out but who do want to be part of and benefit from the globalised world. For these, things are not changing quickly enough – or moving in the wrong direction.

Five years ago it was the latter kind of ‘left out’ that was either mobilising against austerity and authoritarianism in the mass upheavals of the Arab spring, Occupy, the Indignados and similar movements, or seeking to escape illiberal and stagnating societies by migrating and moving away from them.   This lot of left-outs were and are simultaneously seduced by the goodies that globalisation offers and repelled by the fragmentation and disintegration of community that neoliberal globalisation entails. It is this digitally literate socio-economic group, especially in the so-called ‘emerging world’, that seeks to migrate or alternatively mobilises politically.


Now though, it is ‘left-outs’ of the first kind – those who want no part of globalisation – who have come to the fore, mobilising in support of Brexit, Trump, and arguably Putin, Erdogan and Modi.


Western Civilisation: The Box Set (credit: @KarlreMarks)

It could also be argued that ‘left-outism’ is a driver of recruitment to other kinds of illiberal insurgency like al Qaeda, IS and other sects inspired by resurgent religiosity.

Others more explicitly embrace left-outism. In one such strand are the ‘identitarians’, a European version of America’s alt-right, who seek to restore ‘their’ nation-states to their former glory by excluding all the ‘others’. They eschew globalisation, yet (like IS, Al Qaeda and other illiberal insurgencies) use transnational connections to spread and share their open source politics across borders. As the Economist puts it, ‘their movement is a howl of anguish at the integration of different peoples’ (Economist 12/11/16: 32).

Commenting on the inexorable rise in the number of ‘superfluous young people condemned to the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness’, Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra has captured the world view of these different left-outs well:

Mass education, economic crisis and unfeeling government have long constituted a fertile soil for the cults of authoritarianism and violence. Powerlessness and deprivation are exacerbated today by the ability, boosted by digital media, to constantly compare your life with the lives of the fortunate (especially women entering the workforce or prominent in the public sphere: a common source of rage for men with siege mentalities worldwide). The quotient of frustration tends to be highest in countries that have a large population of educated young men who have undergone multiple shocks and displacement in their transition to modernity and yet find themselves unable to fulfil the promise of self-empowerment (Guardian 03/11/16).

It is this that has led to ‘the appeal of formal and informal secession – the possibility, broadly, of greater control over your life’. But the forms of this assertion of control through secession vary along a progressive-authoritarian continuum: and the question then is, which form of control will prevail?

Illiberal democrats

As Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ becomes the norm in the formerly ‘liberal’ world, just as it is in the ‘emerging’ world, what will become of the space for mobilisation towards alter-globalisation – a world not of neoliberalism but of transnational solidarity and mutual aid? Will there be anywhere left for people to move to escape authoritarianism?  Will the only possible course be to endure illiberalism?  Or will we see new forms of these three trajectories – mobilisation, mobility and endurance – as authoritarianism hardens its grip?

Only five years ago we were celebrating the unexpected upsurge of anti-authoritarian and anti-austerity mobilisation in the Arab spring, Occupy, the Indignados and like movements.  A little more than a year ago we were surprised and heartened by Willkommenskultur in Germany and other places.

Now things have swung the other way. We seem to be in a febrile state of political volatility.   But the current gloom should not blot out the possibility that, given a nudge, the pendulum will once again swing the other way.

Theresa May recently said, ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ Not so Theresa, not so.


The Economist: Wolves in skinny jeans [print edition], 12 November, 2016

The Guardian: Review of Easternisation by Gideon Rachman and The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra, 3 November, 2016