Has the left blown its big chance of success?

Marxism 2009. Photograph: Frank Baron
Marxism 2009. Photograph: Frank Baron

That’s what Andy Beckett asks in The Guardian, after going to the Marxism 2009 conference in London.

The collapse of unfettered capitalism should have been a golden opportunity for the left. So where did it all go wrong?

Indeed. The left should be all over the current crisis of capitalism. Evil bankers. Rampant exploitation. An elite few gorging themselves while others lose homes and jobs. But instead, the left has been mostly asleep.

“The left just gave up on economics,” says the economist Paul Ormerod, who retains sympathy for the cause. “Marx and Keynes cast such long shadows. There was too much of the left saying, ‘It’s all there in the old masters.'” Marx died in 1883 and Keynes in 1946; by the 80s – some would say much earlier – the world economy had changed sufficiently to invalidate some of their ideas. Yet the left was more interested by then, Ormerod argues, in other issues such as race and gender and sexuality. Lawson agrees: “We’ve had a hollowed-out generation of economic thinkers.”

Precisely. This illuminates three major problems on the left. First, Marx lived in an era when class distinctions were rigid and clear. Such boundaries are blurry now, especially in the US. Yet the left insists upon thinking that things must be as they were in Marx’s day, so it keeps looking for a mythical working class with deep solidarity that it can organize. But that working class doesn’t exist anymore.

Second, the left too often assumes its core issues are the important ones and ignores the issues the working / middle class cares about. So, they lead with Palestine or LGBT rights. However, most people in that big amorphous middle class don’t much care about such issues, especially not when they’re losing homes, jobs, and pensions. The BNP in Britain, fascist as they may be, isn’t making that mistake. They are talking about jobs.

Third, economic analysis by the left on the current crisis seems mostly limited to saying things like “capitalism is bad.” Meanwhile, much of the current attack on High Frequency Trading, the influence of Goldman Sachs, etc. started on libertarian blogs like Zero Hedge. They seem genuinely pissed that their beloved free and open marketplace is clearly anything but that. And they’ve helped to force the issues into the mainstream financial press and the Halls of Congress. Flash trading is ending. Zero Hedge played a substantial role is getting the issue out there. But the left has done nothing here.

The modern left, its internal critics say, has become too fragmented, too utopian and divorced from how most people live.

Other people think the left has just run out of ideas. “The feeling is still around that the left doesn’t have any solutions”

This time, perhaps the real challenge to the tottering status quo is not from the left at all. “The greens share a lot of the ideas of the left,” says Mulgan, “but they are not in coalition with it, they are suspicious of it.” Climate change is almost certain to make environmentalism more powerful.

We are left with the sad fact that a left that put hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, in the streets during the Iraq war protests has done practically nothing during this crisis, one which not only seems custom-made for them but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as well. And they’re blowing it.