The Left Must Learn to Speak the Language of Ownership and Belonging
Writing: Max Hunter
Illustration: Paola Valentina
Our politics seem to be in terminal decline. The calibre, tone, and content of our politics is sliding inexorably down into an abyss of constitutional crises, climate denial, and democratic dysfunction: all the inevitable result of a financial elite with their hands very firmly on the reins of power. In America, the political process is seized and shut-down by Republican state legislatures that are determined to deny ethnic minorities their voting rights. At the top of this pyramid of shame sits a toddler with a cheap fake tan, conducting foreign policy through tweets and denouncing climate change as a Chinese hoax.
How are we to make sense of this malaise? On the one side, we have an establishment still hopelessly wedded to an economic orthodoxy that has made a wreckage of our social contract, and will soon make a wreckage of the environment upon which human existence depends; on the other side, its most convincing and powerful challenger: a resurgent right-wing populist nationalism. This is a Rightism that speaks powerfully in the language of ownership and belonging: ‘Take Back Control’, ‘America First’, with various deviations in Brazil, the Philippines, Russia and Turkey. The rising tide of anti-'globalist' politics has thrown the Left into confusion and disarray. It seems the liberal international order is under siege from the Trumpists and the Brexiteers, and the Left are in the acutely uncomfortable position of defending an international order that they formerly decried.
The Left is used to speaking the language of internationalism, but it cannot exist long-term as a defender of international capital. The Labour Party, who is supposed to defend the marginalised, downtrodden and left behind, is now realising that in Brexit Britain, that group of people is increasingly defined by its forlorn and perhaps hopeless attachment to national identities. Cosmopolitanism has always been an elite pre-occupation: it requires money, connections and a world-class education to be a ‘winner’ in globalisation. Most people do not have these privileges. Their lives and world-views are still defined by the idea of a national attachment.
This attachment may be to a particular nation; more likely to the physical, cultural and economic characteristics of their locality. Their locality is defined by any number of things, but its crux is the physical, shared environment. The trees you walk by everyday to work, the pond at the bottom of your garden, the harsh North Sea that batters and bloodies the cliffs, or the overhanging, ethereal mist that clings to the glens and Lochs of western Scotland like a damp rug. These are the things we are defending.
Climate change has now been pushed to the top of the agenda. The window within which we can afford to keep dithering and delaying our response has, in fact, already closed. Urgent action is required not tomorrow or next year, but today. This requires a mobilisation of cultural, political and economic capital on a grand scale. It requires that individuals change their daily habits. Far more than that, it requires that corporations and governments heed the warning and change their behaviour. We need sweeping new legislation; we need a shift from the consumer mentality that has defined our economic life for decades; we may even need a new economic model.
This will require human beings to work together for a shared cause. The tragedy of our climate dilemma is that it requires vital global, unanimous action; but so far there is no force beyond a national force that we know to be capable of such rapid mobilisation. The Left may speak the language of a universal humanism, but in truth its achievements have always been built within the framework of the nation state. So far we have no other framework for citizenship that is convincing and powerful enough to mobilise human beings in shared sacrifice for a shared cause. To fight climate change, we need a shared cause.
It is extremely difficult to find a historical parallel to our current climate crisis. (There are plenty of examples of societies overwhelmed by resource depletion and environmental degradation, but perhaps these are not the examples we need). We are facing an existential threat that could radically undermine who we are. Perhaps the closest recent crisis we can come to is 1939: Britain and the world faced a deadly threat from the rise of Nazism on the continent. The Second World War threatened Britain with extinction, and it threatened the world with a terrifying ‘Thousand Year Reich’. The people of Britain and of many other nations came together in shared sacrifice to face that challenge, but I think it unlikely that the brave men who landed on Normandy beaches were motivated by internationalism. I’ll wager it was a dirty fight in which their home, their family and their country were threatened by something utterly monstrous. We can learn from them in our own struggle. The pond at the bottom of your garden - in fact your whole fucking garden - is under threat. So go forth and defend it.