Danijela Dolenec: “Time for the Left to pick up the challenge”
Danijela Dolenec, president of IPE’s Managing Board, spoke at the panel “Systemic Alternatives Across Borders – Thinking Backwards from Utopia” at the annual EDGE Funders Alliance conference, entitled “Re/Organising Power for Systems Change”. You can learn more about the conference, which took place in Barcelona in April, here.
Considering key parameters that should orient the Left strategy today, Dolenec singled out the ecological crisis and the weakening position of labour due to automation. These two vectors could be interpreted as leading to a scarcity of natural resources on the one hand, and abundant supply of labour on the other. This means we are heading towards a situation in which the majority of world populations is becoming a burden on the resource, economically unnecessary, and hence an increasing risk to global political elites. Staying on this course might lead to a dystopian scenario Peter Frase calls Exterminism, whereby the majority of world populations becomes disposable. In the second part of her speech, Dolenec talks about how the Left should face these challenges.
Watch the speech here, and find its transcript below.
To the great introduction that you’ve heard, I’d only add that I do come from a scholarly perspective of thinking and writing about these things, but I’m also currently involved in a very new political platform in Zagreb called Zagreb is Ours. I’m currently candidate for deputy mayor, which is a very, very different role, meaning that I go from what is better described as a life of contemplation to a life of action. I say this because, even though what I’ve prepared is a kind of macro, systemic outlook, and it does revolve around some of the introduction we’ve heard, utopia and to some extent dystopia as well, more than anything else, what I’m trying to talk about is a Left strategy, a strategy for the Left.
The way I will do it is to first delineate what I think are the two key challenges or parameters which I see as important for orienting the Left strategy, socialist strategy. The first one is the severe ecological challenge that we face, and I don’t have to speak to this audience very much about the problems revolving around the fact that the levels of energy consumption of the West cannot be universalized, about climate change, changes to the habitable land, disruption of food supply, and all these other aspects. When I say severe ecological challenge, I mean that and also the absolutely related question of climate justice. The fact is that most of disruption and ecological degradation and the risks falls disproportionately on the poorest and the underprivileged, both globally and within society, so this is a key parameter that should orient any Left strategy, taking this onboard.
The second one is basically something I would call a weakening condition or position of labour. The first part of this story is well-known, and we’ve read a lot about it in the last twenty years. The aggressive universalism of capitalism has been described – the fact that you have an oversupply of labour, which means that it’s driving down wages, the deregulation, the precarization, and so on. So that is the very well-known part of the story of why labour is in a weakening position. But the more recent element to this is automation, and more and more frequent analyses suggesting that human labour will very soon, to a very large extent, be unnecessary, will be replaced by robotics and computer technology. And you know, this was until recently a fringe discussion, and if you noticed, yesterday Pope Francis gave a TED Talk and he mentioned it as one of the challenges, so we are now also mainstream.
These two things are what I would call key parameters, and if you summarize them, this creates a very big predicament. Because what we are saying is that we are facing scarcity of natural resources and an abundance of labour. So, if you put these two things together, and if we just let them carry on, this creates almost certainly a dystopic scenario. Because it means that very large populations are a burden – from the perspective of political elite – on the resource, more and more economically unnecessary, and hence pose a greater and greater risk, politically speaking. So, one of the recent thoughts that I’ve read on this, by Peter Frase, says that putting all this together leads to a dystopian scenario which he calls exterminism. Which means that from the position of political elites, it is becoming more and more evident that the best scenario forward is to opt out. Which is what we are seeing, to a large extent, of the political and economic elite – their futures and their fortunes are very much disconnected from not only societies that they live in but are generally disconnected from everybody else’s fortunes.
This might sound extreme, the dystopian scenario. This business-as-usual will lead to something we are now seeing in SF movies like The Hunger Games, where the outcome is the decimation of world population, the areas gate themselves off and have no interest in preserving most of the world population. I do fear that we see indications of this, even in what we want to call the most advanced Western democracies. Capitalist systems are taking on more and more of an authoritarian streak or tendency, which we see in the ever-stronger insulation of economic decision-making from political decision-making, and we can find many examples of this. And we also already see ways in which current political systems deal with superfluous populations, people who are not seen as necessary. We see that in the way, for instance, the prison population is dealt with in the US, or in the way refugee camps, which look more like internment camps, are dealt with, people at the borders of Europe and so on.
I think this is what we’re facing, and for the Left it creates very strong imperatives to move away from this; if we just let it happen, this is the dystopian scenario which I think is very likely. So, what is the Left doing about this? What I want to say is that a lot of the Left is not picking up this challenge. One part of the problem is that, a lot of the Left is – I know this is provocative – call it reactionary, but I refer mostly to the institutional left, Social Democratic and Socialist parties. Why reactionary? Because what used to be a determinate or a very prominent characteristic of the Left is to be oriented to the future, to progress, emancipation. Instead of that, a lot of political platforms on the Left are about nostalgia, are captured in the imagination of 20th century institutions, like the welfare state, and trying to preserve what’s there, and that’s woefully inadequate.
And the second way in which I think the Left is not fully up to the challenge is in putting a lot of emphasis and hope in building up these autonomous zones, as we call them. Commoning, or horizontalism, or direct democracy, and various ways and terms that are being used to say the same thing. They are absolutely important for experimentation, for building resilience, for restoring the social fabric, for building up some sort of activist citizenship, but what’s problematic is underlying, neo-Tocquevillian conception, according to which, if we just let it grow, outside of markets and states, it will somehow erode capitalism. I’m sure at least some of you are aware of the arguments made by Erik Olin Wright in his Real Utopias Project, which is about this. It says that if we nurture these autonomous zones, this is like bringing in a new species into an ecosystem: for a while it’s in a niche, but then it kind of breaks out and becomes dominant. But it’s a very non-conflictual conception, which doesn’t take into consideration in whose interest this is, and it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that there is resistance to this type of change.
What I want to say is that even though these practices are very important, they will not take us in the direction of the post-capitalism that we want. They may take us in some direction, but not the one that we want. For various reasons, but I will single out two: one, because they are unable to take on the ecological challenge and particularly climate change, because dealing with this requires large-scale intervention, coordination and redistribution, and it can’t be done through loosely confederating lots of very cool communities. It needs more than that. And the second reason why I think loosely confederating, small, commoning and direct democratic practices are not going to take us where we want is because, in order for the Left to build something that I would call a counter-hegemonic project, it needs to be much more inclusive. And I’ll explain this, and I’ll end with that.
One of the triumphs of capitalism, and this has been described by many authors, is that it made all of us into isolated, competitive, miserable consumers, and in that sense it decapacitated collective action and community building, but not to the same extent. Some have more resources than others and any kind of political engagement at community building is always about resources – time and money, but also health, education, social networks, and everything else. What I fear is that radical democratic practices remain within urban contexts, they remain among the educated, they remain a middle-class preoccupation. This is the fundamental challenge that needs to be taken up. How is it taken up? By not pursuing autonomous strategies outside the state, but by directly confronting state institutions, and making demands for policies that will extend human freedom, in a very basic Marxist sense, in which this means capacity to act. We need more people to have the basic capacity to act, even engage in any sort of endeavor.
What I would say, and maybe I should’ve said this at the beginning, is that I think an instructive way of thinking about Left strategy is devising principles, rather than painting a picture of what the future would be like. We need principles which are orienting for action. So that’s how I started, with the parameters, these are the delimitations. The principle that I think should be a fundamental guiding principle for designing proposals for social and economic programs is: does this proposal enhance the capacity to act for an ever-increasing number of people? That, I think, is the key test that we should always see if any proposal we have can pass. If it does pass, then it’s something that’s helping us go along the way we think we should be going.