The rise and fall of the Left dominates this issue of Catalyst. Or to be more precise, the Left in the global periphery. In the advanced capitalist world, the last few years have seen a tremendous turn against the political establishment, and even a revitalization of socialist politics. Jeremy Corbyn continues to be the most popular politician in Britain, while Bernie Sanders’s political influence is not only formidable, but gathering momentum.
It seems only yesterday that similar changes were underway in Latin America. After two decades of brutal neoliberal austerity, left-wing governments came to power across the region — in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela, among others. This was the onset of the Pink Tide, a resuscitation of radical politics and, in some cases, even of a socialist vision. But in contrast to the events in the North, the left turn in South America seems to have run its course.
In our lead essay, René Rojas offers a sweeping analysis of this quite dramatic reversal of fortune. Rojas echoes the observation made by Pink Tide critics, that, despite their rhetoric, the regimes failed to break out of the neoliberbal orthodoxy they had inherited. He insists, however, that this failure was not due to insufficient will, but to political capacity. Whereas the classical Latin American left in the 1960s and ‘70s acquired power in an era of rapid industrialization and growth of the working class, the Pink Tide formed amid a period of deindustrialization and labor-market informalization. The Left in Allende’s time could rely on a social base located in core economic sectors. The more recent left was based in shantytowns and a precariat which, while radical and mobilized, could not give it the leverage needed to push through reforms against bourgeois opposition.
One of the symptoms of the Pink Tide’s weakness was a slide into clientelism and patronage politics. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the decline of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil. Once held as the beacon of the regional left resurgence, the party is now reeling under the blows of a massive corruption scandal and the conviction of its leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Benjamin Fogel provides a lucid analysis of the forces behind the scandals. He shows in some detail how the constraints that Rojas describes in his essay, both political and economic, have operated in the Brazilian context. But just as importantly, he criticizes the PT for failing to devise a strategy to overcome them, succumbing instead to the tawdry machinations of the political class. Here, as in other episodes of left accommodation, acquiring and holding office has rapidly overtaken the vision that originally inspired the movement.
The despair that so many Brazilians feel today is what the Palestinians have lived with for decades. As Bashir Abu-Manneh shows in his study of Palestinian literature, the experience of defeat and dispossession in 1948 had profound consequences for the people, not just politically but also culturally. He argues that the trauma of the nakba triggered not just a search for meaning, but also for a literary form in which to express it, a turn away from realism toward modernist techniques of representation. In a sensitive review of Abu-Manneh’s book, Pam Morris notes that while György Lukács criticized modernist literature as a retreat from reality, a turn inward, Abu-Manneh sees it as a struggle to retain a sense of hope amid an unending political retreat.
It is the recovery of lessons from a submerged past that motivates Kristen Ghodsee and Julia Mead’s essay. For much of the Western left today, Eastern European state-socialist regimes comprise episodes best forgotten — experiments in social control that only discredited attempts to build a more humane future. But as Ghodsee and Mead point out, there are still some positive lessons to be gleaned from them, especially with regard to gender relations. Chief among these is the importance of economic redistribution — precisely what makes establishment liberals nervous today.
The issue is rounded out by a clutch of articles on the capitalist core. Chris Maisano offers a short note on the historic Supreme Court ruling which eliminated agency fees for public sector unions. As Maisano observes, the case was intended to further weaken the labor movement by striking it where it still has some power. But the story is anything but over — just weeks before the ruling was made, several states were rocked by the largest strike wave in recent years, all in the public sector. Even as unions reel under its blow, the strikes show a way forward.
Finally, we feature a debate between Jason Brownlee and Richard Lachmann on US imperialism. Brownlee agrees with Lachmann’s argument, in his essay from Catalyst 1, no. 3, that the military has proven to be a weak instrument for American global expansion since Vietnam, but suggests that Lachmann has misdiagnosed its causes. Lachmann offers a defense of his views, while agreeing that there is much to Brownlee’s argument.
The question of US power will occupy a prominent place in forthcoming issues of Catalyst.