Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Ambiguities of the Left

How should we react to recent demonstrations which have spanned the globe? Is there a single interpretation, and a single response, which we should adopt to this unrest?


Steve Latham


The problem is that these demonstrations, riots and uprisings, have occurred from different causes, in different countries; not all of them for progressive reasons.

The French Gilets Jaunes, the demonstrations in Chile, and in Iran, for example, all arose, to resist government imposed, or sanctioned, petrol and fuel price rises.

These, of course, hit the poorest hardest. But paradoxically, such measures would inevitably be needed if nations were to successfully address climate change.

Global heating is caused by burning fossil fuels, and petrol is a key contributor to this. So, some kind of reduction in consumption, perhaps by raising prices, would be a necessary aspect of any policy. Naturally, a just, carefully-managed, approach could avoid making the most indigent pay for the shift to renewables.

It is a mark of the egregious inequality in our societies, regarding economic and political power, that price hikes are enacted without concern for elementary fuel justice.

Nevertheless, this wider context does call into question the validity of automatically supporting popular demonstrations.

Protests against fuel price increases can, after all, come from radicals, as in Chile; but also from conservative forces, as with the Gilets Jaunes.

Nevertheless, in each case, the immediate cause of the demonstrations can lead to increased radicalization, drawing upon wider discontents in society.

Such may be the case in Chile and Iran, against stultifying neoliberal and Islamic regimes; or Hong Kong, where opposition to extradition laws expanded into a wider democratic movement.

In Venezuela, however, mass demonstrations were held against the socialist Bolivarian government of Nicolas Maduro, and in Bolivia, against the rule of Evo Morales.

These were largely middle class movements opposed to the economic redistributionist policies of these indigenist and socialist, authorities towards the poor.

But again, whatever our views, it demonstrates that we cannot simply read off from the fact of mass protests to any particular political position.

In both countries, despite favouring the poor, governments also seemingly rode roughshod over democratic practices, and created arrangements where their representatives profited from corruption.

The Presidents also refused to honour constitutional requirements to leave office at the end of their maximum number of terms.

The reaction of the Right in Bolivia, including an apparent massacre of indigenous peoples by the military, demonstrates the real fear which motivates the reluctance of radicals to relinquish power.

There is a legitimate anxiety that the normal electoral cycle may destroy any progressive gains, if the Right assumes power and does not operate from a position of consensus and non-partisanship. But the refusal of left strongmen to surrender power is also a left-wing version of the populist response to crises, which also motivates authoritarians from the Right, in Hungary, and Russia, for example.

Perhaps, therefore, the best contribution Nelson Mandela made, besides ending Apartheid, was to vacate power, permitting South Africa a peaceful transition of government.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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