Until a few months ago, progressives around the world were hoping against hope that avowed socialist Bernie Sanders might be challenging Trump on election day. Class and even imperialism were squarely on the agenda again, racial and gender justice too. That it is instead Biden who is the proverbial last man standing, and often incoherent septuagenarian who continues to live off the dying embers of Obama fame, is simply depressing.
Young American leftists are caught between a rock and a hard place; the imperative is to defeat Trump at all costs, but it is apparent that even in case of ‘victory’, meaningful redress of the terminal crises of their society and the planet at large is not on the cards.
Indeed, the feeling of dread that Trump vs Biden is the best that contemporary democracy can offer us extends far beyond US borders. Some speculated that the pandemic would expose right-wing megalomaniacs in power, but this ignores the fact that the sexist, racist narcissists who rule us in the present conjuncture are not anomalies but in fact, reflect uncomfortable truths about society and attendant structures of power.
The narcissists who rule us are not anomalies.
Put differently, society today is as divided and conflict-ridden as at any other time in recent memory. Class inequality is rife, and patriarchal norms, racial discrimination, and violence are commonplace. State institutions everywhere, no matter their claim to represent the public interest, actually buttress class, male and racial domination.
Since the end of the Cold War, an organized left that calls attention to injustice and tyranny has been conspicuous by its absence, with the so-called Pink Tide in Latin America in the 2000s a notable exception. The relative excitement engendered by the ultimately abortive Sanders presidential campaign was as much about the fact that the left was once again relevant in the mainstream as the fantasy that Bernie could actually win the White House.
A case can be made that the reemergence of an idiom of leftist politics in the US mainstream itself represents a step forward. But ominously, there is no parallel trend in many other parts of the world, including our own. As such, the majority of the world’s people who live in South Asia and sub-Saharan African have no meaningful exposure to a left politics worth the name.
It is not as if Pakistan’s progressive community, its youthful ranks particularly so, are not at the forefront of epochal political causes. While pro-people politics in the ethnic peripheries has a long history, contemporary feminist and student movements are relatively novel. The speed with which these movements are growing, as well as their clarity and fearlessness in the face of both state repression and sexist, racist, and elitist opponents, particularly in online spaces, are cause for cautious optimism.
Yet these youthful upsurges have their limits. Neighbouring India, in which communism has been institutionalized as a mainstream political form, is close to completely degenerating into a majoritarian tyranny. Many young Indians do continue to be drawn to progressive causes, including burgeoning student and feminist movements. Meanwhile, class organizations, including amongst rural peasants, rear their heads often enough. But this is not translating into a viable challenge to the BJP and others in the political mainstream. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which ruled West Bengal for three decades, has been pushed to the margins of the state’s politics, with Kerala its only remaining stronghold.
Pakistan has not had a mainstream left force resembling the CPI-M for decades. Young feminists, progressive students, and others who identify themselves on the left of the political spectrum broadly share common enemies — patriarchy, militarism, unbridled capitalism — but there is no unifying political platform that gives these movements a foothold in the mainstream. Insofar as they exert pressure on entrenched power structures from the outside, they punch well above their weight and are therefore awe-inspiring.
But every day in Pakistan brings less rather than more democracy, violence, and inequality. The recent coming together of mainstream opposition parties in the shape of the Pakistan Democratic Movement may or may not displace the current establishment-backed government. But there is little to suggest that it heralds a deeper, transformative politics. The latter will emerge when Pakistan’s beleaguered but brave young progressives come together to build a mainstream left alternative.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2020