The Only Way We Win: The Progressive International

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Once again, the victims of US imperialism have been asked to give a damn about the unfolding drama of the US presidential election. Forces who rallied behind Bernie Sanders as either a great hope, or a last resort for radical reform have hit a wall. US voters now face a choice between emboldened neo-fascism in the form of Donald Trump or return to a technocratic neoliberalism sans the charisma represented by Joe Biden. Both have pledged to maintain the United States’ position as “the world’s preeminent power for decades to come,” (your guess which one said it).

But the coronavirus pandemic — perhaps even more than its ghastly wars and economic aggression — has thrown this position into doubt. The refusal to entertain the idea of universal health care is not only an assault on the poor; in the context of the pandemic, it is also a global threat to public health. Their adversaries, both ideological and geopolitical, have fared much better on the international stage. China and Cuba have sent doctors and supplies abroad. Vietnam is reporting 0 deaths. Back in the Anglosphere, pundits of all partisan stripes have been pushed to meltdown, publishing reams of op-eds that attempt to pin blame on China for the US’s woeful response to the pandemic. All of this amounts to a severe crisis of hegemony.

But among its morbid symptoms, the pandemic is also “a prime opportunity for us to wake up from our US-centric slumber and engage in international solidarity,” as Dr. Angela Davis recently described it. Will we squander it?

Too often one reads someone commenting on tragic historical events and punishing the generations living at the time for being apathetic bystanders. And yet here we are, witnesses to radical possibility at critical juncture in history; a moment to “create lasting formations that assist us in moving away from this capitalist monster towards a better future,” as Davis puts it. The important phrase here is “lasting formations”.

It is infrastructure we need, and it is infrastructure we lack. The Progressive International — launched earlier this week — is an important step in moving beyond declarations of solidarity to build real infrastructure for internationalism that can capitalize on the crisis of US hegemony to advance, concretely, an alternative vision for the world.

And here is why this is the moment to act. There are countless directions, both brilliant and dreadful, of where the decline of US hegemony might take us. One of the likelier ones is toward the far right. Spurred by xenophobic and anti-globalist reactions to the pandemic, right wing governments have been retreating their countries further and further into a reactionary nationalism. Take Hungary, our test case inside the democratic bastion of the European Union. Just last month, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister — known for his anti-immigration policies — took measures that effectively allowed him to rule by decree. More recently, the Hungarian government pushed legislation to end the legal recognition of trans people. While parliament is still deliberating both issues, they indicate the terrible possibilities that the pandemic offers to the right.

liberal handwringing over authoritarianism in Hungary cannot absolve liberalism of its own failures. Enflaming anxieties about the decline of the liberal international order, pundits and politicians have asked us to pledge allegiance to institutions that oversaw debilitating austerity, stagnating wages, and the proletarianization of vast swathes of humanity — producing the very ‘populism’ they now decry. The absence of an organized international left has not helped. We are in desperate need of an expansive vision of the world beyond neoliberal globalization in order to kill off a zombie liberalism while preventing a victory for the authoritarian right.

Needless to say, the world will not manifest of its own accord. Socialism does not flow from unsustainability. Our task is to turn abstract ruminations into targeted questions. What types of organization do we need to transform the international institutions that ‘globally govern’? The answers will not be found at the national level. Solidarity, and international organization, will be essential.

Late last year, after the Labour Party’s general election nightmare loss, Jeremy Corbyn confronted the criticism that he lost because he did not focus enough on the UK; that he was too internationalist. Oddly enough, many such criticisms came from the left. Even if they were made in good faith, they amount to a serious indictment of national politics as the dominant arena for resolving contradictions of capital and representing the interests of the working class.

Even in cases of socialist electoral success, the absence of international coordination on the left — and the strength of international coordination on the right — can be fatal. Consider Chile’s Allende. Or Syriza’s Greece. Or just last year, when Evo Morales was removed from power in Bolivia by an illegal coup. The recent attempt at regime change in Venezuela — led by a crew of American idiots and Latin American reactionaries — is further evidence still.

It bears repeating: the elite has internationalized; the working class has internationalized; and the right-wing reactionaries are in the process. The pandemic is an essential opportunity for the international left to transcend our complete reliance on national and electoral politics — and correct the massive power imbalance that persists between imperial core and the Global South.

Enter the Progressive International, with its aim to build real infrastructure for coordinating left forces beyond the imperial core. It plans to amplify and take leadership from existing grassroots movements in the global south; it also recognizes that often the existence of robust social democracy in Europe and European welfare states almost always relied on the exploitation of the global south, and that any new movement that aims to tackle global injustice needs to address these questions head on.

While this may seem a massively ambitious project given the fragmentation of leftist forces around the world, and how historically fraught the global left is, it is also a necessary and exciting one. The questions we are grappling with have no abstract right or wrong answers, and will need us to gauge our historical positionalities in this moment to understand our political capabilities and what we can achieve.

Within the Progressive International there will be many competing ideas of who a progressive is or what “progressivism” entails. On the one hand, it’s helpful to think of this as an opportunity to reclaim and re-define the word “progressive” beyond what it currently amounts to. Our concept of progress should mean more than just merely ‘resisting’ Trump, or seeking a return to normal — but the active pursuit of a more just world. On the other, the ‘progressive’ tag will soon be less salient than the actual work of the organization — binding and coordinating movements, parties, unions around the world. It’s hard work. The international left is fragmented as all hell. But the triple-threat of pandemic, ecocide, and political repression will require us to try.

In “Left Wing” Communism, Vladimir Lenin hails this tactical flexibility as a necessary step in the transition from capitalism to socialism: “the only ones who fear temporary alliances even with unreliable people are those with no confidence with themselves.” Lenin understood that the only way to build socialism is “not with abstract human material, or with material specially prepared by us, but with human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.” The political project of our current situation is one that needs to take us as far away from what we have today and as close as possible to where we want to be; competing ideas of that ideal vision are something we can grapple with along the way.

Whether the answer to these questions lies in participating in electoral politics or in organizing elsewhere is something the Progressive International hopes to explore with its participating members, cognizant that in our current juncture, we must make use of every tool at our disposal.

In the aftermath of this crisis, international capital will be far stronger than it was before it began — and our politics is likely to reflect it: there will be massive cuts, more austerity, attacks on wages, and more concentrations of wealth. If there were a moment for a new international, it is now.

If anything, COVID-19 has shown us that it is possible for things to change in a matter of months, and that is really good news, because we are in a race against time. Crises entrench common sense; the neoliberals of the 1970s knew it well. We were told that there was no alternative. They were lying then, and they are lying now. The alternative is, and always has been international solidarity. Let this crisis be our starting point.