Newsletter #79: What Next for the Left?, with Amna Akbar, Gabriel Winant, and Thea Riofrancos, Part One

by William Harris

The Dig’s latest episode, the first in a two-part series, convenes three familiar Dig guests — legal scholar Amna Akbar, historian Gabriel Winant, and political scientist Thea Riofrancos — to discuss whether or not the Left has just passed through one historical window and into some strange new room.

Things changed, on or about September 17, 2011. A long-decaying Left regathered itself, with Occupy, then Ferguson, Standing Rock, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). New intellectual institutions gained steam, from n+1 to Jacobin. As Winant argues, this is part of what made a Left resurgence possible: many socialist book clubs, many podcasts. The Left tried to instill a new generational common sense, and in some profound, uneven ways succeeded.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Have we reached the end of this era? Has a period of Left growth, filled with street eruptions and left-populist electoral campaigns, plateaued into something uncertain? A situation where the Left made inroads, built impressive (if fledgling) institutions, won not insignificant political offices, became a resurgent public presence — but stayed, finally, marginal?

Listening to this conversation, I felt a bit haunted by a perverse way of characterizing the past decade: the era of “For a Left With No Future.” This is the title of a lecture by art historian T.J. Clark, published by New Left Review and written, strikingly, in 2012, just as the US Left’s latest cohort took its first strides, by an aging member of the now old New Left: an ex-Situationist, with ties to Guy Debord and the Parisian upheavals of May ’68. Clark’s essay argues less by reason than by mood and sheer style. This is why it haunts — why you can try to dispel it with patient, sober counterpoints, as NLR editor Susan Watkins does in her reply, without its force ever really vanishing.

Clark wants us to come to terms with a kind of realist pessimism. We should face up to the fact that we have no alternative to capitalism that matters practically in the present moment. We need to let go of our youthful obsession with the future, with socialist salvation, with after-the-revolution horizons, and resign ourselves to a “politics of small steps, bleak wisdom, concrete proposals, disdain for grand promises, a sense of the hardness of even the least improvement” — a politics that, Clark willfully insists, is both moderate and revolutionary, aimed at doing all we can to oppose the calcified bleakness of today’s politics. He imagines a Left contemptuous of utopia that sees itself as fundamentally oppositional, without the illusion of ever meaningfully wielding power.

I read the essay when it first came out as a twenty-one-year-old and felt entranced by its style. It’s stayed with me ever since. But part of my excitement in taking part in Left politics over the past decade has been feeling as if Clark’s tone, however stylistically haunting, has been out of step with our time. I still feel this way. Yet part of what’s frightening about reflecting back on a possibly fading Left era, and looking ahead to the faint, shifty outline of what’s next, is having to wonder again if Clark sounded a persuasive note.

Further Reading

How to take stock of today’s Left? Lots of socialist writing has recently taken this up, from Ross Barkan’s “Has the Socialist Movement Already Come and Gone?”, to Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Left in Purgatory”, to a recent Jacobin roundtable with leaders from various DSA caucuses, “Which Way Forward, Socialist?” If you’re looking for relevant Dig episodes to listen to, revisit another big-picture interview with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown on our present interregnum.