Considerations from the Baltic region about contemporary left
The latter half of the past decade saw an unexpected reinvigoration of political projects on the Euro-Atlantic left. Political movements like the Occupy Wall Street in the US and the public against austerity in the UK quite unexpectedly fused into party power. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders were riding a wave of enthusiasm that suddenly opened up a space for ideas once deemed too radical to even vocalise. Yet the retreat of both figures has either inspired dejection and re-centring of the political ground or indeed novel theorisations about the appropriate strategies for the left in the present moment. The following essay is written in an effort to advance the latter.
It is partly inspired by recent theorisations undertaken by James Meadway and James Schneider. I find their contributions stimulating but they are written largely for the Euro-Atlantic left audience. This is not meant as a criticism since it would be the easiest thing in the world to point out the limits of their political context and thus the strategy they advocate. However, the struggle against the overweening and international power of capital necessarily assumes an accordingly international character which requires either modifications or even outright changes to the strategies articulated by the Euro-Atlantic left. My purpose here is to outline certain angles that contextualise leftist movements in post-socialist countries in Europe because they face very different challenges from the Euro-Atlantic left. They are still extremely marginal but their perspective may yield unforeseen insights in the way political questions and challenges are formulated. It is a region, after all, that has a direct experience with socialist projects and hosts 150 million people and could potentially have a decisive influence on the way the EU is structured. Its world-historic role then should not just be seen in the past tense.
To begin with, since I already made a point about a certain centricity (or limited applicability) in theorisations about strategy on the left in Britain and the US, I should make it clear that I am writing largely from a Latvian perspective which is by no means a paradigmatic case of post-socialist politics. There are considerable historical as well as contemporary differences between the Baltic States, the Visegrad group, the Balkans and places like Romania and Slovenia. The Baltic States do tend to stand out, though, thanks to their dogmatic embrace of neoliberalism. In Latvia this was partly a function of its geopolitical positioning that served as the basis of the economic vision dreamt up in the 90s whereby Latvia would become wealthy by providing financial along with transit services to the ‘West’ and the ‘East’. It financialized its economy from the get-go, introducing a flat income tax, letting capital roam freely, giving up on monetary sovereignty by pegging the currency and later by joining the Eurozone. Capitalism became truly hegemonic in a Gramscian sense. The other post-socialist countries followed a less dogmatic but still largely unquestioned capitalist trajectory. With the exception of Slovenia, social-democratic and leftist politics as well as movements became a rarity. Currently, many of these countries have become even more right-wing not just in the economic, but also social and cultural sense too. There are differences, no doubt, but aversion to anything that smacks of ‘socialism’ seems to unify the region because it is ultimately made synonymous with totalitarianism and Nazism.
Latvia’s love story with capitalism and the contemporary disdain for socialism, which exists in every strata of society, is all the more remarkable if one looks at a hundred year old history when Latvia was considered one of the ‘reddest’ regions in the world. A generation of socialists and anarchists was born and bred in this Baltic region and one can still see a monument commemorating the protests of the 1905 revolution in the Riga city centre. The most celebrated Latvian poet was a social democrat. The mystical protagonist of the Sydney Street Siege in London in 1911 – Peter the Painter – was a Latvian anarchist who emigrated after the 1905 events. When Latvia gained its independence in 1918, it passed a constitution that essentially copied the social-democratic Weimar constitution and restored its legitimacy in 1990 after seceding from the Soviet Union. The roots of the country are leftist in spirit as the idea of a national independent country was brought forward by waves of intelligentsia in the 19th century whose political affiliations were avowedly on the left. How to explain then, the unquestionable switch to hardcore financial capitalism that occurred after the restoration of independence? How to explain the capitalist nature of the country’s social policy that does not even pretend to be interested in preventing poverty or alleviating inequality?
The short and simple answer is nationalism. The categories of ‘nation’ and ‘class’ have a particular entwinement in post-socialist countries. The former is accorded with primary political importance: any politics is possible only if the condition of nationalism is satisfied. The hierarchical relationship between these political categories is obviously nothing new or unique. Most projects on the left are focused on reversing the hierarchy, calling for political education to demonstrate that what really divides and separates people is class rather than nationality and, personally, I wholeheartedly agree with it. Yet the intensity of the nationalist sentiment in Latvia is not something to be done away with through ‘education’. The nation-state, no matter how potentially oppressive or hostile, remains as the pre-condition of political freedom due to the geopolitical realities. The 19th century political activists spoke against a double oppression: the national culture and language was politically suppressed by the Russian Tsar whereas economically Latvians were under the yoke of Baltic-German nobility. It was precisely the ability of the emerging Latvian intelligentsia to formulate the economic demands in a way that supported the project of a national state that rendered left politics viable.
The hypocrisy of the Soviet Union which formally may have endorsed the freedom of nations to practice their culture while practically privileging the Russian language in all spheres of life has forever tainted the idea that such national rights are possible under socialism. It is even more so in Latvia where the nation is conceptualised in cultural terms through language, shared social memory and particular cultural rituals and folklore. The thinking goes that once there are no people speaking Latvian, remembering the violent history of the 20th century and participating in cultural festivals, the basis of an independent state disappears. Thus, the forced immigration of Russians in Latvia during the occupation was seen as an existential threat to any future political freedom and any contemporary immigration is seen in the same way. Of what use then is any social justice or progressive social policy if there are no Latvians left to enjoy it, many wonder? It is, of course, an entirely hypothetical question that cannot be reasoned with. But it does illustrate a clear fact: for any leftist project in the region to succeed it has to primarily engage the national question. This challenge is enormous because such a project has to remain principled on the political and practical equality of all people regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Latvia is home to a large share of Russian population that are still made to feel responsible for the actions of the Soviet regime. For many people, having a nation-state means precisely the ability to order other ethnicities around. The post-socialist left has to demonstrate that their project of economic democracy and justice sustains the national privileges while eradicating ethnic discrimination. No small feat and weaved with contradictions.
In the wake of the restoration of independence in the early 90s, the one political decision that enjoyed complete consensus was joining the European Union and the NATO. It may seem paradoxical that the very first thing the country wanted to do after leaving one kind of Union to enjoy its independence was joining another Union straight away. Yet it was the perceived guarantee that the EU would not demand compromises on the national question and not invoke any supra-national or federal policy that would limit national privileges which made the decision straightforward. The way EU’s neoliberal policies have actually contributed to waves of emigration catering to the existential anxiety over the reproduction of the Latvian nation is not a link anyone’s ready to make. The EU is seen as a largely benevolent force which ensures rather than threatens Latvia’s sovereignty. It is also seen as an external check on the always-present threat of corruption and reckless fiscal policies. The latter is more mythological than actual, but formulating a critique of the EU is difficult precisely because any legitimate criticism of its economic policies will be underlain by these other considerations. By now, any meaningful policy initiative has to be affirmed by Brussels which creates another dilemma for any post-socialist left project: where to focus the political energy: on the national or European level? If the economic projects of the national left cannot be brought into being without the proactive support of European institutions, most notably, the European Central Bank, then does it even make sense to aim for national parliamentary seats? Or should the post-socialist left seek pan-European alliances that could ultimately re-structure the distribution of power and the mandates of European institutions to ensure a democratic control over the monetary system? It is clear that the answer is both, but for small political groups the balance between these tactics is decisive if they are to build successful decision-making and movement-making structures.
Theory of society
However, even if, at some distant future, the nationality question will cease to carry its political significance, the post-socialist left has to figure out what the meaning of ‘class’ is in their respective societies. Recently, Branko Milanovic suggested on his Twitter feed that the post-socialist countries have three distinct constituencies that have political representation: pensioners, nationalists and the mafia. To nationalists we have already alluded; pensioners are numerically significant and as elsewhere – vote actively – but the mafia is an outgrowth of the wild 90s, a transformation of the oligarchy that adjusts itself to the imperatives of the rule of law. The mafia may very well infiltrate itself in liberal as well as nationalist parties depending on their businesses. They have learned the political technologies of liberal democracies and parties end up being a front for business interests – in this sense, post-socialist countries have provided a foretaste of what happens when the government itself becomes privatized as happened in the 90s – a phenomenon currently underway in places like the UK. These three constituencies are not related to each other materially as the classical political economy tradition teaches. In fact, they often overlap and may even share the same ideology or agreement on key points. For example, at the moment, the government of Latvia is constituted by five parties: the nationalists, self-proclaimed liberals, self-proclaimed conservatives, an austerity party and another that simply has no ideology. You have the entire mix and somehow the motley collection of these political groups limps along squashing democratic debate for fear of internal dissolution.
This is an extreme version of Tariq Ali’s extreme centre. One would be hard-pressed to find meaningful differences between the parties. There is no representation along class lines as it simply is not clear what the actual material structure of the society is. You obviously have the mafia and the oligarchic strata that controls key infrastructures: oil transit, gas, construction, finance, real estate, communications, etc. There is a sizable segment of public administration which is itself internally stratified and public sector workers in education, health and social services that tend to be poorly remunerated. Naturally, there is a vibrant private sector in areas like timber and IT, but no clear class of rich entrepreneurs. And then there is a mass of people working for essentially subsistence wages without any meaningful unionisation and no class consciousness to speak of since the very term ‘class’ has been banished to an infernal realm never to be resurrected.
In my view, learning to read the material structure of the society is by far the biggest challenge for the post-socialist left. And it may turn out that the material aspect is not even that important from a strategic point of view and it is much more instrumental to rely on the kind of division suggested by Milanovic. Currently, the only prevalent relational opposition within the society that everybody could agree on would be one between the government and the rest of the society. There are discernible reasons for it: one, the historical privatization of the government which in many ways resembles the Soviet nomenklatura; second, the size and voice of the education and healthcare sector which has grown louder during the pandemic; third, the consistent inability of successive governments to do anything about poverty and inequality. Yet, the opposition is somewhat paradoxical and certainly not sustainable since having a national independent government was the basis of any political freedom as noted above. For the post-socialist left to reproduce this relational conflict would be self-defeating. Furthermore, the material structure is crisscrossed by ethnic elements: in the wake of independence, ethnic Russians moved to the private sector as the public sector jobs were mainly available only to Latvians. Taking into account these historical factors is important so as not to create a material mirror of the society which ends up demonising particular ethnic groups. Identifying the revolutionary unit – a seemingly central task to Marxist thought – may very well turn out to be a hopeless exercise in a society that remains generally poor and that is furthermore integrated in much larger political and military units. Shifting the opposition on a European level as the British right did so successfully is equally challenging for reasons mentioned above. But it is even clearer that simply vocalising progressive policies will be insufficient without a theory of society. Without such a theory any success will be short-lived and accidental.
The meaning of state power
In his recent series of articles on Novara Media James Schneider suggests a tripartite logic and sequence to socialist strategy: movements united by a party which then passes socialist policy. It reiterates the political dynamic at play during the last decade when activists positioned themselves against the very structures of government itself, questioning the legitimacy of the official decision-making structures as a whole which subsequently propelled support for particular politicians who endorsed the views of these various movements. The alliance between a parliamentary force engaged in political manoeuvring and extra-parliamentary entities focused on the grassroots and direct democracy forms makes intuitive sense: it generated and sustained support for particular political candidates which then symbolised the entire effort thus also exposing the weak link of the strategy: as these candidates were side-lined, so was the strategy. Yet the issue I take with this formulation is not its schematic logic but rather the unchanged meaning of state power which is conceptualised as something to be sought and then exercised. This approach is likely to splinter the movements and the party and reproduce existing hierarchies rather than subvert them. It is precisely on this kind of logic that the 19th century split between reformists and revolutionaries unfolded – an outcome lamented by James Meadow as something that should not have happened. I do not question the necessity of needing to assume control over public institutions. However, the way this control will be exercised is equally important. Here, socialists would do well to learn from anarchists. Because – what really is state power? It is not just the ability to pass policy: it is also the way it is implemented, administered and made real.
The ideology of civil servants and the public administration has received less consideration than it merits. However, in the post-socialist Latvia the size of this sector is notable and accordingly so is its power. It is among civil servants that much of public policy is written; they enjoy a sort of situational power able to determine the nuances of particular strategies. They have an embodied knowledge of the way the government actually works, what lines of communication are open for what purposes, what language has to be used, how the circulation of documents happens, what the procedural and legal processes are. If some policy turns out to work well and responds to real needs, it is likely thanks to the work of some hard-working and dedicated civil servants rather than an elected politician. However, the opposite is also the case. To be clear, I do not question the fact that civil servants take their cue from the politicians. But there is a lot of leeway in the actual everyday policy-making process. For example, Latvia is currently working out its first real housing strategy since the restoration of independence. Housing policy is multi-dimensional. If the Ministry of Economy, under which housing policy falls in Latvia, does not actively collaborate with the Ministry of Welfare to design an effective homelessness policy which, furthermore, requires a close cooperation with all the municipalities, then the policy will remain simply rhetorical. And since in a post-socialist context, the government consists of various political groups that exercise their influence through their Ministries rather than through the government as a whole, such coordination and collaboration is not a given.
For this reason, the purpose of a marriage between a party (or parties) and movements should not be defined as solely capturing state power in order to pass policy. Parties and movements should converge to transform the very meaning of state power. The function of movements is not just the exercise of grassroots direct democracy. Movements should also become sites of experimenting with civil administration, of implementing policy through their potentially enormous networks of people. If policy remains the prerogative of a party which marches into the government and begins passing policy after policy, a whole lot of trust is given to the civil administration that ultimately consists of people that also have ideologies and a political belief system. Their institutional ability to impede certain decisions or alter nuances so as to render the policy much less effective cannot be discounted. However, if policy-making becomes the domain of both the party and its movements, and the latter are empowered with making policy real and tailored to local needs, then the way we understand the state – as the expression of public purpose and not as the institutionalised site of violence – might very well change as well.
If the post-socialist context is anything to go by, as I am trying to suggest it is, then it might be useful to look at the role of the non-government sector as one such arena of movement-public administration nexus. In Latvia, the NGO sector is the practical political opposition, the extra-parliamentary opposition if you will. As the parliament and the government consists of political forces that ultimately share the same normative understanding of reality and largely function to further particular material interests, the NGOs tend to be the uncomfortable voices trying to disrupt the political consensus. However, they do not perceive themselves as explicitly political entities instead seeing their role as furthering the interests of particular social groups that are least protected and most at risk. While there is clear effort to unify the sector, it is still disorganised and fragmented. Furthermore, NGOs do not have a theory of economy. They do not analyse or define the situation of their ‘constituents’ as an outcome of capitalist processes. Capitalist realism reigns supreme. This is another instance of the extreme manifestation of the extreme centre. So if political education is to have a role in the post-socialist strategy of the left, then it is probably within this group. They might very well become the revolutionary unit, however if they do not perceive their work as primarily political and if they do not have a theory of economy, then their ‘class consciousness’ will not emerge. For this reason, one of the main tasks of the post-socialist party of the left is to create and cultivate alliances with the NGO sector. There is a clear overlap of ideas and goals between the two and I would argue that neither can attain their purpose without the other. It may very well mean that this is the central alliance which will determine the possible success of the post-socialist left.
While on the topic of alliances, what socialist strategies tend to lack or overlook is the role of the private sector in their plans. This is especially striking if one considers the magnitude of plans in the Green New Deal and the inevitably significant role private companies will play in it. If socialist strategies continue to perceive the private sector as something to be policed and repressed, then the outcome will be resentment. Furthermore, to even suggest that the private sector is the source of social injustice is political suicide in the post-socialist context. For this reason, it seems much more agreeable to form strategic alliances with key private sector representatives and companies. If they are left out of the picture, they will not hesitate to mobilise resources in generating moral panics over the second coming of communism. Inviting them to the table early is a form of stakeholder management that any post-socialist left strategy should regard as a key objective. Designing appropriate public procurement procedures to ensure the standards of workplace democracy and adherence to social and ecological goals is one side of the coin; the other is ongoing dialogue and partnership based on something resembling an alliance.
Finally, some remarks on the post-socialist left discourse used to communicate ideas and define political worldviews. If there is one stark difference between the Euro-Atlantic left and the post-socialist left, then it is to be found in the very word ‘socialism’. In September 2019 I was visiting Brighton where the Labour party held its annual conference alongside ‘The World Transformed’ festival. It was a memorable experience to witness the political enthusiasm pervading the city which seemed like a culmination of a momentum that had been gathering behind Jeremy Corbyn for the last couple of years. There was a sense of a prospective revolution in the air that was immediately felt by an outsider like me. As it turned out, it was probably the high point of Corbyn’s project. Nevertheless, the level of political engagement, the knowledge of participants, the vibrant sociality made clear to me the far road ahead for societies like Latvia where the same kind of enthusiasm is confined to extremely small and almost marginal political circles. What surprised me the most though was the way the word ‘socialism’ was used and embraced: people openly and proudly calling themselves socialist is virtually unthinkable in Latvia or for that matter the entire Eastern Europe. Anyone doing that would not be taken seriously and quickly brushed aside to the deepest corners of the political space.
So now, whenever I see progressive voices in the ‘West’ identifying themselves as socialist and using words like ‘comrade’ I shudder. There is no surer way of alienating an entire region from any future alliance than by invoking a word which is almost synonymous with Nazism. It is a gross ignorance of history which complicates the work of left-leaning political activists in the region. Moreover, even the most radical contemporary socialists that I have read imagine some role for the private sector rendering the use of the term questionable in the first place. If a mixed economy that puts greater weight on state involvement in areas like banking, energy, communications and transport, not to mention education and healthcare is what we are realistically looking at – why call it socialist? Words like ‘public sector’ instead of ‘state’, ‘a balanced economy’ instead of ‘state involvement’ tend to elicit a lot more receptive ears than the emotionally and historically loaded words like ‘socialism’. It makes a great deal of sense then to find new words that accord with our new situations.
Yet on an even more urgent level, it is necessary to find an appropriate language of fiscal and monetary policy. Taxing the rich and making them pay for a recovery is simply not a viable proposal in a country where there’s not too many rich people and where similar calls inevitably invoke the spectre of totalitarianism. Furthermore, taxes on capital is a difficult national subject due to the privatisation programmes of the 90s whereby 80% of the population became homeowners inclining them to support capital-friendly tax regimes. The good news are that the insights from the Modern Monetary Theory tell us that we do not actually have to tax in order to spend – the days of sound finance socialism are over. Taxing and spending are two separate, while linked, courses of policy. Governments can fund infrastructure development and social policies without having to rely on the benevolence of the private sector to lend or the state capacity to tax. This is not to suggest that high-earners or capital should not be taxed. The levels of inequality in the post-socialist countries cannot be adequately dealt with if the tax system does not prevent, by design, immoral stratification. It is rather to say that the conversations on state spending should be decoupled from conversations on tax policy in their current form. MMT offers a promising terrain to be fully explored and made use of by the post-socialist left as the choice between the welfare of the private sector and the welfare of the public is a false one. At the same time, the post-socialist left has to seriously engage with the public sentiment which views any state economic activity as suspicious – a result of the wild 90s.
What should be especially alarming for the post-socialist left is the way most governments have given away their monetary sovereignty and for all practical purposes their fiscal policy too. While they can formally set their own national tax rates, these are measures to be always coordinated with Brussels. This presents a conundrum in terms of strategy and the linguistic framing of it too. Should the sovereignty over money be retrieved? Or is it possible to alter the European monetary space and its institutions to accord with the values and political ideals of the post-socialist left? If the choice falls on the latter – how to communicate this effectively? The intricacies of the Eurozone, the operations of the European Central Bank, the dependence of national governments in the Eurozone on private financial institutions cannot be elegantly captured in a single phrase, especially if the same discursive frame should call for some kind of action too. ‘Change the charter of the ECB!’ is not a very exciting policy idea and neither is ‘let the governments borrow more’ because the conservative fearmongering over the unpayable debt our grandchildren will suffer from evokes a lot more intuitive understanding on behalf of the general public. The issue appears to be three-fold: first, there is no shared understanding between the European left movements and parties about the desired institutional setup of the money system. Second, provided there was such a plan, it would also need to suggest the political level on which a new institutional setup would be agreed upon – national or inter-national? Would the current institutions of the EU be used for decision-making or completely new alternative structures devised? Third, what is going to be the language of these plans that is both – credible and politically engaging? These are discussions the post-socialist left should be having now because the answers are far from clear. If it does not offer a reading and a theory of macro-economy and macro-finance then it will forever remain marginal and easily discreditable as a movement that only knows how to moralise the illiberal and conservative segments of the political society.
I have written these arguments mainly because there appears to be a lack of strategizing happening among the post-socialist left parties and movements about their political reality and the important questions that have to be addressed. While the Euro-Atlantic left has seen a surge in left enthusiasm over the last decade and respective theorising about the political possibilities before them, the post-socialist left seems either stuck on short-term goals or indulges in dreamy projects that are completely divorced from their context. This is incredibly unfortunate because not that long ago, the region produced some of the most original leftist thinkers and texts that are now actively read by the Euro-Atlantic activists. So what is to be done? The burning strategic questions that should be on the agenda concern the link between class and nationalism. Namely, re-introducing class into the political vocabulary cannot evoke associations that threaten the nationalist sentiment. This is obviously an enormous challenge if the left continues to be faithful to the principle of a fundamental equality of all peoples. Next, because the leftist movements in post-socialist countries remain small and marginal, their political energies should be expended wisely. Forming alliances with NGOs as well as the private sector in a grand informal coalition of the left is one step to be considered. However, alliances and partnerships on a European level also need to enter the picture if only to be clear about the appropriate level of political action. Finally, the nexus between movements, parties and the state has to be re-imagined to account for the uniformity of the political ideas that characterize the public discourse. The administration of policy cannot reproduce the current political order; it cannot reproduce the perception of a division between the state and the society. It is the substance and meaning of state power which has to be re-imagined if past mistakes are not to be repeated. Only then will the post-socialist left have global relevance, a role to play and contributions to make to fellow activists around the world.
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Andris is a Latvian author writing about macroeconomic policy and political economy. He has received a Masters degree in Social Anthropology and teaches anthropology of money at Riga Stradins University. He publishes regularly on various Latvian media outlets and is generally interested in the political strategy of left-wing movements.