What the Rise of Corbyn and Sanders Says About the Future of the Left in India and Beyond

If Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn could emerge from within a moribund ‘Left’ that had become indistinguishable from the neoliberal Right, could this be possible in India too?

Senator Bernie Sanders. Credit: Reuters/Scott Audette; Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

Senator Bernie Sanders. Credit: Reuters/Scott Audette; Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

The long night of neoliberalism that had set in with the rise of Thatcherism is not yet over. But there are signs on the horizon that things might be changing. The meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – in the face of the powerful media campaign against him backed by the political establishment – indicates what might lie beyond. And the impact of this election is likely to be felt not just in Margaret Thatcher’s land but elsewhere in the world as well, despite Corbyn not winning the election.

It is not the first time though that neoliberalism has been challenged; there was the revolt in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994, followed some years later by massive protests against capital – the London ‘Carnival Against Capital’ and the militant Seattle demonstrations against the WTO Ministerial Conference, both in 1999, not to forget the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia from December 1999 to April 2000, against the privatisation of municipal water supply. It was against such a backdrop of protests between 1999 and 2008 that countries like Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador elected left-wing or left-of-centre governments – generally referred to as the ‘pink tide’.

Dire announcements of the ebbing of this so-called ‘pink tide’, however, have been doing the rounds for some time, especially since the death of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and before the fraudulent ‘impeachment’ of Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. It did seem for a while, once again, that there was no real challenge to neoliberalism. But even as things seemed to be going wrong for sections of the Latin American Left, the world saw the unexpected and impressive rise to prominence of Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign in the US. Attacked and reviled as a ‘socialist’ – a word still used as a term of abuse – Sanders surged ahead in popularity, giving rise, in the process, to a veritable movement.

And not long after that came the dramatic rise of Corbyn in the recent elections in the UK. Corbyn’s rise was, by all accounts, breathtaking and showed one thing with great clarity – the youth of Britain, most of them born and brought up in the long night of neoliberal plunder, declared unequivocally that their hearts beat with Corbyn. It wasn’t simply that Corbyn rose from the ashes of the Labour Party against all odds, against a sustained establishment-sponsored media campaign that claimed he would take Britain back to the 1970s. It was rather that he managed to do this on the strength of voters in the age-group of 18 to 34. In the bargain, he pulled up the voter turnout for the 18-25 age-group from 45% in 2015 to a mind boggling 72% in the early June poll this year.

Corbyn shares with Sanders this popularity among the youth. Sanders polled more votes among the youth than Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump put together during the presidential campaign. As the Washington Post put it, “Sanders won more votes among those under the age of thirty than the two presumptive major party presidential nominees combined. And it wasn’t close”.

It seems as if the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the strong anti-corporate sentiment that swept not just the US but also other parts of the Western world in the wake of bailouts worth billions handed over by governments to banks are all coming together in the groundswell of support for Corbyn and Sanders. Yet, we also know that it is not enough that there be pervasive sentiments in society; political efficacy requires the presence of figures or parties in and through whom sentiments get shaped into hope. Such figures alone become points of articulation of a series of popular aspirations and desires.

In the figure of Corbyn and in his frank, all too evident break from the Blairite ‘third way’, which was essentially a Labour party version of neoliberalism, large sections of the people could see their hopes take shape. The biggest disasters under neoliberal dispensations worldwide have been seen in the health and education sectors. Rampant privatisation, leading to skyrocketing fees and student debts, has led in the past to widespread protests and occupations of universities. In the domain of public health, the take-over by predatory insurance companies have reduced large sections of the population to a highly vulnerable existence; it has led to the realisation that there is really no alternative to a strong public health system and that providing insurance cover is simply another way of tightening corporate control over ordinary citizens’ lives and throwing sick people to the wolves.

Given this context, Corbyn’s claim that education is a collective good comes as a breath of fresh air. His proposals, therefore, include provision of £11.2 billion towards scrapping of university fees, £6.3 billion extra funding for schools, £5 billion for health and £2.1 billion for social care and his unabashed stand in favour of public takeover of key industries, including the railways, obviously aimed at allaying the fears of all those who have lost and are losing every day, under the neoliberal dispensation. All this may be anathema to neoliberals but they are music to the young voters’ ears.

In standard neoliberal language, now pervasive in the media, such measures oriented to the relatively vulnerable are considered ‘populist’ but Corbyn clearly makes a break here. Equally important from the standpoint of a 21st century left-wing politics is his affirmation of commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and the designing of an energy policy “for the 60 million not the Big Six” to conversion to 65% energy from renewable sources by 2030. This vision also envisages the creation of 300,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Inevitably, as one thinks of Corbyn and Sanders, one’s mind cannot but travel back to India and the state of the Indian Left. If Sanders and Corbyn could emerge from within a moribund and decaying body of a Left that had become indistinguishable from the neoliberal Right, one wonders if that could ever be possible in India. Two things stand out. First, the fresh thinking that is required once again, which sees beyond the reified logic of ‘growth rates’ and ‘GDP’, addressing actual needs and requirements of population groups that are especially vulnerable. This means a decisive rejection of the fallacious neoliberal logic that if the size of the cake grows, everybody can get more, for whatever the size of the cake the six will always determine the fate of the 60 million. After all, this is the logic that puts the lives of farmers at stake for a car factory here or a chemical hub there; this is the logic that justifies the dispossession of tribals and agrarian communities in the name of a larger historical logic.

Second, the chances of completely new and unexpected possibilities arising from within an otherwise decrepit structure depends, to a very large extent, on the structure of the organisation. Sanders and Corbyn can emerge from within the Democratic Party or from the Labour Party only because the structure of these parties is open enough to allow different political positions and platforms to emerge in contention with each other. One sees little possibility within existing political formations on the Left in India for such a transformation to emerge until and unless political ‘factions’ and ‘platforms’ are recognised as legitimate entities within parties.

Meanwhile, there is churning going on in India as well, in the peripheries of the mainstream Left and elsewhere. Younger leaders on the Left, oriented towards questions of caste oppression and ecology, are emerging through struggles everywhere. Though they are nowhere in a position to determine the course of events, they might be the hope of the future.

Aditya Nigam is a professor of political science at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.