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13 May 2020updated 15 May 2020 1:24pm

The Covid-19 crisis is a chance for progressives to rediscover their lost internationalism

Chastened by its early defeats and the rise of populism, the progressive coalition has turned inwards.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In 2007 the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger asked the former Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan how he intended to vote in the forthcoming US presidential election. Greenspan essentially shrugged. “[We] are fortunate that, thanks to globalisation, policy decisions in the US have been largely replaced by global market forces,” he replied. “It hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.” The quote, cited by Adam Tooze in his book Crashed, says something of the realities exposed by the subsequent financial crisis. 

In doing so it also points to a paradox. That crisis was a product of unaccountable, untouchable global market forces. It should have been the cue for leftists and compassionate liberals – what one might call the progressive coalition – to build a rival political edifice to Greenspan’s vision of a depoliticised globalisation. But it was not to be. 

For a brief moment things looked otherwise. I had a front seat, working at the Party of European Socialists (PES) in Brussels. With the 2009 European election looming and Barack Obama’s election win in its sails, the party’s scruffy office near the European Parliament was abuzz with optimism about what felt like an international social-democratic moment. Two months before the election we hosted the Global Progressive Forum, at which leaders and campaigners from around the world affirmed a common commitment to a more democratic order encompassing finance, climate change, migration and workers’ rights. It was as if they were reading the last rites for Greenspan’s desiccated ideal of globalisation.

Then came the European election night. Despite the global exigencies of the moment, PES member parties in their respective countries had campaigned overwhelmingly on national matters. They slumped to a record low and nationalist populists made gains. The following years brought the eurozone crisis – international policy made with too little international politics – and the ensuing European national populist backlash. Meanwhile, in the US, the Obama presidency proved more parochial than many external sympathisers had hoped and ended with the election of Donald Trump and his fusion of flag-waving bombast for the poor with tax breaks for the globally mobile rich. 

Chastened by its early defeats and the rise of populism, the progressive coalition has turned inwards and focused on shielding national electorates from those depoliticised global forces. The result has been a lost decade in which it has mostly offered voters either an unconvincing mix of ugly nationalism or tortured insincerity about “very real concerns” on immigration. Witness the French leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s claim that foreign workers “are stealing the bread” of French workers. Witness the politics of Sahra Wagenknecht of Germany’s socialist Linke, who in 2018 complained to me about internationalist party colleagues too concerned with “cool, urban voters” and their “lifestyle debates”. And witness Britain’s Labour Party, whose past decade will go down in history for its constipation over immigration and Brexit. In each case the goal has been to steal back the principles of home, belonging and identity from the populists.

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This is understandable, as these communitarian ideals have deep roots in the progressive tradition. Yet it is impossible to protect and uphold them at the national level alone without international cooperation. Individual governments can at best mitigate chaotic global forces, whether financial crises or surges of migration.

Or pandemics. With second waves now starting to break, Covid-19’s spread threatens much of the world. The global economy is crashing. Humanitarian crises are looming. And once more, despite the obvious need for democratic international cooperation, countries are turning inwards. The US-China rivalry is turning into a new Cold War. The race for a vaccine threatens to pit country against country. Some economies, especially rich ones such as Germany, are insulating themselves with generous welfare stabilisers and others such as Lebanon are tumbling into crisis. The strength of the case for global leadership is matched only by the blatancy of its absence. Now is the moment for the progressive coalition to break from the failings of its recent past and rediscover its internationalist streak. 

Fortunately just such an initiative, with just such an ambition, came into being on 11 May. Progressive International (PI) wants to re-internationalise the progressive coalition and raise its ambitions beyond the meagre business of shielding individual national electorates from unaccountable global forces. It wants to take on those forces directly, democratically and in the international space, where they roam free of oversight or debate. Capital and crisis are global, goes PI’s mantra, so democracy should be too. 

It began as a collaboration between Diem25, a leftist pro-European group launched by Yanis Varoufakis, and internationalist parts of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. But PI is pluralist and already includes heterodox writers and thinkers, including Arundhati Roy from India, the philosopher Srecko Horvat from Croatia, the refugee-saving mariner Carola Rackete from Germany and the pro-democracy literature professor Wang Hui from China. You do not have to agree with all of them – my differences with its British spokesman, John McDonnell, are well documented – to recognise that the sum is more than the parts.

So I wish PI well. Maybe it will go the way of our Global Progressive Forum in 2009, but if so the only winners will be Greenspan’s stubborn “global forces”. Or perhaps, just perhaps, PI will help make this the turning point that eluded us in 2009. The moment where progressive politics finally arrives at the only level where it can really, lastingly, achieve its goals: the global one.

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This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion