The politics of the democratic left
Anthony Bogues

Recently there has been some discussion in the newspapers and elsewhere about the significance of the political term 'democratic left' espoused in the report of the Policy and Vision Commission of the People's National Party (PNP).

Regretfully, some of the discussions have been mired in a dated Cold War argument about socialism and communism and in the end became political drivel parading as serious political/ideological discussion. Those who write in this vein should remember that the Cold War ended with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 dissolution of the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Geopolitics and political thought today are not defined by the Cold War but what increasingly is now called "The Age of Uncertainty". Part of this uncertainty is that the world faces various "existential catastrophes". We know these very well: profound climate and environmental challenges; the threat of nuclear devastation; wars which no longer can be contained regionally but shape global supply chains of wheat and oil; and then of course deep inequalities both between and within countries.

Inequality is not simply about income and wealth, it is about the structures of livity for everyday people. It is about access to health, education, justice, common human rights, housing, water and the simply basic things which makes a decent human life possible. So inequality should not simply be understood as the gap between rich and poor. Rather, it should be grasped as a structuring feature which determines and shapes a society and the life chances of the vast majority. In Jamaica, all the current data point to this kind of inequality. Just think of the recent report that nearly 50 per cent of the Jamaican people do not have food security .

During the 1980s with the advent of the Washington Consensus and the subsequent temporary victory of the neoliberal revolution, all forms of left politics had to reimagine themselves or political parties like the PNP, which believe in participatory democracy, equality and social change for transformation, keen attention and study had to be paid to ideas, politics and programmes to review where mistakes were made. Engaging in this process, these political parties returned to basics. In returning to basics, progressive left parties begin by reaffirming that there are three core elements of left politics: equality, democracy and making change in the interest of a broad working class and social groups who are marginalised in a society.

A reader might well ask, what is the relationship between the political term left and socialism? The term left emerged during the course of the 18th-century French Revolution when those who defended the abolition of the monarchy at the time sat on the left in the French National Assembly. Henceforth, the term became associated with those who advocated progressive social change, while the term right came to mean those who seek to maintain a status quo. When socialism became a popular ideology in Europe, the left and socialism were conflated as political terms. However, the left has always meant a party or political organisation that advocates change, that challenges the status quo. In this sense the PNP from its inception has been a party of the left.

Some commentators have noted that socialism is communism, but nowhere in Marx nor Lenin is this connection made. Socialism has always had different political currents within it ranging from those who take the social gospel of Jesus Christ as their foundational belief to those who believe that a class society is not the best nor final form of human organisation of a society.

Michael Manley once wrote in the 1980s that a defining feature of democratic socialism was forms of participatory democracy. So socialism is not communism and many propagandists know this but are blinded by the desire to slander and make mischief for short-term political gain.

What is the relationship between the democratic left and socialism? In the first instance, we should understand that socialism was about a method of organising society. Historically, one element of this organisation was that the State would play a commanding role in the economy. Today, economic life dictates that, while the State needs to play an activist role, certainly in countries like Jamaica there is the necessity for entrepreneurship. What the democratic left position does is to find a different role for the State while keeping clear the political compass of social change for transformation of both the society and economy.

What is the equality we speak about? It is not an equality which focuses on levelling all members of the society to be the same. It is not about taking away one goat from the person who has two, as I was often told as a child growing up in St Catherine. Rather, it is about creating a society and structures in which all members of a society have full access to both the fruits of that society as well as to the necessary programmes of health, education, housing, leisure, water and all the things which will make "Jamaica nice for everybody, not just a few." Given Jamaica's colonial and past history of racial plantation slavery, it is also about creating systems of justice and constructing a society in which the ordinary Jamaican can walk and live in dignity.

Economic life is central to any society and equality means opening the economy to more players by paying special attention to small and medium-sized business and the underserved informal sector. Forty-eight per cent of the Jamaican economy is considered informal. This sector is constituted by mixed economic activity, some legal, others illegal. The legal elements of this section of the economy can be innovative, given chance and opportunity. Equality is about creating the context and platforms for people in this sector to move from survival and making do, to being a central force in the country's economic life. It also means creating the conditions for the full equality of women. Equality is about a politics to eventually abolish poverty.

And what about democracy? Let's put it clearly on the table. Political parties that do not practice electoral democracy, that do not create programmes which deepen the democratic process are authoritarian. The PNP has never been authoritarian. In all of Jamaican elections — win or lose, the party has maintained and practised the peaceful transfer of power. We should remember that it was a PNP Government that was instrumental in the formation of the Electoral Commission .

Since a left party is concerned with issues of equality in a society, and the PNP is such a party with deep political heritage of democracy, then the political naming of the philosophy of the PNP as: "democratic left", is nothing unusual. It is not a slight of hand but rather a return to the basic philosophical principles of the party in this new era unfolding before us. As a democratic left party, its principles allow it to have a more capacious outlook, one which includes the new challenges of this age while holding fast to the grounds of democracy, equality and progressive social change.

There can be no argument that Jamaican society is in a crisis. In part, it is a crisis of legitimacy as the voting patterns in the recent general elections illustrate. The PNP has always put on the table foundational issues of change, such as universal adult suffrage, political independence, and social change in post-colonial Jamaica (the raft of laws in the 1970s). Now, as the country faces a new set of challenges, some of them rooted in the failure to confront our colonial history, the party in renewing its political mission seeks to ground its politics in a philosophy of change and more profoundly — transformation that will make "Jamaica nice for everybody."

Anthony Bogues is Professor of Humanities at Brown University and Chair of the Policy/ Vision Commission of the PNP.

Anthony Bogues

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