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The F Factor: Towards a progressive platform

a year ago

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  • When nothing goes right, go left
By Dr. Harini Amarasuriya The results of the recent Presidential election in Chile that propelled 35-year-old Gabriel Boric to victory has created a buzz within global progressive circles. Boric, left-wing former student leader, stood against far-right Antonio Kast, a staunch defender of the authoritarian dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. After a hard-fought campaign, Boric not only amassed the most number of votes ever by a presidential candidate in Chile, but will also be Chile’s youngest President when he takes office in March 2022. Gabriel Boric stood on a platform of social, economic, and environmental justice. He has identified himself as a feminist and environmentalist. He has already promised an equal representation of women in the new Cabinet, and a new constitution that will provide a definitive break from Chile’s authoritarian past. A striking aspect of Boric’s campaign was his successful appeal to centrists by appealing beyond the traditional left/right divide. Chileans, fed up by a broken welfare system, deepening inequalities, and the spectre of the madness wrought by the policies of Venezuela’s far-right strongman Jair Bolsonaro, were attracted by Boric’s manifesto based on justice, equality, and democracy. There is no doubt that the US’ failed experiment with Donald Trump also served as a reminder of the chaos that can be unleashed by so-called “political outsiders” who promise “change”. Gabriel Boric is causing excitement among a new generation of progressives, especially among those who have placed environmental justice at the centre of their critique of capitalism and neoliberalism. Climate change experts are warning that an economic model based on the idea of indefinite growth and dependency on fossil energy is no longer feasible. Scientists are advocating for economic and development models that will take into account differences between urban and rural sectors as well as rising inequalities. Such a model will have to account for the cultural and historical differences between countries, where some countries are responsible for far higher emission levels than others.  Feminism is also high on the agenda of the new progressive movement. There is no doubt that women have borne the brunt of the burden of both economic and environmental crises. The feminisation of labour, while superficially providing women with more income generating opportunities, has also meant the concentration of women in informal and precarious jobs. During times of economic crises, these jobs have failed to provide women with security to tide them over the crisis or in fact, placed women at greater risk.  For example, during the Covid crisis, in Sri Lanka, women in the garment sector were forced to continue work even at risk of exposure to the virus. The dominance of manpower agencies in the sector meant that no one was responsible for the welfare of these women. Pre-existing conditions such as poor housing conditions, and lack of social security and protection, exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of the lives of these women. Self-quarantine became a near impossibility in crowded boarding places. During lockdown, the fact that these women were not considered “local” and thus outside the responsibility of local administrative networks, meant that they were often overlooked during food distribution of other forms of aid. The absence of public transport resulted in workers being trapped in these conditions unable to even return to their homes. A similar situation was experienced by migrant workers – especially female migrant workers. Trapped in a foreign country without jobs when permits expired, there were no systems in place to track these women down or to ensure their safe return to Sri Lanka. For many months, there was total confusion among officials with regard to policy regarding migrant workers or ensuring their safety. Families at home were sent from pillar to post to obtain information about their loved ones and horrific stories of deprivation and abuse began to emerge from workers trapped in quarantine or detention centres. It is indeed ironic that these two sectors – the garment industry and migrant work – so central to the country’s economy, were palpably unable to care for their workers during a crisis. Worse still, that working in these sectors hadn’t improved the capacity of workers to face a crisis. This is one of the most important lessons that Covid taught us; that despite an economic model focussed on growth and rising wealth, the economy of society as well as of a majority of families and individuals were simply unable to withstand a crisis. Apart from a few – who did not simply survive but even profited during the pandemic – the quality of the lives of the vast majority of the planet’s population took a nosedive during the last two years. How is this an acceptable or fair situation? While many are yearning for a change and indeed are demanding changes, questions continue to be raised about the specificities of the progressive project. Many of these questions are based on fear about the imposition of Soviet era economic models and authoritarian governance models. Yet, the shortage of essential supplies including food and medicine, queues, and the rise of authoritarianism are features of the current economic and political model. We are experiencing these in the here and now. It is incorrect to assume that these are simply a result of the pandemic – rather these are the cumulative effects (accelerated perhaps by the Covid pandemic), of years of an extractive and exploitative economic model. The push back that we see on women’s rights in many parts of the world, rise of racism and intolerance are not accidental either. The steady dismantling of the values and systems that fostered co-operation, solidarity, and collaboration – as they were replaced by the idea of individualism and competition – created dangerous vacuums. Humans are as motivated by causes larger than themselves, bonds of co-operation and solidarity as much as personal interests and goals. When causes generally championed by the left such as feminism, worker’s rights, movement building etc. took a beating, they were replaced by causes based on the politics of identity – race, religion, ethnicity. Feminism became a site of culture wars; provoking a backlash that is reversing hard won victories such as reproductive rights, child care, and maternal benefits in many places, including the US. More insidiously, there’s been a strident return of gender stereotypes that have affected not just women but also the LGBTQI community. Differences have become polarised; people being pushed to take extreme positions rather than finding commonalities. It is for all these reasons, that the new generation of progressives with their feminist and environmentalist sensibilities have become beacons of hope. Both the feminist and environmentalist movements, especially within the progressive and left political spectrum, have equality and justice at the heart of their politics. Both are also deeply concerned with issues of democracy – participation and consultation as key principles of democracy. Boric, for instance, has been focussing on tackling poverty, inequality, and most importantly, promising a new constitution. Key themes in his campaign included social cohesion, democracy, rights, and finding common ground. This involved a shift in gear for the former fiery student leader as he moved to a more statesmanlike register. But it was a necessary shift to win over the centrists and to combat the fears of a “violent, revolutionary left” aroused by Chile’s economic and political elite threatened by the public’s shifting mood. Eventually, the public demonstrated that they were more wary of the anti-democratic and authoritarian instincts of the right-wing than of the supposed instability of the left-wing, and crucially, Boric was able to sway the growing independent voter base, which made the difference between defeat and victory. Developments in Latin America are being closely watched by progressive groups and movements globally. Peru recently voted in a left-wing teacher as President after a closely fought election. Boric has been congratulated by the old guard of the left from Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico. Colombia and Brazil are due to have elections in 2022 and in both countries, left-wing leaders are sensing possible victory. Most importantly, these shifts are signalling a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for political and economic models that are less divisive and unequal. New progressive and left movements around the world are on the rise – and challenging both the traditional left as well as the right. Crucially, these movements are resonating with people tired of polarised debates and intransigent leaders – rather they are looking for political movements that can offer an alternative to a system that has proved to be so comprehensively stacked in favour of the rich and powerful.

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