Who Are You Calling a Communist?
By Charu Kasturi and Liam Jamieson
When the red hammer and sickle banner was pulled from the Kremlin ramparts a final time 30 years ago, obituaries for socialism were written by the hundreds. Three decades later, it’s clear those prophecies couldn’t have been more wrong.
Depending on where you’re reading this, the word “socialism” has very different connotations. In Europe, it’s associated with being a social-democratic safety net. Across the Atlantic, many view it as little more than Red Scare socialism and on Sunday, leftist and far-right protesters clashed yet again in Portland, Oregon. What’s clear is that whether you’re in the U.S. or China, Latin America or Africa, the left is reemerging as a potent force.
Today’s Daily Dose introduces you to the next leaders of the global left, looks at the unlikely nations where labor movements are growing and examines how tech is aiding the crimson rise. And no, we won’t predict what the left will look like 30 years hence — the world’s learned not to.
THE NEXT LEFT ICONS
Tatiana Fernández Martí
With cropped, rainbow-colored hair and a confident smile, this petite 20-year-old has emerged as the bold young face of Argentina’s student movement. She joined the socialist Partido Obrero — Workers’ Party — at the age of 13, and in recent months has led calls for authorities to ensure that university campuses have the necessary infrastructure for students, teachers and other staff to attend college safely. University education is free in Argentina. Now Martí’s preparing for a bigger stage, contesting in upcoming primaries for the Buenos Aires state legislature.
This labor movement up-and-comer is the most powerful flight attendant in America. After getting hired by United Airlines in 1996, Nelson immediately became a union member. Now serving as international president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, she helped launch a revolutionary, plane-grounding strike in 2019 and helped secure $54 billion in COVID-19 relief that kept the industry afloat and protected aviation workers’ paychecks and benefits. Still, despite the work done by leaders such as Nelson, the U.S. labor movement continues to face obstacles. The biggest of these is to “regain membership in the private sector, where unions have become ghettoized with too small membership to impact workers as a whole,” Richard Freeman, Harvard economist and professor, tells OZY. “All other problems become resolvable if private sector union density starts rising.”
Spain’s first Black female legislator emigrated from Equatorial Guinea as a child and became a national lawmaker in 2015. Since then, her success has inspired a small but growing number of African immigrant candidates to seek public office in Spain. Now her left-wing Podemos Party is in power in Spain, and she’s holding her government accountable to its promises, as director general for equality of treatment and ethnic-racial diversity at the country’s Ministry of Equality.
For 56 years, the island state of Singapore has been ruled by a single party. Now the 45-year-old Singh is plotting the ultimate socialist insurrection in a land that in many ways is a capitalist archetype, with low taxes and a business environment that companies rate as among the friendliest in the world. Last year, his Workers’ Party emerged from the margins of Singaporean politics to offer an unprecedented challenge to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Young voters have been drawn to the charismatic Singh, with his calm, crisp voice and the promise of a fairer society. Alas, the PAP prevailed, but with its smallest-ever majority. The Workers’ Party recorded its best performance, making Singh the country’s first leader of opposition. Read more on OZY.
Carlos Alvarado Quesada
A former rock singer and novelist, the 41-year-old was clearly in tune with Costa Rican voters when he comfortably won the Central American nation’s presidential election in 2018. But instead of partaking in the divisive politics dominating our times, he invited members of the opposition to join his government. It’s moves such as this that have made the country’s youngest president a poster child for the moderate, socially liberal left. Quesada has legalized same-sex marriage, taken on leftist autocrats like Venezuela’s Nicholás Maduro and driven an ambitious green agenda, including a plan to reduce to zero all carbon emissions — and not just net pollution — by 2050.
GLOBAL PINK TIDE
Taking on Bourgeois Beijing
For four decades, the city of Shenzhen stood as a symbol of the type of reforms that unleashed China’s economic miracle. But in 2018, the city where China set up its first special economic zone was in the news for a different reason. A workers group backed by Marxist students went on strike at a factory seeking better conditions and pay, exposing the hypocrisy of a so-called socialist state that in truth is wedded to private profit. Authorities swiftly cracked down on the protesters, yet they couldn’t fully stamp out the embers of anger. Amid an economic slowdown in recent years, labor protests have exploded across China. The years since the Shenzhen strike have seen 3,368 labor protests — including more than 1,300 since the start of the pandemic. The signs are clear: The Chinese Communist Party’s biggest threat isn’t America — it’s the country’s own working class.
Union membership in America has steadily dropped over the past few decades. But the financial instability prompted by the pandemic, combined with better messaging by politicians in pursuit of a younger generation of voters, growing wealth inequality and a more pro-union presidential administration, may be turning the tide. Public approval of unions rose to 65% in 2020, up from 48% a decade prior. “[Unions’] popularity is going up because economic developments show that in a largely union-free environment, power and much money flows to capital,” Freeman says. Still, despite the growing popularity, efforts to unionize face roadblocks. “Most firms will go to war to keep unions out,” he adds.
The Forgotten 80%
They’ve been ignored for generations. Now, the women who constitute 80% of Pakistan’s at-home workforce, running cottage businesses that hold up much of the country’s economy, have had enough. They’re organizing like never before, forming trade unions and winning battles for better working conditions. So much so that the country’s mainstream, male-dominated labor unions, which have been on the decline for years, are now turning to these female labor activists for inspiration.
But the rise of the left globally hasn’t been without controversy or divisiveness. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical left party that advocates for the forced expropriation of land from mostly white farmers without compensation, has grown in popularity in recent years at the expense of the ruling African National Congress. In the country’s 2019 national elections, the EFF, led by the firebrand Julius Malema, saw its vote share increase sharply while the ANC and the Democratic Alliance, the principal opposition party, lost votes. Critics argue that the EFF’s central focus on race prevents it from challenging the ills of capitalism.
THE DISCREDITED LEFT
Daniel Ortega was jailed and tortured, took on a U.S.-backed dictator, stared down U.S. presidents and led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 — making him a folk hero for leftist movements in the region and beyond. But in his second stint in power since 2007, he has increasingly adopted the same authoritarian policies he once stood against. His wife is his vice president. His government cracked down brutally on student protesters in 2018. And now, ahead of national elections, his administration is arresting opposition leaders in a brazen attempt to ensure a comfortable majority for Ortega. The irony? Both the U.S., which has criticized Ortega, and Nicaragua’s despot, have blood on their hands.
Russian Communist Party
It’s been the main opposition party in Russia since the collapse of the USSR, absorbing socialists, voters nostalgic for the Soviet Union and many who are unhappy with the current regime. Yet it has repeatedly refused to seriously challenge the administration of President Vladimir Putin and has effectively served to legitimize the Kremlin’s sham democracy. But now, things are coming to a head. Putin, whose security forces have focused for the most part on more vocal opponents like Alexei Navalny, has in recent weeks cracked down on the communist party by barring some of its candidates from contesting elections. Is the fixed match between Putin and the Russian Communist Party over? And can the latter win back its credibility?
For decades, the center-left social democratic parties of Western Europe were almost always in power — or the main opposition. Yet, since the Great Recession of 2008-09, the German Social Democrats (SPD), the French Socialist Party, the Dutch Labour Party and Greece’s Pasok have all seen their vote shares shrink dramatically, as far-left and ultra-right parties have eaten into their support bases. There are exceptions — like Podemos in Spain and the socialists in Portugal, who are in power — but the current pandemic-fueled economic crisis could threaten their rule too.
The name may sound contradictory, but a growing number of left-wingers see blockchain as a way to stick it to the man while furthering their socialist political agendas. How? By using the technology to wire money in the form of a cryptocurrency to persecuted activists or by using it to fund protests — and avoiding capitalist banks and companies in the process. Some even believe that blockchain could help build a marketless socialist economy, using it and cryptocurrencies to distribute housing to citizens. Are these crypto comrades on the right track, or are their ideas too radical?
Gig Economy Movements
Not surprisingly, Big Tech doesn’t love unions. But among the companies’ employees, more are standing up for workers’ rights, though frequently with little success. Workers rallied to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama earlier this year, making headlines as the biggest effort by employees to organize in the company’s history. They ultimately lost a vote that would have allowed the warehouse employees to unionize. For gig workers, especially those who work for ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, unionizing is even more crucial as they face inconsistent pay, competition and little job security or benefits. That’s what prompted many Uber and Lyft employees to participate in nationwide strikes and protests last month.
Tech-Based Organizing Apps
Twenty-first-century problems require 21st-century solutions. Some tech actors have actually stood on the workers’ side in the fight to be heard. Who are they? App developers creating platforms designed specifically for workers to communicate and organize, with no managers allowed. The startup Unit is one such unionizing upstart, targeting smaller, privately owned companies — particularly in retail — whose employees can fly under the radar of larger national labor groups. Others include apps like Frank and WorkIt, both of which are platforms for employees to safely communicate and discuss initiatives to receive better working conditions and pay.