The Future of the Left, and a Tribute to Fernando Coronil

originally published at Facile Gestures

Last week, the world lost yet another incredible scholar far too soon. Fernando Coronil was more than an anthropologist: he married ethnography with Marxism and magical realism in an incomparable way. I was lucky enough to have a history of anthropological theory course with him my first semester of graduate school. Although I didn’t always see it that way at the time, in conversations we had over the next years I realized what a tremendous scholar Fernando was and the passion with which he saw the world. I’m not going to try to write an obituary — you should read Gary Wilder’s beautiful sentiments instead — but I do want to honor Fernando by discussing his last essay here.

It’s a contribution (includes PDF) to a series of books about Possible Futures, and it evokes some inspirational but also disheartening sentiments. Through an assessment of leftward movements in Latin America, Fernando analyzed the meaning of such a shift to the left and what possibilities it opens up for our ideas about the future. In the spirit of Fernando’s love of discussion and critique, I hope by summarizing his main points I will provide a small but vibrant forum for a conversation about the future of the left.

First, it’s important to highlight that the “left” is no more a static, bounded notion than “culture,” “women,” or “activism.” Fernando described it as “a fluid sign to identify actions directed toward universal equality and well-being and thus toward forms of political life without which these goals cannot be achieved, including democracy, diversity, justice, and freedom” (233). The “left” is always situated in and changing with time and space; there can be multiple “lefts” at a time. These “lefts” challenge the dominance of a Western narrative about capitalism and development because they suggest that capitalism isn’t always the best ensurer of justice and equality for all. A thriving democracy, in which all people have an equal say in what is best, will bring about the well-being that we desire.

This conception of the “left” posits what I see as two important points. The first is that the “left,” in whatever form it is realized, is more interested in the well-being of populations than is the “right,” in whatever form it takes. The second is that democracy is not a means to end but is the end in itself. The ideal of democracy is not flawed in itself (much like the ideal of communism, perhaps?) but it has been manifested falsely in the service of capitalism. If the “left” can successfully appropriate democracy from capitalism, then theoretically, “left” and “democracy” may begin to coincide and work as a political system. Democracy would serve as the mechanism of equality in such a world.

If this “left” recognizes the problems capitalism has imposed on democracy — which Fernando claimed leftward movements in Latin America did — then this leftward shift opens up a significant and legitimate space through which to challenge the power of global capitalism. But, as Fernando wrote, this critique of capitalism paradoxically accepts the necessity of capitalism for the time being. The future, while it is imagined as a “better place,” offers no more concrete suggestion than riding the tides of capitalism until things can change. We don’t know what the particularities of the future will look like: “there is a pervasive uncertainty with respect to the specific form of the ideal future. While there is an intense desire to change the nation, it is not clear what to desire — what are realistic aspirations, how to connect desire and reality” (234).

We know that the future won’t be capitalism. But what feasible options do we have for the here and now to get to that point? How can we work toward the future if we aren’t sure what the future looks like? Furthermore, how do we keep our faith in the “left” and democracy and social equality if we don’t know how to put all three together in the name of well-being for all? And how long must we remain in the rut of capitalism until that future arrives?

I want to bring up two final points of contention. The first is in Fernando’s faith in democracy. For a long time I have wondered if there is a way to make democracy work. I still don’t know the answer, but I was surprised that Fernando was so convinced — are you?

Secondly, Fernando seemed to think that the interests and goals of the “left” will triumph someday. This is absolutely not to say that the Left will become the new form of hegemony, as global capitalism is now, but that concern for equality and well-being will win out over amassing wealth in the hands of the few. But nowhere did he make a suggestion about reconciliation between “left” and “right” in the name of equality. I’ve always had the idea that we need to come together in some capacity in order to create a better political system. Does a shift leftward exclude the people who previously excluded the left? Or is a reconciliation between left and right assumed in the recreation of democracy?

I imagine that Fernando left some of these questions unanswered — I think he wrote to provoke debate as much as to make a contribution to scholarship. And there certainly isn’t only one answer. So, in memory of Fernando and from all we learned from him, I end this post with his words:

“Politics will remain a battle of desires waged on an uneven terrain. But as long as people find themselves without a safe and dignified home in the world, utopian dreams will continue to proliferate, energizing struggles to build a world made of many worlds, where people can dream their futures without fear of waking up.” (264)

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