In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the oil crisis of the 1970’s, right-wing organizations seized control of the world’s political machinery as the Left’s popularity collapsed along with the USSR. The fall of socialism overturned the era of the Keynesian doctrine, which was the standard macroeconomic model in the non-Communist world after the Second World War. There was much distrust against left-wing parties who were often seen as sympathetic to their more radical cousins in the Soviet Union. The words ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ became political insults. Thus, the Left found itself at a political crossroads. It either had to give in to the pressure of adopting more moderate positions or risk losing elections for years to follow. In the end, it had to abandon many of its traditional pro-worker ideals to win back the support of a vexed electorate–the same electorate that has benefited from decades of militant labor struggle.
Third Way ideologues vowed to take the Left to a new direction, which meant less government control and more market-oriented reforms. This proved popular to a public which clamored for wide-scale reforms. Labor unions and militant organizations gradually saw a cessation of their political influence as left-wing parties turned to the business sector for support.
Yet what was supposed to be a harmless co-optation of some right-wing policies to win back control turned out to be a massive betrayal of the labor movement. Left-wing parties the world over ignored the pleas of workers and instead listened to their allies in the business sector. It was in the ‘90s where we saw the convergence of both the center-left and the center-right as deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization became the Holy Grail of economic growth. Both factions became the prophets of the neoliberal consensus.
The political debate was no longer about nationalization vs. privatization. The question this time was: To what degree should we privatize our industries? In other words, to what degree should we cede control of our basic necessities to the wealthy and owners of capital? To what degree should corporations be allowed to make profits off the backs of middle-class and poor families? Thatcherism and Reagonomics became economic orthodoxy worldwide with the almost cult-like support of every moderate political stripe.
Not surprisingly, there have been numerous economic crises since the rise of neoliberalism. The Asian financial crisis, the dot-com bubble, and the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis which threatened the stability of the global economy were all borne out of the lack of financial oversight. The same workers who forced the Left to become more moderate realized that their swift acquiescence of right-wing policies was not in their best interest. As Big Business became more powerful, workers suffered since corporate elites could influence politicians to gut welfare programs and other pro-labor policies.
Today, with the rise of right-wing fascists like Trump and corporate sellouts like Paul Ryan, capitalism is brewing yet another global catastrophe. For what would Trump do when he’s faced with another global recession as a result of his policies if not resort to what America does best, which is to invade another sovereign country in the guise of spreading democracy?In the words of war criminal George W. Bush, “ All the economic growth that the U.S. has had, had been based on the different wars it had waged.”
Clearly, the global labor movement is well-positioned to take back the Left and drive away the neoliberals as it becomes increasingly clear that there’s hardly any difference between the center-left and the center-right in terms of economic policies. With jobs becoming more volatile and demands for higher wages routinely ignored even by so-called leftist parties, workers will become more sympathetic to labor unions in both the developed and the developing worlds.
Most importantly, the Trump Era represents an opportunity for the Philippine Labor Movement to increase its political clout, to unite the entire Filipino working class against the wealthy who have plundered the country’s resources for their benefit. This is the time for more labor strikes and massive protests. This is that point in history where the labor movement is needed the most. The Philippines, as it strives to become a developed country by 2050, must replicate the successes of Western Labor if it wants to reduce income inequality. It should integrate left-wing politics into the national dialogue. Anyone who looks into the history of countries with welfare programs can see that they are products of decades of militant struggle and left-wing leaders like Eugene Debs, Cesar Chavez, Michael Harrington, Franklin Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, and Harold Wilson.
But how do we redeem a country where major political parties are bereft of any ideology? How can we implement welfare programs and labor law reforms when many government appointees have ties to large businesses? Is it possible to elect leftists in a country where leftism is automatically associated with the New People’s Army?
Because of their lack of political representation, labor unions had to make various concessions at the expense of workers’ rights. For most of its history, the Philippine Labor Movement has only acted as a pawn in the political fights between elite-controlled parties. The radical KMU supported Grace Poe and the sexist pig Win Gatchalian. TUCP endorsed the corporate puppet Mar Roxas, SENTRO endorsed the neoliberal Leni Robredo, while the Philippine Trade Group Workers Organization (PTGWO) and the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) endorsed the son of a mass murderer, Bongbong Marcos.
The labor movement, understandably, has succumbed to personality politics. It had no reason to support national political parties because there aren’t really any national political parties. What we have are national fundraising coalitions. This is arguably the root of many of the country’s problems and to correct this, one can’t simply sit down, implement laws, and expect political parties to change their behavior. There has to be an alternate national political party, one that functions as a united political force with a clear and consistent goal. There has to be a political party that can run progressive candidates both at the local and national levels. Thus, the labor movement not only has the responsibility of redeeming the working class from the scourge of corporate plunder through mass movement, it must also reform the government from within.
Of course, any organized political body has to resolve its internal conflicts. The labor movement itself has partly been responsible for stymied labor law reforms. Some militant labor unions have become subservient to Soviet and Maoist demands, causing others to break away and form another labor union. Some have been corrupted by opportunistic leaders who are beholden to corporations. And other labor unions have elected unprincipled leaders who take compromise as a default position. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine how a labor party could ever form with such a divided labor movement.
But I maintain that it is possible. After all, if KMU could afford to compromise some of its principles by endorsing Grace Poe who has ties to Danding Cojuangco, couldn’t it work with other left-wing trade unions to form a national labor party? Essentially, the problem is not of ideology, but the distribution of power. A national labor party led by left-wing leaders, radical, progressive, and anti-neoliberal unionists, can become a major political force if it ensures that all member groups are represented fairly in all elections. For instance, they could agree to an alternating system where radical and moderate groups file candidates for either national or local elections.
However, the Labor Left must rectify many of its past mistakes. While militant groups are important allies in the fight against neoliberalism, the party must not allow them to bring the party too far to the left, alienating many voters in the process. I envision a Labor Party that acknowledges the failure of full state planning and proposes better economic systems that do not allow greed to become the foundation of the economy. The Labor Party must uphold the welfare of workers above all. It must be built from the ground-up because grassroots efforts will ensure success in future elections. Unlike other national political parties, which are only active during elections, membership into the Labor Party must be open to the public.
Eventually, the Left will have to acknowledge that 21st century problems cannot be solved by outdated economic systems. While I share many, if not all, of the criticisms that socialists have against capitalism, I find that many people have fallen victim to the false dichotomy between the two. In other words, critics of capitalism label themselves socialists and communists because they couldn’t find other alternatives.
For too long, Leftist political thought has stagnated and it has become dominated by the ideas of Marx and Engels. If the Labor Party is to assert its relevance in modern politics, it must begin with an intellectual revolution that takes in ideas from scientists, anti-war activists, radical feminists, environmentalists, anti-globalization groups, and yes, even Communists. It must stop deifying Karl Marx and acknowledge that many of his ideas aren’t feasible. This intellectual revival will start in university campuses, especially within the ranks of the powerful student movement that once challenged governments all over the world to end the Vietnam War.
But to call for an intellectual revolution is not the same as treating all ideas as equal. It is not meant to reject sensible ideas from radical and moderates alike. Rather, it is meant to ensure the continuity of the Left. In the end, any idea must be guided by the rejection of massive profits and corporate greed. It must uphold the democratic control of workers over their workplaces and the equality of sexes. These new political and economic philosophies will become the foundations of a stronger labor movement.
On International Workers’ Day, we honor the toiling masses, labor leaders, and allies of the Labor Movement. Manggagawa at anakpawis, tumindig laban sa neoliberalismo at globalisasyon. Isulong ang makabayan at militanteng unyonismo!