The presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders signaled a shift in contemporary politics. It came as a surprise to many that a politician who openly identified as a socialist would garner so much mainstream support. From the initial success of the Bernie campaign, came the realization that the United States was ripe for the resurgence of mass left wing political organizing.
In Europe, a similar phenomenon took place in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In Greece, one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial meltdown, the election of the left wing populist group Syriza in 2015 came as a shock to many observers.
Syriza’s finance minister, economist Yanis Varoufakis, made headlines as his government refused to accept the harsh austerity measures imposed by the Eurogroup in Brussels. These measures would have obliged the Greek government to severely cut back on public spending while selling off public goods in an attempt to repay their national debt.
Recognizing the injustice of these measures, Varoufakis, with the initial backing of his party, refused to impose austerity measures on his fellow citizens and attempted to renegotiate. However, the finance minister ultimately lost the support of his government, forcing him to step down from office in July 2015.
The ousted economist next turned his attention to grassroots political organizing. Along with others such as philosopher Srecko Horvat and sociologist Saskia Sassen, Varoufakis founded a movement designed to unite leftist actors across Europe. This movement, named DiEM25, or the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, served as a unifying force behind various political parties attempting to gain influence in the European political landscape.
DiEM25 aims to reform the European union by dismantling the financial and political power structure of the elites and replacing it with a just, transparent and democratic government charged with upholding European solidarity.
Reigniting global solidarity
Both the Sanders campaign and DiEM25 came to recognize the commonality of their struggles and the affinity of their goals. Using both political campaigns as organizing springboards for a global movement, the Sanders Institute invited left wing activists and intellectuals from around the world to meet in 2018.
The meeting proved fruitful and the Progressive International (PI) was officially launched in May 2020. PI aims to work towards building a just, sustainable, egalitarian and democratic world. It presents a vision of plural communities liberated from the oppressive structures of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, existing in harmony with the natural world.
The project is ambitious. As general coordinator David Adler has stated: “Never before has international solidarity been more necessary—and more absent. Only a common international front can match the scale of our crises, reclaim our institutions, and defeat a rising authoritarian nationalism.”
One of PI’s strengths is that it has drawn in a multitude of actors from around the globe. There is also a clear desire to highlight the experiences and visions of Indigenous and marginalized peoples.
PI acts as a conduit for progressive political organizing, providing tools and knowledge to local movements, thus empowering effective mobilizations. Most importantly however, it acts as an echo chamber, demonstrating the extent of global solidarity and highlighting the struggles and victories of progressive movements and campaigns throughout the world.
Currently, PI is active in supporting a number of campaigns, in addition to hosting regular online talks and workshops with prominent activists and intellectuals. There are a number of members driving the campaign for a global Green New Deal. In collaboration with the Sunrise movement in the US, PI has developed an internationally available toolkit which enables organizers to adapt tested strategies to their local contexts.
In response to COVID-19, PI has also developed a model for the mass mobilization of tenants. Along with local groups, the tenants’ power campaign aims to provide the tools and resources for tenants and activists who wish to mobilize in their communities. Their toolkit includes guidelines for organizing a rent strike and forming a tenants’ union capable of negotiating with landlords and officials.
In addition to bolstering grassroots movements, PI draws on intellectuals, activists, artists and other actors to develop policy blueprints which can inspire national political movements. These policy positions encompass issues ranging from mass debt forgiveness to feminism, anti-colonialism and national self-determination.
At PI’s inaugural summit on September 18, keynote speaker Noam Chomsky highlighted the dialectical forces driving global change:
One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.
Canada and PI: An interview with council member Niki Ashton
Three prominent Canadians now sit on PI’s council, a body mandated with charting the strategic and ideological directions of the movement. Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, acclaimed writer Naomi Klein and filmmaker Avi Lewis, who all participated in founding the organization.
Niki Ashton has served as the federal MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski (Manitoba) since 2008. She has since run for the NDP leadership twice, finishing third in 2017. Ashton is an outspoken advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and has stood out as a truly progressive voice within the party.
She agreed to speak with Canadian Dimension about her role as a PI council member, in addition to sharing her thoughts on the progressive movement in Canada.
Elizabeth Leier: How did you come to be part of this global progressive movement?
Niki Ashton: The Sanders Institute (the people behind the Bernie Sanders campaign) reached out to me because of our leadership campaign, they expressed a real interest in hearing what I had to say, and in the work that we’d been doing and the vision that we put forward as part of our campaign.
In late fall of 2018, the people behind the Sanders Institute, reached out and invited me to be part of the Sanders gathering, so I joined Senator Bernie Sanders and others on a panel focused on international movement building and progressive change. That panel was the launching pad for Progressive International, and shortly after I was asked to be a council member, which is, of course, a tremendous honour.
EL: How does your involvement in PI relate to your work here in Canada?
NA: “We’ve certainly shared the inspiring movement building happening in our country and we’ve echoed the critical voices that are flagging some of the issues that Canada is struggling with, in terms of the ongoing oppression and repression of Indigenous peoples, the devastating impact of austerity which has been very evident through the COVID crisis, the ongoing crisis of growing inequality, and debunking the myth espoused by many of Canada as a benevolent nation on the world stage”
“We’re really drawing parallels between what’s being discussed internationally and what’s happening in our own country. So it goes both ways. For me, PI, is all about thinking globally and acting locally, whether it’s in terms of analysis or movement building.
EL: How do you think about global solidarity?
NA: We’re at a time when it’s very clear that corporate elites are very much connected and help each other out. We’re seeing the rise of neofascism and of a very dangerous and deadly political and economic agenda. Those in power are trading their secrets and tactics very openly, and so it’s critical for the left—for those who believe another world is possible—to work together, connect with each other, share what we are working on and build solidarity.
EL: How do you assess the scope and degree of the left’s mobilization in Canada?
NA: The left needs to do better, it needs to be bold and move away from the rear guard actions of decrying neoliberalism. When I ran for the leadership, our campaign was very much focused on a democratic socialist agenda and a very bold vision when it came to the economy and to the environment. We need to be talking about transformative system change and we need to be uniting and mobilizing progressive forces in Canada.
We know some of the richest people in the world have only become richer. We know that the environment is at greater risk because of deregulation and exploitation and we’re seeing profound injustice during this crisis. And so we can’t afford to sit back and engage in armchair analysis. It’s critical for us to do the work of connecting with one another building solidarity.
EL: What do you think of the Canadian media’s coverage of critical issues?
NA: The right wing bias of our media eclipses critical stories. However, I think we’ve seen a shift in the last few months, particularly around Black Lives Matter by people in the mainstream media when it comes to the demonization of social movements and the demonization of the kind of bold agendas we need. In particular, around the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en, we have seen, to a certain extent, a shift in coverage because people have pushed back and I have a positive take away from that.
EL: Are you hopeful about the future?
NA: The Progressive International is hope. This movement is made up of people who are inspiring. They are working towards transformative system change and shifting the dial. The fact that people like Bernie Sanders, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, incredible intellectuals like Cornel West and Naomi Klein, actors and artists are not just calling for these things but are also working and building the movements, that is deeply inspiring.
EL: Any final thoughts?
NA: Fundamentally the Progressive International is encouraging and enabling us to build solidarity and push for bold transformative agendas within our own communities and in our own country.
Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.