What Is Left For the Left?

Those on the left of politics have a choice between defending hteir past achievements or taking up the challenges which face us. 

The Democratic Left is in disarray throughout the world. It is mainly out of power (but that has been true for most of its history); when it is in power it looks awfully like the other side (which has not always been true in the past). Its problem is much more than inadequate organisation or inferior leadership; the issue is too endemic. There appears to be something deeply wrong.

The origins of the Left are mainly in the nineteenth century during the economic and social changes which Karl Polayni called ‘The Great Transformation’. Industrialisation and the rise of the market were creating turmoil, and it was not evident that things were actually improving. Economic historians still debate whether there was a rising in living standards for ordinary people, but whatever their answer, the change in living circumstances was disruptive.

There was a diversity of responses including going back to the past, religious reform and a pretence that nothing was happening. With hindsight, the most interesting were those that grew out of the Enlightenment, that attempt to apply rationality rather than accept traditional authority (although the Left has always had a romantic wing too) and its social science children.

Essentially the Democratic Left saw the Great Transformation as inevitable and potentially beneficial if society was to reorganise itself in a response. The benefits of economic growth could be shared by all and not just the privileged, while social institutions could be modified in order to moderate the harshness and inadequacies of the market. It was a deeply moral program but it was also founded on the best social scientific (including economic) understandings of the day.

Slowly this thinking, often led by the leading intellectuals of the day, became a political program which was largely implemented during the first and middle part of the twentieth century. It was evolutionary socialism not revolutionary socialism. (When the latter was implemented its ugliness gave socialism a bad name.)

Forgive space for not allowing the account of the ‘other side’ nor the contrast in nineteenth century with the pre-Enlightenment religious response to, say, the seventeenth century turmoil. What is important for this story is that economic and social change did not halt after the democratic socialists implemented their reforms. In some important ways the subsequent change has undermined the assumptions and institutions which had been instituted to deal with the nineteenth century transformation.

The Left had two options. One was to meet the new challenges by progressing its thinking and promoting institutional changes necessary to moderate the undermining. The other was conservative – to defend the institutions that they had put in place.

I am not sure why the dominant strain of the Left chose the latter course. To be frank, I think most of us are naturally nostalgic, preferring to return to the golden weather of our childhood – providing we could keep all the benefits of change we have had since. Second, you could argue the key institutions of the Left have been captured by pressure groups which are now past oriented just as happened with the Right in the nineteenth century, Third, there has been a disconnect between the Left and the progressing social sciences (especially economics) which reflects, I think, an unwillingness to engage with the challenges before us. To sharpen this argument let me identify five main (economic) themes which are troubling.

On environmental sustainability, the green Left particularly has a creditable record. On the other hand, much of nineteenth-century analysis was casual about the damage that was being done to the environment and much of that tradition is pervasive in many parts of the left. Additionally, there are other dimensions of sustainability such as fiscal sustainability – not leaving an impossible debt to service to future generations; Greece is not the way to the future. How we adapt to the changing demographics is third.

In many ways today’s globalisation is the next stage of nineteenth-century industrialisation – a continuation of the Great Transformation, although the shift to a full market economy is almost complete. The Left response was to command the state to moderate the market, but globalisation is undermining the power of the state. Pretending it is not happening or that it can be stopped by fiat – Cnut like – is not helping the adaptation to the new circumstances.

The growth of state power, necessary to moderate the market, has been associated with increased bureaucracy. There is a strong pressure from the right to moderate and dismantle the state bureaucracy. The left response has been largely to defend it without asking how can it be adapted and improved in the light of new circumstances (thus recognising that some of the Right criticisms are valid). A good place to start would be to recognise there are private as well as public bureaucracies which are just as unsatisfactory.

One of the transformational characteristics of today’s politics is affluence. The widespread deprivation of the nineteenth century has been broadly overcome in rich countries. But if the promise is fulfilled there are resulting problems. I am not talking about economic growth (there is not the slightest evidence that one side is better at accelerating economic growth than the other; despite each’s rhetoric). The issue is that affluence has not always resolved issues; consider some of our spending – on binge drinking, drugs, gambling and tobacco. The issues of life choices and social stability remain unresolved. More gene rally, when does the market deliver and when does it not?

I am not going to call this last group inequality (and poverty) but inclusiveness, which also covers identity politics and regions (and therefore nationhood). Moaning about economic inequality without understanding its causes and how to respond, saying ‘we are agin it’, aint enough.

(The digital/(ICT revolution overlaps with many of the above topics, but perhaps meeting its challenge amounts to a sixth theme.)

I’ve had to do each of these briefly. Those familiar with recent developments in the social sciences (by ‘recent’ I mean the last fifty odd years) will appreciate that I am touching on some big topics. My point is that the Left, like the Right, has largely disconnected from them.

Over the next few weeks listen to commentators on the Left and ask to what extent they are engaged with these great issues. My bet is they rarely will be. Far more common will be a reaction to some circumstances, often with the message that ‘we’ can do it better (yeah right) without any understanding of the underlying issue, without an indication that the response is in the context of a framework that the responders have already set out. Coming to think of it, that is true for the Right too.