Those on the left of politics have a choice between defending their 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.

Comments (9)

by Fentex on June 15, 2015

For some reason while reading this entry I was thinking about how important it is people should understand how much of the wealth that is our current affluence is the exploitation of the easy to obtain high energy density of petrocarbons.

There is a worrying chance modern social democracy is a luxury we can only afford because of that wealth, and if we squander opportunities to keep on the level it has raised us to by not moving infrastructure to long term sustainable energy sources well before it wanes (it won't happen during wars for energy if it hasn't by then) we could lose a once in a species opportunity to shape our future no matter who otherwise wins temporary arguments over distribution of the wealth we currently have.

Though I am currently enthused by widespread news of advances in sustainable energy sources and might someday get over my Presbyterian fears of idle failure.

by Katharine Moody on June 17, 2015
Katharine Moody

Yes. This is why I think we can't look to the old left/right distinctions for inspiration/future change, as there really is no distinction between their politics/actions/directions anymore. Both merely protect/defend the status quo.

New understandings will come I think from those political voices/forces claiming space outside the old ideological typology, such as David Graeber (perhaps a set of contemporary philosophers undertaking a paradigm shift?).

Here's an interesting recent comment of his in light of NZ Labour's Future of Work considerations;


by Rich on June 17, 2015

Graeber is right. See also electricity retailers, ISPs and all the other ways that the government slices up natural monopolies - so that instead of three shop staff to serve a slice of meat, you have (at least) three corporations to sell you an electricity supply or an internet connection.


by mikesh on June 17, 2015

I think the left should also be looking at the financialization of economies and the role of money in the world economy. Whereas the purpose of finance would seem to be to promote production, these days it seems  to largely push up asset prices. Also, how much inflation did we see over the 20th century, 500%, 1000% ? It seems to have been an awful lot anyway.

by Katharine Moody on June 18, 2015
Katharine Moody

Whereas the purpose of finance would seem to be to promote production, these days it seems  to largely push up asset prices.

Many quarters are pointing out the same - you'll enjoy this analysis;



by Dennis Frank on June 19, 2015
Dennis Frank

Brian wrote "Its problem is much more than inadequate organisation or inferior leadership; the issue is too endemic.  There appears to be something deeply wrong."

Indeed!  The deeper problem seems to be the eternal aversion of leftists to providing a positive alternative to rightists.  In the view of anyone else, I mean.  Voters, for instance.  I identified myself as being neither left nor right politically in 1971.  Why?  At university in the late '60s the New Left was the latest intellectual fashion trend, but I was puzzled when I discovered it was devoid of substance.

Shadbolt's two-page spread in Cracuum explained all the reasons Labour was just as bad as National, a revelation that induced the general global principle instantly in my psyche.  Took another decade for the Greens to figure it out but better late than never, eh?  Swing-voters sussed it too, but more out of pragmatism than conviction. Winston still rides them in the NZFirst chariot accordingly.  What if a political scientist were to get smart, ask the right poll question, and discover that the traditional 3-5% has grown into double figures?

Those five economic motivators Brian described look more secondary factors to me. Commentators are reluctant to specify the psychological factors that drive political attitudes and behaviours.  That's probably due to psychology having become an intellectual wasteland since Jung, and psychologists failing to justify their existence by making relevant contributions to political discourse.  Identity politics derives from psychological identifications that link people into groups.  Any perceptive folk can discern these.  You don't need professional advice or analysis.

In the '80s the left gave us neoliberalism.  People felt victimised by the result.  The right gave us the same in the '90s, then the left gave us more, now the right are giving us more.  Simple, ain't it?  No reason to vote for the left.  No reason to identify with them either.  Have you ever seen any leftist explain the failure of the Occupy movement?  Clue:  the widespread perception that all we ever get from the left is whining and moaning.  No plan for societal transformation.  No positive alternative for voters...

by Brian Easton on June 22, 2015
Brian Easton

First, as a result of a stuff-up, presumably by me, the post appeared in two places. I have consolidated comments from one into this one.

James Green wrote

 “The right is blind to problems, the left is deaf to solutions.”

 Good one, James. Forgive me, though of being reminded by General Charles de Gaulle, although the last sentence may not be so true today.

“The right is just as stupid [as the left]. The right likes routine, doesnt want to change everything and doesnt understand anything. But it doesnt make its voice heard so much. It has not infiltrated the press and academy so much. It is less eloquent. It is more withdrawn. The left, on the other hand, is talkative and full of beans. It forms parties, hold conferences, organizes petitions, makes appeals and claims to have talent. That is something the right does not claim. People are slightly ashamed of being right-wing whereas they flaunt their left-wing views.”


Dennis Frank wrote

“Good one, James.  I think a prevalent pathology of the left is adherence to lowest-common-denominator decision-making.  They interpret democracy as compelling government by morons, for morons.

            Accepting this, it's but a short step to "Hey, we can compete with the right by being an indistinguishable bunch of suit-wearing dorks just like them."  In my lifetime several bunches of leftists have managed to acquire political careers on this basis. So it's not as if the strategy doesn't work.  It's more that it currently doesn't work.

            Now, call me naive, but I often wonder what if the left performed a radical switcheroo on everyone, and started appealing to the intelligence of the public instead of insulting it.  D'you think voters would be impressed?  Nah, they'd probably think they'd been abducted by aliens, woken up on a different planet bewildered.  Oh well, at least there would be a sudden mass demand for counselling -  which would boost the economy, eh?”

 I am pondering. Isn’t there a sense that the current visionless politics drives everyone towards the LCD?

 Fentex It is not just hydrocarbons. There is a growing concern of how the world has been mining water in an unsustainable way.

 Katharine Moody and mikesh

“I think the left should also be looking at the financialization of economies and the role of money in the world economy.”

It is not just a problem for the left. I am not sure economists have got their head fully around the itransformation of the financial system either(even though their understanding is somewhat deeper and more subtle than many people think).

Recall Karl Marx observed that once upon a time the role of money could be characterised by

            C -> M -> C’

That is money (M) facilitated the conversion of one commodity (C) which one had into a second (C’) which one wanted. Money was an intermediary (or as economics said ‘a medium of exchange’)..

Marx observed, rightly I think, that the situation seemed to have morphed ito

            M -> C -> M’.

Now money (M) converts into a commodity (C) which is then converted into more money (M’). Thus money is no longer an intermediary but the purpose of the exchange. Perhaps money is acting here as a 'store of value'..

Now it seems to me, as a first approximation, we have considerable financial activity which is of the form

            M -> FP -> M’,

that is the money converts in to Financial Paper (FP) which converts into more money. To get this to work it requires persuading someone to (in effect) hand over a commodity in exchange for the financial paper in the belief it has an inherent value. Some critics of the financial system go onto claim it is a Ponzi scheme. (The public's gullibility based on a crude understanding of money helps those who want to defraud them.) 

 I am not uncomfortable with this post-Marxian schema providing we accept that money has a role as a medium of exchange and a store of value and that we have to preserve those roles while, perhaps, reducing the significance of the financial paper transactions.

 Dennis Frank is saying, I think, that the Left is largely in a conservative mode. My five ‘economic motivators’ were not intended to be motivators but areas where someone looking forward may want to think about.


On a slightly different tack may I pay a tribute to Peter Conway who died at 61 recently. Brent Edwards paid a tribute to him in “What's wrong with the way politics are practised in NZ?” which comes back to some elements in the post.


by Dennis Frank on June 23, 2015
Dennis Frank

Brian, if the Left were merely being conservative they would not have alienated so many.  I didn't see The Forecaster at the recent doco film festival, but a collapsenik friend who did tells me the next gfc is coming in early October.  We'll see.  Having lived through half-a-dozen or so such times I get blasé about such predictions & have acquired considerable respect for the natural resilience of capitalism.

I expected the left to design a better system instead of just complaining about what we have inherited.  Not hard to make the PM look like a fool;  just ask him to explain quantitative easing on national television.  The media reckon it's printing money.  Is it governments printing money, or central banks?  I read the Wikipedia page & learnt the process is actually electronic credit creation.  Is that your view, Brian?

If so, public debate is replacing reality with metaphor.  Everyone becomes delusional in consequence.  If the PM were to respond with the usual metaphor, the media or yourself could make him look like a fool by reporting an official description of qe, right?  I assume that a formal request for one such to the Governor of the Reserve Bank would secure an authoritative definition.

If the Left wanted to engage with reality, it could pursue this strategy.  When Russel Norman said this country ought to use qe, the PM used the looney green economics line.  Nobody on the Left pointed out that the top four capitalist governments were using it (China also now).  So the PM thinks the governments using qe to prop up the global financial system are using looney green economics??  You'd think hordes of fast kiwis would compete with glee to outsmart the PM by calling his bluff.  So far as I could tell, we got zero, zilch.

Maybe everyone is captivated by the `perception is reality' line that has become so trendy.  Shared hallucinations are liable to embed as social pathology.  Instead of going along with this flow, the Left could provide a positive alternative.  A resilient economic policy seems essential for our survival.  Global trade may not be feasible if another gfc happens!


by Katharine Moody on June 24, 2015
Katharine Moody

.. the natural resilience of capitalism.

I wish I was as optimistic - it seems to me that that 'natural resilience' was unnaturally averted by the TBTF bailouts and the subsequent "remedy" (if you can call it that) was even greater leverage by the shadow banking sector, followed by QE. Not forgetting the expression by Buffet that derivatives are the financial weapons of  mass destruction. 

Hence, this next crisis of capitalism I suspect will be different and whether the world recovers capitalism as we know/knew it will have to do with whether a debt jubilee like exercise can be globally agreed. Neither am I very optimistic on that score. The more likely reset/new beginning will be a Buffet-like mass destruction and a very, very few surviving sovereigns and institutions will emerge;


The permeation of euphoria is in the institutional base, which is almost fitting in how all these measures have been arranged since 2007. It wasn’t, after all, the little people that panicked in 2008 it was the banking institutions, and only those that were full party to the wholesale system. Now that the wholesale system has been bailed out, they think, institutional rapture rekindles and the economy suffers for it. This is, by far, the most deleterious part of “too big to fail” as it transcends just specific financial firms or even a class of firms. It is, instead, a dangerous ideology that takes its full shot in denying any other way forward. None of this is capitalism no matter how much Milton Friedman’s name is invoked. It wasn’t in 1963 when he postulated really nothing more than a better central banking paradigm, and it surely isn’t now. At least in 1963 Friedman was talking about actual money and currency; the modern form of his “branch” is obsessed with nothing but debt and always more of it.



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