Let’s face it: today’s left is in a terrible muddle, caught between a world that once was and a world that still isn’t. Most of the time, it just seems to be playing defence. And not doing that terribly well.
The basic reason for this is simple. Capitalism is in a long transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, services-based model of society and so far the transition has not gone well. As this transition unfolded in the last two or three decades of the 20th century, Western capitalist societies saw a distinct slowdown in economic growth, twinned with a startling rise in inequality. The early 21st century continued these trends with the global financial crisis of 2007-08 dealing a grievous blow to advanced economies, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many countries have recovered from this damage only recently and some have not yet done so.
So we are now talking about many decades of poor economic performance, particularly as it has affected those with low or modest skills whose livelihoods were connected to the old industrial economy. Elites on both the right and the left have appeared powerless to either accelerate this transition so it arrives at a place good for most people or push it back to a better place. Thus mainstream parties and leaders are suffering and populist ones are rising.
So: what to do? In my view, we need a New Left. The old ways are broken, having outlived their usefulness. Here are five theses for a New Left, based on the new realities the left faces.
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1. Up with the new coalition. The left’s potential coalition has shifted dramatically as the industrial working class has declined precipitously in numbers and moved to the right. It includes minorities and women who appreciate the fall of barriers to their full participation in society and the economy and see progressive government as a guarantor of further upward mobility. It includes professionals and the highly-educated who have fared relatively well from the transition, support the emerging cosmopolitan values of post-industrial society and see government as a provider of essential services and investments such a society needs. It also includes younger generations who support these new values, know that their future lies in post-industrial society and want government to help them find their place within it. And it includes—or should include—big chunks of the non-college white collar and service worker “precariat” whose situation is light years away from that of blue collar industrial workers of yesteryear. The left may no longer be the party of the latter but it should be the party of the former.
2. The left must unite. This is not an option, but a necessity. The rise of the disparate new constituencies in the left’s new coalition has accentuated the possibilities for division. This is particularly noticeable in Europe, where left strength is frequently diffused across several different parties (social democratic, left socialist, green, left social liberal, left populist, etc.) that regard each other with suspicion. The failure to present a common front is madness. The era when one tendency like the social democrats could completely dominate the left and didn’t need allies is over. The same applies to the Democrats in the United States; there is no way the Clinton supporters or Sanders supporters or minority-mobilization strategists or reach-out-to-the-white-working-class advocates can take over the party and succeed on their own. To beat the right, a fractured left must unite, bringing all progressives together in effective alliances.
3. Down with inequality. The idea that capitalism is going to solve its ongoing problems with modest tweaks has been completely discredited. Inequality has now risen to such high levels it is non-functional. It holds down growth, it holds down living standards, it holds down upward mobility among the young, it leaves entire economic regions behind and it absolutely destroys healthy politics. The left must commit unreservedly to a policy agenda that pushes back sharply against these trends and does not accept the current model of capitalism. Younger generations will not take the left seriously otherwise. And they are right not to do so.
4. Forward to an open world. The world has become much more open on many different levels in past decades. There is far more tolerance and equality by gender, race and ethnicity than there ever has been before. There are far more connections, economic and otherwise, among the peoples of the world and far more mixing of cultures. This is, on balance, a very good thing and the left must embrace it. Younger generations clearly do. There is no going back anyway to a closed, tradition-bound world. You can’t run history in reverse. And the left shouldn’t try.
5. Ride the long wave. Historically, capitalist growth has occurred in long waves, driven by confluences of major technological and institutional change. The early, transitional parts of such periods are typically rough, delivering only modest benefits to big swathes of the population. The Industrial Revolution was like that; the first several decades of that wave had the famous “Engels’ Pause”, where wages rose very little for most workers before finally taking off. Our last several decades have been similar. But the economic potential of the current era, with its monumental technological changes, is vast, albeit held back by a lack of societal investment in the future and the retrograde policies pushed by the right. The left should be all about untapping that potential and riding the long wave. That’s how living standards will finally go up. That’s how green energy, an integral part of current technological change, will finally come into its own and end the threat of global warming. The left should not be afraid of a vision of an abundant, sustainable future. It can be done but only if they ride the long wave.