Trump, Brexit, Le Pen. Right-wing populist revolts are shaking the liberal order. Progressives, however, lack the strength to rein in global capitalism, break the neoliberal hegemony and fight back that populist challenge. To save democracy, we need to get down to work on three construction sites: a new economic model, an identity narrative and a new approach to organizing struggles.
The Human Economy
Ever since the Second Industrial Revolution petered out, global capitalism has faced a demand crisis. If you now think that all we need is to stop austerity, think again. Over the past decades, developed economies were kept alive through artificially created demand. This means progressive hopes for a Keynesian revival are misguided.
Equally, the digital revolution makes a return to Fordism impossible. The jury is still out if the jobs lost to digital automation will be offset by new livelihoods. Even if the dystopian vision of a world without work does not come true, workers’ waning consumer power can no longer fuel growth. This means that the post-war social democratic compromise between capital and labor is no longer on the table.
In the digital age, progressives need to build the human economy. The human economy puts humans front and center. This means the neoliberal paradigm of suppressing social cost for health care, social security, and public goods must be reversed. To create decent livelihoods, policy-makers need to get three things done:
- Save old jobs by slowing down digital automation. By levelling the playing field for human workers with regulatory instruments like robot taxes, the rationalization of work can be delayed until new livelihoods are created in the human economy. Under fair conditions, low-skilled human work will still be needed to perform tasks that are difficult to automate, in particular those which require high motorial skills.
- Create new employment in the heartland of the digital economy. The human economy does not reject, but fully embrace the tremendous technological possibilities offered by the digital revolution. In the world of work, for instance, the automation of dirty, dangerous, physically demanding and cognitively stupefying tasks is set to increase workplace safety and satisfaction. By enhancing the qualifications and skills needed to work together with robots, decent work for highly skilled human employees can be created.
- Boost the human economy. Humans excel at communication and social interaction, creativity and innovation, experience and judgement, leadership and foresight, flexibility and learning. Providing full capabilities to fully exploit these human talents is the industrial policy of the human economy.
At the heart of the human economy are the hopes and needs of humans. However, in order to create livelihoods out of this need, our incentive and remuneration systems need to be overhauled. Look at the care economy. Millions of livelihoods could be created here. Today, however, care work is primarily provided by female family members, and remains largely unpaid. Tackling the economic, social and cultural challenges critical to making this shift will require formidable political clout.
Transformative Platform Politics
Who can be the change agents able to implement such disruptive reforms? Bureaucratic and hierarchical political parties and labor unions find it difficult to thrive in the decentralized and differentiated digital society. Social movements, on the other hand, are often fragmented, divided and ineffective.
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To bring about change, progressives need to form broad societal alliances. Building a common platform for social groups with diverging interests, however, is notoriously difficult. A potpourri of policies is no longer good enough. What is needed is a narrative which explains what is happening and what needs to be done. A good narrative provides a collective identity, and appeals to a broad spectrum of social actors to build a better future together.
Left populists are trying to build broad alliances by bringing together the “people” against the “establishment”. However, there is not much that the 99 percent have in common. This is why Left nationalists seek to wrestle the identity narrative of the “Nation” back from the Right. However, early evidence shows that while this may attract some new allies, it alienates the internationalist base.
Instead of a Left Nationalism, a Progressive Patriotism may be the better option. What such a progressive patriotism could look like, however, is the subject of heated debates.
Identity debates are notoriously difficult to tackle because they are often proxies for deeper social conflicts. Take the toxic debate over immigration, for instance. Immigration is the symbolic crystallization point for conflicts over identity, distribution and sovereignty. Fear, anger and resentment are fertile soil for the right-wing populist revolt. For all those who feel threatened by social decline and adrift on the white waters of globalization, right-wing populists offer an identity anchor. In order to save democracy from looming authoritarianism, progressives need to provide shelter for those who feel lost in the vertigo of change. To do this, however, means addressing a wide spectrum of sensitive issues. How should the tension between diversity and solidarity be resolved? Where are the frontiers of the body politic, the boundaries of solidarity, the foundations of redistribution?
So what would a progressive patriotism look like? What makes patriotism progressive is the way the basic human need for connectedness and security is framed. Linguist George Lakoff identifies two universal frames: the authoritarian “Strict Father”, stressing discipline and self-reliance, and the progressive “Nurturant Parent”, valuing empathy and responsibility for others. Accordingly, the essence of progressive patriotism is the responsibility to contribute to the common good. In return, the solidarity community provides support, meaning and a sense of belonging. Caring for others, protecting each other against threats from outside or within, needs to be stressed as the progressive source of pride. This is what political scientist Mark Lilla has in mind when he speaks about a “nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another”. A progressive patriotism, Michael Lerner argues, should therefore recognize human desire for connectedness and security, condemn those institutions that frustrate them, and struggle for changes which enable their satisfaction.