Why has the Left failed to exploit the financial crisis?
One of the many unsolved puzzles is the absence of a coherent left wing narrative, writes Chris Johns
Going to college in the 1970s it seemed that even the quantum physicists, not just the sociology professors, saw the universe through a Marxist prism.
One of the many unsolved puzzles bequeathed to us by the global financial crisis is the abject failure of left wing politics to reap any benefits. The absence of any coherent narrative from the left has been notable; where they do have a story and accompanying policy recommendations it is striking how tired, utterly unoriginal, they look. It shouldn’t have been this way. The near-death experience of the world economy was an open goal for lefties; indeed, it was a gaping empty net with the goal-keeper missing. And still they managed to hit the ball wide. If anything, in Europe, right-wing parties, sometimes of a nasty nature, are the ones making gains. The centre-right dominates most governments across the Continent. Where there is a whiff of old-fashioned socialism - in France, for example - the incumbents look faintly ridiculous.
Perhaps it is in the nature of the crisis that at least part of the answer lies. The epicentre of many of the economic difficulties is public sector debt, so the traditional (soft) left answer, more government spending, carries little credibility. While it is true that taxes have gone up in many countries, the extra revenues have been used to try to control deficits rather than increase expenditure. With much fiscal consolidation left to do, calls for fiscal stimulus seem beside the point.
Moving further left, the traditional appeals for more direct control of the economy, via nationalisation and other anti-market policies, haven’t been very loud and, in any event, have fallen on deaf ears. Again, it could be that the proposed policies look as if they come from the ark, rather than any new thinking. And those policies have been tried many times before, with the same results: failure and subsequent abandonment.
It’s almost as if the financial blow-ups of the market economy over the past few years have been met with a shrug: yes, there are problems but all of the alternatives are known to be worse. There must be something to the relative strength of economies like the US and the UK, along with other, typically English-speaking, Anglo Saxon countries. In the US and UK, policies to fix rather than change the market-based economy have worked, at least in one sense: full employment is now in sight in both countries.
The lack of any new thinking from the left is suggestive of a poverty of imagination. Or maybe it’s because there are no new ideas to be had: intellectual exhaustion set in a long time ago. It is instructive to look at where today’s left wingers are typically consigned. There are still plenty of socialists around of course, but their impact is minimal. Whenever they do get anywhere the levers of power their policies become indistinguishable from whatever government preceded them.
Going to college in the 1970s it seemed that even the quantum physicists, not just the sociology professors, saw the universe through a Marxist prism. Everyone was a socialist back then. But the students took no notice. With so many young minds exposed to that kind of thinking, the surprise, to the academics at least, was that the only thing that happened next was the subsequent extinction of the hard left.
At the end of day it must have something to do with the results of socialism, what has happened elsewhere, the awful history of tyranny and oppression that always seems to accompany leftist policies, particularly of the more extreme kind. We seem, still, to prefer the anonymity of market forces rather than trust people or our flawed institutions to make the key economic decisions. Even when markets have let us down so badly, we prefer them to the even ghastlier alternatives.
There are opportunities for thoughtful left-wingers to make a difference, mostly, but not exclusively, of an economic nature. Three themes, at least, suggest themselves. First, can we craft policies that reduce inequality without harming overall economic growth? Doing the first half of this is trivially easy, the growth bit is somewhat trickier. Second, how can we take the money out of politics? In the US, this is a simple matter of campaign finance reform. Closer to home, it is less about money (directly) and more about patronage: how do we take the parish pump out of politics? Third, climate change ought not to be political but it is strikingly weird that denial is almost the exclusive domain of the right. Tough questions, but anyone with answers has the opportunity to embrace a politics that involves more than just pointless posturing.