Left behind

For a liberal, the evening news is a bit depressing these days. To take a break from the assaults on liberal institutions and ideals, one option is to stop looking at the oncoming lorry and instead observe the rabbit staring into the headlights. That is, the reaction of the left to the rise of populism.

There is a popular theory that a segment of the population which has been “left behind” by globalisation is finally rebelling against it. But I increasingly get the impression that it is the political “left” which is behind (the times).

My impression is that most left-wing articles proposing a response to right wing populism define the underlying cause of Trump / Brexit etc. as neo-liberalism. And therefore, the reason people are voting “right” is that the left is not left enough. There are innumerable examples here, here, here, here, herehere etc.

You read that correctly. If people are voting at the other end of the political spectrum to you, the solution proposed is to move further away from them, in a sort of political version of “playing hard to get”.

However, some articles (e.g. here, here) I have read don’t fall into this pattern – it is their insights that I will attempt to summarise. It is striking that few of these writers or ideas seem to break into the left-wing social media echo chamber.

That is, of course, the nature of an echo chamber.

Consider “our” reaction to Steve Bannon’s instruction to the media to “keep its mouth shut” (if I can include myself as part of the political left). Everyone was apoplectic. No mouths were kept shut, indeed the incident sparked a series of indignant (and self righteous) articles about the importance of the press. A press which almost unanimously, and unprecedentedly, endorsed a single presidential candidate.

If the US election taught liberals anything, it should be that anger is not always our friend. In the case of Bannon’s remark, the anger obscured his advice that the media should “listen”. I think it’s hard to argue that liberals have been genuinely “listening” to their political opponents. We’re too angry to listen.

The purpose of this site is to strip back the anger and to lay out the naked arguments.

To consider why people support populism, and how their concerns might be addressed, I think the starting point is to recognise the failure of a single political “axis” to explain opinion. The fact that left-wing commentators continually reduce their reasons (and solutions) to economics (neo-liberalism) shows that they cannot conceive of politics in more than one dimension: the economic one.

Consider issues such as attitudes to migration. I think this is partly an economic issue, in the sense of competition for work and the (potential, or perceived) downward pressure on salaries, but it is also largely not about economics. Retired people, who face no competition from migrants are broadly anti-immigration. If anything, they have a lot to gain from cheaper labour and more taxpayers. It’s a stretch to argue their anti-immigration stance is out of concern for their grandchildren’s economic welfare: pensioners are happy to vote for higher pensions, better healthcare, etc, which equals increased taxation on the young. I think the immigration “issue” is largely about general attitudes to outsiders.

However for a lot of left-wing writers, everything populist can always be reduced to an economic cause: people are only “racist” because they fear for their livelihoods. And so, neo-liberalism can be saddled with the blame for any problem. The solution? Less economic freedom, more wealth transfers and more government intervention in the economy.

And so, we have Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and now Benoit Hamon. All from the left-of-the-left; the chosen response to the success of the “right”.

In fairness, “right wing populism” is not, economically speaking, “right” in the sense of advocating few “claims on resources”. Protectionism, infrastructure building and increased pensions / a lower retirement age and government health insurance for all (a Trump proposal, but clearly not a Republican one) are hardly the policies of the free market or increased economic freedom.  Quite the opposite. These policies are part of the reason so many working-class voters are abandoning the “left”, and partly explains the hasty retreat by the left from the economic centre.

However, I wonder if rushing to protect their economic left flank is wise. Jeremy Corbyn recently abandoned 65% of his centrist voters who want to remain in the EU to appease the 35% (working-class) ones who don’t. Labour is bitterly divided, and faces electoral devastation. In France, by choosing Hamon over Valls, the socialists have abandoned their presidential ambitions in the pursuit of deserters to the Front National. While many people might think Bernie Sanders could have done better than Hillary Clinton, the evidence from the UK and France suggests otherwise.

This brings us to the second axis of our framework. What if the left stopped trying to reconcile the disparate economic interests of their supporters and started to “listen” to what the populists are trying to tell us? When Steve Bannon says “the media is the opposition”, instead of getting angry, perhaps we could consider what he is articulating.

What if he is referring to the other political axis; the social one (which I classify by “claims on behaviour”). In this way of thinking, the media is consistently “liberal”, and so for Bannon, liberalism is the opposition. Specifically, the sort of “rootless” global liberalism that seeks to dissolve national and ethnic identities. Marine le Pen refers to this axis as the new axis of political contest; “patriots versus globalists”.

Is “being a patriot” the same thing as “making extensive claims on behaviour” (i.e. being socially conservative)?

I think that it is (broadly). Patriotism, by its nature, means seeing people in the context of their nationality (or even ethnicity). It elevates a “group” classification over the “individualistic” view of people that globalism requires. Globalism requires us to be blind to nationality and ethnicity, and to embrace a liberal universalism that sees people as individuals.

The “group” thinking of nationalism is, by definition, to some extent a denial of individuality and an enforcement of “group” behavioural codes. Protectionism is a behavioural claim: I’m requiring that you buy from an American rather than a Mexican (or taxing you if you don’t). Restricting migration is also an obvious behavioural claim. It’s one that all countries make, of course, but the EU posed a serious challenge to this behavioural claim within Europe. It’s not the act of moving from one country to another which is the problem. It’s the idea that people who behave differently should be permitted to live in our midst. No surprise then that freedom of movement drew so much ire from the Brexit campaign.

It’s not a coincidence that the ranks of the “patriots” are generally socially conservative as well. Family, clan and tribe (or “nation”) are paramount, as Trump recently stated. Liberalism seeks to maximise individual freedoms, which always results in a challenge to the authority of family, clan and tribe.

Claims over whom you should be “loyal” to are on the spectrum of general behavioural claims; I would expect a strong correlation between the “patriots” and other, apparently unrelated behavioural claims, such a preventing gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights and tough criminal sentencing laws (and enforcement).

I think the way to understand the current political landscape is that the traditional parties of the left (and their commentators) have not been able to respond to the “axis switch”. Intellectually, and politically, they are geared to fight over economic issues; markets, the role of government, the level of wealth transfer, etc. There has been a liberal consensus, shared between both left and right, that promoted increased individual freedom. This was partly about improving minority, women’s and gay rights. But it also included the freedom to trade with foreigners, to invest overseas, and even increased freedom of movement (witness the sharp increases in immigration over the past 20 years). It could be argued that this liberal “expansion of freedom” agenda extended to toppling dictators in the middle east, which was spectacularly unsuccessful at improving the welfare, let alone individual freedoms, of Iraqis, Syrians and Libyans. At the same time, it generated large flows of refugees towards the west.

The “patriots” have put an end to this “consensus”, which they were never part of. Prior to June 23rd 2016, Liberals (of all economic persuasions) have been able to dismiss their opponents on the “social axis” as cranks and racists.

At some point, public opinion detached itself from the “liberal consensus”, rather like a moving train which gently decouples in the middle without most of the passengers noticing. Not everyone in the liberal cars realises that we have been drifting ahead of most of the other cars for some time now. If you think that the reactionary “rear cars” represent some sort of vocal minority, you might do well to listen a bit more.

Some of the blame lies with the internet and our inbuilt confirmation bias – we consume news that confirms our existing beliefs, and surround ourselves with like-minded friends. But the political earthquakes of 2016 should have put an end to any happy liberal bubbles.

Unsurprisingly, there is now some consternation up here in the liberal wagon. For those on the left of the carriage (but also for some on the right), the disconnect is because of the ravages of neo-liberal capitalism, which is clearly holding the others back from joining us up here with our universalist ideals.

This view assumes that the liberal ideals of maximised individual freedom are both fundamentally desirable and universally held, but for some economic obstacles. But the freedoms we are pursuing are unprecedented. There is little evidence that they are universally desired, given that most societies on earth are more socially conservative than the West. Nor does there seem to be any understanding that remorselessly expanding individual freedoms might involve some trade-offs; a more fragmented and less socially cohesive society, for example. Liberals are convinced we can have our “cohesive society cake” while eating our “freedom cake”. What if we’re wrong, and all those traditions served some purpose?

If we are objective, we might consider that what we call “progress” is actually just “change” cast in a positive light. The centre of western social mores has been shifting for decades, in a liberal direction, but for liberals we are still not free enough. Consider my grandmother, born in 1918. A protestant, she married outside her tribe (a catholic). At the time, this was scandalous – an expression of someone determined to push back against socially conservative values of the day. She went on to earn her own income, travel the world, make (and host) many foreign friends. Clearly a liberal, right? Yes, in her context. But not in mine. She also holds a bunch of views which today would be regarded as highly socially conservative (if not bigoted, racist, etc). But I know that in the 1930, she was clearly at the “liberal” end of the spectrum. Did she change, or did society?

I suspect one of the things social conservatives find frustrating is the habit of liberals to shout down any opposition to the continued expansion of individual freedom as bigoted or ignorant. When poor working class people vote “against their economic interests” (for example, by rejecting the Affordable Care Act, by voting to repeal inheritance taxes which only apply to the very wealthy, etc.) liberals assume they are either uneducated, ignorant or “brainwashed” by the nefarious forces of neo-liberalism. The idea that people are voting on the other political axis does not seem to cross many minds. Perhaps people are voting against the continued expansion of “freedom” because they feel it is leading to social atomisation and chaos ?

Liberals are uncertain how to response to the desire to roll back the “progress” of recent decades. We are concerned that this roll back will end in fascism. Perhaps we should take comfort from the fact that there was a “roll back” of some aspects of social liberalism in the 1980s which did not end in gas chambers.

Instead of calm reflection, the left appears to be in a sort of blind panic. Rushing back to the far-left flank of economic policies and deserting the political centre is a symptom of this panic. It shows that we cannot touch the sacred cow on the social axis: expanding individual freedoms. Indeed, even centrist Liberals seem loath to put the brakes on social “progress”. One example of this is the sudden attention that wealth transfer policies such as the universal basic income are receiving.

If I can make one confident political prediction, it would be that policies such as the universal income will be massively rejected by those whom it will benefit most: poorer, working class voters. A second prediction will be that this rejection will be met with bewildered incomprehension by the liberals who proposed it.

What we need to understand is that politics is taking place on two axes, and wealth transfer projects do not adequately address the concerns for a socially cohesive society in which people’s lives have dignity and meaning, as well as food on the table. Working in a call centre, or as an uber driver, does not replace the lost sense of identity for the guy who spent his entire life in manufacturing. A universal income is a deeply humiliating idea for people who see themselves as self-reliant. It involves a fundamental dismantling of their sense of who they are. I think changes in the ethnic make-up of communities and the role of gender and families also pose similar challenges to identity as changes in the nature of work, although I would argue that work is probably more important.

One (left-wing) article I read identified that self-worth linked to “hard work” was an “idea from capital” which should be resisted. Instead, we should value each other for “who we are”. The article didn’t suggest how “who we are” should be defined, but the idea that work should not be part of it is intriguing. Firstly, I don’t think the idea is linked to “capital” or is in any way recent. If it were, we would not have surnames which are derived from the work we did (Miller, Cooper, Smith, Carpenter, etc). Secondly, what would we replace it with? Self-worth linked to birth? There are not an infinite number of ways of defining “who we are” – it’s either things which are (nominally) within our control (our actions), or things which are not (genes, family, location of birth, birth gender, etc). Personally, I prefer the idea that I have some control over my identity to a pure ethno-caste system. (Note that self-worth linked to work, that old protestant ideal, is not the same thing as self-worth linked to wealth, which is an unfortunate distortion).

In any case, the rise of populism and the backlash against liberalism is about more than work-based identity. It’s also about traditions, religion, language, the ethnic make up of our communities, shared values and understanding of family and gender roles. Resisting change should not be automatically considered bigoted or racist or an attempt to maintain white/male privilege, even if this is what (in effect) the resistance entails. Perhaps it is simply what it says on the tin: resistance to change. Telling white people they need to cure themselves from “toxic whiteness” is hardly going to change any (well ordered) minds. It will only baffle people who do not feel there is anything toxic about their skin colour (moreover, by seeing people through the prism of ethnicity, it’s actually a deeply illiberal idea – more or that later).

Political contests today are increasingly on the social axis and policies on the economic axis (like increased wealth transfer) don’t make up for the sense of dislocation and loss of identity. Liberals need to address this – we can’t buy it off. We also need to consider what we’re willing to risk to continue to advance liberalism, or if a consolidation of the ground we’ve already gained might be useful.

By vowing to fight harder and harder to extend liberalism, perhaps we risk losing a lot of what we have gained. It brings to mind the French expression (from Aquinas?): le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

Better is the enemy of good.