Category Archives: Social Democracy

Marx’s analysis of the laws of capital and the share market crisis – Nick Beams.

Down through the years one of the most persistent attacks on Karl Marx by the high priests of bourgeois economics, the ideological guardians of the profit system, has been his contention that, in the final analysis, capitalism depends on the impoverishment of the working class. History, they maintain, has proven otherwise and refuted Marx. While there have been periods of crisis, and rapid and even prolonged falls in the living standards of the masses, in the long run the profit system has served to uplift them and will continue to do so into the indefinite future, whatever fluctuations it may undergo.

Moreover, there is no possible alternative because the market system is not a historically developed mode of production, which came into being at one point and is therefore destined to pass away like earlier modes of production before it, slavery and feudalism. Rather, it is rooted in the laws of nature itself and is necessary and therefore eternal. In other words, despite some imperfections, which may give rise to problems at certain points, all is really for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

In feudal times, the high priests of the Church, who played the key role in sustaining and sanctifying the ruling classes of their day, maintained that when crises arose this was not a product of the social system but an “act of God,” a punishment for the sins of man deriving from his fall.

While there have been enormous advances in social and political thought since then—a product of the Enlightenment and the vast advances in the scientific understanding—the modus operandi of the present day “high priests” of capitalist economy, the bourgeois economists and pundits, is not altogether different from their predecessors.

When confronted with economic crises and their persistence, they maintain that these are not a product of the inexorable workings of the capitalist system itself, but arise from “market imperfections” or some external, unforeseen or accidental event. That is, they proceed, as Marx put it, on the basis that so long as capitalism acts according to the textbooks—the modern day scriptures used to justify the present socio-economic order—crises are not endemic to the system.

The events of the past two weeks, with the largest fall in markets since the crisis of 2008, raising the spectre of an even bigger disaster than that of a decade ago, have provided a damning exposure of this entire ideological framework.

Before going into a deeper analysis of the underlying driving forces and the inherent and irresolvable contradictions of which these events are an expression, let us begin with one undeniable economic fact.

In the decade since the eruption of the global financial crisis of 2008, none of the underlying contradictions that exploded to the surface has been resolved. At the same time, the immediate and ongoing consequences of the breakdown have been the reduction of the living standards of billions of people, while creating unprecedented wealth for a capitalist oligarchy occupying the heights of society. Or as Marx put it, the accumulation of wealth at one pole, amid poverty, misery and degradation at the other.

Whatever the immediate outcome, the financial turmoil of the past days has established, as an undeniable reality, the continuing threat of a meltdown of the capitalist economy. It hangs like a sword of Damocles over the working masses of the world, destined to fall, if not in this crisis, then in others to come.

Moreover, one of the most striking features of the latest crisis, is that it was not sparked by the immediate threat of recession but by news that economic growth was enjoying an uptick—the best period of synchronised global growth since 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund. Most significantly, it was triggered by data showing that wages in the US experienced their largest annual rise since 2009.

Most of what passed for analysis in the bourgeois media did little better than the tweet forthcoming from the very limited intelligence of US President Donald Trump. He noted: “In the ‘old days,’ when good news was reported the Stock Market would go up. Today, when good news is reported, the Stock Market goes down. Big mistake and we have so much good (great) news about the economy!”

Trump’s “analysis” omitted a central feature of the market rise over the past nine years. It has not taken place on the basis of “good news” but in a period of the lowest growth in any “recovery” in the post-World War II period. It has been sustained only by the continued inflow of ultra-cheap money from the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks.

Lawrence Summers, former treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and now Harvard professor of economics, was slightly more insightful. “This is not yet a major earthquake,” he wrote. “Whether it’s an early tremor or a random fluctuation remains to be seen. I’m nervous and will stay nervous. [It is] far from clear that good growth and stable finance are compatible.”

Summers is at least vaguely aware that in the present situation there is something deeply troubling for the capitalist class for which he speaks. The very measures undertaken in response to the last crisis, supposedly aimed at restoring economic health and growth, may in fact have created the conditions for another financial disaster as growth begins to rise.

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall

To analyse the present situation, it is necessary to leave the sphere of bourgeois economics—based on the premise that there are no inherent and objective contradictions in the profit system—and probe its historical development on the basis of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy uncovered by Marx.

The ongoing turmoil in financial markets, beginning with the Wall Street crash of October 1987, must be analysed on the basis of one of the most important contradictions of the capitalist economy explained by Marx. That is the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This tendency was noted by the foremost representatives of English classical political economy—Adam Smith and David Ricardo—who preceded Marx in the period when the bourgeoisie was a rising and progressive class.

While Smith and Ricardo found the tendency of the rate of profit to fall deeply disturbing, especially the latter because of its implications for the long-term future of the capitalist economy, they were unable to give any scientific explanation for it. That was provided by Marx, beginning with his uncovering of the secret of surplus value.

While Smith and Ricardo had the notion that the origin of surplus value was the labour of the developing working class, its actual source always remained a mystery to Marx’s predecessors. How was it possible, they cudgelled their brains, on the basis of the laws of commodity exchange in the market, where equivalents exchange for equivalents, for a surplus to arise and for this surplus to be appropriated by capital?

Marx’s solution consisted in his probing of the most important commodity exchange in capitalist economy, that between capital and labour. He showed that the commodity which the worker sold to the capitalist was not, as had been previously maintained, his or her labour, but labour power, the capacity to work.

Like every other commodity in the market, labour power’s value was determined by the value of the commodities needed to reproduce it—in this case, the value of the commodities needed to sustain the individual worker and his or her family to ensure the continued supply of wage workers.

Surplus value arose from the difference between the value created by the worker in the course of the working day through the production process, and the value of the commodity, labour power, that the worker sold to capital through the wage contract.

The raw materials and machinery used up in the production process did not add new value, but passed on to the final product the value they already embodied.

Yet the analysis was not yet complete. The rate of profit had to be explained. This rate was not determined at the level of the individual capitalist firm, but at the level of the capitalist economy as a whole. It was given by the ratio of the total surplus value extracted from the working class to the total capital outlaid—the expenditure on labour power plus the expenditure on the means of production, raw materials and machinery.

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall arose not from some external factor, Marx showed, but from a contradiction at the very heart of this process.

The development of capitalist production led to the expansion of the productive forces and the use of ever-larger amounts of raw materials and machinery in the production process. As a result, expenditure on materials and machinery tended to comprise an increasing proportion of the total capital laid out. But this increased expenditure on what Marx called constant capital, as opposed to the expenditure on labour power, or variable capital, did not give rise to additional or surplus value.

Because the rate of profit was determined by the ratio of total surplus value to the total mass of capital—constant and variable—employed, there was an inherent tendency for it to decline.

Now, as Marx clearly identified, there were countervailing factors. These included: the increased exploitation of the working class in order to widen the difference between the value of labour power and the value created by the worker in the course of the working day; the lowering of wages to below the value of labour power, enforced through the creation of unemployment and a surplus working population; the cheapening of the costs of raw materials and machinery, so reducing the total value of capital on which the rate of profit was calculated; and the expansion of foreign trade.

But while these countervailing factors lessened the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and at times could operate very powerfully—even lifting the profit rate—the basic tendency continually reasserted itself.

Marx characterised the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as the most important law of political economy, above all from an historical point of view. This was because, on the one hand, it drove capital to develop the productive forces in an attempt to overcome its effects, while, on the other, it was the source of the continually recurring crises that beset the capitalist mode of production.

Marx’s critics and the end of the post-war boom

With the development of the post-war capitalist boom, extending from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Marx’s law, it was claimed, had been refuted by historical events. As had been seen in the case of the German revisionist Eduard Bernstein at the end of the 19th century, the attack on Marx’s analysis came from those who claimed to be his followers, but insisted it needed to be revised and updated.

The assault on Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was at the centre of one of the most influential books of the late 1960s, Monopoly Capital, written by the “independent” Marxist economist Paul Sweezy in co-authorship with Paul Baran in the midst of the post-war boom.

Sweezy, the founder of the journal Monthly Review, had already cast considerable doubt on the validity of Marx’s law in his first book, The Theory of Capitalist Development, published in 1941. He now maintained that Marx had developed the law under conditions of competition in the 19th century and that in 20th century monopoly capitalism it no longer applied, if it ever had.

Sweezy maintained that the key question confronting capital was not the insufficient extraction of surplus value relative to the ever-growing mass of capital—the issue to which Marx’s law had pointed—but the reverse. Monopoly capital created an increased mass of surplus value that had to be continually “absorbed.”

A key aspect of Sweezy’s theory, flowing directly from his economic analysis, was that in the advanced capitalist countries, dominated by monopolies, the working class was no longer a revolutionary force. The vehicle for socialist revolution, he claimed, was now the masses in the so-called Third World countries, striving for national liberation.

Monopoly Capital is no longer widely read but it continues to exert an influence. David Harvey, for example, adheres to much of Sweezy’s economic analysis, as well as his insistence on the non-revolutionary role of the working class.

However, as so often happens, Sweezy’s “refutation” of Marx came right at the point when developments in the capitalist economy were confirming Marx’s scientific insights. Earlier, Bernstein had maintained that the Marxist analysis of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism was rendered a fiction by the boom beginning in the late 1890s. The collapse of Bernstein’s prognosis came just 14 years after its elaboration, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

In Sweezy’s case, his refutation was almost instantaneous. The publication of Monopoly Capital in 1966 came at a point when profit rates in the advanced capitalist economies were starting to turn down. This led to mounting economic problems and the rise of class tensions that were soon to produce potentially revolutionary struggles by the working class from 1968 to 1975.

Starting with the May–June 1968 general strike in France, the largest and most extended in history, and including the 1969 hot autumn in Italy, the 1974 miners’ strike that brought down the Tory government in Britain, the revolutionary situation in Chile (1970–73) and the upheavals in the US, to name just some of the events, world capitalism was shaken to its foundations.

With the direct collaboration of the Stalinist, social democratic and trade union apparatuses, which betrayed these struggles, the capitalist classes were able to bring the situation under control and maintain their rule.

However, the underlying economic problems of the US and other major capitalist economies, rooted in declining profit rates, remained. Having kept themselves in the saddle, the ruling classes undertook a massive offensive against the working class, coupled with a restructuring the world economy.

The global counter-offensive was initiated in the US under Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who put in place a high-interest rate regime. Its purpose was two-fold: to wipe out unprofitable sections of industry and force a major industrial restructure, and eliminate the large industrial complexes that were the centres of militant working class struggles in an earlier period. The Volcker purge had vast global ramifications, leading in 1982–83 to the most serious global recession since the Great Depression.

The decade of the 1980s was characterised by major class battles, of which the mass sacking of US air traffic controllers in 1981 by Reagan and the state violence unleashed by the Thatcher Tory government against the British miners’ strike in 1984–85 were two of the most prominent. The decade also saw a fundamental transformation in the role of the trade unions. From organisations that had fought for limited gains by the working class, they betrayed all of its struggles as they became the chief enforcers of the program of pro-market, capitalist restructuring.

The attack on the social position of the working class—aimed at increasing the extraction of surplus value to counter the fall in the rate of profit—was accompanied by a reorganisation of production, through downsizing and globalisation to take advantage of cheaper sources of labour.

The growth of financial speculation

Crucial to this restructuring was the freeing of financial capital from the restrictions and regulations that were set in place following the disastrous experiences of the 1930s. The growing operations of finance, through the issuing of so-called junk bonds and other measures, were central to hostile takeovers, downsizing and mergers and acquisitions that transformed the organisation of capitalist production.

At the same time, the pressure on profit rates, as Marx predicted, resulted in a turn by capital to operations in the financial markets and speculative ventures as a means of profit accumulation.

This process led to financial storms by the end of the 1980s, with the eruption of the savings and loans debacle and the October 1987 share market crash, in which the Dow plunged by more than 22 percent in a single day.

The response of the incoming Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, represented a major turning point. He committed the central bank to the provision of liquidity to the financial markets in what became known as the “Greenspan put.” In effect, the Fed became the guarantor to the financial markets, reversing previous policy.

While the October 1987 crash was the most severe one-day fall in history—a position it retains to this day—it did not lead to a broader crisis in the economy as a whole.

This was because the onslaught against the working class in the US and the first wave of globalisation, marked by the transfer of large areas of industrial production to the cheaper-labour countries of East Asia, the “Asian Tigers,” was beginning to lift the rate of profit.

This was reinforced after 1991 with the liquidation of the Soviet Union and the consequent abandonment by countries such as India of their nationally-regulated development programs and the increasing turn to the free market.

Most significant was the restoration of capitalism in China and its opening up to global corporations. China, which became a source of cheap labour production in the 1980s through the establishment of special economic zones, opened up still further. The Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 was the signal by the Chinese Communist Party regime that it stood ready, by whatever means necessary, to ensure the exploitation of the Chinese working class by global capital.

In the first period of the Clinton presidency, beginning in 1993, the US economy enjoyed rising profit rates as a result of the boost provided by the exploitation of cheaper labour, paid as little as one thirtieth of US wages.

However, the basic tendency identified by Marx began to reassert itself from around 1997, when the average US profit rate began to turn down. As a result, the accumulation of profits by financial means, which had grown by leaps and bounds in the 1990s, became increasingly vulnerable.

By 1996, Greenspan pointed to what he called “irrational exuberance,” expressed in the tendency of stock prices to become ever-more divorced from the real economy. This warning, however, came to nothing. Greenspan, responding to the dictates and demands of finance capital, turned more openly to the provision of cheap money for speculation.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 was a significant turning point. It produced a depression in South-East Asia equivalent in scope to that of the 1930s in the advanced capitalist countries, but Clinton dismissed it as a mere “glitch” on the road to globalisation.

That was followed by the 1998 collapse of the US investment fund Long Term Capital Management, which had to be wound up in an operation conducted by the New York Federal Reserve, lest its demise brought down the whole financial system.

The dot.com bubble was then getting under way as the Fed provided ever-cheaper money. And at the behest of the financial markets, the last remnants of the regulatory mechanisms controlling their predatory operations, put in place as a result of the 1930s depression, were scrapped with the Clinton administration’s 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.

The 2001 collapse of Enron revealed the dubious practices and outright criminality that increasingly marked the speculative financial bubble. Enron had pioneered new accounting practices in which profit was decided in advance to meet market expectations and then the accounts were manipulated to show the desired result.

Following the collapse of the tech and dot.com bubble, finance capital turned to the development of new methods for speculative profit accumulation, again facilitated with cheap money from the Fed. It developed highly complex and arcane financial derivatives, centred on the sub-prime mortgage market, but extending well beyond it. Goldman Sachs, among others, was a key player. It issued new products that it knew would eventually fail, but made money in the meantime by financing both sides of the deals.

The 2008 global financial crisis

In April 2007, the then chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, dismissed the possibility that the growing signs of problems with sub-prime mortgages could impact the broader market because these products only amounted to a $50 billion operation.

However, when the crisis erupted, it engulfed the entire financial system, threatening to bring down the insurance giant AIG following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. This was because the methods employed in the sub-prime market were not “rogue” activities but typical of the financial markets as a whole.

The response of the Fed and other central banks to the 2008 crisis marked another decisive turning point. No longer was it a question of stepping in to rescue a failed individual firm. Massive intervention was required to prop up the US and global financial system as a whole.

The lowering of interest rates to historic lows—in some cases to negative levels—and the injection of trillions of dollars into the financial system did not overcome the contradictions manifested in speculation—the expression of the laws of the capitalist mode of production laid bare by Marx—but exacerbated them.

The rise and rise of financial wealth accumulation in the decade following the 2008 crisis is not the outcome of growth in the real economy. In fact, the “recovery” since 2009 has been the weakest in the post-war period, and marked by the fall of investment in the real economy to historic lows and a decline in productivity.

After the Lehman crisis, finance capital responded to the blowing up of its previous mechanisms for profit accumulation via speculation by creating new ones. One of these, exchange traded notes based on “shorting” the volatility index, or Vix—that is, betting on continued market calm, has now resulted in the most significant turbulence since the 2008 crash.

However, these new forms of speculation are only a trigger. The broader significance of the recent volatility and whatever else eventuates—no one is sure that the storm has passed—is that it was provoked by the prospect of faster growth and a push by the working class for higher wages following decades of the suppression of the class struggle.

Economic events have once again confirmed the essential conclusion of Marx’s analysis of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. Whatever its ups and downs and even periods of long upturn, the accumulation of profit—the essential driving force of capitalism—is, in the final analysis, based on the ongoing suppression of the working class and its impoverishment.

The lie, which forms the basis of all bourgeois economics, that somehow the growth of capitalist economy can, at least in the long run, provide the road to advancement for the mass of humanity, the working class, the producers of all wealth, has been exposed. It has been laid bare by the fact that signs of economic growth and a growing movement of workers against the decline in living standards have raised the prospect of a new financial disaster, even more serious than that of a decade ago.

Marx’s analysis of the laws of motion of capital—laws which express themselves, as he put it, in the same way that the law of gravity asserts itself when a house collapses around our ears—far from being refuted or rendered outdated, have been confirmed by living events.

This analysis, and Marx’s central conclusion that the working class has to take conscious control of the very wealth it has produced, must become its guiding perspective in the struggles now unfolding.

This historic task does not arise out of an abstract theoretical construct. In opposition to all the nostrums of bourgeois economy, which are self-serving justifications of the capitalist system, Marx’s analysis is a scientific elaboration of the objective tendencies and inherent logic of capitalist development.

This logic, which assumes ever-more explosive forms, now poses directly before the international working class the necessity, if humanity is to avert a catastrophe and advance, to fight in every struggle for a perspective based on the overthrow of the reactionary and historically-outmoded profit system. That is the essential meaning of the latest round of turmoil on the financial markets.

World Socialist Website

Is this the end of civilisation? We could take a different path – George Monbiot.

Environmental breakdown, coupled with the self-destructive behaviour of governments, has set us on a road to ruin. And we’re blocking off all means of escape.

It’s a good question, but it seems too narrow: “Is western civilisation on the brink of collapse?” the lead article in this week’s New Scientist asks. The answer is, probably.

But why just western? Yes, certain western governments are engaged in a frenzy of self-destruction. In an age of phenomenal complexity and interlocking crises, the Trump administration has embarked on a mass de-skilling and simplification of the state. Donald Trump may have sacked his strategist, Steve Bannon, but Bannon’s professed intention, “the deconstruction of the administrative state”, remains the central – perhaps the only – policy.

Defunding departments, disbanding the teams and dismissing the experts they rely on, shutting down research programmes, maligning the civil servants who remain in post, the self-hating state is ripping down the very apparatus of government. At the same time, it is destroying public protections that defend us from disaster.

A series of studies published in the past few months has started to explore the wider impact of pollutants. One, published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that the exposure of unborn children to air pollution in cities is causing “something approaching a public health catastrophe”. Pollution in the womb is now linked to low birth weight, disruption of the baby’s lung and brain development, and a series of debilitating and fatal diseases in later life.

Another report, published in the Lancet, suggests that three times as many deaths are caused by pollution as by Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Pollution, the authors note, now “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”.

A collection of articles in the journal PLOS Biology reveals that there is no reliable safety data on most of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals to which we may be exposed. While hundreds of these chemicals “contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested”, and the volume of materials containing them rises every year, we have no idea what the likely impacts may be, either singly or in combination.

As if in response to such findings, the Trump government has systematically destroyed the integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency, ripped up the Clean Power Plan, vitiated environmental standards for motor vehicles, reversed the ban on chlorpyrifos (a pesticide now linked to the impairment of cognitive and behavioural function in children), and rescinded a remarkable list of similar public protections.

In the UK, successive governments have also curtailed their ability to respond to crises. One of David Cameron’s first acts was to shut down the government’s early warning systems: the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission. He did not want to hear what they said. Sack the impartial advisers and replace them with toadies: this has preceded the fall of empires many times before.

Now, as we detach ourselves from the European Union, we degrade our capacity to solve the problems that transcend our borders.

But these pathologies are not confined to “the west”. The rise of demagoguery (the pursuit of simplistic solutions to complex problems, accompanied by the dismantling of the protective state) is everywhere apparent. Environmental breakdown is accelerating worldwide. The annihilation of vertebrate populations, insectageddon, the erasure of rainforests, mangroves, soil and aquifers, and the degradation of entire Earth systems such as the atmosphere and oceans proceed at astonishing rates. These interlocking crises will affect everyone, but the poorer nations are hit first and worst.

The forces that threaten to destroy our wellbeing are also the same everywhere: primarily the lobbying power of big business and big money, which perceive the administrative state as an impediment to their immediate interests. Amplified by the persuasive power of campaign finance, covertly funded thinktanks, embedded journalists and tame academics, these forces threaten to overwhelm democracy. If you want to know how they work, read Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money.

Up to a certain point, connectivity increases resilience. For example, if local food supplies fail, regional or global markets allow us to draw on production elsewhere. But beyond a certain level, connectivity and complexity threaten to become unmanageable. The emergent properties of the system, combined with the inability of the human brain to encompass it, could spread crises rather than contain them. We are in danger of pulling each other down.

New Scientist should have asked: “Is complex society on the brink of collapse?”

Complex societies have collapsed many times before. It has not always been a bad thing. As James C Scott points out in his fascinating book, Against the Grain, when centralised power began to collapse, through epidemics, crop failure, floods, soil erosion or the self-destructive perversities of government, its corralled subjects would take the chance to flee. In many cases they joined the “barbarians”. This so-called secondary primitivism, Scott notes, “may well have been experienced as a marked improvement in safety, nutrition and social order. Becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot.” The dark ages that inexorably followed the glory and grandeur of the state may, in that era, have been the best times to be alive.

But today there is nowhere to turn. The wild lands and rich ecosystems that once supported hunter gatherers, nomads and the refugees from imploding early states who joined them now scarcely exist. Only a tiny fraction of the current population could survive a return to the barbarian life. (Consider that, according to one estimate, the maximum population of Britain during the Mesolithic, when people survived by hunting and gathering, was 5000).

In the nominally democratic era, the complex state is now, for all its flaws, all that stands between us and disaster.

So what do we do?

Next week, barring upsets, I will propose a new way forward. The path we now follow is not the path we have to take.

The Guardian

WHY THE LEFT LOSES.  The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective – Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy. 

Foreword 

Sheri Berman 

The decline of the centre-left over the past years is one of the most alarming trends in Western politics. During the latter part of the 20th century such parties either ran the government or led the loyal Opposition in virtually every Western democracy. 

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), once the most powerful party of the left in continental Europe, currently polls in high 20s or 30s. The French Socialist Party was eviscerated in the 2017 elections, as was the Dutch Labour Party. Even the vaunted Scandinavian social democratic parties are struggling, reduced to vote shares in the 30 per cent range. The British Labour Party and the US Democrats have been protected from challengers by their country’s first-past-the-post electoral systems, but the former has recently taken a sharp turn to the hard-left under Jeremy Corbyn, while the latter, although still competitive at the national level, is a minority party at the state and local levels, where a hard-right Republican Party dominates the scene. 

The decline of the centre-left has hurt Western democracy. It has left voters free to be captured by extremist parties, particularly of the far-right populist variety, which threaten the liberal and perhaps even democratic nature of Western politics. In addition, centre-left parties played a crucial role in creating and maintaining the post-war order on which stable democracy was built following the Second World War. Without a revival of the centre-left, it is hard to see how this order and perhaps even well functioning democracy can be resuscitated. 

This book analyses the decline of the centre-left, and in so doing, may provide its supporters with the insights necessary to revitalise it. Why the left loses focuses on three main issues the centre-left must confront: leadership, institutions/ structural change and message/ vision. 

The first is the most straightforward, but nonetheless crucial. Leaders represent and personify what parties stand for; in order to win, the centre-left needs leaders who can connect to a diverse and demanding electorate, and attractively, forcefully and effectively convey their party’s messages. 

Attracting such leaders does not, of course, happen in a vacuum. Talented and ambitious individuals are drawn to parties they believe can deal with the challenges of the day. 

This brings us to issues of institutions/ structural change and message/ vision. Institutional and structural changes over the last decades in domestic and international political economies have created major challenges for all traditional political parties, but particularly for those of the centre-left. 

After 1945 in Western Europe (and beginning with the New Deal in the US), the West began constructing a new type of political economy, one that could ensure economic growth while at the same time protecting societies from capitalism’s destructive and destabilising consequences. 

This order represented a decisive break with the past: states would not be limited to ensuring that markets could grow and flourish, nor would economic interests be given the widest possible leeway. Instead, after 1945 the state was to become the guardian of society rather than the economy, and economic imperatives would sometimes have to take a back seat to social ones. 

This post-war order represented something historically unusual: capitalism remained, but it was capitalism of a very different type than had existed before the war – one tempered and limited by the power of the democratic state, and often made subservient to the goals of social stability and solidarity, rather than the other way round. This was a farcry from the revolutionary destruction of the capitalist order that orthodox Marxists, communists and others on the far left had demanded during the pre-war period, but it still varied significantly from what liberals had long favoured – namely, giving as much free rein to markets as possible. 

This was, in short, a social democratic order – and it worked remarkably well. Despite fears after the war that it would perhaps take decades for Europe to recover economically, by the early 1950s most of Europe had easily surpassed interwar economic figures, and the 30 years after 1945 were Europe’s fastest period of growth ever. 

The restructured political economies of the post-war era seemed to offer something to everyone, and this, in turn, helped to eliminate the belief – long held by liberals, Marxists and others – that democratic states could not or would not protect particular groups’ interests. 

Because the centre-left was most closely associated with this order and the most determined defender of it, it had the most to lose from its demise. And so the pressures put on this order since the 1970s by increasing globalisation, growing government deficits and the neoliberal and eventually austerity policies adopted by the European Union (EU) have left the centre-left scrambling to come up with new strategies for getting economies moving again, while also ensuring that democratic states continued to protect citizens from the changes brought by ever-evolving capitalism. 

Alongside changes in domestic and international political economies, centre-left parties have also been challenged by social and cultural shifts that began in the 1960s and threatened traditional identities, communities and mores – a process further exacerbated, particularly in Europe, by growing immigration. Together these trends helped erode the social solidarity and sense of shared national purpose that had supported the social democratic post-war order and helped to stabilise European democracies in the decades following the Second World War. 

The US faced its own version of this with the growing political incorporation and mobilisation of minority groups since the civil rights era, and the increasing shift towards a non-majority white population destabilising traditional social and political patterns. 

But economic, social and cultural institutional and structural changes have not doomed the centre-left to oblivion. They represent challenges, and how the centre-left (or any other party) responds to challenges determines how voters react and political systems evolve. The problem for the centre-left, in other words, is not merely the challenges it has faced over the past decades so much as its lack of convincing and coherent responses to them. 

Here is where Why the left loses‘ third issue comes in: message/ vision. After the 2008 financial crisis many observers expected a significant swing to the left among Western electorates, since many blamed the economy’s problems on the neoliberal policies that had proliferated during the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. 

But the centre-left lacked a convincing message for dealing with the crisis, or a more general vision of how to promote growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend out-dated policies or proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the centre-right. 

The centre-left also lacked a convincing message about how to deal with increasing diversity or a vision of social solidarity appropriate to changing demographic and cultural realities. Instead, the centre-left either ignored the challenge of diversity or especially among the intellectual left, put forward a message of ‘multiculturalism’ –neither of these responses was able to stem social conflict or electoral flight from the left, especially on the part of the working class. 

It has now become fairly commonplace to note the support given by traditionally centre-left voters to the populist right. This connection was on obvious display in the Brexit referendum, where many traditional Labour strongholds and supporters voted to leave the EU, and it has been a prominent feature of elections in Europe as working-class voters have flocked to right-wing populist parties. And, of course, a version of this was present in the US, where Donald Trump garnered disproportionate support from less-educated and working-class voters. 

What is still worth stressing, however, is the causal connection between the failures or missteps of the centre-left and the rise of right-wing populist parties that offered simple, straightforward messages in response to citizens’ economic and social fears. 

Economically, the populist right promises to promote prosperity, via increased government control of the economy and limits on globalisation. Socially, the populist right promises to restore social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, by expelling foreigners or severely limiting immigration, diminishing the influence of the EU and globalisation, and protecting traditional values, identities and mores. 

For those who bemoan the decline of the centre-left and the rise of the populist right, the challenge is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing, and if the centre-left can’t come up with more viable and attractive messages about how to solve contemporary problems, and a more attractive vision of the future than those offered by its competitors, it can expect to continue its slide into the dust heap of history. 

The following chapters provide an excellent starting point for the debate about the centre-left’s future. 

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ONE 

Why the left loses: understanding the comparative decline of the centre-left.  

Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy 

Introduction 

Since the global financial crisis (GFC), if not before, there has been a general decline in the fortunes of social democratic and labour parties. Against these recent developments, there is a long-standing literature that appraises the electoral performance and impact of the left more broadly (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986; Kitschelt, 1994; Moschonas, 2002). 

Much of the literature on social democracy tends to be pessimistic, and there is a plethora of research that denotes recent developments as a ‘crisis’, on the ‘back foot’, ‘in retreat’, and perhaps most arrestingly, as ‘dead’ (Gray, 1996; Pierson, 2001; Keating and McCrone, 2013; Lavelle, 2013; Ludwigshafen et al, 2016). 

In a prescient address at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2011, David Miliband catalogued the general wreckage of the electoral fortunes of the centre-left across Western Europe. In his critical survey of European social democracy, he noted: 

• The UK General Election in 2010 – the second worst result for Labour since 1918. 

• Sweden, also in 2010 – the worst result since 1911. 

• Germany in 2009 – the worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic, with a greater loss of support than any party in the history of the country. 

• France in 2007 – the worst result since 1969. 

• The Netherlands in 2009 – a traumatic transition from a junior coalition partner to Opposition. 

• Italy – a yo-yo in and out of power, with personal and political divisions disabling opposition to Berlusconi. 

More recent results generally confirm this overall trend, with British Labour losing both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. 

The Dutch general election in early 2017 saw the worst-ever result for the Dutch Labour Party (PvDA, Partij van de Arbeid). The PvDA lost 29 seats, only holding 9 in the 150-seat Parliament. The Dutch result is something of an outlier for the misfortunes of the centre-left. 

Later in this chapter we survey the state of the left more widely. This collected volume investigates the electoral fortunes of the family of centre-left labour and social democratic political parties. In this chapter we set out the aims and scope of the volume, and its contribution to understanding the comparative political decline of the centre-left. 

After mapping the electoral fortunes of centre-left political parties, we then locate this volume in the current literature, and set out the distinctive approach offered here. From our perspective, one of the deficiencies of the current literature is that it focuses almost exclusively on the family of (mostly Western) European social democratic and labour parties. While much of this literature is incisive and important, we have a nagging concern that this narrow focus is missing a key part of the wider story. 

As we outline below, we need to expand the explanatory universe to better understand the current plight of the centre-left. 

We have been a little mischievous in the title of this volume – Why the left loses –and it would be useful here to clarify the book’s scope. The volume is not called ‘Why the left always loses’ or ‘Why the left will never win again’. Rather, the focus is on examining the current electoral performance of a cohort of the family of social democratic and labour political parties within a specific timeframe (broadly, 2008-16). 

The title of the volume is deliberately provocative, in part, because we hope that it will reach a wider readership than just the academy. The term ‘left’ is deployed here as a proxy for these groups of political parties. 

Our focus remains their fate of – often, but not always – the main carriers of wider social democratic values. The book does not seek to argue that the values and ideas associated with the ‘left’ are in decline –indeed, we argue that in a number of cases the opposite is true, that they have been readily co-opted by a number of parties on the centre-right, and other populist challengers. Nor are we suggesting that there are common or single causes for the current state of the full suite of centre-left political parties. And to be clear, by ‘left’ we mostly focus on the long-standing social democratic and labour parties rather than some of the alternative ‘socialist’ or ‘left’ parties such as Die Linke established in Germany in 2007. 

The social democratic parties remain important political actors, even if they are not in the best of electoral health. The risk with the title Why the left loses is that by the time the volume is published, there will have been a turnaround in the electoral fortunes of the social democratic parties. Indeed, it was just at the point of Blair and Schröder declaring the hegemonic victory of the Third Way/Neue Mitte that the fortunes of the left began to decline. 

As Ralf Dahrendorf noted in a telling intervention, the highpoint in the late 1990s for the centre-left masked other key changes in the party systems of the advanced industrial democracies: The real trend – which is underlined by the European elections – is towards non-traditional parties, many of which did not exist 20 years ago. (Dahrendorf, 1999) 

The key issue is that while the late 1990s may have signalled something like the ‘magical return’ of social democracy, we are more circumspect in predicting a ‘second coming’ by the time this volume is released. 

Moreover, if there were to be a revival of the centre-left, and clearly many of the writers in this volume would welcome a return to a more full-bloodied variant of social democratic politics, it would not necessarily undermine the central focus of the book. We look to explain why the left has been doing poorly in this period under review. Indeed, in one of our cases – state Labor in Australia – there has been something of a revival of the centre-left. 

Overall, we focus predominately on the period from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s. The crucial event here is the impact of the global financial crisis (GFC), and the response of the parties to this latest rupture in the global capitalist system. The response has not been overwhelming. 

The state of the left

There have been a number of recent surveys of the family of social democratic parties (Keating and McCrone, 2013; Bailey et al, 2014, p 8), with the focus predominately on the European parties. Here we offer a related, but broader, survey. 

While there is no clear, uniform trend, the overall picture is rather dismal for centre-left parties (see Table 1.1). In France, the 2012 presidential election win proved a temporary highpoint for the Parti socialiste (PS) under François Hollande. Indeed, the seven-year term of the presidency arguably overstates the dominance of the PS. 

As outlined by Sophie Di Francesco-Mayot (see Chapter 10), there is a strong case that while the left was in office, it was ‘losing the battle of ideas’. It was striking, and perhaps not that surprising, when Hollande announced that he would not be contesting the 2017 presidential elections –the first post-war president not to seek office. Strikingly, PS did not make the second round run-off in the 2017 presidential election, much like the dismal 2002 election. Indeed, the Macron phenomenon would suggest a further decline and fragmentation of the centre-left. 

Table 1.1: Centre-left parties in Office and Opposition (2008-16)

Note: In Canada Justin Trudeau took the Liberal Party into office. There is a dispute as to whether to categorise the Liberals as centrist or social democratic, given the New Democratic Party espouses the clearest social democratic programme in Canada. Source: European data drawn in part from Bailey et al (2014, p 9) 

In Germany, the centre-left SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or Social Democratic Party of Germany) has been unable for quite some time to puncture the dominance of Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Since 2005, Merkel has been unassailable in German politics, with the SPD first as a junior coalition partner, then back in Opposition. At the 2013 election, Merkel reluctantly turned to the SPD as junior partner once again. 

In Uwe Jun’s account (see Chapter 7), the factors for the SPD’s electoral health are examined. What is striking about the SPD is that like other cases considered here, its troubles pre-date the GFC. To a large extent, the SPD, like the SAP (Swedish Social Democratic Party) and the UK Labour Party, is experiencing a prolonged hangover from its turn to the Third Way. 

In Spain, the picture is arguably more pessimistic for the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). Since losing office in 2011, the party has lost consecutive general elections in 2015 and 2016, and, as Paul Kennedy outlines in his overview (see Chapter 9), it faces a range of pressures, not least the emergence of the left-populist Podemos party in 2014. Over this time, the PSOE has been haemorrhaging votes. As Kennedy notes, while the PSOE has not yet faced its own version of ‘Pasokification’ (the ultimate destruction of the once dominant Greek social democrats), its future is far from assured. 

In Sweden, often claimed as having the purest form of social democracy, the SAP finds itself in turbulent times. It was in office from 1994 to 2002; it then lost both the 2006 and 2010 elections, and narrowly won the 2014 election, governing in coalition with the Green Party. The 2014 results obscure the thinness of SAP’s victory with only a minor improvement of its vote, at 31 per cent. 

Here, we see a clear example of arguably a structural trend facing centre-left parties –a narrowing of its voter base. Whereas the PSOE faces a left-populist challenge, the striking characteristic of the Swedish party system has been the emergence of the nationalist right-populist Swedish Democrats. As Claes Belfrage and Mikko Kuisma argue (see Chapter 8), the SAP is confronted by long-standing economic constraints imposed by the capitalist system and is playing something of a ‘losing game’. It remains unclear how far the 2014 result signifies a meaningful revival of the centre-left. 

While this volume confines its European focus to these countries, the outlook for the centre-left across Europe is mixed, at best. In Italy, the fortunes of the centre-left have been –in David Miliband’s words –something of a ‘yo-yo’. The centre-right was dominant from 2001 to 2006. Under Romano Prodi, the centre-left briefly resumed office (2006-08), before losing again to the centre-right in 2008. It is telling that after the GFC, the Italian electorate placed its faith in the ‘technocratic’ government of Mario Monti, until the centre-left bloc took over in 2013. This recent development, however, can hardly be considered stable government, and the development of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement presents another populist challenge to both left and right. 

In The Netherlands, the 2017 election was catastrophic for the PvDA. Prior to this calamity, it was in Opposition between 2002 and 2006, and again between 2010 and 2012. At the 2012 elections it entered as a junior partner in coalition with the centre-right VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). In the multi-party Dutch system, the PvDA has been unable to secure a firmer electoral base, and again, a xenophobic populist party – in this case, led by the ubiquitous Geert Wilders – poses both a strategic and ideational dilemma for both left and right. It appears that the left not only loses elections; it can’t win them outright either. 

In Austria, while the SPŐ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) has been the largest partner (just) in a grand coalition, Austrian politics has seen the emergence of the far-right, and both major parties recorded their worst ever results at the 2008 legislative elections. 

In Norway, Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour party (AAP) was a dominant force from 2005-13, but lost power to the centre-right bloc. 

While these cases are not considered here, they remain emblematic of a range of problems and dilemmas facing social democratic and labour parties, especially in the context of a shifting party system, with new populist challengers. 

We also include and survey the fortunes of the centre-left in the Anglosphere, and here we focus our attention on Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Controversially for some, we locate the UK Labour Party outside the core European family of social democratic parties (although the Brexit result provides further support for this case). 

As a range of writers and indeed, Labour figures, have pointed out, the UK Labour Party often has more in common with its Antipodean Labour sisters than its European social democratic counterparts.

 As Rob Manwaring and Matt Beech outline in Chapter 2, the picture here is fairly dismal for the centre-left. Labour has experienced ‘Pasokification’ in Scotland, and since the fall of New Labour in 2010 has been unable to claw its way back into power. While the 2010 result was widely anticipated, Labour’s loss to the Conservatives in 2015 was not. While Corbyn-led Labour secured a better-than-expected result at the 2017 general election, Labour has now lost three elections in a row since Tony Blair stepped down as leader. 

Elsewhere, there is a catalogue of defeat for the left. In two different contexts, Canada and New Zealand, there has been a dominance of the centre-right. From 2008-15, Stephen Harper’s Conservative party has dominated Canadian politics, and it is only with the recent win of Justin Trudeau that there has been some shifting back to a more left-leaning position. Yet, as David McGrane outlines in Chapter 3, the fate of the NDP (New Democratic Party) illustrates the difficulty of seeking to impose a social democratic settlement at a time of Liberal Party resurgence. Strikingly, at the 2011 election, the NDP seemingly made a key breakthrough under the leadership of Jack Layton, but the fortunes of the NDP have since declined. 

Likewise, in New Zealand, the NZ Labour Party has been unsuccessful in dislodging the centre-right National Party under the dominant leadership of John Key. Labour lost three straight elections, and despite the unexpected resignation of Key at the end of 2016, its chances of winning at the 2017 general election look marginal at best. Grant Duncan surveys the wreckage of the NZ Labour Party (in Chapter 4), and what is striking here is the flexibility of the centre-right, and, most notably, a shift away from a strident form of neoliberal politics. 

Finally, in Australia, after 11 years in the wilderness, the ALP (Australian Labor Party) took office under the, initially, strong leadership of Kevin Rudd. Yet, within the space of a few years, the ALP turned in on itself, and Julia Gillard (just) secured a minority government in 2010. And in another rancorous turn, the ALP ditched Gillard weeks before the 2013 election. Since then, despite a promising election campaign in 2016, the ALP remains in Opposition. 

As Carol Johnson examines in her chapter on the ALP (see Chapter 5), Labor was beset by a range of both institutional and ideational problems. Most critically, Johnson examines the central dilemma facing centre-left parties in the capitalist system. 

We also include in this volume a chapter on a much neglected story of the centre-left – the Australian state Labor parties (see Chapter 6). During the mid-2000s, a rather intriguing phenomenon occurred when Labor held office in every single state and territory. Since then state Labor has been on the back foot. The chapter therefore offers the reader a clear comparative case study of sub-national social democracy to illuminate why the left loses elections. 

If time and space permitted, we might also look beyond our cases and see the, at best, mixed picture for the centre-left. Critically, the 2016 presidential election victory by Donald Trump in the US seems to encapsulate many of the current dynamics of the modern party system, with a populist backlash against both major political parties. 

In Latin America, left-ist parties have also suffered setbacks (Aidi, 2015), although the extent to which we locate them in the ‘social democratic’ tradition is contested. 

The key issue from this brief survey is that the left is currently losing, or not winning well, and also recording some record losses in the period from the GFC to 2016. The aim of this volume is to explore and examine, comparatively, the reasons for this current state of play. 

It is worth making a few caveats to this overall survey. 

First, most liberal democracies in advanced industrial settings operate on some turnover of governments. We are circumspect in over-emphasising any ‘trend’ of the ‘left losing’. 

Second, in many cases, the left losing is, indeed, a noted part of their histories. To take the UK Labour Party as a prominent example, until New Labour, its electoral record was patchy at best (between 1945 and 1997 it held office for just 17 of those 52 years). 

Third, while we make comparative judgements, and see some common themes, such as populism, Third Way hangovers, out-dated political economic models, changing class patterns, and so on, there are specific conditions playing out. The left loses, but not always for the same reasons.

*

from

WHY THE LEFT LOSES.  The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective

Edited by Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy. 

get it at Amazon.com

ARE WE AS BRAVE AS LABOUR IN THE 1930s?- Bryan Gould.

New Zealanders like to think that we are, in most respects, up with – if not actually ahead of – the play. Sadly, however, as a new government is about to emerge, there is no sign that our politicians and policymakers are aware of recent developments in a crucial area of policy, and that, as a result, we are in danger of missing out on opportunities that others have been ready to take.

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The story starts, at least in its most recent form, with two important developments. First, there is the now almost universal recognition that the vast majority of money in circulation is not – as most people once believed – notes and coins issued on behalf of the government by the Reserve Bank, but is actually created by the commercial banks through the credit they advance, using bank entries rather than cash, and usually on mortgage.

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The truth of this proposition, so long denied, is now explicitly accepted by the Bank of England, and was – as long ago as 1994 – explained in a letter written by our own Reserve Bank to an enquirer, and stating in terms that 97% of the money included in the usually used definition of money known as M3 is created by the commercial banks.

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The proposition is endorsed by the world’s leading monetary economists – Lord Adair Turner, the former chair of the UK’s Financial Services Authority and Professor Richard Werner of Southampton University, to name but two. These men are not snake-oil salesmen, to be easily dismissed. They have been joined by leading financial journalists, such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

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The second development was the use by western governments around the world of “quantitative easing” in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. “Quantitative easing” was a sanitised term to describe what is often pejoratively termed “printing money” – but, whatever it is called, it was new money created at the behest of the government and used to bail out the banks by adding it to their balance sheets.

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These two developments, not surprisingly, generated a number of unavoidable questions about monetary policy. If banks could create billions in new money for their own profit-making purposes, (they make their money by charging interest on the money they create), why could governments not do the same, but for public purposes, such as investment in new infrastructure and productive capacity?

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And if governments were indeed to create new money through “quantitative easing”, why could that new money not be applied to purposes other than shoring up the banks?

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The conventional answer to such questions (and the one invariably given in New Zealand by supposed experts in recent times) is that “printing money” will be inflationary – though it is never explained why it is miraculously non-inflationary when the new money is created by bank loans on mortgage or is applied to bail out the banks.

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But, in any case, the master economist, John Maynard Keynes, had got there long before the closed minds and had carefully explained that new money could not be inflationary if it was applied to productive purposes so that new output matched the increased money supply. Nor was there any reason why the new money should not precede the increased output, provided that the increased output materialised in due course.

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Those timorous souls who doubt the Keynesian argument might care to look instead at practical experience. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used exactly this technique to increase investment in American industry in the year or two before the US entered the Second World War. It was that substantial boost to American industrial capacity that was the decisive factor in allowing the Allies to win the war.

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And the great Japanese (and Keynesian) economist, Osamu Shimomura, (almost unknown in the West), took the same approach in advising the post-war Japanese government on how to re-build Japanese industry in a country devastated by defeat and nuclear bombs.

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The current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is a follower of Shimomura. His policies, reapplied today, have Japan growing, after years of stagnation, at 4% per annum and with minimal inflation.

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Our leaders, however, including luminaries of both right and left, some with experience of senior roles in managing our economy – and in case it is thought impolite to name them I leave it to you to guess who they are – prefer to remain in their fearful self-imposed shackles, ignoring not only the views of experts and the experience of braver leaders in other countries and earlier times, but – surprisingly enough – denying even our own home-grown New Zealand experience.

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Many of today’s generation will have forgotten or be unaware of the brave and successful initiative taken by our Prime Minister in the 1930s – the great Michael Joseph Savage. He created new money with which he built thousands of state houses, thereby bringing an end to the Great Depression in New Zealand and providing decent houses for young families (my own included) who needed them.

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Who among our current leaders would disown that hugely valuable legacy?

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Bryan Gould, 2 October 2017

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BryanGould.com

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Freeing up the rich to exploit the poor – that’s what Trump and Brexit are about – George Monbiot. 

Freedom is a word that powerful people use to shut down thought.

Propaganda works by sanctifying a single value, such as faith, or patriotism. Anyone who questions it puts themselves outside the circle of respectable opinion. The sacred value is used to obscure the intentions of those who champion it. Today, the value is freedom. Freedom is a word that powerful people use to shut down thought.

When thinktanks and the billionaire press call for freedom, they are careful not to specify whose freedoms they mean. Freedom for some, they suggest, means freedom for all. In certain cases, this is true. You can exercise freedom of thought, for instance, without harming others. In other cases, one person’s freedom is another’s captivity.

When corporations free themselves from trade unions, they curtail the freedoms of their workers. When the very rich free themselves from tax, other people suffer through failing public services. When financiers are free to design exotic financial instruments, the rest of us pay for the crises they cause.

Above all, billionaires and the organisations they run demand freedom from something they call “red tape”. What they mean by red tape is public protection. 

The Guardian

An Example for NZ. The Dutch GreenLeft party shows new ideas can turn the tide of populism – Rutger Bregman. 

Wake Up Andrew! Labour is fast becoming irrelevant. 

Let’s be honest, rightwing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is this election’s real winner.

We seem to be forgetting that his party gained five additional seats in the Dutch parliament. And more importantly: over the past 10 years, Wilders has wrenched most of the other parties toward his position on the fringes – particularly the fiscally conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the culturally conservative Christian Democratic party (CDA), both mainstream parties with widespread support.

Suppose a denizen of the 1980s had stepped into a time machine and travelled to watch the runup to these Dutch elections. Imagine how surprised – or, more accurately, dismayed – they would be. So-called progressive and moderate politicians are currently making pronouncements that would have put them behind bars for inciting hate 30 years ago.

In 1997, a Dutch judge sentenced the far-right politician Hans Janmaat for saying “As soon as we have the power and the opportunity, we will eliminate multiculturalism.” Pretty tame compared to Wilders, who’s constantly denouncing “palaces of hatred” (mosques) and “Street terrorists” (Moroccan youth).

At the start of his campaign, current prime minister Mark Rutte of the VVD said he hated the idea of a “multicultural society”. Rutte hasn’t prevailed over the populist right, he has joined its ranks.

Remember: real politics isn’t about figureheads and seats in parliament. Real politics is about ideas. And there can be no doubt regarding the extreme ideas that have been gaining ground in the Netherlands for decades.

This election’s outcome also offers little that’s new on the economic front. A neoliberal, technocratic cabinet is departing, and a new one will take its place.

As always, the business-friendly VVD will cater to the banking and tobacco lobbies, big business and high finance. The more progressive D66 is still toeing the economic line of the 1990s. And this election barely touched on the real challenges of the 21st century: climate change, growing inequality and the rot at the heart of our banking industry.

So is there no hope? There’s always hope.

The Netherlands’ proportional democracy offers a wide menu of political flavours, and it functions significantly better than the US and British systems. And the party with the gravest dearth of ideas – the social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA) – has been mercilessly punished for it. Never before in Dutch history has a party lost so many seats.

Meanwhile, the big winners on the left are GreenLeft and the radical Party for the Animals (PvdD). Their victory isn’t enough to compensate for the swerve to the right, but it has increased the chance that the Netherlands will take serious new steps toward a sustainable economy.

The big question now is how we can turn the tide. How can history once again move in the other direction – the direction of bridges over walls, open over closed? As always, change will have to start with new ideas. Radical ones, because ideas tempered by “as long as” and “except for” won’t change the world. We now know where the strategy of the middle, of the Hillary Clintons, Tony Blairs and Lodewijk Asschers (the leader of the Dutch Labour party), leads: nowhere.

New ideas rarely come from the moderate parties in The Hague or Washington, in Brussels or Westminster. The world’s political centres are not the breeding ground for true change, but rather where it comes home to roost. Just as Wilders has been yanking the Netherlands rightward for years, Dutch politicians such as GreenLeft’s Jesse Klaver and Marianne Thieme of the Party for the Animals can pull things in the opposite direction. To do so, they can draw on new ideas – from a participatory democracy to a universal basic income, from a progressive system of taxation to a healthcare system based on cooperation and trust.

“This is not the end, but the beginning of our movement,” Klaver wrote yesterday. But for that to be true, it’s essential to avoid the freefall that has plagued the country’s Labour party since it joined the ranks of those in power: the plunge into moderation, into monotony, into wine watered down to the point of tastelessness.

Today, in the afterglow of the people’s endorsement, the heady aroma of power is understandably intoxicating. But consider this: the most influential Dutch politician of the past 15 years – Geert Wilders – has never been a part of the country’s ruling coalition.

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Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There

The Guardian

Europe’s Centre-Left Risks Irrelevance – Sheri Berman. 

JUST LIKE NEW ZEALAND’S, LABOUR NEEDS TO WISE UP!

Europe today is in crisis. Economically, much of the continent suffers from low growth, high unemployment and rising inequality, while politically, disillusionment with the European community as well as domestic institutions and elites is widespread. Partially as a result, right-wing populism is growing, increasing political instability and uncertainty even further. Although many have noted a correlation between the rise of populism and the decline of the social democratic or centre-left, the causal relationship between them has not been sufficiently stressed. Indeed, to a large degree the failures of the latter explain the surprising popularity of the former.

The historical role of the centre or social democratic left

Although the decline of social democracy and the rise of populism have become particularly noticeable since the financial crisis that began in 2008, the roots of both lie much earlier, in the 1970s. During this decade economic and social/cultural changes began unsettling long-standing voting and political patterns. Economically, the postwar order was running out of steam, and a noxious mix of unemployment and inflation hit Europe. However, social democrats lacked well thought out plans for getting economies moving again or for using the democratic state to protect citizens from the changes brought by ever-evolving capitalism.

Such plans, of course, had been precisely what social democracy had offered after 1945. Back then, social democrats had not only insisted that it was possible to reform and even improve capitalism – they devised concrete policy proposals for accomplishing this task. These policies enabled governments to contain and cushion the most destructive and destabilising consequences of markets without fettering them entirely. In contrast, during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, social democrats offered either rearguard defences of socioeconomic policies that may have made sense decades ago but which are now out of touch with the realities of a changing global economy, or else watered-down versions of neoliberalism (such as the English “Third Way” or the German “Neue Mitte”) that left many citizens wondering why they should bother to vote for the social democratic or centre-left at all.

The absence of a distinctive, effective social democratic response to economic problems allowed a neoliberal right that had been organising and thinking about what it saw as the drawbacks of the postwar order to begin freeing capitalism from many of the restrictions that had been placed on it beginning in the 1970s. And this unfettered capitalism, in turn, not only helped create the financial crisis of the early twenty-first century, it also drove many voters to the populist right which explicitly promised to reign it in and protect “true” citizens from its harshest effects.

At the same time that European economies were changing, so were European societies. Social and cultural changes unleashed in the late 1960s threatened traditional identities, communities and mores, a process further exacerbated by growing immigration. Together these trends helped erode the social solidarity and sense of shared national purpose that had supported the social democratic postwar order and helped to stabilise European democracies in the decades following the Second World War.

Historically, social democrats recognised and indeed promoted social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, identifying these as necessary to the legitimacy of high taxes and a strong welfare state. During the last decades of the twentieth century, however, this basic fact was all too often forgotten or wished away by a centre or social democratic left that lacked distinctive, effective responses to the social, cultural and demographic changes that weakened the sense of solidarity and shared national purpose across one European country after another.

The absence of a distinctive, effective social democratic response to growing diversity allowed the extreme or multicultural left to become the loudest left-wing voice on this issue. This camp tends to see society as divided into irreconcilable groups, with different values and traditions all around. Efforts to find common ground or ease differences, in this view, are undesirable and counterproductive.

This emphasis on the “politics of recognition” – as opposed to the centre-left’s traditional emphasis on the “politics of redistribution” – was bad for the left and bad for democracy. It led many intellectuals away from a focus on economic issues and fragmented the left in a way that makes it hard to build majority coalitions and win elections. It also makes it almost impossible to generate the social solidarity or shared sense of national purpose that is necessary to support the rest of the centre-left agenda or healthy democracy more generally. And of course, a stress on the primacy of racial, religious, or sexual identity over class or even national identity, along with the implicit and often explicit denigration of those worried about the rapidly changing nature of their societies, has also helped to drive many voters to the nationalist, populist right.

The current crisis

It is now fairly commonplace to note the support given by traditionally left or social democratic voters to the populist right. This connection was on obvious display in the Brexit referendum, where many traditional Labour strongholds and supporters voted to leave the EU, and it has been a prominent feature of elections across the continent as working-class voters in particular have flocked to right-wing populist parties. And of course, a version of this was present in the United States, where Donald Trump garnered disproportionate support from less-educated and working-class voters. What is still worth stressing, however, is the causal connection between the failures or missteps of the centre or social democratic left and the rise of right-wing populism.

During the decades following the Second World war, centre-left and social democratic parties offered attractive solutions to the economic and social challenges facing European democracies. They promised citizens an economic order that neither erased capitalism (as many on the far left desired) nor gave it free rein (as classical liberals and contemporary neoliberals favour). Instead, they promised citizens the benefits of capitalist economic dynamism and innovation as well as to shield them from capitalism’s sometimes destructive effects.

The centre or social democratic left also promoted social solidarity and a sense of national purpose – welfare states would protect the health and well-being of all citizens and government would commit itself to creating an equal and prosperous society that benefited all. By the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the centre or social democratic left no longer had convincing responses to the most pressing economic and social challenges facing European societies, and voters accordingly began looking for other political alternatives.

For many former or traditionally left voters, the most attractive alternative turned out to be the populist right, which offered simple, straightforward solutions to citizens’ economic and social fears. Economically, the populist right promises to promote prosperity, via increased government control of the economy and limits on globalisation. Socially, the populist right promises to restore social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, by expelling foreigners or severely limiting immigration; diminishing the influence of the European Union, and protecting traditional values, identities and mores.

For those who bemoan the rise of the populist right, the challenge is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing and if the left can’t come up with more viable and attractive solutions to contemporary problems than those offered by its competitors it can expect to continue its slide into the dustheap of history.
Social Europe