To Save Liberalism & Democracy, Liberals Must Embrace Ideas From The Left
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
"No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable."
- Adam Smith
The Right are winning across the globe ― and will continue to win ― because liberals and socialists, the two major ideological factions which make up the progressive Left, cannot reach a political consensus. In fact, currently, both sides are actively seeking to undermine the other.
Be under no illusion, almost every post-1945 progressive government in the West has been built on a broad coalition of liberals and socialists. Tony Blair could not have won in 1997 without such a coalition, as Clement Attlee could not have won in 1945 without one either. Brexit and leadership issues aside, Jeremy Corbyn failed to win in 2019 because he was stuck in a war on two fronts: one against the populist Right (the Tories & Brexit Party) and the other against continuity liberals (the People's Vote). Indeed, for Joe Biden to become President of the United States in 2020, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party *needs* Sanders-inspired socialists to get out and vote for him in spite of their own antipathy towards him and his politics.
All in all, there can be no immediate path to power for socialists nor liberals without each other. What's more, as Biden might very well find, if liberals choose to alienate socialists when in office ― their tenure will be short and their policy-impact upon society will be totally inert.
Liberals and socialists, by nature, will never fully agree on issues. However, there is one thing both sides can temporarily unite around ― and that is that our current model of capitalism, whether you call it "neoliberalism" or "crony capitalism", is very much broken. Since the financial crisis of 2008, Western economies have remained stagnant and its people have become progressively poorer. For the young especially, the current system has all but trashed their futures and shackled them to a gloomy life of low wages, precarious employment, little-to-no savings, unpayable debts and predatory landlordism.
On top of that, we are on the precipice of an environmental crisis which, even at the most conservative of estimates, will fundamentally disrupt society as we all know it. Many communities will suffer, and many people will die.
The solution to these crises ― environmental, economic, social and political ― requires a radical shift from the economic status-quo liberalism has traditionally aligned itself with since the 1980s and Thatcher's free market revolution.
And this is where liberals must compromise. In order to preserve the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism ― individual liberty, equality under the law, the social contract ― liberals must decisively break away from the rotten economic ideology at the core of these simultaneous crises. Otherwise, xenophobic and authoritarian forces across the globe will continue to grow and evolve ― fuelled, in part, by the very collapse of this economic model and the inertia to break free from it. Thus, the threat of a resurgent Fascism, the deterioration of democracy, and the end of liberal society itself, grows stronger each day the system is kept alive.
But this does *not* mean the end of capitalism ― quite the contrary. And this is where socialists must compromise too. There is no widespread support amongst the electorate, at least for the time being, to end capitalism and subsequently establish socialist society. Furthermore, certain institutions and nuclei of capitalist power ― traditionally in conflict with socialists ― will have to be safeguarded in order to defeat the Right and enter a stable coalition with liberals.
Ultimately, ending neoliberalism means crafting a different kind of capitalism which is able to, at least temporarily, adequately address the major problems we are facing as a society and species: wealth inequality, poverty, climate breakdown and the hollowing out of democracy.
Think of it as a "Radical Continuityism". In order to preserve the basis of liberal capitalist democracy, there needs to be immediate structural overhaul of our economies and societies. This is where parts of the Left's policy platform ― articulated by the likes of Corbyn and Sanders ― is key. It doesn't mean going on Palestinian solidarity marches, or reading all three volumes of Das Kapital, but it does mean that liberals recognise a) their own ideological parameters are limited, especially in the current context; and b) socialism is a legitimate political movement with valuable insights and suggestions.
The reality is, given the scale of the crises we are facing, and the severity of the threat from the Right, radicalism is the only moderate option. Shutting your eyes and pretending it's the 90s will not lead you out of this mess, as much as some liberals wish it were so. In fact, doing so will only strengthen the Right and hasten the arrival of the Neo-Fascist dystopia which presently awaits us all, socialist and liberal alike, unless we can change course.
But what do the policies look like in this liberal-socialist consensus?
Fix the economy. After the 2008 financial crisis, a decade of austerity, and now Covid-19, the economy is in desperate need of restructuring. As a result, there should be state coordination of the economy ― working strategically alongside the private sector ― to both protect and create jobs, foster growth, and oversee the introduction of a Green New Deal. In some cases, this will require bringing certain industries into public ownership.
Invest in the future. There can be no return to austerity. In the short-term, states should enact a Keynesian fiscal stimulus to create new jobs, foster growth, and encourage new enterprise and innovation. For instance, public infrastructure should be updated; low-cost housing should be built to address the housing crisis; and regional investment banks should be set up to ensure investment and economic prosperity is shared by all parts of a country, not just the epicentres of financial capital.
Save the environment. The introduction of a Green New Deal which not only seeks to rapidly decarbonise the economy, but to also hand ownership of these new industries to people and communities as opposed to predatory shareholders looking to make a quick buck.
Address inequality. An end to multi-national tax evasion; the introduction of a fairer taxation system which seeks to tax wealth as well as income; and to curb the worst excess of corporate greed via limiting the rights of shareholders and, in some cases, breaking up large conglomerates to protect democracy and prevent market monopolisation. Unproductive profit-seeking activities, such as rentierism, should also be actively discouraged.
Deepen & strengthen democracy. Proportional representation in national elections; devolving centralised power to encourage local democracy and give communities a greater degree of agency; and a progressive foreign policy which seeks to promote democracy abroad and not do business with despot states ― especially, by not selling weapons to them!
Press reform. Simply put, the very wealthy should not have a monopoly over public discourse nor dictate the terms of political debate for their own financial ends.
A liberal-socialist coalition ― which genuinely seeks to stave off our Rightward descent and address the major problems facing society ― must embrace these kinds of policies as the absolute minimum. Radical as they might seem to some liberals now, capitalism is not suddenly going to fix itself ― in times of crisis historically, it never has. Both sides must compromise a degree of their own ideological purity for the benefit of all.
And a final note on capitalism itself: capitalism is neither eternal nor does it have a divine right to rule. In the immediate, yes, we have to save liberal capitalism by creating a new kind of liberal capitalism ― but the system will always be dogged by internal contradictions and injustice, especially as we move deeper into the 21st century. Any new capitalism we create should therefore also have the courage and confidence to embrace new ideas and new forms of social interaction and economic organisation; the DNA, perhaps, for a new kind of system to later evolve.
The Baby boomers have no widespread appetite to move beyond capitalism ― but the next generation might. And that is a decision for our children and grandchildren, not the ushers of a broken world who now must put it back together again.