It is ironic that ten years after a global financial crisis, which was largely provoked by the recklessness of the private sector, we see leftist political parties become so marginalised, while those on the right have risen or further consolidated their grip on power.
The Democrats in the US haven’t been in such a weak position since the past century. The Labour Party in England, the Social Democrats in Sweden and Germany, the left in France, Spain and in Scandinavia, are all experiencing all-time low support.
While the left never had a fair chance to take off in many authoritarian countries like our own, ultranationalist and religious conservatives are doing quite well across much of the ‘developing’ world too. Although socialists and communists did gain significant prominence in countries like India, their position continues to weaken under the politically divisive but business-friendly leadership of Modi.
However, the question to ask is: why is the world seeing a decline in progressive, left leaning, and egalitarian political aspirations?
The economic systems established in Western democracies in the post-World War II era — with large unionised workforces, manufacturing sectors, regulated economies and safety nets — have been unravelling since the past few decades. The forces of globalisation and liberalisation have been growing stronger, and use of market mechanisms has been adopted to provide a range of services previously considered the domain of the public sector.
Politicians like Bill Clinton, Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder won elections on free trade rather than leftist ideas, and such leaders helped steer their parties away from left-wing tendencies. Bernie Sanders, the only man who could have taken away voters from President Trump, was not even given a ticket by the Democrats.
The centre-left has not been able to offer new ideas for promoting growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend outdated policies or else proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the centre-right.
The centre-left has also been nonplussed by the challenge of increasing diversity. Post-colonial Europe created strong welfare states which gave citizens a sense that their governments were looking after them and the gains from economic growth were distributed reasonably fairly. But growing migration from former colonies, and the diversity that they have created within the West has put significant pressure on the notion of social solidarity. In many cases, this has fragmented the traditional left, due to its inability to deal with mass immigration and multiethnic populations.
The resulting uneasy presence of others in their midst has created space for more contentious political alternatives. Traditional neoliberals may not be against migrants, but they do want to see more cuts to the welfare state, greater leeway for markets and further limits on state regulation of the economy. Such solutions, however, offer little respite to those suffering from inequality, stagnating incomes and job losses. Neoliberal prescriptions also ignore the anger and sense of alienation of these people, which has driven them towards the populist right.
The populist right acknowledges the downsides of globalisation. It favours maintaining the social safety net and an activist state. It pairs this, however, with anti-liberal, if not antidemocratic, positions, including scapegoating of immigrants and hostility towards blue-collar workers in other parts of the world.
It is unfortunate to see the developed and developing countries lurching towards authoritarianism, hate-mongering and tribalism.
World politics has now become obsessed by notions of identity, race, religion, and ethnic identity, hence the current dilemma of the left. The new left should learn from its past mistakes and help inspire a sense of solidarity which is not confined to a limited number of people, or to specific geographies. And aim to articulate ideologies and systems of governance as well as economic distribution, which aim to achieve transnational egalitarianism.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2018.