The Advance of Heterodoxy?

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Last November, soon after the election of Trump, I made the following comment in a forum post:

If liberalism (meant in the European sense, not the American sense) is starting to come apart at the seams, it is noteworthy that it is being challenged from the Right, not the Left. I have remarked before about the incredible weakness of western social democracy, notwithstanding the Global Financial Crisis and the apparent discrediting of free market economics. While America does things differently (the Democrats have never truly been a class-based party), I think the Trump victory can be seen within that sort of narrative.

At the moment different groups on the Left are trying to pursue one of three avenues:

  • Defend the liberal Establishment. The US Democrats were best equipped to do this, because (as mentioned above), they don’t rely on class identifiers, and can comfortably include the poor (who voted Hillary) in their coalition with the high income and cosmopolitan. Yet it wasn’t enough. Social Democrats elsewhere are in a much worse position, because party leadership (wedded to the orthodoxies of the pre-GFC era) and their voter base are increasingly at odds. To get Marxist for a moment – the economic conditions that created powerful Social Democratic Parties in the West are arguably no longer present.
  • Heterodox radicalism. I would put both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in this category. The difficulty here is that, just like some latter day 1960s, this appeals more strongly to a niche of young, urban, and highly educated people than the population at large, and the one recent example of such radicalism gaining power – Syriza in Greece – resulted in it folding under pressure from the resolute Establishment. Corbyn’s Labour Party itself is basically engulfed in a sort of on-going civil war.
  • Traditional Far-Left/Communists. Depending on the country, they’re still out there, but haven’t seen any particular uptick in support as a result of the GFC, and remain on the fringes (where they are perhaps happiest anyway). If the Western Far-Right is seeing a boom, the Far-Left isn’t going anywhere. This is a key point of difference with the 1930s experience.

So where does the Left go from here? I haven’t the foggiest. A world where centre-right squabbles with far-right within the ruins of political liberalism might be on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Since then, things have changed. The high tide of Far-Right populism seems to be receding, based off the French Presidential election, while heterodox leftism has had a new lease on life in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in Britain. The electoral solution for social democracy at the moment appears to be full-throated radicalism to mobilise the young and the educated, while also doing enough to keep the traditional working class base voting the right way. An interesting juggling act, which Hillary Clinton utterly failed to pull off, though Corbyn nearly managed it (emphasis on ‘nearly’ – buried under UK Labour’s otherwise excellent performance were some weak results in the old mining seats).

As things stand, I think there are two issues:

  • What was once a class divide largely based off income and inheritance has become a class divide largely based off education. There has been a decoupling of education and income – Trump’s biggest supporters were the high income, low education crowd, whereas it is now entirely possible to have a university degree and be poor. The educated are the ones flocking to the banner of heterodox leftism – less so, the less educated.
  • The elephant in the room is that we have yet to see how a government in the post neoliberal age actually functions. Syriza, as noted, folded. Would “market forces” destroy Corbyn in the way they hamstrung Francois Mitterand in the early 1980s, or would Brexit and a viable return to capital control give him breathing space? We will have to wait and see.

The only thing we can say for certain is that the reign of post-ideological managerialism is now over: the neoliberal consensus that has ruled the West for nearly four decades is facing the same crisis that the old Keynesian consensus confronted in the 1970s. The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born, as Gramsci’s old saying goes, and one need not look very far for the monsters.

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