The Lost Left and the Way Forward

[This piece was prompted by Has the Left Surrendered? by Richard Eskow on Campaign for America’s Future, a good source of sensible US commentary.  His article was in turn prompted by Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals by Adolph Reed Jr in Harper’s magazine. ]

trickle-downThe political parties of the Left, in the US, UK and Australia, lost their way when they swallowed the free-market mantra.  They became merely neoliberalism-lite.  They implemented the market-fundamentalist program, and then applied bandaids to the wounds thus inflicted.  They yielded the initiative, became defensive and reactive, and were steadily pushed, dragged and wedged ever-further to the right.  They are now well to the right of the conservative parties of four or five decades ago.  The former-left parties are now a huge impediment to real progressive politics, entrenched in that political space but betraying it on a daily basis.

Despite continuing soul-searching among those who recognised and deplored this process, there has yet to emerge any unifying alternative, beyond a catalogue of the many disparate social and environmental causes and groups that attempt to continue, with diminishing success, the old Left’s concern for ordinary people and their world.  Indeed no alternative can emerge unless and until the core meme of neoliberalism is confronted.

The core meme of neoliberalism is that free markets are best.  This meme has by now become the ocean in which we swim, and therefore don’t even see.  A whole generation has grown up enveloped by this memetic ocean.  Our oblivion concedes, by default, Margaret Thatcher’s infamous TINA proclamation: There Is No Alternative.  Well hogwash and horse feathers!  TAWAA: there always was an alternative.  There still is and still can be.

No, I don’t mean socialism.  I mean simply that free markets, unfettered markets, markets left to themselves, are not best.  Markets are like wild horses:  powerful, but there is no reason to expect them to deliver a desirable or beneficial result, or to deliver it efficiently.  Markets can do good things, but they are just as likely to do bad things, especially if we are naive enough to allow rich and powerful people to dominate and manipulate them.  It is up to us to manage markets so they deliver what we want.  It is up to us to decide what we want.

Neoliberalism did not triumph because it was founded on a compelling truth.  It triumphed through long and careful preparation, well-financed marketing, buying candidates, and smart tactical politics.  Neoliberalism was in fact built on the sands of a preposterous theory and sordid self interest.

The preposterous theory is what economists know as the neoclassical theory.  This theory concludes that free markets will bring about a general equilibrium, in which all supplies balance all demands.  Even better, it purports to prove the general equilibrium is the most efficient conceivable economy.  That is a grand claim, an absolute claim, a seductive claim.  And it is horse manure.

The neoclassical theory is preposterous nonsense because it is built on preposterous assumptions.  We are all supposed to be able to foresee all future contingencies and their probabilities.  We are supposed to rationally calculate our optimal life course.  We are not supposed to be influenced by fads or fashions, nor by altruism or compassion.  There should be no economies of scale beyond some ill-defined point of diminishing returns;  just pretend Henry Ford and Bill Gates never existed.

The neoclassical theory’s central prediction, the general equilibrium, is also preposterous.  During a financial crash, the markets are far from equilibrium.  New technologies emerge all the time, upsetting any possible equilibrium of market sectors.  The rich getting rich is an instability.  The need for perpetual growth reflects an underlying instability.  Modern market economies do not gently oscillate around a balance point like a rocking horse.  They are cauldrons of change, dynamic and far from equilibrium, more like wild horses.

Such systems are well understood in other fields of knowledge, where they are called self-organising systems or complex systems.  There can be no pretence, in such systems, of an optimal general equilibrium.  It follows there can be no assurance that free markets are best.  Free markets are best only in an abstract fantasy world.  There is no general conclusion we can reach about free markets in a real modern economy:  they may be efficient, or not, and they may be beneficial, or not.

As one pillar of neoliberalism crumbles, the other is exposed for what it is:  the blatant self-interest of the rich.  The neoclassical theorists told the rich the best thing they can do is make money as fast as they can.  Naturally the fat cats loved this message, and rewarded the messengers with money and influence.  But the real message of neoliberalism is the age-old message of the powerful:  we know best and you’re here to serve us.

The way forward, for progressives, is to recognise that markets can and should be managed, for the general benefit.  We already have the tools to manage markets: incentives and disincentives.  Just eliminating many perverse incentives, such as subsidising polluters, would already make us better off.  Judiciously rewarding beneficial activities will be far more effective than retroactive penalties for bad behaviour.

We can re-assert the pre-eminence of society over the economy:  we can choose the kind of society we want to be, and tailor the economy to support that aspiration.  Democracy can prevail over the subversive rich.  In a sensibly run economy there will be no conflict between “the economy” and social welfare, nor will there be any conflict with “the environment”, because a healthy society and a healthy planet are essential for healthy and fulfilling lives.

This path is not Left or Right, it transcends the old left-right divide.  We can leave behind the clumsiness and abuses of an economy run by giant government bureaucracies.  We can leave behind the clumsiness and abuses of an economy run by giant corporations. We can achieve the social justice goals of the old Left by different and more effective means.  We can cultivate the initiative and self-reliance cherished by conservatives, but not at the expense of others, and we can do it with smaller, more effective government.

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9 thoughts on “The Lost Left and the Way Forward

  1. Angela

    Easier said than done. The corporate oligarchies now control the world’s economies. Free trade, corruption and co-ooption have created a perfect storm of environmental, social and economic disasters for the 99%,.

    Enough dissussion and theorising about how we got here. How do we seize back power for the people before the planet is completely trashed by these sociopaths of industr?,

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    1. Geoff Davies Post author

      I share your frustration Angela. I think many people are uneasy or unhappy with the way things are, but are only vaguely aware of the seriousness of the problem, and are not clear what went wrong. So those of us “awake” can by all means get active, but we also need to bring a lot more people along with us. Much of my writing is an attempt to cut through the mainstream chatter and get more focus on the serious issues.

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  2. Simon Davies

    Hi Geoff, you might have a bit of Welsh ancestry like me, my surname is the same as yours, and my father is from Cardiff. Groups like Positive Money here in the UK are raising awareness of the broken system of money, and propose a better way of doing things rather than ever increasing debt. They now have over 22,000 supporters in about 3 years. We have a lot of work to do educating the public, and trying to get the media, some economists and politicians on our side. Many people are ill informed about how money and economics work, and some politicians as we know work for vested interests rather than society, but I am encouraged that more people are becoming aware of the issues. I have been talking to an economist in Australia who works for one of the big investment banks, fellow called Saul Eslake. He is very knowledgeable, but not entirely sympathetic to monetary reform ideas, or stopping banks creating “credit”, which then becomes debt and new money, mainly because he thinks that the government (not the central bank) will decide how much money is created, and they will create too much. This is not really the basis of Positive Money’s solution, although I have had a very interesting discourse with him. Regards Simon Davies

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    1. Geoff Davies Post author

      Thanks for your comments Simon. I know of Saul Eslake, but don’t follow him. I just reading about Modern Money Theory (a primer), which (so far) clarifies much about banking systems (esp US) and creation of credit. http://neweconomicperspectives.org/bookstore. Astonishing how complex and confused the subject is.

      Of course all token money is debt (a promise, and a claim). My book advocates mutual credit and minimising debt, rather than the present system that tends to maximise debt.

      Charles Davies, son of Charles Davies, arrived in Oz in the 1840s and married a grand-daughter of first fleeters. (So I’m Oz royalty!). My great-great grandfather.

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  3. Simon Davies

    Further to previous post, my father Bill has been looking at money and banking for over 40 years. He is a retired engineer, and like many, realised that current economic theory could not adequately explain why the money system is broken. He became interested in the subject after the great inflation in the UK in the 1970s. His web site is http://www.legalforgery.com
    I became interested in monetary reform from my father’s work, and because I had savings with Northern Rock when it went bust back in September 2007. I have 20 years experience working in IT, doing systems analysis and programming.
    It is notable that scientists like yourself Geoff, engineers, and IT systems people are providing explanations for the current system and providing solutions, unlike the economics profession. I have a lot of respect for Saul Eslake, although I did mention this point to him, and he replied that economics is not a “hard” science like Maths, Physics or Chemistry. I don’t think this is a good enough reason to excuse economists for their lack of insight into the recent financial crisis, and the chief economist at Leeds University Business School told me recently that more reliable methods had to be used, so economics could regain some lost credibility. I mentioned to Saul Eslake (who is based in Melbourne), that I had read a bit of Steve Keen’s work and he has met him.

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  4. Thorbjørn Thiesen

    I have enjoyed reading the article, and I am working with a translation to danish. We are in a deep poodle of mainstream economic., and it is very difficult to convince people, and get them to understand that they are getting screwed by the politicans who think they are Gods gift to the earth. I’ll let you know when i have pupliced it.

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  5. Pingback: Countering neoliberalism: A new life for Labor? | Better Nature: commentary by Geoff Davies

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