Let’s face it: today’s left is in a terrible muddle, caught between a world that once was and a world that still isn’t. Most of the time, it just seems to be playing defence. And not doing that terribly well.
The basic reason for this is simple. Capitalism is in a long transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, services-based model of society and so far the transition has not gone well. As this transition unfolded in the last two or three decades of the 20th century, Western capitalist societies saw a distinct slowdown in economic growth, twinned with a startling rise in inequality. The early 21st century continued these trends with the global financial crisis of 2007-08 dealing a grievous blow to advanced economies.
The left’s potential coalition has shifted dramatically as the industrial working class has declined precipitously in numbers and moved to the right. It includes minorities and women who appreciate the fall of barriers to their full participation in society and the economy and see progressive government as a guarantor of further upward mobility. It includes professionals and the highly-educated who have fared relatively well from the transition, support the emerging cosmopolitan values of post-industrial society and see government as a provider of essential services and investments such a society needs. It also includes younger generations who support these new values, know that their future lies in post-industrial society and want government to help them find their place within it.
The rise of the disparate new constituencies in the left’s new coalition has accentuated the possibilities for division. This is particularly noticeable in Europe, where left strength is frequently diffused across several different parties (social democratic, left socialist, green, left social liberal, left populist, etc.) that regard each other with suspicion.
The idea that capitalism is going to solve its ongoing problems with modest tweaks has been completely discredited. Inequality has now risen to such high levels it is non-functional. It holds down growth, it holds down living standards, it holds down upward mobility among the young, it leaves entire economic regions behind and it absolutely destroys healthy politics. The left must commit unreservedly to a policy agenda that pushes back sharply against these trends and does not accept the current model of capitalism.
The world has become much more open on many different levels in past decades. There is far more tolerance and equality by gender, race and ethnicity than there ever has been before. There are far more connections, economic and otherwise, among the peoples of the world and far more mixing of cultures. This is, on balance, a very good thing and the left must embrace it. Younger generations clearly do. There is no going back anyway to a closed, tradition-bound world. You can’t run history in reverse.
Historically, capitalist growth has occurred in long waves, driven by confluences of major technological and institutional change. The left should be all about untapping that potential and riding the long wave. That’s how living standards will finally go up. That’s how green energy, an integral part of current technological change, will finally come into its own and end the threat of global warming. The left should not be afraid of a vision of an abundant, sustainable future. It can be done but only if they ride the long wave.