Now that capital is global, the future will be determined at the level of world governance. If the left wants to represent labour, it will have to organise internationally.
Margaret Thatcher understood a simple heuristic that eludes the left today. If you want to make radical change, don’t call yourself a radical. A conservative promising a neo-Victorian golden age of traditional British values, Thatcher actually inaugurated a fundamentally radical transition through her policies. The strategy of promising a return to a ‘true past’ is one in which the right are gifted the world over, the nationalist wave since circa 2016 offering symptomal healing for chronic conditions that will require more than the haemorrhoid cream of golden-age nostalgia.
Much of the left’s disarray today, having performed poorly in European national elections in the last decade, lies in its debate around radicalism and how far traditional Marxist models are the road forward, with Gidden’s third way and social democracy increasingly maligned as anachronistic sell-outs stuck in the 1990s. While the left looks set to have a comeback — the SPD being likely to be the largest party in Germany’s upcoming Bundestag elections — getting beyond its malaise in the last decade will require moving past this debate. We need a new analysis of the global economy today — which will include moving past the idea that nineteenth-century Marxism and twentieth-century nation-based socialism are the only available options. We need to realise that radical change is upon us, whether we like it or not. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is uprooting the nation state’s power, its capacity to have oversight of the economy and its power to legislate for a global economy in which the average nation state is just one small part. It will be necessary, therefore, for the left to realise that collective bargaining in federalist blocs will be the new normal, and adjusting to this reality is the only way to realise political ends in tomorrow’s world. Even keeping things the same is to permit a radical change. Conservatives’ policies the world over — as typify the standard conservative response — is a radical ignoring. The seminal change of 4IR will happen with or without them. The fallacy is that we can reuse the politics of yesterday and expect a return to its (purported) glories.
The secessionist direction of the new conservatism, which is currently winning the popularity contest, is a big error in this respect. Progressives in Britain, many of them young people, realised this when they shed tears for their country on 24 June 2016. To admit one’s grief about Brexit is to invite ridicule as a limp-waisted liberal. Those who are still alienated by Britain’s domestic politics knew that it was the equivalent of cutting off one’s limbs in the struggle to promote wealth-sharing and democratic oversight of an economy that works for all citizens, the majority of them labouring and employed. While British secessionism claims to chase sovereignty, it runs in the opposite direction. The success of reactionary politics has certainly given British progressive politicians pause. As a political faction it has become paralysed on this subject in recent years, reticent about promoting an internationalist, pro-EU politics, its wetted finger held aloft, detecting the ill winds blowing against that politics. There is even a proposal for a ‘blue Labour,’ an economically-left, socially-right party that responds to anti-immigration feeling and presumably anti-European federalism. This amalgamation has emerged as a potent political product in Poland’s PiS party, the AfD in Germany and in diluted, mainstream form in the UK’s Conservative Party. The left’s temptation to play this game is strong — but doubtful electorally and certainly a liability in the long run.
I suspect that the window of opportunity is closing on the left’s ability to shape the global institutions and norms of tomorrow. Without a global left, labour will simply not stand a chance. There are internecine fractures in how nations are handling this seminal shift into 4IR. This political freakout is a consequence of the challenges in dealing with inequality and its attendant problems arising in this globalising world, which a course unlikely to be altered by the pandemic as has been argued, if one thinks as a historical materialist. Who owns capital, how it is distributed, how the economy operates, meeting society’s needs including a reasonable cost of living and low-cost access to skilling. Western democracy’s capacity to steer a viable course into the future of globalisation is imperilled by how badly we are being hit by these changes. Ageing societies inured to the notion that the nation state is king are burying their heads in the sand regarding the problems that globalisation creates in a national economy and politics, in part because of their insulation from those problems. Most of societies’ capital are tied up in assets owned by baby boomers and older, with millennials most exposed to high rents and job precarity. A majority of eligible voters, then, believe in shrinking into national borders and trickle-down economics, despite the first- and second-hand proof job precarity we all encounter, unaffordable costs of living in big cities where most jobs are to be found, and with no guarantee that most unskilled and even skilled jobs will still be there in 20 years due to automation, from truck drivers and fast food workers to translators and service sector jobs. This is not least because free market designs, unlike China’s state capitalism, does not organise its resources coherently to the interests of society.
Thomas Piketty forecasts that our epoch is heading for a return to "eighteen-century levels of inequality", that has not been seen since courtiers wore the powdered wigs of Louis XIV’s reign. We are headed for a techno-feudalism. It is perhaps a Malthusian fallacy that there won’t be enough jobs. Incidentally, Malthusian thinking is from the Right: since the eighteenth century, conservatives — a political school of thought from the pre-industrial period, imagines that an economy is fixed. Conservative thinking, much as it claims its own permanence, is based on the proposition that we do nothing in order to preserve society, and won’t last forever. There are many political dialectics in world history that do not have a left and right in the way that has become the norm of our historical-cultural context. The conservative notion that a society is fixed and history as static is rather crazy considering the transformations of the last twenty, or even ten, years. Just think of our difference to the egalitarian, matriarchal, relatively peaceable and long-living tribal societies before the agricultural revolution gave rise to the early states. The historical materialist (Marxist) view, by contrast, is that society is constantly transformed by technology. Consumption requires a large body of citizens with the disposal income to consume. For this reason there wasn’t a mercantilist economy in the feudal era.
In addition to many Western societies’ attachment to the nation state, its free marketism that has been taken as scripture since the 1980s is likely to exacerbate our current problems. There is no guarantee that a market naturally attains a peaceful equilibrium that works for everyone. The first industrial revolution is testament enough, given that it brought with a low quality of living far inferior to pre-agricultural tribal societies, extant examples of which, still living in the Amazon and other modest locales around the world as generations before have, might be considered a true ‘conservatism’: something I doubt laissez-faire conservatives have in mind. Not to mention, much of our consumption, which is necessary to keep our economy going, is increasingly supported by credit, a cheat that won’t be sustainable for long. Savings among young workers in the West are at a record low. This debt-based model — which has supported the low-wage, high consumption status quo of free marketism — will not go on forever. It is certainly not a good model for the real unit of value: the quality of life and individual stability.
Even access to skilling oneself through higher education — that indispensable ticket to enter the labour market — is expensive and unequal. The academisation of jobs for those boomers entered as school leavers and the marketisation of higher ed since the 1990s has failed the goal of expanding access to education. It has been a sleight of hand that shifted the burden of skilling from employer to employee, with the auxiliary benefit of keeping young adults out of the unemployment statistics. Burdening those skilling themselves with debt is an anti-labour system, one not operating in the interests of society’s members but the preferences of the market. In a competitive, changing market where people now have multiple careers, not a safe job for life, our higher ed system is symptomatic of our failed management of globalisation’s first decades.
We are, then, as ageing societies drawn to a politics of nationalism and marketisation, politically ill-equipped to respond to a changing reality in which the nation state is becoming defunct and our economic model is showing diminishing social returns. A big challenge amid this Hieronymus Bosch pastoral scene in which we are living will be to develop a progressive movement that emphasises that governance will be at the IGO (inter-governmental organisation) level. It is also becoming increasingly federalised in the European sense: of large regional blocs like the EU, with other regional bodies including the emerging African Union (AU) and ASEAN developing policy platforms that pass over the heads of national governments and will affect the lives of citizens belonging to nation states, who presently lack a strong presence at the IGO level. In other words, we have an emerging democratic and labour representation crisis at the most meaningful level of political organisation for the next century and beyond. International governance is fast becoming the consequential political arena in which the map for the global economy — and therefore our national and personal destinies — will be drawn. There will be a race to capture those institutions as they grow. It is easier to lay the roots of the foundation than to dig them up when they are entrenched, entangled and hardened. It is particularly concerning that in our national political systems, an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth at the top means that institutional and economic expertise is monopolised by those who can pay for those services. This is not least because the highest-paying, high-prestige professions are those which support the interests of capital. The lawyers, lobbyists and consultants who service them often work in those jobs to ameliorate their own debts and compete in the self-same ecosystem of high living costs and low demand for labour which their work indirectly perpetuates. Democratising access and influence of IGOs is therefore the same problem internationally as it is nationally, interest capture of institutions being the corollary of the unequal social system.
I suggest we need a movement for IGO influence to legislate for globalisation and the wealth inequality that migrates across the globe, beyond the reach of national governments. The left needs to see personal, local and national interests as only being meaningfully resolved at the root at the international level via large-scale collective bargaining. Federalism is the new model for social democratic action. The economic interests of social equality, wealth distribution and labour rights must be organised at this level — or we will be hostages to a wild west of a globalised market in which the exigencies of a dysfunctional marketplace, that does not distribute capital efficiently or employ people in tenable conditions, are prioritised over social needs.
The idea that the future of political action lies at the international level — in a form of ‘world government’ — is considered laughable. Yet those with economic knowledge including Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz are clear that globalisation will require globalised governance structures. Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) that global action at the the inter-governmental level will be required to regulate international capital. In other words, political forms need to adapt. Such as the state was once a novel form, with people governed as principalities in eighteenth-century Germany or federal like the Habsburg Empire, this latest adaptation is entirely logical.
We can already see that politics is changing. A primitive, gut reaction politics to globalisation has materialised in the form of Trump & co. It has heralded an anti-expert wave, based on an idea on an antagonism between expertise and popular will. This seems to come out of the lived reality that the educated classes, including the political class and those grey-suited managers of the economy, have presided over a drop in real wages and an associated drop in living standards. It will therefore take imagination for the left to conceive of an effective and popular politics that prioritises expertise while supporting Jo/e Public’s interests and persuades the public of their integrity.
A challenge will be ensuring those govern transparently in the interests of the majority of citizens. The EU is an ideal bloc to do this with institutional and cultural commitments to democracy; though even the EU, advanced as it is in integrating democracy to federalist governance, will require further democratisation given the democratic deficit in the European Commission and European Council, and and in public oversight of the Troika (the Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF)) as a whole. Notwithstanding the tumult in Britain in the last five years, I think it very likely that political imperatives and the direction of history will push Britain (or England and what remains of the UK, should Scottish separatism succeed) back into the EU fold within the next 50 years; which would be too late for millennials, who are fast appearing a lost generation, but better late than never.
Given that culture does not keep pace with technological change, I fear that the left will arrive too late to the party, with the IGO governance structures of the new globalised economy post-4IR being determined by those with wealth and interests in perpetuating a chronically unequal system. As our democratic fractures show, democracies are uniquely vulnerable to exogenous shocks like big transformational changes as we are undergoing. With generational difference of ideas about what system of political organisation can work at our seminal point in history and an internal, ideological power struggle over direction, democracies are not best-adapted to quick, decisive action compared to the unilateral authoritarian systems of Russia, China and even authoritarian regimes within democracies like Modi’s India. China’s state capitalism is a big lesson that there is a smorgasbord of options available; and the West needs to develop one that is democratic but mitigates our vulnerabilities in efficiency and decisiveness. A global left therefore has to be aware of the pitfalls we find ourselves in regarding rhetoric, policy efficacy, co-ordinating globally and drawing on expertise.
Optimistically, technological change has given us the tools to combat its ill effects. The global problems of our world economy will require global solutions; and how better than to use the internet to organise our intellectual resources and people power to this end? Developing a dual strategy of expert-informed, institutionally-based global leftism, alongside a dispersed people power movement cultivated vibrantly online, will be important.
This comes back to the role of ideas and persuasion in global left action. The platform we need is one in which the issues of globalisation are directly addressed: job security, economic rights for all including proper income relief, economic distribution, transparent democratic oversight of politics and the economy, the right to skill oneself for free in a frequently changing economy without a cap on how often we re-skill. This latter point about giving citizens the tools to navigate a competitive, automating economy is particularly important, being of collective benefit to society and ensuring individuals are not saddled with debt for acquiring necessary resources for entry into the market. The ability to pay for basics is another key question of economic rights: citizens should have equal, universal access to good, affordable housing, which practically means rent caps and price controls more generally. It also means having a long-term economic strategy to invest in jobs in renewables and to generate energy cleanly. These problems can increasingly only be solved at the supranational level. It will mean rethinking attachment to those twin sacred objects: the nation and the unregulated market.
It is, of course, a tight rope to walk in to keep societies ticking over in the current economy while legislating for a fast-changing future. Money will remain the problem in this endeavour. The two competing forms of power are the vote and monied interests who can challenge the power of the vote. As a historical rule, wealth colonises power. This means we need to ensure that capture of political institutions during this seminal shift is by the demos, not by monied interests. The vote remains the key to governance, that hard-won battle for popular power having been gifted to us by our industrial-revolution forebears. We now have to collectively ensure the domestic integrity and international relevance of those institutions.
This means arguing for a democratic revolution in global institutions — and having a global suffrage movement to implement and strengthen the power of the vote and deliberative processes in institutions that will determine the global future. This will require — like all successful political movements — an intelligentsia and a popular swell. Having a people-led movement to call on global institutions is important — which will require a rhetorical rubric — a series of digestible ideas — that gets across what a global left wants to accomplish. This people power has to exist, too, in a coherent form to be institutionally impactful; something that mass movements like Occupy, for all its public relations power, was not equipped to do. This means that a global left has to comprise a network of grassroots pressure blocs, NGOs and institutional mechanisms within IGOs — in order to create an identifiable movement with roots in these formal institutions. Since economic knowledge is an essential power in making the argument, marshalling the intellectual resources of our best public intellectuals who are on the progressive side for wealth sharing and democratic state oversight of the global economy. In short, we need an analysis of the global economy, an action plan and a way to articulate it.
Public oversight of global capital will be indispensable if the left is to attempt to democratise the global economy. Piketty argues for collaborative, inter-governmental collection of data on wealth in order to establish a foundation for future policies to mitigate inequality. This will require international co-ordination at the formal level of institutions and a compelling popular call for this to occur. Developing a politics that can do this, in the present moment of knee-jerk secessionism, is why a global left needs to operate as a cultural bloc as well as a political one, with a legible, humanistic anthem to adjoin it. It will require international co-operation and political pressure by progressives and pro-labour factions domestically and by operating together in federal blocs like the EU and even the UN.
How to do this? Pushing for more democratisation and deliberative democracy nationally could be an essential way to make our national institutions less reactionary and more pragmatic. The supposed pitfalls of democracy at a supranational scale can be mitigated by drawing constituencies and careful system design. In addition, deliberative democratic processes are particularly powerful and tend to produce more moderate and better-tested outcomes; one can look at the Irish abortion referendum as a superlative example of the efficacy of deliberative democratic processes. Indeed, why should wealth inequality be within democratic purview at the national level but not at the international? Why aren't nations too large an entity for democratic elections? The United States’ population is 328 million to the UK’s 66 million but we do not question that both population sizes are appropriate for democratic accountability. The left will have to make an equality-based case for this, drawing on the humanistic basis for progressive politics in the last century, which came out of the first industrial revolution.
While there are some promising models of international leftist co-operation among cross-European and cross-party groups at the EU, this is delimited to a relatively toothless, obscure legislative context and remains without a coherent ideological argument or movement. The left is, for all intents and purposes, still playing a game of decades ago, mostly limited to the issues of yesterday or the sideshows of today; a particular problem in the adversarial design of parliamentary systems where communication consists of conflict rather than collaboration. Developing an analysis that can grab popular attention at the individual and national level and find its way into IGOs will mean, in addition to drawing energy from popular movements, putting away internecine leftist conflicts that are mostly about the past, particularly in the UK and Europe, where the aggrandisement of traditional, eighteenth-century socialism as a ‘true road’ leaves little room for innovation, for an analysis of the fourth industrial revolution, not the first. In many ways, the stagnant nature of the left’s conversations are testament that it is not radically reorganising to respond to a radical change: that for all its rhetoric, it is in a rut. Some of the bottom-up movements since 2008 like Occupy that inspired David Graeber and Podemos Chantal Mouffe, for all their energy and potential, have had limited institutional traction to address the systems of capital distribution. Our ambition must reach further to address this critical level. People power is a must but recent popular movements have lacked a totalising analysis and an integration with institutional mechanisms. Making noise is how one is heard but mere outrage will not feed and clothe us. Being inside the room, then, needs to be a priority. Uniting the energy of these movements with institutional know-how and a coherent analysis: this is the real task for the left today.
Naturally, partisan resistance to this will be great. Being in a reactionary moment globally, with authoritarian conservatism having arisen across Europe, the US and Brazil, and with generational resistance to left-wing arguments for democratic action via the state in America particularly, developing a rubric that resonates with people’s reason and emotion will take imagination. The taboo of ‘international socialism’ and Menshevism is a rather unfortunate association that would misrepresent this politics, and much should be done to emphasise that this is about that most ancient of traditions worth preserving, democracy. Federalist leftists should emphasise that this programme is about responding to globalisation, realising that our networks of capital, labouring lives and economic destinies are now beyond the political realms of the state structures that adapted to cope with previous centuries’ systems of production.
Millennials and Gen Z, the more technologically literate and left-wing (at present) voting blocs, can be a potent source of political pressure in coming decades, given that they stand to lose in the status quo. Inheritance is the biggest mechanism for transfer of wealth for my generation. Capital is not amassed through labour: it won’t buy you security in housing freehold, savings or a pension. This is tragic enough for the individuals passing their lives through this system; equally concerning, it will take us all down a bad road for generations to come. It is this generation that offers promise, then. There still remains, however, the problem of older voters’ alienation from the world of globalisation and automation, and the evident tendency to avoid rather than address it. This is less a question of that Trumpian paradigm, ‘branding’ than one of demotic communication. Additionally, the bounds of national feeling are likely to be a hurdle that the progressive international left has to overcome. The Brexit debacle shows the underlying nationalist resistance of an ageing population and right wing mostly deluded about the state of reality, and likely insulated from its worst effects. An unfortunate coalition has been between those hurt by globalisation and technologisation, and those indifferent to it, uninterested in change or committed to preserving it.
What made Brexit so sad for those of us for whom politics is a vocation is that — our plundering and grave-robbing acknowledged — Britain has political heritages that offer promise. By this, I do not mean those pyrrhic ‘golden eras’ promised by conservatives, of white people with empires. Instead, I think of those unassuming, quietly forgotten legacies or those institutional norms that filter into the background unnoticed against the din of ordinary life. I think of our having the first parliament, of British socialist communitarian politics which came out of the temperance movement and the Quakers, of women’s suffrage. Those movements were political self-organising that were co-operative and focused on the common good. People are different but we all have shared interests and stories. Above all we have needs. While the story of national belonging has an emotional attachment to all, and some excessively so, we have to realise that our reality is changing, and our stories will with it. One deep story is that of democracy and humanism. It is this heritage which a global left can draw on for inspiration, to find its way out of the turmoil of internecine conflict, in its narcissism of small differences.
The left needs a new analysis: specifically, to pivot from the struggles of the past (which are mostly a debate about nineteenth- and twentieth-century problems) and to set about generating a new critique for the left. The left remains quiet on the importance of international organisation, in part because of the popularity of reactionary politics, in part because it is preoccupied with internal schisms. Becoming serious about international co-ordination and addressing social democratic principles will require the left to reimagine its analysis. I propose we focus strongly on globalisation and wealth distribution and technology, and show that a Realpolitik for a good society in the new globalised, technological era can benefit the majority of citizens with common interests.
At stake is an economy that works for all, rather than the desert of the free market which is moving towards a dystopian scenario. Think of thickly-stacked Brazilian favelas cheek by jowl beside luxury high rise apartments with tranquil, lapping pools of azure water. Such an image is a foreboding vision for the future. Our tools obligate us to reinvigorate the left for today. Working domestically as nations will not be enough to manage the disruptive effects and the new levels of economic capture of wealth which is happening on a global scale. The next stage of our politics must catch up to the next stage of our economic systems.
Josephine Harmon is an academic, essayist, novelist and policy writer, currently working on her first essay collection. She is based in London, where she teaches and researches US politics at University College London and during a recent fellowship at Yale. She started working in Labour Party politics 8 years ago. She is currently a party member and as a member of the British Labour think tank The Fabian Society. Her chapter for the Fabian Society international report on future global risks is forthcoming later this year. She has written on policy (Brexit) for the London-based think tank the UK in a Changing Europe. Her upcoming report on millennial living conditions is pending 2022.