After thirty years of neo-liberal ascendancy, the centre right is perhaps moving back to its roots.
One of the delightful but frustrating things about activists on the moderate left of politics is their general certainty about their opponents. There is a claim you will hear with great frequency whenever hanging around with lefties, and it goes something like this:
“They’re just a bunch of neo-liberals. They just want to cut taxes, slice the state, make society more unfair, stuff the economy…” – and so it goes. The further left you go, or the later at night the discussion is happening, the more charged the claims tend to get.
Allow me to make two claims* that are designed to get you thinking:
- This view is hardly surprising, because it reflects the recent past.
- This view is irrelevant to understanding the centre right today or in the future, for they have changed.
On the matter of the first claim, it is a reasonable take on history from a progressive point of view that the forces of the centre-right looked on the success of social democracy in the middle parts of the twentieth century with great alarm.
After all, the growth of welfare states and the expansions in the realm of human freedom they represented; the growing power of the union movement and its success in securing growing standards of living and enforcing rights at work; the large and growing role for the state in economic management at macro and micro levels – all these things were by the 1970s causing serious alarm bells to ring among the leaders of the global conservative movement.
In simple terms, the share of the world’s economic output going to workers was getting too big, and that going to capital was getting too small. Managerial prerogatives were breaking down in some countries. States’ levels of taxation and penchant for intervention were making life hard for many industries.
So they decided to fight back. A confluence of the end of the long Keynesian boom, the return of classical economics, an organised intellectual fight back by the centre-right, stagflation, and some examples of political and economic overreach by social democrats led to public disillusionment with a status quo that the left was sometimes too quick to defend, and which the right was delighted to challenge.
The conditions for that fightback were there, and it was methodical and successful. Years later, the chants of tax cuts now, the squeezing of government spending, the nearly unidirectional movements of tax rates (downwards), the re-engineering of economic policy towards a main focus on price stability, and the shattering of decent working conditions through labour market deregulation were all carried out with a degree of success.
The “success” is in the numbers. Unemployment rose and has remained higher than before. Inflation is lower. States are often smaller – or are certainly not growing as quickly as they had. Economic growth is slower (and until recently, concentrated in the financial industries which have latterly collapsed). Capital’s share of world economic output is higher, and labour’s share is lower. Real incomes stopped growing across the developed world.
Of course, there were political costs to the pursuit of such an anti-people policy agenda, and these ended up accruing over time. Centre-left parties were returned to office to moderate this shift – in the UK in 1997, in New Zealand in 1999, in Canada in 1994 and in the USA in 1992.
The signature fact of all those administrations, however, was that they did not seek to fundamentally change the basis of the new settlement. The range of reasons is very wide – from the lack of a coherent progressive project, to a failure of nerve, to the lack of opportunity, to genuinely held convictions that accommodation with the status quo was the only viable political road.
In my view, the critical thing was that the left never engaged in the sort of fundamental and comprehensive re-think the right did thirty years before. Sure, there was the “Third Way”, and various other accommodations. They were about living with and tweaking the status quo – none of them had the vaulting ambition, or success, of the right.
That task remains on the plate of the centre-left. If you are unconvinced of that, consider that it is the centre-right which has benefited electorally from the total collapse of the economic model which they themselves championed for three decades, and consider what a success that marks for their penetration into the public’s consciousness that theirs is the right statecraft for the modern age.
So, back to the propositions. A highly anti-progressive policy agenda was brought into being and implemented, with democratic success (if only in the short term). This justified the rage and fury of many on the left. Simple story, absent nuance, but point made.
We turn to the second proposition. Is that analysis useful today? The short answer is no: it isn’t. That rage and fury is for the past. It is no use now. Today’s right is not about changing the status quo: they are back to maintaining and defending it. Conservatism is back on the right of politics.
The key reason is: they won, and the left lost. Social democracy didn’t construct the arguments that would see it win political debates for a shift to a more people-friendly economic system. It didn’t develop the political and intellectual resources to drive that sort of change through. During long periods in government, the centre left proved one thing well: that it didn’t really intend to mount a challenge as fundamental to the right, as the right had done to the left.
I am saying, quite baldly, that things have now changed. The right are now the moderate establishment, defending a settlement that is defined by their victory over the left.
There is no point in left wingers being angry about that, except perhaps insofar as anger is sometimes a symptom of frustration.
The left needs to sort its own house out, and instead of ranting at the right, it needs to look at itself. A good place to start is the beginning of the construction of the same scale of resources – organisational, intellectual, political and financial – that the right built fifty and forty years ago, with an equivalent ambition for change.
That is not to suggest that the left has to try and go back to 1960. The world has changed.
A new project is required. It’s a politics that puts human development and environmental sustainability at the heart of its approach; that is radically democratic not command-and-control; that tackles the huge negative costs of massive inequality that arise from the changes of the past thirty years; and that connects with the desire that almost everyone has to get ahead in life and make the best of things for themselves and their families.
Please, no more anger at the right. Start sorting out the left instead.
And as part of that debate, tell me what’s good and what’s not about the two propositions I’ve suggested above. Do you accept that the right have really changed? If not, why not (in the frame of good first year essays everywhere)?
Jordan Carter is a sometime blogger and centre-left political activist, who lives and works in Wellington.
* Note: this story applies mainly to the Anglosphere, and I haven’t done the thinking to consider whether it is generalisable beyond that.