One thing I have noticed in my adopted home of New Zealand, is how quiet the political voice is from the left. Like most politics in the English-speaking western world, in recent years it has lurched over to the right quite considerably and in some countries there is no discernible difference between the varying parties. In Europe the political landscape has always appeared more diverse, with stronger, popular voices from both left and right. Now in parts of Europe the voice from the left has become more prominent than it has been for a long time, notably in Greece and Spain; where the economic crisis hit particularly hard. In Spain Podemos was founded in 2014, on the back of a movement against inequality and corruption, which the Spanish referred to as ‘Indignados‘. It is known as a left populist party and is second in size only to the People’s Party, which is a conservative, Christian, democratic party. In Greece, Syriza is the biggest party that forms the Greek government and was originally a left-wing alliance. Politically Syriza is generally ran on the same lines as Podemos, they are against neoliberalism and are considered a democratic socialist party. In Europe, however, politics on the left comes in lots of different flavours and it seems to make sense that a lot of self-proclaimed political positions are relative to the natural political orientation of the country to begin with. For example although the Scandinavian countries have self-described left and right parties, these countries still retain very strong social programmes when compared to the US or the UK for example. Their policies may change within a certain range and may appear for instance to be more right-wing at times to the inhabitants of the country, however, these views appear relative to the countries natural orientation.
In contrast the UK is politically more aligned to the US, insofar as all mainstream politics has shifted to the right in recent years. Traditionally the two major parties of Labour and the Conservatives over the last few decades up until the mid 90’s held quite distinct views. Labour was considered the centre-left party, whilst the Conservatives occupied centre-right territory. This changed in the mid 90’s when the Labour Party was hijacked by the ‘New Labour‘ movement led by Tony Blair. This was an attempt to make the party more electable and indeed this strategy worked, Labour went on to win the general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. The overall result was to tie both of the major parties completely to the neoliberal doctrine and limit choice for the voter.
It is generally agreed that the journey to the right and the rise of neoliberalism in the UK started in 1979. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher doggedly led the Conservative party, who systematically sold off large portions of the public sector in the 80’s including; British Telecom, Jaguar and British Gas. Thatcher later went on to privatise, Rolls Royce, BP, British Airways, even the utilities; gas and electricity. Thatcher also waged a vicious campaign against the unions in the UK, most memorably against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) between 1984-85, led by Arthur Scargill. This action helped to severely weaken the trade union movement in the UK, it put more power in the hands of the few and catapulted the UK towards a neoliberalism utopia for the ruling elite. Inequality under Thatcher rose at unprecedented levels, it continued albeit to a lesser degree under the Labour Party and continues today under the current Conservative PM David Cameron.
The US suffered a similar fate from Thatcher’s evil twin Ronald Reagan. Reagan had the same ideology but approached things slightly differently. Reagan’s domestic policy was based around four main components; reduce public spending (except the military of course), reduce tax (both federal income tax and capital gains tax), reduce regulation of the financial sector and tighten the supply of money. No surprises that this massively aided the rich, Reagan however, pacified the people by stating that these beneficiaries would invest their profits back into the economy and this would help the less fortunate. Sadly I can imagine there are still people in a corn field in Iowa somewhere still waiting for this magical ‘trickle’ down effect. Sorry to spoil the illusion but it’s not going to happen, not now, not ever! During his time Reagan used dark stories of nasty communists invading the US to justify his huge increases on military spending, while he substantially cut other public services. Using tales of those pesky Russians as the bad guys to stoke the fires of fear were repeatedly echoed in popular culture; Top Gun, Rocky IV, Rambo and Firefox to name a few films that helped maybe innocently (but probably not) to spread dread of communist takeover amongst the masses. Like Thatcher, Reagan also waged a war against the unions, however, in Reagan’s case his target was the country’s air traffic controllers. Reagan fired 11,000 workers because they ignored his order to return to work, this like Thatcher’s was an attempt to fragment workers and to weaken the unions. By the time Reagan left office the figures stated that there was growth during the second half of his tenure, this analysis however, fails to tell the whole story. The so-called ‘boom’ did not increase income for the working class or the lower-middle class and the poverty rate increased when compared to the 1970’s. On the flip side, most of the reported growth had gone disproportionately to people in the upper income brackets and as we know this continues unabated today. What Reagan achieved was to set the US firmly on the course of neoliberalism, which persists today and now it is more firmly entrenched than ever before.
The fall of communism in Europe during 1989 did a few things for the neoliberals in the west; firstly they could claim that their system was the undisputed king of ideology, as it had outlasted the USSR and communism following its collapse. Secondly it could now exploit new markets in the newly formed Russian Federation (with disastrous consequences for the average Russian). Thirdly you could argue that this victory of ideals gave neoliberalism a free hand to do pretty much what they pleased both home and abroad. An example of this on the domestic front would be President Bill Clinton’s abolition of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was originally designed to keep commercial banking and investment banking separate. In effect this act meant investment banks such as Goldman Sachs couldn’t use the money you had put in to your high street bank as chips at a casino. The abolition of Glass-Steagall amongst other key policy changes, made it open season for bankers on the 99%ers hard earned cash. The banks made increasingly more risky and complicated investments, such as credit default swaps. This reckless behaviour all over the west by the banks (particularly in the US) along with the loosening of restrictions contributed significantly to the Great Recession of 2007-09. Just to prove that governments, corporations and financial institutions are all intertwined, the US government officially bailed out the banks to a tune of $700 billion (US). This money was used for the ‘troubled asset relief program’ (TARP), however, this was only a portion of the money used to bail out the banks. It was reported as far back as 2009 by CNN that the figure was nearer to $11 trillion. The UK government was also exceptionally generous depositing $850 billion (US) back in to the banking system, although I’m sure that figure could be disputed too. Ironically it was generally the people whose money the banks gambled with who eventually bailed them out with their taxes and who suffered the most. Following the bailouts the banks have spectacularly bounced back and due to mergers the wealth is more concentrated in fewer hands than ever before. The CEO’s of these giant corporations have gone back to being paid ridiculous wages plus the huge bonuses that get handed out, while the people in the UK for instance suffer the ravages of austerity.
So you may ask yourself, why is all this pre-amble necessary? Primarily because I think the left has a vital role to play in improving the world, to make it fairer and more sustainable, but we need to get a unified coherent message out to the masses. I think it is vital to get a grip on neoliberalism; the damage it has caused, the institutions involved and how embedded it is in every day society. This all-conquering system may shed light as to why politics on the left has had no recent concerted voice in the US. This story had been replicated in the UK for many years, until the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and in my adopted country of New Zealand the left is currently eerily quiet.
The first thing to acknowledge is, the left doesn’t help itself. Generally speaking this side of the political aisle is so caught up in academic reasoning, definitions of leftist ideology, libraries full of books validating varying philosophies, that the message quite frankly gets lost. This drives our politics into the margins of society, confines it to an academic exercise and damages the popularity of a valuable idea. Not only that, but we argue amongst ourselves, we forget that our biggest foe, neoliberalism is the force that unites us in opposition. This is the monster that we should be directing our energies towards; the destruction of neoliberalism and a viable alternative. The left is a broad church and there are some distinctions that need to made; primarily there are people who believe in an authoritarian style of socialism and another set of people who believe in a more libertarian leftist belief. Obviously there are also a big chunk of supporters who believe in democratic socialism, which loosely fits somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s worth acknowledging at this point that these are fluid positions for a lot of people; for example an individual could essentially be a left libertarian, but could reason that some form of government is necessary for a functional society. This essentially is not a problem, but the left seem to argue over relatively minor, sometimes trivial, ideological nuances and forget what we have in common. We have anarcho-syndicalism, anarchist communists, democratic socialists, Marxists, communism and Trotskyism to name a few flavours of the left. I am not dismissing the differences between the varying ideas, however, focusing on what broad ideals we share is presumably more constructive if the left is to be taken seriously and more importantly understood.
On the other side of the political continuum, the right doesn’t seem to have this problem as broad ideals appears to be their mantra. This was highlighted recently whilst watching the primary debates for both the Republicans and the Democrats, the difference couldn’t be more stark. While the Democrats were bogged down in gritty details of how each candidate was going to pay for varying policies, the Republicans were espousing abstract ideology, such as freedom and liberty. They hit all the areas that press the emotional buttons that appeal to right-wing ideologists, such as religion, security of the homeland, low taxes and immigration to name a few. They have generally no detailed policies to go with these ideals, apart from possibly taxation, but somehow they appeal to their voters. So why does this happen? One theory is, I think the message resonates with their supporters emotional responses. Secondly they keep things simple and repetitive, which also appeals to the vast majority of their target audience. I think it is fair to say we can learn from the right from a perspective of connecting to our target audience. Although politics is complicated, we still need to find a way of reaching people who are ordinarily not as politically engaged. People get fired up for different reasons, we need to find the triggers that evoke civic engagement.
An important fact to remember is that the entire ruling elite have a huge stake in maintaining the status quo and will not suddenly give up their power, unless the forces of opposition are compelling enough. This ruling class includes the mainstream media, governments, financial institutions, CEO’s of the worlds leading corporations and all retired or previous members of the ruling elite, who push the neoliberal agenda on an almost unconscious level. They don’t want any alternative option being suggested to the masses, hence why the world largest media outlets are owned by a small group of people who create echo chambers of neoliberal propaganda. This of course is not a new phenomenon, one of the pioneers of this was Edward Bernays who was described as the ‘father of public relations’, the term ‘public relations’, however, is Orwellian doublespeak for propaganda. One of Bernays’s earliest dubious achievements was to encourage more women to smoke in the 1920’s. Bernays was also instrumental with the propaganda campaign during the first world war and even published a book called propaganda, which incidentally was enthusiastically read by Adolf Hitler. Obviously propaganda has become a huge business in the 21st century and arguably more sophisticated than in Bernays’s day. The use of propaganda in the mainstream media is important to understand, this gives insight as to how and why the news is reported in such a way. Luckily there are plenty of excellent independent information outlets on the internet to explore and to deliver messages outside the realms of the ruling elite. Fortunately younger people tend to ignore the normal routes of information such as, radio, newspapers, television and will use the internet much more for their current affairs. This may give us a clue as to why Bernie Sanders has polled incredibly well with younger voters during the early stages of the US Democratic primaries. Independent media via the internet is one of the few places you can get impartial information about Senator Sanders, at the same time, by avoiding old mediums you are inoculating yourself against the neoliberal propaganda. This is of great concern to the ruling elites, who don’t have control of this medium or the content produced on these sites. I would expect to see some form of government restrictions on the internet at some point, in an effort to control the flow of information and to continue their echo chamber of propaganda.
I hope this outlines some of the issue holding back the left, the logical next question is; what can we do? Firstly the left need to agree on a set of ideas that are central to the cause. I would imagine that most people on the left would agree on the following points.
- The most vulnerable in society need to be supported
- Everybody has a right to effective healthcare
- Everybody has a right to effective education
- Everybody has a right to effective shelter
- Nobody should go hungry
- Inequality needs to be reduced (this helps all people in society)
- With finite resources we have to live sustainably
In my opinion these are examples of basic requirements for a civil society. These suggestions fit quite neatly with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, particularly the lower two tiers; physiological needs and safety. Physiological needs are described as basic needs for survival (shelter, food etc.), whilst safety includes; personal security, financial security as well securing health and wellbeing of all people.
I’m sure most people could think of many other things they could add to this list, but these are some very basic ideas that most people on the left of politics could believe in. My point is; currently we have some people who sit at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy (self-actualisation), being the best they can be; whilst millions if not billions of people are fighting for their lives right at the very bottom. In my opinion this is immoral, especially when we have the means to avoid this, we just need to find the will. Therefore, my conclusion is, not only does neoliberalism fail a vast amount of people, it intentionally does so by rigging the game in favour of the ruling elite who hold the vast majority of both power and money.
So, once the left have agreed on a set of principles, we need to look at how we sell our ideas to the masses. It has to be acknowledged that these people may not be as politically as motivated as ourselves for a variety of reasons, but may at the same point be desperate for change. One thing Srdja Popovic mentions in his great book ‘Blueprint for Revolution’ is that the movement needs to start with something small, it has to be important on a local level, something that connects with the populace. One of Popovic’s many examples was Harvey Milk, who was an activist campaigning for gay rights in 1970’s. Milk was trying to be elected to the San Francisco City-County Board, however, with his direct campaign for gay rights he got nowhere. It was only when he stumbled on an issue that resonated with the people, which incidentally, was the amount of ‘dog shit’ on the streets of San Francisco did his campaign gain traction. He was elected onto the board in 1977 and was the city’s first openly gay officer. With this new-found trust from people after he addressed their concerns, Harvey Milk was able to campaign much more successfully for broader issues such as gay rights.
I think this is a vital lesson to remember, start small, start local and be relevant to people. Lots of people really do want change, but the big issues just seem so massive, impenetrable and scary to tackle, we therefore, need to be realistic initially. It is important to get people to believe and have trust in you. That trust once gained needs to be respected and nurtured, people have been duped too many times, now is the time for authenticity. I think we should be heading away from career politicians; the days of slick orators such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama are numbered. It’s time for sincerity, passion, but also compassion, at a time where there are huge obstacles ahead such as inequality and climate change. It’s a time for robust planning and decisive action, we cannot afford big business to make decisions for us. Politicians continue to pay us lip-service regarding these issues, while producing no discernible results. The ruling elite are not interested about you, me or the planet for that matter, it’s about money and power. We do care about our society, therefore, it’s down to us to make it happen.