The self-performed lobotomy of the left

Posted on June 2, 2014 in Governance Debates – Globe Debate
Jun. 02 2014.   Konrad Yakabuski

This should be the political left’s big moment.

The developed world is still barely recovering from a crisis that exposed the excesses of banker-directed economies and the perverse incentives of a capitalist system prone to cronyism and corruption. The failure of trickle-down economics has been borne out by rising inequality.

This year’s hottest book among wonks, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is a critique of capitalism’s fatal flaw, namely that it leads to an ever-increasing concentration of wealth unless the fortunes of the very rich are systematically shattered by wars or depressions.

For the first time since the fall of communism, the hegemony of Reaganomics is seriously challenged by an alternative economic paradigm, namely the authoritarian capitalism (dirigisme by another name) at work in China. Instead of being in the way, the state may be the only way.

So why is the political left so empty-headed almost everywhere in the West? Socialism has been discredited to the point of now seeming like a quaint 19th-century notion. But through intellectual laziness or a failure to innovate, the left hasn’t come up with new ideas to offer to history.

In Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Canada, among others, the main parties on the left are not only out of ideas – they’re devoid of personality. They stand for nothing but the bland promise of the status quo.

Canada’s New Democrats, who once usefully fought the good fight in the name of social justice, now run away from the big problems in the bald pursuit of power. They try to crowd out the Liberals with bromides about middle-class anxiety and sustainable prosperity. They seem undeterred by the fact they risk making themselves redundant, and might face a schism with an activist base that feels utterly abandoned.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is currently the poster girl for the New Left’s unthreatening populist politics. She would “make life more affordable” by eliminating the taxes on electricity, freezing university tuition and cutting small business taxes. “Families are being squeezed right out of the middle class as the cost of living rises and good jobs disappear,” she says as she campaigns for seats in the June 12 provincial election.

She also sounds awfully similar to Ed Miliband. Once a leftist ideologue who won the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party in 2010 as the anti-Tony Blair, Mr. Miliband has publicly purged all traces of the old Red Ed. He’s a champion of the middle class, as in “the British middle class is being squeezed by a cost-of-living crisis as never before.” He pledges to freeze electricity prices, cut tuition and slash taxes for small businesses. Sound familiar?

If the left’s flag-bearers now sound so mundane, whether they’re in London, England, or London, Ont., it’s partly because they all directly or indirectly rely on the same mercenary class of political consultants. The latter are largely political agnostics steeped in marketing and data analytics, not political theory. They’ve stripped politics of ideas and turned it into a reality-show contest.

There’s a more fundamental crisis behind the left’s self-performed lobotomy, however. It stems from what academics Johannes Lindvall and David Rueda call the “insider-outsider dilemma.” They attribute the decline of Sweden’s Social Democrats to their inability to “reconcile the claims of two groups that had traditionally supported them: labour-market outsiders and middle-income insiders.”

The insiders are public-sector workers and other union types with ironclad job security who cling to their privileges to the point of depriving (mostly young or immigrant) outsiders of opportunity. They’ve closed the doors behind them. Their rigidity is undermining the equality they claim to champion.

This is the clientele the NDP now considers its base. So, why not expand it by pandering to the entire middle class by subsidizing residential solar panels, another Ontario NDP promise? You certainly wouldn’t want to raise any awkward questions about intergenerational fairness.

If New Democrats were honest, they would admit that they need to reform the state to save it and sustain its essential missions in health, education and social protection. But that would require real policies, not pretend ones, like Ms. Horwath’s proposed Minister of Savings and Accountability.

The late federal NDP leader David Lewis, who sought influence over power, titled his autobiography The Good Fight. The Ontario NDP’s current election platform is called A Plan That Makes Sense. Enough said?

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