Today’s blog represents the notes that make up the conclusion of my upcoming book with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi which will be entitled – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World – and is due to be launched by Pluto Press in London on September 26, 2017. More details of that event and the promotion tour that will follow in due course. We have just about finalised the events through Europe and hope to see as many of you as is possible. As previously noted, this work traces the way the Left fell prey to what we call the globalisation myth and formed the view that the state has become powerless (or severely constrained) in the face of the transnational movements of goods and services and capital flows. Social democratic politicians frequently opine that national economic policy must be acceptable to the global financial markets and, as a result, champion right-wing policies that compromise the well-being of their citizens. The book traces both the history of this decline into neo-liberalism by the Left and also presents what might be called a ‘Progressive Manifesto’ to guide policy design and policy choices for progressive governments. We hope that the ‘Manifesto’ will empower community groups by demonstrating that the TINA mantra, where these alleged goals of the amorphous global financial markets are prioritised over real goals like full employment, renewable energy and revitalised manufacturing sectors is bereft and a range of policy options, now taboo in this neo-liberal world are available. In today’s blog I present some notes that will form the conclusion of the book. The manuscript is now at the publishers and it will be available for purchase in a few months.
Conclusion et la voie à suivre
La voie à suivre – the path forward. In Part 2 of this book, we outline what we call a progressive, emancipatory vision of national sovereignty radically alternative to that of both the right and the neo-liberals.
This agenda is based on popular sovereignty, democratic control over the economy, full employment, social justice, redistribution from the rich to the poor, inclusivity and more.
In general, we advocate the socioecological transformation of production and society and present key areas of change that are required to make that possible.
Further, we consider that it is politically possible to achieve that path forward.
Furthermore, we argue that the struggle to defend the democratic sovereign from the onslaught of neoliberal globalisation is the only basis on which the Left can be refounded (and the nationalist right challenged).
However, this is not enough. The Left also needs to abandon its obsession for identity politics and retrieve the ‘more expansive, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, class-sensitive, anti-capitalist understandings of emancipation’ that used to be its trademark (which, of course, is not in contradiction with the struggle against racism, patriarchy, xenophobia and all other forms of oppression and discrimination).
Fully embracing a progressive vision of sovereignty also means abandoning the many false macroeconomic myths that plague left-wing and progressive thinkers.
One of the most pervasive and persistent myths is the assumption that governments are revenue-constrained, that is, that they need to ‘fund’ their expenses through taxes or debt.
This leads to the corollary that governments have to ‘live within their means’, since ongoing deficits will inevitably result in an ‘excessive’ accumulation of debt, which in turn is assumed to be ‘unsustainable’ in the long run.
In reality, monetarily sovereign (or currency-issuing) governments – which nowadays include most governments – are never revenue-constrained because they issue their own currency by legislative fiat and always have the means to achieve and sustain full employment.
We need to understand that government’s choose the unemployment rate in their nations, not some amorphous ‘market’.
Finally, even though our book focuses mainly on the economic and technical aspects of a progressive national strategy, it is clear that having a compelling socioeconomic program is not enough to win over the hearts and minds of the people.
Beyond the centrality of the state from a political-economic point of view, the Left has to come to terms with the fact that for the vast majority of people that don’t belong – and never will belong – to the globe-trotting international elite, their sense of citizenship, collective identity and common good is intrinsically and intimately tied to nationhood.
Ultimately, being a citizen means to deliberate with other citizens in a shared political community and hold decision-makers accountable.
I have been reading a new book – Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything – which is written by Becky Bond and Zack Exley, who were leading organisers for the Bernie Sanders’ Presidential nomination campaign in 2016.
Together they demonstrated how so-called ‘distributed organising’ through use of social media and smart use of large data sets can turn traditional political campaigning on its head.
Relevant to the discussion today is Rule 1:
You Won’t Get a Revolution If You Don’t Ask for One.
The narrative follows as such:
What set Bernie apart from the start of his campaign was his message and his authenticity as a messenger. Then he unleashed the makings of a real political revolution – he asked for one.
He outlined radical solutions our moment calls for, not the tepid incrementalist compromises that most politicians think of all that is feasible.
Bernie didn’t talk about education tax credits or even debt-free college. He demanded free college tuition.
He didn’t advocate for complicated health insurance schemes, he said “healthcare is a human right.”
Bernie called for an end to mass incarceration, not incremental changes in sentencing laws.
He had no 10-point plan to regulate fracking to the point that it wouldn’t be feasible in most places in the United States. He simply said we should ban fracking.
The problem with the mainstream Left politics is that it has become so cautious and focus-group oriented that it has lost the capacity to outline a radical solution.
Instead of telling the people that governments cannot run out of money, these Left politicians demand we ‘tax the rich’ more to pay for essential services.
They opt for austerity-lite solutions – where they tell the people that while ‘budget repair’ is necessary to ensure AAA ratings are not lost, they will make the fiscal cuts fairer and the adjustment path less painful.
Why don’t they educate the people to help them understand that the only constraints on government spending are the availability of real resources for sale in the currency that the government issues? This includes, of course, all idle labour resources that are seeking paid work.
Such a government can always employ these labour resources and turn their efforts to improving community and environmental well-being. There is never a reasonable excuse to have any state less than full employment.
Why don’t these politicians educate the people about the irrelevance of these AAA-ratings that are given by corrupt capitalist rating agencies who sell their ratings for money as we learned in the wash-up from the GFC?
Why don’t they tell the people that the whole concept of ‘budget repair’ is nonsensical and a neo-liberal ploy to cut government assistance to the least advantaged without impeding the ongoing public assistance to the most advantaged – the characteristic of the neo-liberal era?
The answer lies in the fact that the core neo-liberal ideas and mantras have so infested the political Left that it has become unable to articulate anything like a ‘radical’ line.
Outsiders such as Bernie Sanders have shown the attraction of breaking out of the normal ‘safe’ political discourse. He has shown that if you want a revolution then you have to step outside the ‘conventional’ dialogue and actually propose radical solutions.
In our book, we preface the radical manifesto that comprises Part 2 by offering a coherent account of how the Left took the wrong pathway and now faces political oblivion in most advanced nations.
We argue that the advanced Western nations are currently in the midst of an anti-establishment revolt of historic proportions.
The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the rejection of Matteo Renzi’s neoliberal constitutional reform in Italy, the EU’s unprecedented crisis of legitimation – although these interrelated phenomena differ in ideology and goals – they are all rejections the (neo)liberal order that has dominated the world – and in particular the West – for the past thirty years.
Even though the system has thus proven capable (for the most) of absorbing and neutralising these electoral uprisings, there is no indication that this anti-establishment revolt is going to abate any time soon.
Support for anti-establishment parties in the developed world is at the highest level since the 1930s – and growing. The reasons for this backlash are rather obvious.
The financial crisis of 2007-9 laid bare the scorched earth left behind by neoliberalism, which the elites had gone to great lengths to conceal, in both material (financialisation) and ideological (‘the end of history’) terms.
The response of governments to the crisis exacerbated the private debt-driven collapse. Post-crisis policies of fiscal austerity and wage deflation pursued by a number of Western governments, particularly in Europe, have ensured the damage has endured and deepened.
Many conservatives saw the financial crisis as an opportunity to impose an even more radical neoliberal regime and to push through policies designed to suit the financial sector and the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else.
It was as if there was an unfinished agenda of privatisation, deregulation and welfare state retrenchment that was interrupted, inconveniantly by the GFC, that had to be reinstated as soon as the threats from the crisis to the riches and positions of the elites had passed.
Amidst growing popular dissatisfaction, social unrest and mass unemployment (in a number of European countries), political elites on both sides of the Atlantic responded with business-as-usual policies and discourses.
As a result, the social contract binding citizens to traditional ruling is more strained today than at any other time since World War II – and in some countries has arguably already snapped.
But the traditional Left is being steadily wiped out by these developments. It has been a long-time coming and our book traces the roots and explains the decline of the Left.
We see the decline not only in electoral terms, which is now becoming obvious (see below). Rather, we emphasise and trace the decline of core Left values within those parties and within society more in general.
Why has the well-organised traditional Left establishment proven unable to step up to the challenge of neo-liberalism. The answer is that these parties have become standard bearers for neo-liberalism themselves.
In the book we explain how and why the Left has come to count so little in global politics. We further provide a path with detailed policy agenda where the Left, both culturally and politically, can once again become a hegemonic force in our societies.
We argue that a renewed focus on national sovereignty has to be at the centre of this resurgence, for it is the centre of attention of the neo-liberal forces, despite their smokescreens about ‘free markets’, globalisation and international capital.
The book demonstrates how the hollowing out of national sovereignty and curtailment of popular-democratic mechanisms – the so-called ‘depoliticisation’ process – has been an essential element of the neoliberal project, aimed at insulating macroeconomic policies from popular contestation and removing any obstacles put in the way of economic exchanges and financial flows.
Given the nefarious effects of depoliticisation, it is only natural that the revolt against neoliberalism should first and foremost take the form of demands for a repoliticisation of national decision-making processes.
While the Left has succumbed to erroneous notions such as the nation-state is ‘dead’ or has been rendered ‘powerless’ by the
forces of international capital, and have thus concentrated political efforts on pan-national or post-national narratives, the Right has known all along that they had to coopt the state for their own purposes because the legislative fiat remains powerful.
The Right fed the line that the global capital now dominates the capacity of the nation-state to the Left, who fell for it – hook, line and sinker!
It is no surprise that in the recent major political events – Brexit, Trump, Dutch election, French Presidential election – the vision of national sovereignty was front and centre.
However, the Left was largely silent. Instead, this thirst for national sovereignty was rehearsed along ethnic, exclusivist and isolationist lines, which aimed at ensuring the security and protection of the ‘national community’ against the threat posed by a variety of external internal and external enemies and based on an even more exploitative and authoritarian form of capitalism.
The tendency of the traditional Left to equate these movements with a quest for national sovereignty has derailed their political voice.
The fact that Marie Le Pen challenges the French people to restore the sovereignty of France by vilifying disadvantaged immigrants and refugees should not be seen as an indictment of national sovereignty as such.
History attests to the fact that national sovereignty and national self-determination are not intrinsically reactionary or jingoistic concepts – in fact, they were the rallying cries of countless nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialist and left-wing liberation movements.
Even if we limit our analysis to core capitalist countries, it is patently obvious that virtually all the major social, economic and political advancements of the past centuries were achieved through the institutions of the democratic nation-state, not through international, multilateral or supranational institutions, which in a number of ways have, in fact, been used to roll back those very achievements.
The problem, in short, is not national sovereignty as such, but the fact that the concept in recent years has been largely monopolised by the right and extreme right, which understandably sees it as a way to push through its xenophobic and identitarian agenda.
It would therefore be a grave mistake to explain away the seduction of the ‘Trumpenproletariat’ by the far right as a case of false consciousness; the working classes are simply turning to the only (so far) movements and parties that promise them some protection from the brutal currents of neoliberal globalisation (whether they can or truly intend to deliver on that promise is a different matter).
The obvious question is why has the traditional Left not been able to offer the working classes and increasingly proletarianised middle classes a credible alternative to neoliberalism and to neoliberal globalisation?
More to the point, why has it not been able to develop a progressive view of national sovereignty?
We argue in the book, that the reasons are numerous and overlapping and have to be traced back in history as far back as the 1960s.
Part 1 of the book provides a forensic analysis of the ‘deep’ historical roots of the current existential crisis of the Left.
We document several key ‘turning points’ which saw the Left progressively abandon its traditional values and political positions.
Accordingly, we consider the rise and fall of Keynesianism; the conflation of globalisation (internationalisation of supply chains etc) with the neo-liberal free market agenda; the Monetarist corruption of the British Labour Party in the early 1970s; the ‘Germanification’ of the French socialists under François Mitterrand in 1983 (the so-called ‘tournant de la rigueur’ or ‘turn to austerity); the corruption of the major international economic institutions such as the World Bank, the OECD, the IMF; the push by capital to retrench full employment (for example, the Powell Manifesto in 1971), and the role of the academy in fomenting the growth of neo-liberal economics and the promotion of identity by Left academics as the terrain upon which struggle should proceed.
The historical analysis is essential if we are to arrive at an understanding of where things are at today. It helps us understand why the Left is now either implementing harsh neo-liberal policy regimes (for example, in Greece) or being wiped out in recent elections (for example, the Netherlands, France, Spain).
We also provide a coherent analysis of how the idea of the ‘death of the state’ came to be so engrained in our collective consciousness.
Underlying this post-national view of the world was (is) a failure to understand – and in some cases an explicit attempt to conceal – on behalf of left-wing intellectuals and policymakers that ‘globalisation’ was (is) not the result of inexorable economic and technological changes but was (is) largely the product of state-driven processes.
All the elements that we associate with neoliberal globalisation – delocalisation, deindustrialisation, the free movement of goods and capital, etc. – were (are), in most cases, the result of choices made by governments.
Moreover, states continue to play a crucial role in promoting, enforcing and sustaining a (neo)liberal international framework.
The traditional Left is now defined by the idea of the waning nation-state. We consider this to be of the main reasons of the Left’s decline and acquiescence to neoliberalism.
To make matters worse, most leftists have bought into the macroeconomic myths that the establishment uses to discourage any alternative use of state fiscal capacities. For example, they have accepted without question the so-called household budget analogy, which suggests that currency-issuing governments, like households, are financially constrained, and that fiscal deficits impose crippling debt burdens on future generations.
Take the current response by the US Democratic Party to the recent Trump tax cuts announcement as an example. There have been tweets with links to ‘debt clocks’ and tirades from Democrat sympathisers claiming the tax cuts are undesirable because they will “lead to trillions of dollars in added debt, not a balanced budget” and
Similarly, in the UK, tweets proclaiming “Incompetent Tories have trashed the economy” accompanying figures showing that public debt ratio has risen. The leader of the Opposition in the UK berating the Conservative government because they “they promised to eradicate the deficit by 2015” and they haven’t.
Please read my blog – British labour lost in a neo-liberal haze – for more discussion on this point.
Countless examples of this sort of neo-liberal capture of the once progressive sides of politics can be provided.
So when it comes to providing a distinctive voice in the political landscape – a critical narrative against the neo-liberal onslaught – these traditional Left parties offer rather wan variations on the same.
Voters become frustrated because they are increasingly forced to differentiate between one side of politics that is in the call of the banksters and wants to use the unemployed as a tool to ensure more income and resources are made available to the higher income groups, and, the other side of politics, which offers more or less the same future, but with some softer edges.
The Left intelligentsia has also become co-opted.
Waylaid by post-modernist and post-structuralist theories, left intellectuals slowly abandoned Marxian class categories to focus, instead, on elements of political power and the use of language and narratives as a way of gleaning meaning.
This also defined new arenas of political struggle that were diametrically opposed to those defined by Marx.
Over the past three decades, the Left focus on ‘capitalism’ has given way to a focus on issues such as racism, gender, homophobia, multiculturalism, etc.
Marginality is no longer described in terms of class but rather in terms of identity. The struggle against the illegitimate hegemony of the capitalist class has given way to the struggles of a variety of (more or less) oppressed and marginalised groups and minorities: women, blacks, LGBTs, etc. As a result, Marxian class struggle has ceased to be seen as the path to liberation.
In this new post-modernist world, only categories that transcend Marxian class boundaries are considered meaningful.
Moreover, the institutions that evolved to defend workers against capital – such as trade unions and social-democratic political parties – have become subjugated to these non-class struggle foci.
What has emerged in practically all Western countries as a result, as Nancy Fraser notes, is a perverse political alignment between ‘mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other’.
The result is a progressive neoliberalism ‘that mixe[s] together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization’, with the former unwittingly lending their charisma to the latter.
The working class has fragmented into factions where the well educated, highly mobile, highly skilled, socially progressive cosmopolitan urbanites no longer have any common purpose with the lower skilled and less educated peripherals who rarely work abroad and face competition for jobs from immigrants.
The mainstream political Left has aligned itself mostly with the former cohort and, in part, helps us understand why the right-wing revolt currently engulfing the West is gathering steam.
The problem is that the more the working classes turn to right-wing populism and nationalism, the more the intellectual-cultural Left doubles down on its liberal-cosmopolitan fantasies, further radicalising the ethnocentrism of the proletariat.
An understanding of why things have turned out this way is one thing. But to make real change requires more than just an understanding of the past.
In Part 2 of the book, we provide a coherent and radical agenda based on the central idea that sovereign, currency-issuing states, far from being helpless against the power of global capital, still have the capacity to deliver full employment and social justice to their citizens.
We argue that a progressive vision of national sovereignty should aim to reconstruct and redefine the national state as a place where citizens can seek refuge ‘in democratic protection, popular rule, local autonomy, collective goods and egalitarian traditions’, as Wolfgang Streeck argues, rather than a culturally and ethnically homogenised society.
This is also the necessary prerequisite for the construction of a new international(ist) world order, based on interdependent but independent sovereign states.
This is the vision that we present in our book.
We provide a detailed account of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) which provides the basis for our confidence in the capacity of the nation-state.
We redefine what we mean by productivity and efficiency to emphasise the social aspects, ignored by neo-liberal visions, which concentrate on how some activity impacts on the private profit bottom line.
We address the issues surround the external sector and debunk the notion that the Balance of Payments effectively constrains the capacity of a sovereign government to maximise domestic well-being. We demonstrate how the aspirations of global finance can be brought into line with the demands of a government intent on advancing the well-being of its citizens.
We revisit debates about protection and nation planning, including outlining a case for bank nationalisation and serious reform of the financial sector.
We avoid the tepid, coopted solutions often proposed by progressives such as ‘Robin Hood’ taxes. If global speculation is mostly destructive and governments do not need to tax in order to spend why not take the radical solution – declare these transactions illegal.
We provide a detailed framework for restoring the purpose of international institutions such as the IMF. We propose institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank be scrapped and a new body created which serves the purpose of aiding the poorest nations in the world rather than delivering returns to global capital.
Finally, we address the issue of unemployment front on. A typical response from progressive forces these days is to ensure there is an operational unemployment insurance system available (viz, the debate in the Eurozone) and then to introduce a basic income guarantee.
Neither is the radical option that is needed as a response to the problem. The problem is that there is not enough jobs being created to match the desires of the available workforce.
These typical progressive policy approaches just reinforce the neo-liberal regimes that have deliberately constrained the obvious capacity of the nation-state to step in and create the necessary work.
They effectively concede that the state should not use this clear capacity and thus play into the hands of the neo-liberals.
We choose the radical path. If there are people wanting work and the non-government sector will not for whatever reason satisfy those desires, then it is clear that the government sector can fill the breach.
Forget arcane discussions about the NAIRU, or disincentives to seek work provided by welfare systems, or all the other ploys that are used to justify preventing true full employment from being sustained.
Just create the work and make sure it advances community and environmental well-being.
Remember Rule 1 – “You won’t get a revolution if you don’t ask for one”.
The national elections in Greece, Spain, the US, Britain and, more recently, in the Netherlands and France are interesting in the way they talk to our arguments.
In Greece, the Left gained control of government only to succumb to the crushing oppression of the neo-liberal forces within Europe. The Syriza politicians did not seek a revolution and naively believed that the ‘democratic’ voice of the people would help them modify the worst ravages of Troika austerity.
Syriza did not obey Rule 1.
In Spain, the progressive parties such as Podemos lost ground in the last national elections precisely because they adopted the tepid, non-revolutionary approach to the problems at hand. It is obvious that Spain’s problems, initially, stem from its membership of the Eurozone.
Once a progressive voice decides to work within that straitjacket, its capacity to articulate meaningful change is lost.
In the US election, the progressive voice was assumed to be the Democrats. But they lost traction because the voters could not differentiate them from the Wall Street cabal that has dominated legislators in that nation for several decades.
Trump for all his shortcomings presented an anti-establishment voice, which was radical and compelling. Clearly, the reality of his Presidency will turn out to be different but he at least understood that an anti-establishment frame was essential.
A similar argument can be made for the Brexit campaign. Both Trump and the Leave case appealed to the appeal of restoring the nation-state against the global forces that have co-opted it and use its capacities to advance their narrow interests at the expense of the multitudes.
More recently, the Dutch and French elections have effectively wiped out the traditional Left voice. The Dutch Labour Party experienced a crushing rejection by the voters, sick to death of the platitudes and austerity-lite mantras of the party of the workers.
Similarly, in the recent Presidential election in France, the Socialists were wiped out for the same reasons.
They no longer present a compelling voice to the disaffected workers who are more attracted to extreme right-wing views.
The Right voice is attractive to the disenfranchised workers because it has woven powerful narratives of collective identity in which national sovereignty is defined in nativist, nationalist or even racist terms.
Progressives thus must be able to provide equally powerful narratives, which recognise the human need for belonging and connectedness. They must do that without resorting to the venal attacks on refugees and migrants that define the Right approach.
But there are two interesting elements of the Dutch and French election outcomes.
While the attention has been given to the growth of the Right-wing vote, in part, because the leadership of those movements have adopted sound organisational and promotional principles and targetted the emotional longings of the disenfranchised, the Dutch and French elections demonstrated a growing influence of an oppositional Left, which is no longer situated in the mainstream progressive parties.
So the growing influence of the Groen Links (Green Left) Party under the inspirational leadership of Jesse Klavier became obvious in the March 2017 national election where it won 9.1 per cent of the vote (a gain of 6.8 per cent on the previous election), while the Labour Party (PvdA) won only 5.7 per cent of the vote (down from 19.1 per cent).
Groen Links now has 14 seats in the House of Representative (Tweede Kamer) while the PvdA has only 9 seats (down from 38).
The French Presidential election demonstrated more categorically that an oppositional Left back was back in town and that it was in the form of a new political voice – la France insoumise (Untamed France) – under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The traditional Left PS (Socialist Party) candidate won only 6.36 per cent of the first round vote, whereas Mélenchon won 19.58 per cent.
The Right-wing FN (National Front) candidate Marie Le Pen only won 21.30 per cent and Emmanual Macron, the eventual winner came in with just 24.01 per cent of the first-round vote.
But if you dig further you learn some interesting things.
An IFOP Survey of the first-round voting patterns (Source) showed that Jean-Luc Mélenchon achieved 29 per cent of the 18 to 24 year old vote with Le Pen gaining 21 per cent of that cohort and Macron only 23 per cent.
Mélenchon also dominated the Under 35 vote and the student vote.
While Le Pen appealed to those with less education who lived in rural areas and worked in the lower paid occupations and Macron broadly appealed to the opposites, Mélenchon had broad appeal across regional space, occupations and educational levels.
He was able to bring together the traditional lower end of the working class as well as the young, well-educated workers who are facing a dismal future, especially in the context of the Loi travail otherwise known as the “El Khomri Law”, which is a pernicious legislative attack on the rights of workers introduced by the Socialist government under Manuel Valls.
Mélenchon clearly demonstrated what the Socialists have failed to articulate – a progressive vision with radical options (Plan B).
Instead of siding with capital to undermine the rights and welfare of French workers, Mélenchon articulated a vision for restoring worker rights, a radical redistribution of wealth, a free national health system, full employment and other policies that in the context of the current orthodoxy appear ‘radical’.
Of course, they are just traditional Left values.
While Mélenchon did not get to the second round, the point is that there is now an oppositional Left force in France to fill the void left by the insipid, neo-liberal Socialists, which can provide a basis for further progressive political action.
I will provide more details in due course when the book is to be published (in September).
This blog is just some background notes that will form the conclusion.
The series so far
This is a further part of a series I am writing as background to my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. More instalments will come as the research process unfolds.
The series so far:
The blogs in these series should be considered working notes rather than self-contained topics. Ultimately, they will be edited into the final manuscript of my next book due in 2017. The book will be published by Pluto Books in London.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.