Where did the populist left go? #4

From Troppo’s guest blogger Neal Lawson (OK I nicked his post and reproduced it here).

It is so depressingly inevitable. Obama, like Clinton, Blair and Brown before him, like in Rudd in Australia, like the Swedish social democrats, like every example of centre-left government the world over – we seem incapable of building a progressive and sustainable movement for change.

Sure Obama can recover from the mid-term disaster. He can find his feet, stabilize and win in 2012 against a Tea Party infused Republican candidate. But he can never waste such promise and momentum again because he will never have such momentum again. His second term if it happens may well do good things but it won’t be coherent, systematic and its unlikely to lead to another Democratic President, House and Senate that will continue the process of building a more progressive world.

OK I know I’m personalizing it around Obama. One person cannot take the blame but a leader can decide to build a movement and be a leader or be a lone operator working from their own cabal. Obama and his amazing election supporter base could have built something enduring and deep, the kind of countervailing cultural and political forces the right is so good at mobilizing.

But as I understand it there was a conscious decision to turn off the life support system on the Movement for Change to kick the ladder away and focus on governing from the centre. Just like all the other centre-left ‘leaders’ it became an elite and technocratic project. As such it was doomed to disappoint.

Instead Obama should have made an intellectual construct out of his hope mantra. He should have fixed on a frame like the Good Society and made it real. With a vision you can inspire a movement. The movement then becomes the vision. Opportunities then open up rather than get closed down. People will break down walls for hope, security and the kind of freedom that a deep version of democracy can give them because it gives them back control over their anxious and exhausting lives.

Once we have a more seductive vision of the Good Society than Consumer Society then there is the impetus to build the alternative political economy and the new social state that will support it.

The definition of an idiot is someone who does the same thing again and again but expects a different outcome. When will the centre-left learn and stop being idiots?

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John Passant
11 years ago

Because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and the stagnant profit rates here and globally, the social surplus no longer exists out of which to fund progressive reforms unless there is pressure from below. There is no pressure form the rank and file of the unions or the leadership of unions. Industrial action to my mind is the key – to pushing the so-called social democrats to implement progressive social and economic policies. But the fight for this will be much harder given the lower profit rates now than in the 50s and 60s.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

… building a progressive and sustainable movement for change.

sustainable change?

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

When it can do two things.

One, realise that it’s the economy, stupid. As JP refers to, there is no progressive agenda without money to pay for it.

Two, elect leaders that are real. Those ‘countervailing cultural and political forces the right is so good at mobilizing’? The right is so good at mobilising them because they are real. There are powerful left-wing equivalents, and indeed some of the driving motivations are shared! (jobs, purchasing power, etc). The left needs real leaders, not fake ones. Lulas not Obamas. On this scale Gillard is a million times better than Rudd. Obama, as hopefully most people now realise, is as fake as it gets. Clinton was the very definition of real next to Obama.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“As JP refers to, there is no progressive agenda without money to pay for it. ”

I disagree. There’s a reasonably large sized social agenda that would cost essentially zero to implement and would be a good and popular way to start (you can see the Greens capitalizing on it now — obviously enough to scare Mark Arbib & Latham it appears).

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
11 years ago

John Passant’s claim about falling rates of profit is an old Marxist canard that isn’t taken seriously by any mainstream economist to the best of my very amateur knowledge. See this Wikipedia article.

In any event it it nonsense to suggest that the US cannot afford Obama’s health care reforms (not that John Passant is doing so, he just thinks old-fashioned socialist direct action is the way to go), if for no other reason than that the evidence suggests that a Medicare-style system like Australia’s actually makes health care LESS costly in the long term than the US system Obama is belatedly reforming.

Lastly, there is a certain bizarre irony about articles from the left bemoaning Obama’s imagined lack of policy vision. In fact Obama’s health care package is a massive reform in the US context. The Democrats have suffered the short term consequences of having the guts (just) to ram through an important reform during difficult economic times, while being dishonestly foisted with the odium of running an unquestionably sound anti-recession fiscal policy to combat a huge recession partially created by their inept opponents. It’s eerily reminiscent of the current Australia situation except that Rudd/Gillard largely squibbed the major policy reform at the first whiff of grapeshot and their opponents (unlike the Bush administration in the US) were quite competent economic stewards when in government.

The relevant point in this article lies not so much in the substance of Obama’s policies or those of Rudd/Gillard, but in the seeming inability of any of the three of them to consistently project the underlying values/vision that might inspire and unite people behind a sensible, moderate social democratic policy agenda (which both Obama and Rudd/Gillard reasonably competently present), thereby combatting the reactionary fear and loathing-fuelled lunacy of the “Tea Party” and their Australian equivalents. Ross Gittins succinctly summarised Gillard/Rudd’s deficiencies in an excellent article this morning:

Throughout its life the government has exhibited three related deficiencies: a lack of values, a lack of courage and a lack of skill in managing its relations with the electorate.

Projecting values/vision must be trickier than it seems from the outside, because Obama has shown in the past that he is an outstanding public communicator, as has Gillard though to a lesser extent. Maybe Gillard should start talking much more frequently about “big picture” values like an anglicised version of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and explaining how specific Labor policy proposals link to those broader values, instead of pontificating nasally about the value of hard work and a good education (sound aspirational middle class advice but hardly visionary or inspiring).

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

I will concur with Ken that there is no falling rate of profit, particularly not if we count the profits of financial intermediates, mining, and property. Gross operating surplus has risen by about a third in Australia since 1998 (http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/5206.0Main%20Features4Jun%202010?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=5206.0&issue=Jun%202010&num=&view=).

The piece above is a stunning example of a non-sequitur. Neil says that no social-democratic leaders has been capable of sustaining a coalition for change (as opposed to the other side of politics? Newt Gingrich anyone?). In stead of wondering about the deeper causes of this and in stead of a bit of soul searching about whether what Neil wants is what the majority really wants, he abruptly switches to a utopic vision of what Obama could have achieved if only he had built an ‘intellectual construct’. That utopic vision is stunning in its naivety and fairly empty platitudes (‘deep version of democracy’).

IMO, the uncomfortable reality for social democrats is the phenomenon of the aspirational voter, who acts in the ballot box as if they are already millionaires. The social democrats who last longest, like Blair and Keating, seem to be those that make themselves the champions of the aspirational voters.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

I’m going to restate my disagreement with Paul. Not on the point that voters tend to support the status quo distribution, but on his explanation behind it. I don’t think it really is aspirationals, a class of voters suckered into a myth of social mobility. I think it’s much more fundamental in human psychology. The status quo is self vindicating because. The endowment effect works for the social order you have as much as material possessions. It makes things a great deal easier for us to believe in a fair world by default, but it also does get in the way of relatively simple and painless ways of making life better for many people.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Richard,

the answer ‘its just the endowment effect’ presumes that the resisted policies would change a status quo. That is simply not a fair reflection of reality. Take the mining tax and the health reforms.

The mining tax would apply to an industry in wich nearly no-one works and where dozens of tax changes (in particular state royalty rates) have happened in the last 20 years. What on earth then does the status quo mean for the median voter in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne? It doesnt exist and the ability of the median voter in the suburbs to believe that he will lose with a higher tax on mining profits has nothing to do with an endowment effect.

Similar things go for health spending: the US spends more than any other country per capita whilst having relatively poor aggregate health outcomes. Spending furthermore has increased. How is it possible that individuals who are not yet insured or who pay an awful lot for fairly bad health coverage think they have something to lose from a reformed system? No endowment effect in sight, because there is no meaningful endowment to speak of.

I can see why it is uncomfortable to think its about aspirational voting because it means abondoning the idea that voters are well-informed about their opinions.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

An endowment effect for ideas and memes, rather than the strictly material. Possibly from the same basic neurological structures. The ideas are usually received, so it often is hard to convince that a change needs to take place in a society whose ideas you have taken ownership of (by being raised in it), even if they aren’t affecting you materially.

But the aspirational hypothesis also implies that this is a relatively new phenomena, I’m not convinced that this urge has only come about in the Horatio Alger age, when there was any kind of story that could convince people that they would soon or easily be joining the higher ranks of society. It’s difficult to ascertain, since we never get much sense of the agency of most people in the historical record – they just aren’t given voices – but I’m not convinced they didn’t bhave similarly when classes were theoretically rigid.

It’d be interesting if we could compare voices from, say a latish feudal society in Europe or Edo Japan [and I know how cranky medievialists get over that term] and various stages of Chinese history. The exam culture in the latter provided a myth of social mobility that the other societies didn’t (at least post Toyotomi). Were there aspirationals in the latter that weren’t in the former?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Richard,

I doubt very much that the median voter in the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney had any prior ‘meme’ in their head as to the taxing arrangements around mining. Similarly, even professional health economists in the US were struggling to keep on top of how the health system actually was organised. You are grasping at straws with the ‘meme’ theme.

The importance of aspirations is not a new thing. We are in essence talking about the willingness of those in the lower 2-thirds to go along with the myths propounded by those at the top. This tendency has surprised those to the left of politics many times before in history. A great example was the enthousiasm of the population for the idea of the nation state around WW I. The socialists found it incredible that the workers of different countries were jumping at the bits to kill each other, lead by their officers who came from the capitalist elite no less!

Anglo-Saxon history is usually written from the point of view of the elite (which tells you something already! All those butchers and bakers imagining they were Wellington and Ceasar!), but there are other traditions in historical analyses.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

This is what I mean! I don’t think the lower classes of a class bound society such as Britain in 1914 had any illusion that they were going to be a toff some day, or become a commissioned officer, but they still defend the nation state ideal. I don’t think it’s the relatively recent idea that they could one day join the toffs, it’s just that they vindicate the ideas that are placed in the status quo by the toffs for the sole reason that they are in the status quo. The system and distribution as it exists is justified by the sole reason that is does exist and we are endowed with the idea. It predates any fairy tales about advancement that seeped back from America (and Australia for that matter).

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Richard,

whoever would have thought the concept of meme was so malleable as to include a status quo that is a fantasy constructed and disseminated in real time ….

Verbal trickery aside, you and I agree on how strange it is for people with no realistic hope of becoming a member of the elite to nevertheless identify with what they perceive to be the opinions and fashions of the elite.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
11 years ago

Possibly at least some of the punters just uncritically accepted the proposition that the mining boom is the engine of Australia’s current prosperity and were also prepared to believe that federal Labor might be incompetent vaguely socialist bogies who might wreck the economy and imperil their superannuation investments. After all, Abbott was running that line in a more general sense (debt, deficit and waste) in relation to the government’s essentially sound management of the GFC, and the MSM by and large contented itself with “footie commentary” journalism i.e. simply reported the contenders’ propaganda with little or no analysis pointing out that the Coalition’s “debt and deficit” line was essentially cynically dishonest nonsense.

In those circumstances it’s hardly surprising that the punters got nervous because they had no reliable way of knowing which side was telling the truth (in the absence of actually educating themselves about the issues, which most people have neither the time, capacity nor inclination to do).

Drawing an analogy from my own field of public law, Australian experience after more than a century of constitutional referenda is that voters will generally vote “no” when they’re fearful and uncertain about a proposal for change. It’s not a perfect analogy because constitutional referenda always and almost by definition involve deciding whether to alter a longstanding status quo and, as Paul has pointed out, there simply isn’t one in any meaningful sense in relation to mining tax regimes. But the common factor is fear and uncertainty generating a conservative response. We don’t need to posit either an “endowment effect” or misguided convictions as to future/aspirational wealth on the part of the punters.

Moreover, Rudd didn’t help when he initially kicked off the debate by calling it a “super tax” and engaging in some quite idiotic class warfare rhetoric about the evil multinational mining companies etc. No doubt he hoped it would play well to the left-leaning supporters who had just been alienated by his abandonment of emissions trading. It probably did but it also (and predictably) frightened the crap out of the disengaged middle voter

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters(@paul-frijters)
11 years ago

Ken,

our positions seem fairly close bar a couple of nuances.

One of those nuances is why it would ‘frighten the crap out of the disengaged middle voter’ to engage in class warfare rhetoric towards foreign mining companies. That observation needs an explanation and mine is that, quite incredibly, the middle voter to some degree wishes to identify with the successful mining executive, even if they are foreign and even if taxing him would benefit the middle voter.

Another nuance is just how a ‘conservative response’ is brought about. The end-result of the mining tax saga was not a return to a status quo, but a cooptation by the federal government and just 3 mining companies. A capitulation is maybe a better word, but it certainly wasnt a return to the status quo. Hence, the puzzle is why the mining companies managed to convince Joe average in the suburbs that the capitulation of their representatives was somehow the ‘safe thing’ to do. It truly appears you can get the wannabees to believe anything if you are rich and capable of flooding the airwaves with the message that your welfare is their welfare.

The aspirational voters might not in their hearts of hearts believe they will become rich, but they are very attached to the fantasy.

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

Or, Paul, you could read Ken’s whole comment, especially:

Possibly at least some of the punters just uncritically accepted the proposition that the mining boom is the engine of Australia’s current prosperity and were also prepared to believe that federal Labor might be incompetent vaguely socialist bogies who might wreck the economy and imperil their superannuation investments.

As for idiotic class warfare, how many Australians own shares in BHP, including through index(ed) investments?

Hence, crap frightened out of the average voter. Seems plausible enough doesn’t it?

Re the rest, maybe the big miners’ agreement helped convince the average Joe that what was being proposed was basically fair.

David Walker
David Walker(@d-w-griffiths)
11 years ago

“It truly appears you can get the wannabees to believe anything if you are rich and capable of flooding the airwaves with the message that your welfare is their welfare.” – Paul

Tell that to Ralph Norris.

There is an interesting story here about how the mining industry changed its image over time. Some of it is set out in this speech by former mining lobbyist and now banking lobbyist Steven Munchenberg. (A fair chunk of the story may also be down to the fact that the average Australian doesn’t buy bulk iron ore or coking coal.)

That aside, there’s also a lot of insight in the comments above.

Ken is right that the term “super-profits” made people wonder whether their economically conservative PM was a communist after all; he had, if you remember, directed one of his brief campaigns against capitalism at the start of 2009. And most Australians do not think of BHP as a foreign company.

Paul is dead right that the populist left is never going to be discovered by anyone capable of writing the words: “Obama should have made an intellectual construct out of his hope mantra”.

I also think Paul is right that Labor needs to win the aspirational voters. Where I differ from Paul is that I think Mark Latham (huge effort to type these words) got it right when he argued the ALP had to embrace the aspirationals. It also needs to respect them, because as a group they are neither mean nor dumb. A large slice of the left seems to treat them like aliens – aliens devoid of compassion, logic or the capacity to absorb an argument.

The aspirational voters are perfectly capable of rejecting the ideas of those “at the top” (if by that Paul means senior business people, policymakers etc). Again, just ask Ralph Norris.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

Paul = We certainly agree on observed behavior, I’m just more pessimistic about the source of the problem. Hopefully you’re right and a change of “narrative” – to use the inane commentariat jargon of the moment – could fix things.

I think though that the analogy that Ken proposes, the referendum, does support my viewpoint though. People are endowed here with the existing referendum and value it higher relative to proffered changes than would rationally be the case. This is also realted to Kuhnian dogmatism, so the phenomena is not all bad – I just bemoan it terribly when it works so well for vested interests like mining executives and the like.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Patrick and DW,

I agreed with Ken’s description that

Possibly at least some of the punters just uncritically accepted the proposition that the mining boom is the engine of Australia’s current prosperity and were also prepared to believe that federal Labor might be incompetent vaguely socialist bogies who might wreck the economy and imperil their superannuation investments.

which amplifies my argument that it is possible to get a large slice of the population to believe (almost) anything. Unlike DW, I cannot see any hidden deep thought in such beliefs.

I doubt that more than a minuscule proportion of the population knows how much of their superannuation is invested in BHP. Given that roughly half the superannuation payments are taken up by the overhead of the insurance companies, the absolute effects of mining taxes on individual superannuation payments is really very small.

michael wilson
11 years ago

bring the sugar and milk the new Boston tea party is here in the guise of the motorcycle messiah and the junkies against crime liberation front .whilst we are through no choice of our our an underground black banned political party .i have just punished the government with two body blows for its arrogance in banning our web sites .The first being their upcoming court appearences in Geneva for treason and war crimes and the second that if they let me tell them what i was trying too for seven years .That they refused me my freedom of speech is that the blockers they put in sudo ephedrine saying they were harmless have been introduced into their air and water supplies by us and we think they might of been telling the truth even though only accidentaly i expect since none have fell over dead whilst we have been watching .any way we have taxation without representation and now they are starting to understand we will pay them in their own currency should the continue to stick their heads in the sand and think we have gone,we don’t want to give them more bad news but we can if they refuse to negotiate with us .we are the other side in the drug war and we have nothing but our slavery to lose in life don’t jerk us around or we smash your civilization regards the motorcycle messiah.

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John Passant
11 years ago

Gross operating surplus is not the rate of profit.