It’s not enough to have your heart in the right place. The arguments will only be won with energy and uplifting ideas
It’s a perplexing question: why has so little changed since 2008? If your recall is a little hazy, 2008 was the year the world woke up to a banking crisis of epic proportions, a crisis borne of blind faith in market wisdom and an utter lack of public oversight. But in a bizarre twist, the parties who benefited from the bust were the conservatives (the people who glibly told voters it was all the government’s fault) and the xenophobes (who blamed it all on terrorists and immigrants, who steal our jobs yet are too lazy to work).
So why isn’t the left coming up with some real alternatives? There are volumes to be written about this conundrum, but I’d like to venture one simple explanation: the eternal return of underdog socialism.
It’s an international phenomenon, observable among legions of leftwing thinkers and movements, from trade unions to political parties, from columnists to professors. The world view of the underdog socialist is encapsulated in the notion that the establishment has mastered the game of reason, judgment and statistics, leaving the left with emotion. Its heart is in the right place. The underdog socialist always has his or her back against the wall. Warily they watch the neoliberals, the multinationals and the Eurocrats advance, but can’t bring themselves to do much more than whimper: “Come on guys, do we have to?”
An MP from the Flemish Green party recently asked me: “Yes, but isn’t the government deficit too high?” She stared in disbelief when I answered that the deficit was actually too low. Jeremy Corbyn still hasn’t offered any convincing vision that resonates beyond his most devoted fans.
Meanwhile, the Socialist party in France and Germany’s Social Democratic party are moving farther towards the middle of the road. In my own country, the Netherlands, the vacuous governing social democrat party seems to believe it will be able to inch its way up the polls if only economy shows some limited growth. “The left has failed to come up with ideas that are economically sound and politically popular beyond ameliorative policies such as income transfers,” the economist Dani Rodrik recently wrote.
The underdog socialist has a surfeit of compassion and finds prevailing policies deeply unfair – seeing the achievements of the 20th century crumbling to dust, and rushing in to salvage what he can. But when push comes to shove, the underdog socialist caves in to the arguments of the opposition, always accepting the premise upon which the debate takes place. “National debt is out of control, but we can make more programmes income-dependent … Fighting poverty is terribly expensive, but it’s part of being a civilised nation … Taxes are high – but each according to his ability.”
Reining in and restraining, that’s the sole remaining mission of the underdog socialists. Anti-austerity, anti-privatisation, anti-establishment: one is left to wonder, what are underdog socialists actually for? Time and again, they side with society’s unfortunates: poor people, dropouts, asylum seekers, disabled people and the discriminated. They decry Islamophobia, homophobia and racism. Meanwhile, they obsess over the proliferation of “rifts” dividing the world into blue-collar and white-collar, poverty and wealth, ordinary people and the 1%, and vainly seek to “reconnect” with a constituency that has long since packed its bags.
But the underdog socialists’ biggest problem isn’t that they are wrong. They are not. Their biggest problem is that they’re dull. Dull as a doorknob. They’ve got no story to tell; nor even the language to convey it in. Having arrived at the conclusion that politics is a mere matter of identity, they have chosen an arena in which they will lose every time.
And too often, it seems as if leftists actually like losing. As if all the failure, doom and atrocities mainly serve to prove they were right all along. “There’s a kind of activism,” Rebecca Solnit remarks in her book Hope in the Dark, “that’s more about bolstering identity than achieving results.”
One thing Donald Trump understands very well is that most people prefer to be on the winning side (“We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning.”) They resent the pity and paternalism of the good Samaritan. The always-impending apocalypse – whether the next financial crash or unavoidable climate disaster – is not a great motivator.
What the underdog socialist has forgotten is that the story of the left ought to be a narrative of hope and progress. By that I don’t mean a narrative that only excites a few hipsters who get their kicks philosophising about “postcapitalism” after reading some deadly dull tome. The greatest sin of the academic left is that it has become fundamentally aristocratic, writing in bizarre jargon that makes cliches seem abstruse. If you can’t explain your ideal to a fairly intelligent 12-year-old, it’s probably your own fault. What we need is a narrative that speaks to millions of ordinary people. It all starts with reclaiming the language of progress.
Reforms? Hell, yes. Let’s give the financial sector a real overhaul: hike those buffers, carve up those banks, and give those tax paradises a run for their money. And after that, let’s reinvent the welfare state and eradicate poverty for good – now that’s an investment that will pay for itself.
Meritocracy? Bring it on. Let’s finally pay people according to their real contributions. Waste collectors, nurses and teachers would get a substantial raise, obviously, while quite a few lobbyists, lawyers and bankers would see their salaries dive into the negatives. If you want to do a job that hurts the public, go right ahead. But you’ll have to pay for the privilege.
Innovation? Totally. And who better to get us started than history’s biggest venture capitalist: government. Almost every groundbreaking innovation is financed by taxpayers, after all: every sliver of fundamental technology in your iPhone (capacitive sensors, solid-state memory, the click wheel, GPS, internet, cellular communications, Siri, microchips, and the touchscreen) was invented by researchers on the government payroll.
Efficiency? That’s the whole point. Think about it: every pound invested in a homeless person returns triple or more in savings on care, police and court costs. Just imagine what the eradication of child poverty might achieve. Solving these kinds of problems is a whole lot more efficient than “managing” them.
Cut the nanny state? Spot on. Let’s axe those senseless reemployment courses for the out of work, quit drilling and degrading benefit recipients, and put paid to the biggest paperwork proliferator in the western hemisphere: the unleashing of “market forces” in health care.
Freedom? It’s what the left has dreamed of all along. As we speak, 37% of Brits are stuck in “bullshit jobs” that even the people doing them consider meaningless. It’s high time we all got the freedom to strive for our full potential. How? Universal basic income.
But first, the underdog socialists will have to stop wallowing in their moral superiority. Everyone who reckons themselves progressive should be a beacon of not just energy but ideas, not only indignation but hope, and equal parts ethics and hard sell. Ultimately, what the underdog socialist lacks is the most vital ingredient for political change: the conviction that there truly is a better way.
• Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15-hour Workweek