Constructing a Left Politics: It Is Time to Slough off Neoliberalism and Return to a Politics of Social Justice

By Gould, Bryan | Soundings, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Constructing a Left Politics: It Is Time to Slough off Neoliberalism and Return to a Politics of Social Justice


Gould, Bryan, Soundings


As the global economic crisis gathers force, it not only sweeps before it the flotsam of discredited economic doctrines; it also demands a complete reappraisal of how economies and societies work. It poses again the great questions that underlie all political debate, and it poses them in the certain knowledge that the answers given over the past thirty years - and so widely accepted - must now be rejected.

This is, in other words, one of those rare moments when it is not only possible but positively essential to go back to first principles. We must ask again what is the purpose of politics, what is the role of government, does democracy matter, and - for those who see the need and seek the opportunity for reform - what does it mean to be on the left in politics.

Those questions must be asked, of course, at a time when - in Britain at least - left politics has run into the buffers. The concessions and subterfuges that were thought to be necessary to win power and then to hold it are now unmasked not just as craven but as totally destructive of anything that could have been legitimately regarded as the true purpose of left politics. If there is one incontrovertible lesson to be learned, it is that a left politics that is disconnected from principle and analysis will lead to failure and defeat.

The opportunity is, then, to think again about that body of principle and structured analysis that should underpin any left approach to politics. Our starting-point for such an inquiry must surely be a recognition that, since the late 1970s, and with the often unstated acquiescence of the left, the political agenda has been dominated by neoliberal thinking.

The dominance of this self-serving doctrine has been a huge achievement for those who already exercised great economic power, but felt their privilege threatened by the political power of democratic electorates. They feared, correctly, that elected governments, accountable to the widest range of interests, would not tolerate a system which unfairly favoured the rich and powerful by allowing them to rig the contest for power in their favour.

The rise of neoliberal hegemony

The powerful responded to this threat by bringing about changes, around the end of the 1970s, which negated the power of democracy - changes whose significance was hardly recognised at the time. They made elected governments irrelevant, by acquiring a degree of economic power that would allow them to face down and blackmail all but the most powerful democratic governments - and to bend even the most powerful governments to their will, by using their economic power and invulnerability to political pressure.

The individual steps by which this was achieved need be only briefly rehearsed here. One of the earliest of these masqueraded as a purely technical change that would help international trade and investment, and that was sold to the ordinary citizen as a welcome reduction in bureaucracy. That change, of course, was the removal of exchange controls by Reagan and Thatcher so that international capital was free to roam the world in search of the most favourable investment opportunities. In one step, the rules of the game had changed hugely. Investors no longer had to comply with the requirements of elected governments. Instead, governments found themselves played off against each other by investors who commanded greater and greater resources as the now global economy was funnelled into fewer and fewer hands.

It was governments that now had to sue for terms; they would lose out in the competition for investment if they did not comply with the demands of the multinationals. The investors, on the other hand, now understood that they could exercise their power quite irresponsibly. It was, after all, governments - not the investors - that had to answer to their electorates. The investors answered to no one but their shareholders. And most costs could be 'externalised', or passed on to taxpayers who no longer had a voice. …

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