The postwar Western left has always been at its strongest when it has sought agglomeration – when it has united a broad coalition of support spanning the blue-collar working class, the just-managing middle class, public sector workers and social progressives. And it has always been weakest when it has been consumed by sectarian contests between and within those different groups.
To understand this is to grasp why the Great Recession from 2008, caused by the biggest financial crisis since 1929, did not fulfil initial hopes that it would precipitate a sweeping revival of left-wing politics. Admittedly, it did generate the global Occupy movement and, in southern Europe, the “indignados” protests. In time these would aid the rise of parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, as well as leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. The crash widely dented faith in unfettered markets. Yet these partial and sporadic successes hardly amount to the transformative social-democratic moment many anticipated.
The best explanation for this is that three major divides, generating rival political priorities, prevented a progressive alternative from flourishing. First was the divide between those motivated most by material conditions (wages, social security) and those interested in post-material issues (the environment, civil rights). The second, related cleavage was that between the traditional working class in post-industrial or rural parts and a younger, university-educated “precariat” in urban centres. And the third was the divide between these core groups and those comfortable elements of the middle-class who had the capital to ride out the economic turbulence.
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Thus Occupy remained in essence a creature of its graduate, white-collar base. Sanders and Corbyn would have triumphed had they performed as well among voters of their own advanced ages as they did among millennials. Podemos fractured over whether to pursue traditional class-based politics or become something more green and left-libertarian. None of the post-crisis left movements managed a stable, effective synthesis between wages-and-rents progressivism and the politics of the environment and personal freedoms. Indeed, it was the populist right (Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, the Brexiteers) that achieved feats of agglomerative post-crisis politics, using nationalist resentment to bind together working-class voters, the just-managing middle class and swathes of the plutocratic rich.
Now the West faces another economic crisis. But whereas that of 2008 concerned debt and a shortage of money, this one concerns inflation and a shortage of stuff. And where the Great Recession had been preceded by a period of rising living standards and confidence in free markets, this one arrives against a backdrop still marked by the previous crisis, as well as by accelerating climate breakdown, war in Ukraine and the pandemic. A prolonged period of elevated inflation and interest rates awaits. That makes it a moment with greater potential for the left, because it bridges some of the divides that frustrated left majoritarianism from 2008 onwards.
Take the first of these: material vs post-material priorities. Extreme weather events have made the public increasingly aware of the links between the climate crisis and living standards. Today’s soaring inflation rates have illustrated the connection even more forcefully, by demonstrating the folly of relying on fossil fuels over cheaper, cleaner ones – and in showing that extreme weather drives up prices (droughts and flooding pose serious problems for supply chains). This clarity is pushing the industrial and green elements of the left’s coalition closer together.
Other “post-material” priorities, such as civil rights and racial equality, have become more mainstream during the pandemic – as seen in everything from debates over lockdowns to Black Lives Matter protests.
On the second divide, too, between the old working class and the new urban precariat, this crisis provides the left with more “glue” than in 2008. Worker shortages combined with inflation are giving the labour movement new purpose, unity and reach. Unions on both sides of the Atlantic are gaining majority approval, and are advancing into new parts of the economy such as gig work (Uber) and Big Tech (Google and Amazon). The so-called Great Resignation – of people choosing to leave or switch their jobs – is further evidence of a new wave of worker confidence and agency.
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Third, and most significant, this crisis is erecting new bridges between low earners and the just-managing middle. Soaring prices will hit the poorest hardest. But pain will spread far up the income scale, with the end of a long era of cheap money upending US and European bourgeois lifestyles built on low-interest mortgages, car loans and credit cards. Britain’s Citizens Advice network estimates that half of those who will be unable to pay their energy bills by January will be “people who would otherwise be more financially stable”, while Germany’s National Tenants’ Association is calling urgently for the upper household-income limit on housing benefit to be more than doubled to €5,000 per month – deep into middle-class territory.
That all of this follows record corporate profits – the highest since the 1950s in the US at 15.5 per cent of gross value added – and ever-more lurid displays of billionaire excess will only add to the unifying force of the moment. New big-tent movements such as Enough is Enough, Insulate Britain and Don’t Pay UK are just early examples of the coming political convulsions across the West, and the new openings for an agglomerative and majoritarian left politics. The question now is: will the left seize this moment?
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine