How can the left regain popular trust and return to government? In a recent piece for the New Statesman, Richard Seymour laments Labour’s lack of a theory of power. Seymour is right that talk about progressive values does little to organise working-class voters and build a power base capable of taking on the Conservatives. Yet power can be just as divisive as values, pitting people against one another in our age of extreme identity politics. To tackle the conditions that have left voters in Labour’s former heartlands powerless, the party has to build a new coalition between working and middle-class voters based on their shared interests.
US President Biden shows the way. In his speech to the US Congress in April outlining a bold economic agenda, he stated unequivocally that “we will defend America’s interests across the board”. Compare that to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who preferred to preach about the supposedly universal values of progressive politics. Even democracy and human rights became instruments of foreign policy at the service of a secular religion of relentless progress. Being on the “right side of history” reflected a political messianism notable for its intolerance of self-doubt.
Both Blair and Clinton won elections but ended up eroding support in the heartlands by championing global free trade, industrial outsourcing and permanent war. The value they promoted, above all else, was endless change, combined with individual choice in the marketplace. At their hands, equality came to mean equal opportunity benefitting the already economically affluent and socially mobile. Fighting for social justice by introducing ever-more individual rights without corresponding obligations trumped efforts to reduce the widening disparities of wealth or build a genuine economic democracy around the interests of workers.
[See also: America’s race to net zero]
Over the past two decades, the left has sought solace in abstract ideals and become disconnected from the everyday existence of those it purports to represent. Progressives promote a politics of the global rather than the national and the local, a politics of utopia rather than place, and a politics of individualised identity rather than shared belonging. Underpinning this abstraction from reality is a belief in the emancipatory power of technology to bend the arc of history in the direction of inevitable progress.
Today progressives defend what the Atlantic writer Helen Lewis calls “woke capitalism” – treating progressive values as a branding tool while leaving existing structures of power and wealth intact. It involves posting social media messages denouncing racism and firing low-level employees who dissent from the new norms while institutional shareholders and top executives extract excessive profits. The likes of Walmart, Facebook and Amazon combine corporate crusades on ultra-progressive issues such as gender-neutral toilets with the protection of their own monopoly position in ways that fuse self-righteousness with naked self-interest. In the name of a new moralism, virtue signalling masks greed and other vices.
So far Biden has largely eschewed the cultural wars. His focus is on greater economic justice and social solidarity anchored in the shared interests of what used to be called “the common man” – working- and middle-class folk who were the backbone of America. A politics of interests, not abstract values, starts with “jobs you can raise a family on” rather than corporate profits that will never trickle down.
That means promoting decent, well-paid jobs by increasing the minimum wage to the level of a living wage and enforcing it across all sectors. It means not only boosting skills and life-long education but also trade union bargaining power to balance corporate power. It means federal government support for childcare, so that parents can either pay for nurseries or stay at home to look after their children. And it means “Buy American” public procurement rules that favour reshoring industrial production and building back better and greener. Biden leads the first administration that seems serious about replacing the market fundamentalism of the past 40 years with a new era of state activism which serves the common good.
That would be significant for two reasons. One is that it represents a concrete alternative to the right that avoids divisive cultural issues in favour of shared interests, beginning with what the Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham calls “the dignity of decent work”. A focus on shared interests avoids artificial binaries between economics and culture because interests are both economic and social. Decent work provides not only an income to pay the bills but also a sense of self-esteem and meaning. It resonates with the left’s radical roots, its enduring belief in the good government can do for society and its ethos of lived solidarity and togetherness.
The other reason is that such a vision renews politics as the art of reconciling rival interests. In his seminal book In Defence of Politics, the English political theorist Bernard Crick described politics as a practice rather than a science based on abstract values. Politics, he wrote, is an “activity by which differing interests are conciliated by giving them a share of power”.
Faced with a right that is ruthlessly pragmatic about retaining power, the left will not win unless it can build new coalitions across class and culture. Secure, decent jobs to sustain family life, strong communities to nurture a sense of belonging, and pride in the country and its complex history are some of the shared interests that can unite the left’s lost voting tribes: young and old, urban and rural, university graduates and those without formal qualifications, progressives and those with a more small-c conservative outlook.
Environmentally sustainable growth and international solidarity with peoples and nations are other building blocks for a new left majority. It should not depend on a values-based progressive alliance that would only exacerbate our age of political polarisation.
A politics of abstract values will deepen divisions and lock the left out of power for another decade or generation. Biden’s bold agenda shows how a politics based on shared interests can begin to transform capitalism and offer a renewed sense of unity. The left can either embrace reality and shape it, or face defeat and demise.
Adrian Pabst’s new book Postliberal Politics: The Coming Era of Renewal is out now