The left as an alternative to both populism and neoliberalism

December 28, 2016 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

2016 has been the year of Brexit, Trump’s election and the defeat of the Italian prime minister Renzi in the constitutional referendum. These events signalled the discontent of a large part of the population with what they perceived as the establishment. The policies recently undertaken by the European Union, the candidature of Hillary Clinton and the approach followed by Mr Renzi have been far from perfect, and have been worrisome in many instances. On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that a consistent and truly democratic political project shaped the choices mentioned above.

Populism and neoliberalism clearly oppose each other when it comes to most of their views on how the world should be. The former advocates closed borders and a fearful nationalism, whereas the latter has been supporting free markets and the paradigm of globalisation for several decades. However, both populism and neoliberalism ground most of their analyses on three elements.

A first element is the prevalence of the economic dimension of life on relational welfare and cultural livelihood. For instance, policies such as the integration of migrants and the fight against climate change are often endorsed or rejected mainly because of their economic impact.

A second element is the indifference – if not hostility – towards diverging views. For several decades, whoever argued against the inherent virtues of capitalism has been considered dangerous for democracy and freedom by mainstream media. In a similar way, according to populists whoever doubts their oversimplified analyses is compromised with the establishment.

A third element is the condition – recently recalled by the governor of the Bank of England – of “isolation and detachment” of individuals, considered as monads moved only by personal interest. Indeed, while neoliberalism strictly adheres to methodological individualism, according to populists, citizens do not have to change anything in their behaviour, because all their problems arise from politicians.

Against this backdrop, the left – meant as a political force striving to reconcile social justice and individual freedom – should compete with both populism and neoliberalism by providing a viable alternative to the three paradigms of economicism, conformism and individualism (the latter two being a repercussion of economicism). The redefinition of social structures aimed at a greater emancipation of individuals would require either the creation of a public sphere capable of overcoming the dominion of markets on our lives, or the introduction in these markets of moral and existential dimensions that are currently overlooked.

The creation of a public sphere highlights the need for reliable information and in particular for a greater independence of mass media from private interests. From this point of view, the current situation does not seem optimal, as new media keep being commodified, and citizens keep being treated as consumers.

As for the introduction in the markets of dimensions which have been marginalised until now, this would be made possible by establishing exchanges of values, as I mentioned in my article “Autonomy and progressive policies”. Here I would like to observe that if individuals and legal persons could exchange some documents (let’s call them experience descriptors) attesting – based on their experiences and on the assessment by third parties – to the importance of moral values (such as tolerance), organisational values (such as openness to internationalisation) and cultural values (such as multiculturalism), and if these documents were employed as a means of exchange complementary to money, society would gain three advantages.

First, these transactions would let markets operate while allowing individuals to express existential dimensions and attitudes which go beyond consumers’ tastes and professional skills. Second, the exchanges of values would provide an economic incentive to populists and indifferent citizens to embrace progressive values. Third, such schemes would foster individuality, as the possibility to choose the best aims for one’s life, whereas individualism simply allows to choose a means for predetermined aims such as economic welfare.

As I have already noticed, such exchanges might provide significant benefits in dealing with income inequality. In particular, States or local communities could distribute to the most disadvantaged individuals a set of relevant experiences consistent with their personal and professional activities (for instance, experiences linked with environmentalism could be distributed to individuals who operate in the alternative energies sector). These individuals could decide either to sell these experience descriptors on the market, or to employ them in their activities, in order to add new relevant experiences to these documents, before transferring them.

Ultimately, the left should not only find ways to better manage issues such as migration and inequality, but also to get out of the paradigm of instrumental rationality, whose totalitarian nature was denounced by the Frankfurt School about 70 years ago. Exchanges of values would offer such opportunity.

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This post was written by Marco Senatore

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