We need liberal socialism

It means a stop to corrupt politics and corporate greed, which have been as bad under Labour as they were under the Nationalists.

The European elections have come and gone and, as everybody expected, there was a a big win for the right and far right. In five months’ time, there will be the US presidential election which Donald Trump is tipped to win. Only five of the 27 European Union member states are now under socialist-led governments ̶ Portugal, Slovenia, Malta, Denmark, and Germany ̶ and sometimes one wonders whether they are really socialists.

Mind you, some of the political parties now in government are only conservative in name, bordering on the illiberal. One only has to mention Viktor Orbán’s party, or the Polish version voted out recently.

Over the past decade, countless essays, articles, and books have been written to explain the growing threats to the liberal world order posed by populism, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, and nationalism.

The source of the crisis

In more recent years, a small but vociferous group of thinkers referred to as “post-liberals” have argued that the source of the crisis lies within liberalism itself, whose conceptions of the social and political order are fatally flawed. According to them, many of the ills that afflict the world today ̶ rampant globalisation, the destruction of communal bonds, rising economic insecurity, environmental degradation, and other perceived defects of twenty-first-century society ̶ can be laid at the door of liberalism.

Other scholars have also devoted a great deal of thought to the human dislocations ̶ be they economic, political, demographic, cultural, or environmental ̶ that seem to have given rise to these threats.

The British political philosopher John Gray and the Yale intellectual historian Samuel Moyn have both weighed in on what they see as the self-inflicted decline of the liberal project.

In The New Leviathans, Gray contends that liberalism is a fundamentally erroneous creed built on dangerous myths and illusions. Rather than bringing freedom, it has led to unfettered government power that has brought much of the world to the brink of totalitarianism ̶ not only in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China but also in advanced Western democracies.

The pessimism of The New Leviathans should not come as a surprise. Gray posits that the contemporary liberal order was constructed around the delusion that “where markets spread, freedom would follow”. Rather than market capitalism and liberal values triumphing everywhere, he writes, these forces were simply a temporary “political experiment” that has “run its course” and left nothing but disaster in its wake.

Like the English economist Thomas Malthus five centuries before him, he asserts that the future is bleak. Societies will not be able to arrest climate change or prevent environmental destruction. New technologies will not save civilisation. Predictions about overpopulation may yet be proved right. Western capitalism, Gray says, is “programmed to fail”.

By contrast, in Liberalism Against Itself, Moyn argues that liberal thought is fundamentally sound, based as it is on ideals that are both laudable and realisable. As Moyn sees it, the present crisis has been caused not by liberalism but by its betrayal, by none other than the architects of the liberal order themselves.

Abandoning their core values and principles, he argues, liberalism’s champions have become timid and anxious ̶ more concerned with fending off their enemies than winning new converts. Where Gray sees liberal states growing into ever more controlling monsters, Moyn finds them reduced and enfeebled, having presided over the tragic dismantling of the welfare state.

Rethinking policies

Both socialist and liberal politics have had a hard time for decades. It is thus worth rethinking which policies have been successful and which have failed. On the positive side, successful socialist governments led to demonstratively vast improvements in the living conditions of most of the population. One can point to universal welfare states based on social reforms addressing all, or very broad sections, of the public: a general child allowance, a national pensions system, free health and elderly care, tuition-free education, and so on.

Another great success for the left has been policies to enhance gender equality, based on the liberal principle that men and women should enjoy equal opportunities in common social locations ̶ be that the family, civil society, government organisations, or the workplace.

On the other hand, defeats for socialist politics have been frequent. In Sweden, one can point to the wage-earner funds, which were introduced in the 1980s but abolished by a conservative government in 1994 and never heard of again in political debate. In the United States, the post-war consensus on free trade and international cooperation started being reversed. The liberal world was also blamed for an army of ‘losers’ within the white working class, who blamed their difficulties on identity-based group rights and migrated to Trump’s Republicans.

Liberal socialism

It is worth remembering, though, that what distinguishes successful left politics is the union of the liberal principle of individual rights and the socialist idea of ​​social justice ̶ in short, liberal socialism. Successful social reforms and gender-equality policies have been based on individual rights to pensions, health care, and education, as well as equal rights for men and women. It is when the left disrespected liberal democracy and individual rights that it has lost.

There is thus a clear pattern in terms of the success and failure of left-wing politics. Policies that have been successful and have endured ̶ call them liberal socialism – combined reforms for social and economic justice with central liberal principles, such as respect for individual autonomy, individual rights, and the rule of law. Approaches which have trampled on these principles have led to severe and widespread defeats.

Similarly, liberalism has faced multiple crises throughout its history. Since its birth during the French Revolution, it has faced formidable enemies before and has reinvented itself several times. It can certainly do so again. How exactly it should do so, is up to a new generation of thinkers, policymakers, politicians, and, ultimately, voters themselves to decide.

I was struck by an article by UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in The Guardian recently, when he wrote: “I have always been motivated by a burning desire to tackle inequality and injustice, to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. That’s my socialism. If I see something wrong or spot an injustice, I want to put it right. It’s why I spent 20 years fighting the death penalty across the world, why I marched against the Iraq war, and why I defended the rights of victims of domestic violence.”

UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire).

Record inequality, crippling debt, a devastating pandemic, unfulfilling and unsafe jobs, discrimination and abuse, environmental and weather disasters, skyrocketing costs of living: this stark snapshot of “business as usual”, of human suffering and climate destruction under capitalism, is enough to drive any individual into overwhelming despair. The past decade has made it clear that capitalism is in crisis for all but a handful. 

The criminality of the system

As of October 2021, some 2,750 people in the world had as much wealth as over one half of the planet, or 3.9 billion. In Malta, the median net wealth for the lowest fifth of the population in 2020 stood at €14,800, while that of the wealthiest 10% of households stood at just under €1.2 million: 80 times richer than those living just above the bottom 20% but below the top 60% earners.

This is a testament to the criminality of this system. No amount of “self-care” can overcome the senseless material deprivation and devastation faced by billions of people, and the profound anxiety and alienation that as a result strain our relation to work, not to mention our relationships at home and in our communities.

That is because capitalism’s driving force is not the well-being and advancement of humankind, but the maximisation of profits for a small minority that controls the world’s wealth and assets. Historically, capitalism has enormously developed the productive forces of our society: our means of transportation, technology, communication, science, and the factories in which new goods are made. But the defining features of capitalism ̶ private ownership and the nation state ̶ have shackled the further development of our economy and society.

A simple socialist rule

I am not thereby proposing some form of communism, of extreme socialism, but a simple socialist rule: rather than just increasing the wealth of the minority elite, let’s apply and allocate more accumulated capital to helping vulnerable people who cannot work, educating better the children of uneducated ones, building greener infrastructure to minimise climate disaster, or providing food to those who cannot afford healthy food.
Moreover, the argument that something can be good for the economy but bad for the environment or vice versa must end. If it’s bad for the environment, then it is bad for the economy and the contrary is also the case.

Businesses, investors, and consumers clearly have their role to play, but only a determined lead from Government can make this happen. This was also a theme in Dr Mark Said’s opinion piece in The Journal a few days ago.

It means a stop to corrupt politics and corporate greed, which have been as bad under Labour as they were under the Nationalists. It means that, rather than bringing in so-called “experts” or management consultants and paying them thousands, if not millions, we let workers have a major say in running their workplace. They are not “ġħaħan” (fools) but have the knowledge, skills, and experience to do the job. This “socialism from below” would be a huge democratic process.

Recognition of this should inform the future strategy of the left in Malta.

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