• The Left’s Timidity

    It is not just Karl Marx – even the most enthusiastic supporters of the market economy (not least Adam Smith) will concede that its normal operation inevitably leads to a concentration of wealth in relatively few hands. Some, at least, of these enthusiasts will accept that such a concentration is unacceptable and must be countered by a political system in which those who lose out can use the power of government to redress the balance, at least in part. That political system is usually described as democracy.

    It is becoming apparent, however, in today’s world, that democracy – as the supposed remedy for, and counter to, the unacceptable concentration of wealth – has failed miserably. Not only has it failed in its immediate supposed purpose, but – worse than that – it has become an instrument in the hands of those who are opposed to any change in the usual pattern of wealth distribution in a modern economy.

    How has this perverse outcome been engineered? It is brought about because the wealthy are able to use their wealth to influence the voters to support them and to place political as well as economic power in their hands.

    The wealthy in our society have learned how to use their wealth to manipulate the democratic process so that it produces outcomes that are entirely congenial to them. They are then able to claim that their unjustifiable share of the wealth produced in a modern society is not only endorsed by the democratic process but is actually demanded by it.

    They are able to exert that influence because they largely control the major economic institutions in our society – they own much of the land and own and control most of the country’s productive capacity and financial institutions. And, above all else, they are the employers, deciding whether or not their fellow-citizens have should paid employment and how much they should be paid. Even more tellingly, they own and control most of the country’s media and sources of news; they are therefore able to portray themselves as benefactors and as worthy of admiration and respect because of the success, at least in material terms, that they have achieved. And, not least, they can use their financial resources to buy advertising and propaganda on a scale that dwarfs that available to their opponents.

    The outcome of all this is all too obvious. In virtually all of what were once called the “Western” democracies, the right is entrenched and has little difficulty in dismissing the would-be challenge from the left. At the same time, the right and – all too often – the “far” right, are emboldened.

    And, as an inevitable corollary, the left’s increasing failure to achieve even a small and occasional dent in the wealthy’s domination of public affairs means that the very concept of democracy loses much of its appeal, and is seen increasingly – in a growing number of countries – as not worth defending.

    So, in the United States, the voters seem neither to recognise nor care about the threat to the democratic process that is posed by Trump’s campaign to return to the White House. And, as the rest of the world looks on in disbelief, this lack of the people’s faith in the world’s leading democracy means that the very concept of democracy is dealt a mortal blow.

    In India, the oft-proclaimed world’s “largest” democracy, Modi keeps the form but denies the substance of democracy. In European countries like Hungary and Belarus, “strong men” leaders like Viktor Urban and Aleksandr Lukashenko have come to power and seem unlikely to relinquish it. Erdogan is virtually unchallenged in Turkey. South America, too, has seen several instances of the revival of the extreme right. And Trump and Putin and China’s Chairman Xi provide the model that is increasingly seen as the norm.

    The corollary of this endorsement of the right across the globe is the enfeeblement of the left. In countries at opposite ends of the globe, like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, left politicians have approached general elections in a state of funk, not daring to propose any form of restriction on the power of the wealthy – such as new or increased taxes on wealth, or forms of public ownership to replace private ownership. Not surprisingly, this timidity on the part of the left has failed to impress the disadvantaged who sense that even their proponents lack any confidence in the measures they might be expected to propose.

    The pity of it is that it is the left in democratic politics who bear the responsibility of demonstrating that democracy can deliver the goods to the permanently disadvantaged. But, in country after country, the left has demonstrated the reverse – they they are fearful that they will lose support if they propose measures that will bring about a real redistribution of power and influence. The left is as easily bluffed and bullied by the right as are those who suffer as a consequence.

    What has been the point of the left’s long struggle to bring about democracy, if – now that it has been achieved – they lack the courage to use the opportunities it provides? In New Zealand’s recent general election, the Labour Party made great play of its decision to rule out a wealth tax (which would have provided the resources to allow a reduction in tax rates for ordinary workers), presumably for fear that those same ordinary voters would be alienated by any such measure. But why? Why struggle to bring about democracy if there is so little will to demonstrate the advantages it can bring? If even the proponents of redistributive measures lack the courage to argue for them, let alone implement them, why would the voters take a different view?

    And, in the run-up to the next UK general election, Labour’s Keir Starmer seems similarly unmanned.

    The conclusion is inevitable – the proponents of democracy have betrayed it because their courage has failed them. It is time to start again and to make clear that the purpose of democracy is to ensure that the advantages and opportunities of a modern economy are not monopolised by those who already have more than their fair share.

    The left must demonstrate more analysis, more conviction, and – above all – more courage; otherwise, democracy will have lost its purpose and raison d’etre.

1 Comment

  1. Mike says: March 26, 2024 at 3:26 pmReply

    Well said, Brian. Totally agree,

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