Democracy and politics on the left
Democracy is a bit like religious faith or humanism; we are always en route, on the way. If democracy does well in some countries or fields, it may do poorly in other countries and fields, even regress in some. Democracy is something that must be protected, defined, refined, improved and expanded, all the time, by every generation, everywhere. True, certain things are basic, as there are eternal truths, even dogma, in religions, humanist thinking, and other sets of moral values and ideologies – including in politics on the left.
In a recent newspaper essay, a leader of a socialist party in a Western European country wrote about this. Yes, it was a Norwegian politician, since you had already guessed it, as I often borrow thoughts from and make comparisons with my home country. The politician in question, Audun Lysbakken, is leader of the Socialist Left Party, a small party to the left of Labour, which was created in 1961, mainly by NATO opponents and pacifists, but that is by now forgotten by most.
He said that the leftist political parties had won many frontiers in the last two generations, but had lost some essential ones, too. ‘The left’, notably the socialists and the social democrats, had won in most moral and ethical fields, but lost in the economic fields, he said.
Lysbakken thought that the progressive ideas of the 1960s and 1970s were indeed left-driven all over Europe and further afield: women’s issues, including women’s right to decide on abortion themselves, and the right to equal pay with men for work outside the home; expansion of the welfare state and greater equality/participation for the economically and other disadvantaged people and minorities; freedom to choose one’s religion or none, and be respected as equals; support for and solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world; focus on environmental issues with debate about limits to growth; and much more. All of them key issues, often with deep moral values, that have shaped and changed our time and the world we live in over a few short generations. They were mostly left driven and aimed at broadening democracy and people’s everyday lives.
But, according to Lysbakken, the left side in politics lost the battle for controlling and influencing the economic fields.
Maybe, the politicians on the left didn’t quite understand the economic sector, which means the private capitalist sector in almost every country, also in social democratic Scandinavia. The left focused on how to regulate the private economic sector, not on how to develop it within its own dynamic principles. It was also wrong to declare all capitalists ‘enemies’. We should not only have focused on taxation and regulation systems; we should also have focused on how to help develop and revitalise the sector.
If the left side had focused more on this, the foundation of any society, the economic and productive sectors, we would today have seen a much more socially conscientious and responsible private sector. Maybe we would also have avoided the financial and economic crisis that bent the capitalism close to its knees less than a decade ago.
Today, the suggestions for how to change the economic sector come from within capitalism, from the more liberal and thinking capitalists, including from IMF and the World Bank, who argue that the enormous inequalities that have appeared among people in many countries, are counterproductive to economic and social development. Left politicians should have not only spoken about it, but should have helped the private sector to understand that it was suicidal, and should have suggested pragmatic solutions.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO), which became operational in 1995 (replacing GATT), is an organisation to which the left only were critical opponents, but did not succeed in giving advice that could have helped the organisation to become more socially responsible. WTO has been catastrophic to many poor countries and people, and (immorally) successful for the wealthy. It has focused on globalisation of trade, of free flow of goods and services, not even taking the social aspects of people movements and migration into account.
When the Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, a centrist Conservative, who has earlier worked for the World Economic Forum hosts the international WTO conference in Oslo in October this year, he and the guests intend to take a critical look at how WTO can be changed and improved. I hope the meeting will not just discuss ‘how to make WTO better’, because that would be very easy to do, since it is so bad for so many, and so good for the select few. I hope they will rather discuss how to redirect WTO’s goal and function, even more drastically, yet unlikely, consider closing down the whole ‘castle’ – and search for new modalities for a socially and morally acceptable trade organisation. Globalisation has not worked for all; that much we do know.
The crisis of the European Union, including the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to exit EU, is also an indication of some of these problems – and so is the moral and intellectual bankruptcy among so many politicians and people when it comes to how to consider migration issues in Europe. Furthermore, development aid and solidarity with the developing countries seem to have been shelved a while ago – as we have all began to realise that we had less success than we claimed.
Being an old aid worker myself, I know we didn’t do as well as we pretended we did. But the solution was not to scrap it and go mostly for trade rather than aid. The solution was to go for honest goals and improve implementation practices with the developing countries. The current political and military assistance and interventions, led by the West and NATO, are also mostly wrong. We end up with huge internal and international refugee crises, which need humanitarian aid that could have been used on development.
Yes, I admit that those who worked in implementation of aid, as well as in research and policy formulation, should have done better – especially if we also entertained leftist political ideals, and the majority did, at least in Scandinavia and many other likeminded European countries. That we even accept mixing aid, trade and military interventions the way we do today, is beyond comprehension – and the politicians on the left have failed in understanding and explaining that.
The left must be in the forefront in the debate and policy planning about trade, aid and international solidarity – and so must the religious and moral leaders. Interestingly, I find that socialism and religion have much in common as for how we can help each other in the world we live in. It is an important role of the religious leaders to work for a fairer, more just and equal world. That is also the role of the politicians on the left. They have both failed.
There are other politicians than those on the left who will agree with my analysis, including ‘honest and thinking conservatives’. Well, then my definition of ‘left’ might be questioned, of course, because I would actually include people who accept reason, those who work for change and modernisation based on facts and logical thinking. For example, much of what Bernie Sanders has said in his bid for president in USA this year wasn’t really leftist politics; it was just common sense and fairly basic social and political analysis.
Honest conservatives would see that, too. Sanders liked to beautify himself with the feather of socialist; in America that was risky to do; in Europe, he would rather have been seen as a centrist social democrat focusing on the essential economic issues. He was doing what Audun Lysbakken said we should have done. And he used moral and ethical value arguments as the foundation for his economic politics.
If the Oslo conference on WTO had been held after the American elections in November, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Sanders had been invited as a keynote speaker. But what has the world come to if there aren’t enough leftist thinkers in Europe to get us out of the doldrums by our own force! Yet, we can borrow a few leaves from ‘Sander’s notebook’ too on how to invigorate voters into broad movements – in America, Europe and elsewhere in the world, including in Pakistan.