(Photo: Thrive Global)
By Sam Lewis – Regular Contributor
It is fair to say that the current political landscape is one of uncertainty. Everything in the news appears to be about one huge crisis followed by another from Covid to Afghanistan to climate change. This tumult has also seen unusual and short-lasting ideological jumps. Populists, radicals, and centrists have periods of recent dominance with Trump was followed by Biden and Corbyn was replaced by Starmer. Of course, it is not unusual to have periods in politics that appear to go against the status-quo, but it is the speed and variety of them that is striking. For me it appears to show that we are currently in a position of being ideologically stuck, with politicians being unable and maybe even unwilling to deal with the crises that face us. Of course this is a huge and pessimistic, but I do not only just want to analyse this idea but propose what should be done about it. In my opinion the current political climate is a confusing combination of people heavily divided on solutions whilst also being limited in their approach. This sense of being ideologically lost reflects a general feeling of being lost on how to provide solutions within the current confides of capitalism. I hope this article serves as a reminder that there is no harm in looking outside the box. We have already seen both sides ideologically open up and it is time to push that further, considering more alternative solutions to these crises as a way of getting a fuller idea of the problem. I feel that only by opening up the debate, by listening and reflecting, can we stop being lost and hope to find our feet again.
But first what do I mean when I say we’re ideologically lost? The best way of understanding this is by contrasting the current political climate the past. In Britain many scholars have determined that there were periods that were shaped by a particular political consensus. From ideas such as liberal-imperialism, Keynesian demand management and Thatcherite privatisation political periods have been shaped by an ideological framework in which actors view and respond to crises. Of course this idea has been contested it is clear that was in the past more agreement from the main opposition party than the strong divisions now. A clear example of this was Labour’s response to Conservative dominance under Thatcher, agreeing not to reverse the policy of privatisation and instead lean more towards social policy. When this is with Conservative policies in the 1940s and 50s, we can see a clear ideological framework. The 80s and 90s were dominated by the ideas of Rawls and Hayek and therefore the idea that the state was more of a separate arbiter of dispute than a manager whilst the 40s and 50s was dominated by the state having a more direct influence.
This can be seen to be stark contrast with a period where no idea appears to ever dominate for too long. Yes, it can be argued that there has been a tendency towards centre-right governments, particularly with the use of austerity by many governments following the crash of 2008 in under ten year it was claimed we were in an ‘age of populism’. Even that, with the loss of Trump, adoption of more direct government by the Conservatives and what looks to be a loss for Bolsonaro does not appear to be a very accurate description of 2021. The reality is that we have been shaped more by division then any predominant ideology. Focusing again on the UK populist ideas can be seen in 2016 Brexit referendum and the leadership of Boris Johnson but this has also been a period when it is the Prime Ministers included were the institutional Cameron and May. Meanwhile, Labour have flip-flopped from the ‘radical’ Corbyn to the moderate ‘Starmer’ who, given he opposes the apparently ‘radical’ Johnson shows there appears to be no sign of any ideological opposition acceptance. When all of this is combined it appears to show that we are ideologically lost. This is alarming because we are being faced with a series of unprecedented crises. The looming threat of climate change; unprecedented wealth divide; the falling of America (combined with rise of China in it’s place) and the ravaging of the world by Covid-19 are all life-altering crises and we appear to be lost as on how to deal with them. The world appears to have conference after conference about climate change, but no decisions are made, America pulls out of Afghanistan and people are stumped.
Whilst I am spouting doom and gloom the opening up of new ideas in not inherently bad. The reality is whist there might have been periods of consensus that was not always a good thing. Labour accepting Thatcherite ideas, whilst it might have helped them get elected but the effects for Britain have not been outstanding. No substantial challenge to free-market solutions can be seen to have led to the controversial ‘Age of Austerity’, something claimed in a talk I recently attended to be the Thatcherite consensus ‘on steroids’. This means that whilst we are struggling to come up with solutions at the moment that does not mean that the solutions, we had been very appealing Thatcherism and austerity are highly controversial ideologies and it is understandable while people would welcome any alternative.
Therefore, the issue can be seen as not necessarily that there is ideological uncertainty but the form this uncertainty takes. The problem is that we are divided but this division occurs whilst approaching issues from a single perspective. This may appear contradictory but what I’m trying to show is that through all these clear divisions the need for laissez-faire capitalism still persists. The more radical recent victories were still based on free-market ideas with Trump seeking to reverse Obamacare and Brexit being deemed as a victory for free-trade. Even China’s rise to dominance is based on the control of global change. The problem with this is that it fails to acknowledge the role that capitalism has in either creating or exaggerating these issues. The reason this is an issue can be seen in predictions about the impact of Covid-19.
Whilst one would assume that everyone has financially suffered from the virus this is not entirely the case. The Upper-Middle Classes have actually benefitted. Due, to the likelihood of stable employment combined with not being able to spend as much money before on goods and services many of them have actually been able to accrue wealth, something which has led to a focus in the market on luxury goods particularly in areas such as the automobile industry. When this is combined with those who worked in unstable (and traditionally lower-paid jobs) such as the service industry they have been significantly hurt by both being furloughed and the job insecurity that the multiple lockdowns has caused. This means that the pandemic has exaggerated the already glaring wealth divide that has existed in globally and looks to be going nowhere.
This is in complete contrast to the narrative that we have been given. Johnson, who was perceived to be an ideological shift has privately stated that ‘greed and capitalism’ have beaten the virus with particular emphasis placed on the role of the free-market in the successful roll out of the vaccine. Whilst I will not dismiss the vaccine as having worked (at least at a national level) this both fails to ignore the aforementioned issues that have both been highlighted above but also include giving high profile contracts to friends (and therefore demonstrating the negative side of the revolving door) but also dismisses the other ideas that were crucial during the pandemic. In particular this idea that capitalism saved us dismisses the role of community and collectiveness that were so crucial to so many with people doing shopping for each other, meeting people to ensure they were doing well and walking dogs. At a local level these were crucial and were not motivated by profit but a instead a feeling of togetherness and a mutual desire to get through this.
What I am trying to demonstrate through this is not a call to revolution but instead how if we want to get through these issues, we need to start thinking outside of the box. The problem at the moment is that people are in a position of both being lost and dismissing potential solutions as being too ‘radical’. If we do not even acknowledge them and think about how they could be applied into the current context then we are going to keep going in circles and things are only going to get worse. The reality is that all new problems require new solutions, and we might as well keep everything on the table if we’re no nowhere near any serious solution.
Of course don’t accept things just because they’re different. Use critical judgement and please debate everyone but at the same time don’t dismiss people just because you disagree with. Some of the most interesting political discussions have been with people I fundamentally disagree with but who gave helped me understand a different approach to problems which I would’ve never considered. I hope states can also have this approach and so we can finally get somewhere as opposed to now when we’re going nowhere.