Ideology, as the man might say, has never gone away you know. Post-Communism, Post-Wall Street Depression, Post-Third Way and the present all lead us to an overwhelming question, the return to the basic lodestone of political philosophy; what do we value more, Equality or Liberty? And much of the current economic global turmoil can be viewed via Norberto’s Bobbio’s differentiation of Left and Right. Between the polarities of individual freedom or collective solidarity, which side are you on?
David Cameron’s recent gadding about on Air Force One (and the US networks constantly having to explain who the Hell he was) provided for an easy comparison between what’s going on in Britain and the US right now. Obama isn’t afraid to empathise with Occupy and agree that Warren Buffet should pay tax at a higher rate than his secretaries in Berkshire Hathaway. Cameron reduces the top rate of tax from below 50% for the wealthy in British (well, metropolitan London) society. The Democrats welcome Union funding; the Conservatives want to create jobs by making it easier to fire people. America is trying Keynesianism, Britain driving through austerity. The divergence between the two paths has scarcely been starker or more profound. And guess what, the US approach is the one that’s working.
In Greece, the dividing lines between those who want more austerity and those who want employment are vast. The Greek Government and people are currently undergoing a gruesome financial experiment where the only winners, again, look like being sections of the financial sector. Yet the Right have no empathy or no sympathy for the chaos the Greeks are going through; read Michael Lewis’ Greek-loathing chapter in ‘Boomerang’ if you’re in any doubt about that. Left and Right differences are real and do matter and Greece is probably going to take 20 years to recover if the Greek people are asked to endure the austerity programme/gun being held to their head.
The failure of the Third Way was in its unwillingness to tackle issues that would veer it too much off the political centre; reform, regulation and reduction of dependence on the financial sector leviathan, global action on tax avoidance and evasion and fear of any ‘wealth taxes’ being painted as ‘class war’. Clinton and Blair tried to square a circle that mostly can’t be squared; you can’t succumb to financial lobbying and interests and then say that you’re there for ‘the folks on Main Street’. In seeking to be all things to all men, the Third Wayers didn’t tackle many of the truly big economic and financial questions of our time.
But the Right is resilient after the worst market catastrophe since the Wall Street Crash. They don’t really have to do much self-questioning; there’s no room for doubt in a self-generated world where ‘creative destruction’ and ‘internal devaluations’ are realities, not intellectual models. Of course the Left has silo-ised too; nobody really likes having their values and ideas challenged on a daily basis. But after observing the objective reality of scandalous financial market short-termism and after works such as ‘The Spirit Level’ should have put the Right on the back foot, they are resurgent, regaining many of the losses since 2008.
Which brings us back to why the 2012 US Presidential election is about real differences. While Obama is the favourite at this stage, nothing’s surprising anymore in a country that elected George W Bush twice (well, at least once anyway). The progressive cause will swing behind Obama, despite many justified protestations and a win for the incumbent could energise the centre-left political class to be bolder when it comes to seeking to change society for the better.