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The moribund left

July 06, 2019

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PEOPLE who vote against their economic self-interest are a bit like sheep queuing up for a visit to the slaughterhouse.

And yet this is what is happening around the world: voters are electing right-wing, populist leaders who cut taxes on the rich, slash subsidies, and impose vicious cuts on social spending. Left-of-centre parties that push for the nationalisation of utilities, and greater spending on human resources, are forced on the defensive due to the perception that they are profligate with public finances.

In the UK, the ruling Conservative Party has continued to lead in the polls despite imposing savage cuts in social spending over the last decade. Labour has struggled to find support for its socialist agenda. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is subjected to vile attacks by the right-wing press, and is widely viewed as unfit to rule. So despite the long-running Brexit crisis triggered by the Conservatives, and the government’s pro-business policies, Labour remains mistrusted by large sections of the population.

Across developed economies, the top one per cent continue to accumulate obscene wealth while the majority have seen their incomes stagnate. In America, Trump slashed taxes for the rich, and while job-creation has been boosted, incomes have not.

Is it time to write off the left?

In Pakistan, too, we have the case of two previous governments that, for all their many faults, oversaw economic growth ranging between 4pc and 6pc over the last decade. But in last year’s polls, many people voted for a leader whose grasp of economics and public finance is shaky at best. The result is that the economy is in a tailspin, thousands of jobs have been lost, and inflation is skyrocketing.

Indian voters, too, have re-elected Narendra Modi with an even larger majority despite his patchy first term. It would seem that his chest-thumping nationalism, and his support for the BJP ideology of Hindutva, overcame the electorate’s doubts about his economic performance. In the process, the more liberal Congress Party was handed a severe mauling.

So as the left remains on the back foot, is it time to write it off as a political and social force? One problem for progressive parties globally is that they have been unable to forge a narrative to counter the neoliberal ideology that is now the global consensus.

This prevailing doctrine encompasses lower taxes on the rich, less protection for labour and total support for globalisation. Such policies are attractive for the rich who, in turn, back politicians espousing these measures. However, it is a fact that globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in developing countries. Opposing this economically beneficial model is difficult for progressive politicians, despite its exploitation of labour.

Privatisation is another minefield for the left. On the one hand, we have public-sector enterprises losing billions, and being kept on life support with taxpayer-funded subsidies; on the other, there is the prospect of many jobs being lost should an entrepreneur take over the business.

The question that remains unanswered by the left is whether such enterprises are being run for the good of workers or the public. In Pakistan, we have the examples of the Steel Mills, PIA and the railways, to name only three.

Under the dominant neoliberal consensus, governments should not be in the business of business at all. Any regulations should be minimal, and the corporate sector should be allowed to thrive. The profits they make will be reinvested, and thus this wealth will trickle down as more jobs are created.

But things don’t work out the way this virtuous circle suggests. Investors demand ever-growing dividends, and corporations work to maximise profits so their share prices remain high. In this pursuit, workers’ rights, consumers’ interests and the environment are very low on the CEO’s priority list.

Perhaps it is the weak and vulnerable who suffer most with the decline of the left. Neoliberals insist that the poor are poor because they lack drive and motivation. They oppose any government intervention to support the less privileged, or, indeed, any kind of free public health and educational programme. Of course, they realise they won’t get much public support for these hard-line policies, and have modified their position to gain votes for the rest of their agenda.

In socially backward countries like Pakistan, religious minorities and women are victims of shocking daily abuse. Right-wing parties like the PML-N and PTI might pay lip service to the need to protect them. But, for all its real and perceived flaws, the PPP has been the one party to have at least spoken about the rights of minorities. It has some outstanding women and non-Muslims in its ranks, and shows the importance of humanity in politics.

To reinvent itself, the left will need to come to grips with the rapid changes taking place in the economic landscape, and develop a powerful narrative to counter the neoliberal model.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2019