Precarity, populism, and prospects for a green democratic transformation

2/ Fighting inequality as a neoliberal fallacy The second weakness of the Green Democratic Transformation project is its narrow understanding of social justice in terms of fighting inequalities.…

2/ Fighting inequality as a neoliberal fallacy

The second weakness of the Green Democratic Transformation project is its narrow understanding of social justice in terms of fighting inequalities. Since pundits and academics drew public attention to the spectacular growth of inequalities in the West, social justice has been approached as a matter of fighting inequality via wealth redistribution. Although this is often presented as a radical opposition to neoliberal capitalism, the departure from neoliberal convention is only apparent. Thinking in terms of inequality engages a logic of comparison between individuals and presents the idea of social justice in individualistic terms – as a matter of personal circumstances, of private wealth. Such focus on individual circumstances is a trademark of the neoliberal mentality. Thus, even as we engage in the worthy struggle against inequality and exclusion, we in fact remain captives of the neoliberal imaginary, which views society as composed by individuals in charge of their lives. This eliminates the notion of collective wellbeing that has always been fundamental for Socialism as it espoused a solidaristic economy without emphasizing either equality or prosperity. (It might be worth remembering that Marx did not advocate economic equality in his vision of a just social order and that the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe created societies that were egalitarian but not solidaristic). A privately wealthy society, even if fairly equal, can still be publicly poor if essential public services are missing or deficient in funds (as John Galbraith observed back in 1958).

Typically, pledges to fight inequality invoke the policy formula of growth-and-redistribution that ensured the (relative) equality and prosperity of the post-WWII welfare state. However, this prosperity – obtained via intensified production and consumption – has proved toxic for the environment. This is why it is implausible to promise both meaningful action on the Green transition and ‘unprecedented prosperity’ – as the Green New Deal vouches. We should not count on working people’s credulity, expecting them to ‘buy into’ facile political promises for prosperity and ecological action. Even when people are ideologically misguided, they are not stupid – and it is a grave political error to assume that they are.

3/ Democracy as a neoliberal fantasy

The third weakness of the Green Democratic Transition platform concerns the status of democracy: it relies on democratization as a strategy for progressive politics. However, in the context of neoliberal capitalism the economization of society is so thorough that, as Wendy Brown observes, the demos itself has disintegrated into bits of human capital, while the state actively produces voters as economic actors. As people’s dependence on the health of global capitalism is translated into policy preferences through the rituals of democratic representation, democracy becomes a neoliberal fantasy; democracy is increasingly being deployed as a tool for perpetuating neoliberal capitalism.

The strong capital-labour alliance against the Green transition, the narrow interpretation of social justice as countering inequality, and the erosion of the democratic foundation of politics combine to generate a condition I have called a ‘meta-crisis’ (crisis of the crisis) of democratic capitalism: even as the neoliberal hegemony has entered a crisis, transformation does not take place. Society is trapped in a state of inflammation and engaged in perpetual crisis-management. Is there a way out of this disastrous conundrum? To reboot progressive politics, we need to adjust our diagnosis of the current historical conjuncture.

The social question of our time: the massification of precarity

The outrage against inequality has been the rallying cry for the Left. However, this strategy, as US presidential electionsin 2016 and 2020 have revealed, has been based on a diagnostic error. Tellingly, the states where Trump made inroads among the working class (Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Iowa, Utah, and Michigan), had seen the smallest increases in inequality nationwide since 1989, but their troubled economies have not generated good and stable employment. The Republican Party has been especially successful in Rust Belt states such as Michigan and Ohio, where poverty is not a result of skewed distribution of wealth, but of a broader industrial decay caused by automation and the offshoring of manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor, which has led to urban decay and rising criminality.

As I have argued in Capitalism on Edge, a distinctive feature of current-day capitalism is the massification of economic and social insecurity – a condition of ‘precarity for all’ that has been politically induced. Four decades of ‘structural adjustment’ and ‘austerity policy’ — reducing job security and slashing public spending on essential services, including health care – have dramatically weakened our societies and diminished their governing capacity. The combination of automation, globalization, and cuts in social provision has generated massive economic instability for ordinary citizens — for men and women, young and old, Black and white, skilled and unskilled, middle classes and the poor alike. This is becoming true also for labour-market insiders (the envied ‘winners’ of globalization), as the competitive pressures of global capitalism are imposing a high price for their success: work-related stress, poor mental health, and a pathological work-life balance. The resulting precarity, more so than inequality, is what is ailing the 99 per cent. This is what has been fuelling right-wing populism beyond the ranks of the impoverished blue-collar working class (globalisation’s ‘losers’).

It might be useful to remember that, while the rise of populism is usually a consequence of economic malaise and political turmoil (as in Nazi Germany of the 1930s), the most recent populist mobilizations emerged in the “roaring 1990s” – in conditions of robust growth (except in Germany), rising living standards, and low unemployment. There was a particular surge in affluent and egalitarian societies such as France, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, and Switzerland. The 1990s were the decade when the social consequences of neoliberal globalisation began to be felt in terms of economic instability within, and despite, affluence.

Thus, since the close of the twentieth century, a widespread anxiety in affluent western societies has emerged, based on perceptions that policies of open borders have brought in physical insecurity, political disorder, cultural estrangement, and employment insecurity due to employment flexibilization, job outsourcing, or loss of jobs to immigrants.

These became the four ingredients of a new order-and-security public agenda that has dramatically reshaped the ideological landscape of liberal democracies. Mislabelled “populism”, these are in fact mobilizations around a new public agenda of social concerns.

A distinctive feature of populism is what Max Weber called “negative politics”– a hostile confrontation without a coherent programmatic stance and with no credible ambition to govern. However, the massification of economic insecurity brought about not just the negative politics of an anti-establishment protest (populism), it has fostered the emergence of a substantive order-and-security agenda of public concerns. ‘Populist’ parties and movements are expressing a distinct set of public demands related to this order-and-security agenda (from restrictive immigration policy to reforming trade agreements), and are persistently making their way into parliaments and governments.

Precarity fosters conservative and even reactionary instincts. It nurtures an aversion to change, hence the shift to the right amidst the economic recession of 2008-2018, disappointing the Left’s expectations that the crisis would radicalise voters into an anti-capitalist upheaval. Without significant reform of the political economy, without changes explicitly addressing the issue of economic precarity, our impassioned calls for a Green democratic transformation would be fruitless. For people to embrace the radical politics of a Green Democratic Transformation they first need to feel secure about their livelihoods.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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