glasgow_poverty_webSturgeon’s wrong – in 2017, liberals have to decide which side they are on, argues Ben Wray.

What are the major political challenges of 2017? First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her New Year’s message, has given her analysis of the political crisis that has engulfed the western world in 2016, and what we should do about it this year.

Sturgeon said: “The last 12 months have seen a narrative develop that the established political and social order is under threat as never before in modern times. Reactionary forces, some of them fueled by intolerance and xenophobia, have been seen to be in the ascendancy.

“But if 2016 was a year of fear, let the next year be one of hope. And let us all hope that, in time, 2017 will be seen to have been a turning point – one in which the values of liberal democracy were able to show that they can and will prevail over the forces which would draw us all backwards.”

This is an important statement of ideological intent from the First Minister, one that deserves close scrutiny.

The first and most obvious response to this is why does someone who’s stated aim is to break up the UK and set-up an independent state worried about “the established political and social order” being under threat? But Sturgeon presenting the SNP and independence as more continuity than rupture with the global elite is nothing new; the more interesting issue is the political centre of gravity the First Minister occupies as a result of this positioning.

For is it not remarkable that within Sturgeon’s whole article, dedicated chiefly to ‘threats’, she dedicates not one sentence to the situation of the majority of people as it stands? Nothing about austerity, the fact wages are in their sharpest decline since the 1860’s, the monstrous levels of inequality, rising child poverty and so on. Sturgeon’s fear of the future is reflective of the general malaise among liberals across the western world to make sense of the present. That ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘the established political and social order’ produced the sort of widespread discontent that has made the rise of the populist right possible appears nowhere in the First Minister’s analysis, or that of most liberals since Brexit and Trump.

To understand this, we need to look deeper at the First Minister’s worldview. In her speech to the Irish Parliament at the end of November she expounded on her outlook in more explicit terms: “We can choose to turn inwards or we can choose to stand strong for the principles of an open economy and a progressive, liberal democracy”, adding: “There need be no contradiction between being an open, dynamic and competitive economy, and a fair, inclusive and welcoming society. In fact, what we are seeing around the world demonstrates that the two must go together – a fair society is essential, if we are to sustain support for an open economy.”

This worldview can most accurately be defined as third-way social democracy, a theory most associated with New Labour in the Blair era and developed most thoroughly by sociologist Anthony Giddens, who also called it ‘the radical centre’. A BBC report in 1999 could have been echoing Sturgeon’s outlook, describing the Third Way as:

“…something different and distinct from liberal capitalism with its unswerving belief in the merits of the free market and democratic socialism with its demand management and obsession with the state. The Third Way is in favour of growth, entrepreneurship, enterprise and wealth creation but it is also in favour of greater social justice and it sees the state playing a major role in bringing this about. So in the words of… Anthony Giddens of the LSE the Third Way rejects top down socialism as it rejects traditional neo liberalism.”

In the post-Soviet Union era, with free-market capitalism rampant, Third Way politics appeared to fit for those traditionally from a socialist background. But nearly 20 years on, few would openly associate with Third Way social democracy – and not just because it has the fingerprints of the hated Tony Blair all over it. It failed. The financial crisis, the ‘bankruptocracy’ (as Yanis Varoufakis puts it) of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, and the subsequent decade of declining living standards and rising inequality has intellectually killed the idea that there is no contradiction between free-market capitalism and social justice. The fact that it hasn’t killed the Third Way for our First Minister should be a cause for concern.

For on what evidence base can Sturgeon defend this idea when, under every centre-left government in the western world for the past 30 years, all of which have been utterly devoted to “an open, dynamic and competitive economy”, society has uniformly become more unfair? The Third Way idea has been defeated in practise, but remains suspended in mid-air, defended by ‘progressives’ unwilling to let it go. The “open economy” Sturgeon so cherishes has created a situation where 62 billionaires have the same wealth as half of the world’s population. If openness means an open goal for the world’s super-rich to exploit the world’s people and resources, then you can sign me up as anti the open economy.

“The Third Way idea has been defeated in practise, but remains suspended in mid-air, defended by ‘progressives’ unwilling to let it go. The “open economy” Sturgeon so cherishes has created a situation where 62 billionaires have the same wealth as half of the world’s population”

Liberals new favourite dichotomy – that left and right doesn’t matter anymore, what matters is if you’re for an open or closed society and economy – obliterates any possible critique of neoliberal globalisation that is anti-racist and pro-migration. In effect it says the left, socialist case is irrelevant – if you’re not with Apple and Google, you’re with the racists.

The nuanced version of this argument is what I call the Chukka Umunna trope: we’ve had globalisation, it is done and we’re never going back, now we need to make sure it benefits “working people”. The assumption is that the past 30 years of neoliberalism has created a big vessel of wealth that can be used whatever way we like, for good or ill, social justice or inequality. The Umunna trope makes a virtue of naivety about power relations: intrinsic to an economic order that shifts control away from labour and towards capital, away from public and towards private ownership, is that it becomes much harder to make sure the economy works for society because the forces ranged against that happening are much greater.

This gets to the heart of the problem of liberalism: liberals believe in essence that “free-markets” and free people are ubiquitous, when in fact fundamental to the capitalist mode of production is the concentration and centralisation of power of capitalists over everyone else. One’s free-market is another’s zero-hour contract. Liberals absence of a critique of capitalist power means it looks at President-elect Trump building a cabinet of corporate elites and sees an alien force, when in fact it has emerged directly out of the economic system they so cherish.

The denial (and paranoia) phase of grief for the West’s liberals

The problem with the liberal worldview is that those who espouse it are entirely unequipped intellectually to deal with its failure. It’s been their world since the fall of the Berlin Wall – but while they love to talk up its successes they cannot accept its failures. Hence why denial and paranoia appear to be the major political responses so far to the rise of right-wing populism.

First, the denial. A strange but widespread development has been the humanising of the calendar year: ‘Why 2016, why!?’ The implicit assumption in this is that 2016 was a bad apple, a peculiarly ugly year where collective madness took over, surely to be replaced by the return of sanity next year. 2017 will be a good ‘un, like us. Of course no one would seriously defend this formula intellectually – it is partly an understandable way to humourise despair – but it is a reflection of a cultural moment: confusion, even incredulity, at defeat is pushing liberals towards the comfort of denial.

More seriously, the paranoia comes in the form of Russophobia. Let me be precise here, so as not to provoke a litany of accusations of being a pro-Putin propagandist. It is not that Russia would not have a vested interest in seeing Donald Trump as President of the US rather than Hilary Clinton, or even that they would be willing to interfere in the US election (like the US, Russia have never had a problem with meddling in others internal affairs), it is the idea that Russia would be sufficiently influential to be the decisive factor in an election within the most powerful country in the world, and is a serious threat to liberal democracy. This paranoia is its own sort of denial – rather than face up to the fundamental flaws in the liberal offer of Clinton, better to blame the Russians and proclaim a ‘new cold war’.

The ‘new cold war’ narrative has no serious basis in reality. Obama, who in his last days appears determined to be the vanguard of this Russophobia, said himself in 2014 in response to Russian meddling in Ukraine that “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbours, not out of strength but out of weakness.”

All serious geopolitical experts agree with this view. Russia is nowhere near the force the Soviet Union was. Its economy is overly reliant on the exporting of oil, gas and minerals, and in the current economic stagnation is therefore tanking. Putin’s military excursions are an attempt to boost internal support in a country that has been used, under Vladimir’s reign, to a growing economy after the post-Soviet Union collapse under Yeltsin.

None of this analysis penetrates the minds of liberals determined to pin the blame for the western world’s problems on “Russian aggression”. One notable example of this, illuminated by Sam Kriss, was the widely heralded 127 tweet thread by American liberal Eric Garland. The tweets are a rambling and fairly incoherent diatribe about how Russia put Trump in the White House, but, as Kriss describes, it quickly became a “sensation”:

“Every so often, a text comes along that perfectly captures the mood of a certain section of society at a certain time, something that screams their pain for them in ways they can’t quite manage to do themselves. Garland’s tweet thread is that common roar of establishment liberalism in the age of Trump. It’s been re-tweeted thousands of times, gaining fawning praise from much of the liberal intelligentsia.”

The most serious problem of this hysteria, which Kriss describes as “the alt-center”, is that it means real lessons are not learned. For the truth is that no one was more influential to Trump’s rise than Hilary Clinton and her acolytes. They were so convinced that a political strategy based on occupying the centre-ground of US politics would win the election that during the Republican presidential candidate race they encouraged their friends in the media to give Trump attention. That’s how bad liberals analysis of the situation was and how complacent they were about the ramifications: Clinton strategists wanted and encouraged the rise of the populist right in America.

In Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank, prior to the US election result, dissects the complacency of the Democrats in the Obama era as made up of people entirely from the professional class who are wholly convinced that their meritocratic values are all that counts, and are in denial about Obama’s clear and evident failures: in response to the financial crisis, Obama oversaw the biggest redistribution of wealth and power in history from poor to bankers, and the largest rise in inequality in nearly a century. The negligent and criminal banking elite were rewarded, and the law-abiding tax-payers were punished. How very liberal.

Frank argues that liberals own moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy must be made clear and exposed:

“What we can do is strip away the Democrats’ precious sense of their own moral probity – to make liberals live without the comforting knowledge that righteousness is always on their side.”

This critique of liberalism now appears urgent across the western world – denial and paranoia is likely to only lead in one direction in 2017: more gains for right-wing populism. If you are not worried about the possibility of a Marine Le-Pen presidency in France later this year, you should be. If you think it will be defeated by a staunch defence of “liberal democracy” and “the established political and social order”, you need to wake up. This was essentially Francois Hollande’s offer as French President – he is polling so badly that he has bowed out of the Presidential race before it has even begun, leaving the choice for the French electorate between a Thatcherite and a neo-fascist. The FT has rightly described this situation as an “existential crisis for the centre-left”.

Of course, Scotland is neither France nor America – it has its own unique political culture which can be summarised as ‘national question over-rides other contradictions’: the SNP face no existential threat (indeed they are still highly popular). Third Way politics in Scotland is seen by the electorate (understandably) as the only possible bulwark between them and Tory penury.

Nonetheless, Sturgeon is more than aware that Scottish politics is part of the politics of the western world. In 2017, three political groupings in the West matter: right-wing populists, liberal centrists and socialists (defined broadly, as those willing to challenge neoliberal capitalism). Sturgeon appears to be anchoring her politics in the liberal centrist camp – it’s the job of socialists in Scotland to push the independence movement, the SNP and their leader towards us. We need to make ‘progressives’ realise that Third Way politics is dead, and therefore they have a choice – are they apologists for a  economic system that is breeding intolerance and xenophobia, or are they on the side of those of us who believe fighting racism and bigotry and fighting inequality and capitalism are the same struggle?


Ben Wray is head of policy at Common Weal. This article is written in a personal capacity.