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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-11-2022 06:47

The place of progressives in a capitalistic world

If Argentina’s experience is anything to go by, fiscal laxity when the going gets tough can have ugly consequences.

Once upon a time, leftists greatly enjoyed writing and talking about economic matters. They confidently assumed that socialism, even full-blown communism, would be far better at delivering the goods than capitalism, but several decades ago they were mugged by reality and, after wandering around in a daze for a couple of years, most decided to turn their attention elsewhere and leave the economy to those despicable right-wing “neoliberals” who cared more about numbers than decent human sentiments.

It was a wise decision, and it was then that what some have called the “Gramscian march through the institutions” of would-be revolutionaries really got underway. The endeavour they embarked on proved to be highly successful. Throughout the Western world, adherents to causes adopted by disgruntled left-wingers – among them, anti-white racism, open borders, the repudiation of the imperialistic past, the need to fight climate change, a detestation of the patriarchy and a marked enthusiasm for unusual sexual preferences – proceeded to take over universities, large swathes of the media, the state bureaucracy, cultural organisations of one kind and another plus, more recently, the insidiously influential “tech giants” and some old-fashioned corporations that are keen to show that they too want to fit into the new order.

Whether or not such people will succeed in consolidating what they have achieved is an open question. Opposition to the authoritarian behaviour of the zealots among them is rapidly growing in many countries. In the United States, the “defund the police” movement is being followed by one that seeks to defund the universities that, some think, have degenerated into “woke” indoctrination centres similar to the Chinese “re-education camps” in which dissidents are being transformed into upstanding supporters of the nominally communist regime. The comparison may be exaggerated, but objections to the bullying approach favoured by activists who claim to be progressive are certainly getting louder on both sides of the Atlantic.

One result of what is going on has been the widening of the gap between the purportedly progressive left and the proletariat it once championed. Leftist groupings everywhere have long been dominated by middle-class and upper-class individuals of an intellectual bent (Vladimir Lenin was a scion of the minor nobility) who saw themselves as the vanguard of the working class which, thanks to their leadership, would soon inherit the earth. But those days have gone. Instead of praising the virtues of people too downtrodden to be contaminated by bourgeois wickedness, up-to-date leftists treat them with utter contempt, and take pleasure in deriding them for their alleged racism, their flag-waving nationalism and, needless to say, for their frequent refusal to vote for those who have their true interests at heart. In Europe and the US, parties or factions that are condemned as right-wing now effectively represent the working class and the lower reaches of the middle class. Had it not been for his ability to appeal to such uncouth “deplorables,” Donald Trump would never have got anywhere near the White House.

With most economies going through a very bad patch and recovery, if it comes, still far away in the future, this tacitly accepted division of labour, with presumably sensible right-wingers taking care of financial affairs and kindly leftists in charge of much of the rest, could be on the way out.

In many countries, among them Argentina, it has long been habitual to blame social ills on the local government’s austerity policies, the theory being that were it to spend more public money on worthy projects everybody would be better off. With living standards falling, left-leaning people are using the soft power they wield to pressure governments into “doing more” to help the worse off and, with many office-holders sharing most of their points of view, they are not meeting with that much resistance. As elections tend to be determined by voters’ sense of well-being, this is understandable, but if Argentina’s experience is anything to go by, fiscal laxity when the going gets tough can have ugly consequences.

In the developed countries, conservatives lost the “culture wars” long ago but have managed to retain, or regain, control of what Marxists called the commanding heights of the economy. This arrangement has suited the leftists, with many getting to hold enviably well-paid positions in organisations whose very existence they should find troubling; understandably, they have no desire to be forced to get by on what most people have to make do with.

In Argentina, men and women who in richer countries would be in much the same situation not only did well in the local version of the culture ways but they also contrived to take over the economy. As soon became evident, this was a disastrous mistake. For them as individuals, things would have turned out far better if they had allowed unimaginative reactionaries to manage that side of the business so they, like their counterparts elsewhere, could salve their conscience by grousing about the unfairness of it all while reaping a considerable proportion of the benefits.

However, unfortunately for them, it would seem that many truly believed that by applying the nostrums they had read about they would make everyone better off and so went on to apply them in the real world. Though they must have become aware many years ago that they had got things badly wrong, many refused to take mere reality into account, which is why we are where we are today.

Relatively well-heeled progressives tend to take it for granted that material prosperity is part of the natural order of things, as it often is for them, and that poverty must be due to the meanness of those who are indifferent to the plight of their fellow human beings. They therefore demand immediate action and vehemently criticise governments that are reluctant to do their bidding. This goes on until governments start taking them at their word by depriving them of what they think is theirs by right. Then they either double down and call for ever more drastic reforms or, as happens the world over, seek a comfortable seat on the political gravy train so they can continue to preach social justice without having to increase their contribution to the funds required to make it rather more than an appealing abstraction.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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