John Quiggin starts a recent post on Crooked Timber (more below) with the warning ‘Amateur political analysis ahead’, and that applies even more to what follows. I start with the UK, but then broaden the discussion out.
A recent piece by Steve Richards for The Independent has some similarities to a recent post of mine trying to explain the popularity of Corbyn and Sanders. His byline is “The financial crash of 2008 made it impossible for both parties to exist united in their current forms”. On Corbyn his argument is similar to my own. He writes
during Labour’s astonishing leadership contest, Corbyn pitched his message solely against the background of the financial crash. At the beginning of each speech he proclaimed that the 2008 crisis was not caused by “firefighters, nurses, street cleaners, but by deregulation and sheer levels of greed”. As a climactic he declared: “I want a civilised society where everyone cares for everyone else. Enough of free market economics! Enough of being told austerity works!
In contrast some Labour MPs
were thrilled when Labour’s acting leader Harriet Harman declared her support for Osborne’s proposed welfare cuts immediately after the party’s election defeat. They argued this was a sign of a ‘responsible’ opposition showing Labour had learned its lessons about being ‘profligate’ in the run-up to the 2008 crash. If those MPs had retained that early position, they would have been to the right of Duncan Smith – who resigned over welfare cuts – and to the right of those Conservative MPs who rebelled against the cuts to tax credits on the working poor last autumn.
I would add that those MPs standing against Corbyn failed to place at centre stage the contradiction and injustice of how a crisis caused by the financial sector should lead to a reduction in the size of the state.
His account of the problems on the right, and how that too stems from the financial crisis, is as follows:
The row over the recent Budget, Duncan Smith’s resignation and the revolt over welfare cuts also has its roots in the financial crash. Osborne’s economic policy was shaped by what happened in 2008. After initially pretending to support Labour’s spending plans, he made deficit reduction his defining mission, missing his target in the last parliament and now resolved to reach a surplus in this one. But a significant number of Conservative MPs will not tolerate the spending cuts required for Osborne to keep to his chosen course. In effect they are rebelling against his highly contentious interpretation of what needed to be done after 2008.
There are two obvious points here. First, the much more serious divisions within the Conservatives appear to be over Europe, which also appear completely unconnected to the financial crisis. Second, which I will return to at the end, is the extent to which the financial crisis and austerity are linked.
To think about this further, and broaden it beyond the UK, I want to bring in John Quiggin’s ‘amateaur political analysis’. He writes
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There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.
On neoliberalism he says
Neoliberalism is mostly used to mean one thing in the US (former liberals who have embraced some version of Third Way politics, most notably Bill Clinton) and something related, but different, everywhere else (market liberals dedicated to dismantling the social democratic welfare state, most notably Margaret Thatcher).
The difference between the two versions turns essentially on whether [globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector] requires destruction of the welfare state or merely “reform”.
This would place the majority of Labour party MPs as neoliberal using the US definition. We could describe the Republican establishment as neoliberals of the UK Conservative kind. Quiggin argues that the financial crisis discredited neoliberalism in both its forms (also the starting point of my post). In the US
Trump has shown that the tribalist vote can be mobilised more successfully if it is unmoored from the Wall Street agenda of orthodox rightwing Republicans like Cruz
Tribalism is “politics based on affirmation of some group identity against others”. We could make a similar argument about the rise of the ‘further right’ in Europe, and UKIP in the UK.
The final link is to spell out why the global financial crisis should lead to an increase in tribalism. The standard account is to blame the high unemployment (Eurozone) or lower real wages (UK, US) that followed the crisis, and how this can be easily blamed on immigration or those perceived to be living off the state. We could perhaps go further. Those in the Republican and Conservative parties (and their supporters) are happy to use and even encourage this tribalism as scapegoats to deflect criticism away from the financial sector and austerity policies. For some that works, but not always, and the tribalism can become detached from traditional right wing parties.
This account is neat as it seems to fit the current POTUS election. It could also supply the missing ingredient from Steve Richards’ account if the divisions over Europe on the right in the UK are tribal in Quiggin’s sense. However I think I would like to reframe this account in a slightly different way.
Think of two separate one dimensional continuums: one economic, with neoliberal at one end and statist at the other, and the other something like identity. Identity can take many forms. It can be national identity (nationalism at one end and internationalism at the other), or race, or religion, or culture, or class.
Identity politics is stronger on the right, particularly since the left moved away from being the party of the working class. For the political right identity in terms of class can work happily with neoliberalism, but identity in terms of the nation state, culture and perhaps race less so. Neoliberalism tends to favour a more internationalist outlook (e.g. free movement of labour, low tariffs etc). When neoliberalism is discredited, this potential contradiction on the right becomes more evident. This is emphasised when politicians on the right use identity politics to deflect attention from the consequences of neoliberalism.
Why do I prefer this framing? First, in the case of the role of the state, I think it is artificial to make a division between those who are neoliberal and those who are not. I prefer to see neoliberalism as an extreme point or range on a continuum. Only when you do this can you see that there are the tensions on the right as well as the left over neoliberalism, which is the point that Steve Richards makes. (See here for a rather amusing example). A right wing identification in terms of class does not inevitably imply a belief in neoliberalism. Second, I think an emphasis on identity has always been strong on the right, so it is a little misleading to see it as only something that the right uses in an instrumental way. Third, seeing identity in its various forms as a continuum can explain continuing debates on the left on this issue: here is an example I read only yesterday.
None of this detracts from the basic point that Quiggin makes: the apparent drift from the political centre ground is a consequence, for both left and right, of the financial crisis. I would add that what today counts as the centre in economic terms, which is pretty neoliberal, is rather different from what was thought of as centre ground politics before the 1990s. Now some of those on the left would like to think that this collapse of the centre was an inevitable consequence of the financial crisis. I am less sure about that. On its own, that crisis might have shifted the centre on economic issues to be a bit less neoliberal, and that might have been that.
One interesting question for me is how much the current situation has been magnified by austerity. If a larger fiscal stimulus had been put in place in 2009, and we had not shifted to austerity in 2010, would the political fragmentation we are now seeing have still occurred? If the answer is no, to what extent was austerity an inevitable political consequence of the financial crisis, or did it owe much more to opportunism by neoliberals on the right, using popular concern about the deficit as a means by which to achieve a smaller state? Why did we have austerity in this recession and not in earlier recessions? I think these are questions a lot more people on the right as well as the left should be asking.
This post was first published on Mainly Macro