Humans are emotional first and rational second. Often, but not always, they’re both. The politics of rage and Trump’s election victory confirm this.
It’s not that we are incapable of acting rationally in our own self-interest. It’s that we believe and act according to how we feel about something. And this fact alone means we are vulnerable to emotional manipulation.
In other words, our collective consciousness is framed not just by the objective choices we’re confronted with. Instead, it’s largely framed by the symbols and narratives we’re bombarded with every day.
We’re encouraged to invest emotionally in these symbols and narratives, so we want our beliefs to be true. This not only shapes our actions, but makes us resistant to dissonant facts. For this reason, emotional manipulation is one of the primary methods of social influence and control.
Symbols and narratives
Understanding the emotional content of what we think and believe is, therefore, critical for any political movement seeking reform. And this is particularly so for the Left, which faces an array of powerful enemies. Indeed, it faces the full range of instruments of the state, mainstream media, as well as corporate advertising and marketing.
The problem is the Left has rendered itself ill-equipped to influence the prevailing universe of meanings. And it needs to wake up to this role because the challenge is enormous. Even if it plays its hand to its fullest advantage, it may still be kept from power.
But, as things stand, it’s barely at the races, let alone in the race.
Part of the problem is identity, which is a critical part of the universe of meaning. Today, ‘traditional working-class people’ are less likely to see themselves as such. Instead, they are more likely to see themselves also as aspiring consumers. And once that happens, they can be more easily categorised into market niches, with their own consciousness and needs.
So, many might see their employment as meaningless, debased and precarious. But, without an emotionally-credible Left narrative that reflects their aspirations and identity, they will not engage. Instead, they’ll cling onto what the endless treadmill of economic growth gives them.
Relaxed about inequality
This is a tough trick to pull off. The Left needs a broad coalition that includes the middle classes if it is to achieve lasting power. And it’s not as if the Left hasn’t tried. Tory Blair’s New Labour and Bill Clinton’s modernised Democratic Party were “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”. As it became obvious, though, the wealthy aren’t too keen on paying their taxes.
This is among the reasons why the Left has become seen as a self-indulgent, irrelevant force. Though individual politicians command respect, the overall message does not. It has even become despised by many of the people whose support it has long taken for granted.
The Left’s response to recent setbacks confirm the gulf of understanding. The stunned disbelief at Donald Trump’s rise to become US President-elect was almost identical to that which followed the Brexit vote.
In both the UK and US, the Left is struggling to remain an effective political force. And it’s a struggle that goes well beyond those countries.
Brexit was not the only precursor to Trump. Remember the now-stalled anti-austerity movements in Greece and Spain (though Portugal’s still lives on). Also, witness the decline of the established Left in countries such as France and across much of Europe.
That the UK’s Labour Party has so lost its connection with ‘ordinary working-class people’ is undeniable. The rot has set in so completely that even Theresa May could overtly court them without being mercilessly ridiculed.
And the damage it has caused itself is almost wilful. The US Democratic Party establishment, for instance, blatantly shot itself in the foot. It denied the bleeding obvious and closed ranks on Bernie Sanders, effectively torpedoing their chances of retaining the White House.
Though hardly a socialist firebrand, Sanders tapped into a rich vein of working- and middle-class fury. But his agenda was seen as dangerous and counter-productive. The moment Sanders deferred to Hillary Clinton at the party convention turned out to be a fatal blow.
Opinion polls suggested he was more popular than Hillary Clinton among likely Democratic voters. Many were turned off by Clinton’s history of dishonesty and corporate cronyism.
The man they resisted was much better equipped to fight Donald Trump because his message resonated. Now, they’re paying the price.
No more living in the past
These setbacks have sparked very obvious soul-searching across the Left. And while they consider their positions, events move on. There’s no doubt the challenges are enormous. But they are not insurmountable.
In Britain, Labour is caught between Blairite neoliberalism – uninspiring at the best of times – and a rehashed golden era of industrial solidarity. Neither will build the coalition it needs.
The Left must shun its current instincts and retreat into rekindling distant victories for a futile struggle today. It must redefine and renew its view of collectivised labour; of socialist fraternity. While the state has an important role to play, it must steer clear statism. And it must avoid the defensive positions that have been comprehensively discredited since the Thatcher-Reagan years.
Certainly in Britain, the Left has tended to romanticise far-distant battles in a bid to rekindle the post-war consensus. Okay, its post-war achievements, such as establishing the NHS, were monumental. But, since then, we’ve seen three decades of unremitting industrial decline.
So, while the successful battles for workers’ rights, for instance, are worth celebrating, they do nothing to disguise the Left’s eroding credibility. Quite the opposite, in fact. It effectively cedes the initiative to a neoliberal elite that never tires of using the lure of economic growth to consolidate its wealth and power.
Build the dream
The Left must create a new dream – and one that has symbolic, emotional power.
This is going to take some time because, at the moment, sentiment around the Left is quite poisonous. In the UK, two referendums – on Scottish independence and EU membership – have ruptured the coalition between traditional working-class communities and the Left’s urban elites.
But there is plenty of material to work with.
To start with, it should talk openly about the mechanisms of inequality. This not only means the traditional topics of income distribution, social welfare and well-funded public services. It also means facing up to the drivers of inequality – corporate power, lobbying and then banking industry.
The last of these is probably the most important of them all. If the Left does not seek to regain control of the money supply from the banks and replace debt-money with sovereign money will never address inequality and is doomed to fail.
To start turning the tide, the Left must renounce neoliberalism. In fact, it must find a way of discussing it in terms that ordinary people can understand and relate to.
Neoliberalism is dangerous precisely because it’s a love that dares not speak its name. None of its supporters identify themselves as neoliberals. But the whole neoliberal enterprise is anti-democratic in that it seeks to privatise the servicing of all need.
EU membership is portrayed as a theft of sovereignty, but corporate power remains faceless and invisible. The Left cannot ignore corporate power without abandoning the people it claims to represent.
Enough of socialism already
One of the Left’s biggest distractions is its emotional attachment to ‘socialism’. The Left cannot build the dream of social justice without comprehensively revisiting the whole capitalism-socialism thing.
The term ‘socialism’ is a symbol-narrative that has two main meanings. Socialists see is a wondrous place of equality and compassion where no one is forgotten. To enemies, it symbolises the loss of individual freedom; of stultifying collectivism.
From a theoretical perspective, socialism poses all sorts of problems. Chief among them is its woolliness. For instance, Bernie Sanders talks about being a democratic socialist, but is more of a social democrat. Ideologues of Left and Right, however, might see socialism more in its original Marxian guise.
The logic of power
This is problematic because it’s laden with all sorts of catch-all delusions that distract us from achieving social justice. And for what? Because, in the end, socialism is quite possibly just another form of capitalism – and not a very economically-efficient form.
The Left asserts socialism because of some misconceptions about capitalism. To start with, it equates capitalism with inequality. But inequality is far from unique to capitalism. Feudal societies weren’t egalitarian. And the Russian revolution succeeded only in replacing one psychopathic elite with another under so-called communism.
The point is that all large human societies are hierarchical. The elites that form at the top of the social pyramid inevitably try to control those below them. Capitalist society is no different in this respect. Capitalism, in and of itself, is not the problem. The unequal distribution of wealth and power is.
The Left would more usefully concern itself with systems that guard against excesses and abuses. Which also means emphasising the core concepts of citizenship, the downward redistribution of wealth and the rule of law. It can easily be argued that capitalism works best when all three of these concepts are strong.
And this is where the Left could really park its tanks on neoliberal territory. Because capitalism is about capital – and capitalism needs more than one form of capital to function. Essentially, there are three: financial, human and natural.
There are costs and benefits of using each of them. But the prevailing narrative focuses almost exclusively on one: finance. This is the neoliberals’ fatal flaw because it is nothing more than a cover for maintaining corporate power.
The Left must forge a new and exciting economic philosophy that completely trashes the flawed acceptance of ‘externalities‘ – the hidden social and environmental costs of doing business.
By de-externalising the costs of labour, the Left can get a real theoretical handle on subsistence levels of pay. Doing the same with natural capital will engage us in the real costs of deforestation and the loss of natural habitats. De-externalising the costs of using natural capital will enable the Left to embrace the whole green agenda – something it should have done long ago.
Climate change, fracking, over-consumption and resource-depletion comes with real costs. Governments and corporations might externalise them so as to hide them and therefore avoid paying these costs.
But if they don’t pay, then we must. The whole notion of externalities as currently framed is an act of mass deception and it’s time the Left exposed the lie. Ensuring the costs of doing business are reflected in the price of goods and services will do more for social and environmental justice than any regulatory regime.
Doing so will require courage, but that’s because it would mark a return to relevance.
The real question that the Left needs to address is the logic of power. And it’s here where its assessment of capitalism can offer something new and different.
For instance, The Market is the greatest dynamo of wealth creation known to man. If the Left cannot accept and celebrate this, then it cannot also talk honestly about capitalism. By definition, accepting The Market explicitly involves embracing the full range of human aspirations. It would reflect a greater understanding of and empathy with the natural desire to improve one’s lot.
But embracing The Market also means accepting its shortcomings. After all, The Market only functions properly under certain conditions. So, the Left needs to start talking about Market Failure. And using this term as a short-hand explanation for everything it tries to achieve.
Market Failure does what it says on the tin. It’s an easy-to-understand concept with a rich history and a wealth of political applications. The term’s economic heritage directly undercuts the neoliberal enterprise. The fact that markets fail is self-evident and easy to explain. In fact, the modern state almost certainly exists precisely because of multiple market failures.
The neoliberals claim The State has grown well beyond the consequences of Market Failure. They argue that in mitigating its effects, The State has become a burden on its citizens. They ignore the fact that The State’s democratic traditions have been blunted. This is not least because it has become the elites’ security guard, both at home and abroad.
The tentacles of state control are a symptom. The logic of power is the real issue to grapple with. The Left’s refusal to mention Market Failure or formulate any equitable notion of state power is not merely a retreat from the truth. It’s a denial of its own core purpose.
What do we want? When do we want it?
Intellectually, the Left must trash much of the prevailing narrative of mainstream economics. Traditional economics, and its popular spin-off, is based on a flawed – even dishonest – understanding of who we are.
Human beings are much more than units of consumption, as defined by today’s pseudo-classical economists. We are social and emotional beings connected by much more than economic relations.
We are co-dependant, which means that human enterprise succeeds because it is a combination of individual action and co-operation with others. This co-dependance alone can be used to justify the use of reasonable, progressive taxes.
We need to trash the concept of the self-made man. It doesn’t exist. Some of us become richer precisely because those who only have their labour to sell are poorer and more numerous. This mechanism is clearly described by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This Market Failure is obscured by our emotional sense of entitlement.
Is The Market there to serve or rule us? When put like that, it’s difficult to say ‘rule us’. But that’s exactly what the Right says. If we put any real value on human life, we need to accept the need for an economic safety net to protect the weakest from poverty and destitution.
This is of critical importance because of the approaching age of post-employment. The Left should be leading the debate about how ordinary people can sustain themselves once work is no longer a reliable mechanism of income generation. Talking much more about universal basic income would be a good start.
What’s more, the Left should explicitly identify with entrepreneurs seeking to reshape the way we do business. After all, what is business actually for? Is business really about exploiting every single economic opportunity? Do people and planet really exist simply to enrich a small bunch of investors and directors?
By placing questions about what business is actually at the centre of its agenda, the Left would engage with issues of aspiration, ethics and sustainability. Failing to address this guarantees irrelevance.
It’s time the Left underwent a comprehensive process of theoretical and moral renewal.
Antagonise the messengers
One of the greatest obstacles to achieving any of this is the established media, in all its forms. The traditional media – the press and TV channels owned by a small group of billionaires – will always be hostile.
The Left has to more fully explore the alternative, internet-based media. But it must also attack the traditional media’s role as the elite’s cheerleaders. Expecting the Daily Mail or Fox News to act like responsible news outlets will always be a hopeless cause. They will never give this agenda the time of day.
The concentration of ownership means a hostile, partisan media is a major obstacle for the Left. Its response should be a trust-busting agenda, to break up monopolies. The Left could even invoke the spirit of the great Theodore Roosevelt to support the campaign. If the neoliberals want to talk about threats to capitalism, then make them confront monopoly power.
This also means the Left must expose the mundanities of economic power, such as fractional-reserve banking. The banking system gives a parasitic, rent-seeking financial elite the invisible power to fleece the population through debt-dependancy and asset inflation.
The banking sector’s role in the cycle of boom and bust and promotion of overconsumption and climate change has never been properly aired politically. The Left could usefully popularise public understanding of the Minsky moment.
Harnessing the politics of rage: direct action
The Left has not come close to developing a strategy around applying leverage for change. This lack of imagination and ambition is in evidence even when one observes those outside the established political system.
Pounding the streets of central London during last Saturday’s Million Mask March, organised by the ‘hacktivist’ ‘organisation’ Anonymous, it struck me how futile and eminently containable such otherwise laudable efforts are. In its current form, protest is toothless.
Committing to direct action and civil disobedience means the Left has to actually stand for something and confidently argue the case.
This means the end of triangulation, and not only because the problems we face require fresh, radical ideas. The centre ground is not a place to find vision and courage. It’s too rooted in compromise and the denial of truth.
What’s more, the ‘centre ground’ almost certainly no longer exists, if indeed it ever really did. The idea that a progressive managerial class can reclaim the centre ground for the Left is a sad delusion that will take us nowhere.
Harnessing the politics of rage: opposing Trump
Back to today, and Donald Trump is the US President-elect because millions of Americans identify with him as a businessman and a solutions provider.
Trump is the embodiment of how symbols and narratives can become more powerful than simple facts. He embodies a dream that so many admire and wish to emulate. His fact-free narrative has appeal because he presented himself as outside of his elite.
His denial of climate change as nothing but a Chinese conspiracy would be completely laughable had it not been endorsed by so many supposedly-intelligent people. There are too many incentives to find comfort in reassuring delusions.
Climate change does not have a human face and so does not create the fear and loathing of murderous Islamic extremists. The fact Trump can command such support by making outrageous and unfounded claims shows the power of emotion over rationality.
This is the Left’s primary lesson. It’s time it escaped its reverie, developed some intellectual courage and constructed a convincing, emotional narrative to reconnect with mass society. Because simply being nice delivers surprisingly little.
If Trump’s rise does anything, it will hopefully spark new focus on the Left. And about time, too.