In addition to the many thoughtful pieces that have been published dealing directly with the rise of Donald Trump (some of which I’ve linked to in recent weeks), a few writers have let the spectacle prompt them to contemplate some broader political issues. One that caught my attention last week was John Quiggin, with a post on “The three party system.”
It’s a commonplace that most major parties in the western democratic world fit fairly neatly into one of three groups: left or centre-left, right or centre-right, and liberal or centrist. At first sight, Quiggin’s “three major political forces” look like that; he calls them leftism, tribalism and neoliberalism.
But Quiggin is talking more about ideological tendencies within parties, and on closer inspection his triad is interestingly different from the normal three-party split. While his “leftism” and “tribalism” match pretty well to the views of, say, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (respectively), they both presume a greater degree of hostility to the market than is common in mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties today.
And his key category, “neoliberalism”, is both broader and narrower than what is traditionally thought of as “liberalism”. Broader, because it covers much more of the political spectrum as it’s actually instantiated, including apparently large parts of Australia’s two major parties. Narrower, because it seems to leave no room for some important liberal ideas.
“Neoliberalism”, in Quggin’s usage (like that of others who have introduced the term), is basically about crony capitalism. He refers to “the inevitability and desirability of a globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector,” but he doesn’t distinguish between supporters of a free market and supporters of special favors for big business.
He does admit to differences within “neoliberalism”, which he calls “hard” and “soft”, but that’s based on whether or not one supports “dismantling the social democratic welfare state”. We’re not told where to put the kind of liberal – of which I could offer myself as an example – who believes in the market but wants to dismantle corporate privilege.
Now, Quiggin might respond that such liberals are too small a group to worry about; that at present they amount to an idiosyncratic variety of “neoliberals”, who are in denial about the actual effects of “neoliberal” policies, and that if they are true to their fundamental progressive values they will eventually end up in the camp of his “leftism”.
He might be right about this; certainly if you look at just the English-speaking world today, Quiggin’s three-way division does a rather good job of explaining the political scene. But I’m not convinced.
And returning to the traditional three-party classification with which I started, I think it’s clear that in much of the world, notably on the European continent, there are plenty of political parties that espouse just this sort of progressive but market-friendly liberalism. They may be deluded or insincere – no doubt some are – but it’s hard to imagine that there’s no basis at all for their self-image.
Such liberals can be more or less sceptical about the welfare state and may differ on some other issues of economic policy, but their priorities are about curbing rent-seeking, decentralising power and expanding individual liberty. Some work in coalition with the centre-left, some with the centre-right; others swap back and forth.
What obscures this from view in the Anglosphere is that our political systems have mostly been hostile to third parties, leading to an entrenched two-party setup in which liberals are squeezed out between a market-hostile left and a freedom-hostile right.
This has now reached it apotheosis in the United States, where most Democrats (Quiggin’s “soft neoliberals”) are comfortable with a militarised and corporatist welfare state, while the Republicans are dragged further and further to the “tribalist” end of the spectrum, towards values that are incompatible with the free market, or indeed with civilised institutions of any sort.
It’s time for leftists and liberals, “neo” or not, to stop fighting each other and draw the wagons in a circle.