The results of the latest British elections add an avalanche to the evidence that has been accumulating year by year, and really through several decades over the experience of many countries, that the traditional socialist left has no viable future in politics in the developed democratic world.
Their economic vision is old fashioned and unworkable, their support of welfare provision together with open immigration is hugely unpopular, and they have yet to come to terms with the most pressing public reality of our age: very few people in the developed world have trust in government. If your whole ideology boils down to trusting government to do glorious things, that’s a problem.
Or maybe you haven’t heard about the British electoral upheaval at all. This is because huge swaths of the media are in massive denial.
Remember how the mainstream media – and all their favorite pundits and intellectuals – spent weeks, even months, in denial of the weird reality that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
They searched for every reason why this couldn’t really have happened, how it would be a temporary setback in history. Perhaps someone must have rigged something. Someone or something had cheated their way into flipping the inevitable narrative in which the left goes from victory to victory.
There were many excuses for why everyone was wrong and Trump pulled it off: racism, sexism, resentment, the deplorables, Russia, Facebook, fake news, the singular media presence of Trump, and so on. Three years later, it’s the same thing.
Still there is no coming to terms, even though the odds overwhelmingly favor another term for Trump (his supporters would love nothing more than sending an impeached president back into office).
The one narrative rarely heard: the left is easy pickings because it is dead from the neck up, so any compelling public figure who is a non-leftist can defeat these purveyors of the old order of command and control, which is to say that the progressive left deserves to lose elections.
Something similar has happened in the overwhelming victory of the Conservatives in Britain. The incredible and sweeping win of Boris Johnson – whom we were only recently assured had been irreparably damaged with his unrelenting push to make Brexit a reality – has set the mainstream press on a path to full meltdown.
The devastation is palpable, setting into play the largest transformation of British politics since World War II. Conservatives won 365 seats to 203 for Labour, giving the Conservatives a 75-seat majority, the largest in more than three decades. Once-safe Labour districts have overwhelmingly flipped the other direction.
It was a voter-granted mandate that compares only to Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 win, and impossible to deny public ratification of the desire to leave the European Union. More than that, it was a blow to the Labour Party and everything it stands for. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn – whose major contribution to public life was to give 1970s-style progressivism yet another go – will resign and the party will have to regroup and rethink entirely to be relevant.
“The clear rejection of Labour’s big-government socialism,” writes Roger Cohen, “also looks ominous for Democrats who believe the party can lurch left and win. The British working class did not buy nationalized railways, electricity distribution and water utilities.”
Keep in mind, too, that this effect is not limited to the US and the UK. The rise of nationalism in Europe – which has caused both justified worry and unjustified panic – isn’t just about the push for reactionary strongmen to roll back modernity; it is also about the utter failure of the left-wing managerial statist project to convince regular people that their model can really fix what’s wrong with the world.
Voters throughout the developed world have been getting wiser through the decades. When politicians attack the rich, decry the holes in the safety net, demand controls on business, rail against financial markets, and demand more free things for everyone, there is a missing piece in the rhetoric: enacting all these things puts more power in the hands of the state. Here is the fundamental choice that no amount of fancy language can change: we either trust society and markets to manage themselves or we give more power to the state to use compulsion against the population. This is finally the reality that unmasks every proponent of socialism. Left-wing collectivism is not, in the end, about making society better off; it is about transferring power from the people outside of government to those inside of government.
There is also the matter of the direction of history. For a century and a half, the forces pushing left-socialism (in one variety or another) have been buoyed by a strange and unwarranted confidence that history is moving their way. Anything that pushes socialism is progress; anything that rejects socialism is reactionary. With the term reactionary you can add another long string of epithets: racist, sexist, patriarchal, nativist, bigoted, and so on. This is the simple model they have long carried around in their minds as a way of avoiding coming to terms with their rampant failures.
The biggest failure now is a lack of a viable vision that offers hope for a bright future. Instead we get the same old class resentment, the push for redistribution, the longing for nationalization of industry, the push for more labor union control, the call for higher and higher taxes. Above all, the leftist ideology of today insists that we trust government. After many decades of the failure of all of these approaches, the left is having a hard time maintaining credibility.
In addition, the opposition to the left is getting smarter. There was a subtle shift in how Boris Johnson began to push the Brexit idea. He came to reject the isolationism and protectionism of many Brexit supporters. He spoke of free trade with the US, the EU, and the whole world. He spoke of openness, opportunity, and hope. He began to characterize the problem with the European Community as bureaucracy gone mad, something holding Britain back from higher aspirations.
Which is to say that his rhetoric began to more closely resemble a classically liberal vision rather than one drawn from either the modern left and right. This seems to be a winning ticket. And keep in mind that this election is almost as much of a setback to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, which has too much dabbled in far-right ideology.
At what point will the progressive left discover that it has been pummeled at the polls now on a consistent basis for years? In some way, if you want to back up the historical timeline, the left’s highwater mark was met many decades ago, as the rise of both Reagan and Thatcher represented a sea change in politics, not a temporary glitch.
It’s not crazy to forecast that we really are living in the last days of the left. But as soon as one says this, the counterevidence presents itself. What about the near-hegemonic control of mainstream media, academia, and other respectable outlets of opinion? These are increasingly looking like isolated outposts, where quasi-Marxism survives despite every other trend in public life today.
To be sure, the left-wing outlook of so many academic mavens is a huge annoyance. For example, I enjoyed Janek Wasserman’s exciting history of the Austrian School of economics. But, like Richard Ebeling, I was bugged by certain priors that the author brought to his subject. Like a conventional progressive, Wasserman imagines that anyone promoting the market economy is weighing in on behalf of the interests of capital at the expense of labor. That, in turn, gets folded into the entire black-beast apparatus of the modern left: fascism and the white male patriarchy, which in turn comes to be linked to racism and authoritarianism.
Now, you might think a serious historian would take the old Austrians at their word that they considered themselves liberals who fought for the common good. But no, from this point of view, the Austrians were only writing to rationalize their class interests. That’s a nice way of saying that they are lying! This is precisely how the Marxists have been replying to their critics of a century and a half, essentially through smears. As a result, the Austrians School which distinguishes itself by a century-long struggle against socialism and fascism comes to be smeared as a vessel for the interests of capital only.
The categories of capital and labor are so trite, and the notion that there still exists some kind of 19th-century-style intractable conflict between them is belied by almost all existing experience. The Democrats and Labour continue to act as if there is some roiling resentment of the working classes against the owners of companies. They have completely misdiagnosed the real resentment here: against taxes, bureaucracies, top-down plans, promises of beautiful welfare programs that end up being manipulated by special interests, and so on.
The nostrums being hawked by today’s left – more socialism, more state control, higher taxes, more welfare, more promises of free everything – are worn and discredited. The question is whether the left can reinvent itself, embrace traditional liberalism, push the winning parts of their agenda (legalized drugs, prison reform, free speech, anti-war, human rights) while eschewing the dangerous parts (more and more state control).
The evidence that such a change can take place has yet to reveal itself. Socialist ideology seems to cause some kind of brain freeze that renders even the most well-educated intellectual to ignore all empirical reality, even that which shows their own political parties being trounced in election after election, in country after country.
In which case, I’m comfortable forecasting continued upheavals that will drive the progressive left further and further into the margins of political life. Academia is their safe haven to which they will cling ever more forcefully. Whether and to what extent that will matter for the real-world unfolding of history is another matter.
It’s true that this trend does not represent an unmitigated good. The conservatives in most countries have an uncomfortable relationship with traditional liberalism too, and the rise of right-wing collectivism against left-wing redistributionism represents its own dangers. But let us not let this moment pass without celebrating the gradual demolition of an ideological perspective that has done vast damage for a century.
We live in a post-paradigmatic/pre-paradigmatic era. The ideologies of control are failing and unsustainable. It’s up to the genuine champions of human liberty to seize the day and make their case.