The intellectual bankruptcy of the opposition

Every Western country is struggling with the political far right.

I believe this is a reaction to a combination of economic stagnation and a degradation of our social fabric. Economic liberalism and humanism are failing us. No one has a solution.

On one hand you have regressive populists who seek to wind back the clock to a period of past glory. Nigel Firage promises that Brexit will roll back European political and economic integration. Trump promises to Make America Great Again. Marine Le Pen promises to make France safe for French people.

On the other hand you have liberal elites who promise more of the same. Cameron offered no great promise of British economic revival. Clinton offered no meaningful alternative to Trump’s nostalgia. Hollande is the most unpopular president in French history, and perhaps in the history of Western democracy.

The West’s progressive politicians are losing elections and face abysmal approval ratings despite supposedly being the best that the Western liberal order has to offer. It’s not their fault. Their support system — economists and philosophers — are failing them. Our students and theorists of political economy have gone bankrupt.

The establishment is staring at the future and offering more Keynesian stimulus and more trade. The prescription to systems failure? More of the same.

Voters are not fooled. They want an alternative and, failing a progressive one, they’ll vote for a regressive one.

Capitalism won the great intellectual debate 25 years ago. Capitalism has worked. It has lifted tens of millions out of poverty. It has also led to a massive transfer of wealth from the developed world to the undeveloped world. It has also created the largest wealth disparities in developed countries on record since the Gilded Age. These effects would be acceptable to voters if Capitalism were also offering fast enough growth that it covered for these wealth transfers and disparities. It is not offering that growth anymore.

In normal times Capitalism would have intellectual competition. Capitalism won the Cold War so definitively that there is no alternative political or economic philosophy available. Neoliberalism has taken over.

Our universities are more concerned with cisgender oppression of the queer than with questions of economics or economic justice. There is no new Chicago School. Picketty and his lot describe the symptoms, but not the disease. I want gender freedom as much as anyone, but not at the expense of economic growth.

Politics get nasty when economic growth stagnates or regresses. The problem now is not that people are inherently more nativist this year than last, or that they are more racist, or that they are somehow worse people. The problem is that they’re simply being rational.

Voters are asking for the wealth transfer from their developed pocketbooks to Chinese and Indian and African pocketbooks to stop, or at least pause. They’re becoming nativist and anti-immigrant because they feel that it doesn’t make sense to add more people to a country that can’t grow its economy fast enough for the people already in it.

When economic growth slows trade and immigration quickly become zero-sum games.

These twin facts of slow growth and the lack of a positive and progressive answer lead to the election of dangerous politicians. The people who are now being swept into office are scary. They conjure nightmares of the aftermath of the Great Depression, which was last time the economic situation was this stagnant. In the 30s politics gave us a great battle between Facists and Communists.

Even in America we had a president who railroaded Congress, tried to pack the Supreme Court, interred immigrants based on their heritage and declared that the thing that most mattered was “a chicken in every pot.” Roosevelt scared the hell out of a lot of people.

In the aftermath of 2008 we have Trump and May. We face the rising spectre of Le Pen’s National Front and Alternative for Deutschland.

There is no meaningful political opposition. The British Labour party is led by an unreconstructed Soviet mole. America’s Democratic opposition is being led by Senator Chuck Schumer. In America every politician gets to pick which industry they are bought by. Schumer picked the banks. Not the best patron for a man who is charged with fighting against the populist backlash to a systemic banking failure.

Progressives are out of new ideas.

Trump cannot be defeated, Brexit cannot be reversed, Le Pen cannot be stopped, until we have new ideas. We need more to offer than poorly disguised, barely warmed over Marxism. You can do all of the community organising you want, but without a new political and economic philosophy, you will lose.

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