In the face of resurgent right-wing populism, the left’s relative weakness partly reflects the decline of unions and organized labor groups, which have historically formed the backbone of leftist and socialist movements. But four decades of ideological abdication has also played an important role.
CAMBRIDGE – The main political beneficiaries of the social and economic fractures wrought by globalization and technological change, it is fair to say, have so far been right-wing populists. Politicians like Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have ridden to power by capitalizing on the growing animus against established political elites and exploiting latent nativist sentiment.
The left and progressive groups have been largely missing in action. The left’s relative weakness partly reflects the decline of unions and organized labor groups, which have historically formed the backbone of leftist and socialist movements. But ideological abdication has also played an important role. As parties of the left became more dependenton educated elites instead of the working class, their policy ideas aligned more closely with financial and corporate interests.
The remedies on offer from mainstream leftist parties remained correspondingly limited: more spending on education, improved social-welfare policies, a bit more progressivity in taxation, and little else. The left’s program was more about sugarcoating the prevailing system than addressing the fundamental sources of economic, social, and political inequities.
There is now growing recognition that tax-and-transfer policies can go only so far. While there is much room for improving social insurance and tax regimes, especially in the US, deeper reforms are needed to help level playing fields in favor of ordinary workers and families across a broad range of domains. That means focusing on product, labor, and financial markets, on technology policies, and on the rules of the political game.
Inclusive prosperity cannot be achieved by simply redistributing income from the rich to the poor, or from the most productive parts of the economy to less productive sectors. It requires less-skilled workers, smaller firms, and lagging regions to be more fully integrated with the most advanced parts of the economy.
In other words, we must start with productive re-integration of the domestic economy. Large and productive firms have a critical role to play here. They must recognize that their success depends on the public goods that their national and sub-national governments supply – everything from law and order and intellectual property rules to infrastructure and public investment in skills and research and development. In exchange, they must invest in their local communities, suppliers, and workforce – not as corporate social responsibility, but as a mainline activity.