Can radical politics work? - RSA

Can radical politics work?

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Sat at a conference dinner recently, I was asked by a senior policy adviser to one of Europe’s most successful social democratic parties what made Jeremy Corbyn so left wing?

Without really thinking about it, I started to explain the policy agenda and why it was so different to what has gone before on the centre-left. He looked perplexed: “but this just sounds like what we already have in Europe. It’s the mainstream.” The lesson is that what seems radical from one vantage point can be utterly mundane from another. Perhaps such a perspective opens out new avenues for political dialogue. And that could be to the benefit of both business-as-usual democracy and radical democracy.

Radical politics takes many varied forms. Some radicals are currently in power and others contest power with a possibility of acquiring it. In recent times, the range of radical alternatives have been bracketed together under the umbrella of ‘populism’. This leads to the patently ridiculous proposition that Jeremy Corbyn can be bracketed with a Donald Trump or Viktor Orban. All that unifies radicals is the fact that they challenge the status quo in some fundamental ways. But that doesn’t take us very far. What is more useful is how radicals are challenging the status quo and where it could lead. Some radical propositions, especially those that are authoritarian in nature, are highly problematic. Some could be highly constructive. A healthy democratic debate would distinguish between them.

There are four main radical contenders for power (there are many other radical movements such as post-growth environmentalism and gender movements of various kinds but the following are those that are currently in or contending for direct political power):

  1. The radical left who challenge the status quo of ‘neo-liberal’ political economy as they frame it. Their aim is to decisively shift wealth, income, and power towards working (or middle) classes. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are obvious examples but significant similar forces have grown in Spain, France, and Greece.

  1. The nationalist right who challenge the geo-political order in favour greater national determination and, as they see it, democracy. A subset of Brexiteers motivated strongly by ‘national sovereignty’ are nationalist radicals (there are many other motivations behind Brexit too it should be noted). Trump is within this category but so is Lega Nord in Italy and a number of other radical right parties in Europe. Their aim is to disrupt international institutions of a variety of forms including the EU, the Paris Climate Accords, the UN and even NATO. As nationalists, there is a great deal of diversity within this group. The Chinese Government might also sit here.

  1. Then there is a new authoritarianism who challenge the fundamental balance of constitutional powers and liberal constitutionalism. The obvious cases here are Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland. Vladmir Putin is an obvious case in point. Targets can include the judiciary, the media, and academia.   

  1. And finally, there is secessionism or independence radicalism. This is where the political map is challenged from within countries by secessionist parties and independence movements with Scotland and Catalonia the clearest examples.

The collective nervous breakdown of establishment liberalism views all these radical political forces as basically the same category. These are not neat categories, radical parties can locate themselves in a number of different places and there is much within category diversity. But the threat to liberal institutions (as opposed to liberal doctrine – it’s important to distinguish the two) rather depends on the form of radicalism. For example, there is no inherent reason why secessionism or the radical left should be problematic for liberal institutions though they can and do both challenge liberal doctrine.

Indeed, it is even possible to envisage liberal versions of the nationalist right – the liberal polity of the British Empire was deeply nationalistic. Only in the case of authoritarianism is there a definitive and axiomatic threat to liberal institutions. But doesn’t one thing lead to another? It rather depends. If nationalist politics exhibits authoritarian tendencies then yes but the actual form matters. There is always a risk but it is possible to exist as a liberal nation outside of the EU and to wish to see a rebalancing of commitments within NATO without pulling down the entire liberal institutional order of internationalism, the rule of law, separation of powers, human rights and a free democracy.

And the problem with the liberal response to some of these forms of radicalism is that it can prevent open engagement with the question of whether different forms of radicalism might work. As a result, we end up with two parallel democratic conversations: one in which there is a business-as-usual conversation and one in which a radical conversation takes place. For democracy to function effectively there needs to be a greater conversation between business-as-usual democracy and radical democracy. Instead, we have a culture of two separate democracies.

These two democracies often – though by no means always - have something to learn from one another. This week Labour’s Shadow Chancellor announced new plans to extend ownership within firms to workers. A more democratic form of capitalism is surely something worth exploring. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher embraced property-owning democracy and widened share ownership. There could even be benefits for businesses themselves as interests around business growth and productivity would be better aligned.

The dividend pool would need to be widened to accommodate the new owners. It is conceivable that one route to this would be greater investment in productivity enhancing technology and greater skills development (our future work research has pointed to chronic under-investment in the UK). I was recently told the story of a business in the Humber region that faced with diminishing competitiveness eschewed the traditional slash and burn approach to efficiency. Instead, they invested in skills and technological enhancement right through the business. Their reward? A thirty percent uplift in productivity.

A workers into owners plan as laid out by Labour could provoke similar reappraisals amongst enlightened businesses. The collective voices of businesses have been broadly hostile, however.

Yet, there is a need for radicals to be receptive to substantive concerns. Technical details matter. For these policies to work economically as well as socially, institutional design must be smart. On one hand, radicals are too quick to dismiss any parameters – such as globalisation or corporate incentives – around proposals. And in return, opponents are too quick to deny any real room for manoeuvre in the search for more inclusive and democratic economic structures.

Likewise, the proposition for a free trade agreement with the EU post-Brexit is a perfectly intellectually respectable one (notwithstanding the risks around the Irish border). What is less respectable are claims from free trade Brexiteers that the ‘free’ refers to anything other than ‘tariff free’. In reality, as the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade agreement shows, the levels of bureaucracy of such an arrangement are at least equal to the current situation within EU (take a look at the complexity of ‘rules of origin’ if you don’t believe me). It doesn’t seem reasonable to claim the benefits of a major change without at least acknowledge the risks and costs.

Critically, a proper dialogue between those radicals who are not trying to bring down liberal democracy but do challenge mainstream liberal policy and voices within business-as-usual democracy could be possible – and desirable. For the radicals, it could mean policies that have a better chance of achieving their aims. For those in the mainstream, it could help them to re-connect to those who feel excluded from modern democracy – a widening pool of the young, excluded, and marginalised. The Scottish Sustainable Growth Commission report into the opportunities and potential costs around Scottish independence is an example of where this type of dialogue has been possible. There was honesty about the costs and challenges of independence. That helps furnish a more honest democratic conversation.

And as that dinner conversation showed, one person’s radicalism is another’s normality. The sad thing about the current state of democracy is that much of this dialogue is not possible. These parallel democracies are of potentially even greater threat than the, admittedly real, threat to some liberal institutions in some places. We live in polarised times. Perhaps a more open dialogue could explore how the radical can become the possible, and how business-as-usual can become a wider politics of sometimes significant change. The alternative is no-holds-barred democracy – and where is that getting us? Not very far.

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  • This is a very measured and thought-provoking article. But I would like to add a couple of important points. Given the high turnover of staff in almost all our businesses, the shares would presumably need to be held in some sort of trust. Over time, control of the shares would inevitably flow towards the Trades Unions as Workers Representatives. And I fail to see the connection between widening the Dividend Pool and increasing productivity. Our recent poor productivity levels are a puzzle to many of the economists that I know. Maybe more investment in technology might improve things. But that needs companies to have the confidence to run down their cash piles, and to favour reinvestment over dividend distribution. 

  • I agree with your analysis of the different kinds of radicalism, and that authoritarian populism (your category 3) presents a real threat to democracy. I question, though, whether rational dialogue alone will help to avert the threat. Charismatic leadership and a carefully balanced appeal at the emotional level are also needed. The leaders of the 'radical left' currently lack credibility in the centre ground of politics, because Bernie Sanders's age sadly counts against him and Jeremy Corbyn appears to be in an ideological straitjacket which sometimes clouds his political judgement – and Communist authoritarianism is also a threat to democracy.