A new way for the political left: Towards a wiser and richer society?

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Given today’s problems, you could expect left-progressive parties to be successful, because they focus on today’s major political issues: justice and sustainability. But they have no success at all. Perhaps because these parties pursued emancipation mainly through developing competitive structures, which went at the expense of care for vulnerable groups. The question is first of all whether the progressive left can bridge the goals of emancipation and care for vulnerable groups and secondly what the nature of the problems are that need to be overcome. What is needed are institutions that not just offer increasingly smarter products and services, but instead offer products and services from which everyone can benefit.

Social-Democratic parties are suffering election defeat after election defeat, which is strange as the solutions to many of the problems that we face today must come from the progressive left. Socio-economic inequalities, environmental issues, protection of weaker groups, emancipation, these are all classic left-wing themes.

It may be an amateur’s the political science, but you could say that the Social Democrats were seduced into neo-liberal dogmas in the 1990s. You can say that in ‘the third way’ that was taken by Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and Wim Kok, emancipatory thoughts were pursued, but that emancipation had to come about through competition. By social domains into ‘markets’, competitive structures were created in which the talents of individuals could be maximally stimulated. Healthcare, science, infrastructure, all came under competitive regimes. By competition, you bring out the best in people and organizations, because it forces them to be as efficient as possible – if they don’t want to perish.

This neo-liberal take on emancipation builds on the waves of democratization from the 1960s and 1970s, in particular in creating equal opportunities for everyone. At the time, this was mainly worked out in educational policy: for instance in the Netherlands, the so-called ‘Mammoth Act’ of 1968, led to the democratization of education and to the increase of study grants that were awarded to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, culminating in the fixed basic grant in 1986. Where in the 60s only some were highly educated, nowadays one in three Dutch people is.

The emancipation of the individual through education and competition has led to a ‘meritocracy’ in which individual development is no longer be hampered by your socio-economic background. Not only are the opportunities now more evenly spread, society as a whole also benefits from a higher educated population where people can make better use of their talents. We are not only all equal, but above all rich.

The social transformation has been unprecedentedly successful. We are more equal than ever: wherever you come from or whatever the income of your parents is, in principle it is possible to follow any educational program and find a well-paid job. We are richer than ever: the average gross income of a Dutch person in 2020 is almost twice as high as in 1990.

Yet not everyone seems to be happy with this success. Because even if society as a whole becomes smarter and richer, there are still groups that are less rich and less smart. For the people who belong to those less successful layers, that is a difficult position. Of course, with your lack of a diploma and your poorly paid job you are still infinitely better than the factory worker from the nineteenth century, but the justice of one’s situation is mainly determined by comparing it to those who are in equal circumstances and not of those who lived long ago. And because in a society in which everyone is equal, a lower position on the social ladder is all the harder.

The injustice is more than just the feeling of an individual who cannot get along well. It also pertains to a promise that appears to be broken by pursuing emancipation through competition. Just think: where there is a competition, there are not only winners, but also losers. Every athlete who participates in competitions knows this, he knows there is a good chance that he will not win this competition. That is inherent in the rules of the sport that the athlete accepts before participating in a competition.

In striving for democratization and emancipation, it is not at all made clear that the participants can lose. Everyone, insofar as they do not belong to the already established incumbent order, is given the chance to get higher, but this turned out to be not the case.

It becomes even more unjust. Not only those without the right diplomas have less chances for a rich and healthy life, but because neo-liberalism is fully committed to individual responsibility for the choices people make, it is also their own fault that they fail.

A new group of losers seem to have been created for whom the is little care and consideration. These losers demand equality, they do not want to be disadvantaged in economic and social opportunities. At the same time, these requirements are often put forward in an awkward and narrow-minded manner. The rudeness and bigoted character of the so-called ‘yellow vests’ has become almost proverbial.

How to handle this? On the one hand, the requirement of equality is justified, but on the other hand, the way in which it is presented is wrong. In debates in politics and in the media, it seems that you can only choose from two options: either the stupidity of the protests is emphasized followed by perseverance in the chosen elitist path, or it is stated that you should listen to the gut feelings of the underclass.

It seems as if political and social debates have also taken hold of the destructive power of competition. These have become more and more tribal: you are either for or against us, while the purpose of the debate is to crush the other party.

But the assumption that you should mainly listen to the gut feelings of ‘the common people’ is primarily a sign that these people are not being taken seriously. After all, this assumption suggests that the common people are unable to enter into a reasonable discussion based on arguments. No, the people are considered to be emotional and irrational and there it ends. If you actually strive for emancipation, you must demand that everyone follow the rules of a decent audience – as I have written before.

I wonder how definitive the dichotomy between cosmopolitan elitism and the people’s gut feeling should be. In the first half of the last century, social democracy developed as a political movement that could eliminate the irreconcilable differences between capitalism and socialism. Even now, a social-progressive policy should have the goal of transcending differences rather than reinforcing them. More specifically, it should not only strive for emancipation, but also for the protection of vulnerable groups in society.

In political practice, it seems that initiatives are being developed that connect to this position. The belief in the neo-liberal mantras has since decreased considerably and everyone seems to be looking for new political ideas. At the same time, these initiatives do not seem to me as coherent. A bit of the ‘old left’, a bit of nationalism, sometimes some progressive ideas, and all that is mixed up.

No matter how you look at it, today’s major problems revolve around ethical and ecological issues. It is about equality, justice, sustainability – values ​​that, above all, and perhaps even exclusively, can be tackled with social progressive solutions.

In addition, we must not forget that emancipation based on a meritocratic approach is a good thing. Not only for the individuals who now get the opportunities they had not been given before, but also for society as a whole. As mentioned, it leads to more prosperity and a much smarter society. But how smart, or how wise, does society become if it is no more than the sum of individuals, some of whom become smarter through competition?

If we are fully committed to competitive, that is, evolutionary, structures, we will not get very far because, as we know, evolution is blind. There are plenty of examples of this blindness. Social institutions offer an ever finer network of services and products, but at the same time they are becoming increasingly complex. For many in society, these services and products become unattainable because they are unable to find out what they should do. This only leads to the reinforcement of the differences between those who with and without the right capabilities.

Consider, for example, subsidies that focus on sustainability or social coherence. These are intended for everyone, but to find the right forms in the right way is by no means an easy job for everyone. Or think of financial products that are highly digitized and flexible, so that people hardly have an overview of their financial situations, including the opportunities they have and the risks they run.

Many technological and institutional changes do not focus on a smarter society, but on smart individuals in society. Not only because they can earn the most, but because a system that focuses solely on increasing efficiency does not worry about those who are excluded.

Earlier I wrote that smartness is not a strictly individual trait, but that it is also something that is shared collectively. Individuals are especially becoming smarter because our shared knowledge increases. The technologies we work with, the institutions that regulate social intercourse, the language we speak, they all contribute to the way we understand the world and are able to cope with its problems.

Perhaps this idea of ​​collective cleverness can also serve as a source of inspiration for a new progressive policy. A richer and wiser society not only requires arrangements aimed at making individuals richer and wiser, but also institutions and structures that allow individuals to contribute to collective wealth and collective wisdom.

I admit that I do not yet know precisely what collective wealth and collective wisdom could be. In any case, it is more than the aggregation of individual smartness; it must be a condition that everyone can benefit from this wealth and wisdom. To this end, strong collective arrangements must be developed that are aimed at supporting vulnerable individuals and groups. Not only institutions that allow talented individuals to push their own limits, but also institutions that offer opportunities to those with other qualities and interests and institutions that take care of those who cannot come along.

In the development of institutions and technologies, much more thought should be given to whether they are accessible to everyone and, if not, what is needed to make them so. Thinking about a new development can lead to exclusion of certain social groups, because they are not mobile enough, have too little language skills, and are not used to a digitized world.

Perhaps you can go even further, by considering whether you can develop institutions in which the social whole is actually more than the sum of its parts. Where institutions not only belong to everyone, but to all of us. In the sense that everyone can benefit not only from ideas, from technologies, from social arrangements, but can also make a meaningful contribution to their development –  emancipation that not only assumes equality, but that also expresses it.

Further reading:

Bierman, S. (2020). Can Social Democracy Save the World (Again)? Foreign policy, January 2020

Pesch, U., & Ishmaev, G. (2019). Fictions and frictions: Promises, transaction costs and the innovation of network technologies. Social Studies of Science, 49(2), 264-277.


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