Hope (crosspost from CT)

I posted this at Crooked Timber. I plan something a little more specific to Australia when I get some time

One reason that many on the left of politics preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton is that his rhetoric, at his best, promised something more than incremental reform, a promise summed up by slogans like “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”.

Given the political realities of the US, and the obvious fact that Obama is instinctively a pragmatist and centrist, it was never likely that this would translate into radical policy action in the short run. Still, it seemed at least possible that an Obama presidency would begin a renewal of a progressive project of transformation, setting out the goal of a better world. One respect in which this hope has been fulfilled, for me, is in Obama’s articulation of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the small but positive steps he’s taken in this direction.

I plan to talk about the specific issue of nuclear disarmament in more detail in a later post. The bigger point for me is that after decades in which the left has been on the defensive, it’s time for a politics of hope. We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. Centrist pragmatism provides nothing to match the enthusiasm that can be driven by fear and anger, as we have seen.

What the politics of hope means, to me, is the need to start setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. They ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.

Over the fold, I’ve set out some thoughts I have for goals of this kind. At this stage, I’m not looking for debate on the specifics of these goals or the feasibility of achieving them (again, more on this later). Rather, I’d welcome both discussion of the general issue of what kind of politics the left needs to be pursuing, and suggestions of other goals we ought to be pursuing

* Ending extreme poverty in the world. There are still a billion or more people living on less than $US1/day. If the developed world allocated 2 per cent of its income to poverty relief and development aid, instead of about 0.2 per cent, it would be possible to end the worst of poverty

* Ending and reversing global warming. It’s still possible to stabilise global CO2 concentrations somewhere between 450 and 550 ppm by 2050, if we get concerted action in the next few years. After that, assuming plausible technological progress, it would be possible to gradually reduce concentrations, ultimately back to pre-industrial levels

* A decent opportunity in life for every child. This would begin with much more intervention in early childhood for those at high risk. Then good quality schools and a commitment to universal high school completion (or an equivalent in apprenticeships and other kinds of technical training). Finally, an entitlement to a post-secondary education or some equivalent aid to establish a small business. (More on the economics of this to come).

* Reversing the growth of inequality in most developed countries over the past thirty years (I’ll argue for the feasibility of this later on).

Writing this kind of thing, I can sense the feeling that it’s naive/utopian/pointless. But I think it’s precisely this kind of feeling, hammered into us by years of retreat that we need to overcome.

27 thoughts on “Hope (crosspost from CT)

  1. John you are essentially saying there should be a progressive renewal based around improving the lives of other people. I can’t see it happening to be honest; mass movements only inspire useful mass passion on the part of people who are personally affected. Walk across a bridge in solidarity with Aborigines? Sure. Take the kids to the creek for an outing on Clean Up Australia Day? No problem. Devote real time and energy and emotional commitment to long-term political action around social justice? Well, hang on a moment, there’s a lot of other problems need solving too you know, like my kids’ school and my local hospital …

    Wealthy countries’ citizens have effectively outsourced public administration to an arm’s length class of professional politicians (elected and un-). Like managers of other institutions in capitalist societies, they will be judged overwhelmingly on their short-term performance. Managerialism has been substituted for idealism. The disadvantaged will have to solve their own problems from the inside out.

  2. There may be a lot of wind in Obama’s project here.

    A mutual reduction in nukes by Russia and USA has been a long sought after goal from Carter’s Detente, and ongoing SALT negotiations.

    I would be optimistic that real progress was afoot, if and only if, Obama ensured that US nuclear plants were open for international inspection.

    Until then, Obama’s move can be seen as a convenient temporary budget adjustment to help his regime through the washout of the GFC. His military advisers will be well aware that, with no international inspection, they can easily reintroduce unilateral nuclear weapons either when the economy straightens-out or when a new President takes office.

    So we need all nations to subscribe to both: abolishing nuclear weapons, and international inspections.

    If no government maintains the machinery to produce weapons grade material, it will be impossible for any terrorist group or security service to develop their own covert programs.

  3. Obama has managed to achieve a lot given the american machinery of government and the problems Bush handed him – the GFC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo and massive debt.

  4. PrQ

    You won’t be surprised to hear that I find your proposals reasonable, as far as they go. With the exception of the “delusionals” on climate change, and perhaps the tea party birther fringe, it is hard to imagine who would oppose them. I’d probably add one or two things — general decommissioning/phased reduction of non-nuclear battlefield weapons and delivery systems comes to mind. You’d want the MDGs to be fully implemented and to have a focus on education of women and girls. Supply of water is also critical. Then there’s primary health care and labour conditions. Civil rights, transparency of legal and administrative systems. Separation of powers and secular governance. We could go on.

    I think stabilising at 400PPMV is a starting point for manageable climate policy. We probably will go over that but only at seriously increased risk. We really ought to be pulling out all stops to avoid that as we are risking the permafrost and if that seriously decomposes, all bets are off.

    The trouble here though is the political cycle. Getting governments on the same page is as tough as herding cats, but even if it weren’t, our political cycles aren’t set up to cater for action over decades. You probably have to have some supra-national body with secure funds to do MDG-type stuff and with climate change, an ETS which isn’t hostage to local politicking.

    I wish I were confident that the architecture for all this could be set up but I’m not. One suspects that as we always have, we will roll from one adhoc “solution” to another regardless of the costs of that approach.

  5. Pr Q said:

    We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right.

    Its not very gracious to denounce the Right’s politics as based on “fear, anger and tribalism”. At least from the mid-seventies through mid-nineties the Right did offer hope after a decade or so of stagnant or failing Left-liberalism.

    Reagan, in particular, together with Thatcher and Pope John Paul, promoted a reasonably progressive Right-wing program. Its wasn’t always “a kinder, gentler form of Right-wingery. But it did deliver some positive goods on a hopeful note.

    I am old enough to remember Reagan’s call for a “New Dawn in America” on the eve of the 1984 election, which presaged a fairly strong period of prosperity in the US. And his call made in 1987 to “Tear down this wall Mr Gorbachev”, which presaged an unprecedented spread of peace throughout the First, Second and Third Worlds.

    But since the mid-nineties the Anglo Right-wing – after prevailing in the Class, Cold and Culture Wars – has become steadily disengaged from reality and resorting to nasty forms of politics. I guess that success went to its head or it just ran out of useful things to say or do.

  6. @Jack, we seem to be in furious agreement, at least as regards the current state of the right, and the fact that it had a lot more to offer in the 1980s than it does now.

  7. I got stuck on the comment: “They ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future.”

    Fair enough, but some of these goals may require some form of (radical) social change to occur first?

    That is to say, these goals may not be achieved in any meaningful sense without effective social change strategy.

    To that end, I would propose the following goal:
    – Removal of representative democracy (as both an ideal and as a reality) and replace with more direct, deliberative and participatory mechanisms for responding to citizens aspirations and concerns. Create effective citizens juries. Focus on reviewing planning legislation as a priority.

  8. @Jack Strocchi

    So Jack, why didn’t Reagan tear down the fence between USA and Mexico and the embargo against Cuba.

    Why don’t they cry to Israel, “tear down this wall”?

    Maybe the wall is a political symbol. America has erected more walls than anyone else, and removed none.

    Remember, the Right is a bastion of economic rationalism, capitalist exploitation, wedge politics, and global and domestic provocation. Our Abbott, Thatcher, Nixon, Reagan, Bush ver 1 and ver2, are all blockheads of the same dull stone.

    I can see no post-1987 peace in the Rightwing agendas either in domestic USA, domestic Britain, nor in the international agendas now being imposed throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

    Fortunately the right have been kicked out in the USA, and subsequently Obama is lifting the quality of American civilisation. We have to wait to see what the May 6 UK elections may lead to, but I expect gains by the uglies.

    Under Fraser – the mid seventies – working Australians suffered extraordinary cuts in living standards through his “Wages Pause” and his regime unleashed savage cultural attacks against those on the dole. Howard only survived through dividing Australian society, pandering to jingoism, and classic wedge politics.

    It was a very dark period in Australian history.


  9. @iain

    I am going to agree obviously with participatory and deliberative democracy. I think that this may be even more relevant in places where interpenetrated communities bear each other longstanding animus. That said, equipping the popualce with the insight needed to make that a reality will obviously be challenging.

    I should have said something about biodiversity too. Protecting the world’s terrestrial and marine biomes is obviously an urgent priority. I’d like to see serious targets for acquiring habitat in trust and funding the maintenance of the integrity of each both from direct human depredation and encroachment.

  10. John,

    I’d put the global financial system problem in place number one on any policy agenda. Its a tricky one, which may require a more fundamental approach than merely introducing more prescriptive regulation.

    The ‘end to extreme poverty in the world’ has been promised by Ronald Reagan. At the time private investment was supposed to do the trick. (‘to do the trick’:= to bring about the desired outcome). Not sure your reference to developed countries is still crucial because the famous ‘globalisation’ has resulted in a narrowing of differences in income inequality across many countries. The role of multinational corporations comes to mind as an item of interest.

    ghg emission. I’d prefer a broader approach such as ecologically sustainable economies with ghg emission being possibly the most important contemporary problem but not the only one..

    Look forward to the details on education and training.

    Reversing the trend of inequality in developed countries: crucial on any policy agenda. I don’t know to what extent topics such as corporatisatism and managerialism and labour market laws are to be treated under this topic. If not, then I’d suggest policy objectives which remove the privileges, as distinct from socio-economic useful functions, of corporations and managers should be included on any policy list. An example of privilege is self-serving behaviour via self-selected accountability criteria and performance schemes that are manipulable.

    PS: This ‘left vs right’ thing makes sense to me only at the extreme ends of the scale(s) and I don’t like either. On the other hand, social democracy, welfare state, mixed economy are short-hand labels I feel comfortable with and not only because there is no ‘-ism’.

  11. the left of politics preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton

    I suspect that this preference isn’t limited to the left. I think plenty of people on the right also prefered Obama over Hillary Clinton.

    In terms of the goals you articulate I don’t think many people either of the left or the right would object to the worthiness of the stated goals. The disagreement is merely over means. For instance whilst few would call me left wing I think we should open up our markets more for the products produced by poor people because I don’t want the world to have poor people. Textiles and footwear being an obvious example. In terms of reducing carbon emissions I think we should remove the unreasonable barriers to nuclear power because I want my kids to have a cleaner world.

  12. @Chris Warren
    Just remember Reagan also went head long down the path of supply side economics…perhaps the first to swing politics decidely the way of concessions to big business.

  13. I’d like to add a point: A tax of 95% on all profits made from ‘social strategy propaganda’ (ne public relations) activities and a marginal tax rate of 90% on incomes in this ‘industry’ in excess of the minimum wage.

  14. Of course, to convince the public of the necessity of a high tax on the PR and advertising industry will, our advisors will tell us, require an expensive and high-profile advertising campaign…

  15. I am on the right of politics but definitely, in the current situation, an Obama supporter. He does offer hope and imagination and is concerned with the simple issue of ensuring decent lives. I think he looks particularly good given the drift into fanaticism by the Republicans – a move oddly parallelled here in Oz by the Abbott-Minchin supporters in the Liberal Party. A few US Republican did vote for the Energy Security Bill and a few more have interesting positive suggestions on climate change – such as regigging the US nuclear industry – but most seem to be ugly, bible-bashing fanatics who believe Barack is the anti-Christ. The ugly rhetoric of Sarah Palin who make a lot of US leaders look good.

    My doubts are not about Obama but the US economy. It is sick enough to torpedo him and end all idealism.

  16. Take “left”as basically politics by and for the masses, and “right”as basically politics run by elites (which would mean that much of our current managerial politics is “right”). I think if you want to develop a “left” program for the next several decades, you have to look at broad feelings about what the current politics has failed to supply (or destroyed), in the context of the major challenges. The big challenges are ecological – to keep human activities within the bounds of natural cycles. CO2 is part of this, but so is fresh water, the nitrogen cycle and much else.

    Ecologies are essentially local, and only effectively managed at local level, when the people who know them in detail have control (and are not constantly subject to incentives to hand control over in return for more money). Our current economic and social arrangements dodge this reality. I think there is room for a program of deliberate de-globalisation, programs to address obvious degradation (landcare, re-afforestation, river restoration) coupled with an egalitarianism that looks less at money income and more at privilege and power. The downside of this is that it puts charity at home ahead of charity abroad.

  17. Thanks for the post John – an excellent subject. Your goals seem very reasonable, and the means by which you propose to get there – with some ‘vision’ behind more mundane pragmatic politics makes sense also, methinks.

  18. If the world addressed item 3 on the list, the rest would take care of itself.

    Robert Sapolsky’s observations of the community harmonising outcome from the inadvertent elimination (TB obtained through eating cantaminated food waste) of the Aplha males in his original baboon study troup, reinforced by other direct comparison studies on stress in the British public service and the baboon troup, would serve to solidly reinforce the view that obtaining a “fair go” from birth smooths human temperament and would dramatically influence community outcomes.

  19. Notwithstanding the jokes about taxing spin, wouldn’t a complete ban or at least severe curtailment of consumer advertising – ie the manufacture and manipulation of false “needs” – be a progressive objective? That’s the only sort of censorship I might consider favourably.

  20. Some rhetorical questions. How many ads do we see promoting green renewable energy or promoting action on climate change? Now, how many ads do we see promoting automobile purchases? The massive inbalance is indicative.

  21. I like your post JQ. It is far from “naive/utopian/pointless”. Pragmatism is the only sensible way forward. Starting from a left or right ideological paradigm is messy with a lot of baggage, misconceptions and biases. It is not pragmatic, its ugly. Just be pragmatic and start with a simple proposition and work forward, such as your propositions above.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s