Why The Left Must Address Inequality And Poverty

Sadly the left hates to choose or decide priorities and tends to want to have everything at once. Now there is a chance to  say poverty and inequality are giant evils that must be combatted.

Gently, slowly one can sense the terms of intellectual trade changing. The long era of individual accumulation with the massive transfer of power from the wage-earning collective to the capital funds and bankers that have caused so much damage is coming to an end.

More and more the intellectual argument is shifting ground. The Nobel economics laureate, Amarta Sen, wrote an important essay in Prospect under the heading ‘Why Do We Tolerate Poverty?‘ ‘It’s bad reasoning, not human nature, that blinds us to the predicament of the poor,’ argues Sen.

At the same time in an important article in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, arguably today the world’s most respected and prestigious economics columnist argues that the state not private banks should create money. This has absolutely revolutionary implications for the return of the state acting for the general interest. Banks would provide financial instruments but only the state could decide the amount of money in circulation, and do so in a regulated way to stop the bubble of greed followed by the inevitable bust that was the legacy of the Alan Greenspan vision of central banking serving private banking first, second and last.

Then there is the extraordinary reception given the Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the 21st Century.’  When it came out in France last year it was afforded a decent welcome but in New York and in London the English translation has been hailed as new Marx or Adam Smith. For the first time since Sartre or Camus, France has an intellectual who resonates at a global level.

And unlike the philosophising post-1945 French intellectual grappling with how the west should handle Marxist Stalinism (Sartre for, Camus against) Piketty gets into the heart of economics as a moral philosophy with an obligation not just to describe economic interactions but to argue that economics involves choice – whether to promote Enrichessez-vous ideology or whether to build the just society.

Marx, of course, wrote his manifesto first and produced the theoretical justification for it two decades later. Piketty has done his research but it has yet to be translated into practical policy, or more properly, policy that can be put forward with some confidence voters will endorse it.

Nonetheless when the Financial Times can run an article, again by Martin Wolf, advancing the argument that  ‘A more equal society will not hinder growth’ and ‘Inequality damages the economy and efforts to remedy it are, on the whole, not harmful’ we are moving into new  territory.

The FT is the parish magazine of advanced capitalism and if it is telling its readers the game is up on the relentless growth of inequality and poverty associated with right-wing governments and bankers since the Thatcher-Reagan era, including today’s dominant political elites in the European Union, then one can sense a new political era opening up.

The Sunday Times economics editor, David Smith, last Sunday (27 April) devoted a page to Piketty. Smith is shrewd and intelligent and despite being an ambassador over many years for a capitalism based on the richer getting richer and the poor poorer he now has to warn his readers that a new paradigm is needed.

With the working class increasingly turning to the isolationist and protectionist politics of identity populists like Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, or openly anti-semitic parties like Jobbik, which won 20 per cent in the Hungarian general election a few weeks ago, Davosman and their scribblers in the FT or Sunday Times are getting worried that the political backlash against the poverty and unemployment of so many in Europe might became very ugly indeed.

Translating this hunger for a politics that gives priority to reducing poverty and inequality into actual programmatic options that can win adherents and elections has yet to take place. Gouverner c’est chosir, declared Pierre Mendes France shortly after Aneurin Bevan declared ‘The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.’

Sadly the left hates to choose or decide priorities and tends to want to have everything at once. The reaction of some of the French Socialist MPs to the choice of priorities made by the new Manual Valls government is an example of this no-choose, no-priorities socialism that is the democratic left’s Achilles heel.

Too much of left political writing, other than the rather boring denunciatory rhetoric one associates with much commentary in papers like The Nation in New York, The Guardian or New Statesman in London or the Nouvel Observateur in Paris has offered highly specific, often modish, policy proposals aimed at dealing with one specific problem.

The left has been poor at the big picture and constantly repeating one or two themes and simple messages. Now at last last there is a chance to join with Wolf, Sen and Piketty and say poverty and inequality are like Beveridge’s want and squalor – namely giant evils that must be combatted.

Beveridge, a Liberal, was not afraid to use the word ‘evil’ to denounce the condition which pre-1939 banker’s capitalism had brought about. Can we find politicians who can fashion a language which incorporates the new concern about poverty and inequality or will this be only left to intellectuals and comment page writers?

Denis McShane