The recurring errors of the left

I’ve been scared for three and a half years. That wasn’t enough. Now I’m also angry.

Protests in Chile, Plaza Baquedano

Protest in Chile, because it’s the same fight. Image by Hugo Morales (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yes, I am somewhat angry at Tory voters, but not ferociously so. The anger that hurts me the most is the one I’m directing against those who led the Labour party, especially Corbynites, but also his predecessors. I also burn with regret, for not having spoken loud enough and for letting scraps of hope to justify my own inaction. No more, I will use my anger to do something. My doing starts here, with good old fashioned critique, directed to my own team.

[If you are not scared, it may be worth reading back to where I explain the danger of Fascist and Authoritarian rhetoric. If you are not angry, please keep reading.]

I’m angry at the Labour leadership because I have predicted the present catastrophe – years before it happened. I was proven right. If I, a foreigner with no relevant background, could clearly see what was coming, failing to see it as a professional politician must count as inexcusable. Fatal errors were made, starting in 2016. They were errors that had been made before, making their consequences predictable. They were errors that should have been avoided. Thus, I will use my rage and put it into words. You’d better listen – I might be right.

The summary of the errors made is:

  1. Neglecting the cultural battleground. Without engaging with the rationale supporting our ideas, without establishing some firm and recognised cultural foundations, left-leaning parties are condemned to get decent electoral results only if and when many external factors all align in their favour. This is the reason why the left is constantly the underdog.
  2. Forgetting that the political battle is thoroughly asymmetric. Some of the strategies that work for the right and/or for Neoliberals do not work for the left and progressives. Co-opting the dirty methods of our opposition is harmful and does not work.
  3. Political actions made today will invariably reduce your options in the future. Every decision has a long-term cost that needs to be accounted for. Shortcuts for immediate political gains are like borrowing: you get the money now, and return more of it later. Like debt, these costs need to be predicted and managed wisely.

I believe it’s worth exploring these errors, before doing anything practical, because I’ve seen these errors being committed too many times. I must point at them, now.

The cultural battleground.

Left-leaning policies and ideologies make sense only in light of the interdependency that underlies any modern society, as well as all of life on Earth. This is particularly true for the climate emergency, but is crucial also when settings the aim of most political decisions.
In terms of society, there is one intuitive view that tends to see most social interactions as zero-sum games. If you got that job, it follows that I didn’t. You won, I lost, end of story. This is what I call Naïve Darwinism, the idea that everything that matters can be understood through the lens of competition, of winners and losers. Frequently, this outlook is paired with the idea that competition is the natural state of affairs, and therefore inherently good. Except it isn’t[1].

Be as it may, a worldview that sees competition as both the default state and a good thing is wrong, but has two very strong selective advantages: it is simple (if you got the job, it’s because I didn’t, and that’s that) and it is self-sustaining. It self-sustains because if I view my peers as competitors, chances are that I will be recognised as a bad collaborator. As a consequence, people will tend not to collaborate with me and therefore my own world will genuinely become dominated by competition. Moreover, if I struggle to put food on my table, the fact that you got that job instead of me is indeed really bad news for me and it does not matter if somehow the larger society may get some benefits: I didn’t![2]
As a consequence, politicians find the idea of all-encompassing competition easy to sell. It does not help that it can be joined with the idea that competition is inevitable and that it can always be used to produce “efficient markets” which in turn are beneficial[3]. This then produces what Simon Wren-Lewis labels “neo-liberal overreach“, which is the policy effect of the “competition-first” cluster of beliefs: the role of the state is reduced to creating markets, whenever there is a problem to be solved. This cluster of closely related ideas is what justifies the perennial growth race, is what’s destroying our planet’s ecosystems and, if left in place, will eventually destroy society as we know it. In terms of intellectual foundations, it boils down to the idea that competition is the one and only lens required to understand the social and natural worlds.

The cultural battleground is the result: foundational to left-leaning ideologies is the idea of interdependency. If a society cares for everyone, cooperation is maximised, making our world better for everyone – it’s the recognition that we can design our own games, and that adopting the ones where we can all win is not only desirable, it is also possible. That’s because social interactions are not usually zero-sum games: if I’m generous to you, it’s more likely you will be generous to me sometime in the future. If your kids go to school and will gain access to better jobs, they will also be better at their jobs and that’s good for me too: I’ll get better doctors and better teachers for my kids, so they will in turn have better opportunities. More cooperation means we’re wasting less energy in fighting one another, releasing more resources in the pursuit of the common good. Unfortunately, one thing that left-leaning politicians keep forgetting is that, if one is not sympathetic with the “cooperation is possible and good” view, left-leaning ideas and policies make no sense. They look hopelessly optimistic, ideological and unjustified. To make matters worse, the lower you place is in society, and the more the world around you is shaped by the “competition first” worldview, the less you can see and experience the benefits of cooperation – which means that it becomes more and more “rational” to espouse the neo-liberal worldview[2].

In turn, this is why the right finds it so easy to persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas. Labour and similar parties struggle to keep the support of working class electors because the more a society is competitive, the less a “cooperation first” outlook is justifiable. The more one struggles to get by, the more all of life is a struggle, the less any promise of a bright cooperative future looks credible[4].

Thus, if left-leaning parties are to ever get to play on equal terms against their opponents, they have to establish the cultural background where the value of cooperation is at least recognised as in-par with the value of competitive markets. But left-leaning politicians and strategists keep forgetting this. Frequently, they actively work against their best interests by espousing thoroughly neoliberal views: see the infamous “there’s no money left” note, or Corbyn’s claim that the “wholesale import of labourers” damages local labour markets. Both positions presuppose the primacy of markets. For the first, it implies that state-borrowing is always bad because the market will impose higher interest rates; in the second case the implicit message is that, to keep wages from falling, the state has to intervene by reducing the supply of labourers, while ignoring a number of much more useful strategies (all well-known to self-respecting economists)!

The battleground is asymmetric.

I’ve mentioned above that the belief in the “primacy of competition” is self-sustaining. This means that the cultural battlefield is skewered in favour of Neoliberals. As a consequence, it should never be neglected. Left-leaning and progressive organisations should always invest more energies than their adversaries in the cultural arena – failing to do so awards a permanent tactical advantage to their foes. But the asymmetry cuts more deeply than this, and strategists on the left regularly fail to recognise the implications. The fact is that if you espouse the view that competition shapes everything, then selfish acts are not only normal, they are also the only reasonable strategy available, to electors and politicians alike. The effect is that when a politician is caught acting in his/her own interest first, placing the common good second, it will be perceived as normal and not newsworthy if said politician is right-wing and/or Neoliberal. On the other hand, if the politician promotes or presupposes the cooperative worldview, being seen to put self-interest first, to the detriment of common good, is genuinely newsworthy. The politician has just exposed her/himself as a dangerous and inexcusable hypocrite. Right-wing politicians have more leeway in terms of acting selfishly because such acts conform with their ideological position; left-wingers have no such luxury – none at all, to be precise!

The result is a recurring mistake, which is single-handedly responsible for incalculably high costs in terms of actual votes. I’ve seen this happening over and over in Italy, when Berlusconi dominated the political landscape, only to witness the same pattern again and again in the UK. No lessons were learned!

It goes like this: we start where both left and right work under the assumption that a certain level of decency, at least on the surface, is a hard requirement. Everyone assumes that if a politician or a party is seen to engage with dirty tricks, below a given threshold, the electorate will turn against them and punish them harshly at the next election. Disruption happens: one politician or a whole party decides to break the established rules of decency and visibly goes where no-one dared before. If they are on the right, the unimaginable happens: not only they are not punished, the may even gain in popularity because of their manifest immorality. At this point, without known exceptions, left-leaning and progressive strategist start thinking “OK, if they can stoop so low, surely we can relax our own constraints and play a little bit more dirty. As long as we’re seen to be clearly better than them, we’ll be fine“.

I have news: it NEVER works.

Why? Because the battleground is asymmetric. A right-winger can be selfish, as they found their political credibility on the idea that selfishness is ubiquitous, unavoidable and somewhat good. Left-wing and progressive politicians can’t, because their fundamental promise is that cooperation is good and possible. Unfortunately, it takes only one free-rider to undermine a cooperative system. Thus, they cannot expose themselves as aspiring free-riders, because by doing so they demonstrate that their promise is unachievable (at least when they are in the driving seat).
People are surprised about why accusations of anti-Semitism, and more importantly, accusations of not taking the problem seriously, could hurt Labour so much, while everyone knows that the Tories are both racist, misogynistic and classist. I am sure that left-leaning politicians are incessantly frustrated by this kind of mechanisms, they find the situation insufferably unfair and tend to neglect it because of its unfairness. Too bad: these are the rules of the game, the asymmetry comes with the team you’ve chosen. If you find the need to act (somewhat) selflessly unfair and restrictive, that’s because you’ve picked the wrong team.

Here is another example: Tories break their electoral promises with clockwork regularity. They never met their immigration targets, the economy always disproves their growth estimations, crime increased while they were in power, there will be no “350m millions per week” to the NHS, etcetera, etcetera. And yet, here they are, broken promise after broken promise, still in power, with a bigger majority than before. How could they possibly improve? They did, because they now have a leader that unapologetically embodies the ideology they promote – as selfish and devious as you ought to be in a dog eats dog world. Compare with the LibDems: 9 years ago they broke one single (crucial) promise and they are still paying the price. I would feel pity if it weren’t so easily predicted. If you brand yourself as progressive, you can’t act like a selfish crook. But if you convince people that selfishness is both good and inevitable, then you can, and you gain credibility by acting in your own interest!
I wish left-leaning and progressive politicians could learn this lesson once and for all…

Your actions today will invariably reduce your options in the future.

I have explored this principle before. Its importance however seems to escape politicians, strategists and commentators alike. One example I’ve used before is the (utterly predictable) ineffectiveness of Cameron’s campaigning for Remain. It was literally impossible for him to be credible. Why? Because the discontent that was weaponised by the leave side was the direct consequence of Cameron’s own policies. The way to neutralise Leave’s scapegoating of the EU was to say: you’re being held down by austerity and Tory policies, not the EU. It goes without saying: Cameron himself was exactly the wrong person for the job.
Unfortunately, the same kind of trap later started to apply to Labour… After the referendum, once they decided to try appeasing leave voters, their course was set. They started down a route that will eventually hurt them, but at any given time, the immediate cost of a U-turn made it increasingly harder to correct the course. I predicted the present defeat on this basis, back in January 2017. Around that time, Labour took a couple of catastrophic decisions. Perhaps they made some sense at the time, as they allowed to retain some support in the leave-leaning Labour heartlands in the North of England (or so I’m told), but also made the current catastrophe almost inevitable. I mention this here because what was done summarises all of my three key messages.

All three mistakes, in one go!

First of all, the position that “Labour respects the referendum result” was adopted. The implications are:
1. The referendum result is legitimate. [The clearly untrue and devious promises didn’t matter.]
2. The resulting mandate is compelling. [Forget checks and balances, along with the fundamental tenants of representative democracy.]
3. Exercises in direct democracy should trump ordinary representative democracy[5]. [Yes, that’s the foundation of Fascism, but hey, if the BBC says so…]

Thus, their own decision undermined the legitimacy of all efforts to use parliamentary mechanisms to keep the actions of the government in check. Bad move. Even worse was the decision to try appeasing the anti-immigration sentiment that is believed to underlie much of the support for Leave. As hinted above, this move meant that Labour vacated the cultural battlefield altogether; they just went AWOL overnight. The implication of this decision validated instantly the assumptions made by the worst part of the Leave campaign – they provided fuel to Labour’s opponents! Concurrently, it undermined the foundations of left-leaning thoughts and policies. Instead of fostering and valuing solidarity amongst labourers, it pitches labourers against one another, depending on where they come from. The effect of this is that the cultural battle was lost without even fighting it: it became impossible for Labour to credibly espouse the policies that would indeed solve many of the problems affecting their working-class Leave and Labour voters. Utter madness! But it gets worse: the move made no intellectual sense whatsoever. Thus, it was widely (and rightly) seen as a somewhat self-interested move: a hard-to-defend position was taken in order to retain the support of some Labour voters, not because it was “right” in itself. This breaks my second principle: being seen to act selfishly is critically harmful to left-wingers, even if or when it is neutral of advantageous to right-wingers.
What happened, with a snowballing cost that kept growing ever since, is that well-meaning voters, well-meaning Labour members, well-meaning Labour MPs and a good number of public intellectuals suddenly found it much, much harder to enthusiastically support Labour policies, politicians and strategies. The effect is cumulative: in the absence of a U-turn, it becomes harder and harder to approve of Labour, while the vanishing support means that less and less electors will perceive Labour as a viable and credible alternative to the status-quo.

Finally, the move meant that every single day, both the perceived and actual cost of changing course kept increasing (this is my third point in action). The direct effect of such mindless decisions is that the number of people still actively promoting Labour kept decreasing. Self-selection kicked in: only those who were comfortable with very un-labour policies remained onboard. Thus, changing course became harder: one would predict that those who still supported Labour would not approve of a U-turn, while nobody could be sure if the people who left would obediently return to the fold (and in fact, they didn’t, overall). Moreover, the same selection also operated on decision-makers: those who disagreed abandoned the ship, one by one. Thus, those who remained were precisely the ones who were less likely to advocate for a change of course. In this way, the initial decision produced for selfish, short-term purposes in the first place, made it almost impossible for Labour to remain credible and also to correct its course in time. Even if a sort of half-hearted U-turn was indeed made at the last possible moment, the cost in terms of both talent and credibility has now hit Labour in full. The reputation of the current Labour leadership crumbled, and rightly so. They have been fools, and while I don’t doubt they had good intentions, the price they will pay personally is commensurate to their hubris and recklessness. My anger remains, because the country will pay a much bigger price.

Conclusion.

This analysis is partial, naturally. I did not list all mistakes that were made by Labour in recent years. I did not even list all recurrent mistakes made by left-leaning politicians elsewhere. I limited myself to the mistakes that are almost always repeated, and considered only those that tend to be catastrophic. I don’t have many good news to offer, the battle ahead is uphill, from beginning to end. But still, not fooling ourselves must be a start. In the next post we’ll see how [we can change gear edit (30/12/19)] to handle hostility from the media and hopefully achieve something better in the future.

 

Notes.

[1] Competition is emphatically not enough to describe “the natural state of affairs”, cooperation is equally ubiquitous and naturally emerges always and without exceptions. In fact competition and cooperation naturally constrain one another, with the effect that every naturally occurring system will have a bit of both, but that’s another story…

[2] This is the main reason why my anger is not primarily directed at working class Tory voters. The harder your life currently is, the closer it is to a genuinely zero-sum game. Thus, as life gets harder, a dog eats dog attitude becomes genuinely justified, given the evidence available.

[3] Sometimes, even often, they are. But this doesn’t mean they always are. My own definition of “Neoliberalism” follows: it is the belief that competitive markets are the best possible solution to pretty much every problem of society. Needless to say: it’s a risible belief – how could the same solution apply to all problems? It is also an extremely popular belief, alas.

[4] The important exception is, naturally, bona-fide Fascism. The reason why it is appealing is that it promises to produce in-group harmony and cooperation by identifying and actively fighting against both internal and external enemies. In this context, it is the identification of common enemies that makes the promise of cooperation credible.

[5] Importantly, the idea that a single “Will of the People” exists and is knowable is completely false. This is why Fascist and Authoritarian ideologies are dangerous: they are founded on an idea that is both appealing and wrong.

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Posted in Politics, Stupidity
3 comments on “The recurring errors of the left
  1. […] you are interested in UK’s politics and self-identify as left-leaning, reading my previous post might have got you screaming “Yes, yes, but WHAT ABOUT the overt hostility shown by THE […]

  2. Allan Seago says:

    The cultural battleground.

    Absolutely agree that the left needs to positively promote the value of cooperation over competition, otherwise the battle is lost before you start – for the reasons you give. And I definitely think this can be done; the electorate is not, and never has been completely sold on the virtues of the completely free market (for example, polls consistently showing majority support for rail re-nationalisation). And there is a profound hankering for a more community based polity, supported by a state providing a social safety net (however rose-tinted that hankering might be). I think this partly accounts for the referendum result; English revolutions are almost always about recreating a imagined past rather than planning a glorious future.

    The battleground is asymmetric.

    Very much the case that the left is always more vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. Anybody who advocates Green policies and seeks to minimise as far as possible their own environmental footprint will always have to put with other people telling them the many ways they fall short of those standards (“You’ve got a car and an iPhone! That’s not very green, is it?”).

    It used to be the case that right-wingers could also be accused of hypocrisy – usually on ‘moral’ issues, such as ‘family values’. Nowadays, it’s much more difficult to accuse right wingers of betraying their principles, because they don’t have any.

    Your actions today will invariably reduce your options in the future.

    That should be generally true. However, we seem to be living in a political world where what you said a year ago can be completely at variance with what you are saying now, and for this not to be perceived as any way a problem. Particularly if your yardstick of what is and is not true is infinitely flexible

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Thanks Allan!

      we seem to be living in a political world where what you said a year ago can be completely at variance with what you are saying now, and for this not to be perceived as any way a problem

      This is true, but specifically for right-wing politicians (the political battleground is asymmetric), precisely because they can (and do) present themselves as openly opportunistic. The same does not apply on the left, when understood as centred around ideals, as those ideals start from honesty, the common good and public service. I think it is disingenuous to entirely buy the view that electors voted for (right-wing) liars (AKA populists) because they don’t know about the lies. Granted, most would not be aware of how much they are being lied to, but they would still know that politicians lie. What matters is that you expect lies from people who create their persona around the model of the successful hustler (Berlusconi, Trump, BoJo, Farage, take your pick), and therefore forgiving them is automatic. The opposite is true for politicians who found their appeal on “honesty, the common good and public service”.
      The effect of this is that for traditional politicians, anyone from the left, but also Clegg or Cameron, opportunistic U-turns are extremely costly. For openly populistic players, less so. I still think there is a cost to be paid also for people like Boris, but it only applies to well after they reach positions of power. The power they hold can then be be used to further delay these costs significantly: that’s because the effect of policies is rarely seen directly on the personal level, allowing propaganda to hide them for much too long…
      Anyway, I think Labour people should be very aware of those asymmetries – failing to account for them is a mistake that keeps being repeated; it has been and will keep being equivalent to electoral suicide!

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