How times change

How times change

As someone who grew up in the ’90s, one of the things I find most surreal about current political debates is the left’s whole-hearted embrace of global capitalism.

I was a teenager in the 90s and a student in the early 2000s. I remember reading about the ‘Battle of Seattle’ anti-WTO protests, the Make Poverty history campaign about debt forgiveness and learning in geography about the plight of Vietnamese coffee growers (caused by, so we were taught, the World Bank). For the left at that point, the IMF, World Bank and WTO were an unholy trinity and there were regular campaigns against multinatiomal corporations, whether that was Monsanto, big pharma or Nestle.

Now, I was never a lefty, even as a teenager, so I never really bought into all this, or got involved in any of the campaigns. But it was pretty pervasive, just like concern over climate change is today. And the things people were worried about are nearly all still happening.

What’s so weird about the Brexit/Trump era is the way the left has (largely) swung to embrace these former enemies. I regularly see posts and articles from left-leaning people talking up the virtues of multilateral trade agreements and global IP arrangements, or expressing concern about the impact of current events on the supply chain of multi-national corporations. Christine Largarde of the IMF is quoted with the uncritical approval that used to be given to Desmond Tutu. This week I even saw a number of staunch left-wingers sharing a post worrying about whether or not the UK could stay in the Global Procurement Agreement, an obscure piece of trade legislation that literally takes power from national governments and hands it to multinational companies.

This isn’t meant to be just a snark. I mean, it is pointing out an inconsistency in the positions of those I generally disagree with, but I’m sure my side has done similar things.

What I find more fascinating about it is the extent to which people adopt the positions of their ‘tribe’ and, even more so, how that perceived tribe is defined less by what we’re for, than by what we’re against. That’s not how we’d like to think we are, but it often is.

4 thoughts on “How times change

  1. Your observation is consistent with the thesis that the Overton window of acceptable policies has shifted to the right. Labour now occupies a space not dissimilar from Thatcher’s Conservative government and the Conservatives themselves have moved to a more extreme position.

    1. I don’t think Thatcher was known for wanting to nationalise the railways and championing trade unions. More seriously, I can accept that Corbyn is not ‘extreme’, but he seems clearly in a ’70s Labour position and not at all like Thatcher.

      I’ve written before that I don’t think it’s correct to say that the Overton window has moved to the right – it’s more complex than that.

      My sense of this change is that it’s less caused by a shift in the Overton Window, but rather by the rise of a new axis (the open/closed, cultural left axis). In the new left, the international economic institutions are no longer the main opponents, just as blue collar America, once the stalwarts of the union movement, are now a ‘basket of deplorables’.

  2. I’d like to think more about this, but one of my struggles with the Labour party is that it isn’t an “-ism” party. The Conservative Party has conservatism, and the Liberal Democrats have liberalism, whereas the Labour party have “for the benefit of the working people”. But if you asked a Conservative supporter what was best for the working people, they would answer conservatism, and a Liberal supporter would answer liberalism. But a Labour supporter doesn’t have more to answer than Labour. Obviously there is socialism, but this isn’t something Labour clearly stands for, at least not in a full-throated way. But without a defining ideology, there is no common framework on which to base one’s beliefs, and so they are liable to change substantially over time.

    I don’t want to imply that this problem is unique to Labour or to centre-left politics, but it seems that there is a particular problem of identity and ideology on the centre-left that doesn’t have a clear anchor (as highlighted by the Clause 4 debate – also particularly as even the definitions of the words that Labour could cling to – such as socialism, liberalism, or progressive-ism – are up for debate).

    1. I found this a really interesting comment, because I often see those on the right worrying about what does conservativism stand for, and worrying that being a broad church means there’s nothing foundational. It’s reassuring to see that the left worries about this too!

      I’ve always seen that, until Tony Blair, Labour stood pretty unabashedly for socialism. Is your perception different?

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