Rise of Right-Wing Populism: A Manifesto for the Moderate Left

Populists take advantage of the real pain of inequality and the economic disruptions of new technology and globalization. Sympathetic and angry, they promise quick fixes and resist compromise. Such “demagogues thrive when the institutions of democracy are hollowed out,” argues economist Pranab Bardhan, and he offers recommendations for citizens whose politics lean left of center. Trade unions once served as a bulwark against xenophobia and sectarianism and could do more to unite informal workers, freelancers and independent contractors around specific policies. Activists must participate in local politics and create a new sense of community and belonging, and he urges investment in public infrastructure at all levels and the social safety net including a universal income. Bardhan concludes, “Thus the left and liberals, allied with all pro-democratic and decentralized citizens and labor movements … can provide formidable opposition to the raging forces of populism that are currently damaging our economies and democratic polities.” – YaleGlobal

Rise of Right-Wing Populism: A Manifesto for the Moderate Left

An economist offers a path forward for liberals to respond to rising right-wing anger and populism
Pranab Bardhan
Thursday, September 15, 2016

The best lack all conviction? Workers worried about inequality, globalization and automation must organize around reforms; union members protest in Miami, top, and Bangladeshi garment workers band together to improve workplace standards

BERKELEY: Years ago, in one of my first conversations with colleague Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, a pioneer development economist at MIT, he asked about the nature of my politics. I said, “left of center.” He put his hand on his chest and said “my heart too is slightly to the left of center.” Today all over the world hearts to the left of center are pounding anxiously as signs of right-wing populism and nativism rage ominously all around – not just in Trump’s America and post-Brexit Britain, but in France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Russia, India, the Philippines and so on. Should the moderate left of center despair or cower?

While the right-wing is frothing in the mouth “full of passionate intensity,” as suggested by W.B. Yeats in his 1919 poem, the traditional left and their age-worn rhetoric and recipes “lack all conviction.” Here is an attempt to put together a few ideas of possible directions to take, some old, some new, some primarily for developing countries but some relevant to rich countries as well.

The prevailing mood among the disaffected and the displaced under the shadow of new technology and globalization is that of anger against remote, insensitive, centralized elites. Of course, it is interesting to note that the disaffected are led by elite affluent demagogues, like Trump, a hereditary real estate mogul in the United States, and elite conservatives in the United Kingdom, including Farage, a rich commodities trader, and Johnson and Gove of posh Oxford Union background. In this context one cannot underestimate the importance of decentralization and the role of elected local bodies. But elected bodies are sometimes captured by local nativists. Again interestingly, in both the US and the UK anti-immigrant resentment is sometimes more apparent in districts where the proportion of immigrants is relatively low.

Trade unions and their local branches once played an active role in overcoming and superseding narrow sectarian differences among workers. In the union-bashing culture of recent decades, the successful portraying of unions by business interests and media as a narrow special-interest group has weakened this traditional bulwark against xenophobia and sectarianism. Unions now represent a dwindling proportion of workers, though in some countries service-sector workers are organizing.

In poor countries the major failure of the trade unions is in their failure to organize the vast masses of informal workers and hence they lack influence among the latter in resisting sectarian and revanchist forces. In rich countries the growing numbers of freelancers and independent contractors in the so-called gig economy are like the informal workers of poor countries, largely outside the organized labor movement. Unions everywhere should also take the lead in demanding more decentralization inside the firm; going beyond the standard demands for wage increases or job security, they should pay more attention to the internal organization of the firm and demand a move toward at least some worker participation in management, thus giving the workers some voice in the firm’s decisions to outsource and relocate.

In general, the left and the liberals must be much more active in local politics in resisting sectarian capture of local bodies. They must organize both formal and informal workers, and heighten the sense of belonging anchored to local neighborhoods and workplaces. Many, disoriented with fast-paced changes, miss that sense of belonging these days and find themselves drawn toward nativist and ultra-nationalist frenzy. The activists should also give more energy to local community-building projects where immigrants and minorities are invited to participate and contribute, focus on the multidimensional aspects of identity for everyone in the community, and encourage community centers to celebrate all cultural occasions for different communities, while not letting multiculturalism take precedence over some basic universal liberal values. In developing countries, against the crass centralizing tendencies of the likes of Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan or India’s Modi, the left must forsake its own statist inclinations and side with pluralism, community-level development and devolution of power.

The left everywhere, of course, often share the anti-globalization anxieties of the older unskilled workers in the factories and dockyards. In this many of them are in effect asking to turn the clock back, instead of concentrating on sustained ways of smoothing the shock, readjusting and regrouping. Many are also out of tune with large numbers of aspiring youth in the growing globalized manufacturing and service sectors of China, India, Indonesia, Mexico or the Philippines, not to speak of the young women in the thriving garment export industries of Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia or the small-scale horticulture exporters from Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya and Ethiopia.

The focus has to be on how to find a niche in the ever-changing global value chain while at the same time resisting the corporate capture of the negotiation process in global trade agreements, how to devise vocational training programs to adapt to the changing demands for skills and how to design a viable social-transfer scheme to cushion those who lose out in the economic churning that innovations and market integration inevitably bring about. In this context both the left and liberals should give serious thought to the old idea of a universal basic income. In poor countries this would be great relief for the millions of workers in back-breaking oppressive work. For women everywhere basic income can be a much-needed boost to their financial autonomy. In rich countries it can provide some assurance for the dreaded future when robots may replace workers in many sectors. Such an income would not enable people to abandon work and should not substitute for public education and health care.

With a global slowdown, depressed effective demand and discouraged private investors, the left and liberals should push their agenda of public investment – not just big infrastructure building like highways and bridges but also a whole array of job-creating small-scale public works planned and deployed at the community level – of the kind likely to pump-prime private investment. In new avenues like green technology and renewable energy, the market and technological uncertainties are often too daunting for private investors, unless public investment and initiative show the way and bear the initial risks. In many developing countries, rising land values and booming real estate sectors, along with other rent-thick sectors, hold a considerable scope for capital gains and wealth taxation, which can be mobilized to fund some of this public investment.

Finally, demagogues thrive when the institutions of democracy are hollowed out. The capture of the electoral and legislative process has paved the way for some forms of plutocracy in rich countries. In several developing-country democracies, the police and the bureaucracy are under the thumb of the elected semi-authoritarians who along with their foot-soldiers regularly trample upon basic human rights. The left should ally with the liberals and rights activists in agitating against all forms of human rights abuses and accountability failures. They must pursue electoral reforms, the most important of which is regulating campaign finance, much of it currently from illicit or undocumented sources, and administrative reforms aimed at restoring the autonomy of civil service and independence of regulatory bodies and the judiciary.

Thus the left and liberals, allied with all pro-democratic and decentralized citizens and labor movements – engaged with pro-global forces up to some moderate limits and active in programs of public investment in infrastructure and green technology – can provide formidable opposition to the raging forces of populism that are currently damaging our economies and democratic polities. 


Pranab Bardhan is an economist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are Globalization, Democracy and Corruption: An Indian Perspective and Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic Rise of China and India.

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