Dry your tears, progressives. Do politics in a different way, and you can start to make the desirable feasible

Covid and the climate emergency have created the demand for a new democratic consciousness—and with it a genuinely transformative politics

May 12, 2021
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A new progressive society needs electoral reform for a representative democracy. Photo: Paul Davey / Alamy Stock Photo

Notwithstanding the convulsive elections last week, this is already the most incredible moment, in good ways and bad. The pandemic casts both shadows and fresh light over very different possible futures. And it comes on top of two further seismic events: the age of the Anthropocene, where human activity dominates our environment, and the birth of the networked society and the global interconnectedness that comes with it. Any one of these three would herald a revolution in how we think and act. But taken together, as they must be, they combine to create prospects for change that are both extremely encouraging and awfully dispiriting. It is as if the Black Plague, the Ice Age and the Industrial Revolution are taking place at once. 

Let’s get the bad potential future out of the way. Many on the centre-left—those I call the “old progressives”—keep thinking that things can’t get any worse and just want everything to go back to “normal,” ie a pre-Brexit, pre-populist, pre-Johnson era. But this misses the many failings of tried and tired centrist politics to fundamentally challenge the free market excesses in which many current maladies are rooted. 

This supposed “golden age” that pivoted around the Clinton/Blair era was a third way delight for some, but sowed the seeds of its own downfall. Some things changed for the better, after the raw Reagan/Thatcher neoliberalism that came before, though nowhere near enough. The minimum wage could not match the desolation of the industrial wastelands and “education, education, education” couldn’t help people swim in the turbulent waters of a global economy. People gained neither the security nor the freedom they craved. Many were marginalised, some humiliated; change was something that was done to them. Nowhere near enough changed for the better. And so we saw the turn to populism—a harsh and simple politics that tells you who to hate and who to follow. 

When Joe Biden talked about “democracy prevailing” in his inauguration speech, what he should have said was that democracy was hanging on by its fingertips. Because the populist vultures are circling and waiting for another round of tired old progressive failures to strike. And in striking, their intent is not just another term in office and the chance to feather their nests and those of their friends, though no doubt they will. What they really want is to snuff out all hope that there are democratic, negotiated and collective solutions to the triple crisis we face. 

Theirs is an oxymoronic “chaos conservatism,” in which the shapeshifting spectres of distraction, destruction and disorder are revisited again and again to disorientate and demoralise the rest of us. Accusing them of sleaze simply points out the obvious to the electorate in a world in which all politicians are deeply mistrusted and judged by their authenticity. If Johnson et al are the “clowns who keep winning,” then what does that make old progressives who keep losing to them? 

Politicians on the right keep “getting away with it” because of their audacity, ambition and the fact that they have read the modern mercurial mood well. They are streets ahead of the old progressives in that they know the old centrist game is dead—that there is nothing anyone else wants to go back to. This lets them relentlessly kick over the traces and the institutions of that old democratic settlement—from a public media to higher education and an independent judiciary enforcing human rights. These institutions can be endlessly attacked because they, like the old progressives, fail to provide solutions to the growing pressures of the triple crisis. 

But the right is vulnerable too. They attack for one abiding reason: they fear the only other realistic alternative to populism, a much deeper democracy. Covid, and increasingly the climate emergency, twinned with new technology, have created both demand and supply for a new democratic consciousness that can unleash a new era of civility and creativity, locally and globally. The right know this and fear it. 

But to get there, progressives are going to have to give up on old technocratic conceits about them administering the good society to a grateful public. This paternalistic progressivism, a politics done to people, has had its day. It doesn’t mean that the state must not sometimes be big and powerful—Covid and climate proves that this is necessary in the form of not just vaccines and furloughs but also a meaningful green new deal, universal incomes and services. Predominately, though, we should be thinking not of state but networked power: power that must be dispersed and democratised by new progressives, if it is not to be centralised and ruthlessly controlled by the authoritarian right. 

No truly good society is going to be created from the top down. It will take participation, not paternalism. Because of its flat structure, open culture and the ability to share information and even services at near-zero marginal cost, the networked society ushers in the possibility of more egalitarian and democratic collaboration. But this possibility has to be fought for: anything in a world dominated by free markets will assume free-market features without the necessary countervailing forces, not least the global consciousness climate and Covid are giving rise to, and the democratic power of citizens unleashed by new networks. So this technology guarantees nothing, but—here’s the prize—it enables everything. 

Collective intelligence based on shared and instant knowledge, a world in which everyone can learn, connect and organise locally and globally, is within reach, and with it a genuinely transformative politics. For all the talent of the far right in using the internet, and all the need to regulate platforms in the public interest, by its very flat and open nature the networked society can tilt the playing field towards a more equal, democratic and sustainable world. After all, the progressive gamble must always be the belief that given the time, space and support, people will mostly do the “right” thing. 

So an age of humanity beckons. We can negotiate between all of us a fairer and more sustainable future that is also more innovative, creative and productive. Brazilian theorist Roberto Unger in particular has shown us how all of this can be won through the universalisation of the knowledge economy and the good jobs that come with it. 

Amid these overlapping crises, and at a fork in the road where one path leads to authoritarian populism, how do we mobilise the ideas and the forces necessary to ensure the progressive route is taken? Here, provisionally sketched, are the six key facets of the new transformative politics I think we need. 

1. A vision of a good society

We need to know what sort of society and life we want to move towards. What do we most value? What, and how much, will we work and consume in line with the demands of sustainability? What is a day in the life of a good society like? What are the trends, opportunities and threats we can spot—now, in our history, and elsewhere in the world—to recast the human experience in much better ways? In short, we need to describe the 21st-century purpose of progress. 

Instinctively it feels like a society of more time, creativity and care, of air we can breathe and wealth that is shared so everyone is secure and free. If this rough description is broadly desirable, then the only question—the one dealt with by the remaining five facets of new progressive politics —is how to make it feasible. 

2. A 21st-century societal operating system

Every era has a governance system—the overarching method by which society is predominantly run. For instance, Fordism, with its factory-like command and control, oversaw not just how goods like cars were produced in the mid-20th century, but how governments and public services were administered, and wars won. Then came competition, which deployed markets and choice as the predominant form of deciding and doing. Notice I say predominant, not exclusive. There is always a combination of governance systems at work, but one tends to define any era. In a networked society, some form of collaborative operating system will predominate. But how do the new bottom-up systems of participatory power, which we can already see emerging, work alongside the old systems of hierarchical power—primarily the state? The new progressives must answer how old power and new combine in ways that shape a more equal, sustainable and democratic future. 

3. A new political economy

Linked to this is the requirement for a strategic and all-encompassing approach that guides a very new economy. The post-war settlement was based around Keynesianism. Corporatism followed, then free markets and then supply-side reforms that deregulated the city but top-skimmed the profits to spend on social investments like education. Society and the planet needs something new. So what is to be the broad shape of the next economy, taking account of the triple crisis? How do progressives describe the purpose and then structure of the economy so that economic form follows social and human function? In the work of thinkers like Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato—and in the practice of B Corps, the new stream of enterprises that legally put planet, people and profit on an equal footingand many others—we can find the bones of this new settlement. We must bring an entrepreneurial state together with new forms of participatory enterprise for social and environmental purpose that are more productive than old-style free markets. In all this, we must embrace progressive enterprises as an essential part of the good society because they will, by necessity, help to make the world more equal, democratic and sustainable. 

4. A new democracy

Most of our democratic institutions are tired and out of date, propelling the rise of populism. Representative democracy needs to be updated (not least for Westminster, by proportional representation) and complemented with more participatory and localised forms of vote and voice. The aim must be to fashion an everyday democracy that is responsive, agile and meaningful—with the needs of tomorrow’s generations taken into account in today’s decisions. In addition, we need to create the critical infrastructure to support a deeper democracy: new public media, robust civil societies, rights and laws. And this new democracy must stretch from the very local to the very global—reconnecting power and politics at every turn, after neoliberalism sundered the two apart, on questions like tax, migration and labour rights. This of course is neither easy nor avoidable—and both Covid and climate are paving the way to greater global cooperation. 

5. An agent of change

Critically, a significant group of people need to be prepared to help make all this happen—to regard the prize of the good life and the good society to be big, urgent and seductive enough to put their shoulders to the wheel and make sacrifices for it. For over 150 years progressives have based their hopes on the working class as the agent of change. Work is still a critical factor in our lives and identities, but it is no longer the only one. For some decades it has been rivalled by our place in social reproduction as consumers in society. But that, too, is  starting to shift and decline in in salience, not least because of the empty and wasteful role consumption plays in the triple crisis. Progressives are going to have to reconceive a new agent of change from the embryonic “networked citizen,” as a new rising and universal class that sits with existing class identities. Not least because this is the only space where we can figure out how to transcend the damaging divisions between socially liberal and socially conservative parts of the progressive majority that exists in the UK and elsewhere. 

6. A new progressive politics

The final challenge is to realise that all this requires new political cultures and structures. A new progressive politics must be open and plural, recognising that means always shape ends—that political action must be “the change it wishes to see in the world.” We must make a virtue of combining different approaches and perspectives, as opposed to binary either/or decisions. This both/and politics would combine new and old forms of power, hierarchical institutions and horizontal networks, our desire for freedom and need for security, the push of modernity and the pull of conservation—all in novel ways. Transformative change will emerge from an ecosystem of parties and movements, in which the art of extreme collaboration is the essential practice. As life is increasingly defined by spontaneity over solidity, our politics needs to adapt to this liquid modern world. This is turn demands new forms of humble and bold leadership—the traits and cultures that can work in the complex and negotiated spaces we now operate in. Here in the UK, the starting point—not the end point—is the creation of a Progressive Alliance capable of kick-starting the new political journey. 

Old progressive politics is stuck on a “rinse and repeat” cycle of at best diminishing returns, at worst abject failure that opens the door to ever more strident authoritarian populism. Occasional and increasingly sporadic periods of weak Labour government are insufficient to meet the crises and opportunities at hand. It is time for new progressives to offer a politics that is transformative in terms of ends and means, or we will suffer a very different, regressive future.