Interview with Richard Sandbrook on Reinventing the Left

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Ali Burak Guven (ABG): What was your motivation for writing Reinventing the Left?

To be honest, I never set out to write such an ambitious book. I originally conceived the project as a critique of neoliberal development doctrine. But one thing led to another, and my inclination to move beyond critique to the central question of “what might be done” came to the fore. This, to my mind, raised the issue of the viability and promise of the democratic left.

All my books since 1982 have dealt with the possibilities for progressive change, as well as an explanation of “what is.” Social scientists, especially in North America, are hesitant to tackle the former issue for fear that, to do so, would lead to unscientific speculation and the illegitimate imposition of the author’s values. But I think that scholars who have spent much of their lives studying a particular region or issue have an obligation to engage possibilities as well as probabilities, particularly in light of the immense challenges we face in the 21st century. The important thing is to be upfront about one’s values and retain an openness to conflicting viewpoints.

ABG: You start from the observation that “the moral and intellectual leadership of the Left seems to have shifted south from its European birthplace” (p. 4). What explains this trend? Should we ascribe it to successes of political institutionalisation and social movements in the South or to failures of the Left in the North?

Circumstances have recently favoured the left in Latin America, though not in Europe. To assert this contention is not to discount the importance of inventive leadership in various countries where the left has come to power in Latin America. It is merely to acknowledge that, if people make history, it is not in circumstances of their own choosing.

In retrospect, we can say that the European left has faltered during the past three decades, but, to be fair, it was, during those decades, very unclear how social-democratic parties should have responded to the exigencies they faced. The challenges included stagflation in the 1970s and the ineffectiveness of Keynesian policies in pulling economies out of their malaise, the consequent revival and rise to dominance of neoliberalism, and the inadequacies of the top-down, technocratic, and statist versions of social democracy that prevailed into the 1980s. Should the social-democratic parties stick with this top-down approach, which after all had brought many social benefits before running into trouble in the 1970s and 1980s, or should they strike out in a new direction by deepening democracy via participatory institutions and a more bottom-up approach? To what extent, if any, should social-democratic governments adopt neoliberal policies, and how do these policy reforms affect the egalitarian aims of social democrats? These questions are not easily answered.

In Latin America, certain contingencies favoured the democratic left in the early 2000s. In some countries, #socialist and social-democratic parties gained prestige by being part of the democracy movement that ousted unpopular authoritarian regimes. Then, the faltering of extensive neoliberal reform programs throughout the continent in the 1990s led to public disillusionment, which allowed leftist parties to appeal to electorates on an anti-neoliberal platform. Finally, the commodity boom that began in 2002-2003 and continued, with an interruption in 2009, until about 2012 provided an impetus to the left. It was possible for social-democratic and left-populist governments to implement some redistributive programs without squeezing the wealthy too much. The end of the commodity boom meant that redistribution from growth was no longer possible, thus diminishing the leeway for heterodox policies.

Although some circumstances were favourable, it is still remarkable that in #Brazil, for example, Lula da Silva could win the presidency and institute egalitarian policies in a country so steeply stratified and with such a powerful business class. The combination of macro-economic orthodoxy with redistributive policies and a directive state, which led to the rapid abolition of extreme poverty, a reduction in poverty and a diminution of income inequality, was a major achievement.

ABG: Your analytical framework builds primarily on the work of Karl Polanyi. How does a Polanyi-inspired perspective on left movements differ from one that follows from a conventional Marxist strand?

I would emphasize three important differences between an analysis inspired by Marx and one inspired by Polanyi, though both thinkers would be critical of capitalism and economic liberalism. First, Polanyi broke with the materialist bent of Marxism. Marx began with an exploration of the material foundations of social life. Classes formed on the basis of economic interests, determined by one’s relationship to the means of production and exchange. Polanyi, who was attracted to Marxism in his early and middle years, broke with Marxism partly on the grounds that people, he believed, were not motivated solely by economic interests. In particular, he argued that, for much of humanity’s existence, and still in many parts of the world in his day, social obligation was the major principle of integrating economy with society. What motivated people was not principally self-interest but rather the social standing that flows from the exemplary fulfilment of one’s social obligations. Of the three historical principles of social integration, two – reciprocity and redistribution – depended up obligation (whether religious or otherwise), and only one – market exchange – rested on the motivation of self-interest or fear of destitution. Thus, Polanyi understood the #counter-movement to be composed of many groups other than classes, including for example religious movements, conservationists and feminists.

A second important difference arises from the two theorists’ understanding of the basic contradiction of capitalism. Both Marx and Polanyi adopted a historical-holistic approach, and both understood change in dialectical terms as emerging out of antinomies. Marx identified the basic contradiction at the point of production. For him, the production process inevitably involved #exploitation inasmuch as value derives from labour yet capitalists expropriated a part of this value for their own use. Ultimately, in capitalism, this basic contradiction is manifest in the struggle between the proletariat and its allies, on one side, and capitalists and their allies, on the other. Polanyi, in contrast, understood the contradiction in more general societal terms. On the one hand, a liberal movement pushes the state to commodify labour, land and money (the “fictitious commodities”) in pursuit of profits. But this movement, animated by the utopian ideal of a self-regulating market, wreaks ever more extensive damage to nature and the fabric of society. The closer a society approaches the utopian ideal, the more extensive the devastation. Consequently, a societal counter-movement spontaneously arises to protest the destructiveness of market forces, and to pressure the state to rein in or eliminate markets. Hence, the contradiction, for Polanyi, pits economy against society: the clash between #commodification to increase profits via free markets, and #de-commodification to protect society and nature. But why should we focus on commodification/de-commodification as the fundamental contradiction?

For two reasons. First, commodification is a broader concept than its alternatives, such as #exploitation in the Marxist lexicon. Indeed, commodification encompasses exploitation. As Marxist scholars Benjamin Selwyn & Satoshi Miyamura note in a recent critique of Polanyian notions, “commodification of labor and its exploitation under capitalism were, and are, two sides of the same process.” Secondly, the progressive extension of commercialization or commodification is the essence of capitalist expansion. It involves the displacement of institutions of reciprocity and redistribution, in Polanyi’s terms, by market-based contractual exchange. Wolfgang Streeck’s influential institutionalist approach to the study of capitalism focuses on the “spatial spread” of markets, together with “their deepening or intensification, as more and more social spheres and an increasing range of ‘necessaries of life’ (Adam Smith) become commodified.” A large part of what David Harvey refers to as “accumulation by dispossession” is the commodification of hitherto public assets, public utilities, social provision (state pensions, education, health care, social housing), warfare, publicly-held intellectual property, the global environmental commons, culture (as cultural forms are commercialized to attract tourists) and public land (forests, lakes, ski resorts and mines within national parks). Commodification has, in fact, spread to encompass the entire world. As communist and socialist systems collapsed or accommodated capitalism, and as market relations have incorporated even the most remote outposts of what we once called the Third World, the world’s entire population has been drawn into market societies where virtually everything is for sale. The commodification-decommodification contradiction is both generic and significant.

A third difference relates to outcomes. Polanyi’s double movement, as generally used, is more open-ended in terms of outcomes than dominant versions of Marxist class struggle. Marxists resist the idea of varieties of capitalism, claiming the differences between, for instance, neoliberal capitalism and welfare-state capitalism are superficial, with the latter merely presenting a more humane face to a fundamentally exploitative system. The only real alternative to capitalism is socialism. Those working in the Polanyi tradition eschew a “stage-theory” of world history, where a new system necessarily emerges out of an old one. Polanyi did not understand reciprocity and redistribution as more primitive principles of integration that would inevitably give way to market exchange and socialism. And within capitalism, the outcomes of the double movement are various, shaped by a number of structural and contingent conditions in each particular case. Outcomes potentially include deadlock and socio-economic chaos, a fascist reaction, a socialist transformation or a social accord. Outcomes, moreover, are usually only provisional because a shift in the balance of political forces and ideological currents, technological change, and economic performance will reignite the struggle between the forces of commodification and de-commodification. It is true that the younger Polanyi took the “hard” position that only a socialist transformation could resolve the crisis arising from double movement. But, following the publication of The Great Transformation in 1944, a “soft” Polanyian position emerged that a partial re-embedding of economy in society was both possible and desirable, albeit temporary. I find this open-endedness attractive, together with Polanyi’s emphasis on the importance of political imagination in the forging of freer societies.

ABG: The book is particularly suspicious of social liberalism (Third Way). Are there factors that make this policy path especially unviable in developing countries?

If I convey the impression that I am suspicious of social liberalism or believe that it is unviable in developing countries, I have misled readers. As I mention in the book, social liberalism or the “third way’ is the left-wing of the right, just as moderate social democracy is the right-wing of the left. There are, in other words, varieties of neoliberalism that are more authoritarian and less egalitarian than social liberalism. The latter is congruent with the Post-Washington Consensus promoted by the World Bank and others when the inadequacies of the bare-knuckled WashingtonConsensus became increasingly evident in the 1990s. It involves institutional change in addition to getting the prices right, particularly institutions that improve administration, upgrade the judicial and policing system, advance democratic accountability, reform the banking sector and strengthen targeted safety nets and educational programs. Relatively speaking, these policy and institutional shifts represent an improvement over earlier strategies.

My main point is that social liberalism lacks the boldness of the left. Moderate social democrats differ from social liberals in advocating phased universalism in essential services and transfers rather than targeting, in offering more comprehensive and generous social protections and redistribution (again, as phased in over time), and in being concerned to develop participatory institutions beyond those associated with liberal democracy. When the #ANC leadership in #SouthAfrica opted for the third way in the 1990s, it surrendered an important historical possibility. Any suspicion I harbour toward the third way in the global south derives from this view that historical possibilities for progressive change failed to be seized.

ABG: You cast a wide comparative net that includes cases as diverse as Brazil and Mauritius, and Kerala, Venezuela and Tanzania. Of all these experiments, which would you consider the most successful in reflecting the aims and spirit of the Left?

Clearly, the degree of success achieved by a particular leftist experiment can only be assessed in relation to the obstacles that a progressive party has had to surmount in advancing its program. From this viewpoint, I am most impressed by the Brazilian experience, especially in the decade following 2003. I select this case notwithstanding the political difficulties that the Workers’ Party administration has faced since 2013 owing to a corruption scandal, an economic slow-down and periodic mass demonstrations. Indeed, Congress ultimately dismissed President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, while the Senate decided on an impeachment resolution.  Yet it is unrealistic to expect an uninterrupted march to a leftist utopia. “Two steps forward, one step back,” is by far the more probable scenario. And the fact is that the Lula da Silva and Rousseff administrations during the decade in question eliminated extreme poverty, reduced deprivations on the part of the poor and near-poor substantially, and lessened income inequality with a major shift of resources to the bottom quintile of the population. These shifts occurred in a country that, for centuries, had registered exceptionally high levels of inequality underpinned by a power structure that facilitated the inter-generational transmission of class privilege.

Brazil since the early 2000s has pursued a development path that I typify as moderate social democratic. Consider what this path entails. This moderate strategy is progressive in that it avoids populism and the full commodification of labor, land and money, while dealing somewhat effectively with the challenges of poverty and inequality in the context of restrictive neoliberal globalization. Proponents have found a way, though only provisionally of course, to balance the imperatives of redistribution/equity and accumulation/efficiency within a capitalist economy.

In Brazil, governments have achieved this feat by marrying elements of macroeconomic orthodoxy to a pro-active state, incremental social citizenship and modest participatory institutions. On the one hand, the government attunes monetary and fiscal policy to keeping inflation low and the external debt minimal, and pursues a fairly open economy through trade liberalization and acceptance of foreign investment. To this extent the strategy accords with the Washington Consensus. On the other hand, and contrary to the Washington Consensus, governments promote redistribution from growth via a directive #statedevelopmentalism, with the aim of augmenting state revenues, “good” jobs and significantly higher minimum wages. Expanded public revenues and new taxes are used, among other things, to extend social citizenship by means of (usually phased in) universal social protections, targeted cash transfers (especially the famous Bolsa Família) and accessible public services such as education and health care. The party also promises to bolster democratic participation, both as an end in itself and as a means of buttressing the state’s focus on reducing poverty and inequality. Anxious, however, to allay populist pressures that would undercut their delicate class compromises and pragmatic alliances in the legislature, the leftist governments have expanded mainly consultations at the national level and consign participatory decision-making to the local level where its allies hold power. Hence, the path followed is neither fully neoliberal nor fully consistent with traditional notions of progressive politics.

Clearly, the moderate social-democratic strategy is highly complex, requiring a deft touch. It is difficult for a social-democratic government to escape Brazil’s long history of political corruption, clientelistic politics and class power. Private media empires dwell on every supposed deficiency of the government to stir up popular opposition. The #Workers’Party holds a minority of legislative seats, thus requiring the government to make dubious concessions or payments to opportunistic minor parties to pass key legislation. All parties, including the Workers’ Party, need campaign funds to fight elections, but that usually means cultivating private firms and wealthy individuals. It is challenging, to say the least, to make the rapid progress that people expect.

Finally, moderate social democrats may succeed in balancing conflicting imperatives only as long as growth continues. The commodity boom through much of the period 2003-13 served the left well. But when growth recedes, the leadership loses its ability to promote both accumulation and redistribution (or, rather, redistribution from accumulation). The choices may then become stark: to seize the accumulation imperative in reassuring investors, thus reverting to social liberalism, or to embrace asset as well as income redistribution, thus effectively moving to class confrontation. In light of the political realities, the latter path in Brazil would prove disastrous for the left.

“Two steps forward, one step back,” is probably the only viable leftist option in these circumstances. Those on the left may find this conclusion dispiriting, but what is the viable alternative?

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