We Need a Left Politics That Promises to Protect Average People

Economic crises, climate change, and a pandemic have given people much to fear. While the Right promises security for a few at the expense of the many, socialists need a compelling vision of how protection from the market's depravities can be extended to all.

The challenge for the Left is how to develop a socialism that protects average people against the manifold threats on the horizon. (Josh Barwick / Unsplash)

Each political era has its own characteristic jargon, the words that embody the spirit of the times. In the heyday of neoliberalism, widespread optimism in “free markets,” was accompanied by a familiar jargon of “opportunity,” “meritocracy,” “entrepreneurialism,” and “openness.” These and similar terms would be frequently uttered by both center-right and center-left politicians, projecting an image of a better, freer future.

The commonality of terms was not just a linguistic quirk. It pointed to a solid bipartisan consensus, a set of shared assumptions about where society stood and where it was going. In the “new times,” the power of private initiative had to be unleashed, meddlesome state intervention should be limited, smooth market operations would take priority, and individuals’ right of choice had to come before any other consideration. Mainstream left and right positions accepted this supremacy of the market; their difference consisted in the diverging ways they proposed to manage it.

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 emergency, this consensus is crumbling. Neoliberalism is caught in a crisis that is not merely political, but also epistemological: it can no longer explain reality. Much as in the 1970s Keynesian economists were short on solutions for stagflation, now neoliberal economists find their theories inadequate to an economic reality condition by the implosion of neoliberal globalization and the disruption of its supply chains.

The 2008 financial crisis had already shattered some of neoliberalism’s fundamental premises. The pious dream of a self-regulated market, and the condemnation of the state as wasteful, was demonstrated to be patently false, though it was citizens who had to fit the bill for the greed of corporations and the rich. The long stagnation of the 2010s showed that cutting public spending did not unleash the spirit of enterprise but only sunk countries ever deeper into decline.

The coronavirus crisis has only compounded these lessons. It has been a reminder of how much citizens’ livelihood — beginning with health — depends on the state, and what happens when public services are cut to the bone. Furthermore, it has contributed to a change in public attitudes vis-à-vis the market and the state. As a recent Gallup poll shows, in the United States a majority of people now think that the state rather than the market should step in to solve more problems.

Once looked at with disdain, the state is now invoked to protect against the manifold threats on the horizon. The challenge for the Left is how to develop a socialism that responds to this; that is, how to build a socialism that protects.

Reclaiming Protection

Terms like protection are ubiquitous in contemporary political discourse. During the pandemic the most repeated phrase was “protect yourself and protect others.” Masks and professional protective equipment (PPE) came to be understood as a public good. Furthermore, various emergency economic measures such as the stimulus checks signed by Trump and Biden, and furlough programs for workers threatened by unemployment were presented as a means to protect people from the economic insecurity ushered in by the COVID emergency.

Climate change, a threat that overshadows the immediate effect of the pandemic, is similarly presented as an evil against which people have to be protected. Extreme weather events, such as floods, heat waves, and droughts are monsters knocking at our doors. To protect ourselves from these dangers, we’ll need not just to decarbonize the economy but also to implement a variety of protective measures like building coastal walls against rising sea levels, reinforcing transport infrastructure against climate damage, and ensuring cities are covered by tree canopies to guarantee a more livable microclimate.

When we try to get to grips with this urgency of protection, however, we find ourselves in unfamiliar terrain. Protection is a term that sounds somewhat alien to those who have come of age before the great crises of the early twenty-first century. During the period of triumphant neoliberalism, state protection — and in particular social protection and trade protectionism — was decried as paternalistic and an obstacle to freedom and innovation. It was assumed that these collective protections had become an impediment against the improvement of social conditions. Yet, in so doing, an old lesson of political philosophy was overlooked: politics always revolves around protection.

Perhaps, this teaching is most closely associated with the work of Thomas Hobbes, the famous theorist of Leviathan who argued that security and protection were “the very essence of Government.” Protection for Hobbes was the public good at stake in the social contract. People would pledge their obedience to the sovereign in exchange for protection, be it from other citizens, foreign powers, from natural disasters, or threats of any kind.

In fact Hobbes was only reiterating an idea of government that harked back to the ancients. In Plato’s Republic, the fountainhead of political thought in Western civilization, rulers are called “guardians” — fýlakes in ancient Greek, a term incidentally also used by Aristotle in Politics. This is because, as implied by the root fýlasso — to watch, guard, protect, defend, but also to maintain, preserve, cherish — the role of political leaders is first of all “preservation” and “maintenance” of the polity.

For Plato, the supreme duty of those in power is to be “protective of the city,” because the continued existence of the city is predicated on its ability to withstand dangers and preserve the health of its citizens. In the words of Cicero in De Legibus, a treatise modeled after Plato’s Laws, salus populi suprema lex esto: the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.

These time-honored observations about the primacy of protection have acquired new relevance in present social conditions. In times of growing systemic vulnerability, the warnings of the likes of Plato and Hobbes, have once again a familiar ring.

The recent return of the interventionist state — witnessed on so many levels, from health policy to infrastructure investment — projects two main narratives of protection, the first regressive, the second progressive. While both narratives acknowledge that citizens are right to be afraid and demand security, they fundamentally disagree on who should be protected and from what.

I Will Protect You

The Right’s narrative of protection is perhaps the most familiar to contemporary readers as it has been dominant since the late 2010s. Its discourse identifies a number of threats, key among them migrants. Images of long lines of refugees at the border — like that featured in the infamous “Breaking Point” poster used by Nigel Farage during the 2016 Brexit campaign — or of immigrants disembarking from boats, have been used to invoke a primordial fears of invasion and “substitution.” The answer, according to this narrative, is resorting to law and order security delivered at the point of a gun or a truncheon.

This promise of communitarian protection is accompanied by a promise of private protection: that is, to protect the property and wealth of the rich and corporations against the threat posed by the growing demands for redistribution. At a time when growth is stagnant, redistribution becomes a zero-sum game and redistributive demands are bound to concentrate on the accumulated wealth in the hands of the very few. This is the context of the Senate’s resistance to Biden’s proposed new corporate tax hikes. It was only to be expected that that the rich would entrench themselves and conduct a war of position to defend their wealth. The Right’s protectionist discourse caters exactly for that.

Right-wing communitarianism and social Darwinism are brought together in a discourse in which defense of the homeland is equated with defense of the home, and of one’s property, as well as defense of one’s own body against any collective injunction, as seen in anti-vaccination protests. This is a vision of protection that seems to have little to do with the one advocated by the likes of Plato or Hobbes. While adopting a communitarian language it is often more of a protection from the community, rather than a protection by the community.

This conservative protectionism is, however, not the only narrative of protection to have recently emerged. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Left has also put forward a strong argument for protection. For the contemporary left, protection means the promise of mending social safety nets, providing steady jobs, and guaranteeing economic security to people whose livelihoods have been battered by growing precarity and fierce international competition.

We have seen this borne out in the United States, where Bernie Sanders denounced economic globalization and called for international trade to be restrained. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has often proclaimed that her duty is to safeguard the lives of Americans, not the interests of corporations. Similarly over the course of the pandemic, Pablo Iglesias and other leftists in Spain have tried to articulate an alternative discourse of protection focused on guaranteeing social security and social rights.

In fact, this vision of social security is not altogether new. It is implicit in the language used during the twentieth century to define different elements of the welfare state. From “social safety nets” to “social protection” and “social security,” the discourse of the welfare state has been organized around the promise to protect people from misery and uncertainty.

Similarly, trade unions — the most important institution of the working class — have often been described as a “defense organization,” shielding their members against the rapacity of entrepreneurs. Precisely at a time when many of the elements of social security that were guaranteed by the welfare state have been called into question, demands for protection against economic hardship are acquiring a renewed salience.

The Self-Protection of Society

The obvious reference point for understanding this politics of economic protection is the work of the Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi, and in particular his discussion of the dialectic of inhabitation and improvement. For Polanyi, capitalism is a destabilizing force that upsets society’s balance. Its promise of improvement is caught up in a fight to the death with society’s struggle for “habitation.”

“Improvement” refers to capitalism’s drive to optimize production. It emphasizes technological innovation to attain higher levels of productivity and increased returns on investment. “Habitation,” by contrast, refers to society’s legitimate desire to enjoy some degree of stability and security — its fundamental instinct is toward self-preservation.

This does not mean that economic activities and the market — which Polanyi carefully distinguishes from capitalism proper — are antisocial by nature. Rather, capitalism is a specific type of economy and property arrangement that revolves around a dis-embedding of the economy from society. In previous eras, economic activities were closely regimented by social relations and customs, as observed by many “moral economists”, including R. H. Tawney and E. P. Thompson, who advocated an economy based on mutuality and moral norms of fairness and justice.

Medieval towns enforced strong protectionist measures through the creation of guilds and corporations that controlled access to the labor market. Meanwhile “mobile capital” was suspected of threatening “to disintegrate the institutions of the town.” Modern capitalism has, by and large, destroyed the social institutions that guaranteed social control over the economy, turning the market into a destructive force. In the capitalist world of global finance and international trade, land, money, and labor have become mere commodities, and this creates a feeling that Polanyi names as “exposure.”

Polanyi provides various examples of this exposure, including “the exploitation of the physical strength of the worker, the destruction of family life, the devastation of neighbourhoods, the denudation of forests, the pollution of rivers, the deterioration of craft standards, the disruption of folkways and the general degradation of existence, including housing and arts.”

These tendencies become most apparent at moments of crisis, when people’s livelihoods are turned upside down. In response to this stress, societies have often exhibited practices of economic protection, which Polanyi discusses in Part II of The Great Transformation — suggestively titled “Self-Protection of Society.”

For Polanyi, the “principle of social protection” aims at “the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market.” He uses a number of related terms for protection: conservation, shelter, reaction, defense, and attenuation — terms that seem eerily relevant to contemporary and future challenges.

This phraseology conjures the idea of society as a reactive and defensive structure, which springs into action when subject to threats, whether of mass unemployment or pandemic disease. For Polanyi, the social instinct for protection is not necessarily an irrational or a conservative one, as liberals would have it. Rather, it proceeds from the desire to reestablish a measure of equilibrium and stability without which society cannot thrive.

Although the term originates in the nationalist political economy of Friedrich List, economic protectionism cannot be reduced to a right-wing position. In fact, in his 1934 essay “The Fascist Virus,” Polanyi contrasts fascism’s totalitarian politics of protection with the various “protective interventions on the part of society as a whole” that have often been pursued by trade unions and socialist movements. These include “factory laws, social insurance, municipal socialism, trade union activities and practices,” all of which have been utilized in the attempt to reinsert social control and solidarity into the economy, and were “socially necessary in order to prevent the destruction of the human substance through the blind action of the automatism of the market.”

Fighting for Social Security

These days, people have all too many reasons to fear for their future. This is particularly the case for workers employed in manufacturing in peripheral areas that have suffered disinvestment and have borne the brunt of globalization and growing international competition. As Thomas Piketty has argued, if these workers are increasingly voting for the Right it is precisely because they feel the Left has stopped defending their interests, accepting global market integration as an inevitability.

To reconnect with those working-class voters who have turned to the Right, and to build an electoral coalition responding to the needs of workers, the Left needs to develop a politics of protection that addresses the real reasons behind the popular feeling of insecurity.

A protective socialism is very different from a “conservative socialism,” the proposal put forward by renegade socialists who have become full on nationalists. According to this view, reconnecting with the working class means reneging on the Left’s progressive cultural values. Given that it is assumed that workers are lurching to the Right because they are culturally conservative, it is proposed that by becoming culturally conservative the Left can recuperate these voters.

Yet, this analysis overlooks the fact that the contemporary feeling of exposure and insecurity is not cultural but strongly economic in character. People’s demand for protection is not motivated so much by fear of ethnic pollution as by a desire to denounce the social dissolution caused by the ravages of capitalism. If the Right is often able to intercept these angsts it is because the Left does not have a discourse and platform capable of responding to them on their same terrain.

A corollary of this proposal is that modernization should no longer be a positive in its own right, as it was for the Third Way of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Instead, modernization should be judged on the basis on whether or not it makes society more “habitable.”

Coextensive with the idea of a socialism that protects is the idea of a society of care. Inspired by the role of health and other essential workers, scholars and activists have argued that care should become a lens through which to reorganize society, prioritizing basic support mechanisms that everyone depends on. This political platform is fundamental in ailing people’s fear of exposure and fragility, as is the struggle to establish and reinforce various “minimums” (minimum wage, minimum income, minimum working conditions, and environmental standards) to reverse globalization’s race to the bottom.

A socialism that protects will focus on economic foundations, on the provision of basic economic security for everyone, guaranteeing universal standards of living to cure the worst forms of insecurity affecting workers and the most vulnerable. The best antidote against the communitarian discourse of the Right, which promises protection against enemies identified with foreigners and “scroungers,” is a protective discourse which guarantees everyone protection from sickness, misery, and loneliness, in a society in which too many feel they are not just left behind but pushed below.