After a terrible 2016 for neoliberalism, 2017 is also going to be a very dangerous year, for what is perceived by many as democracy, by others as the dominant establishment. Trump has gone to the White House and elections will be held in Netherlands, France, Germany. However, progressives should not identify with the agenda of neoliberalism, for two reasons. First of all, this agenda lead to a situation where the 8 richest people own the same wealth of 3.5 billion people, and to other unsustainable imbalances. Secondly, neoliberalism and populism share some common elements, such as economicism (meant as the prevalence of economic reasoning on any other dimension of human life, be it at an individual or social level), marginalisation of dissent, individualism.
Against this backdrop, in Europe and America, progressives should strive to defeat populism and neoliberalism not only through an electoral tactic, which is needed to highlight the many flaws of these movements, but also through structural, cultural changes. Changes which deal with fostering values and notions of common good, while combating individual alienation, massification and media manipulation.
In the short run, Dutch, French and German progressives should be active in fostering a sound communication with the opinions in their countries, with regard to the most debated issues.
For instance, as for migrations, it is time to be realistic but also reassuring. And it is time to say that only a credible and sustainable European plan for investments in Africa and the Middle East would ensure a reduction in migration flows, especially if this plan was agreed with non-European countries such as the USA. However, progressives should also make it clear that a controlled and contained migration can contribute to addressing demographic issues in many European countries.
The Economic and Monetary Union is another very important issue debated in Europe. Progressives should inform citizens that it is crucial to improve the architecture of the EMU, as it is currently happening. However, they should also clarify that the single currency proved essential to avoid speculative attacks on single European economies, while it remains essential to address imbalances within the euro area. Last but not least, similarities between most populist claims and what happened in Europe in the Thirties should be highlighted.
For the medium run (say by end 2018), there is a need to establish a common, binding policy framework valid for progressives not only in the European Parliament, but also in their respective countries. For instance, German social democrats should decide together with the other European progressives, once for all, if austerity is a paradigm that can be generalised and made universal, almost from a Kantian point of view, also for those countries where fiscal consolidation risks to be self-defeating, given high fiscal multipliers, and to depress internal demand. At the same time, progressives of Mediterranean countries should agree, inside the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, on the vital role of combating tax evasion and corruption, together with structural reforms and an efficient control on expenditure, in order to make it more efficient. Progressives of each country should perceive themselves first of all as European progressives, in order to avoid counterproductive divisions among countries, or contradictions between the European and the national level, circumstances which help populists and conservatives.
However, Europe should become and should be described to the general public as a democratic, open and transparent process, capable of including divergent views and not as a merely economic creation. In order to avoid the perception of Europe as an elitist and bureaucratic project, thus alienating the sympathies of the working-class voters, all political non-populist families, including progressives, should share some common, widely debated aims. These should include a reduction in inequality, through a fair taxation and decent social programs, stronger control and greater influence on the policies decided in Brussels and in the capitals, better protection of consumers, more detailed information on the social implications and rationale of each European piece of legislation. Progressives should then foster an exchange of best practices among countries in the areas that affect directly the most disadvantaged parts of the population, including unemployment, pensions, health care. Moreover, the Progressive Alliance cannot avoid a strong cooperation with the European United Left and the Greens.
For the long run (by the next 7-8 years), these is a need to consider also progressive values (e.g. social justice, tolerance, multiculturalism, environmentalism) as a form of capital, that can inspire economic and political activities, and that can be priced on a market and used as a means of exchange. To this aim, it would be essential to establish new markets, that go beyond the production and exchange of goods and services. On these markets, some documents might circulate, through which individuals, legal persons and communities might attest to the benefits – certified by national and international institutions – of some values, measured through quantitative indicators. If these documents could be used as a means of exchange, and thereby exchanged with goods and services, communities in a given country would have a further economic incentive to undertake policies consistent with these progressive values, in order to enlarge the set of experiences that they possess. The economic value of these documents would be decided by supply and demand, as it happens on the markets of goods and services.
For instance, communities which have endorsed a given value (e.g. social justice), and reduced income inequality by a certain margin (e.g. a given reduction in the Gini index) or achieved a given percentage increase in the female participation to the labour market, might describe in a document (an “experience descriptor”) the policies undertaken to reach these targets. Each community might describe a relevant experience. The experience descriptor might be exchanged with other documents, that describe policies inspired by other values (e.g. protection of the environment, multiculturalism), or with goods and services. The price of the document (i.e. the amount of values, goods or services that might be exchanged with it) would depend on the demand by other communities for the relevant experiences contained in it.
Would it be impossible for progressives to reintroduce in economics that moral dimension that one could and can find in Aristotle and in Adam Smith, in Luigi Einaudi and Amartya Sen? I don’t think so. And exchanges of values would allow conservatives and populists to change their vision of the world, or at least challenge it. Progressives should care about much more than consensus. Heidegger said “only a God save us” and I find that social progress requires either an universal, spiritual enlightenment, or a gradual path where capitalism is made more human through the same tool it uses: markets. Or, most likely, both.