The limits of what is thought possible in the world of public policy and politics is as much a matter of subjective imagination as it is a matter of empirical economic and fiscal reality.
Whether it be universal health care coverage, public pensions, or even our basic social safety net, every major social policy achievement of the past hundred years was dismissed as impractical, unrealistic, and even destructive to economic prosperity before finally becoming reality. In our present moment, the same charge is raised against calls for free (or even more affordable) post-secondary education, a minimum wage that is enough to live on, and meaningful action to transition towards a post-carbon economy.
None of which is to say that a government’s fiscal capacity or other practical considerations should not be considered when developing policy. However, we must avoid dismissing any redistributive policy simply because it falls outside the very narrow range of options currently considered acceptable by the dominant political and economic paradigm.
What governments say they are able to afford is more often than not a reflection of what they are willing to pay for. A perfectly illustrative example of how vastly different priorities can be served under the same fiscal and macroeconomic conditions would be a side-by-side comparison of any of the federal or provincial alternative budgets proposed by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), with the budgets issued by respective federal and provincial governments. The dedicated work of a small number of economists and policy analysts shows just how different our society could be if we had a government that did not limit itself to the neoliberal consensus.
As British writer George Monbiot says:
“So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.”
Sadly, that same consensus has not only constrained the vision of parties on the right. Western socialist and social democratic parties over the past thirty years have incorporated neoliberal assumptions into their platforms and ideology so thoroughly that policies they would’ve easily championed forty years ago are now dismissed in the same condescending tone and reflexive deference to ‘pragmatism’ that conservatives and liberals long used against leftists. When parties on the left artificially limit their vision to appease the right, they surrender any reason to exist.
Pragmatism is a virtue, but it is not a political position.
This is all the more painfully true when we consider that even the arguments typically cited by the self-described pragmatists against left-wing redistributive demands are increasingly being called into question. Raising the minimum wage to $15.00/hour will not “kill jobs” or cause runaway inflation. Austerity economics are a proven failure. The link between neoliberalism policies that increase economic inequality and the rise of racist revanchist nationalism à la Trump and Brexit is getting harder to ignore.
Yet, there is hope. Recent election campaigns in the United States, the United Kingdom, and here in Nova Scotia show that there is a growing movement among some left-wing parties (or at least sections within parties) to openly reject the narrow confines of neoliberal politics and embrace an unabashedly egalitarian political vision. Outside of electoral politics, the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, and Idle No More demonstrate the need and desire for a more radically egalitarian and emancipatory politics.
That said, there is still much work to be done. When the right-wing faction of the UK Labour Party attempted to undermine and overthrow Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and kill off any potential for a genuine socialist revival within Labour, it demonstrated just how deeply entrenched the neoliberal ideology is even within nominally left-wing parties and movements.
Allowing a dying ideology to narrow our vision and constrain our political imagination is never a winning solution. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci advised us to maintain “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”, and while we may have surplus of the former, we are severely lacking in the latter.