October 05, 2010

In the midst of a global financial crisis blamed largely on neoliberal policies, how is it that progressives have proved incapable of presenting an alternative?

“We have not been performing very well,” former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said in answer to his own question, as he opened a two-day workshop on “The Next Left: Globalized Social Democracy in the North and South.”

“This discussion is the beginning of the Next Left,” proclaimed Lagos, who is a Brown professor at large. Former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer has brought the Next Left discussion to the Institute from Europe, where he helped get it going over the past year. As a visiting professor at Watson, Gusenbauer has worked with a growing network to expand the discussion from Europe to the Americas and other world regions. As co-keynoter of the Next Left workshop, he underscored the need to bring policymakers and academics together in formulating new progressive policies and institutions.

The Next Left is bigger than any party, such as the Social Democratic Party, or any political model, such as the European-style welfare state. “I favor bringing together progressives who oppose right-wing mainstream policies but do not cling to the welfare state model,” Gusenbauer said.

During the financial crisis, countries that did not follow mainstream prescriptions in the 1990s performed best, Gusenbauer said, citing Brazil and India among examples. “Those that followed them suffered.”

He pointed to the pressures on the welfare state, from globalization’s encroachment on domestic economic policy powers, to the increased expenses of public services for an aging population, to the decrease in tax revenue during the financial crisis.

Progressives must recapture the traditional Social Democratic concept of economic growth with social inclusion on a broader scale, he said. At the same time, they must see that the welfare state is not the only answer and that projects of political, economic, and social reform do not have to be the same worldwide.

Coming back to Lagos’s opening question, Gusenbauer reposed it another way: Why have there not been Social Democratic electoral victories worldwide when the failure of neoliberalism has been so clearly demonstrated? Too often, he answered, the Social Democrats have themselves been protagonists of neoliberal policies.

“Voters are not dumb,” he said.

Politicians must do a better job of listening to voters, Lagos said, whether through new, more participatory electoral systems or better use of new media.

At the domestic level, efficient, egalitarian results in the market should be shaped by politics – not by market forces alone, Lagos said. In middle income countries around the world, the gross domestic product may be up, but the distribution of wealth remains the same, he said. “What kind of fiscal pact are we going to introduce?” he asked.

At the international level, Lagos sees the shift of emphasis from the G8 to the G20 as “a major departure” that could reshape the world post-crisis. But the G20 cannot focus only on arguments of stimulus versus austerity policy, he said.

“There are so many issues in today’s world,” Lagos said, citing migration, drug traffic, pandemics, and other international flows. Most cannot be solved domestically, but will require a global perspective, he said. For instance, “it is a tremendous mistake to treat migration as a domestic policy” – subject to such influences as populism. And climate change “is going to be the global issue for the next 20 years.” He asked: What will the new left thinking be with regard to this issue and how can agreement be reached given historical facts?

With the next G20 meeting approaching in November, Lagos tempered his hope in the institution enough to ask: “to what extent will they be able to deliver and not just represent?”

The workshop, which engaged leading international scholars on the Next Left, followed from last spring’s lecture: “What Next Left? The Implications for the World of the European-Wide Debate on Social Democracy's Renewal.” Another gathering is already being planned for next fall.

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