By Liew Chin Tong and Ooi Kee Beng
The world, in particular Asia, is in dire need of a coherent left-of-centre discourse.
The recently concluded elections in Australia and Germany, just like those held in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia in the past year or so, produced, domestic peculiarities aside, strikingly similar recipes for right-wing parties. First, hijack the populist pronouncements of their nominally left-leaning opponents, and second, couple these with the drumming up of the nationalist fervour that often favours parties on the right, especially in times of crisis or insecurity.
Even in Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats moved strategically leftward to accommodate the growing public malcontent towards capital and in so doing, she stole the thunder from the Social Democratic Party.
At the risk of generalizing to the extent of ignoring local conditions, it is still worth asking why left-leaning parties, which supposedly represent the less-well-to-do, are failing to win elections in times of global economic hardship.
Perhaps the challenge lies in the fact that there is no vibrant left-of-centre social democratic discourse around today.
In Asia, most social democratic parties were lumped together with the communists, which in itself is ironic since the two were usually hostile towards each other. They were then wiped out together, often violently and brutallyat the height of the Cold War. To this date, anything that is left-leaningis treated suspiciously in many Asian societies—Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia included.
In the European context, the most effective rivals of the communists were in fact the social democrats, not the right-wing parties. The social democratic movements allowed for peaceful victories after accepting the parliamentary process.
But since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan shifted the centre rightward, neoliberals have been defining the macro-economic agenda through tax cuts, the creation of tax havens,and privatisation of government functions,hence diminished the ability of the state to redistribute wealth and opportunities.
The New Labourconstructed by Tony Blair takes its lineage from Australia’s Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-1996). All hitherto social democratic parties converged with the right, accepting “economic rationalism” or neoliberal ideals as gospel truth.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites – dramatically remembered through thetearing down of the Berlin Wall – there is no more ideological challenger to neoliberalism, a situation Francis Fukuyama euphorically called “the end of history”.
Secure jobs, decent wages and social welfare quickly turned into old ideas standing in the way of the coming of the Brave New World. “Globalisation” often means that more workers all over the world are moving in all directions to look for jobs, resulting in a race to the bottom for wage levels, while capital fleesfrom high-tax states in search of “tax holidays” or even tax havens.
Essentially, the economic programmes of the mainstream parties representing the left and the right no longer differ in substantive matters or even in their manifest values.
And so, during bad economic times, when left parties tend to do well, all that the right simply needs to do is copy the nicer sounding policies of its opponents to boost voter support.
Why the right is able to do this so easily and so successfully, is that there is hardly a coherent left-of-centre discourse around today that offers a somewhat comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic problems of our times and that at the same time provides solutions based on that analysis.
With the fall of Communism, the idea that wealth and opportunities generated by society needs to be redistributed throughout society by the state is forgotten. With that amnesia comes the tremendous widening of the income gap experienced throughout world since 1990.
Not only does this threaten the political stability of most countries, the excessive accumulation of wealth in the hands of the increasingly small class of the super-rich almost sucks consumption capacity away from society at large as aggregate demand falls.
In many ways, therefore, we are back in the days of the early 20th century when social instability threatened to destroy capitalism. What saved it then were the reformist movements that we came to know as social democratic parties.
However, because Communism is not knocking at the door, the need for social democratic policies is not properly felt, and governments crave for endless increments in their GDP in the blind hope that wealth will distribute itself naturally. The increasing income gap tells us one definite thing—whether or not wealth trickles down, it is certainly not doing it faster than wealth being accumulated into the investment accounts of the increasingly smaller group of fantastically wealthy families and individuals.
In the days when the Left effectively faced the Right in parliament, the differing values were simplified as that between Justice and Freedom. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, freedom for the few has taken over, and notions of justice have disappeared from everyday thinking.
It is time, for the sake of the social sustainability of economic growth and political stability throughout the world that justice and freedom needs a new balance.Social democracy needs rejuvenation.
And, in Asia, the opponents of right-wing ideologies cannot just rely on piecemeal populist ideas to win. They need a coherent centre-left policy platform that balances justice and freedom—and seeks to integrate them in practice..
Liew Chin Tong is a Malaysian Federal Member of Parliament; Dr. Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.