5 Economic Principles For A Progressive Alliance

What does a Progressive Alliance stand for?

Five Economic Principles that could hold a Progressive Alliance together

 By Martin Whitlock & Joshua Malkin

What are the policies that could enable an economic system that values positive human outcomes rather than the mere accumulation of money?

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This ancient Greek proverb, famously applied by Isiah Berlin to writers and thinkers, is an equally apt description of the state of current economic and political debate.

The progressive movement has the green new deal, degrowth, the wellbeing economy, land reform, the Robin Hood tax, social enterprise, UBI, sovereign money, beyond-GDP and literally dozens of similarly reform-based framings; but the established neoliberal order has only one principle, which is the power of free market capitalism. So while the progressive fox is nipping hither and thither the neoliberal hedgehog just stays put and does its thing.

There are thousands of groups and organisations all working for progressive economic and social reform. They range from well-funded academic groups and policy think-tanks to small, local campaigns and interventions run by volunteers. Each has a different focus, reflecting their status, resources and policy interests. What they have in common, however, is that they are all trying to make a difference within a system that, like a hedgehog, is well organised to resist them.

It is at that system level that economic outcomes are determined. That’s because decision-making follows the system, so only when the system changes is decision-making rerouted to different outcomes. Such change generally depends on the current system breaking down. Six years of war ushered in the welfare state after 1945, and the successive crises of the 1970s paved the way for neoliberalism in the 1980s.

In both those cases the theoretical groundwork for change had been decades in preparation, and the same is true now of the progressive economy movement, which has been actively theorising since at least the 1980s. So why, when neoliberalism was so discredited by the 2008 financial crisis, did a progressive economy not emerge to replace it? And why now, as we live through another moment in which political and economic ideologies no longer fit with technological and social conditions, do progressives find themselves once again so far out to sea?

The answer lies with the fox and the hedgehog. The fox jumps from cause to cause, trying to ameliorate the bad effects of the system in a thousand limited ways. The 38 Degrees platform is the ultimate fox in this sense. At any moment it is host to thousands of individual campaigns, all essentially progressive. But where is the big campaign to change the system, so that all those small campaigns to ameliorate its bad effects will be turbo-charged?

That campaign is waiting for its hedgehog. It is waiting for the moment when all its fox-like diversity can be subordinated to one big thing that will change the system. Agreeing what that thing is, and finding a way to describe it, is the progressive movement’s key task, and the vital first step in building an effective progressive alliance in the political sphere.

So here is a starting point. Just as neoliberalism refers to market-oriented principles that defer to the power of private capital, progressive politics must reference people-centred principles that defer to the power of human relationships. That means establishing economic principles that foster relationship and mutuality as the key repositories of value.

Neoliberalism values money, so in the neoliberal system the activity that leads to the acquisition of the greatest amount of money is deemed to be the most productive. A progressive economic system values human and environmental wellbeing, so whatever activity most increases that wellbeing is deemed the most productive.

A shift from one value-system to the other would be transformative in terms of human and environmental outcomes. But wellbeing alone is not sufficient to frame a transformative political and economic movement, because, along with freedom, opportunity, health and prosperity, wellbeing has been commodified and co-opted to the neoliberal system as something that money can buy.

One of the few things that can’t be bought, owned, traded or commodified is humanness itself. Indeed, a framing of human politics or human economics makes intuitive sense, because why would we not place our real human needs at the centre of our economic endeavour? But whatever name we use, politics is nothing without policy, and a progressive political alliance needs clear, specific and practical proposals to give substance to a new system of human values.

So what are the policies that give effect to an economic system that values positive human outcomes rather than the mere accumulation of money? Here are the five key policy principles that we believe could hold a progressive alliance together.

  1. Land & Housing: land ownership and use should create real value for people, communities and the natural environment, including truly affordable housing and sustainable farming;
  2. Responsible Business: all companies should add human and environmental value;
  3. Money & Asset Creation: bank lending should prioritise positive human and environmental outcomes over the accumulation of money-assets;
  4. Public Services: hospitals, schools, social care and other community services should be seen as wealth creators and exemplars of human value rather than as costs to be minimised;
  5. Economic Outcomes: GDP should be reformed to prioritise human and environmental wellbeing over resource depletion, environmental destruction and asset price inflation.

Taken collectively, these principles all have to do with how we value things in the economy. Taken individually, they speak directly to the anxieties, frustrations and deprivations that people experience in their daily lives. Pretty much every single progressive campaign or aspiration can be fitted into them, while still leaving plenty of space for the particular priorities that all participants in a progressive alliance will bring.

Here is the hedgehog of human value that can rival in simplicity and clarity the neoliberal ideal of the free market. And here are the policy principles that describe and elucidate the shared objective of human and environmental wellbeing. Finding such common ground in the economic fundamentals is surely our best hope for a principled Progressive Alliance, united in purpose and vision by a real agenda for change rather than mere antipathy to a disadvantageous electoral system. For further information visit www.humanpolitics.org

Top image credit Filip Urban https://unsplash.com/photos/ffJ8Qa0VQU0?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink

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