Has the Left Lost its Way? – An Interview with Aaron Bastani

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara media. He holds a PhD from the New Political Communication Unit, University of London and has written for Vice, London Review of Books, The Guardian and Open Democracy.

It is commonplace that the past half-decade, from Brexit to the US presidential election, has been tumultuous for the political left. In Europe, the mainstream centre-left is in full retreat. Germany’s SPD achieved its worst historical result in 2017, while Greece’s once-great PASOK party saw a decrease in vote share from to 44% in 2009 to 4% in 2009- in a trend dubbed ‘Pasokification’. Yet, nations modelled on this kind of social democracy rebuilt western Europe after the second world war and oversaw huge subsequent advances in standards of living. How could a such a reliable political force disintegrate so quickly? For some, these developments indicate an exciting and more radical progressive movement- a view supported by the largely unforeseen successes of Bernie Sanders’ ‘Our Revolution’ campaign and the groundswell in Corbyn-backing Labour party membership. The multiple failures of establishment centre-left politics, the story goes, were a necessary precondition for a suitably twenty-first century alternative. In Michaelmas term 2018, the Cambridge Union addressed these rival interpretations under the motion, ‘this house believes the left has lost its way’. Having argued in opposition, radical political activist and writer Dr Aaron Bastani shared his views.

Bastani notes that the UK shows widespread support for progressive and redistributive policies that aren’t fully reflected in voting behaviour. Nearly three quarters of voters polled supported controls on energy prices[1], while more than two thirds backed nationalising both rail and energy[2]. Bastani even claims that “more people identify as socialist than any time in my life”[3], citing recent YouGov polls. Nonetheless, Labour and the Greens combined received 41.6% of votes cast in the 2017 general election (up from 34.2% in 2015). I asked Bastani what could account for this disparity: “amongst young people there isn’t a gap. They tend to favour [these] policies… and they tend to favour the more progressive parties. There is a gap however amongst older people, and I think that’s down to a couple of variables. The first is, there’s a general political culture where people think nothing changes. So, there are many many people who will vote for a particular party, and this is part of what we can call ‘capitalist realism’, they don’t actually think it’s going to change anything.”, he explained. The term ‘capitalist realism’, popularised by Mark Fisher, refers to a “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”[4].

“This is an important thing to talk about” he continues. “[If] you get out of the Westminster bubble- out of places like Cambridge or Oxford, to a lower/middle working-class area, and people will be like ‘they’re all the same’. They don’t think Jeremy Corbyn’s this dangerous insurgent – the complete opposite – they’re just all the same. That policy preference has to be placed against an ‘all the same’-ism. That [mismatch] is an expression of the kind of media they consume, in a large part.”

Bastani has a notion of an alternative to the ‘neoliberal’ order, and how it might be achieved. “First of all, we have had a transition from one mode of production to another. We went from feudalism to capitalism. […] It’s not like we’re talking about something that’s never happened before. Secondly, the capitalism we have is not pure capitalism. That is to say when Marx wrote Capital, its full name was Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. He was talking about the principles in [David] Ricardo, [Adam] Smith etc. The capitalism we have today does not adhere to that form of political economy. So, when we talk about ‘postcapitalism’, it wouldn’t have to map onto a set of principles espoused in a book or by a theoretician, but it could still not be capitalism. What would that have to look like? It would have to mean that people didn’t have to sell their labour for a wage. So UBI (‘universal basic income’). I didn’t like UBI, but it clearly attenuates one of the key components of capitalism.” Bastani’s reluctant dismissal of a ‘universal basic income’ contrasts with other progressives who see the policy as an attractively simple redistributive scheme with bipartisan appeal. For its supporters, UBI promises to narrow a productivity-pay gap that has been rising since the mid 1970s and provide a safety net for a coming tide of automation (a recent landmark study claimed “about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk… meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over.”[5]) He explains: “an appropriate UBI is too expensive, an affordable UBI will change nothing. If you look at the capital necessary for a big UBI, say £200bn a year[6] […] it takes child poverty down a couple of percentage points, pensioner poverty down a couple of percentage point. For 200bn a year, what could you do? Social housing, scrap fees, and so on.”

For Bastani, a UBI is one among many potential answers. He also believes that “another one would be the elimination of production for exchange in profit. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to get rid of that. But I do think you can get rid of it for the areas that we should view as key to human flourishing. And in terms of human flourishing I adopt what you call a liberal-ends socialist-means approach. I agree with liberals when they say that humans are uniquely placed to decide their own lives. The point is, liberal means of private property fanaticism and of Lockean property ownership can’t allow that to happen. And I think we’re all agreed on that right? You clearly need a certain redistribution of goods to allow liberal ends. To that end I would say: housing, education, healthcare, transport, information should clearly be taken out of commodity circulation. That is to say, not subject to exchange in profit. Which we’ve done before for certain things. Arguably [with] the NHS.” Information is a compelling inclusion to the list. It is a virtually zero marginal cost product, meaning the cost of producing additional units (as in sharing and downloading media) is virtually zero. Therefore, information plays the standout role in an emerging digital ‘sharing economy’- where designs for physical parts, media, opinion and knowledge is shared freely online. In a 2013 report, the OECD wrote that “while the internet’s impact on market transactions and value added has been undoubtedly far-reaching, its effects on non-market interaction […] is even more profound.”[7] Yet “an economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights, cannot be a capitalist economy” notes economist and broadcaster Paul Mason[8].

The digital sharing economy is one example of Bastani’s view  that “we need to create institutions and advance policies which attenuate these two features: having to sell your labour for a wage and things made for profit- particularly things we should regard as human rights.”

Should we not continue on the course of  the gradual but steady improvements made in the past century by social democracies? Bastani argues that we cannot “advance the historic social democracy” because “growth, of the sort we found after 1945 to say 1973, the dividends of which then payed for an expanded social welfare state, has gone. There is lower growth decade on decade since the 1960s [and] it’s going down. This has been termed by Larry Summers ‘secular stagnation’. It’s not a radical theory.  We see it in Japan and Italy – [they] haven’t grown for twenty years. This country hasn’t grown for ten years on GDP per head. Other countries have experienced this too. China and India’s growth – down. Clearly if you’re saying our politics is about the welfare state […] built on perennial compound growth, that’s not going to work. So clearly we need to rather think about the redistribution of the dividends of growth, think about ownership, which is what Marx always said. Marx didn’t want to redistribute things through tax, he didn’t want to redistribute incomes, he wanted to redistribute property and wealth. So these are quite distinct things.”

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe

Emerging technologies indicate a future of widespread automation and the possibility of shorter working hours. Bastani claims these changes finally render historical leftist ideas feasible: “Marx grasped automation better than anybody. That includes today.  A nice parallel is John Wycliffe, who was a 14th century English Protestant and he was Luther before Luther, and he had the exact same ideas as Luther but there wasn’t a printing press. And I now believe that the age of automation, AI, algorithmic intelligence, allows the politics that Marx was hinting towards, very similar to Luther.”

Overall, Bastani is cautiously optimistic: “I’m incredibly hopeful. But the human costs of what we’re about to face will obviously be huge. But they already are huge. 40 million Americans use food stamps. So I am hopeful, but I’m also terrified of the things we already have.”

[1] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/science/articles-reports/2017/07/25/energy-bill-woes-are-down-support-market-intervent

[2] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2013/11/04/nationalise-energy-and-rail-companies-say-public

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2016/02/23/british-people-view-socialism-more-favourably-capi

[4] Gibbons, Joan. Art and Advertising

[5] Frey, Carl Benedikt, and Michael A. Osborne. ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?.’’ Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114 (2017): 254-280.

[6] Reed, Howard and Lansley, Stewart. “Universal Basic Income: An idea whose time has come?”. Compass, 2016. P4

[7] OECD, ‘Measuring the Internet Economy: A Contribution to the Research Agenda’, OECD Digital Economy Papers, 226, OECD Publishing, 2013

[8] Mason, Paul. Postcapitalism