While western governments are now all busy with their own small and big countries, the solution to society’s key problems are global and if we do not take the rest of the world with us, we will only make the problems worse. I remember a lesson at high school back in 1961 where we had a drawing on the blackboard with Africa (third world) on it with tanks, with the words ‘if we don’t bring it to them, they will come and get it’. The tanks never made it, but the core of the message remains – 60 years later – the same. Eventually we get the punches at home, be it in the form of pandemics, terrorism, refugees, or war.
I attended a lecture by Thomas Piketty on his new book “Capitalism and Ideology”. He is an interesting economist with well-founded facts (he is a mathematician) and very important he has a sociological approach. Several key points emerged, the problem is not capitalism, but the ideology behind it. Change the ideology and we come to much better rational decisions. Scandinavia’s social democratic ideology was cited as an example, things can also be done differently and the world there has not collapsed because of for example high taxes. On the contrary, these countries – for the last 30 years – score consistently high in all social, economic, environmental, and other statistics. Interestingly, however, when Scandinavian white hegemony came under pressure from refugees, a major dent occurred in their ideology of tolerance, equality, etc. Nevertheless, they remain among the happiest people in the world.
Piketty has also researched inequality in which he side-by-side put people at different levels of equality. Those who resided in the bottom half had no chance of really rising higher up the ladder. Piketty offered to take them to a higher level, so they had a better chance of advancing their position. As it turns out, most in the bottom half of society did not want that, they were happy with what they had and did not want support to get a better position.
This has been picked up by others and further investigated. One of the points was that this group does not perceive themselves as ‘unequal’ (the elite sees them that way). They did not like that ‘their group’ should be helped. Another point was that such help would mean that everyone in that group would get ‘more’ and it was felt that everyone had to take care of themselves (work hard). In addition, others in the bottom half (black people, Latino, refugees, migrants, unemployed people, etc.) would also get more, and many opposed that. It is quite remarkable that those who sit in the bottom half are most opposed to boosting equality (the top 50% were largely in favour of tackling inequality). Only the lowest layer who is entirely dependent on support, needs that support but even then, they did not necessarily see themselves as unequal.
The result of this situation is reflected in populism that is particularly high among that group. It is this group that has a great influence on current governments. So indirectly people vote for inequality. Politicians who need to win votes are taking the road towards populism. In this way, populism becomes the ideology, because it is mainly the politicians who lead ideology, they have a great influence on the media (they produce news) and the media must have customers, so the ideology becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I realise this is a bit black and white, but what is happening is that for politicians to stay in power, they directly or secretively say that the unemployed are leeches, the migrants take away all the jobs and the refugees just get houses, people on welfare must be treated like criminals, etc. So that ideology is only strengthened. This shows as economist Maynard Keynes mentioned in 1938, “he thin and precarious crust of civilisation’. In times of transformation this can be dangerous. Frustrations that occur in such periods can lead to “stupid”decisions which can easily produce violence and destruction.
If we do not get leadership that comes with a better ideology, it is very difficult to break through the current crises. Personally, I think we should bridge inequality indirectly by investing more in education, health care, housing, infrastructure. In this way, you help the bottom half without focusing on inequality. But generating changes in that way is a lengthy process. Piketty didn’t have a quick fix either. But the fact that we need to move in a more socially democratic direction is clear to me. This means, among other things, higher taxes, for the rich. He also cited the current $2 trillion government intervention in the U.S., the largest ever. This in a country that ‘hates’ government intervention. After WWII, the progressive tax in the U.S. was 90%, and the country did not collapse, quite the opposite. The New Deal (1929-1933) was an enormous success and lifted the overall welfare of its people. So even in the USA there are good examples that changes can be made with the assistance of governments. If Biden can push through his policies, that could lead to a death knell of partisanism, especially if the Democrats last eight years. At the moment the chances of this happening are however very thin. I do not think you can reason populism away – maybe you should kill it. With the right leaders at the wheel, we can at least try to create a better ideology.
That new ‘ideology’ should be based on what the Romans called ‘Res Publica’ (things that are good for the people). It needs to place the Common Good central, an ideology based on what is good for the whole nation. While the capitalist ideology has done enormous good following WWII. It has grown into a system that puts private interests above the Common Good and that needs to be curbed towards a longer term ideology based on what is good for all.
At the moment it looks like that we are muddling on and if we indeed can do this successful it might be the best way to safeguard our democracies. The economist Albert O Hirschman mentioned that in policy-making in times of transformation we should follow the following process:
- Accept certain levels of doubt, in other words the process should be based on agility.
- The need for wide participation and intellectual openness (not stupidity as I describe here)
- A clear focus on moral values and pragmatism.
There is plenty of evidence that alternatives such as revolutions are not the best solutions they simply replace one political power with another and in the meantime create an incredible amount of violence and destruction.