The western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and who it speaks for. First, traditional work – and the left’s sacred notion of “the worker” – is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which may soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, there is a new wave of opposition to globalisation, led by forces on the right, which emphasise place and belonging, and a mistrust of outsiders. And all the time, politics rapidly fragments, which leaves the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of people looking like a relic. The 20th century, in other words, really is over. Whether the left can return to meaningful power in the 21st is a question currently surrounded by a profound sense of doubt.Complex adaptive systems tend to do what they darn well please, and when a new social order is emerging, a Vanguard to Lead the Way has the same problems as everyone else, namely, Where Are We, and What's The Most Promising Way to Go?
Meanwhile, as deindustrialisation ripped through 20th-century economies, the instability and fragmentation embodied by the financial and service sectors was taken to its logical conclusion by new digital businesses. In turn, the latter have spawned what some now call “platform capitalism”: a model whereby goods, services and labour can be rapidly exchanged between people, companies and multinational corporations – think of Uber, eBay, Airbnb or TaskRabbit, which link up freelance workers with people who need help with such tasks as cleaning, deliveries or moving home – with little need for any intermediate organisations. This has not only marginalised retailers and wholesalers. It calls into question the traditional role of trade unions, and further reduces the power of the state, which is now locked into a pattern where innovations take rapid flight and it cannot keep up.The new institutions will emerge. But if people who think of themselves as "progressive" reflect on how often their form of progress destroyed the old mediating institutions, perhaps they'll be less destructive in future.
In retrospect, the left’s halcyon era was based on a straightforward project. When the archetypal factory gates swung open, out came thousands of men – and by and large, they were men – united by an unchanging daily experience, and ready to support a political force that would use the unions, the state, and the fabled “mass party” to create a new, much fairer world in their monolithic image.
Now, an atomising, quicksilver economy bypasses those structures, and has fragmented people and places so thoroughly that assembling meaningful political coalitions has begun to appear almost impossible.
People on the left should be thinking about extending maternity and paternity leave and allowing its reprise when children are older; reviving adult education (often for its own sake, not just in terms of “reskilling”); assisting people in the creation of neighbourhood support networks that might belatedly answer the decline of the extended family; and, most obviously, enabling people to shorten their working week – think about a three-day weekend, and you begin to get a flavour of the left politics of the future.I expect we'll be revisiting these ideas.
The deep changes wrought by our ageing society will anyway begin to increase the numbers of people beyond working age, and accelerate the shift away from paid work towards caring. But the most radical shift will be caused by automationand its effects on employment. If the Bank of England now reckons that as many as 15m British jobs are under threat from technology, and if a third of jobs in the retail sector are predicted to disappear by 2025, does the myopic, often macho rhetoric of work and the worker really articulate any meaningful vision?