Left-wing activists proclaim a long legacy of political accomplishments – child labor protections, public education, workplace safety controls, collective bargaining, and the weekend, just for starters. These industrial reforms are the basis of American middle class prosperity. The idea of a safe workplace, a healthy salary, and limited working hours allow for the recreational lifestyle millions of people have enjoyed over the last sixty years.
The major limitation of these accomplishments is the inability of labor reform to respond to the emergence of the global service economy. In short, the political left in western civilization has failed to provide stable income growth and property acquisition in ways that compete against systems of industrial and technological capital. This fundamental flaw – in every movement from the British trade unionists to contemporary participatory economists – is not based on the collapse of individual initiative, as many analysts have claimed. Economies with stronger orientations towards state regulation and labor protections have demonstrated their resiliency around the world. The American Left failed to globalize over the last seventy years, leaving finance capital triumphant in the emergent world system.
The specter of Bolshevik Leninism, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and other institutional abuses of human dignity enabled erroneous claims like Winston Churchill’s that “communism was the equal sharing of miseries, while capitalism was the unequal distribution of blessings.” It is past time political theorists moved beyond the binary paradigms of twentieth century world politics to imagine new systems of economics that connect traditions of individual economic liberty with transnational systems of cooperative investment in energy, healthcare, and educational distribution.
One of the first principles in this process has to be the reversal of national incentives to promote homeownership. Enterprise creation is the heart of individual asset growth. Successful ventures enable the acquisition of less productive assets like homes, cars, and recreational technologies. Subsidizing homeownership, and the stimulus to consumer spending that follows, artificially inflates the global economy. While Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of small farmers died when Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War, likewise Lincoln’s ideas for a national system of banks and industrial companies has broken in a world system dedicated to growing digital conglomerates.
Productivity in the information age exceeds the wildest dreams Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan could manifest. The next two decades offer the most profound opportunity for a global Left to build new systems of private industry that enrich and uplift the vast majority of humanity. While autocratic leadership cabals in Russia, Turkey, and China resist democratic reforms that maximize creativity and innovation in the global marketplace, global NGOs have the capacity and resources to create billions of streams of passive and residual income for working families everywhere. Innovative networks of private enterprise have the potential to break cycles of consumer, medical, educational, and residential debt and to maximize responsible asset management of humanity’s most irreplaceable resources. On the smallest scale, these equitable economies can transform recovering regional centers like Detroit, Oakland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans, Newark, and Camden by integrating them into the world system more effectively. In larger ways, the most vulnerable and dangerous areas of Central Asia, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia can accelerate their development as stable, autonomous economies.
These transformations will not create utopia. However, they can make life better for billions of people over the next century. The global Left just needs to reimagine the concept of industry with every bit of its determination and creativity. In this instance, the past cannot be the prologue.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (<a>www.icmetrogrowth.com</a>) and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is also available on LinkedIn, Twitter (@worldprofessor1), Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).