The broad outline of 21st-century history, its first couple of decades anyway, is starting to become clear. A period of credit-fuelled expansion and runaway financialisation ended with an abrupt crash and an unprecedented bank bailout. The public’s reward for assuming the bankers’ losses was austerity, which crippled the recovery and led to an interminable Great Recession. At the same time, increasing automation and globalisation, and the rise of the internet, kept first-world wages stagnant and led to an increase in precarity. Elites did fine, and in the developing world, especially Asia, economies grew, but the global middle class, mainly located in the developed world, felt increasingly anxious, ignored, resentful and angry. The decades-long decline in union power made these trends worse. The UK had its longest ever peacetime squeeze on earnings.1 In response to this the political right played one of its historically most effective cards – Blame the Immigrants – and achieved a string of successes from Brexit to Trump to Orbán to Bolsonaro to Salvini and the AfD, succeeding in normalising its new prominence to such an extent that a quasi-fascist party scored 34 per cent in the French presidential elections, which were nonetheless hailed as a triumph for the ‘centrist’ winner.
The left, let’s be honest, has had a pretty bad century so far. This is partly a matter of electoral defeats, from the US to the UK to France, Germany, Italy, Brazil etc, but also a consequence of its failure to come up with a new ideological framework to match the new landscape. Many current problems seem likely to grow worse. In 1980, the bottom half of earners in the US took home 20 per cent of all income; by 2014, that figure had fallen to 12 per cent. The richest 1 per cent, meanwhile, went from earning 12 per cent of all income to earning 20 per cent. Variations on that theme played out in many countries. The old centre-left was complicit in that distribution of economic power, and as a result the old centre left model of a kinder, gentler free-market capitalism looks outdated and inadequate. Many of the current trends in automation and globalisation seem certain to make existing problems of income stagnation and inequality worse. You don’t have to believe in an imminent artificial intelligence job apocalypse to see that work will continue to change in the direction of machines doing more and humans doing less, and often less interesting, work. These trends overlap and compound. As Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght put it in Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy,