In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the left had high hopes that a crisis of confidence in capitalism would shift the political balance in its favor. But, beyond victories and isolated movements, that did not happen. By contrast, in the early 2010s, the bankers’ bailout was followed by the imposition of austerity in Europe and America as governments tried to clean up their accounts.
Therefore, we must avoid premature predictions about the nature of post-COVID politics. But it does seem that some trends are emerging. They connect with the experience of how many people have lived through the pandemic, and there is some evidence that, in northern Europe, they may fuel the revival and renewal of center-left parties and movements.
The dimension of the rebirth of the German Social Democrats will become clear with the final results of the elections this Sunday. But whether or not his candidate, Olaf Scholz, becomes chancellor, his campaign has already been notable for pushing the ideas of Michael Sandel. Last year, the Harvard philosopher published The tyranny of merit, an incisive critique of the way in which Western societies have distributed both wealth and social prestige in recent decades.
Misconceptions about achievement and value, according to Sandel, have created a divided and individualistic society: A highly qualified group of “winners” get excessive rewards in knowledge-based sectors, such as technology, while the input of those who work, for example, in caregiving sectors are inappropriately underestimated.
In an interview with The Guardian (and published by elDiario.es), Scholz said: “In certain professional classes, the meritocratic euphoria has led many to believe that their success depends only on themselves. As a result, those who really keep everything going do not receive the respect that they deserve … Manual workers deserve no less respect than university workers. ”
These kinds of views have become commonplace during the pandemic, as underpaid essential workers are the ones that have kept society going during lockdowns. “Respect,” particularly that demonstrated by better pay and better working conditions for unglamorous but vital occupants, has therefore been a central idea in Scholz’s campaign.
Similar signals are coming from Norway, where the Labor party has managed to return to power after this month’s elections. For the first time since 2001, all three Scandinavian countries have a Social Democratic prime minister. Here social inequalities have also played a role in changing moods. The successful campaign slogan of the Norwegian Labor Party was: “It is the turn of the common people.” His manifesto includes promises to increase labor rights, promote union membership, and increase estate taxes.
Here again some caveats are to be made. In a fragmented political landscape, the Scandinavian Social Democratic parties are far from as powerful as they once were. And in Denmark, the government has adopted cruel immigration policies that would make most of the progressive left go white. However, in the words of a senior Norwegian Social Democrat post-election, COVID appears to have led to increased concern and emphasis on the “common good.” A new vocabulary of respect and dignity, and an attention to “ordinary” jobs and lives, points the way toward a post-pandemic politics of the left more focused on redistribution of status as well as redistribution of income. Sometimes, the text of British Labor leader Keir Starmer published a few days ago, it also touches on these issues.
Populist movements and the pandemic – which has shown the value of a protective state – have dealt a blow to the individualistic and divisive policies of extreme liberalism. In the United States, Joe Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package is part of an attempt to put blue-collar workers and the nation’s neglected communities at the center of the economic recovery. The values of collective responsibility and mutual respect must also be fertile territory for the center-left in Europe. As the tables are turning, there are signs that this message is being received and understood.