Embodying the values of a new progressive economy

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A decade ago, the liberation theologian Frei Betto and the ecosocialist Michael Löwy wrote an article for the 2002 World Social Forum titled "Values for a New Civilization." They pointed out that the current neoliberal order is essentially dominated by a religion of profit: this system of beliefs has its churches (the stock markets), its Holy Offices (the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and World Bank), its theologian (Adam Smith), a vast clergy (orthodox economists) that defends its principles, and a variety of instruments to persecute its heretics (all those who oppose the faith). Betto and Löwy contended that the quantitative values of this neoliberal creed should be replaced with a qualitative ethics of solidarity.

Historically, both progressives and conservatives have recognized that a society that deifies profit is inevitably headed for self-destruction. In fact it has not only been socialists but also 20th-century conservatives like Joseph Schumpeter and Daniel Bell who have argued that the unrestrained market weakened the social values, that is, the collective goods and co-operation, that were essential to capitalism's continued functioning. A new progressive economics then has to contest not only the policies that deregulate the market but also the asocial individualist code that has accompanied it.

An example of a political party that poses a challenge to the values of neoliberalism is the Dutch Socialist Party. Holland's national elections will be held on September 12: the top contenders are the pro-business Liberal Party, the Labor party, and the more progressive Socialist Party. Opinion surveys show that the Socialist Party (SP) -- whose symbol is a tomato in honor of the vegetables activists threw at opposition politicians at protest rallies -- could win the largest number of seats in parliament. That result -- probably a quarter to a fifth of the seats -- would place the Socialists in a position to form a coalition where they could not only move Holland to the left but also throw sand in the wheels of the European Union's austerity agenda.

On one hand, the SP proposes all of the typical policies one would expect from a party that espouses "21st-century socialism," that is, higher taxes, greater economic redistribution, environmental sustainability, and increased funding for health care and education. On the other hand, the party has taken an unprecedented approach in terms of its internal incentive structure: all members of the Socialist Party -- including its representatives in the Dutch Parliament -- receive an income that is based on the average skilled industrial wage in the Netherlands with surplus salary and expense allowances given to the party to be used for its campaigns. As well, the SP has promised that if after the election it forms the governing coalition, then its politicians will donate half of their salaries to charity.

The value of this policy concerning remuneration is that it is a living example of the party's alternative ethics: the organization's fundamental practice -- its pay structure -- demonstrates that a 21st-century socialism is one that prioritizes solidarity over individual economic interest. The SP understands that an election is not just a debate on policy but a clash of ethical visions: the values of a new economy should be first embodied by the political representatives that are chosen to govern society.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

Photo: Maurice Boyer/HH/Flickr

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