The hopes and dreams of the 21st century have faded away. Britain awaits Theresa May’s hard Brexit, Donald Trump is American President and fear of nationalism is sweeping across continental Europe. The Western world is in the grip of a huge identity crisis. Identity politics is the nationalistic fuel behind both Brexit and Trump. The populist right present themselves as anti-establishment, while traditional social democratic parties sink into the electoral abyss. Decades of market fundamentalist policies have hollowed out our politics and our communities.
Into this crisis of progressive politics and liberal democracy come social liberals. Internationalism is under attack and British society continues to have vast inequalities of wealth and power. Social liberals have the ability to revive progressive politics, but in-order to do so we must change the political narrative and reclaim our biggest and most radical ideas.
We must reclaim the principles of liberty and ownership from market fundamentalists and so-called neoliberals, who have often misused them to further inequality and powerlessness. Social liberals should advance liberty and ownership in a narrative of economic empowerment in-order to redistribute wealth and power across our society. At a time when the political marketplace is crowded, individual economic empowerment is the unique selling point of social liberalism. We must actively work to create a viable progressive alternative to the failed market fundamentalist orthodoxy. To reshape our political economy, the political and economic inequalities at the heart of it must be addressed.
All liberals exist to advance the freedom of the individual. Liberty is related to individual autonomy; the ability that people have to act and think on their own initiative, free from external restraint. However, freedom from government authoritarianism isn't enough; freedom has a social dimension. If someone is unemployed, hungry, homeless, suffering from discrimination or unable to get access to healthcare and education, then they cannot truly be free. The chains of poverty can weigh just as heavily as the chains of an authoritarian state. By tackling economic inequalities, social liberals ensure that the least well-off can take advantage of the opportunities they are presented with and live a more fulfilling life.
Social justice enables and enhances an individual’s personal liberty. However, Beveridge welfare policies are not enough in the 21st century; people need power, not just wealth and opportunity. “Take Back Control” was the rallying cry of Brexit campaigners in the EU Referendum. People need control over their everyday lives, not to protect them from globalisation, but to make globalisation work for them. Liberals have spent almost two centuries arguing for the democratisation of our politics, now we must bring the same energy to argue for the democratisation of our economy.
During the middle of the 20th century, the Liberal Party campaigned under the slogan of “Ownership for All”, what Stuart White refers to as “alternative liberalism”. If economic empowerment is to be achieved then social liberals must support the principle of expanding profit and power sharing within the workplace. Liberals have long supported employee owned and run cooperatives ever since the days of John Stuart Mill. The cooperative sector has shown to be very resilient in the recent economic crisis. While it might not be practical to turn big transnational businesses into cooperatives, it would be possible to do this with small businesses. Smaller listed companies should have the ability to become cooperatives, if their employees wish them to.
If the power imbalance within our present economy is to be truly addressed then there needs to be a government initiative to put worker representatives on company boards. An even more radical proposal would be to allow a council of employees (which itself would be accountable to the workforce) to elect worker representatives onto their company’s board. This would inject some real democracy into the structure of our economy: companies in Germany have used similar models for decades. This would help to bridge the power divisions that exist between company management and the company workforce.
For years Britain has seen falling living standards coupled with cuts in public spending and the rise of food banks. The powerlessness of workers in our economy has been brought into sharp focus with the recent scandals at Sports Direct and JD Sports. Social liberalism can address these issues by empowering people within our economy. We need to champion social justice to enhance personal liberty. We need to democratise our economy. Our mission must be to emancipate the individual from social hardship and from the potential for tyranny in the workplace.
Social liberalism is a rich tradition full of radical ideas from land value taxation to basic income. We must rediscover our big ideas and our original political analysis. When traditional social democracy has become intellectually bankrupt, we must succeed. Individual economy empowerment is the social liberal remedy to populism and the inequalities caused by market fundamentalism. Social liberals must champion liberty and ownership for everyone within the economy, especially for those who are struggling the most. Only then will we see the freer, fairer and more equal country that we all want to create.