Covid-19 as a watershed in how we run the world. Important reflection from Rutger Bregman

October 15, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been catching up with my reading this week, and really enjoyed this essay (from May – sorry for the delay!). Bregman (a Dutch historian who became an overnight global sensation with this fine outburston taxes at Davos) is brilliant on the role of ideas in driving paradigm shifts. He uses my favourite quote from Milton Friedman ‘“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” He argues that the reason that the 2008 financial crisis did not lead to a major change was the absence of big alternative ideas.

But he reckons this time could be different – in the intervening years, the work on inequality of French troublemakers like Thomas Piketty, or the role of the state by Mariana Mazzucato, means there is a better chance of just such a paradigm shift. Some good progressive ideas are now finally ‘lying around’.

Here’s a taster of just how well he writes (and hats off to the translator, Elizabeth Manton):

How do you change the world? 

‘Ask a group of progressives this question and it won’t be long before someone says the name Joseph Overton. Overton subscribed to Milton Friedman’s views. He worked for a neoliberal think tank and spent years campaigning for lower taxes and smaller government. And he was interested in the question of how things that are unthinkable become, in time, inevitable.

Imagine a window, said Overton. Ideas that fall inside this window are what’s deemed “acceptable” or even “popular” at any given time. If you’re a politician who wants to be re-elected, you’d better stay inside this window. But if you want to change the world, you need to shift the window. How? By pushing on the edges. By being unreasonable, insufferable, and unrealistic.

In recent years, the Overton Window has undeniably shifted. What once was marginal is now mainstream. A French economist’s obscure graph became the slogan of Occupy Wall Street (“We are the 99%”); Occupy Wall Street paved the way for a revolutionary presidential candidate, and Bernie Sanders pulled other politicians like Biden in his direction.

These days, more young US Americans have a favourable view of socialism than of capitalism – something that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. (In the early 1980s, young voters were the neoliberal Reagan’s biggest support base.)

But didn’t Sanders lose the primaries? And didn’t the socialist Jeremy Corbyn suffer a dramatic election defeat just last year in the UK?

Certainly. But election results aren’t the only sign of the times. Corbyn may have lost the 2017 and 2019 elections, but Conservative policy wound up much closer to the Labour Party’s financial plans than to their own manifesto. 

Similarly, though Sanders ran on a more radical climate plan than Biden in 2020, Biden’s climate plan is more radical than that Sanders had in 2016.

Thatcher wasn’t being facetious when she called “New Labour and Tony Blair” her greatest achievement. When her party was defeated in 1997, it was by an opponent with her ideas.

Overton Window

Changing the world is a thankless task. There’s no moment of triumph when your adversaries humbly acknowledge you were right. In politics, the best you can hope for is plagiarism. Friedman had already grasped this in 1970, when he described to a journalist how his ideas would conquer the world.  It would play out in four acts:

“Act I: The views of crackpots like myself are avoided.

Act II: The defenders of the orthodox faith become uncomfortable because the ideas seem to have an element of truth.

Act III: People say, ‘We all know that this is an impractical and theoretically extreme view – but of course we have to look at more moderate ways to move in this direction.’

Act IV: Opponents convert my ideas into untenable caricatures so that they can move over and occupy the ground where I formerly stood.”

Still, if big ideas begin with crackpots, that doesn’t mean every crackpot has big ideas. And even though radical notions occasionally get popular, winning an election for once would be nice as well. Too often, the Overton Window is used as an excuse for the failures of the left. As in: “At least we won the war of ideas.”

Many self-proclaimed “radicals” have only half-formed plans for gaining power, if they have any plans at all. But criticise this and you’re branded a traitor. In fact, the left has a history of shifting blame onto others – onto the press, the establishment, sceptics within their own ranks – but it rarely shoulders responsibility itself.

Just how hard it is to change the world was brought home to me yet again by the book Difficult Women, which I read recently during lockdown. Written by British journalist Helen Lewis, it’s a history of feminism in Great Britain, but ought to be required reading for anyone aspiring to create a better world. 

By “difficult”, Lewis means three things:

It’s difficult to change the world. You have to make sacrifices.

Many revolutionaries are difficult. Progress tends to start with people who are obstinate and obnoxious and deliberately rock the boat. 

Doing good doesn’t mean you’re perfect. The heroes of history were rarely as squeaky clean as they’re later made out to be. 

Lewis’s criticism is that many activists appear to ignore this complexity, and that makes them markedly less effective. Look at Twitter, which is rife with people who seem more interested in judging other tweeters. Yesterday’s hero is toppled tomorrow at the first awkward remark or stain of controversy.

Lewis shows there are a lot of different roles that come into play in any movement, often necessitating uneasy alliances and compromises. Like the British suffrage movement, which brought together a whole host of “Difficult Women, from fishwives to aristocrats, mill girls to Indian princesses”. That complex alliance survived just long enough to achieve the victory of 1918, granting property-owning women over age 30 the right to vote.

(That’s right, initially only privileged women got the vote. It proved a sensible compromise, because that first step led to the inevitability of the next: universal suffrage for women in 1928.)

And no, even their success could not make all those feminists into friends. Anything but. According to Lewis, “Even the suffragettes found the memory of their great triumph soured by personality clashes.”

Progress, it turns out, is complicated.’

And here’s that tax broadside again, on a panel with Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima. Enjoy

October 15, 2020
Duncan Green