I used to be a fan of anti-capitalist theories. By anti-capitalist I don’t mean something like the Scandinavian model, but that I read and liked things advocating radically different political and economic models. I sympathized with the critics that saw getting rid of key facets of the global order—things like markets, globalization, liberalism, modern multilateral institutions— as pressing priorities. But I ran into the problem that radical theories seriously struggle to explain. To put it simply, if the dominant political and economic system of recent times is bad, how is it that the world has been getting way, way better? I just couldn’t come up with an answer. And because of the story told in the charts below, I came back from the far left.
As the charts above highlight, the world has been getting far better in a wide range of indicators. In the last 200 years humanity has experienced a completely unprecedented improvement in our quality of life, with the last few decades producing particularly rapid success. For me, the most important and the most dramatic has been the rapid decline in global poverty. In 1990, 35% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2013, that number was 11%. Even if you take out China’s amazing success, there has been a fall from 26% to 12%. This is incredible! This is well over 1 BILLION people in 23 years. 23 years! Think about it: the number of 5-year-old bodies that didn’t need to be buried, the families that could afford to send their daughters to school, the sense of dignity hundreds of millions of parents gained from giving their children a better life. If we want a political ideology that leads to a more just world, what is arguably the most rapid and important increase in human welfare in history cannot be an afterthought. This has to be absolutely central to our understanding of politics, especially when this period has also seen large increases in democratization, gender equality, and a decline in conflict.
These massive improvements came under the liberal world order, almost entirely in governments that adhered to some sort of market system. Communist countries never approached this kind of economic success; what they produced more regularly were huge atrocities that leftists often fail to take seriously. China’s mindboggling success, cutting extreme poverty by 86% in 32 years, came after it had shifted towards a more market-based economy.
I don’t want my argument to be misconstrued as an argument for free market neoliberalism. Adherents to the Washington Consensus saw relatively few development gains. Instead, the biggest recent development successes, cases like South Korea, China, and Taiwan, all used heterodox policy combinations, just as European countries did as they developed. Further, strong welfare states have been critical to the reduction of poverty. If you ask me, Scandinavia is great. Still, this is a far cry from revolution. The massive improvements in global welfare in recent decades have often taken reformist paths, cooperating with the international order and allowing private enterprise at least some latitude. In contrast, models from the far left have an extremely patchy record of success.
I also don’t want this to be misconstrued as an argument that everything is rosy. Getting above the threshold for extreme poverty often means someone is still really, really poor. The country of one’s birth is unbelievably influential in one’s quality of life. In what I think is the strongest counterargument to my point, even if the current system has produced massive improvements in many key indicators, it has also set us on the course for climate disaster. It has seen the rise of authoritarian nationalism, too. Maybe it is the case that our current system isn’t sustainable and to deal with these challenges we need something different, and I think far left theories can offer some insight into these questions.
However, I would say that we should keep building on and improving what has a proven record of moving us towards the just world we want: liberal democracies, multilateral institutions, and market economies with strong welfare states. We should try to strengthen the welfare state and develop it in countries lacking one, make the international system more democratic, and reduce the enormous global inequality we still face. We will have to find changes to overcome climate change and authoritarian nationalism or much of the progress we’ve made will be reversed. But if you gave me the choice between building on tools that have made possible the most successful period in human history or throwing it out for ideologies with little real-world success to point to, it’s not a hard choice.