The Global Left Has a Plan to Combat Populism

But German socialists and their allies may need bigger ideas to stall a populist takeover of democracies.

Wanted: big ideas.

Photographer: Tobias Schwarz/AFP -- Getty Images

The man who would depose Angela Merkel as German chancellor also has a global plan: To reverse the onslaught of nationalism and populism.

Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate for the chancellorship, laid out that vision in Berlin on Monday, speaking to comrades from the Progressive Alliance, an international group uniting socialist parties that is a testament to Germany's growing global political influence. Formed in 2013 as the SPD's brainchild, it includes the major European socialist parties as well as political forces from faraway lands, such as India's National Congress and the U.S. Democrats. Even Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager, made an appearance this year to talk about politics in the post-truth era.

QuickTake Angela Merkel

The Berlin convention of the alliance was all about plotting a counterattack against the far right forces. While center-right parties have appeared too technocratic and out of touch, the left didn't have that problem, Schulz and the other assembled socialists declared. But they needed to rally behind big ideas in order to gain traction.

"The currently predominant pessimism about change and progress comes from years of politics based on an alleged lack of alternatives -- and thus consolidates existing power structures," said a report prepared for the Alliance conference by an international group backed by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and former World Trade Organization director general Pascal Lamy. "Politics needs the intellectual backbone, but also the freedom, to tackle long-term projects."

Schulz's speech on Monday was all about fixing globalization. Nationalism and protectionism wouldn't work, he argued, because "no wall can ever be high enough to protect us permanently from global problems." So socialists must force business to correct the social consequences of globalization. "We need accountability and transparency obligations for companies along the supply chains, the extension of social security systems, and the introduction of wages that can guarantee a standard of living," Schulz said.

The socialists put the blame for the rise of nationalist populism on "neoliberals" whose economic orthodoxy gripped the world when many people thought history was ending. It was these unabashed capitalists who led the world to its current shaky state, creating the refugee problem with "wrong political decisions, environmental changes, failing states, destroyed production conditions and human livelihoods, and conflicts," the Progressive Alliance report said. All that happened because the world was being governed in the interests of big business, which grew at the expense of everyone else:

Of the world’s 100 biggest “economies”, 69 are transnational corporations, Walmart being in 10th place, before Spain, Australia and the Netherlands.

The Progressive Alliance report is essentially a generalized draft program for socialist parties everywhere. Schulz is already pushing it in Germany -- with unexpected success, born perhaps of a public fatigue with Merkel's 11-year rule. Schulz's message is about increasing worker protections and reversing a 14-year-old labor market reform, widely credited with giving Germany an economic advantage over France with its less flexible labor rules.

An unabashed internationalist, Schulz is against tightening border protections. If Merkel's decision in 2015 to open Germany to asylum seekers were indeed her biggest problem, Schulz should fare worse than her -- and yet, as the SPD draws even with Merkel's Christian Democrats or even overtakes them, the far-right Alternative for Germany party keeps losing support.

The problem with the model offered by the Progressive Alliance ideologists is that even though it appears to work in Germany, where the far right never had much of a chance, it may be far less attractive elsewhere. The far right in the Netherlands and France talk about taxing the rich and protecting the working man, but also about securing the borders and prioritizing local, not global problems. It'll be hard to sell them a plan that reduces migration by forcing multinationals to pay better wages overseas. The progressives struggle to offer simple solutions without compromising their internationalist principles, and that is, as ever, their weak point. It's Socialism's old slogan -- "Workers of the world, unite!" -- without the all-or-nothing revolutionary implications. 

In countries with strong populist movements, a less tame version of socialism than the Berlin-minted one is rising.

The GreenLeft in the Netherlands, poised to do well in the upcoming parliamentary election thanks to the dynamic leadership of Jesse Klaver, and the French far left, which led in this election cycle by Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon, feel they need to offer far more ambitious ideas than Schulz does. They are, for example, in favor of a universal income, paid to each citizen to ensure a basic standard of living -- an idea that appears exotic to the mainstream. But then, just 100 years ago, an eight-hour workday seemed exotic, too. 

The overhyped populist tidal wave appears headed for electoral defeats throughout Europe this year. If they do lose, heartened centrists -- including Progressive Alliance members -- may think their decades-old agenda will be enough to stall a populist takeover of democracies. But the far left may actually have a better understanding of what lies ahead: When voters want major change, they want ambitious plans, not more incrementalism. The universal basic income and other examples of big thinking -- such as universal health care and free college in the U.S. -- may become the rallying cry on the left once the battle resumes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.