LabourList: We need to talk about Socialism
I’ve written enough posts bemoaning the genius of the right in transforming a private sector crisis into a crisis of overspending, Yes, it sucks. I’ve also whinged about the failure of the Labour leadership to offer a coherent alternative to the Tories’ attempt to re-order society even further in the interests of the wealthy than it already is. That sucks too. But both problems have a common source: the disappearance of the left as it was traditionally understood.
We need to talk about socialism. No, I don’t mean the “socialism” that made a guest appearance during the Labour leadership debate, when (to caricature slightly) the contenders defined it as people basically being nice to each other. I mean the vision of a different society to the one we currently have – one organised in the interests of working people. For generations, that’s what motivated large numbers of Labour activists – as well, of course, as addressing the basic bread-and-butter issues of the people the party exists to represent. The “vision thing”, if you like.
Times have changed so dramatically that to even talk about “socialism” risks being dismissed as a fringe nutter. In large part, that’s because the left was caught up (cliché alert) in a perfect storm. In the 1970s, capitalism was – like today – in crisis, but, as Peter Oborne puts it: “For a while, it was wholly unclear which side would win, and indeed for long periods it appeared that the Left was in the ascendancy.” Then Thatcherism swept all before it; the Labour opposition fractured; the trade union movement – the backbone of the left in the broadest sense – was pummelled; and then the Soviet collapse unleashed a tidal wave of capitalist triumphalism that swamped even democratic leftists who abhorred Stalinist totalitarianism.
The combination of these factors appeared to rule out even the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. And – because it all happened when the neo-liberals were the ascendancy – it seemed to write off even the cuddlier welfare capitalism established in the rubble of World War II. As author Mark Fisher puts it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Even after three years of perpetual capitalist crisis – a crisis that remains without any obvious end – that simply has not changed. Capitalism can collapse all it likes, but there does not seem to be any apparent alternative to nip in and take its place.
It’s easy to explain the long-standing existential crisis of socialism. But why do we even need a Labour left? Well, I’d argue that it’s even in the interests of those Labour activists who don’t place themselves on the left of the party. It would help drag the whole political consensus to the left. And it could give the Labour leadership political space it simply does not currently have.
It’s easy to attack Ed Miliband over, for example, buying into the caricature of welfare scroungers. But accusing him of betrayal is pointless, because there is no mass movement to betray. Where is the grassroots movement making the case for the unemployed in modern Britain? The truth is that he is simply tapping into a prejudice that is widespread – including (and in some cases particularly) in working-class communities. If you are in a low-paid job you don’t particularly enjoy and just scraping by in life, the idea of so-called “welfare scroungers” often annoys you more than anyone else.
If there was a strong Labour left, it could make the case about so many people being on benefits because (radical idea here) there aren’t enough jobs to go around; that benefit fraud is exaggerated (costing £1.2 billion compared to £70 billion lost through tax avoidance); and that it is an often complicated phenomenon.
When a business lobby group rounded up 20 right-wing economists to sign up to a letterurging the scrapping of the 50p tax band for those earning £150,000, a Labour left could have counter-attacked by demanding the threshold was dropped to £100,000. It would have transformed the debate.
But of course a socialist wing of the Labour party would not simply jump on bandwagons, or be purely defensive. It would have to outline a coherent vision of a different society – just as the neo-liberals do.
It would need to make that relevant to people’s everyday lives, of course. In truth, most people do not think in terms of left and right: they think of issues that need to be addressed. The right have been so successful that, for many, “the left” simply means taxing them more individually, and subsidising minority groups that aren’t them. A socialist left would have to communicate in everyday, commonsense language, and addresses people’s basic concerns. That would mean socialist answers to issues often abandoned to the right – like crime and anti-social behaviour which (after all) working-class people are more likely to be victims of.
It would have to demonstrate that it could marshal support, too. Blairites are successful at marginalising the left because they portray them as an electoral liability: as self-indulgent radicals who would keep the Tories in office. That’s in part how Tony Blair managed to get away with so many violations of traditional Labour principles: those who experienced 18 years of Thatcherism were desperate to get rid of the Tories, whatever the cost. I remember that desperation among my own (ex-Trotskyist activist) parents. A socialist movement would have to build and demonstrate mass appeal and support.
The actual substance could not just be a regurgitation of 1970s Labour leftism, because British society is completely different. Its starting point would be challenging a society organised around the profit principle. The answer to that isn’t old-style nationalisation, which was bureaucratic and top-down, and didn’t involve either workers or consumers. Instead, it could build a model of social ownership – where representatives of workers and consumers helped manage, say, the railways or the energy companies. It would mean economic planning, but it would be democratically organised – not run by a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall, as happened in the past.
It would have to think in international terms. Capitalism has globalised at a dramatic speed, and it has stripped national governments of autonomy over their own economy. That means the threat of de facto strike action by capitalism against policies that challenge it – through capital flights, for example. This has to be answered by a globalised labour movement – and socialists have to be at the forefront of fighting for it.
I’ve been intentionally vague, because it would be arrogant of me to draw up a detailed agenda for a new socialism. But a new socialism is what needs to be debated. It would be good for Labour and it would be good for working people. And – above all – it would offer an optimistic future, instead of the gloomy austerity being promised by neo-liberalism.
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