Saturday, April 12, 2008

Once more unto the breach

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. I seem to have invented a sound bite that has stuck and started an argument. Marko Hoare has now responded to comments here and over at Bob’s place. Bob has got excited and is posting away with gay abandon (calm down mate). I will just stick to Hoare’s reply.

There is a lot that I could argue with in it. His reading of Burke is different from mine, for example, though I am happy for him to be a Whig if he chooses to be. I once had a taxi driver give me a lecture over a mercifully short journey about how it all went wrong when the Whigs gave way to the Liberals – strange place Hull – so he is not alone. However, it was only supposed to be a metaphor and not a precise description. So a debate trying to match people’s opinions against 18th/19th Century philosophers misses the point.

I certainly have reservation about his description of the process of the founding of the welfare state. Universal suffrage was preceded by instruments of working-class self-help – trade unions, co-operatives, self-improvement societies, friendly societies and the like – which were eventually replaced by the welfare state. They are interesting in themselves and they also raise issues about ownership and control that might just question the type of welfare state we want.

However, it has all got a bit convoluted so I really want to concentrate on three points.

First, and most importantly, Hoare argues that democracy is a necessary precursor to the establishment of social justice through the introduction of a welfare state. Fine, but it isn’t a sufficient condition. There has to be a left party prepared and able to take power to implement measures and that has to be built, it won’t just emerge because of the existence of liberal democracy. And, even if a left party gets into power, it can be constrained by the power of other institutions, such as big business, and by international politics and economics. When democratisation has produced left victories in the developing world recently, they have been undone by debt, trade and ‘structural adjustment’.

Thus a newly emerging left has to tackle these vital questions. It needs a political economy, which is missing from his list. It needs to think about what kind of globalism it supports, what kind of welfare, and, above all, it needs to think about equality and liberty. It needs to consider issues of power and autonomy. All of this is an integral part of a process of democratisation and helps shape it. Building a new, and global, left consensus, requires more than democracy and universal human rights, though they are essential. We need to think about economics – talking about ownership and control, as well as distribution – and to challenge the prevailing consensus.

Second, there is that diagram. I know Bob likes it, but I find things like this reductionist as they start us off trying to quantify ideas (like a is more left wing than b), which are not really quantifiable. I think they can obscure really interesting differences. I wouldn't have mentioned it, but, in discussing other left traditions, he wrote, "In fact, the radical leftists of this kind appear on my diagram in the far left, equidistant between the pro-Western and anti-Western camps". I think that this illustrates my point and helps me make a bigger one. The lumping of Anarchism, for example, together with other schools of thought in some form of ‘third perspective’ conflates a wealth of different ideas – communists, individualists, mutualists, feminists, ecologists, pacifists, christians, free thinkers, revolutionaries, egoists and hybrid figures like Patrick Geddes. Trying to fit Geddes on a diagram is impossible. (However, I have to admit that he was very fond of drawing them himself and they are mainly bewilderingly complex and well nigh incomprehensible).

The left has a wonderful and rich history. Some of it is crazy, some impractical, some dangerous, but much is also full of insight, pertinent and surprisingly modern. Let’s rediscover and develop it instead of banging on about Stalin, the bloody Webbs and how socialism died with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Soviet Union finally interred the embalmed corpse of Stalinism. Libertarian left ideas, both Marxist and non-Marxist variants, remained unaffected; they detested Stalinism (and didn’t think much of the Webbs either). This is a living tradition with fascinating, and alive, thinkers and writers, not a relic from the age of the gramophone. And it is relevant - we are not quite as ‘modern’ as we like to think we are.

Finally, I have to mention the Drink-Soaked Trots, one of those “obsessed with their own ‘radical left’ identity, with ideological purity and with loyalty to the anachronistic ‘revolutionary’ principles of yesteryear”. Hang on a second. I am one! I post there under the moniker of the Big Fat Gadgie (ta Will). And what a diverse bunch we are. As well as bog standard bloggers like myself, there are distinguished authors and journalists from both sides of the Atlantic, and even a fine, prize wining poet. And though we have a common commitment to universal human emancipation, we love to quarrel about how it should take place. I am proud to contribute and even more proud that many of these wonderful writers have become my friends.

What has happened in the aftermath of 9/11 is that a section of the left woke up, and spotted that another section had drifted into an accommodation with Islamism and anti-Semitism, a trend that had been going on since the 60’s and 70’s. They promptly mounted a challenge. They haven’t comprehensively won, but now every egregious excrescence is met with reasoned argument and passionate scorn. It is hugely to everyone's credit. This fostered a new internationalism, countering pessimistic 'realism' with a wholehearted belief in human possibilities across the world.

All of this is excellent. However, my concern, expressed in recent posts, is that, after our exertions, we too begin to doze off. We get so comfortable attacking the left that we forget that we are left as well. We relax and, in doing so, we forget the grotesque injustices and inequities in even those societies that are liberal capitalist democracies. We forget the shantytowns and favellas, we forget environmental devastation and we forget that, if the current food crisis gets worse, millions of poor people will starve to death whilst I poke fun at government obesity strategies. Only connect.

So it is time to progress and I approach this as an optimist. I would argue that Socialism, in the broadest sense of the word (even Benjamin Tucker described himself as a socialist), has not died and we need to turn to our history to understand how diverse and rich a tradition it is. It is also a history that developed in a critical relationship with capitalism. Some wanted to tame it, others to replace it. With Stalinism firmly in the ground, let’s build on that critique; let’s support economic, as well as political and social, rights; let's fight complacency at home as well as oppression abroad; and, above all, let’s not sleepwalk into the cul-de-sac that is “the end of history”.


bill greene said...

Very interesting. But I still wonder why we let fat people eat carbs and sugar--their irresponsible gluttony keeps making my medical costs go up! Since no one is responsible for their behavior any more, they're oughta belaws governing what fat people can consume.

peter bracken said...

I agree with some of this, but not the most important (and hopeful) of your observations: namely, that socialism may yet have its day.

Socialism is incompatible with the consensus party politics that prevails in most Western democracies. This is because the issues that used to give it traction (and which once defined ones party political allegience) are fundamentally dead, and have since been replaced by others about which there are shared objectives: poverty, third world development, the environment, terrorism.

As I say on my blog, that's why "choosing between our political parties today is not much different from the ‘choice’ served up to consumers of Persil, Ariel and Daz."

Of course, there is still some political fighting at the margins, including in the UK, and with crank organisations like the BNP and Stop the War Coalition, that it is to be expected. But among the big three, all Joe Public sees is distinctions without a difference.

peter bracken said...

I should have added the link to my blog post referred to in my last comment. It is here:

DorsetDipper said...

I got thinking about the definition of Socialism after someone on another blog constantly conflated state action with socialism, so every despot who uses the state to opress people is, in his definition, a socialist.

If we didn't have a state, then most people's opportunities in life would be restricted by the circumstances of their birth.

So for me the purpose of socialism is to use the state to enable people to be free to make the most of their potential, irrespective of the circumstances of birth, health, whatever, and not have their freedoms eroded by their class.

I find this useful. Two examples may illustrate.

Cars: The provision of Porsches and Bentleys to the rich has no obvious impact on the relationship between the masses and Ford, Honda, etc. so on this basis there is no Socialist case for intervention in the car market.

Houses: Land is limited. The freedom of individuals to buy more than one houses (and I speak as a second home owner) reduces the supply of land to create houses for others not so rich. There is a case for a socialist government to intervene to restrict the freedom of the rich to buy extra houses to increase the freedom of less well off to have access to housing.

Of course what you do about it is another matter .....