The plodding logic of piecemeal progressive change that social democracy – with support from mass communist parties – provided has almost died on this continent; what can we learn by analysing its demise, asks NICK WRIGHT
DOES the left have a future? Or more precisely, do the social forces exist that would leave capitalism with no future?
As the wheels come off the post-2008 bid to stabilise our crisis-ridden system the question is raised: what kind of future for the main capitalist states is possible?
How can the global elite and each national bourgeoisie stabilise the capitalist economy without measures which are already rousing working-class resistance?
The gormless Liz Truss acquired office by pandering to the prejudices of a Tory membership invested in steadily rising house prices, assured pensions and the sense that nothing could disturb the calm logic of free-market capitalism
The profound shock experienced when Kwasi Kwarteng’s fiddling with the mechanisms of managed capitalism created chaos turned the Conservative Party into a madhouse.
Now, with the richest man in Parliament in charge and order restored, the takeaway lesson that everyone can draw from this episode is just how fragile is the equilibrium that the modern-day managers of capitalism strive for — and just how redundant are bourgeois democratic rights in the face of the real power exercised by the permanent instruments of private property.
As the Sun might have said: “It was the Bank of England wot done it!” Not the government, not Parliament but the institutional power of a real ruling class that exercises its power independently of popular will.
Traditionally, social democracy has proceeded on a prospectus that, with more or less ambitious advances and forced retreats, progressive reform and piecemeal public ownership were stages in the advance to a more just society.
Tony Blair’s New Labour project put an end to this concept. Gordon Brown’s celebration of the City of London and the benefits that a tax on runaway bank profits brought to his government fell apart with the 2008 financial crisis.
Where today warmed-over New Labour enthusiasts who make up Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet celebrate the modest expenditures in education and health that accompanied New Labour’s finance sector profit-skimming, they do so without reference to the banking collapse which ended that experiment and the imperial wars that trashed both Blair and Brown’s reputations.
It was the revival — in the face of the Con-Dem coalition’s austerity economics –— of the modest and traditionally social democratic approach embodied in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the electoral programme of the Labour Party he led that alarmed the Establishment.
But it was the challenge to Nato orthodoxy, to the revival of cold war politics and the continuation of imperial wars that convinced it that this movement must be stopped. There is no way that parliamentary tranquillity could have been maintained indefinitely if the mass anti-austerity and anti-war movements which fuelled the Corbyn moment were to be projected into Westminster.
It is a measure of capitalism’s crisis that a relatively modest government programme that would have seemed unremarkable in the post-war years was then deemed so dangerous that the moral standing of its figurehead had to be undermined and hundreds of thousands of party members driven out.
In the two years since Starmer won leadership of the Labour Party on a false prospectus of adding a managerial gloss to Corbyn’s policies, the notion of a Labour government with a progressive domestic agenda and an ethical foreign policy has become risible.
An almost complete abandonment of public ownership as an instrument of policy is combined with a markedly illiberal approach to justice, migration, social security and welfare with — bolted on — a gratuitous display of performative patriotism that would embarrass a Young Conservative crowd at the last night of the Proms.
The Corbyn experiment is derailed, Podemos in Spain failed to meet the expectations it generated, Syriza in Greece raised hopes that were swiftly dispelled by its collapse before the institutional power of the EU, as did the so-called “centre left” in Italy.
In France we see the relative success of a broad left of sorts accompanied by the entry into the assembly of far-right formations alongside a fracturing of the traditional right.
One sign of the breakdown of traditional alignments is the growth of anti-Nato, anti-EU movements that include — and in some cases are driven by — right-wing nationalist forces. There have been repeated mass demonstrations in Paris, Madrid, Prague and increasingly in German cities.
This new phenomenon expresses the growing contradiction between North American and north European capitalism, with the US keen to prevent the growth of an economic and political rival and willing to fracture political alignments (as well as pipelines) to achieve this.
Astounding is the extent to which all those in Britain most invested in the EU as the expression of common European interests are resistant to an understanding that part of the US strategy is to constrain a potential challenge to US global dominance.
In Europe little remains of traditional social democracy or its myths. In Greece whole multi-generational families exist on the meagre pensions that are the remains of Pasok’s promise.
In Spain a nominally socialist government is sustained by left-wing and Communist Party ministers who can do little beyond modify the most exploitative of labour market mechanisms.
In Portugal the Socialist Party maintained themselves in government with the toleration of the Communist Party and a scattering of other left-wing forces before dispensing with both the policies imposed by their dependence on these unlikely allies and the allies themselves.
In Britain Corbyn’s vast army is scattered and lacks organisation and focus.
In France the Socialist Party is little more than a rump, while the new alliance in which it is subsumed is still uncertain which direction to take.
This is not to denigrate any of the initiatives which these forces have adopted and which, at every stage and given the balance of forces, seemed sensible strategies.
Rather the question is — what should be the theoretical and practical basis of socialist advance in the next period?
In Italy, in circles where one might expect a reasoned discussion about the defeat of the electoral centre left and the almost complete marginalisation of the actual left, we find Il Manifesto arguing that “rediscovering and relaunching the ‘common good’ should become the symbol of an overall strategy, careful not to take the definitive shape of the long opposition to come, but already able to prefigure a different social model, an alternative to both the rightwingers and to a reformism driven by necessity.”
What is notable here is first the pessimism, with no sense that Italy’s fractious right-wing alliance is unlikely to be any more stable than any other Italian government, and secondly the lack of any sense that a radical break with capitalism or even EU orthodoxy is necessary or possible.
The missing element in this discussion is any meaningful attempt to grapple with the stranglehold the EU has over Italian economic decision-making or the fact that the right is a powerful challenge to the left in many working-class areas.
The latter is not a criticism that can be laid at Chantal Mouffe’s piece in the New Left Review’s Sidecar blog, which references the survey of election results by la France Insoumise deputy Francois Ruffin, who concludes that “while the party had made gains among the young, the middle classes and the working-class sectors of the suburbs, they had failed to make any headway in “la France peripherique” — small towns, rural municipalities and declining former industrial belts, the France of the Gilets Jaunes.
The unresolved problem of theory and practice at the centre of each of these situations is the primacy allocated to recovering working-class leadership of the many struggles that are proliferating.
In every developed capitalist state, there are big movements against price inflation and for wage increases, against public spending cuts and in defence of working-class social gains in health, housing and education.
But where officially social-democratic governments exist, they are part of the problem — and where they are out of office, they are mostly absent from the fight.
The Portuguese Communist Party make reference to “the worsening of the living conditions of the majority of the population and the main national problems, which do not find an answer and solution, as in the past, in the right-wing policy, now led by the Socialist Party government.”
At the trade union and campaign level, opposition to neoliberalism is overwhelmingly working class in composition and leadership — but at the representative level this is only marginally so.
In Britain in particular, the growing strike movement is giving prominence to new working-class leaders and promises to make life difficult for both the government and the shadow cabinet.
At the same time, it is impossible — at this moment — to conceive of this finding a reflection in Parliament.
Mouffe, along with Ernesto Laclau, can be considered the main intellectual guides to the post-Marxist political theory which influenced what might, and without prejudice, be described as the middle-class left.
In her latest piece she focuses on the necessity to find a strategy that might encompass the most alienated sections of the working class within a broad movement for change.
She argues: “Lamentably, there is a tendency among some on the left to adopt a posture of superiority towards those who vote for Le Pen.
“Instead of trying to apprehend the complex reasons for their attachment to her party, their attitude is one of outright rejection and moral condemnation. They accuse [Le Pen] voters of being inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, and as representing the ‘return of fascism.’”
We can see in this description an echo of the situation in which Starmer mobilised a substantially middle-class tranche of opinion to drive a wedge between Corbyn’s Labour and sections of the working class whose growing detachment from the party was confirmed by the abandonment of the decision to respect the Brexit vote.
The contempt for the working class that was only too apparent in much of the Remain discourse has given us three Tory prime ministers in a row — and a rupture between Labour and a working class that is beginning again to sense its class power.