Interview: Machine Man
Unions: Testing Times
Bad Boss: Freespirit Haunts Internet
Unions: Badge of Honour
National Focus: Noel's World
Economics: Safe Refuge
International: Global Abuse
History: The Honeypot
Review: Death And The Barbarians
Poetry: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
The Mouse That Roars
Justice For Victims Denied
Rethinking Left and Right Part 2
The Fate of the Left
On the Left the crisis of ideas is no less dramatic. The ideas of socialism and Marxism dominated the conflict and debate in the West for most of the last 100 years. What we have witnessed in the last 20 years is the slow death of the intellectual framework of socialism combined with the collapse of socialism as a vision of a new kind of society. It is no longer adequate as the main method of analysing advanced industrial societies nor is it adequate for prescribing the kinds of social changes needed for human well being.
For many, this is not news, nor even of interest. The undoubted flaws in the socialist and Marxist frameworks have been identified for many decades. Many of today's intellectual and cultural Left actually have no investment in a concept of socialism which is in itself revealing of the changes underway in the meaning of the Left-Right concept of politics. In spite of all this socialist ideas do have something to contribute to a new vision, not least because they were a repository of a set of human values which opposed the instrumental, commercial logic of capitalism.
The pivotal moment for the death of modern socialism was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberatory revolution which swept it and Eastern Europe. These momentous events crystallised quite unrelated problems of socialist ideology which had begun with the rise of social movements in the 1960s and 70s whose analysis and vision was not based on class.
Yet this is paradoxical,. Almost no-one on the Left held any illusions about the Soviet model of 'socialism'. The repression and brutality engendered by Soviet Union under Stalin had been exposed in the West in the 1930s and in the USSR in the 1950s. The post-Stalin USSR was bureaucratic, conservative and repressive. By 1989 only a minuscule group of sentimental communists had faith in the USSR.
The Left had no illusions, except perhaps one: that under a genuine reformer like Gorbachev it might be possible to destroy the party dictatorship and introduce democracy, elements of an economic market and political liberties. That is, create a socialism worthy of the name out of the ruins of a dysfunctional bureaucratic society. This was underpinned by a theory of history that the existence of a 'socialist base' was a progressive historical step which would be followed eventually by another, higher stage. The idea that history could go into reverse, backwards into capitalism, was scarcely thought of before 1989.
In all, a triumph of hope and faith over common sense. The dream ended when it became clear that forms of democracy and freedom could not be combined with the continuation of an entirely state owned economy. It also became clear that an extensive form of market economy was needed. In the final years of the USSR, the absence of markets and of entrepreneurial initiative were precisely the failures identified by the highest level of Soviet political leadership. By the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was desperately trying to overcome 'inertia' and to introduce 'initiative and incentive'. The problem lay 'in the archaic nature of our economic mechanisms, in the rigid centralization of administration, in over-reliance on planning and in the lack of genuine economic incentives.'
Trying to successfully regulate the billions of economic exchanges needed to produce and distribute even simple commodities in a modern economy, using planning rather than economic markets, is impossible, or rather disastrous. This is because the market acts as an information medium, rapidly signalling the response of other economic sectors to the production of a commodity and to its price. As well, an economic system which relies solely on planning -- even highly 'democratic' planning, for example, based on workers' cooperatives or self-management --- depends ultimately on a quite unreal notion of the common good. When this begins to fail it relies on state coercion. Why? Essentially because the price of total planning is the outlawing of any private economic enterprise. If someone wants to set up a small business, to employ people and sell things, disregarding the plan they will end up in jail. Nor is it an answer to have a limited sphere of small business and markets 'on the side'. Successful small businesses become bigger businesses over time and, logically, this must be prevented because at some point the society will tip over into capitalism. In China where very large private businesses operate in a market, the political price of this 'market socialism' is that the Chinese Communist Party totally dominates the state and forcefully represses the slightest organised challenge.
This conclusion is doubly galling because such points (especially about the market being an information network) were made by the key intellectual leader of the neo-liberals, the economist, Friedrich Hayek. Agreeing with Hayek is not a position I feel comfortable with but opposition to neo-liberalism should not blind us to the insights of its major thinker. The conclusion that an extensive market mechanism is necessary for any complex economy, and that it can sometimes be more democratic than planning, is obviously unpalatable to many socialists. This is one of the reasons that the collapse of Soviet-style socialism fatally wounded other kinds of socialism: it demonstrates that the view that centralised economic planning as a generally more desirable mechanism than markets, had received a fatal blow. And more than this, the experience of the Soviet Union seemed to synchronize with the renewal of the Right based on free market economics in many Western countries. This tandem triumph was symbolized by the appearance of Francis Fukuyama's book, The End of History.
Thus if socialism needs markets, indeed if it needs a significant degree of private enterprise, then what is socialism? Certainly not a radical negation of capitalism, perhaps a significant modification. And this undermined another of the classical tenets of socialist theory, that capitalism was a 'stage' in human history which would be surpassed by socialism just as feudalism was by capitalism.
Some continuing problems with socialism and social-democracy
Given the disaster of total socialism inspired by Leninism, many socialists now turn more resolutely to pre-1917 forms of socialism and to post 1917 social-democracy. Social democracy has been very successful in civilising capitalism but it shares flaws with other forms of socialism and today is not the main vehicle for a renewal of the Left.
First, both social democratic and radical socialist views of the world give a central place to economic equality, expressed either as a rigid equality of wealth at individual level or on the level of social equality through education, health etc, organised by a welfare state.
The centrality of this notion, usually accompanied analytically by economic determinism, has today much less power to explain the causes or solutions of a range of urgent problems. Increasingly today what appears as poverty (economic inequality) is generated by the crises at the level of the family, by substance abuse, mental illness, poor education or often by a combination of these things. This is not an argument to attack the welfare state or the collectivism which it represented but to refashion its form. But it is an argument against the economic reductionism traditionally assumed not only by the Left and many others.
Both radical and social-democratic versions of socialism express an over-dependence on rationalism in the philosophical sense. This meant an assumption that human needs can be expressed in almost exclusively in material terms - food, shelter, income level and so on -- and can be satisfied in those terms. In a society of scarcity these are obviously vital. Unless they are satisfied it is difficult to see how other more subtle and more elaborate human needs can be met.
But the long post war boom took many Western societies out of the realm of scarcity into a world of relative abundance. The economist Clive Hamilton in his book Growth Fetish argues, correctly in my view, that a larger proportion of society is today more materially wealthy than any other humans beings in history. Yet this transformation has not altered the paradigm of politics held by the Right and Left which remains anchored in assumption about scarcity. The narrow economic rationalism of the neo-liberals demands ever more material abundance and productivity based on the assumption that this will lead to human happiness. The Left, Hamilton argues, shares this assumption through its paradigm of material deprivation for which it prescribes greater economic growth but a fairer distribution of proceeds of this growth. These rationalist paradigms prevent both from acknowledging a growing body of evidence that, past a certain point, increased happiness and wellbeing are not tied to increased economic growth.
There is another contradiction as well. The rational-material approach to politics based on rising living standards has great difficulty in coping with the physical limits of the world in terms of energy, minerals and productive land. To generalise to all human beings the current living standards of countries like Australia, Britain and the USA is simply not possible, given the finite natural resources of the world. (It will be interesting and frightening to see what happens as China sets out to do this, mimicking the wasteful industrial methods of the West.) In the end reasonably good living standards may well be compatible with the earth's finite resources but this will involve an upheaval in thinking about what constitutes good living standards as well as implementing radical economic and technological changes. Contemplating what this might mean is a task so far only undertaken by ecologists and hardly at all by the traditional Left.
Second, both social democratic and radical socialist frameworks are based on the centrality of production and labour and a determinant role is given to the working class. This is not so much wrong as inadequate and one dimensional. In its time, the class analysis of socialism was an enormously powerful weapon. It cut through the ideologies that obscured the greed of the corporate ruling class both locally and internationally. More importantly it gave a confidence and inner-strength to working class movements even in the darkest times.
The idea that all workers shared a status because they were oppressed by the same force was the basis for class-wide solidarity, the first expression of which was the formation of trade unions, on which were founded labour and socialist parties in the nineteenth century. But today the sense of a single 'working class' united by a common interest and capable of acting (one day) as force in its own right scarcely exists. In the absence of this, today the trade union movement is one social movement among many others. Its institutional form still means it is the biggest social movement, but it was once the sun around which other planets orbited, a reflection of the theory that 'class' was the determining reality in advanced capitalism. This is gone forever.
Related to the assumptions about class and productive labour is another assumption that the most important side of life is the public world of parliaments and other institutions and not, for example, the private world of the family or of ethnic identity.
When the new social movements of the 60s and 70s emerged, many of their participants tried to fit their vision into a rationalist political philosophy. While initially regarded as socialist and left wing, the philosophical home which these movements ultimately found was liberalism. For example, the strategy followed by movements against racism largely resolved into campaigning for laws which outlawed racial discrimination, encouraged the employment of racial and ethnic minorities and which instituted a broader social equality. But the legal, equality-based paradigm expressed by such laws has not solved the problems of racism in the society at large, nor will it, no matter how many laws are passed.
For the women's movement, a key strategic goal was to enter the public world of work and to do so on equal terms with men. Over many years all sorts of formal and informal barriers were broken down to allow this. But one of the unforeseen consequences of this was the continuing devaluation of what is called caring work or emotional labour both within the family and beyond. One of the most obvious signs of this (though not the most important) is the 'fertility crisis' in many advanced industrial countries. This reflects the refusal by many women to pay the financial and emotional penalty for bearing and raising children. Another is the 'work-life collision' in which family life and caring is placed under enormous pressure through parents' work requirements and in which the remaining family functions are being commodified and provided by the market. Originally this problem was thought to be solved by men/husbands undertaking caring work, but this has not occurred largely because the strategy for liberation left caring work is still devalued.
The rational public world of work undermines and swamps the needs of the non-rational caring world. Production swamps reproduction. Caring work must still be done and many mothers feel this far more keenly than their husbands. To give this care many mothers tend to orient their paid jobs around caring for small children (part time jobs during school hours). But according to the dominant liberal-rationalist current of feminism this falls short of equality. But rather than trying to make mothers fit this goal of equality, the goal itself needs to be reconsidered as part of a rethinking of a new Left vision.
Social democracy and radical socialism share the privileging of the public world of work with mainstream feminism. Rethinking the Left's project means ceasing to think in a framework bounded by paid labour, trade unions and public institutions and starting to grapple with problem of integrating a vision which includes the work of social reproduction at its heart.
Conclusion: the need for a moral vision
So far I have sketched very roughly some ideas on rethinking the project that went under the names of social democracy, socialism and Marxism for 150 years. Essentially I believe that while these currents have a valuable contribution to make, they are no longer the locus of radical thought that is able to deal with the crises facing societies like ours. Their greatest contribution is that they embodied a deep skepticism about the relentless commercialization of life and projected an alternative set of moral values which conflicted with those of capitalism. But they are quite inadequate intellectual tools to deal with the ecological and social crises of modern society. This requires an acceptance of a market economy, and of a degree of social liberalism but greatly tempered by social solidarity, involving major changes which value caring work and by ecological limits which we have actually already reached.
The triumph of the neo-liberal Right which verges on a kind of market fundamentalism and the collapse of its main opponent have poses all of these questions starkly. The 300 year process of modernization has seen scientific and rational thinking combined with a tapping of self-interest result in the ability to produce an enormous level of material wealth. Despite the terrible cost of producing this wealth, this has benefited humanity enormously. But this process, which Max Weber called 'rationalization' is progressively replacing all values with the commercial values of the market. Moreover it is a relentless force which contains no mechanism of 'self-control'. But we are reaching the point where the process of rationalization is conflicting with the deepest human needs. It is reducing ethical values to matters of economic calculation. It is commodifying all human relationships and perhaps most dangerous of all, it is bumping up against the physical limits of the planet.
Max Weber argued that as rationalization proceeded, 'ultimate meanings or values are disenchanted or ... devalued and are increasingly replaced by means-ends pursuit of material interests.' Weber's idea of the 'disenchantment' according to Nicholas Gane, ultimately leads
to a world in which social action is separated increasingly from the sphere of (ethical) meaning, as particular (technical) means are employed to realise specific ends regardless of the ethical significance or meaning of such action. Rationalization, then, may be understood as a general movement towards a condition of cultural nihilism, for it proceeds through the devaluation of ultimate values, and with this, the reduction of questions of meaning and value ... to scientific (instrumental) questions of technique and purpose, the value of which tends to be presupposed.'
It is in this insight that we can see a way forward. I have argued that the death of socialism and of social democracy is the collapse of its traditional intellectual framework originating in the world of the Enlightenment, grounded in the world of labour, and expressed in the language of economics.
But socialism was always more than that. For all its flawed intellectual framework it contained ethical ideals which have never disappeared. Indeed they are shared by all kinds of people and all kinds of other political and religious philosophies. These ideals involve a society meeting human needs which include but go beyond the material wherewithal of life. They include justice, fairness, equality, the valuing of human lives, in both the public rational world and in the private life world of emotion, and of caring and altruism.
At its deepest a renewal of these ideals involves an integration of rational and non-rational values. At a less philosophical level these must be expressed in a political vision that is grounded primarily in ethical and moral values. The Left, labour, environmental and women's movements have no monopoly of these values but they potentially they embody some of the best strivings towards such a renewed political vision.
* This paper is part of a longer project which will be published in 2005. I welcome comments and criticism. Please contact: [email protected],
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